The power has just come back on in the small, tidy eating area of the Simoonga’s household. Alexander, the father of the family and a man with an open smile, low voice, and small scar on his left cheek is sitting across the table from Analise and I as we finish our dinner of nshima, dried fish, pumpkin leaves and beans with sweet potatoes and Recoffy for dessert. The light above us illuminates the cement room: several windows covered with clean white curtains, a table in the corner with a television proudly displayed upon it (along with Season Two of The Vampire Diaries, the preferred television show of Alexander’s oldest son, Domitt), and several pictures of Jesus hung on the white and turquoise walls. He is speaking of Heaven, a subject that has always elicited two reactions from me: hope and fear. Hope is always the first I experience, a warm feeling accompanied by the light-suffused images of my brother, grandparents, and friends who I have been told I might see again, when my proverbial “time on Earth” is done. Fear always follows, though the reason why is far less distinct. Perhaps I am afraid I won’t deserve it in the end, or maybe I worry it doesn’t exist; but tonight the fear never comes, not as I listen to Alexander’s voice, which emerges through the nighttime sounds of dogs barking, cars passing on the road outside, and the sports commentary of the Spain-France soccer game which flashes in the corners of my vision.
“I believe in making Heaven where we are,” Alexander is saying, “I believe that where we are, we make Heaven for ourselves by improving the things around us, by showing care for the things we have.” He remarks on the universal habit of looking up when talking about Heaven, as though it is a place that is suspended high above us, hiding behind a cluster of clouds, dodging the airplanes. He holds his long, creased palm several inches above the flowered tablecloth, and says, “For an insect that is looking up, this is Heaven, this space right here under my hand. But we people live in this space every day. What the insect sees as Heaven is not Heaven, it is where we are, it is Earth. Heaven is not a place that is so far away. Heaven is just here.” Spain scores a goal, and two dogs are fighting over some scrap of food outside; Alexander keeps talking and mosquitoes are making my ankles a buffet, but my mind is elsewhere, and somewhere within it the angelic images of sun-gilded clouds and white-robed figures of my departed loved ones have disappeared. My conception of Heaven is being rewritten within my mind:
It is a shower of dust particles suspended in the pink light of a Zambian morning; it is the pond littered with lily-pads and emblazoned with the sight of a red sun rising. Heaven is the shutter of surprise I experience when a hand shows up in mine unexpectedly. Heaven is being moved to tears. It is loving through confusion and often in spite of it. Heaven is walking alongside. Heaven exists in back-cracks and head scratches, small favors, and remembrances. Heaven dwells in hearts that listen far better than ears could ever hope to hear. Heaven is Mutinta covering me with a blanket when she thinks I’m still asleep. Heaven is Domitt teaching me how to make nshima under a multiplicity of stars. Heaven is Daniel’s wide smile, teeth as white and smooth as dominoes, and just as big. Heaven is in our great thankfulness for no-bake cookies and pizza (with cheese!), and it is in our unforgettable indebtedness to each other. It is Mateo’s depth; Brady’s commitment; Paige’s perseverance; Anne’s easy company; Dave’s insightfulness; Analise’s contagious positivity; Alex’s curiosity; Melissa’s sense of perspective; Kyle’s quiet strength; Erin’s exuberance; Kate’s laughter; Jay’s deep faith; Stef’s attentiveness; Nolan’s empathy; Josh’s awareness.
Heaven is all of these things, and all the things that I have failed to recognize, even now. If I have learned one thing from my time in Zambia, which is now so swiftly coming to a close, it is this: To find Heaven, don’t look up, because Heaven is simply God’s presence, and it is as Alexander said: “just here.” It has been with us the whole time.
Class of 2014
Mom – I can’t wait to give you a big hug when I get back! I’m excited to share clothes again, to drive you around and run errands with you, to grab Starbucks on our way to JP II, to sit in the sun, and to laugh at funny things with you again.
Dad – I have a big hug saved up for you too! I hope you’ve been looking up some good music to show me when I get home. I expect at least one night when we stay up much too late listening to all the songs you’ve tracked down since I’ve been gone. Maybe on our way to Illinois we can have a late night jam session. I’ll drive!
Erin – I literally can’t wait to see your face. I’ve looked back on the picture of us together here, and I feel like I’m living out what you said in the letter you left me. I can’t wait to see this experience through your eyes. I’m thinking we chow down on some souped-up minute rice, no-bake cookies, and blackberries while watching a movie marathon when I get back. I love you, buddy.
Everyone else: Thank you so much for supporting us and loving us through this experience. You are God’s presence as well, and we have felt your beautiful accompaniment all the way across the world.