A young swimmer's near-death experience leads her to believe in heaven despite her father’s teaching it doesn’t exist.
I couldn’t wait to get into the ocean. My sister, Peggy, and I ran ahead of our parents, dashing up the Clark Street ramp to the boardwalk. We threaded through the crowd, bumping into the adults, craning our necks to see the beach through their legs and knees.
“Slow down, Marie,” Daddy shouted. He set up the big beach umbrella while my mother, aunt and grandmother spread out on the baking sand. I stripped off my shorts and sandals and followed Peggy into the water. It rushed up over my bare feet. “Catch me!” Peggy shouted, splashing me. I ran after her, giggling, until a big wave picked us both off our feet and sent us tumbling—soaked—back to shore. “Be careful!” my father shouted from his blanket. “Those waves are mighty big today.” Daddy was the disciplinarian of the family, but even he couldn’t slow us down. Peggy and I were having much too much fun to listen.
My family always spent August at the beach in Wildwood, N.J., where my aunt Ethel owned a boarding house. After dinner, we’d go for a walk on the boardwalk. I’d hold my mother’s hand, staring up at the bright neon lights over the movie theaters and the arcades. It was like peeking into a different world. Then there was the ocean. I could smell the saltwater everywhere I went and hear the faint pounding of the surf, almost drowned out by the music from the merry-go-round and the roar of the wooden roller coaster. All year long I looked forward to August. The beach was my favorite place on earth.
Peggy and I played in the waves until our fingers were wrinkled from the saltwater. “I’m getting out,” Peggy declared. “I’m hungry.”
“Five more minutes,” I begged her. I knew Daddy wouldn’t let me stay in the water alone. But Peggy was already running up the beach. I hesitated, wondering whether I should follow her. I don’t know what happened next. I never saw the wave that hit me—never even heard it. One moment I was standing in water up to my waist, the next I was under the water. My feet couldn’t find the ground.
I opened my mouth to scream and choked instead. The current pulled me and spun me through darkness. I squeezed my eyes shut, certain that I was going to die. Daddy always said that was it, when you die, you die. Death was the end. I couldn’t breathe. My lungs burned. Everything went still. I was sitting cross-legged on the cold, hard sand of the ocean floor, breathing in and out. I wasn’t afraid. I felt good. I touched my bathing suit. It was dry. How could that be? I looked around. The water was murky and dark, but I could see flat stones, tangled seaweed, stiff ridges in the sand. In the distance was a pinpoint of white light as bright as a star. That must be the way out, I thought.
I crawled toward the light on my hands and knees. As I got closer, I saw a ladder in the sand—an old-fashioned wooden ladder painted shiny white. It stretched up for a long way, disappearing into the light. I put my foot on the bottom rung. It seemed solid.
Hand over hand I climbed. The farther I climbed, the greater the space between the rungs. I had to stretch my whole body to reach the next one, pulling myself up with all my strength. I was panting by the time I reached the top. But what was this? I’d come to a small room, like a waiting room, with benches on either side. Empty benches. If only someone would tell me where to go! A door stood open at the far end of the room. That’s where the light was coming from. Shielding my eyes, I stumbled toward it and collapsed at the entrance. I lay on my stomach, halfway across the threshold. The light was so brilliant, I couldn’t lift my eyes. I stared at the ground in front of me.
What I saw surprised me. Feet. Lots and lots of bare feet. Hundreds of people walking back and forth. I could make out the hems of their white robes. It was like peering through the crowd at the boardwalk. I knew there was something exciting on the other side, something I wanted to see. Something just beyond my reach. Like what Grandma said about heaven. When Dad wasn’t around, Grandma told me a different story about death. She said it was a beginning. Of a new life where we’d live with God in heaven. The way Grandma talked about heaven made me think that one day I’d like it even more than the beach in August. God, is this the heaven Grandma tried to tell me about?
I began to push myself into the room, but a voice called out, “You can’t come in.” Gripping the door frame, I raised myself up on my knees. I squeezed my eyes shut and felt a warm shiver rush through my whole body. Then a hand grabbed mine. I plunged forward. Searing pain gripped my lungs. I gagged.
“Take it easy.” Daddy! I felt his strong arms cradling me before I opened my eyes. I was back on the beach. Mom, Peggy, Grandma, Aunt Ethel—they all crowded around as Dad laid me out on a towel. He slapped my back, and I went into a fit of coughing.
“We looked everywhere,” Mom was saying. “Thank goodness Daddy saw your hand reaching out of the surf. What were you doing?”
It all came back: The bright light, the ladder, the doorway, all those people on the other side.
“I … I don’t know,” I managed to say. How would they believe me if I didn’t know what to believe myself?
For the rest of the afternoon, I drank cold spring water and dozed under the shade of the umbrella. After the scare, my family relaxed. Peggy was even swimming again. No one knew how close I had come to dying. No one but me. Those vivid images circled in my mind: the light, the ladder, the beckoning door. Had I seen Grandma’s heaven?
The sun began to set and my mother rolled up the blankets. It was time to go home. Before we left, Daddy took my hand and led me down to the water. A shiver ran through me as I looked at the breaking waves. “I want you to go in,” he said. I stared at my feet, not budging an inch. “What are you afraid of?”
I hesitated, then blurted out the whole story, tears streaming down my cheeks. “I was in heaven, Daddy,” I told him. “I really was!”
“Heaven isn’t real,” he said. “Only this is real. This beach, this earth, this life. Promise me that you will never ever tell anyone that silly story again.”
As the sun sank below the horizon, I stepped into the waves. And for so long, I kept my promise to Daddy. I never told a soul about my vision. Not my mother or grandmother, not my husband, not my closest friend. Still, hardly a day went by that I didn’t think of it. God had planted a seed in my heart that day at the beach, a seed of faith. And it grew until I could no longer deny the truth. There is a heaven waiting for us beyond the sun setting over the ocean. A heaven more beautiful than the beach in August.