My father died three months ago. He wasn’t a religious man and didn’t believe in heaven, but he was tragically human in that he absolutely believed in hell and was afraid that’s where he was headed when he left this life. I did my best to ease his fear. Although I wasn’t particularly successful, his final days were rather peaceful, thanks mostly to the blessing of morphine.
My time with my father at his end and the anxiety he felt as he approached that physical and spiritual transition, which none of us escapes, had me thinking a lot about the issue of what comes next in our existence. And, oddly, a lot of my thinking went back to a movie I first saw when I was about six years old: The Incredible Shrinking Man.
You’ve never heard of it? Let me fill you in. A regular guy, played by Grant Williams, drifts through a strange mist in his boat, a mist that turns out to be radioactive. (The film was made in the fifties, when everything bad was the result of atomic fallout.) He begins to shrink. Nothing can stop the process. As he gets smaller and smaller, he’s forced to deal with the issues, psychological and physical (he’s attacked by all kinds of creatures he used to hold dominion over), that come with this extraordinary occurrence. In the end, he leaves everything familiar in this world behind and slips into an infinitely small existence on a molecular level. Grade B sci-fi stuff, but great special effects for its day and a pretty good script based on a story by the great Richard Matheson.
At various periods throughout my life, I’ve found myself ruminating on the idea of life across the whole range of scales that seem to me entirely probable. In a way, I’m talking about size. The Shrinking Man made me realize, even at six years old, that life isn’t just about this earth or solar system or universe. The movie seemed to me a very simple lesson that life and consciousness and spirit exist everywhere, at all times, at all levels, on all planes, and that leaving this particular existence most probably involves sliding into another, one impossible to imagine. Size is only one consideration, of course. Think about other dimensions, for example. Oh, my God.
I always smile when I hear that scientists believe they’ve found the edge of the universe. I think to myself, This universe, maybe. Because there is a universe in every atom, and probably our own universe is just some molecular structure in a vastly larger plane of existence. And when my father passed, that spirit, that energy, that living spark that defined him in this life, didn’t vanish. It expanded or contracted to become a part of another universe, another existence, on another plane or in another dimension. Energy is neither created nor destroyed.
In the mysteries that I write, I often deal with the whole question of the spiritual journey. It’s always intrigued me. I’ve never believed in the Christian view of heaven. But I certainly believe in eternal life. It’s a belief that goes back to a black and white film I saw in a grungy movie theater when I was too young for all the esoteric considerations of the afterlife. It’s amazing, isn’t it, the things that can change your life.
William Kent Krueger is the New York Times best-selling author of the Cork O’Connor mysteries.
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