To a casual observer, she died peacefully.
Gracefully in fact if such a term could ever be applied to death. Her loving family surrounded her. As morbid as it sounds, many remarked on how picturesque it all was. She lived a full and complete life. The family priest gave the blessing of last rites with an unparalleled serenity and eloquence. At the ripe old age of 82, she had done all she could in this life and would seek whatever adventures unfolded in the great beyond. She called her favorite Grandson to her side and spoke her last words into his ears. The tone of the machine sustained as her soul effortlessly escaped the now useless sanctuary it had called home. Her body remained in a beautiful and wholly sweet repose. Seemingly, this was the epitome of how one wants to pass to the other side.
However, I was that Grandson and the illusion created in that hospital room could not have been further from the truth. Her last words were cryptic but earnest. They were spoken with a lucidity that belied the death bed she rested upon.
Three succinct sentences were whispered that will stay with me until my dying day and beyond.
The drugs pumping through her veins couldn’t mask their sincerity. As she exhaled her last breath, my Grandma’s eyes didn’t tell the tale of the sweet grace of Heaven, but of the anguish and woe of the fires of Hell.
After the funeral, the family gathered to divy up her paltry belongings. My Grandmother reveled in the passages of the Bible that extolled the virtue of living with a meek and meager spirit. Her home reflected this philosophy. The priest of the church she had attended for the last sixty years mentioned this in his eulogy. He remarked that we could all learn from her example. Since she shunned Earthly treasures, she had gained boundless riches in Heaven.
The one opulent object in her tiny abode was an old Grandfather clock. Standing proudly below a portrait of Jesus deep in prayer, the large oak timepiece looked out of place in her ramshackle living room, but its singular beauty could not be denied. Maintaining it was one of the activities that had kept her going. Naturally, she had left it to me in her will, and I was honored to be receiving something that meant so much to her.
I wandered about her empty house after my relatives left. Staring at all the Christian iconography everywhere, I considered how much her lifelong faith had provided purpose, meaning, and comfort to her existence. But then, I contemplated the enigma of Gran’s last words. They were said with such fear and existential angst that everything was now cast in an entirely new light.
My thoughts scattered. Did the clock just strike six times? It was 8:15. I moved toward the living room to investigate and stopped in my tracks.
Six more times the sound cut through the still silence of the house. I looked at the clock to see that the face was telling the correct time. I reached out to touch the clock, and it chimed again.
It rang six more times total.
As this realization seized me, Gran’s first sentence whispered to me on her deathbed repeated in my mind.
“Time will tell, but it’s too late.”
As I opened the face to disable the mechanism, I caught something out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to see my Grandma with her back facing me. I closed my eyes expecting her to blink out of existence, but there she remained. She began to slowly turn her head in my direction. As she revealed her face, I froze in panic. A pervasive heat filled the air. It was searing my flesh. I felt my eyes begin to singe. My vision went white, and I fell unconscious to the floor.
I awoke the next day in the hospital. Luckily enough, my parents had returned and found me unresponsive on the living room floor. The doctor explained that I would remain in the hospital overnight while they ran a battery of tests. I nodded my head in a perfunctory way as he was divulging this information, but all I could think about was the twisted and grotesque look of anguish on my Grandmother’s face as she appeared in her living room as well as the indelible heat she emitted. Terror consumed me.
They ran their various tests throughout the day, and I stayed mum about what I had encountered not wanting to come off as crazy. Still feeling out of it and with anxiety coursing through me, I requested some medication to aid in my sleep. The doctor happily obliged.
An hour after the medicine had been administered, I stirred from my bed. I grew bored and decided to take a stroll. The empty corridors seemed to have no end. The dim lighting provided no shelter from the darkness that had now seeped in and made itself at home. Before long, I was hopelessly lost. Eventually, I stumbled into a familiar wing and made my way down the hallway. I passed room 217 and came to a stop. Just a few days prior, this was the room in which Gran had drawn her last breath. Curiosity got the better of me, and I opened the door.
Laying in the bed was Grandma. The peaceful tranquility of the room shattered by the abject terror written on her face. I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could offer a word of comfort, her body engulfed in flames. Her beautiful and docile face now twisted in woe and agony. It began to melt. Her eyes popped and crackled as the sockets were consumed by the flames.
She opened her twisted jaw and the second sentence spoken to me five days prior spewed forth.
“We all end up here.”
The hospital disappeared as if sucked into the ether.
The abyss lay before me. The pervasive heat springing forth from the fire grew wholly unbearable. Surrounding me and stretched into infinity, millions of souls writhed in agony as their flesh was ripped away by the flames. Grandma’s smoldering hand clasped onto my arm as she repeated those baneful words.
“We all end up here.”
I awoke in the hospital bed and nearly tumbled onto the floor. The dream… No, the vision I had seen resonated to my core. There was no denying it. The experience was so tangible and real. I couldn’t rationalize what I had seen and blame it on the drugs or stress.
The truth that had been unveiled to me left me bereft of any and all hope. There’s nothing any of us can do. We are all just delaying the inevitable. Whether you lead a pious or a hedonistic life, we all end up there.
We all end up in Hell.
The doctor entered the room that morning with a sullen look on his face. The results had come back, and they were not good. A malignant tumor had been found. The Stage 4 cancer ravishing my brain left me with six months to live at most. As the doctor stared at me intently, the true horror of the situation washed over me. I recalled the very last statement my Grandma made before dying as a tear escaped my eye.
“You’ll be with me again soon, very soon.”