“For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.” Psalm 90:4
When my father died, the poet Scott Cairns sent me a poem he’d written at the death of his own father. Like no other poem I know, it offered—and still does—consolation. Countless times I’ve sent it on to others who’ve lost parents or friends. It’s titled “Words for a Father,” and it begins with “and,” as if we’re probably overhearing some ideas that have been brewing in our heads for quite some time.
“And this is the consolation: that the world
doesn't end, that the world one day opens up
into something better. And that we
one day open up into something far better.”
He’s talking about afterlife, of course—our visions of the eternal, of heaven. None of us know a thing about what the afterlife will look like, but our differing views (streets paved with gold, good fishing, no more wind) all share the same basic conviction: there, things will be better. That much for sure: things will be better.
Then he visits a vision of things, narrating carefully one possible sense of dying:
Maybe like this: one morning you finally wake
to a light you recognize as the light you've wanted
every morning that has come before. And the air
has some light thing in it that you've always hoped
the air might have. And One is there to welcome you
whose face you've looked for during all the best and worst
times of your life. He takes you to himself
and holds you close until you fully wake.
There’s no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, only a sweet light and a single, strangely familiar face, a maternal God whose welcome is a blessed, wordless calm.
And then the lines that seem most memorable to me—or certainly were in those days following my father’s dying.
And it seems you've only just awakened, but you turn
and there we are, the rest of us, arriving just behind you.
We'll go the rest of the way together.
What hurt me most at my father’s death was the sense of his being gone, alone, the rest of us seated in the church he’d attended his whole life, all of us, his entire family. To the terror of that emptiness, Scott’s poem is sweet and grand relief, profiling eternity by promising us all—my father and his included—that a thousand years in God’s sight are like nothing at all. Nothing. We’ll be there soon ourselves.
That, is comfort.