“Stephen Dreams of Visiting Heaven” by Christine Kindberg

20Feb13

When anyone asked Stephen what he wanted to be when he grew up, Stephen always answered, “Astronaut.” He wanted to say cosmonaut because he thought that sounded better, but his parents had told him that was what the Soviets said so it could cause trouble. He didn’t understand why: the prefix cosmos was Greek, not Russian or socialist, so why should it cause trouble?

Adults had recently started asking Stephen the question more than they used to. Maybe it was because he was meeting more adults now, especially doctors and nurses. Or maybe it was because he was in third grade and had reached an age when he was supposed to be thinking ahead. Regardless, he hated how adults responded to his typical answer by saying something condescending about patriotism or “what a smart boy” or “must be university influence,” as if his parents’ academic positions were responsible. Stephen knew it wasn’t because of any of those superficial factors. He wanted to become an astronaut so he could go to Heaven and talk with God. It was now more urgent than ever, if he wanted to help his mother in time.

* * *

He was three when he first realized it was possible. He remembered the evening philosophy lecture his parents took him to. He had not understood most of it, but afterward he held on to the hem of his mother’s wool skirt while some of the words echoed in his head: Ultimate Good, heavens, Supreme Being. He knew his mother had once said something about the heavens while looking at the stars, and his grandmother had told him Heaven is where God lives. Even then, it made sense: God lives in Heaven, which must be where the stars are. He wondered what a house made of stars would look like.

The student who had been talking to his mother about the lecture leaned down to Stephen’s eye-level. “Hi, Stevie,” the student had said, light glinting off his dark-rimmed glasses. Stephen hated it when anyone but his mother called him that. “Stevie, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Stephen had tried to hide in the fabric of his mother’s skirt, but it didn’t work. The student wouldn’t go away. “Let me guess. Do you want to be a professor like your parents?”

Stephen shook his head. His parents weren’t professors; they were philosophers. He could see it on the page of words his mother had given him to learn: her careful writing on the rose-colored stationary, spelling out P-H-I-L-O-S-O-P-H-Y and P-H-I-L-O-S-O-P-H-E-R.

The student had laughed. “Not a professor? Okay, let me guess—a doctor? Or do you want to be President like Eisenhower? No? How about an astronaut so you can travel to outer space!”

Stephen didn’t know what the student meant by outer space—the space outside what? He looked up at his mother.

“Outer space is what’s beyond the sky,” she said.

Stephen thought about that. The sky is where the stars are. People could actually travel to the stars and beyond? That must mean they could visit God’s house. He stared at the student and nodded. That’s what he wanted to do.

Stephen’s mother had looked down, surprised. “You want to be an astronaut, Stevie?” Stephen had ducked behind his mother’s skirt, but he’d felt sure ever since: he wanted to be an astronaut so he could visit God.

After that, Stephen read all that he could about space travel in the magazines that laid around the house or the college lounges he visited with his parents. At first he didn’t understand much, but he looked up the long words in dictionaries or asked his parents to explain them. He knew lots of people were excited about space exploration and that there was a race between Americans and the Soviets to see which would be the first country represented in space.

Stephen knew he needed to beat all the other astronauts—and cosmonauts—to be the first person in space, to go beyond the canopy of the stars and enter heaven. If other people beat him to it, they would make a horribly long line to tell God all about their interminable adult problems, and then God would get bored and Stephen would never be able to get God’s attention.

Stephen needed God’s attention urgently. No one else seemed to know what to do, and his mother was just getting worse. There was no way to know if God was listening when he tried to pray the way his grandmother had taught him. Even if God was listening, how would Stephen hear God’s response when he was so far away? But surely God could tell Stephen what to do, if Stephen could only get to Heaven to talk to him face to face.

* * *

After Stephen’s mother got sick and the initial flurry of activity died down, everything had become too quiet. His mother was always in bed in the morning, never listening to the radio while she made breakfast, never helping him get dressed, like she used to. When he came home from school, she was usually asleep again instead of at the kitchen table grading papers. His father had told Stephen not to bother her too much, so he kept the radio off and stayed in his room or went outside.

For a while, Stephen had tried every way he could think of to get sick too, so he could stay home and be with his mother. He piled blankets on his bed or sat close to the heater while his dad got the thermometer, but his dad had quickly caught on to his trick. He tried visiting the kindergarteners who had chicken pox, but their parents wouldn’t let him. His dad also said that if he kept faking sickness, no one would believe him if he really did get sick, and he would have to go to school anyway. So Stephen finally gave up and went to school as if everything were the same as it had always been.

* * *

Sometimes Stephen sat in Miss Huygen’s class and planned out exactly what he would say when he met God, and what he would take with him in the rocket. What if God only allowed him to say a certain number of words, or what if he started running out of oxygen? His parents would be upset if he didn’t come back, so he had to plan carefully.

But Miss Huygen didn’t like his planning.

“Stephen? Stephen? Would you like to come back from your daydreams and focus on math now?”

Stephen hated it when teachers interrupted him while he was thinking. He also hated it when teachers asked questions that weren’t really questions.

Patricia Fulton poked him in the back with her pencil. “You’re supposed to say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”

Stephen muttered, “Yes, ma’am.” Then he turned and glared at Patricia. She stuck her tongue out at him, and he imagined what he would say to God about her if he got the chance.

* * *

Stephen had a corner of the playground that was his own, between the sandbox and the brick wall. By third grade, everyone knew how the playground was divided, and the other children’s running games always stayed out of Stephen’s corner. The tall swings were the girls’ territory, and the boys had to stay away or the girls would start screaming. The boys had the open space on the other side of the see-saws, and they always went immediately to the ball bin and picked something for the game of the day.

Stephen often took a pen and paper with him out to recess. He was working on a letter. So far it read:

Dear NASA,

I need to get to Heaven to talk to God because my mother is sick. Would you consider accepting me into your astronaut program early?

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Stephen Howard

Stephen smoothed the letter against his legs, trying to decide if it was okay. His parents had taught him how to write letters, and he knew he had all the parts he needed, but something seemed missing. He chewed on the pen clip and then added another sentence before the closing: “I am a good student, and I can learn quickly.” It still didn’t seem right. He read it again and then stopped.

He couldn’t send the letter like that. If people realized they could get to Heaven with spaceships, they would have done it already to get God on their side. People would be working night and day without rest—more than they were already working—to get to Heaven. People must not realize rockets can take you to see God, he thought. It was his secret.

He looked around the playground to make sure no one had seen him writing the letter. No one was looking, so he tore up the paper and stuffed the shreds into his jacket pocket.

He started a new letter on another sheet of paper. He needed a different reason to convince NASA to accept him early. Maybe they would believe his cause even if he didn’t write what it was specifically that he knew.

Dear NASA,

Would you please accept me early into your astronaut program? My teachers say I am a good student, and I can learn quickly. Additionally, I have special information that makes it urgent for me to be the first person to travel into space.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Stephen Howard

He looked at it again and added his middle initial to the signature, a careful J like his dad’s. Stephen wondered if they would come to his house to demand what his secret was. He hoped not; that might disturb his mother.

“What are you doing?”

Stephen looked up to see Paul standing nearby, holding a rubber ball in one hand as if he’d just picked it up, staring at him.

“Are you writing a letter during recess?”

Stephen quickly turned the paper over, ripping one side. He tried to think of something that would send Paul away.

“Are you writing a letter to Santa Claus?” Paul’s voice was on the verge of laughter.

Stephen hoped Paul wouldn’t start yelling to the rest of the playground to come and see. “I’m writing an important communication about a professional interest in a significant matter which is none of your—or anyone else’s—concern.” Stephen knew using big words sometimes worked; he hoped Paul was the type of person who would be intimidated by what he didn’t understand.

Paul stared at him. Stephen stared back until his neck itched. He pressed his advantage. “Please do not disturb me any further, or I will have to take precautionary measures.” Stephen stared another few seconds, then slowly looked down at his sheet, as if in dismissal. He could see Paul’s shadow on the gravel, flowing over onto his notebook paper. Stephen held his pen poised over the paper, his heart beating so fast his hand shook.

The shadow wavered for a minute and then moved away, carrying the oblong shadow of the ball back to the other side of the playground

* * *

When Stephen got home after school, he stood in the doorway to his mother’s room and tugged at a splinter in the doorframe. He wondered how that splinter got there; every wood surface in the house was waxed or painted, glaring still with newness, though the house was as old as he was. He’d never noticed any paint chipping or fading or wood pulling apart like this. He pulled at the thin splinter with his fingernails, but he couldn’t get a good enough grasp to separate it from the doorframe.

“Stevie, are you going to come in?” his mother called. She sat up against the headboard, watching him, the chenille bedspread bunched around her legs.

Stephen poked at the splinter, feeling it dully jab into the cushion of his fingertip. If he pushed hard enough it might get lodged, and then maybe his mother would take it out for him.

“Stevie?”

Stephen walked slowly to the hard-backed chair and stood behind it. He wasn’t used to seeing the seat of the chair; his mother usually piled it high with clothes. Stephen’s dad had put the whole pile in the closet, where it was patiently gathering dust until someone could come to do the wash properly.

She was sitting up in bed today, which Stephen thought was a good sign. Her smile was pale, but she seemed awake enough to see him. She patted a space on the bed. “Come sit down,” she said. She was wearing a headband, stark black against her red hair.

Stephen sat next to her and put his hands under his knees. He didn’t like looking at her from this close; he could see how thin she’d gotten.

She reached for his hand. “What have you been up to, Stevie? What have I missed?” She waited, and Stephen shrugged. “Anything important?”

Stephen thought through what he could say about the past few days. Miss Huygen had called on him to read a paragraph out loud; he’d stood reluctantly and mumbled in the direction of his shoes until the giggles grew louder than his reading, and Miss Huygen asked him to sit down. During lunch, the new girl from California sat at the other end of his table, leaving three empty seats between them. When she got up to throw away her trash, she’d stopped by his chair and told him her dad worked at the university, like his dad. He’d nodded, but didn’t say anything, and eventually she walked away. After school, he walked behind her and her brother and sister for a few blocks; she’d seen him but didn’t say anything.

“I went with Dad to the store on Wednesday,” he said. “We gave Mr. Jenkins the list because we didn’t know where to find anything.” He shrugged again and traced the ridges of fabric on the bedspread.

“Stephen,” his mother said slowly, and then stopped. She was paler now than she had been a moment ago. He waited. “Never mind…” she whispered and then closed her eyes, breathing deeply.

Stephen sat still, trying not to disrupt her if she was going to sleep. The doctor said sleep was a good thing. He wasn’t sure if he should help her lie down again or let her fall asleep sitting up.

He heard his dad open the front door and plod down the hallway toward the bedroom, his footsteps surprisingly heavy as usual. He stopped at the doorway briefly, then moved to the bedside. He kissed Stephen’s mother gently on the cheek and eased her into a lying position. Stephen shifted out of the way. She stirred a little, and her eyelids flickered, but she stayed asleep.

“It’s the medicine,” Stephen’s dad whispered. “The doctors said she’ll be like this for a while. It helps to let her sleep.”

Stephen nodded. He stood in the middle of the room, feeling like a stranger. His dad stood next to him, hands in his pockets. After a minute, Stephen’s father smiled the ghost of a real smile and put his hand on Stephen’s shoulder. They walked out of the room together, and his father closed the door.

* * *

Later that night, Stephen snuck into his parents’ office and found the drawer with stamps. He pulled off a blue rectangle, licked it, and positioned it carefully on the envelope. It looked lonely in the corner all by itself. He wondered if the letter would arrive faster if he put on more postage. He pulled off two more stamps and pasted them in a row.

For the sending address, he wrote simply, “NASA, Washington, D.C., USA.” He didn’t know any more of the address, but he supposed the post office would know where to deliver it.

He opened the front door slowly, so his dad wouldn’t hear and get worried. The mailbox creaked when he reached it, and the sound echoed down the empty, dark street. He carefully positioned the letter so that the mailman would immediately notice the three stamps. He pulled the mailbox’s little red flag up as far as it went. At the door, right before going back inside, he turned to check that the flag was still standing over the mailbox.

* * *

After he’d gone to bed and turned off the light, Stephen thought about what it would be like when NASA accepted him into their program. He’d imagined it many times, so the images ran like a newsreel through his mind. Scientists with clipboards would watch all of his training sessions. The day of the launch there would be a crowd of families, including his parents, cheering for him in his space suit. They would shut him in the rocket, shiny like one of his grandmother’s cooking pots, and he would wave from the window until the countdown started. Then there would be loud rumbling, and he’d start to climb, rising higher and higher until the people and bicycles and cars and streets and houses looked like wooden toys.

He’d pass through fleecy clouds soft as cotton balls, and he’d see the broad shape of his state recognizable from the maps that hung on his classroom wall. A while longer and he’d pass through more clouds, the higher ones, and he’d see the ocean from the rocket window, at first barely visible on the horizon, and then growing as he rose still higher.

About this time, he’d turn on his oxygen—flip a thin metal switch like the ones on robots in magazines. Maybe he’d sleep, or maybe he’d just watch from the window as the rocket climbs steadily higher. Suddenly he’d look up and see the looming, full moon: the mountains and crevices and craters of the moon that he’d read about, huge and menacing from close up.

Then he’d notice the heat. It grows hotter and hotter until his clothes are soaked through. Even though he can’t see it, he knows that he’s getting nearer to the sun.

He has to keep in communication with Earth, just to let them know he’s still alive. He hears Morse code tapping out, “Everything okay?” over the scratch of the radio waves. He taps back, “Yes, everything’s swell. Jupiter’s moons are incredible.” The dull hum of the engine is punctuated only by the tapping of the messages back and forth.

Then he sees the edge of the sky, dark beyond all imagining. The stars look like live fireflies pinned against black felt, but Stephen knows they are really small holes in the sky through which shines the brightness of the world beyond. He taps quickly, “Very close now. Out of contact soon.” There’s eager tapping in response, showing that everyone on Earth is waiting breathlessly.

And then he reaches the barrier of the sky like the roof of a tent. His rocket runs up against the fabric of the firmament and stretches it, the whine of the motors increasingly frantic, pushing outward until the fabric rips and he passes through.

He’d make a new hole in the sky, the first star ever caused by a living human. And he would enter Heaven.

He expected the light to be overwhelming, golden and tangible all around him. It’s not heat-producing light, like the sun; the temperature feels very comfortable inside his narrow rocket.

The ship comes to a rest, and Stephen quickly snaps loose the bolts, unlatches the door, and steps out into the light. The grass is golden in paths like pavement, but organic and living. People are standing around, talking, laughing—happy-looking people like in the pictures in the Bible at his grandmother’s house.

He walks through these people toward a raised platform. The platform is clear, and through it he can see down to the planets and other lower spheres. He thinks it must be made out of the special glass that’s transparent on one side but reflective on the other, like windows of the buildings downtown.

God sits on the throne on the platform. His skin is dark from being in the sun so much, like Mr. Richardson down the street who was in the Navy. He has a long, bushy beard the colors of a sunset.

God is surprised at first when he notices Stephen—a traveler! Someone who reached Heaven in a rocket! He beckons Stephen to climb the stairs to the throne, and Stephen realizes as he gets closer how much larger the throne is than he thought, like when he climbed the steps of the Washington memorial and was surprised by the size of the Abraham Lincoln statue.

God curiously asks Stephen how he did it. Everyone listens as Stephen explains. God asks a lot of questions, and Stephen finally has to tell God, as politely as possible, that he has important business. He says his mother is sick. Then he asks, “God, what will help her get better? What can I do?”

God has to think a while, with his chin on his hand, like Stephen’s dad when he’s thinking. Then God looks at Stephen again and gives him the answer, finally, and Stephen finally knows just what to do.

God might have a few more instructions after that, maybe what to tell people when Stephen gets back to Earth. Then maybe there’s some court fanfare to escort him back to his rocket. Stephen climbs the ladder, waves good-bye for now to God and all of Heaven, then bolts himself back in and points the rocket toward Earth. He shuttles back quickly now, without a moment to lose before doing what God has told him to do to save his mother.

In his dreams, Stephen tried to imagine the different things God might tell him to do, but he couldn’t think of anything plausible. After a while he gave up. He just hoped whatever God told him to do wouldn’t be too hard.

* * *

Stephen’s dad came home from work early on Wednesday and tried to cook dinner. Mrs. McKinnon usually cooked even when Stephen’s mother wasn’t sick, but she never came on Wednesdays because she had church. The previous few weeks, Stephen and his dad had made sandwiches, but Stephen’s dad didn’t really like sandwiches. He said he was going to try to cook this week even if it killed him.

When the oven door slammed shut and the smell of burning filled the house, Stephen put down his book. He pulled a chair under the smoke alarm and nudged it with a broom until the little box on the ceiling dislodged. He didn’t want the alarm to wake his mother.

In the kitchen, his dad was in a fencing pose, poking at a pan of blackened meatloaf with a fork, his other hand straight up in the air in an oven mitt.

“Zeno’s paradox,” his dad muttered. “It’s still not done in the middle.”

Every pot and pan from the cabinet was strewn on the counter or the floor. There was a streak of mustard across the right side of his dad’s beard. Stephen wished his dad would just let them go to his grandma’s for dinner.

Stephen’s dad scraped off the burnt crust and carved out the undone middle of the meatloaf, and they filled their plates with what was left. It looked like dog food. Plates and napkins in hand, they faced the round kitchen table with three chairs.

“How about eating in the living room again?” Every night his dad said they wouldn’t make a habit of eating in front of the TV, but they hadn’t sat at the table once since Stephen’s mother got sick.

Stephen settled onto the couch. His dad pulled the coffee table closer and put his feet up, balancing his plate in his lap. “Don’t knock over your milk, Stephen,” his dad said, as usual.

They’d missed the opening sequence on the Huntley-Brinkley Report. The commercial break ended, and Huntley went right into the main story.

“Today a Soviet astronaut became the first man in space. According to…”

Stephen stared at the screen, frozen. Someone had made it to space? What did God tell him? What would he tell everyone else about God? Stephen’s hand shook against his glass.

“…the rocket Vostok took 108 minutes to orbit the earth. Cosmonaut Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin landed unharmed.” Huntley frowned at his notes and kept talking. “In Washington, members of the NASA Mercury spaceflight program issued congratulations while expressing their hopes that the American program will not linger far behind.” The screen switched to show David Brinkley in the Washington newsroom.

Stephen’s dad scratched his head. “A man in space. How is this possible?”

Stephen concentrated on the four letters behind Mr. Brinkley’s torso—NASA. The screen showed the letters in shades of gray, but he knew they should be white with a hint of red. President Kennedy’s face filled the screen, but Stephen only saw his lips moving. He had an echo in his head: “Russian cosmonaut… first man in space. Russian cosmonaut… in space.” Someone had beat him to it. When would Gagarin report what he’d seen? Stephen felt like crying.

The screen switched back to Mr. Huntley’s suit and tie. “When Major Gagarin reached space, he is reported as saying, ‘I don’t see any God up here.’” Huntley frowned into the camera. “Americans across the country…”

Everything in Stephen stopped. What did he mean, “No God up here”?

The closing credits came on. Stephen’s dad pushed back the coffee table and shut off the TV, muttering about the idiocy of a technological race. He kept muttering all the way down the hall.

Stephen stared at the black screen a long time. If God wasn’t up there, was he anywhere? What if he wasn’t—what if God didn’t exist? He stared and stared, until the blankness of the screen was all he could see.

Eventually, Stephen realized his foot felt numb. He moved it slowly, kindling the sharp needles of pain as sensation returned.

If God didn’t exist, then there was no one he could ask to help his mother. There was no one else who could help.

Stephen poked at the books on the coffee table, moving them out of Mrs. McKinnon’s perfect order. He pushed his hand into the couch cushion, watching the fabric bend inward toward his knuckles.

His mother’s voice, calling from the other room, startled him.

Stephen walked quickly to her door. “Mother?” He knocked and opened the door to look in. She was lying down, eyes closed, her dark red hair muted in the half-light. The veins stood out in her hands resting on the bedspread.

Stephen stepped quietly to the side of the bed, trying to tell if she was awake or asleep. Had she actually called him or had he imagined it? Her breathing was shallow and regular. He stared at her a bit longer, trying to figure out what she needed. Eventually he picked up the empty glass from her bedside table and took it to the kitchen.

* * *

The window above the sink was dark. He could barely see the outline of the tree in the backyard, inky black against the blue-black sky. It was a clear night. Stephen leaned forward to look at the stars. How could it be that there was no God up there?

Stephen left the cup on the countertop and went out the back door. Sitting on the bottom step of the back porch, he could see the full range of stars stretching in a canopy away from the roof of the house. He found Orion’s belt and traced the curve of his bow. He found the cheerful North Star. If there was no God, what was behind the stars—nothing? They suddenly seemed very far away.

Stephen had always felt so sure God would be there, just beyond the stars, just out of reach but not impossibly so, if he could only use something to take him closer. A rocketship had seemed the perfect solution, but a Soviet had tried that. If God wasn’t up there, he thought, then there must be nothing… no golden grass or happy crowds of people, no clear pedestal made of one-way glass.

Stephen picked up a twig and threw it as high as he could. It arched against the speckled sky and landed with a dull plunk on Mr. Donovan’s shed. He felt abandoned, like the time he thought his mother had left him at the store.

Stephen started counting stars, beginning on the horizon. He got to one hundred and twenty-eight before losing track of which ones he’d counted.

There had to be something beyond the fabric of the sky, he thought. There had to be.

Stephen traced the path the Russian must have taken, up from the eastern horizon, between stars, to that clearing in the middle of the sky. He sat there, pointing straight up, when he suddenly realized his mistake.

The Soviet cosmonaut had traveled into space, but he didn’t go anywhere near the stars. Stephen stood up and looked at them again. How had he forgotten? The stars were so much further away. The Soviet hadn’t gone nearly far enough—he had only just barely made it out of Earth’s atmosphere, probably. There was still the vast distance to the planets, and beyond them, to the canopy of the sky. God hid behind the edge of the universe, much further away.

Stephen smiled. God was still up there, undisturbed, waiting with his answer. Stephen turned and went back inside the house to take his mother the glass of water.

Christine Kindberg lives in Chicago and is a full-time nanny. She studied creative writing and theology at Wheaton College in Illinois, and her work has previously appeared in Mused: The BellaOnline Literary Review. She is currently biting her nails, waiting to hear back about her applications to MFA programs.

Read Christine Kindberg’s comments on Hannah Lackoff’s “The Dead Do Not Come Back At Night.”

______________
Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
“Stephen Dreams of Visiting Heaven” is at once charming and painful, a hopeful story that makes us ponder the supreme power of the universe and a thoughtful child’s understanding of it. We want Stephen to get what he wants, to succeed in saving his mother from her illness and misery, to find his way to Heaven and meet God with his personal request, even though our logic defies such possibilities. We want to help Stephen understand the ways of the world, hold his hand on the journey, and for this we know we’ve been touched, connected to a fictional character that comes alive in our hearts and minds.

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Comments on this story by Catherine Uroff, author of “Model Home
“Stephen Dreams of Visiting Heaven” is a sweet, poignant story about a certain moment in American history when space travel—something we take for granted now—was nothing but a mystical, fantastical dream for our nation. The story is told from the perspective of Stephen, a third-grader who is watching, helplessly, over his sick mother. He fixates on the idea of becoming an astronaut so that he can travel to the outer limits of space and reach Heaven to speak directly to God about his mother. He imagines Heaven to be this glorious place with golden grass, crowds of happy people, and God sitting on a clear pedestal made of one-way glass. If he can’t believe in the existence of God, how will he find the strength to make it through his mother’s illness? How will his mother ever get better if he can’t reach God and get his help? This story reminds us of the power of dreams and the heartbreak of having to grow up too soon, too fast.




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