Note: This story was published in the print edition of the Story Circle Network's "True Words" annual anthology, 2010.
"This is Heaven, pure Heaven," Julia breathed. She walked slowly from the shallow end of the pool until her words became bubbles and her dark blonde head was submerged.
Julia's right index finger popped into view first. I knew a pronouncement was coming, and watched as she grasped for the side of the pool, bright eyes fixed on me. She started talking immediately with the certitude of bright ten year-olds everywhere.
"Actually, it's not anything like Heaven. At least, not anything like it was the last time I was there." Hello. That got my attention.
"You've been to Heaven?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. I've been there. . . " she positioned her feet underwater on the side of the pool so she could let go of the side and count on her fingers, "uh, three times. Yep! Three times."
"Really!" I had to bite on this. "What was it like?"
"Do you remember when I broke my arm? I was about three." Her pulsating brown eyes made me think of those whirly pinwheels that kids hold up in the wind.
"Yes," I said. "I remember."
"Well, when it happened, I kind of blacked out for a minute, and that's the first time I went to Heaven."
I listened for what came next, wondering if Julia had heard the old near-death-experience story about going through a tunnel and seeing a white light.
"I didn't really get in the first time. I was on a cloud, and I saw a big gate. It was only open a little bit. When I tried to walk through it, somebody pushed me off the cloud, and I woke up."
"The second time I visited Heaven, it was when I fell out of bed and almost died. That's when I went up," she said, raising both arms above her head in a "touchdown" gesture. "It was so pretty! Everything was pink! It wasn't anything like I heard about in Sunday School. There weren't any gold streets." Julia moved closer to me and leaned forward. "There were people everywhere. And they had wings.
She laughed. "But then, I fell off the cloud again.
Julia swam underwater back to the shallow end, where she did a handstand. "Ta da! Did you see that?"
I thought her Heaven story was over, but I was wrong. She fish-tailed back to the deep end, attached her feet onto the side as though they had little suckers on the soles, and resumed.
"The third time was the best so far. This Heaven was a tropical island. There were mountains, and an ocean, and plants everywhere. And waterfalls!" She sighed. "It was beautiful."
"I found out that Heaven is whatever you want it to be. Everybody can have a different Heaven. You can make your own path using clouds. You can design them however you want, with one leading to another. And you can link up to other people's cloud path if you are both interested in going the same direction and it's okay with them. And nobody can change anything about your cloud path or come on it unless you say it's okay."
"I want to go back, but not yet, 'cause if I went up and stayed, I wouldn't ever get to be a fashion designer in Paris!"
We giggled, swam some more, then went back into the house to make fresh peach, orange juice, frozen banana and yogurt smoothies.
Julia on her 8th birthday.