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What Is Heaven?

by on May 03, 2018 5:00 AM

Sunday night walking out of Meyer Dairy, the spring sky on the western horizon was holding onto the last hues of pink as it faded by degrees to purple and then black. The full moon silhouetted Mount Nittany, a night sky of spring renewal that causes one to ponder one’s place in this world.

That sky in this time of year probably predisposed my mind to existential thinking at home when the movie “Field of Dreams” came on MLB TV. In the dark room, the full moon’s light cast a bluish hue through the window. Our dog was asleep by my feet, and the house was quiet.

The movie’s main character builds a baseball diamond in a cornfield where ghosts of the past come to play baseball. One of them asks Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, if he is in heaven. For those who believe in an afterlife the great mystery and unanswered question is: What is heaven?

But in this movie, the character that most resonated personally was Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones. Mann’s character was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and stopped going to baseball games after the Dodgers headed west. That character is my own father.

Dad was born and raised in Brooklyn. At that time in New York City you were defined by the baseball team you rooted for. Were you a Giants fan, a Yankees fan or a Dodgers fan? For Brooklynites it was all Dodgers.

He and some of his classmates were ushers at Ebbets Field. He always smiled talking about getting out of school early to go usher. After the Dodgers left Brooklyn, he too stopped following baseball and going to games.

The character of Terence Mann and the movie stirred thoughts about family, the passage of time, our daunting mortality highlighting a life of things done and not done. It poses a question about what comes after we die.

If heaven for the movie’s ghosts was playing baseball again, what is heaven for others?

As the movie ends, Costner’s character plays catch with the ghost of his father one last time. Maybe that was his father’s heaven. There are few father/son things that are more American than playing catch with a baseball.

That scene brought to mind my first baseball mitt, an early 1970s Joe DiMaggio model. That gift from my father remains on a bookshelf behind my office desk, its presence bringing back games of catch. It is there next to a picture of my father and me on the field in Beaver Stadium and right in front of my favorite book, “The Sun Also Rises.”

Maybe part of my father’s heaven includes an afternoon ballgame at Ebbets Field watching his childhood heroes. After the game he takes the train home and runs up the steps of a Brooklyn row house into the arms of his mother. His eyes are wide with excitement sitting on his father’s lap to tell how the Dodgers had won the game in the bottom of the ninth.

In our minds, what would heaven be for us?

It probably varies with the stages of life where we currently exist. If my time were to come now, my heaven might include one more game coaching with my father and one more walk home with him to a big plate of Mom’s manicotti.

Almost 30 years after its release, Field of Dreams still captivates. Perhaps the appeal of that movie is the idea of heaven as a chance to relive a part of life that we’ve lost or to grasp a dream that eluded us in life.

As I look at that mitt and think about the book right behind it, “The Sun Also Rises” has a lesson for us. When placing that mitt on the bookshelf years ago its location by that book was unintentional, but it is fitting.

“The Sun Also Rises” centers on the main character Jake and his female friend Brett, a couple who loved each other but circumstances made a life together impossible. As the book ends she says “Oh, Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together.” To which Jake responds, “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Being haunted by “what might have been” is part of the human condition.

The mitt, those words, the movie all point to age-old struggles with our mortality and the mystery of the afterlife. Time passes, opportunities arise or pass, decisions are made or not made, things are done or left undone. With each day there are things we do that may haunt us our entire lives, or as in “Field of Dreams,” haunt us in the afterlife.

But across the centuries human nature remains constant in the impact that our mortality has on us, and, for so many, the desire to know, to understand what may come when we pass. Certainly we cannot know, but it is comforting to believe, to dream that when our appointed hour comes there will be a heaven where we can run, or play baseball or relive a moment in time when we were happiest.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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