Ruby Castello was deathly afraid of dying. Her fear of physiological expiration had festered in her mind since the day her father died. She watched him decay in a hospital bed. Cancer. She was only six. Now, at the ripe old age of thirty-four, she was dying of pancreatic cancer in front of her loving family. Xander, her husband, sat at her bedside and held her frail hand. Maria and Eli, her two children, sat in jerry-chairs across the room. They were afraid of what their mother had become. Ruby wasn’t “Mommy” anymore. She was a shell of the woman she used to be, a living carcass. Xander wiped a silent tear from his cheek with his free hand. They had been through so much, and now he was losing the love of his life.
Ruby, raised Roman Catholic, had fallen in love with Xander in high school. Xander grew up in pink fluffy dresses, bows with ribbons, and responded to “Zoe” at family gatherings. He was a closeted transgender teen until Ruby gave him the courage to tell his parents. When he was rejected, Ruby and Xander did what teenagers do; they ran away together. After defying Gods and guardians, the couple found jobs, a house, and unfortunately-- cancer.
The grieving husband sniffled and pushed his wavy mahogany hair out of his face. He gazed longingly at his wife and thought of better days. The only sound was the beeping of the heart monitor and the occasional chime from the nurse’s station out in the hall. They had been visiting this graveyard for months, and these sounds were the only thing that offered any comfort. Three months she’d been like this. Her breaths grew more and more shallow everyday, and she only moved when the nurses rotated her to avoid bedsores. Ruby was already dead, her family just wouldn’t let her go.
Xander closed his eyes and listened to the heart monitor. Nurses laughed out in the hall. They were so full of life. Beep. He thought about life without Ruby, growing old alone. Beep. What about her soul? Where would she go? She’d sinned against her God, and Xander knew it was because of him. Beep. If it’s as serious as he thinks, Ruby is going to Hell. She sacrificed her soul for him. For them. Beeee--. Xander’s eyes shot open and he scrambled to his feet.
“Somebody help us! Nurse! She flatlined!” He pressed the red button on the wall. The nurses’ station chimed out in the hall.
He grabbed the hands of his children and dragged them out of the hospital room. Nurses flooded through the door seconds later. Maria and Eli were both sobbing and pounding on the heavy wooden door that stood between them and their mother. Xander’s eyes were glassy. He couldn’t cry, no tears would come. He’d been crying for months, but now was not the time. Staying strong for his children was his duty, his new priority. Ruby’s soul was finally free, her body was truly a shell. The love of Xander’s life was gone.
When she breathed her last, Ruby’s soul shot to the sky to meet its judgement. The “pearly gates” she’d been told so much about weren’t there. She stood in a dark room with only one overhead light. Her hospital gown was warm in stark contrast to the room. All was silent.
“Hello?” She treaded carefully through the seemingly endless room. “Anyone there?”
Ruby wandered. When she couldn’t find a single sign of afterlife, she surrendered to a cross-legged position on the floor. Alone and confused, what a familiar feeling.
In this world, time was an irrelevant concept. The room was completely black with the exception of the single light, so there was no sunrise or sunset. She was a lost soul. Literally. Hours passed, maybe even days. Eventually Ruby saw a light off in the distance. In front of the light was the silhouette of a man.
“Hello?” There was no response.
He was still approaching Ruby. His features were coming into focus, and she was able to make a face out. A very recognizable one at that.
“That’s my dad, call me Jesus” He smiled and took Ruby by the hand to helped her up.
“Where am I? I can’t imagine Hell would look like this. I thought there’d be more...”
“Fire?”He chuckled softly. “Hell isn’t here. This is Purgatory. It’s designed to make one think of their life on Earth. The darkness provokes the spiritual mind to reflect on one’s past life, past sins specifically.” He waited for her to pick up on what He was referring to.
“Ooohh”, Ruby caught on. “ I know that since the day I was born I was taught that anything other than a man and a woman being married is wrong. The way I viewed my relationship, he was a man. We were married by a Catholic priest, so I thought maybe I was right. My Catholicism wasn’t sacrificed, our children were growing-- are growing up with the Catholic faith like I did. They may be adopted, but they’re still my kids. Why am I telling you this? You already know.” He nodded.
“Ruby, you risked your soul for the one you love, a textbook demonstration of a selfless act. All we’ve ever wanted is for humans to love each other as equals, and that is exactly what you’ve done.”
“Who is ‘we,’ exactly?” Ruby raised an eyebrow.
“Well”, he paused. “I don’t live alone. C’mon, I’ll show you.”
The Son of Man revealed a door. It slid open silently. He took her hand and began to walk through the door. His white silk robes brushed Ruby’s hand; she was still in utter disbelief. On this day, she met the King of Kings, the Lamb of God. Ruby was forgiven; her doubt and unrest settled.
Her feet met a solid gold balcony and her eyes saw the glorious beauty of Heaven. There were angels to her left and to her right. All had their own set of wings, which were the purest white you could ever imagine. White buildings laid foundation in the greenest grass, and you could hear children’s laughter on the ground below. It was exactly how she’d imagined it. Beautiful, warm, and inviting. She was captivated by Heaven’s utter beauty. Ruby watched the angels fly around her, going about their days. She watched the children below chase butterflies while others played tag. There was no sickness here, no more suffering.
The awe-struck Ruby was snapped out of her trance by the Prince of Peace. “Do you like animals?”
Ruby was befuddled. “Yeah.” She trusted Jesus, he hadn’t led her astray before. Why would he start now?
“Follow me, I’ve got someone for you to meet.” He smiled and extended His arm.
They strolled, arm in arm, towards an unforeseen destination. Ruby’s trust resided in the heart of a new friend.
Eventually, the pair entered a beautiful botanical garden. A large fountain stood in the middle, and down an aisle of rose bushes stood a man with a squirrel on his shoulder. A white rabbit sat at his feet. He turned around and greeted Jesus with a hug.
“Ruby this is S-”
“Saint Francis of Assisi!” Her eyes were stars. She used to pray to him all the time, especially when her pets died.
“Nice to meet you,” he smiled and extended his hand. Ruby grasped it weakly and shook. She wanted to respond, but she couldn’t. Her mind went blank, and no words came to her lips.
“You’re new here?” Ruby nodded. Francis smiled softly, “I’ve got something to show you.”
He walked over to the fountain in the center of the garden. Ruby, Jesus, and the white rabbit followed close behind. Francis sat down next to the water. He gestured towards Ruby, who approached reluctantly.
“Look into the water, Ruby. I think you’ll find comfort there.”
She leaned over the side and peered into the trickling fountain. A small blue sphere came into focus. Ruby had called this sphere “home” for thirty-four years, but now it was just a memory. Her past lived there, and so did her family.
The Earth suddenly became rippled. Ruby’s tear had fallen into the fountain and distorted the image. The sphere was home to her no longer. It was a rest stop, and she knew that now. Heaven was where she belonged. Francis’ rabbit hopped over to Ruby’s feet and nuzzled against her leg. She wiped another tear from her cheek. There would be no more pain. There would be no more sadness. Ruby was finally home.