The light shone brightly in Gabriel's eyes as he tried to rise to a sitting position, but his body ached in response and he collapsed against the hospital bed, panting. He scanned the room, taking in the sight of the monitor that showed his heart rate and several other things he didn't understand. An IV was being fed into his arm and there was a breathing tube in his nose.
Gabriel couldn't remember what had brought him there. He knew that he had been sick, but the last thing he could remember was lying down for a nap, and he was certain he hadn't come to the hospital on his own accord. The answer to his dilemma opened the door a second later as John stepped into the room and smiled at him weakly. "You're awake," John said simply. "It's good to see you."
"What's going on, love?" Gabriel asked as John crossed the distance between them and took a seat in the cushioned chair next to the hospital bed. As John scooted to the edge of the seat Gabriel could see the longing in his eyes, and a great depth of sorrow.
"You don't remember last night, do you?" John asked quietly.
"No, I don't remember anything," Gabriel replied. "What happened?"
"You're very sick, Gabe," John said as he reached out and laid a hand on Gabriel's thigh through the thin blanket. "The doctors say that it isn't looking good."
Gabriel nodded slowly and reached his hand out to John. John's hand quickly left Gabriel's thigh and joined him in the air, John's pale fingers entwined with Gabriel's chocolate-colored skin and formed the beautiful balance of light and dark that Gabriel loved to see whenever they went on their walks through Cape Town.
"Tell me how bad it is," Gabriel said quietly as John squeezed his hand in support. "I need to know. Is there a chance I'm going to get better?"
John shook his head as the tears began falling down his cheeks. He leaned forward and rested his head against Gabriel's chest as his body racked with sobs. Gabriel's eyes moistened as he reached up and stroked the side of John's face and waited for him to calm down before Gabriel spoke again. "How long do I have?"
"Not long. A few days at the most," John replied bitterly. "It's so unfair. After everything you've been through in life. It's just not fair."
"It's going to be okay, John," Gabriel whispered, though his tears continued to fall. "All things have a way of working out, you'll see. I'm sure that . . ."
Pain shot through Gabriel's chest and the words caught in his throat as back arched backward involuntarily. John sat up straight in his seat and stared at Gabriel as his eyes rolled back in his head and his body began to convulse. "Gabe! Gabe!" John shouted. The door to the hospital room opened wide as a nurse rushed in immediately followed by a doctor as the monitors connected to Gabriel began beeping wildly. "Oh my god, he's dying! Help!" John cried.
Gabriel didn't hear any of it as his world faded to black.
When Gabriel woke again, John was holding his hand, but it felt different somehow. He could feel the weight of John's hand over his own, but when he tried to squeeze John's hand his grip was weak. John was asleep in the chair and seemed not to notice at all as Gabriel rose to a seating position and slid his hand out from under John's in the process.
He was feeling much better, and there was no ache at all to his movements. The monitors attached to him seemed to be in order as far as he could tell, and his breathing felt normal. Though he knew he should wait for the doctor to come back and tell him he could, the breathing tube felt awkward and heavy, and he removed it in annoyance. When he found that he could breathe just as easily without it, he decided to leave the tube on the edge of the bed and not worry about it.
The muscles in his legs felt weak from the time they had spent in the bed, and he swung his legs over the side and began to stretch. In seconds he began to feel even better; better than he had in years. Whatever the doctors had done to him while he was sleeping it seemed to have completely rejuvenated his energy. He slid off of the bed and stood, surprised at how easily his legs were supporting him when they had felt so weak moments before.
"John," Gabriel said as he turned back toward his husband. "John, look, I'm standing, and I feel great." John remained in his previous position, hand resting on the hospital bed and his head resting against his chest, sound asleep. Gabriel smiled and walked toward John, pulling the standing IV with him. He rested a hand on John's shoulder and shook him gently, but John continued to sleep. "I guess you spent most of the night looking after me, didn't you. You must be exhausted. I'm going to see if I can find a doctor or something, but I'll be back."
Gabriel disentangled himself from the monitors and cords that held him bound, laying the jumble of cords on the bed. The last thing he removed was the IV. Something told him that he no longer needed it, and when he removed it from his arm he hardly felt anything at all. With one final smile at his husband he opened the door to his room and stepped out into the hallway.
The hospital appeared mostly deserted, all except for a doctor standing at the end of the hallway, reading a chart as he leaned against the wall. Gabriel was sure that he recognized the man from somewhere, from his dark skin to his greying hair, but from as far away as he was he couldn't be sure. There was something about the doctor that drew him forward, and he put the thought of John and the hospital room out of his mind as he started down the hallway.
As Gabriel approached him the doctor turned away and began walking down an intersecting hallway. Gabriel quickened his pace until he turned the corner and saw the doctor standing at a door that marked the entrance to a stairwell. The doctor turned before opening the door and smiled at Gabriel, stopping him in his tracks. Gabriel was quite familiar with the doctor's face now that he had a good look at it, as any South African would be. Nelson Mandela met his eyes briefly before nodding toward the door and stepping through it. Gabriel only hesitated for a moment before he found his legs moving again, running toward the door at full speed.
Gabriel reached the door just as it closed again, and then hit the bar to open it with all the weight of his body, barreling through and into the stairwell. There was the sound of another door closing above him, and he looked up and saw the door labeled roof access. Wherever Mr. Mandela was asking him to go, Gabriel intended to follow, and after letting the door close behind him he started up the stairs toward the roof.
The world seemed to slow down the moment Gabriel reached the roof access and he laid his hand on the handle. His breathing slowed and he could hear his heart pounding in his chest. He was suddenly filled with thoughts of John and the life they had lived together.
Nelson Mandela had opened the door of opportunity for many South Africans, and Gabriel had been no exception. He and John had been friends even during Apartheid when they were both young men, but once the old system had crumbled they found a new freedom to explore a deeper side of their humanity that had been previously held back from them. Gabriel and John had been able to admit their feelings for each other and then made the decision to make a life together.
The first decade after Apartheid had been difficult, but through their love for each other he and John had managed to make it by holding onto the hope that Mandela had given the people. John had gone on to form a successful construction company, while Gabriel had started a restaurant which had a great ten year run before he decided to sell it. All of that came about from the freedom that had been granted by the change in the political climate of the country.
But with all their successes, nothing had prepared them for Mandela's decline in health and eventual death, and that reality struck home as Gabriel continued to let his hand rest on the door handle. Gabriel was sure that it had been Mandela in the doctor's uniform, but he knew that was impossible. Mandela was dead, and there was no way . . .
The realization hit Gabriel suddenly and he felt weak in his knees. He clung to the door handle for support before turning to glance back at the stairwell. What he saw instead was empty white space that seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions, but in the depths of the white void he could hear the sound of the hospital monitors and the sound of John's voice crying in anguish. Gabriel was dead, he knew that now, and there was only one door left for him to take.
He gathered his courage and turned back toward the door, hoping that he would find answers on the other side. As the door opened Gabriel was enveloped in white light, and he raised his hand to his eyes to shield them as he took an involuntary step forward. His foot sunk into sand and he looked down in surprise to see that the hospital gown had disappeared and he was wearing a pair of red swimming trunks instead. His bare feet were sunk an inch into a sandy beach and he could hear the sound of waves in the distance. The smell of the Atlantic Ocean filled his nostrils as he glanced back up to see the setting sun slide behind a distant cloud over the ocean waters.
John was sitting in a beach chair next to an empty one, his white skin bronzed by long hours in the sun. He looked as he had when in his early twenties, with a sculpted body hidden under sea-green trunks and long, blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail. His eyes were closed and his hands lay palm down in his lap. Gabriel was so used to seeing the streaks of grey in John's hair and the pot belly he had acquired over the years, and it made him smile to see the love of his life as he had been decades before. He walked slowly toward John and then stopped several feet away. "What am I doing here?"
"Gabe," John said as he turned toward Gabriel and smiled. He patted the open chair next to him. "I'm glad you found your way to me."
Gabriel hesitated before sitting in the chair and staring out at the ocean. "John, none of this makes any sense. What am I doing here?"
"Isn't that a question we all like to ask?" John asked with a chuckle. "It seems like we never get tired of it. Sometimes it's a question of 'what', sometimes it’s a question of 'why' or 'how', but in the end we all want to know the same thing, don't we? We want to know what the point is, or the point was, or what the point will be."
Gabriel considered the response for a moment before he asked with a sigh, "Am I dead?"
"In a manner of speaking," John replied as his smile faltered. "You've been taught for much of your life to view death as a state, rather than as a transition. You died, surely, but are you dead?" He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. "Now that's a question not even I have the answer to."
"And who are you?" Gabriel asked, "Some kind of angel?"
"I've been called worse," John replied as his grin returned.
"What am I doing here?" Gabriel asked again.
John laughed as he met Gabriel's eyes. "We've come full circle, I see."
"I mean, why am I on this beach?" Gabriel asked as he gestured out to the sand. "I remember this beach, but you're not John even though you look like he once did. We came here together, but that was many years ago."
"Yes, when you were both young men," John said with a solemn nod. "It was one of your happiest memories. I suppose that's why you're here. You're the one who created this place with your subconscious mind. I'm not surprised you picked a scene as beautiful as this."
"I created this?" Gabriel gasped, glancing around at the scene again and taking in the vivid detail of his surroundings. "How?"
"Welcome to my realm, Gabriel," John said with a bow of his head. "This is what has sometimes been called 'white space'. It's a plane of existence beyond the realm of the physical world you came from. Only people without physical bodies can come here, though some like me can switch between places."
"So this is like heaven?" Gabriel asked.
"It's been called worse," John replied with a shrug. "To some it is hell."
Gabriel shook his head. "How can it be both?"
"There's a simple answer to that, really," John replied. "Sit with me a moment and I'll explain as best I can, unless you'd prefer we go somewhere else."
"No, this will be fine," Gabriel said with a smile as he leaned back in the beach chair. "Please, explain everything you can."
"You followed me out of that stairwell because you thought I was someone else," John began. "Do you remember who you saw?"
"Nelson Mandela," Gabriel confirmed. "He was my role model when I was young. He had so much presence and influence, and he fought for human rights. I always wanted to be just like him."
"So you'd follow him anywhere?" John asked with a knowing smile.
"In an instant," Gabriel replied, matching John's expression.
"That's why I took on his image. I had to get you out of that hospital. I had to get you through that first door and into white space," John explained.
"Why?" Gabriel asked. "Because I died? What about John, and our friends?"
"That's how ghosts are made, Gabriel," John replied with a frown. "People who stay behind and refuse to leave. I didn't want that to happen to you. I don't want that to happen to anyone."
"Why?" Gabriel asked. "Why do you care so much about what happens to me?"
John paused as he stared out at the sunset for a moment, and Gabriel found his eyes drawn to the same image. They stayed like that for several moments in silence, though the silence was not uncomfortable to Gabriel. "Why do you think you chose this place?" John asked, drawing Gabriel's thoughts away from the sunset.
"This is where John and I celebrated the end of Apartheid," Gabriel answered quietly. "This is where he told me that he loved me. It was the first time I thought it was possible for us to be together. It was difficult for white and black people to be together at the time, because of the politics, and it was even more difficult because we were gay."
"So you chose it because it was the first place that truly filled you with hope," John surmised. "I'm in the business of giving hope. This was the place that helped you put faith in your future. I'm in the business of rewarding faith. This was the place where you truly felt loved. I'm in the business of love, and that is perhaps the most important of all."
"Are you, God?" Gabriel asked, glancing at John out of the corner of his eye.
John chuckled and replied, "I've been called worse."
"You sound like you've done this before," Gabriel observed with a slight smile.
"More times than there are stars in the sky," John replied, sighing. "I've been around for a long time, Gabriel. There are things I've seen and things I've done that humans have yet to begin dreaming about."
"So you're not human?" Gabriel asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I was once," John replied solemnly. "I've been many things, but this isn't really about me." He turned to Gabriel with a twinkle in his eyes and his grin quickly returned. "This is about you, and what you're going to do next."
"I want to go back to John and tell him that I'm all right." Gabriel said.
"Gabriel." John chuckled dryly. "You know that isn't how this works."
"Why not?" Gabriel asked. "I thought I could do anything here."
"Yes, here," John replied. "Going there is something different altogether. It isn't easily done, and requires a great deal of experience to be able to retain your memory once you're there." He reached out and laid a hand on the arm of Gabriel's chair. "Don't worry about John, Gabriel. He'll find his way here eventually, and then you can tell him all about this place yourself."
"But what is he going to do without me?" Gabriel asked, shaking his head.
"He'll live as well as he can," John answered as he withdrew his hand from the arm of the chair. "He'll seek peace and happiness in a world of confusion. Isn't that what life has always been about?"
Gabriel nodded slowly and closed his eyes, letting the ocean breeze move across him. "So what do I do now?"
"Whatever you want to," John said with a shrug. "If you want to leave, I won't stop you from learning how."
"You came and found me in the Hospital," Gabriel said as he opened his eyes to look back at John. "How come you can leave? If you can do anything here then why would you come to Earth? Why would you want to leave this place?"
John smirked at something internal and replied, "No matter how great paradise is, it's always better when it's shared with others. At least, that's how I've always seen things. If you really want to leave, all it takes is learning the rules."
"So this is paradise?" Gabriel asked.
"For some it's hell. For some it's purgatory," John said with a shrug. "This place is an extension of the mind of the universe, and what our minds create it becomes. Some people believe they have to torture themselves for past wrongs. Some people are afraid to forgive themselves, even though there is nothing they can do to change the past."
"I have no regrets, except that I left John behind," Gabriel said with a sigh. "I lived a good life, and we were happy together."
"That explains why you're drawn to memories of love and not memories of hate." John chuckled and pushed his way out of the beach chair so that he stood in the sand and turned to face Gabriel. "Gabriel, you have a choice to make. Many people spend their lives living in the past, or worrying about the future, but once you're here, all possibilities are open to you. Live for you. You are the god of your own destiny."
"So you're not god?" Gabriel asked with a wry smile.
"I've definitely been called worse," John said with a loud laugh. He smiled down at Gabriel and spread his arms out wide, gesturing at the beach and the world around him. Gabriel's eyes widened as he noticed for the first time the scars in the palms of John's hands, and the long scar along his side. They hadn't been there before, but they were now very apparent. "I am everyone, Gabriel, and yet I am no one. I was revered as the most holy of men, a prophet; a god. I was cast down to Earth and took upon all the sins of men and became the lowest of all of you to understand all of you, in an effort that I may teach you to escape yourselves."
"And that's what this is all about?" Gabriel asked.
"This is about you, Gabriel," John replied. "This is also about everyone. Forgive yourself and allow your truth to flow freely, and then you will know peace, and by that peace you will create harmony with all others whose path crosses your own."
Gabriel nodded slowly as he looked down to see the gruesome scars in John's feet where something had once impaled them, wondering at the painful path the man had taken to acquire them. "So you're going to leave me to my own devices? To walk my own path?"
"I can't make decisions for you, Gabriel," John said with a chuckle. "You'll have to decide if it's something you want. You're in a sea of possibility, and you can use it as you will. I can only serve as a guide to bring you here. I can only show you the path that I have taken." With that John turned and started walking away.
When John had only gone a few feet Gabriel said quietly. "You're not anything like what I expected. I expected to be chastised for my sins and told that I'd be condemned for decisions I have made."
"People took my words and heard what they wanted to hear," John replied with a sad smile. "They bent them to their will and used them to coerce others. I can only hope that when people arrive they will be able to accept the truth for what it is."
"And what is the truth?" Gabriel asked.
John grinned before he turned and started away again, and though he was facing the opposite direction Gabriel could hear John's words easily as they were carried on the ocean breeze toward him. "That we are all as free as we choose to be," He said as he paused at the edge of the ocean as the sun began to disappear beneath the horizon. "Everyone can choose whether their life is heaven or hell. The power is in your hands, Gabriel. What will you do with it?"
This story, while written before his unexpected death, is dedicated now to David Pye. He was an advocate for equality, a champion of human rights, and a man I was lucky enough to call friend. While I did not know David for long, or even as well as I would have liked, there are few people I have met who I could honestly say I could find no fault in them. May whatever truth you held to guide you along your path. Rest well. Be well. Amen.