Now, I know better. At first, I didn't understand what had happened. I remembered the car spinning uncontrollably, the view out the window blurry until the tree loomed in the night. There had been a horrible crunching noise, like walking on packed snow, except much louder. My life did not flash before my eyes in what I now know were the last few seconds of my life. There was the spinning, the blur, the crunch -- and then black. Not the kind of blackness that appears when you close your eyes -- no, even then little speckles, little neon clouds appear.
This darkness was consuming. It was absolute. For a second I felt absolute terror. I remember wondering if this was what it was like to be in a coma, or if the glass from my shattered windscreen had blinded me. In my finitely human mind, I didn't consider that I might be dead. Then I heard a voice. It seemed the voice came out of nowhere, or at least from some unidentifiable place in the blackness. It evoked in me the strangest sensation: in all my earthly life, I knew I'd never heard that voice before. Yet, a part of me responded to it in a way I didn't understand.
The first thing the voice -- the being -- told me was that I had just died. That, to put it mildly, was a shock. A moment passed as the being gave me time to register this fact. Too stunned to even feel disbelief, I couldn't seem to reply. In truth, what could I have said? There is nothing on earth to prepare someone for that knowledge. The next thing the voice told me was that I owed a debt to God. It did not say this cruelly, or even judgementally; rather, it spoke objectively, with no trace of human emotion clouding its delivery. It was difficult -- indeed, impossible -- to discern anything about the being. I couldn't see it, couldn't touch it -- I had no idea where it was. All I could do was listen as it explained what would become of me.
Throughout my somewhat short life, the being said, I had offended and even hurt God on many occasions. I was not unique in this aspect; in fact, such was the case for most who had ever dwelt on the earth. A lucky, selfless few spent their lives pleasing God, and at death they were free. They owed nothing. I, however, did, and the debt for my sometimes sinful life had to be repaid. The only question was how. The second I had that thought, I felt an enormous shift come over my body -- or soul, whatever I was made of. There was a brief falling sensation, like descending the first big dip of a roller coaster. The scene in front of me flicked from the void of blackness to an unfamiliar scene.
I was watching events in suspended animation, in what seemed to be a hospital delivery room. My confusion mounted. 'Why am I here?' I asked, directing my question to the being's presence somewhere beside me. I looked at the doctors in their green garb, their bodies inclined towards a woman on a bed, frozen in a picture of agony. The baby the doctors were lifting from her body had just been about to take its first breath. I tried to see what the scene had to do with me, but I could make no connection with any of the room's occupants. The last time I'd been in a place like this was during my own birth. 'Do I know these people?'
'No,' the being replied, tonelessly. 'You've never met any of them. But. some will become very familiar to you.'
'How can they?' I asked. 'You've just told me - I'm dead.'
Somehow, with the mental equivalent of a hand gesture, the being drew my attention towards the newborn, framed by the circle of doctors. It was then that I learned how my debt was to be repaid.
'This,' it said, 'is your charge.'
'My . . . charge?' I didn't understand.
'You know you have a debt to repay to God,' I was told. 'This is how. This child has just been born, as you have just died. On birth, every child is appointed a guardian, one of those who owe God.' Something changed in the voice then, a shift so small I only just noticed. Its tone changed, softened; disembodied and ethereal as it was, it somehow became more human. I looked at the child - a girl - as I felt being do the same. 'You must look after this child every moment of her life. Before her birth, the child was tied to her mother: she found all the protection she needed in her womb. Now, that is your responsibility. You will not always be able to protect her, but you must never stop offering her your guidance, your comfort, all the days of her life. Your eternal presence alone is usually enough.'
Looking back, I wonder if the option was there to refuse. That's not to say I wanted to, but perhaps some have. Regardless, the only feeling I distinctly remember was of great surprise. Never in my life had I thought this was what happened after death. The question that had plagued mankind had been answered for me - but there was no one to tell. The only thing left to do was accept.
I looked at the child, frozen under the gaze of assorted doctors, the being, and me. I directed my thought towards the being. For some reason, I needed no deliberation. 'Yes.' At that, the scene in front of me unfroze. The baby breathed, and with her breath came her first cries. Her mother simultaneously groaned and sighed in relief, a sigh echoed around her by the doctors. The baby's life had begun.
In retrospect, I wonder why, at that moment, I didn't feel a surge of panic. What did I know about being a guardian? I'd never looked after a child while I was alive, yet here I was, ready to protect this tiny being for the rest of her natural life -- however long that might be. Yet I found an odd acceptance of my new duty -- perhaps because I didn't have anything else. My own life had ended.
Coming out of my reverie, I realized the being was still beside me. I felt it watch with me as the little girl was wrapped in a blanket and given to her smiling mother. Strangely, there seemed to be a sense of sadness emanating from the being's presence, something barely tangible but at the same time undeniably present. It was odd given its earlier detachment.
'Is it hard?' I asked as the mother cuddled her child for the first time. 'Is it hard to be a guardian?'
'Harder than anything you've ever done,' the being replied. 'No matter how long she lives, it is always hard. But it must be done.' The being's voice changed again, swelling suddenly with emotion. 'You will come to care very much for that child. No one will ever know her in the way that you will because you will always be with her.' I was almost sure I felt the being sigh inwardly. 'Always, until the end of her life. Then you will show her what to do. as I have shown you.'
It was only then that I realized who the being was, why I had instinctively known its voice. Elated, I felt my mind reel with a thousand questions. But it was too late. As soon as the revelation had come, the being had gone. For a moment I felt a crushing sadness that I would never know him or her -- someone who'd been there for me through every second of my life. But there wasn't time to dwell. Looking at the yawning baby a few feet away from me, I felt the first stirrings of affection. It had been a long time since I'd felt such a clear sense of purpose. Inwardly, I promised I would do for her what the being, the presence who'd just left, had done for me.