The people we meet in heaven

By Billie Johnson

Summer is a great time to catch up with friends, but it can also be impossible with my tendency to pack something into every minute. Recently, a friend and I were trying to catch up before school started, but I had this and she had that. I had a bike ride. She had a book club. I wish I wanted to join a book club. It sounds so intellectual. Challenging. Prestigious. But I don’t. I love stimulating discussions surrounding books, though.

Years ago when my former partner was in a book club, she’d grumble that they rarely talked about the book. Instead they would talk about their husbands, kids and daily lives while sipping wine and snacking on exotic-for-Idaho cheeses. She enjoyed the camaraderie but really wanted to discuss characters and themes. Often she’d tell me about the books, and we would discuss them. One of my favorite books I’ve never read is “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.”

From Wikipedia, “‘The Five People You Meet in Heaven’ is the story of Eddie, a wounded war veteran who lives what he believes is an uninspired and lonely life fixing rides at a seaside amusement park. On his 83rd birthday, Eddie is killed while trying to save a little girl from a falling ride. He awakes in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a location but a place in which your life is explained to you by five people who were in, who affected, or were affected by, your life.”

The premise in the book is that they aren’t family members or people in Eddie’s everyday life but rather people he encountered for a short term. I love exploring this idea. Who might my five people be?

The first person I think of is a former scholarship administrator at Idaho State. I was a fortunate rarity awarded enough scholarships to cover tuition, room and board. My mom didn’t like her dorm experience at the University of Wisconsin, however, and her accounts of cold showers, girl drama and raucous parties led me to turn down the room and board scholarship and live at home. That was one of the worst decisions of my life.

I went from star athlete and big fish on the high school campus to knowing no one and not involved in anything. I was removed from student life and with mostly older males in my chemistry, physics, calculus and engineering classes, I struggled to find a peer group. Near the end of that semester, my mom found out I was gay, and my world turned further upside down. Her first words included “disgusted, humiliated and embarrassed,” and my home became an emotional minefield. I needed refuge.

I was working at a department store, but couldn’t afford to move out. My course load required copious time to study, and I yearned for the traditional social circles of a college student. My birthday and the holidays were on the horizon, and I wanted to be where I wasn’t surrounded by this unfamiliar shroud of disappointment.

Since Mom saved every report card, award certificate and scholarship letter and hadn’t thrown them away in a fit of rage (yet), I knew exactly where to look. I dug up the room and board letter and called the lady whose name was at the bottom. I stuttered through introducing myself, explained that I had turned down the scholarship and that I regretted not getting the on-campus experience. I point blank asked if she would consider reinstating the award. I don’t remember how the conversation went — if she said yes right away or if she had to get back to me — but she reinstated my scholarship, and I moved into the dorms the second semester of my freshman year.

That scholarship required a 3.5 GPA, and with my first semester turmoil, I only got a 3.2. I was placed on probation immediately and needed straight A’s my second semester. Mid-way through after getting a history test back with a “C”, I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I left class crying and went right to the scholarship angel’s office to thank her for giving me the opportunity. Without my asking, she offered another round of probation if I took a summer class. I enrolled and got an “A,” and my GPA never dipped below a 3.5 after that.

The direction of my life changed dramatically because of this woman’s compassion. I met lifelong friends in the dorms. I walked on the volleyball team. I graduated with no student loan debt as the College of Engineering’s Outstanding Student — all because of her simple kindness. I imagine that the people we meet in heaven are the people we meet on earth who were simply kind. I hope so.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree from Idaho State University. She works as an engineer, is an avid community volunteer, and maintains a blog about her adventures in a cow suit at www.CowSuit