Stories of Imaginary Places

Issue 3: Summer 2004


 In this issue:

The World Within the Pane

by Matt McHugh

I was five years old when I discovered another world. It was the day my parents told me my mother had cancer. They sat down on the living room couch; I took my accustomed spot on the carpet—and they explained as best as they could that mommy was sick. It didn't mean much to me at the time. To me, "being sick" was about someone bringing you meals in bed, reading to you, giving you bad-tasting medicine, and sometimes getting a special toy to cheer you up. Any pain was a like a dream you woke from and couldn't quite remember.

But I could hear the gravity in my parents' voices and saw fear in my mother's eyes, which disturbed me in ways I am still struggling to comprehend. After the talk was over, on some level I understood that an escape into TV was inappropriate, so I sat on the floor and laid my head on our round, antique coffee table. To preserve the leather-inlaid top, the table was covered by a pane of glass. Cut to a perfect-fitting circle, the glass was thicker than my finger, and had a smooth, green-polished edge with small bevels at the corners. Somehow, as I rested my head on the table, my eye lined up with the edge. It caught my interest, so I closed the other eye and squinted to see in.

Have you ever been inside a hall of mirrors, between two parallel mirrors where the counter-reflections create an endless series of images that recedes into infinity. The same basic effect happens if you look closely into the edge of a thick piece of glass. A certain amount of light enters the glass, bounces back-and-forth between the two interior surfaces of the pane, and creates the infinity reflection illusion. I learned all this later in life; at the time, I quite simply thought I was seeing into another world. It was an unearthly, crystalline paradise made of a geometric lattice of emerald light that rose and fell and extended in all directions further than I could even imagine seeing. Every tiny movement of my eye brought out a different play of the light, revealing a wondrous complexity to this new universe's transfixing perfection. I pulled back from it several times, and from a distance it was the same smudgy piece of glass laying flat on old coffee table. But when I lined my eye up again, the other world was there every time, exactly as I remembered, but more enthralling in its kaleidoscopic beauty the longer I looked.

It might have ended there. I got up bursting to drag mom and dad into the living room to show them what I'd seen. If they had cooed with patronizing appreciation, or if my father had given me a tediously demystifying explanation of the optics involved, I might have lost interest in my discovery. However, when I found them in the kitchen, they were sitting across from each other, silently holding hands. I started to speak and they looked up; there was no mistaking they had both been crying. I stopped in my tracks and backed out of the room, shaken to the core of my five-year old soul. I spent the next three or so hours mostly staring into that world within the glass until they finally noticed me and sent me to bed.

From then on, everything changed. You see, I wasn't yet of school age and we lived in a semi-rural area at a time when things such as day-care, pre-school, play dates, and even kindergarten were fairly alien concepts. In my life to that point, when my father was off at work, my mother was my sole caretaker, teacher, confidant, friend, playmate, and the source of all authority and affection. Sure, I saw other kids my age at the occasional church gathering, as well as cousins and assorted relatives at holidays—but my day-to-day world was mostly me and mom. Even in retrospect, I can't sort out what about mom's behavior was worry or depression or pain or fatigue. All I know is that she had less and less attention and patience for me. I don't mean to slander her. She was never once harsh or neglectful, but she grew more distant every day, and she fed and clothed and spent time with me as one trying not to let on that she saw ghosts in the corner of her eye at every turn. She withdrew from me, and I did the same to her, thinking on some child's level that I was doing the right thing for the situation.

Soon, there were the concrete manifestations of illness. Nausea, lack of appetite, loss of weight, loss of hair, dry skin, brittle nails, loose teeth, bad breath. She was more and more not around, and not mom. She spent time away at the hospital here and there. There was an efficient, affection-less nurse who helped feed and bathe me, and a parade of solemn visitors who brought me new toys. I understood that I was being called on to "be brave," and part of that was social courtesy to all these strangers—but whenever I had the opportunity to be alone, and there were many, I squinted into the edge of the coffee table glass and spent every minute I could dreaming in that world of infinite light.

One day, my father actually noticed me, face pressed down on the coffee table peering in for God knows how long. When he asked me what I was doing, I thought about telling him, but chose not to give away the one thing that seemed to still belong to me. So I said, "Nothing."

"Come sit here with me for a minute," he said. I took a seat on the couch by his side. "Do you know what heaven is?" he asked.

"Yes. They told us about it Sunday school," I replied.

"That's good," he said, not seeming to really hear me. "Heaven is a place that is perfect. Beautiful. Nothing changes in heaven. It's a place of light and peace, and no one suffers there. There's no pain, no sickness, nobody gets old, or sad or lonely ever again. Doesn't that sound good?"

"Yes," I knew I had to say.

"You know, mommy... mommy... mommy is going to go ... to go heaven soon." Tears streamed down his face. Mine too. "But she'll still be with us. She'll live forever, in our hearts, and all around us. Do you understand?"

"Yes. Mommy will always be with us."

"That's right. That's right, my brave boy. She'll won't be far away, because heaven isn't some place up in the clouds. It exists right here, right now. And if we believe, we'll be able to see her again someday. We'll be able to see heaven."

Something clicked, and suddenly so many things that had been drifting in my little mind for months locked into place. And at that moment, it seemed more true, more right than anything I have ever thought or felt in my life before or since.

"She'll be here, daddy!" I sprang up and cried. "Here in the glass!" I pointed to the table.

My father wiped his eyes. "What?"

"She'll be here! Her soul will go here, inside this glass. There's a whole world in there, daddy! And it's beautiful and perfect like heaven." I grabbed his hand and tried to drag him to see. "Look. Look inside the glass and you can see heaven where mommy will go! Come see where mommy will live forever right here on our coffee table."

As I tugged on my father's hand, it slipped from my grasp. When I turned to look back at him, he came at me. This man who had never once before touched me in anger grabbed my shoulders in vice-like claws and shook me. His face, with an almost animal fury, lurched at mine and roared.


I rattled in his grip as he shook me hard. He released me and I fell back on the floor. He screamed at me, savage and monstrous, and I was terrified. In the next instant, he drained of all rage and color. He stared blankly at me for a few seconds, then his face twisted into a grimace I now know was shame, but at the time, it just frightened me more and I cried and shrank away. He reached out a trembling hand, all that shame willing it forth in a desperate need of forgiveness. I wailed and pleaded for him not to hurt me again. His hand fell and we both sat apart, crumpled on the floor, and wept till there was nothing left.

A few days later, while my father was at work, the nurse was at the house to take care of me and my mother. She plunked me down in front of the TV, switched on cartoons, and ordered me to watch them while she went out for a few minutes. My mother was sleeping, she said, and I was not to disturb her for any reason. Just sit and watch cartoons like a good boy. Once I heard her car go down the street, I shut off the TV.

I went upstairs, to my mother's room. She was dozing, but looked up when I creaked the door open. She tried to smile, waved me to come to her. She could barely speak as she stroked my hand with her withered fingers. I held her wrist and pulled.

"Mommy, come here. I want to show you something," I said.

She made a rasping breath, as if to protest, but I said again, "Please mommy. I want you to see something."

Slowly, she lifted the covers, then struggled to swing her legs over the bed. I took her other hand and helped her to stand. I led her and she shuffled forward like a wraith. Step by step, I guided her down the stairs as she wheezed and groaned. I took her to the living room, helped her kneel by the coffee table. I touched her sunken cheek and nudged her face down toward the glass.

"Look, mommy," I said. "Look inside. Look how beautiful it is."

She did. She lowered her eye and lined it up with the green, beveled edge just as I was doing. I looked inside at that miraculous world with endless horizons of light and tried to describe it to her. I'm not sure what I said, but I have since found many images that remind me of the splendor I saw. The play of leaf and branch shadows in a well-tended orchard. Prismatic sunbeams slanting through the vaults of a cathedral colonnade. The formation of ice crystals under a microscope. The colored striations of a human iris studied from inches. Each echoes a fragment of the magnificence I beheld in that impossible-but-real landscape within the pane.

When I paused in my breathless excitement of finally getting to share my great discovery, my mother's face was utterly still, the moisture of her last breath evaporating from the glass.

The nurse found us like that, and moved my mother to the couch. At the funeral, my father held my hand, but the contact seemed too much for either of us to bear for more than a minute or two. We never recovered. For the next 18 years, he fed, sheltered, and clothed me—but we exchanged not a meaningful word between us. He taught me to drive, dutifully paid for college, and read a sentimental Irish poem at my wedding. We parted with a handshake, like business associates. He died alone in the house.

I have children of my own now, and I tell them to stop their foolishness and come back to reality as much as any parent—but I hope, in my heart, I give them a little extra leeway to see things I can not. I still pause whenever I glimpse the edge of a thick pane of glass in a store or restaurant or table top, though I have never since put my eye to one. The memory, however, still haunts me. I think of all the panes of glass all over the world—something as close to invisible as the science of man has ever devised—with the edge of each a portal into a dimension that exists unseen all around us. Each time I see my own ghostly reflection in a window, a hundred times a day, I envision my mother and my father living forever, free from pain and sadness, in that luminous infinity.

If there is a better image of heaven, I have yet to find it.

Matt McHugh grew up in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, currently calls New Jersey home. Some of his work is available online at