Chapter 12 - The Last Lesson:
Eddie finally is able to uncover one of the great mysteries of his life. The child he went to rescue from the burning tent in the Philippines did exist. Her name was Tala and she is the fifth person Eddie meets in Heaven. Tala seems mature, almost serene beyond her years, yet she retains her childlike innocence and untarnished sense of faith: this is the paradox of Heaven. Tala tells Eddie that because of him, she did die that day in the burning tent. She speaks in a matter-of-fact way, not betraying any anger, sadness, or accusation. She describes how her mother sent her to the tent to hide from the soldiers but their rage was so immense that no part of the village was safe. Eddie, overcome with horror and guilt, drops to his knees and wails. Tala watches him until he stops crying. Then, she calmly hands him a stone and asks him to wash her scarred back. Eddie complies and as he runs the stone over her scars and burns, they vanish.
Then, Tala asks Eddie why he was so sad on Earth. Eddie tells her it was because he accomplished nothing, but this response confuses Tala. She tells Eddie that he accomplished a great deal: he kept kids safe on the rides and he made them smile. Ruby Pier was “where [he was] supposed to be," she says, addressing him as "Eddie Main-ten-ance” (191).
Eddie asks Tala if saved that little girl in the amusement park from being crushed. Tala smiles and informs Eddie that he pushed her out of the way just in time. Eddie protests, wondering how he could have pushed her when he felt her hands in his right before he died. Tala giggles and reveals to Eddie that the hands he felt were her own - Tala was bringing him to Heaven. Eddie feels a sudden rush of relief wash over him. The river water splashes around him, baptizing his body and his soul. Eddie can now feel the happiness he brought to so many families. The pain and burden he carried with him all his life finally disappears. His soul feels light, lifted high above his earthly prisons and set free by his metaphysical catharsis. The children vanish and all he can see is Marguerite, wearing a yellow dress and sitting in a white cart atop a Ferris Wheel, beckoning him with open arms. Finally, “the voices [meld] into a single word from God: Home” (191).
Life at Ruby Pier slowly goes back to normal. The park re-opens three days after Eddie's death. Eddie’s assistant, Dominguez, is promoted to Eddie’s old position. He finally packs up Eddie’s things and stores them with the rest of the park’s memorabilia. We learn that the key that led to the ruptured cable on Freddy's Free Fall belonged to Nicky, Ruby's great-grandson. The novel ends with the description of young Annie or Amy, the girl whom Eddie saved at the park. When she dies, one of the five people who will help her to make sense of her life will be "a whiskered old man, with a linen cap and a crooked nose.... [waiting] to share his part of the secret of Heaven: that each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one" (196).
In these final chapters, all of the mysteries of Eddie's earthly life are revealed so that he can finally make his way into Heaven unencumbered. His journey has already forced him to re-examine one of the great tragedies of his life: the injury he sustained in the Philippines while he and his platoon were torching a village. Since learning that it was his own Captain who shot him, Eddie has started to see the incident through a lens of sacrifice and loyalty, instead of violence and injustice. Now, his old wounds are ripped open once again with the knowledge that there was, indeed, a child inside the burning tent. Because Eddie lived, that little girl, Tala, died.
Even though he is not certain of her existence until the moment he meets Tala in Heaven, there is a lingering guilt throughout the novel whenever Eddie revisits that crucial moment. When he is lying in the V.A. hospital after returning from war, he is "consumed by the desire to run away" (102). Eddie has been reunited with his loved ones, but the burden of his experience stays with him forever. It even taints his relationship with Marguerite. He has recurring dreams of "wandering through the flames in the Philippines on his last night of war," leaving a "general darkness" hanging over his life. "Even is happy moments feel encased, like holes jabbed in a hard sheet of ice" (118-119). Through these vivid descriptions, Albom gives the reader a glimpse into Eddie's psyche and the pangs of latent guilt eating away at his soul - without explicitly revealing the reason. Eddie does not have nightmares about killing enemy soldiers, but rather, his subconscious is always reminding him that he may have been responsible for the death of a child.
The chronic pain in his knee plagues Eddie, a constant reminder of that night in the fire. It is perhaps also representative of a truth that Eddie in his mortal form was not yet able to face. Furthermore, Eddie's contradictory relationship with children throughout his life could also be an indicator of this unresolved guilt. He is a protector of children at Ruby Pier, but he ruins his chances of having his own by spending the adoption money at the racetrack. The fight he has with Marguerite that same night indirectly leads to her car accident (ironically enough, two children are directly to blame). As a result, they never end up having a child. However, the Polaroid that represents one of Eddie's happiest memories is from his 38th birthday when Marguerite organized several children to make a cake for him. Here, Albom underlines the connection between the physical and the emotional wounds of war. The injury that changed the course of Eddie's life is directly connected to the last burden he needs to shed before his soul can enter Heaven.
Meanwhile, Tala does not blame Eddie for her death. Instead, her demeanor is consistent with Eddie's other visitors, all of whom display a serene acceptance of past injustices. Unlike the other people that Eddie has met, though, Tala still has the innocence of a child because she was so young when she died. Accordingly, her version of Heaven reflects the dreams and desires of a young girl: children playing happily in the water in a beautiful, natural setting. By personifying Tala and her Heaven in this way, Albom makes a connection between Tala and Amy or Annie, the girl that Eddie gave his life to save. In Heaven, Tala's death leads to the preservation of innocence. On earth, Eddie achieves the same result by saving Amy or Annie's life. Tala shows Eddie that as a protector of children at Ruby Pier, he was a sort of father; Like Eddie's own father, he died trying to protect those who were weaker than him. In his fifth lesson, Eddie is finally able to reconcile with the one child he was not able to protect. When Tala asks him to wash her, he says, "I never had children" (190). However, she shows him how to run the stone over her skin. In doing so, Eddie takes away Tala's scars and pain - just like a good parent hopes to do.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare ascribes the human fear of death to our innate apprehension about the unknown. He writes that human beings "grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country from whose bourn. No traveler returns, puzzles the will. And makes us rather bear those ills we have" (Shakespeare, trans. 1972, 3.1.80-81). Many centuries later, Albom offers a vivid description of the afterlife as a way to allow his readers to feel something besides fear in connection with death. Furthermore, Albom wrote The Five People You Meet in Heaven as a tribute to his own Uncle Eddie, who passed away believing that his life was not worth anything. Because of this, it is likely that the process of writing this novel was therapeutic to Albom, who was able to visualize a warm and happy afterlife in which his uncle could shed his earthly burdens and achieve true, eternal bliss. Albom even writes in the dedication, "the version [of Heaven] represented here is only a guess, a wish in some ways, that my uncle, and others like him -- people who felt unimportant here on earth -- realize, finally, how much they mattered and how they were loved."