AUGUST 30, 2002. I was in a church for the first time in forever. The church where I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The church where my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The church where my sister was married. The church where I almost got married.
(My father had said: Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy.
Question: How will I get through it?
Friends and family asked: How did you get through it?
Answer: I don’t know.)
It had been half a lifetime since I’d experienced this vantage point. Standing on the altar, looking down at a church filled with somber, expectant faces. All those years as an altar boy, hearing the words and receiving the ritual on its austere terms, the practiced movements and mannerisms that sought to convey the meaning—and purpose—of existence in sixty minutes or less. Carefully studying the priest who presided over the congregation, routinely looking up at those stained glass images that looked down at us and filled the room with an inexpressible awe and approbation.
Periodically I would be called upon to serve at a wedding and less frequently, at a funeral. Weddings were preferable for both obvious and selfish reasons: happy events, pretty women and typically a few extra dollars for my time. The funerals were, in practically every sense, contradictory occasions. I had only been to one funeral before. At age ten I’d been old enough to remember it. I mostly recalled how surreal it was to see my grandmother in an open casket, and the way my mother, her siblings, and their father wept, and not being able to console them or fully grasp the depth of my own sorrow.
“Listen to the words,” my father told me, sensing my ambivalence before I prepared for my first funeral mass. “It is actually a very beautiful service.” I listened to him, and I listened to the words. I listened to everything, then. The passages and prayers—some familiar, some not—were carefully chosen, and went a considerable way toward impressing upon my adolescent mind how communal, and inevitable, this rite of passage was for everyone who drew breath. Someday each of us will watch a loved one die, and eventually all of us will pass on from here to there. That is where the meaning of the words, and whether or not you believed them, came into play. I believed the words; I believed everything, then.
Who knows? I don’t, but neither do you. No one can say except for the vulnerable ones who say it, who need to believe it in order to grant order or at least coherence to things that are, by any other measure, incomprehensible. Whether one is grappling with the death of a parent or contemplating the plight of impoverished people, there exists—in God—an easy, irresistible answer that removes doubt and eradicates responsibility (ours, His). When one is young, or weak, or wanting, the concept of God is less a matter of belief than an enchanting vindication or our inability—or unwillingness—to confront our own fates.
Whether it’s a relationship, a job or a religion, as soon as your participation seems pointless, or painful, or if it ceases to inspire you, it’s time to look around, or better yet, inside, for other options. Some people need an answer; some people can never stop asking questions.
The worst moments, of course, occur in the waiting room. It’s unconscionable the way families are obliged to receive the news, good or bad, in front of each other: that negative diagnosis a public spectacle hardly tolerable for loved ones, much less strangers; a positive diagnosis a slap in the face of those anxious and suffering within earshot. In ’97 the news had been unexpected—and not good—but they caught it (They got it!), so the shock was mitigated by how much worse it could have been (She’s going to make it!). 2000 was the same scene, only more so. 2001 was disconcerting, a surprise (It’s back) coupled with an inconclusive report (We can’t get rid of it all). We absorbed this verdict in the crowded space where everyone else sits and waits, a nerve-wracking purgatory we pay to provide (and, if possible, avoid).
“I’m going to the chapel,” my father announced, and I followed him. “You don’t have to come with me,” he said, almost gently. It was the first time I’d seen him this close to defeat, the first time I’d noticed the thinnest red streaks on either side of his mouth—burst blood vessels from clenching his jaw so long and so hard. “No, I’ll go with you,” I said. It was the first time I’d ever voluntarily accompanied him to a place where you pray for things.
I sat while he kneeled. I put a hand on his shoulder and we each thought our own thoughts. And even here, in this poor approximation of the churches we’d always attended, even as matters of life and death were being decided all around me, that familiar voice could not keep quiet. That voice inherited as birthright by anyone born into a family of faith, the conscience inside and beneath the sense of right and wrong, somewhere between my gut and my memory, the voice that sustains itself by feeding on fear and fantasy: Maybe if you believed it would work. Maybe, I thought, looking at my old man, his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth mumbling words I didn’t need to hear. Maybe if we all believed nothing bad would ever happen, the troubles we cause could be more easily explained. Maybe if nothing bad ever happened we wouldn’t need to believe. Maybe if we didn’t believe we would never inculcate this formula that can make a human being like myself, at his most frail and vulnerable, capable of entertaining thoughts like this.
Believing in miracles requires faith. Faith in miracles, faith in faith.
The Bible, taken on faith, is God’s word and the document of His work. Miracles are, for the faithful, not merely possible or even expected, but inevitable. Blood into wine. Blindness into sight. Death into eternal life. Virginity into conception and then ascension, beyond and back into the skies. With faith all things are conceivable.
One becomes wary of miracles the same way—and for the same reasons—one disdains forced faith. After seeing a magician reveal his tricks, whether he’s wearing a black cape or a white collar, the spell can never again be unbroken.
One conditions oneself to put away childish, or unreasonable things: one learns not to pray for miracles, to neither count on nor believe in them. It has less to do with forsaking faith in the possible and more to do with reconciling oneself with what’s not possible.
Was that as bad for you as it was for me?
That’s the question I didn’t ask when Father _____ left our house. On to his next appointment; all in a day’s work.
Extreme unction: the old-fashioned term for that quaint custom. It serves its purpose even now, I suppose, but I couldn’t help thinking on this particular occasion it’s more often a ritual designed for everyone except the person lying on his or her death bed.
Speaking only for my mother, she was too busy dying to want, much less appreciate, the solemn incantations and grim officiating on offer. It didn’t help matters that our local church’s current pastor had a personality that made even the surgeons we’d dealt with seem convivial. It wasn’t his fault; he was an older man from an older school: the twenty-first century didn’t suit him, just like it wouldn’t suit over-the-hill academics and the stratified folks still clinging to every ism they could get their claws on. The world keeps spinning and younger, more insolent models keep popping up to replace you. Some learn how to take this in stride; others resist and end up like insects flying against traffic. And some just disengage and surf that sluggish wave into the safe haven of senility. Father _____ was of the latter ilk; it wasn’t that he was going through the motions so much as the motions were going through him.
And who could place blame at the exhausted feet of a man ten years past retirement age? Not I. Can you imagine earning your living re-reading the same book (no matter how much you enjoyed it the first thousand times; even if you believed that as soon as the words left your humble lips they ascended straight to God’s impossible ears) and knowing, every day, how this particular story ended? Worse, telling a tale with a conclusion that already occurred, since everything we do—if you follow this narrative—has already been plotted out in that great workshop in the sky. And all this role required was that you promise to anyone willing to listen the same salvation you could never be sure of; no matter how certain you were, no matter how achingly every aspect of your existence relied on this deus ex machina.
Father _____ had quite apparently made peace with his place in the world (or worse, resigned himself to it) long enough ago that by now every rote gesture was divorced from anything approaching passion. But was passion, in his case, even a prerequisite? He was, at this point, incapable of being surprised by anything: in certain vocations this might signify the highest possible level of proficiency.
In any event, I couldn’t know—and didn’t particularly care—if his visit was doing anything for him (that was between him and the surprise ending awaiting him once he got a taste of his own unction). I knew it was doing something for my old man, so I contented myself with the diminishing returns of dubious blessings. Pops was receiving the same dispensation he attained at each Sunday service: a box checked off, a chore completed, an obligation fulfilled. It was, at best, a somber sort of solace, but I certainly wished, for his sake, it was bestowing some measure of spiritual respite.
“Does she want to receive communion,” the holy man said, more a statement than a question as he reached for his stash, a to-go Eucharist in what looked like a Tupperware container. At that moment he more than a little resembled a parent ready to placate an unruly child with a treat, and I realized (reflecting on this later) that my observation signaled the tipping point of an extended but ultimately unsatisfactory experiment with the Catholic faith. The priest’s indifference (even worse than the indignation he may have managed in his younger years) when my father broke the news that his wife was not able (none of us could say she was not willing, but we all had our opinions) to partake didn’t rankle me as it might have in my younger years. If this had gone down a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have yet seen enough of the world—and the ways it wears on all of us—to appreciate how even the noblest occupations are, at the end of the day, a way to put bread on the table, even if that bread is supposed to signify the body of Christ.
It wasn’t anger I felt, just relief that when finally confronted by the thing I feared most in the world, I was neither willing nor able to clutch at the redemption he stuck back in his coat pocket. I couldn’t feel disappointed and I dared not feel pity; what, after all, did I know about all he’d seen and the things he felt? I hoped then, and hope even harder now—though I’m not quite willing or able to pray—that he was still alive somewhere inside, or had been at one point. I hoped, although his extremities were growing cold, that an ember of faith and hope blazed warmly somewhere inside the recesses of his worn-out heart.
You don’t lose faith (and here I refer to Faith with a capital F, or maybe that should be faith with a lowercase f—whichever kind we can associate with feelings not involving supernatural entities—the bigger kind, or smaller, depending on where you stand on such matters).
When you lose a loved one or something indelible happens to shake your balance or even shatter your belief that there’s anything sensible about this life, you eventually come to a place where the one remaining issue is the only one you can’t avoid or get around, and it turns out to be the thing that saves you. You’re still alive, you’re still around to try and make sense of it. Or, short of that, to keep drawing breath and taking more out of existence than it takes out of you. Just being is winning in the existential sense, no matter how cynical or nihilistic one feels about such matters.
Only until it happens to you, until you get your own death sentence (or, if you’re lucky—or unlucky, depending on where you stand on such matters—you die suddenly and unexpectedly); only when your own light is about to be extinguished (forever or temporarily, depending on where you stand on such matters) do you have to confront whether or not you still have faith in how your life has played out.
In my case, my mother’s death didn’t shatter my faith; I’d already taken care of that matter on my own.
Milan Kundera, in the book Testaments Betrayed, explains his vision of the novelist’s acumen, which is “a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion.”
In The Brothers Karamazov, during the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” the mercurial Ivan lays out his rationale for rejecting God. If the ostensibly benevolent—and omnipotent—Being who created us in His image can be credited for everything we see and achieve, He must also be accountable for all the inexplicable misery. Ivan is, ultimately, less concerned with Heaven or Hell than what occurs on God’s watch, here on earth. Even if his personal salvation was secured, even if every soul’s redemption was guaranteed, the arrangement is intolerable if it depends upon one innocent child being forced to suffer. Ivan is incapable of accepting any circumstance where ultimate peace is contingent upon anyone’s pain. This is his rebellion.
Ursula K. Le Guin takes this scenario one step further in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” synthesizing elements of what both Kundera and Dostoyevsky describe. In her tale, once certain types of people ascertain the way things really work (on earth as it is in heaven), they turn their backs and forsake the security of organized society. Unable to reconcile the cost of a not-so-ignorant bliss, Le Guin’s heroes rebel by refusing to endorse—or even abide—the practical, and spiritual cost of doing business.
In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut draws an intractable line in the sand (or salt), siding with vulnerable humans over an infallible God: “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”
Once I’d dispensed with organized religion and then determined that academia was no longer a suitable solution, I might have become paralyzed, either because of other options or the lack thereof. Instead, I felt oddly liberated, although that realization by no means occurred overnight. Eventually, I found I wasn’t running away from anything so much as feeling compelled to run toward almost everything. Avoiding quiet desperation became my approach; finding ways to make art into life and life into art was my new mantra. (So simple, so impossible.)
My rebellion, if it could accurately (or fairly) be described as such, was rather simply an antagonism against cliché: clichéd thoughts, actions, excuses, and even intentions. I still wasn’t certain what was going to work for me, but I was steadily recognizing what wasn’t going to work. Understanding that bills had to be paid, relationships had to be cultivated, mistakes had to be made, and, above all, that one day I would no longer be around, my objective revolved around an obsession to live a life nobody but I could live. During those post-graduate years I steadily fortified, for all time, the most important—and rewarding—relationship of my life: the one with myself.
I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It’s not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)
The historical intersections of culture and psychology suggest that there can be no archetypal way to grieve, just as there are no ultimate answers for how we might reconcile our place in the world, including the non-place before we are born and wherever we go when we die. But there is certainly a wrong way to grieve and grapple with the transient nature of existence. Anytime we are encouraged—or obligated—to follow a path someone else prescribes (particularly someone who is getting paid for the prescription), it’s a shortcut to resolution we can only attain for ourselves.
Cemeteries are like churches: created to contemplate people not accessible to those still living. They serve as memorials, affording an opportunity to ponder this world and reconcile our place in it.
I’ve been to the cemetery, and I don’t mind going to the cemetery. From a purely aesthetic perspective it is a lovingly constructed memento for departed souls: names and ages and years connected by what all of us ultimately have in common. The cemetery is where my mother’s body rests. Anyplace else I go is where she lived; where she still exists. Wherever I go, she accompanies me.
But sometimes this is not enough.
So I return to the lake by my father’s house. The house I grew up in; the house where my mother helped raise me; the house where we helped her die. The same lake I walked around during those last two weeks, my own routine once the August sun began its slow descent and most families sat down to dinner. The only place I was ever alone those last two weeks: a respite from crowded and uncomfortable thoughts; a retreat from the inevitable rituals of adulthood. The same lake where my father and I ended up, later that final night, after it was over and my sister had returned to her family. The lake we silently circled, not saying much, not needing to do anything other than exist.
This is where I go. I return to this lake. It is my church, my sanctified place for reflection. The water flows and recedes, feeding and restoring itself. The trees surround the water, their leaves emblems of Nature’s enduring procession. The sky stares down impassively to see its ancient face reflected up. At night the stars strain toward the earth, fulfilling their preordained purpose.