Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Goodnight, Faithless...

Tonight I forfeited my enormous sigh of relief for some superficial comfort. In the middle of my catatonic fear, and my maddening limbo, I reached out to something I once abhorred for a touch of meaningless reassurance.

The past two months have been a mouthful of hell for me, and I would love to believe that it doesn't get much worse, but experience has taught me not to hope for that.
The loss of my son found me 30 pounds lighter and 10 years older in the reflection of the bathroom mirror. The loss of my immature fantasy that my lover was forever found me 4 hours away from him by commercial jet.
My inability to deny his phone calls, filled to the brim with imaginary sentiments, found me drowning in phone-bill debt.
The unjust accusations from my bitter family found me on my ass within a week, with half of what I'd managed to hold onto, and a sleep disorder beyond my most putrid nightmares. The torturous effort I made to understand what I had done to deserve such hateful, plastic affections left me with nothing else to do but kill time.
Lie around in my own sweat and agitation, wearing nothing but blankets, thinking and feeling as little as humanly possible. I was not hungry. I was not sleepy. I was not satisfied or awake, either. Just numb, content to acknowledge nothing... wonder about nothing.

An Aunt of mine took me in. Not to say there weren't some serious, threatening problems there as well. However, in plain fact, regardless of motive, she took me in when I had nowhere at all to go. She was a Jehovah's Witness, and I had taken some great pains to avoid the topic of anything religious in her household.
I should clarify that I am the epitome of agnosticism. I say the epitome because I haven't even the courage to explore what agnosticism means to me. I chose from the start not to dabble in faith of any kind, lacking the self-confidence to believe in anything at all, including my own existence. And so, I avoided the seemingly inevitable discussions of biblical morality that I imagined would be a part of my life with my Aunt.

I went to the first meeting at the Kingdom Hall that I was invited to. Mostly because I was lonely, and nervous of my loneliness. People at the meeting hugged me, and their smiles were far too large for me to take seriously. I was invited to a few more, and politely declined. Gradually, it was no longer an issue. I was more relieved than I could have imagined. I had seamlessly evaded the discomfort of clashing principles. Life, in that respect at least, was quiet, and without a carpet of eggshells.

The worst of the catatonia came. Nights seemed endless, mornings too short to revel in the 9 minutes a snooze button provided. Dreams plagued me, I awoke each day feeling more exhausted than I had been upon going to sleep. Food repulsive, air thick and heavy, my skin perpetually coated in a film of impurity. I had no choice but to remove the mirror from my bedroom. I couldn't stand to see how old and jaded I had become. It made me want to kill myself - something I hadn't considered in a long time.
The little jar containing my son's ashes sat beside my bed, a constant reminder of the beginning of this misery. Before the loss, life had not been perfect, not by far. Losing my child was the straw that broke the camel's back. Once the camel was down, of course, my world continued to beat it, crushing all of its bones and poking at it with various instruments of torture. Most mornings I wished the camel dead, thinking maybe this metaphorical conclusion would bring my downward spiral to a grinding halt.

Watching my Aunt plod off to bed tonight, I stopped her with a scratchy plea... “Please, tell me nothing horrible is happening to my baby. Tell me my faithlessness hasn't condemned him, or some shit like that.” I choked on the end of my sentence.
What was I doing? I had never cared about anyone's interpretations of the bible before, nor had I been easy to convince of religious 'facts'. I had not once turned to faith for comfort, it was meaningless. It held no personal depth for me, offered no breathing room for circumstantial adaptation. Turning to my Aunt, to find solace for my grief in the Good Book, was unlike me. Particularly when I had considered all discussion of faith with her to be a dangerous door which, once opened, could bring my serenity to ruin.

She paused in front of the closet, plucking a few clean towels from the hamper, and I weighed the pros and cons of jumping out the window before her reply came. Folding the towels, and stacking them on the top shelf, she said without skipping a beat, “Nothing bad is happening to him. There's no such thing as hell.” She looked up at me, scratching the side of her face and moving on to the washcloths. “Nothing bad is going to happen to you either. The bible says that Jehovah's punishment for sin is just death. Eternal suffering isn't real. I wouldn't lose sleep over it.”

She walked out to the kitchen and pulled a worn bible out from between two cookbooks. Opening it to a few pages and dog-earing them for me, she said I should read what was underlined at those parts. And with that, she rubbed my head and walked back down the hall.

I stood in the kitchen for an hour, sipping flat ginger ale right from the bottle. She had indeed underlined all the verses about the unrighteous, and I found nothing in them about burning or screaming for all eternity. I wondered how many other desperate people had turned to her bible as a last resort, and how many times she had looked up these verses for people before she thought to underline them, and knew where they were by heart.

Of course, I'm still not a bible-reader. Still not accepting that any man, dead or alive, knows the answers everyone seems to hunger for concerning life and death. It didn't change me at all, tonight's encounter. What it did was make me doubt my sanity enough that I could observe the situation, for what it was. Her reference to the scriptures, and her eagerness to settle my racing brain rather than jump at an opportunity to preach, offered a small condolence. More effective than the cross-eyed social worker at the hospital, or the pre-recorded hotline for grieving parents. Between my exasperation, which drove me to ask her in the first place, and her nonchalance in comforting me, I had been subdued for the rest of the week.

While it meant nothing to me, I was nakedly aware that I had asked her for assurance because my apathy and indecisiveness prevented me from giving it to myself. The occasion was so rare that I couldn't pep-talk myself out of despair. I had little experience with things I couldn't deliberately rationalize, and justify with impromptu logic. Not that I was driven to pursue a belief system of my own, but asking my Aunt for a glass of God before bed made it a little clearer to me, why people chose to build their lives around something so intangible.

I was given the chance to step back and watch what faith had given my Aunt. I was already aware that she seemed to be constantly struggling with a “What Would Jesus Do” that hung above her head. What I hadn't taken time to examine was the appeal it held for her.
As the bottle of ginger ale emptied, and my eyes grew heavy, it dawned on me that she had the passages underlined for herself. And she probably slept easy, every night.


Susan Kuchinskas said...

What a deep and emotionally riveting story. Thank you for sharing it. I too am an agnostic, probably for much the same reasons. It's fascinating the way you are able to turn both your intellect and your deep pain and despair to the subject of religion and come to an empathetic and illuminated understanding.

I can't imagine what you're going through. But it's clear that you have what it takes to come through it.

Mystic Wing said...

Wonderfully told story. I hope you give us more of them, and soon. Hell, like heaven, is a metaphor for a place where we dwell here and now, and like many of us, you clearly have some personal experience of that place. The journey out is the story that needs to be told.

Great writing.