God Will Turn Eleven On Her Next Birthday
By A.G. Dumas • July 4, 2017
Except for my maternal grandmother (who’s no longer with us), ours was a non-religious family on both sides. Nonnie was a widow since I was a toddler and she came to stay on weekends. I was her first grandchild and the oldest by a number of years, so it became the mission of her “second life” to see that I got religion. I was never a totally willing communicant because I was never quite sure about the motives of adults who preached about eternal life, endless hell fires and damnation. But I went along with it until I was twelve. My awakening came on a Sunday in early summer that year. It was about as hot as it ever gets in Connecticut and the head parish priest, Father Rojak (a throwback who wouldn’t shed his robe and starched collar for anything) was soaked through and as pale as death. But he carried on stoically in the little wooden church. We were just as soaked, as the old black and greasy floor fans up front were merely blowing the sauna-like air into our faces. During his sermon, in a barely audible voice, he spoke about living with Christ in our hearts every day of the week, not just on Sundays. It was a good message. He became faint during the communion, and collapsed at the altar. The younger priest took over and some ushers carried old Rojak into the chancery. After that, several people fainted in their pews and had to be helped outside.
What went on in church that day was mere prologue. The day became memorable because of what happened in the parking lot afterward. It began when Nonnie, her unlit cigarette dangling, tromped the accelerator and forced her whale of a Dodge into the flow until some guy with a station wagon full of kids cut her off. I had to throw my hands up from hitting the oversized dash when she slammed those hair-trigger power brakes. “Cocksucker!” She blurted it so forcefully that her false teeth popped out of her mouth. I never even heard my father use the word until I was much older. I jerked my head around and stared in disbelief at this small, demure and seemingly pious woman who had led me to the altar numerous times with hands clasped and head bowed to accept the wafer containing the body of Christ. After pushing her teeth back into her head, her eyes narrowed with hate as she stared at the guy through the windshield. Windows came down and a shouting match ensued. Mortified, I slid down in my seat. We eventually surged out of the parking lot. We looked straight ahead and didn’t say a word about it on the way home, or ever again, for that matter. I started missing mass after that; periodically at first, and then regularly. She never pressed me into going with her again. By that time, she realized I knew her game, and she devoted her energies proselytizing my younger siblings.
Nonnie died recently following a stroke after being in a nursing home for many years. The “cocksucker” incident, which had evolved into a metaphor for my rejection of religion (i.e. churchgoers are hypocrites), came back to me at the funeral home where, despite the heroic efforts taken to make a decrepit old lady look elegant in death, the undertaker had failed. He wasn’t able to keep her dentures from protruding from her drawn, 85-year-old mouth. The lips and mouth shrunk over the years, but the false teeth hadn’t. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw those fucking teeth.
Back at my apartment the weekend after her funeral with my kids (my ex has custody and I have weekly overnight visitations), I was taking a walk with my 10-year-old daughter, the youngest, while the boys were ensconced in their room playing video games. She and I were discussing her school basketball team when, quite suddenly, she asked, “How come if we can see the moon and stars, we can’t see heaven?”
“Well, because heaven is something in our minds, not an actual place -- like the moon,” I replied.
“How do you know?” she asked.
“Well, nobody has ever seen it. We think about it, but we don’t see it. It’s invisible.” That was an ill-chosen word.
“Are all things that God makes invisible?”
“No, of course not,” I replied.
“Then how come heaven is?”
“Oh.” I had to think for a moment. “Well, because heaven is a concept. A concept is something that exists in our minds. Nobody knows if it really exists because you have to die first. You understand?”
“Yeah, I guess,” she replied.
I was relieved, momentarily.
“Were you baptized?” she then asked.
“Yes, I was.”
“Was your Nonnie?”
“I think so.”
“I wasn’t, was I?”
“No, you weren’t,” I replied, candidly.
“Why not, Dad?”
“Because Mom and I don’t really believe in the same religious things that our parents and grandparents believed in, and we didn’t think it was necessary. Besides, Mom was raised Jewish and Jews don’t believe in baptism and things like that.” I thought it was a good explanation.
My daughter countered. “Meredith’s mom told her that heaven is a place you go, but if you weren’t baptized you can’t go there,” she said.
“Do you believe that?” I asked.
“I don’t know?”
“I’d expect Meredith’s parents to say something like that,” I mumbled, rolling my eyes. Speaking up, I continued, “Well, it’s not true, honey. If there’s a heaven, you will go there if you’re a good person.”
We walked a little farther.
“Do you think your Nonnie went to heaven?” she asked.
“Honey, I don’t know!”
“You don’t believe in heaven, do you, Dad?” she asked, now becoming rhetorical. She was a very smart and persistent kid.
“No, honey, I don’t.”
“Where do you think you will go, then?” she asked.
“In your heart, honey,” I replied, without hesitation. “I’ll be in your heart. You have a good heart, darling, and that’s where I want to be forever!” Tears were coming to my eyes.
She looked at me in the dim light of the street lamp. With a quizzical look and a cock of the head, she concluded, “You’re weird, Dad!”
My ex-wife Joan and I share a contempt for Meredith’s Presbyterian parents and organized religion in general, and for that I thank god (in a manner of speaking, of course). On more than one occasion, this common ground, however small, gave us the ability to resow and grow together again following the kind of warring that routinely uproots and kills off many marriages. I believe we lasted longer than many couples because of it. Joan’s folks, who both grew up as orthodox Jews, evolved into twice-a-years like many American Jews -– and Christians – ultimately did. Joan still gets worked up when she recalls the rabbi’s periodic visits to their home back during which he instilled (more) guilt in her parents for not doing a better job keeping themselves and the children in the faith. But the bottom line for each visit was to come away with a check. Joan’s dislike of the man and his motives got the best of her they day he visited their class at Hebrew school to explain the meaning of the Torah. She said something smart and was sent home with a note. She never returned.
It was understood long before we got married and had kids that we’d never expose them to the religious hypocrisies that we knew. We would, of course, explain to them why people did go to church and all that. What we were clueless about was that children learn the dogma and form their own ideas about the Almighty whether or not they go to church. But we’ve remained members of the legions who have their doubts about god. And why not? We, like many reasonably educated folks, realize that our minds are too weak to conceive of an omnipotent and boundless force or energy – yet our brethren have spent centuries trying to legitimize and lay claim to this boundless force’s embodiment. Imagine, casting this boundless force in the image of a human being – some with multiple appendages – but they continue to do it! And in spite of the legions of believers and two thousand years or more of organized religions, there’s still no agreement on whose embodiment they should worship. Well, as I said, I never suffered fools after I was twelve. My inclination was to follow the golden rule and do the rest on my own. But I’m the first one to agree that only a fool denies the need for some sort of belief system, because we need something in place to fight our demons. It’s an ongoing battle, and whether or not we choose to team up with the bearded and fatherly Judeo-Christian god, Jesus, Allah, Mohammed, Buddha – or do it alone – we need to fight those demons every day. We sleep, wake, drink, eat, sleep and heal a bit, and then awake to battle anew. The demons that come from deep within are the ones, of course, that are the hardest to suppress. They’re the ones that cause high blood pressure, aneurysms, strokes, heart attacks, tumors and the like. I still have one lurking somewhere in my vortex (the place where the body and soul meet). To this day when I wake in a cold sweat, I know it’s there.
Shortly before Nonnie died, I visited her in the nursing home with my sisters. Nonnie had had several strokes, but the big killer was still lurking somewhere in her vortex. She didn’t recognize us any longer, but when we approached her in the common room with all the other elderly residents sitting around, she blurted out, with a friendly smile, “Hi, fuckers!” My sisters were mortified, but I couldn’t hold back my laughter, again. I realized then that she must have had so many demons inside of her, and her churchgoing routine -- her effort to team up with God the Father and Jesus -- was the best way in her mind to fight her demons. I suppose we all do what we have to do.
Another weekend came, and I picked up the kids from Joan’s house. When we returned from pizza and ice cream, the boys thundered to their room to play video games. My daughter and I agreed to take our constitutional before her shows came on. It was a beautiful, early spring night.
“Dad, when you die, do you think there’s even a small chance you’ll go up there?” she asked, pointing to the stars, as we walked.
“Honey, I thought we went through all that before.” The girl’s persistence was exceeded only by her apparent need for endless debate.
“Yeah, we did,” she said. “But I didn’t think you were being real serious. So when a person dies, he doesn’t really go into another person’s heart, does he?”
“But I was being serious, honey!”
Suddenly, I was getting guilt pangs. Had we been depriving our young daughter’s need for religion because of our hang-ups? “Do you think you want to go to church with Meredith and her family and see how people talk about god and everything,” I quickly offered.
Just as quickly, she allayed my fears. “Naw,” she said. “These walks are better.”
Feeling somewhat relieved, I kept my mouth shut for a while.
“Dad,” she finally said, looking me in the eye, “I hated it when you and mom fought. I almost think it’s better that you and she got divorced.”
I didn’t really know how to couch my respond. So I just told her the truth. “Well, I didn’t like the fighting, either, honey, and, well, that’s why we finally split,” I said. “Mom and I were both getting tired of it and it wasn’t good for us as a family.”
“Dad, I don’t want you to ever go away,” she replied.
“Honey, honey, darling…I don’t ever plan on leaving you,” I said, consolingly. “I’ll always live close and we’ll always spend time together. Believe me. Believe your Dad. I want to be with you as much as I possibly can. I love you and your brothers more than anything.”
“No, Dad, I mean I don’t want you to die, ever,” she replied, now crying.
She put her arms around me and squeezed me very tightly. She buried her head in my chest and began sobbing. I held on to her for dear life and began sobbing, too. We stood there on the sidewalk holding on to each other, sobbing. We didn’t hold each other often, but when we did it felt so wonderful. Through my tears, I looked up into the star-filled sky. At that moment, my inclination suddenly changed and I joined the legions of suffering fools. I felt I was in the presence of someone uniquely special – like a celestial being.
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