It’s been nearly ten years since my mother died.
It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve spoke to my father.
This one is raw. Posting it is nervous-making. I’m sure other people remember some of these events differently. These are my memories.
L’enfer, c’est les autres.
I am six years old. I lie on my stomach on the braided rug that covers the living room floor, eyes fixed on the red-faced man screaming from the television set. My parents ask me if I understand what he is saying, and I want to tell them that he keeps saying the h-word but I know I’m not supposed to repeat it. So I shake my head. They seem sad, but they call me over to sit between them on the couch, and I do.
“He’s talking about Hell,” my father explains. I guess he’s allowed to say it. He’s a grown up, after all.
“Hell is a real place. It’s where people go when they die if they don’t believe in Jesus. Do you believe in Jesus?”
I nod again.
“It’s not enough just to believe he exists,” my mother adds. “You have to believe believe. You have to accept Jesus into your heart.” I have seen pictures of Jesus. I imagine his beard would itch if he were inside my heart.
“Demons believe he exists, too, but they won’t go to Heaven.” my father says this, but my mother lays a hand on his arm.
“Don’t scare him by talking about demons.”
“But he should be scared. This is real. Do you want him to spend eternity in Hell?”
I sit between them, looking from one to the other as they talk. The red-faced man is still yelling.
“Jesus came.” My father is talking to me again. “Jesus came so we wouldn’t have to go to Hell. Hell is an awful place. It’s full of fire, and demons, and sinners – but most of all, it’s full of loneliness. That’s the worst part. Being alone. Jesus wants us to live with Him forever in Heaven.” I can hear him capitalize Him. “That’s where He’ll be, and that’s where your mother and I will be. Don’t you want to be there with us?” I nod yet again. I want to be with them forever no matter where they are. They seem very happy, and I know I’ve done something right. They kneel in front of the couch, and I do, too. They close their eyes and my father says some words that start, “Dear Jesus.” My mother nudges me, and I repeat them. When we’re done, my parents sit down on the couch again. They are crying. I crawl up between them, and I am very happy.
I am twenty-nine years old. It’s late – or early, depending on your point of view. My father left hours ago, and my sisters and brother are sitting in my mother’s hospital room. The small table in the corner is buried in snacks. Ruffles and Coke, my mother’s cure for everything from the common cold to a broken heart. My sister brought those. I know without asking. Add a puzzle and a cat and it’s every Thanksgiving and Christmas morning I can remember.
I don’t think we’ve ever spent this much time together as adults. I am the youngest, my parents’ only shared child. No one else in this room is biologically related to my father. They talk about his failures, his get-rich-quick schemes, his correspondence-course need to tack title and degree after meaningless title and degree to his name. About his inability to hold a job.
When I was born, he worked at this hospital. In fact, he was at work when my mother went into labor with me. They paged him to the maternity wing, and everyone had a good laugh. But something happened a few years later. No one really knows what. He always said he quit because he couldn’t get along with his boss, but some people tell different stories. Some of those people still work in this hospital. And they would remember. Maybe that’s why he’s never here.
My sisters and brother talk about all this and more. To them, he was a usurper, a man who married their mother and replaced their father. They can criticize him fearlessly. I cannot.
And I am alone.
I am ten years old. My brother has just locked me out of the house, and I want to get inside. He’s home on leave. My brother is ten years older than I am, and I want nothing more than to impress him. Well, except for him to let me back in the house. I pound on the door with my fists, but he ignores me. I pound harder. Still no response. I kick the door as I punch it, and finally he appears in the window. He is smiling.
“LET! ME! IN!” I scream at him, not because I want to be heard but because I am angry. He smiles at me and shakes his head. I hate that smile. I am angry and frustrated; what right does he have to be so cheerful?
I flip him off.
His smile vanishes. The doorknob turns. I have won. But he is not letting me inside. As he bursts through the doorway, I turn and run as fast as I can. I’m lucky to get halfway around the house. He catches me and pins me to the ground.
“You’re a douche,” I say. In for a dime, in for a dollar. I have no idea what a douche is, but I’ve heard people say it, and it sounds really insulting.
I don’t get up for a long time. Any fight between a twenty-year-old sailor and a ten-year-old overweight bookworm that doesn’t end in death is full of mercy, but I am on the ground, and I am hurt, and he has gone back inside and locked the door.
And I am alone.
I am twenty-nine years old. I am sitting on an old vinyl couch, its metal arms rusty, its padding tattered. My sisters are sitting in similarly ratty chairs, both crying. My brother is sitting on the other end of the couch, his face unreadable, but I can read plenty of anger into it and it’s all pointed at me. My father is between us, his head on my chest, his tears soaking my shirt. Down the hall, my mother is dying.
I shift my weight, telling my father that I want to get up. Slowly, he pulls away from me. “Thank you,” he whispers. I walk into the hallway. My sister follows me.
“He just wants some time alone with her.” She hasn’t accused me of anything yet, but I am defensive. “With his wife. How is that wrong?”
“It’s not,” my sister says. Everything but her words screams that it is. Very wrong. “It’s just . . . what do you think he’ll do in there. With none of us there?”
“You think he’s going to smother her or something?” I say it. Somebody had to.
“Well, no . . .” Well, yes.
“Whatever else he might be, he’s a man who’s losing his wife.” You treat someone like a monster long enough, maybe that’s what they become. He’s not her father. She doesn’t understand how deeply his failings cut.
“I know what he is.” She’s ice cold now. “I live here. But you show up and start speaking for everyone.” I’ve been watching my mother die by proxy, half a country away. Never there to help, never there to see her. Her illness moves in giant leaps for me, but in tiny drips for my sister.
“How was I supposed to know ‘Can I spend some time alone with my dying wife?’ needed to be put to a vote?” It’s almost the end now, and my father wants to be here. For days, we’ve practically had to bar the door to keep him near her. Or maybe I was the only one who wanted to do that.
“You weren’t. No one expects you to know what things are like here now.” This isn’t your fight, stranger. Don’t you have somewhere else to be? She turns on her heel and walks to the nurse’s station outside my mother’s room.
And I am alone.
I am twelve years old. I have a feathered headdress on my head and a sour expression on my face. The other students parade back and forth across the stage, singing songs, gesturing gestures, speaking speeches – but I am Indian #2, and I am singing no songs, gesturing no gestures, speaking no speeches. I wanted nothing to do with it, and I have my wish.
My mother teaches at this little private school in the basement of a Baptist church. I am supposed to do something great with my life — we all are. We are supposed to change the world for Jesus. When you think about it, it’s the least we can do.
Last year, I had a lead role in the school play. It was exhilarating, terrifying, almost too much to bear. Almost. I was thrilled by the attention, ecstatic to play such an important part. But this year, they expected it of me. How dare they just assume I would join in? So I refused.
I’ll be in it if I have to, I told my teacher. But no speaking parts. She seemed disappointed. I was worried she’d tell my mother. My mother might force me to do it. Maybe I wanted that.
But I am Indian #2. I have no lines. I have no songs. I am part of the scenery.
And I am alone.
I am twenty-nine years old. I am sitting in my mother’s hospital room. It’s been two days, but none of us has left. Except my father. He comes and goes frequently, staying only long enough to check on her, then running off again. Maybe he needs to be at work. Maybe all of us need to be at work.
“He’s selling the house.” My sister can read my face as my father walks out the door. “Moving to Mississippi, from what I hear.”
“Are you sure?” I ask. Of course she’s sure.
“He had a ‘For Sale’ sign up the other day. He took it down when he saw me looking at it.” She wouldn’t have to go far. She lives right across the street, in the field where we used to fly kites. All of that land was divided up years ago when I was still in high school. What would I want with any of it? I wasn’t ready. No one asked.
“I thought . . .” It doesn’t matter what I thought. My thoughts are selfish. The only plot of land left on the beautiful old New England farm where my grandfather was born – that he and my mother and I each grew up in, generation after generation – was the one my father was selling. The only one that he could still leave to me. The one he had let go to shit around him. The one I had dreamed of caring for the way my grandfather used to care for it when he would visit, the way my father never cared for it. I am sitting at my mother’s death bed as my father sells off her memory.
And I am alone.
I am eighteen years old. This is my first week at the Baptist college my parents chose for me. Well, that’s not true. It is my first week, but my parents didn’t force this on me. I chose it. Granted, they made my options feel limited. Some of the schools they recommended were more conservative than this one, but I’ve spent my entire life with Jesus, God, and the Bible ringing in my head. I don’t know any other way.
My roommate is at church. Church is mandatory here. We have to fill out a form saying where we went. But this is Ohio – right where the Bible Belt buckles – and there are so many churches with so many people in them that no one would ever know if you went or not.
So I don’t go.
It’s all starting to ring false to me. All the sermons, all the politics, all the guarding of hearts, all the marching and signs, saving lives, saving souls. It’s phony, or at least I’m phony for claiming to believe it. With so many truths swimming around, who could be arrogant enough to claim to know which one had a capital T?
My roommate, for one. I can’t talk to him about any of this. Jesus may have come to bring us freedom, but one of those freedoms was absolutely not the freedom to question him – sorry, Him. Jesus, God, and the Bible are real to my roommate the way air is real, and anyone who thinks otherwise should have his head examined, and should definitely be very, very far away from the good people who know better. So my roommate spends his Sunday mornings in church, and I spend mine going through all the motions with him – up bright and early, dressed in Sunday best, lock the room, head down the stairs . . . and off to breakfast as soon as he’s out of sight.
I’m a phony.
And I am alone.
I am twenty-nine years old. I just got off a plane from Chicago, and I haven’t seen my mother in months. She’s dying. No one doubts it. But I haven’t seen her, so none of it is real to me. My sister yanks the baseball cap off my head as I approach my mother’s hospital bed. Her face is sunken, her eyes dim, and I see only the barest glint of recognition in them. She moves her mouth as if to speak, but I hear only moans.
“Oh, she recognizes you!” My sister is in tears. So am I, but hers are happy. “She’s so happy to see you. Look.” I look. I wish I could see what she sees. I kneel by the bed and hug my mother, and my sister joins the others on the far side of the room.
I’m sure each of us has had this moment, one by one, arriving at her bedside and holding her motionless body, whispering words of love, of sorrow, of fear, of guilt and sadness and shame. To her, the moments must blur together, child indistinguishable from child, face from face, love from love.
We are together.
Days later, we gather around her bed. My sister is a nurse, and she recognizes the signs. Mom’s about to go. We hold hands and encircle her bed. One by one, we break the circle and walk to her bedside. Some of us talk to her quietly. Some just hold her. No one makes any speeches. After some timeless amount of time, my sister starts to sing.
We are together.
Mom doesn’t die then. She lives several more days, in fact. The doctors say her body is too healthy to die. Her heart won’t stop, even though the cancer has spread from her uterus to her lungs to her brain. My sister apologizes, as if any of us would want that moment back.
We are together.
The next day, my sister walks into the room hand-in-hand with my four-year-old daughter. My wife has driven through the night to be with me, and my sister has taken my daughter off to explain the idea of death. Better her than me. When they first walk in, I think my sister is leading, but it quickly becomes clear my daughter is driving this train. She drops my sister’s hand and marches right up to my mother’s deathbed. Fearless. She doesn’t hesitate the way I did when I first walked up to that bed four days ago, and I feel a little shame, but my pride in her washes it away.
“I took her to the cemetery,” my sister tells me. “I wanted her to see . . . I don’t know, something she could touch.”
My daughter reaches up, and I think she will take my mother’s hand. Instead, she puts something on the bed, then closes my mother’s hand around it. A pine cone. “This is from where you will sleep,” she tells my mother.
We are together.
My mother has waited her entire life for Jesus to come and take her away, but she doesn’t have to die for Heaven. As we stand around her bed, loving her, being her children, crying openly both for sorrow and for joy, we are all together. We are Heaven. And this is eternity. I look at my daughter, at my wife, at my sisters, at my brothers, at that pine cone, at my mother’s hand, and I accept it all into my heart. This isn’t the Heaven my parents taught me about, but for me, it’s better. It’s one I can see. One I can feel. One I can believe. And I don’t just believe. I believe believe.
Hell is a real place.
Hell is the absence of this.
Hell is alone.