A deep area of anguish for me in leaving Christianity (as I’d been taught it) was losing the promise of “life everlasting” – that is, life in heaven after death. I’ve hesitated to share the following entry from my journal because it is so intensely personal, moreso even than what I’ve shared thus far.
But the time for cowardice is not today.
So, for now, for whomever it serves, here’s the next entry from my Questioning Faith journal. (That’s what I call it in my head.) I wrote it the same day as the luncheon with the pastor – week 2, day 4 – because life’s lessons weren’t finished with me yet that day.
Week 2, Day 4…part two
The rain is thundering in a summer downpour. My feet are cold, soaked by their drops during my mad dash inside. I take my slippers off just inside the door, wipe the water off as best I can. Her entry rug is new since my last visit. Has it been an entire week?
I encounter the nurse in the living room first.
“The pastor is here,” she whispers.
“Which one?” I ask.
She doesn’t know. “From Grace Lutheran?”
I nod and enter the bedroom.
“Hi, love,” I say.
“Look who’s here,” my mother-in-law says.
I skirt around her bedside chair and lean over his head. My lips touch the skin, surprised by the warmth, but not by the smoothness. It’s been smooth and tight for weeks now.
“Hello, blue eyes,” I say. “I love you.”
My mother-in-law, eyes red-rimmed, begins to introduce me to the pastor – a man I have known for five years.
She stops herself. “Oh, wait, you two know each other.”
I laugh, happy to have a reason to bring mirth into the room.
The pastor, a big bear of a man like my Charlie, laughs as well. I side-hug him, the safe way to hug a man. We discuss the downpour outside. He shares a story of being caught in just such a deluge while riding a motorcycle. I settle into the deep armchair in the corner.
The pall lays back down upon our shoulders. Pastor flips through the hymnal in his lap and announces, “Here’s one for us.” He begins to sing.
My father-in-law’s moans get stronger, his determination to join in apparent.
I have come to watch him die.
And I do not know how.
Before these past two weeks, I would have entered this room with a sense of joy. He’s going to heaven! He’s escaping the painful, broken world! Glory! Hallelujah!
When the doctor told us five months ago that he had 3-5 days to live, it fell to me to give the news to this beloved man who fathered my husband. He read it in my eyes before I could speak and asked, “I’m going to heaven, aren’t I?”
“Yessir,” I said, “And I have to say I’m a little bit jealous.”
It is a hope that has carried us – me – all through the five months of hospice care and the eight years of Parkinson’s disease. The end has lain before us for too long. We have anticipated it with dread and with joy. He has lived a good, solid, respectable life. Raised three children. Loved his wife of 55 years faithfully. Built a solid career as a banker.
We knew this would come and we made our peace with it. I made my peace with it. I asked him to find my Aunt Retta and Granddaddy when he got to heaven. I assured him they would know everybody there by now and make sure he got settled in. He promised to do so, if he remembered things of the earth when he arrived in heaven.
“I have one final song,” the pastor says. “It’s ‘Abide With Me.’”
I know this to be one of my in-laws’ favorites. Snippets of their song pierce my writing veil.
“The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.”
“Help of the helpless, Oh, abide with me.”
“Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still if Thy abide with me.”
I do not know how to live through death without eternal life. His time is nearly over. He has walked a long, wonderful journey. A path worthy of the time it had.
Without looking toward heaven, where is our hope in this?
The question makes me ache. I want him to live in heaven after this. I want him to find Aunt Retta and Granddaddy. I want them to be alive somewhere right now. I don’t want it to be over. That not wanting it to be over makes me long to take back everything I have written and wondered and said so far.
But I can’t. I’ve asked too many questions whose answers don’t allow for the luxury of belief.
So where is the hope in this room and this place? As death hovers over us, stalking just as suredly as the rolling thunder outside, in what do we place our minds and hearts for safekeeping as they tear and rip into shreds?
At 5:10pm on July 28, 2016, I can only look back over his life and consider all of the people who were made better, who were loved, who were cared for, whose lives were impacted, because this man lived.
I can hope to do as well as he.
I think of all the times I’ve uttered the phrase, “change the world” and realize that this man did. He changed it just by being himself every day.
He brought hope. Enough for his lifetime.
He made us believe, every day, that if we worked hard and used our minds that we could figure out the problem and address it with integrity and purpose.
He applied himself. He taught us to apply ourselves.
He never spoke an ill word in my hearing – not once. The one time I lost my temper in front of him, his face crumpled into sorrow and he said, “Don’t, let’s be that way.” He was pained by my anger, not affronted by it.
He lived in and through each day, even when the doctors told him his muscles and mind would betray him. He found new ways to learn and explore, often sitting in his wheelchair behind a computer screen, manipulating a mouse as best he could. He loved having us sit around and give him the details of our days, the images from fundraising galas we attended (those so prevalent here in Naples in Season) and the ones we threw ourselves. He eagerly hung on the words of my children as they recounted their days at school or athletic attempts.
He engaged with all of us, every day. He taught us to be present, fully present, in the living of these moments. He taught us to face hardship with the hope that we could figure it out.
Hope. It is still here. It is as I thought before – the hope is in us, in living out goodness and kindness and thinking and doing every day.
I do not have hope that I will see my precious father-in-law again. I am no longer shielded from the anguish of his loss. I hate this. I can’t even start to accept how it is true for everyone I love. I want to push that truth away. I want it to be wrong.
I want to be wrong.
I don’t know how to do this without resting in the platitudes and empty phrases of “better place” and “see him again.”
I don’t know how to be a loving wife to my husband through this because, at least with him, I cannot even pretend to have that hope of another life. He knows this. I know this. Will it come between us as he grieves the loss of his dad? Will he grow angry with me because I can’t hope with him in a belief in heaven?
Our marriage has been severely tested before. We’ve always come through, hand-in-hand, a little scarred and beat up but still together. Can we do it again? Will he want to?
I know our kiddos will talk of Granddad being in heaven. I will let them. They are too young for the thoughts and journey I’m on. And it’s too early for me to talk with them about it because I don’t have answers for the questions I know will come. So, I’ll put on the false expressions with them, hating every moment of dishonesty with my most precious little beings, but knowing no other way to do it yet.
Why couldn’t I have just stayed quiet about all this? It was easier when I thought I had the answers – or at least relationship with one who did.