I saw my psychologist last week. I didn’t feel the need to go, but sometimes, I get talking, and I realize I needed it more than I thought.
Since I didn’t feel like I was drowning and in desperate need of a life preserver, I asked him a question that I had been wondering about.
“Did I read correctly that you have a degree in divinity?” I asked.
“Christian Theology,” he said.
“Interesting — okay. Well, I was going to ask what someone does as they pursue a degree in divinity, but the Christian Theology title makes intuitive sense to me.”
“Well, I was a youth minister and then a pastor for a while. And then I got my degree in social work, and one thing lead to another, and now I’m exactly where I need to be.”
We talked about his route to clinical psychology; about the continuum of conservative and liberal churches. About preparing a sermon every week, and the public relations part of leading a parish.
“I just think that when we die, we’re all gonna be a little surprised,” he said.
And that totally landed with me.
“That reminds me a lot of a thought I had the day that Jeff died… or maybe it was after that. I can’t remember now. If I wanted to be dramatic, I might call it a vision. Whatever you call it, I pictured Jeff in my mind. He closed his eyes here, and he opened them there, and he made this amused face and said, ‘Psh – this is it?!’ Meaning, ‘Why is everyone so worked up over this dying thing?'”
My psychologist and I talked some more, digressing here, getting back on track there… but all of it feeling productive and generative and restorative.
“How can you be so sure that there is something after this?” I asked.
“Let me ask you a question,” he countered. “Have you had any contact with Jeff since he died?”
I cried involuntary tears. “Yes,” I said.
He started to cry too. “Because of that,” he said. “I know too many people who can say that. I believe anyway. But I have that, too.”
“Let me clarify,” I said. “I haven’t seen any sort of apparition or had anything move in my house for no reason. I haven’t had anything tangible that I could point to as ‘contact.’ But I do feel that Jeff is playing a role in my decisions… big time. He never feels far.”
Which reminded me about a passage I read in The Road to Character by David Brooks.
“For many people, religious and nonreligious, love provides a glimpse of some realm beyond the edge of what we know. It also in a more practical sense enlarges the heart. This act of yearning somehow makes our heart more open and more free. Love is like a plow that opens up hard ground and allows things to grow. It cracks open the curst and exposes the soft fertile soil. We notice this phenomenon all the time: one love leads to another, one love magnifies the capacity for another.
Self-control is like a muscle. If you are called upon to exercise self-control often in the course of a day, you get tired and you don’t have enough strength to exercise as much self-control in the evening. But love is the opposite. The more you love, the more you can love. A person who has one child does not love that child less when the second and third child come along. A person who loves his town does not love his country less. Love expands with use.”
Life. Death. Struggle. Joy. What all of this means: I think it all is very simple and very complicated. It all boils down to love.
Not a typical kind of love. Sometimes – many times, maybe – love isn’t enough. Love wasn’t enough to keep Jeff from dying. I could love him with every cell in my body, but it didn’t stop cancer from growing inside his. I could love my children wholly, but that doesn’t mean they are going to make the choices I want them to make. Indeed, their mistakes will shape them into whole people, mistakes that I might have otherwise shielded them from. So, no… sometimes love isn’t enough.
I’m talking about a selfless kind of love for the world: the kind where I can accept that all of this is temporary, and that I have one foot on this side of things, and another foot where I want to be with Jeff… that is a gift that allows me to love.
And let me be clear: I feel God. I truly believe. But when I think about dying, I’m not going crazy about the idea of meeting God, if I even get to. I should probably only admit this in the corner of a dark room, and only to myself, but the truth is that what I’m really excited about is seeing Jeff and my grandma.
Sometimes, I picture it. Dying. I think of myself: I’m in third person… an out-of-body type experience. I am looking down on a room. My body is in a hospital bed, but I’m not in a hospital. I don’t recognize the room. I’m old… maybe 80s or 90s. Jake and Kate are there. I don’t notice anyone else, if they are there. Kate is holding my hand, and we all know what’s coming.
And although we’re all sad to leave each other, Kate looks at me and says, “It’s okay, Mom. You can go see Dad now.”
I manage a soft smile, and squeeze her hand, remembering how her little hand once sat on mine as we read on her bed. But now, her hand has rings on it. Her hands have now changed diapers and made dinners and done homework and signed important documents. They are the hands of a woman, and now she is the one taking care of me.
She smiles back, and we both acknowledge what neither of us say: that although she barely knew him, and although it’s been 50 years since I’ve seen him, we both feel so connected to this man. Jake and Kate don’t want to say goodbye. But they also know how badly I want to go.
Again, I don’t know what you’d call that. A vision, if you wanted. A daydream. A projection of the two deaths I’ve witnessed. A hope.
But right now, we’re not in that imaginary room. All three of us are still trying to make sense of it.
Today, in church, Jake asked me, “Why do we believe in God?”
And I answered as honestly as I could without thinking too hard about it. I pulled him close, sat him on my lap, and whispered as carefully as I could in his left ear, while mass continued on around us.
“Do you remember how I told you that we come to church to learn answers to questions that have no answers?”
“Yes,” Jake said.
“Believing in God is kinda like that. Nobody can prove it. That’s why it’s called belief.”
Jake looked at me. I turned his ear toward my mouth again.
“I believe in God because without him, everything else doesn’t make sense. If there were no God, then we would never see Daddy again. We would never see anyone who lived before us, who loved us. And we wouldn’t have guardian angels or people who pray for us. Praying wouldn’t matter, without God.”
Jake turned his head again to look at me, quizzically. I could tell I had scared him, with the talk of never seeing Daddy again. It wasn’t my intention, but sometimes I have to explain what something is by explaining what it is not.
“But with God, we know there is more. That when we die, we will meet him, and we will meet all the people who love us, and even people who love us whom we’ve never met.”
“Like your Grammy?”
“Yes, just like her.”
“And when we pray, we know we are helping people. And if there is God, then we know that we are just temporarily here to help other people, and then we go back to where we came from, and we have all these new lessons and all these people that we got to love that we might not have known before.”
“I want to believe in God too, Mommy.”
“You’ll have to decide that, Jake. Sometimes, it will be very difficult to believe in God. But the way I always remember it is that the opposite – no God – makes even less sense to me.”
I have thought about my response all day. Should I, instead, have said that I believe in God because he loves me, so I should love him? Should I have said that God does all these wonderful things for us, so I believe in him? I feel like my answer was not the one I would’ve heard growing up — I basically told my son, “I believe in God because the alternative is too depressing.” Like, my belief in God is simply because I have no better options.
But when my faith is really tested, that is what it feels like. It boils down to that for me: God, or the alternative. I choose God.
And for all of the rituals and different religions and all of the things done in the name of religion… I just don’t think it’s as complicated as we’ve made it. I would like to believe that we will all die and have the same revelation as Jeff: Psh — this is it?! Because man… if it really is about learning to love, to see oneself in fraternity with all of humanity, especially those who are different from us… wouldn’t that be something?
I am rereading On Life After Death by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I often think of quotes or passages and I can’t remember where I read them, so I frequently end up rereading all of the books on my nightstand.
Searching for something else, I read this passage again, a reminder of how I just don’t think it’s that complicated:
“The dying experience is almost identical to the experience at birth. It is a birth into a different existence… on this level you realize as well that nobody can die alone because the deceased one is able to visit anyone he likes. There are people awaiting you who died before you, who loved and treasured you a lot. And since time doesn’t exist on this level, someone who lost a child when he was twenty years of age could, after his passage at the age of ninety-nine, still meet his child as a child. For those on the other side, one minute could be equal to one hundred years of our earth time.”
And so, when any of us dies who knew Jeff, it will seem like we were never apart. What we do with our time here – between his death and and our death – is not only what gives his death some kind of meaning, but indeed, it gives our lives meaning, too.
During the sermon this morning, I caught a few sentences — a rare happening when I go to church with Jake and Kate. He said something almost verbatim to, “We cannot equate what we know on earth to what it will be like in heaven. We are not capable of conceptualizing it.”
I always thought of heaven as the traditional image of clouds and a big golden gate, where an important figure sits with a book and a pen, and asks if I’m on The List.
I’m going to say it again: I just don’t think it’s that complicated.
On the way home from church, I saw geese flying in beautiful formation.
“Guys! Look at the geese!” I said. “Isn’t it beautiful how they fly together?”
“Of course, Mommy,” said Jake. “That’s because heaven is all around us.”