I don’t believe in heaven and hell, but now that my parents are dead I wish I did. Baptized and confirmed as a Methodist, my lifetime of church attendance halted abruptly at age seventeen when we read Being and Nothingness in my honors lit class. My teacher raved about Sartre’s iconoclastic refusal of the Nobel Prize for Literature a year before, in 1964, and I was enthralled. Having tasted beer and boys, both Methodist taboos, I got cocky after the first lecture on Sartre. Elbows planted on the dinner table, I broke my father’s heart, pronouncing that the Jesus story was intriguing, but impossible for anyone of sound mind to believe.
Dad said he understood the appeal of controversial thinkers like Sartre, their lure for bright, young minds, but admonished me to remember that the Bible had been around longer and would outlast all the flash-in-the-pan-radicals. I employed the logic he’d imbedded in my brain and shredded the Bible stories he’d told me as a lap-sitting little girl. His face crumpled over his plate of pot roast.
Jesus was Dad’s Lord and Savior and helped him survive the Great Depression-era collapse of his prominent family, a perilous landing at Utah Beach and gruesome front line combat. After the war, staunch faith in Jesus strengthened Dad as he examined Nazi death camp atrocities and prosecuted war criminals at Nuremburg.
I cringe now, seeing the hurt burning in Dad’s eyes as we faced off across the Chippendale. “This is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself, Les. I won’t force the issue.” He didn’t wake me that Sunday morning, but I heard the engine of his Mercury humming below my window as the family pulled out of the driveway. Overwhelmed and isolated, I yanked the covers over my pillow but couldn’t retreat into sleep. My self-righteous head never bowed again in the sanctuary of my childhood church.
* * *
In the photo that sits on my bedroom bookshelf, Dad is perched on an ornately carved trunk. The trunk, now eighty years old, rests at the foot of my bed, and twenty years after Dad’s death, I sit on it most every day to zip my Merrills. The woodcarving on top, a Chinese junk, is deep and imprints my thighs as I occupy the same spot Dad does in the photo.
Inside the picture frame, Dad is lean and muscular with chiseled features and white cotton shirtsleeves rolled above his biceps. He is twenty-four, in 1935, and a shock of dark hair floats off his forehead in the steamy heat of Kowloon. In his eyes is the promise of the unknown. His whole life is ahead of him and he knows it. Mine is not and I know it.
Dad told me the story, how he ended up half way around the world, physically and emotionally broken after three years of grueling night shift labor while attending law school. He craved fresh air and sights unseen, stuffed a small duffle and crept out of the house while his mother was away. He hopped a streetcar to the Detroit River docks, bought a bogus Seaman’s Card for five bucks and hired onto a tramp steamer. Shivering in a filthy phone booth, he choked out the promise to finish law school to his mother.
Dad worked his way to the Orient and back in fourteen months, graduated with honors and was hired by a prestigious Detroit firm, just in time to take the call from his Uncle Sam. Before shipping out, he married the girl who was a secretary by day, a college student by night, and worked behind a soda fountain on weekends, where he’d met her five years before.
Another photograph sits on my bookshelf, a sunny day in 1942. My parents are holding hands, striding toward the camera into their future. He’s a 2nd Lieutenant in crisp khaki and her suit is cream-beige, has a notched collar and tortoiseshell buttons. Her hair is swept up, his buzzed short, and their faces radiate joy in profile, contemplating their upcoming wedding, I imagine. The wide sidewalk in the photo leads away from a red brick colonial with expansive, multi-paned windows.
Over fifty years later, when Mother was in her eighties, we leafed through photo albums and I asked if the house in the photo belonged to friends. “Heavens no,” she said, “Just one we admired, drove by it on Sundays after church. We promised ourselves we’d have one like it when the war was over and a friend took our picture out front, so Dad could take it with him overseas.” Until that moment, I’d never realized that our family home, purchased twelve years after the sidewalk photo was taken, bore an astonishing resemblance to the one in the picture.
Something, call it faith, drove my parents and their dreams all those years.
My fascination with religious faith and believers surfaced when Senator Ted Kennedy, Lion of the Senate, died in August 2009. A longtime fan of the liberal lion, I watched his funeral mass on TV, was hypnotized by the gathering of a dynasty bidding farewell to its patriarch. The pageantry of the procession – the virile young lions bearing the old one into the cathedral, organ music resonating, incense burning, and finally, the news commentator’s enunciated whisper. “It’s rare to see, this phenomenal faith of the Kennedy family, they’ve known enough tragedy for a small nation, and still, they believe. They have hope.”
A high-ranking church male, resplendent in gleaming white brocade, synopsized the beauty of their faith, seducing me with his words: “Our Catholic Mass of Christian Burial weaves together the senses of loss and hope. Even our most profound losses are survivable with this hope.” This is where it gets dicey for me.
Yes, I’ve been told what their hope is, but I just can’t grasp it. They believe they’ll meet him again in a better place and he’ll be whole, not desiccated by cancer. Other lost loved ones will be there too and everyone will greet and embrace. As if my Sartre-spouting seventeen year-old self has never left, I question the story. What about the people they don’t love, the betrayers, the liars? Is forgiveness guaranteed when they meet up there? And when Senator Kennedy reverts to his healthy young self in heaven, does that mean he returns to his first wife, Joan, the woman with whom he was miserable during those years? And is it possible for him to revert to that vigorous young self without the alcoholism that plagued him during those decades?
Or is the process of rebirth in heaven more selective? And if so, who selects? Or does Kennedy’s being in heaven mean that he has already been transformed by achieving all the requirements of his faith? I was confused, so I went to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
There is a heaven, i.e., God will bestow happiness and the richest gifts on all those who depart this life free from original sin and personal mortal sin, and who are consequently, in the state of justice and friendship with God.
In religion, Heaven is a transcendental realm in which people who have died continue to exist in an afterlife. The term in English, has also typically been used to refer to a plane of existence, often held to exist in another realm, and is accessible by people according to various standards of divinity, goodness, piety, faith or other virtues.
Five decades after I shunned my father’s faith and replaced Christ with Camus, I muffled my sobs during the final lucid moments of Dad’s life, but he said not to worry, he was safe in the arms of his Father. He grasped my hand and asked me to take care of my mother, his concern, as usual, being for others, not himself.
Yet I didn’t sense any arms cradling my battered father as he writhed in restraints, moaning as his pain meds wore off every few hours. He’d suffered a heart attack on a Saturday morning, crashed his metallic beige Taurus into a massive oak in front of the high school where I’d learned just enough Existentialism to reject his Methodism. After a stupefying week of high-tech medical heroics, I ordered the removal of Dad’s ventilator and a beatific smile spread across his jaw. His fists uncurled for the first time in a week as morphine dripped. Jesus? Morphine? Which one let him rest?
Several years after Dad died I awakened during a vivid dream. I’d seen him in a tunnel of sparkling white light and my beloved cat, Tanski, who’d died a month before, sat up, bright-eyed, in his arms. My childhood dog, Pierre, tumbled at his feet and Dad grinned, used my nickname, “Hurry up, Chum. Nana can’t wait to see you.” Really? Even then, during what some people might call a visitation, Sartre seemed to smoke a pipe in my bedroom corner, offering me questions more pronounced than my father’s gentle invitation. Be with Dad and see Nana again? What would I give to see those twinkling blue eyes? To sing along with her, holding hands and trading verses, ‘I’ve gotsix pence, jolly, jolly six pence…’
Why can’t I believe and reach my hand out? Call it a truce between Dad and me and his Father?
Now that my parents are dead, I’ve stepped to the front of the who-dies-next-line in my family, and clarity about what will happen when my number is called would be welcome. I recall high-gloss pictures of a white-bearded sky god in my Sunday school books, and of longhaired Jesus in his caftan cranking out miracles. I still wonder why I was never convinced. I adored Dad, wanted to please him and to be just like him, difficult for a girl growing up in the perky-petticoat 1950s. I cannot fathom why the Jesus-as-my-personal-savior-pill caught in my throat.
I often visit the sunny-sidewalk-photo, longing to step inside the frame with my healthy young parents. Dad is a vibrant warrior, square shoulders in his crisp uniform, strengthened by his religious faith. Yet I can’t abide such faith. I kept the vigil at his bedside in the ICU, shepherded him through ravaged days of morphine drips and a failed heart pump, his moans echoing in my ears. Is this what his loving, benevolent Father intended for such a faithful servant?
My belief system doesn’t include ridding myself of original or any other sin and my church is nothing like Senator Kennedy’s, although I try to attend weekly. In my place of worship there is no Gothic-splendor, no stained glass, no Aeolian Skinner grandeur. And I doubt there’s a transcendental realm where I’ll exist after my ashes are scattered.
I am however, a believer, a devout one. My hiking boots hit the trail and I am divine. I believe in the power of persimmon sunsets and pinprick stars. My cathedral’s granite faces are big as football fields, its crashing rivers strewn with Buick-size boulders. I’m baptized in the glare of midday sun on wet granite, redeemed by rustling leaves. Poised on a mountain ledge, I’m reverent, transfigured by towering sweet gums and hickories, their wind-crooked limbs profiled in electric blue.
These days I am deciphering a foreign emotional language. As a young woman I careened forward through life, hungered for the ends of stories, often jumping to final chapters of books. I’m not so anxious to discover endings now and instead, embrace beginnings. The beginning of my parents’ story: the soda shop meeting, the separation, the war, the reunion—all of it, my emotional tattoo. Yet as the final witness to their final days, I am indelibly imprinted with their endings and carry them like sacraments.
These are days of uncertainty. I’m past half time and the game clock has run out faster than I expected. Tumultuous love affairs, young married life, childbearing and rearing are over, leaving me balanced on the precipice between middle and old age. With distant children and dead parents, time has twisted for me. My adult children are older than my parents were when the photos on the bookshelf were taken.
I can no longer reach out and touch the hands, feel the flesh of those who share my blood, yet the oh-so-seductive concept of heaven and its’ promise of reunion still doesn’t stick. Yes, I marvel at the architecture of cathedrals and weep at voices harmonizing in country churches, but it’s the faces in those places that fascinate me. I see the spiritual certainty on them and know that the believers have discovered something. Eyelids flutter, cheeks and lips relax as hands clasp. What would I, a transient on this planet, give for the authority of such muscular truth, such principled conviction, an unbridled leap into blind faith?
Leslie Tucker, a Detroit escapee, lives on a Carolina mountainside and refuses to divulge it’s exact location. She is an avid hiker and zip liner, a dedicated yogi, an ACBL Life Master in Sanctioned Bridge and enjoys anything that requires a helmet. She holds ancient degrees in business and music. Her work has appeared in the 2010 and 2012 Press 53 Anthologies, Fiction Fix, So to Speak, Shenandoah Magazine, Prime Number Magazine and the Baltimore Review.