My parents left the Catholic church in the late 60s, after a particularly awful moment wherein their parish priest told them my older brother, who had died in his crib at one month of age – my mother was the one who found his tiny, lifeless body – was not and never would be in heaven because he wasn’t christened in the faith.
To their credit, they never stopped any of their eventual four children from attending the church of their choice. They didn’t exactly encourage it, but they didn’t discourage it, either, and I was active in my missionary Christian church all the way through high school. I left the faith not long after that, in the late 80s. I don’t think I really ever had any true faith; church activities merely gave me something to do on weekends that didn’t involve drinking or smoking pot, which many of my other friends were doing at the time. There was a lot more sex at church, but that’s irrelevant to this post.
College and its requisite science and philosophy courses only solidified my skepticism regarding the tenets and dogma of the Christian church. That skepticism eventually came to apply to all religion and spirituality; Buddhism, Wicca, Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, anything “new age” … it was all just so much B.S. to me. Faith in anything other than myself was strictly the purview of those people who needed a crutch in their life.
Then my mother died in 1997. She was 56. I was 31.
I found myself floundering, realizing I, too, needed a crutch. I didn’t have a spiritual epiphany or a return to religious belief; I simply discovered how difficult it was to picture my mother as a non-entity. I mean I had always joked, even with her, that when we die, we become nothing but worm food. I loved that old tune “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…” when I was a kid.
But it wasn’t a funny kid’s song anymore. She couldn’t be worm food. I wouldn’t hear of it. It just wasn’t right.
I desperately needed her to be somewhere, even if it was inconsistent with my own beliefs about death, so I compromised: I pictured her in her own kind of heaven.
There she was, in the garden behind my grandparent’s house, where she had lived practically from birth until she left to marry my father in 1962. It was comforting to see her, in my mind’s eye, picking the strawberries and rhubarb stalks for the pies she and my grandmother would make every summer. Even now, I can close my eyes and smell the rhubarb reduction cooking or hear my three younger siblings taking turns cranking the old, wooden ice cream maker on the back steps.
Eventually, my skeptical brain returned to the idea she isn’t there – she isn’t anywhere, in fact – but the fantasy gave me comfort and much relief without having any actual religion or dogma attached to it. I have since recommended this method to other non-believing friends as a way to cope with their own loss. I don’t know if it’s worked for them, but I know it has for me.
Yet it’s funny that when my father passed in 2008, I didn’t picture the kitchen at his childhood home – wood-paneled walls, AM radio on the counter, back door open for the breeze to blow through. In my mind, I didn’t see him chatting with my grandfather at the kitchen table, telling us kids not to run and slide across the smooth, bare floor in our socks. Instead, I saw him playing cards with friends at a card table in various living rooms, always with a cigarette and a bottle of beer nearby.
I know he’s not there, either. But it would be his little slice of heaven, with nary a worm to be found.