Well, I asked David to write me some of his thoughts on what he missed about faith to finish out my series. He was kind enough to oblige because he’s lovely that way. I would like to note that he sent this to me while I was in class and I had to quickly figure out how to blink back all the tears and not start crying awkwardly in public. So there’s that. Anyway, enough about me, on to the main event and all.
We are creatures of terror, of fear. We come into the world screaming, and for many of us, we leave with a whimper. Death remains the only constant and our lives are shaped by this knowledge. Our entire lives are focused around distracting us from this fact, scrabbling to find meaning in our relatively short lifespans.
As I grew up, I was taught that death was just the beginning. It wasn’t something to be looked forward to (though it could be a release), nor something to be sought (though don’t flinch from it!), but it wasn’t a tragedy. The Seventh-day Adventist church, the denomination I was raised in, puts a lot of focus on the second coming of Christ. Every aspect of life is shown through this lens. Furthermore, the SDA church also believes strongly that after death, the dead are dead until the second coming – no going straight to heaven (and they don’t believe in a literal eternal hell).
Seen this way, the terror of death fades. We miss those who have gone before; they’re out of our lives and yes, we know that some day, we’ll follow them into the grave. But, our sleep will seem like a moment, and then the trumpet will sound and the dead in Christ will rise first. Our faithful savior will then wipe away every tear, and there will be tears – those of joy, those of sorrow, those of loss. All things will be fulfilled and find meaning in the second coming, the glorious promise that will come soon – today, or tomorrow.
This comfort – and it is a comfort of sorts – helped me through a lot. I had a dog growing up, a big black curly-haired beast, that I loved more than anything. Sheba followed me everywhere and when he lay down for a nap, I’d put my head on his stomach and read for hours. After he died, and he did die young from poison, I was devastated. The only thing that got me through that loss was the thought that soon and very soon, I’d see him again in Heaven.
My belief in Heaven felt more solid than most things in the world. We humans are creatures of story and legend. They easily feel more real than the absence of meaning. Death isn’t easy for us as children, so the adults in our lives explain it in stories. “They’re asleep,” is easy to imagine; I saw my siblings and parents asleep all the time. “They’ve gone away,” or “Jesus called them home,” (though that would never be said at an Adventist funeral) both present simplified versions of reality. Children can understand people leaving or falling asleep, they can’t understand the absence of a story, or truly grasp that a story has ended – permanently.
As a child, my mom often read books with me. We’d cuddle up together and spend long hours taking turns reading to each other. After a particularly good book finished, I’d want the next one. I hated books that weren’t series – how could the story stop? All of those characters had more to do and I wanted to share that with them.
The end of a good book is a death, of sorts. Those characters lived in our hearts and minds, they awoke our imagination and we, gods of our own realms, breathed life into them. All things end, and all things die – when the last page gets turned, the characters exist only in our memories.
My Nana turned her last page when I was still a Christian. Her last years were rough. She developed dementia and had to go to an intensive care facility. I remember visiting her there and she didn’t know who I was, slipping in and out of the past with the ease of a dancer. I held her hand, her skin smooth and translucent; I wiped away the food she didn’t notice remained on her mouth. And I thought back through her story – it couldn’t end like this. Not really. My Nana was a force to be reckoned with, a strong-willed woman who had gone through famine, war, and abuse. To see her like this hurt. It cut deep, but as I held her hand in that dingy room, I knew that she’d be made whole again when she was finally reunited with her god.
After she died, my Grandpa deteriorated fast. He lasted a few more years and his health broke and buckled. Many of my memories of him involve either his passion for his fellow Jews, or him building things in his garage. Life dealt him a cruel twist – he developed severe arthritis. His skillful strong hands bent into claws and caused him constant pain. The man who once built a cabin by himself, who built flower boxes, wagons (my beloved red wagon), and roofs, he couldn’t hold a fork to feed himself much less swing a hammer.
It didn’t stop him. Little stopped my Grandpa when he got stubborn. Even though it put him in agony, he went to his garage and built small wooden wagons to raise money for the Adventist school. As usual, he pilfered the wood from construction site scraps.
As stubborn as Grandpa was, even he couldn’t escape our ancestral terror. He, too, ended up in the skilled nursing facility. Not quite the same room as his beloved wife who went to the grave kicking, but it looked the same. It smelled the same. And, as I sat in his room and held his hand, he looked at me.
“I’m tired,” he said, and he looked it, too. And so I listened to him tell me that he’d lived a life in service to Jesus. In the end, he sacrificed everything for his Christ – he was born a Jew to a conservative family, and when he came to the Lord as a young man, his entire family disowned him. I don’t think he spoke to them again in this life, and as a Christian, I don’t think he expected to see them again in the next. He gave money and countless hours to the church; he ran the Israelite Heritage Institute, a series of twenty-odd Bible studies designed to bring Jews to Christ. The only thing that truly kept him here was waiting on two final studies that would graduate two more souls.
One came, and Grandpa called it good and died the next day.
It broke me. This time, I no longer believed that I’d see him again. By this time, Heaven had faded into mist and a garbled collection of half-tales, ones never finished. My mom, still a believer, fretted because she decided to have him cremated against his wishes. A Jew in his soul, Grandpa knew that it was important to be buried whole; a pragmatist, my mom said God put him together once, and He could do it again. Death isn’t a cheap affair.
As I write this, I’m very nearly thirty. I hope to have a lot of my life left. I have a whole host of people I love, people I might lose. I expect to see my parents grow older, and some day, I’m going to be sitting by my mom’s bedside, as I sat at her parents’. I’ll hold her hand and it’ll feel frail and weak. I’ll listen to her tell me about how she finds comfort in the thought of seeing those she loves again at the Second Coming, I’ll hear her tell me that we’ll only be apart for a short time.
And, god help me, I won’t take her story away from her. It’s a comfort, of a sort, but it’s one I no longer have.
And I miss that.