Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Death and Providence

“Oh, this is what that meant!” said Sabrina at the wake. She was being mysterious again. A few months before that, she had started reading about death and told her mother, Beata, who thought it was strange but forgot about it. After that, Sabrina mysteriously called one day and asked, “Is anyone sick?”
“No. Bill and Larry have health problems, but that’s all.”
“I have weird dreams about the family.”
“What do you mean? Tell me what you mean.” As Beata asked for more information, Sabrina grew angry and obnoxious—not like her at all.
“Just tell me what you’re talking about,” pressed Beata, irritating Sabrina further.
“You don’t tell me when I’m going to tell you. I will tell you when I will tell you.” Rudely. It was like something made her not tell.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you hear me? I’m not going to tell you. Do you understand? We’re lucky that nobody’s sick and nobody’s died.”
“Well no, nobody’s died.”
“A lot of families have those things.”
“Oh, I know that.”
Beata felt she should have known better, she should have connected the dots. Then she could have done something to avert the hideous car accident that killed her favorite and most devout grandchild, Connie. She could’ve prayed, if nothing else. But death in the family when no one was seriously ill, and the death of a grandchild, and, most especially, the death of Connie did not occur to her. It was so foreign. How could God be so cruel?

Sabrina’s uncharacteristically rude response to her questions disturbed Beata. She asked Dee, another daughter, to try to pry it out of Sabrina, but Sabrina didn’t tell her either.
“That’s just Sabrina,” said Dee, and Beata was relieved, thinking if it was serious Sabrina would tell Dee.

At the wake, Sabrina’s outburst started an unpacking of the “death dreams” as she called them. Now she saw the significance and told the whole story. Months earlier while reading a book about death, she thought, “Everyone seems to be doing all right in our family.”
And then she heard the words, “Yes, they are now, but not for long because there’s going to be a death in the family.”
A week and a half later she heard the words, “There will be a loss in the family. It’s imminent.”
Beata asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I didn’t know if I was right.”
“It didn’t matter if you’d been right. It would have been better if you’d been wrong.” Beata thought, if she’d known, she could have told the parents and they could have kept it from happening somehow. She went to the cemetery and cried at Connie’s grave, and was angry at Sabrina. If she had told, thought Beata, she might have saved Connie. She cried and cried.

The thought of someone in her family dying had never occurred to Beata when Sabrina was asking about sickness in the family. Now she wonders why. She says it was just so unthinkable, and she feels guilty. She says, “Maybe if I’d been wiser and able to figure it out, I could have stopped it.” She could have prayed. She could have told the parents. During the wake and funeral she was a wreck because she kept thinking she should have done something to avert it. “A Grandma is supposed to do that. If I tried harder . . .”
Beata is guilting herself and her daughter for something that nobody could have stopped. As happens often when calamities strike, Beata is forced to release her Sunday school image of a sugar-daddy God who grants our wishes—what we think is best for us and those we love as long as we’re good and pray a lot. It’s a simple morality that rewards good in ways we can easily understand.

Beata is not unique. All of us come up against this painful gap between our expectations and reality. A religious background can cushion the blows, or not. Not if we refuse to let God be God. Beata says she now is more open to my alternative interpretations of religious language. She agrees she has grown through this experience. This story really happened but I changed the names. More heart-wrenching aspects of the story I’m not allowed to report even while hiding identities—they’re too personal and sacred.

The following true story I can tell. Big brother Chris and little brother Johnny shared time together every Thursday, their “guy day.” Chris had joined the mentoring program despite being in a wheelchair with paralyzed legs, the result of a car accident. Chris cheered Johnny at his soccer games. Together they enjoyed math and science, looked for rocks and agates, flew kites, and went fishing. They shopped, Johnny riding the back of Chris’s wheelchair and learning to operate the lift on Chris’s van.

One day Johnny asked his family, “If you could have one wish, what would you wish for?” He took his turn last and wished that Chris would get his legs back. This had become his greatest wish after he learned it was Chris’s wish.

Then came the phone call. Johnny’s mom had to tell him that Chris was in the hospital and not doing well. More phone calls, and he wasn’t getting better at all. At about 6:00 o’clock on a Sunday evening, Johnny announced that Chris had died. Gently informed that they didn’t know this yet, he again said, “He’s gone.”

They learned that Chris had indeed passed away before 6:00 o’clock that evening. Through tears, Johnny said, “Chris got his legs back. He got his legs back.”

This true story, like the others I tell, support my conviction that the inner spiritual world breaks into our surface world with regularity and often it has nothing to do with religion.

I’m not saying that religions should stop trying to bring people to Spirit. With their mythical portrayal of the spiritual world, their rituals, and their supportive structures, religions offer community, dignity, and many more benefits impossible to detail. Their contributions would prove more beneficial if people understood certain distinctions—between faith and belief, between religious myths and facts, between religious authority and the supreme authority of incomprehensible Mystery.

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