Embracing the Sign

The teacher announced our second-grade class was going to visit a classmate, Christine, to say good-bye. “Christine won’t be taking her seat anymore. Christine has died,” she said to the hushed rows of children, seated properly in alphabetical order. I looked over to the empty seat at the third desk in the first row. Christine, with her red curls and freckles, had been sitting there only a few days ago. “Everyone move up a seat,” Sister Mary Immaculata said as she instructed the children in the first row to fill in at the empty desk. Wordlessly, they moved, a slight shift in the geography of the classroom. “Christine is in heaven,” Sister Immaculata assured us. “She is with God and the angels where she will be perfectly happy forever. We will be going to say good-bye to her after lunch.”

That afternoon the class of sixty students, now fifty-nine, was led across the street to Christine’s house. As we approached the front door, we heard crying that filtered down from the house and grew louder with each approaching step.

I lived several blocks away in that Brooklyn neighborhood of criss-crossing streets and brick stoops where distance predicted friendships. I had never been to Christine’s house before. Christine was in the living room. All the furniture was gone. Enormous sprays of floral arrangements covered the walls from floor to ceiling. We had been instructed to file slowly past the open casket with our eyes downcast and say a prayer to our classmate who was now with God. I peeked. Christine looked exactly as she had the day she made her First Holy Communion, except she was lying down. She didn’t look sick, as I had expected. Her white dress and veil were spread across a white satin pillow. Pearl rosary beads were laced around her fingers. I swear I saw her small chest rise and fall beneath the white dress. This is all a mistake, I thought. But no one else seemed to notice, and Christine remained dead.

The flowers, looming in the living room, were grotesque in their enormity. The overwhelming odor of those floral sprays mingled with the crying coming from the other room. The scent attached itself like a barnacle to some synapse in my brain, because I have never again looked at cut flowers without a whiff of death filling my nostrils. But as for Christine, I followed my teacher’s instructions. Assured that she was perfectly happy with God, I did not think of her.

Yet, I thought of myself. I did not want to die. A small fear grew inside me. I did not want to catch a burst appendix! I did not want to leave my mother, even if I was to be perfectly happy with God. I did not want my mother to cry the way Christine’s mother was crying in the kitchen. And I could not help but wonder what Christine was going to do in heaven for all eternity.

For a child, so much of happiness depends on having a desire met—for a trip to the circus, a bicycle, a best friend to play with, a new dress, no school because it’s snowing. Simple things. For other seven-year-olds the desire may be more complicated – for bullying to end, a parent to stop drinking, shame to disappear. Yet in both scenarios, happiness seems to depend on time. Without time to fulfill desire, existence seems static, the flat line of a horizon that never changes. Everlasting sameness. And at seven years old, I had all the time in the world. At least eternity would be shorter for me than it was for Christine, I thought, as I dismissed it as something for other people.

Even before Christine died, the concept of God and heaven had been reinforced each day, along with the times tables, pronouns, and the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a truth written on the blackboard below the laminated alphabet, displayed in both cursive and print, rimming the high-ceilinged classroom. Washed clean of the previous day’s chalk dust, the catechism question shone white on the blackboard.

Q. Why are you here? (Here, it was understood, was not simply being in the classroom on that particular day. Here was “to exist.”)

A. To know, love and serve God on this earth and be happy with him in heaven.

There it was, the recipe for life. Contained in the little sentence excerpted from the Baltimore Catechism, the fact of God, the fact of heaven. No questions asked. Heaven was in the cards. All one had to do was toe the line and love God. Not a very difficult admonition. No more difficult than memorizing the exports of the United States and the difference between a verb and an adverb. This was the undertow of my Catholic education.

SIX YEARS LATER, infinity shook me. My friends and I were discussing a math class. A girlfriend traced the mathematical symbol for infinity on paper napkins and illustrated how there was no escape from it. The old oak table in the Brooklyn ice cream parlor, the chocolate egg cream, and the straw standing upright in the glass are all anchors to my thirteen-year-old self that day. Frightening thoughts about death and infinity, a concept that, until that moment, had been relegated to the study of math, sprang from some dormant seed within me.

For a Catholic girl attending an all girls’ Catholic high school, the promise of an afterlife, in a place called heaven, was unquestionable in the faith in which I had been reared. The moment of that off-hand remark in the Brooklyn ice cream parlor drew me into a labyrinth. For the first time, I literally confronted eternity. Time without end, to go on and on and on was ungraspable, unimaginable, and frightening. The thought caused my head to swim and a vague nausea to make its way through my body as a subtle panic set in. The smell of flowers, a white First Holy Communion dress, and Christine erupted in my memory.

I did what I imagine most thirteen-year-old girls do. I pushed the thought aside and got back to the chocolate egg cream, the boy in the next booth, and the teenage realities so important at the time. No one else I knew had died, although the whisperings of other kids, polio, iron lungs, and the boy around the corner, who couldn’t walk, loomed in the shadow of my awareness. It had been seven years since Christine died, and I had continued to live. I was probably going to live forever!

Time went on, infused with a revolving set of desires, all of which could be accomplished while loving God. As an adolescent, it was a perfect math score, an invitation to dance, a diploma, a room of my own, unblemished skin, a trip to Radio City Music Hall. This was the time of preparation, the anteroom of life. Serving God would come later.

As a young woman growing up in the sixties, I had two choices: become a nun or follow in my mother’s footsteps and marry. In marriage I could serve God by rearing Catholic babies, who in turn “would know, love and serve God and be happy with him in heaven.”

I chose marriage when I was barely twenty-one years old. I had known Bob, a neighborhood boy, since eighth grade. When pregnancy didn’t happen in the first six months of our marriage, I made an appointment with a doctor. Surely there was something wrong with me. I prayed the rosary each day to Mary, the mother of God, to fulfill my burning desire to be a mother. Driving home from a movie or a party on a Saturday night, Bob and I recited the prayers together, one of the most intimate acts of our marriage. We were in it together, counting on God to help us create the blueprints of the life we would build together.

And it happened. Whether prayers were answered or nature took its course, within the next five years I gave birth to my three oldest children. Each filled me with a joy beyond what I could ever have imagined. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, the objects of my desire, my way of serving God, what He wanted for me, aligned perfectly with what I wanted.

Yet, I was increasingly preoccupied with the fear of losing my children, whether literally at the playground or the Thanksgiving Day parade, in a car crash if I weren’t present in my imagined omnipotence to protect them, or to a fever that spiraled out of control. My anxiety about their safety burned obsessively. Life was fragile, and I saw danger at every turn. My vague feelings about my own death and eternity crystallized, the way minerals dispersed throughout the substrata of bedrock become the hard black rocks of coal. In my vigilance to avoid death, I thought about it all the time.

It was exhausting. I kept track of children who were diagnosed with leukemia, children who fell out of windows, and children who drowned when a parent looked away. A good friend once commented that I had nightmares all day long. Gradually my fears overshadowed all the little things that had brought me happiness. I would not let my children out of my sight. Even a trip to the grocery store with their father caused me to watch the clock and monitor the minutes until their return. Even when my own children were safely tucked in their beds at night, I was becoming exquisitely aware of a world in which safety and happiness were reserved for the lucky few. My provincial views garnered from the safety of a happy childhood had gradually telescoped to include a world where poverty, inequality, war, and evil were endured, day in and day out by the many, with no hope of any ameli or ation. In my unrelenting preoccupation, literally everything in life led to death; everything in life was meaningless.

As I struggled to find my way in my search for meaning, my reason for being, an incredible sadness overcame me. My world grew smaller and smaller. As I fought the overwhelming panic, the God whom all my life I had accepted on blind faith vanished. I was truly lost. The existential questions that had eluded me while I was busy changing diapers and running after toddlers pounded like surf in my brain.

What is it all about?

Is there a God?

Is there an afterlife?

If there is no afterlife, does anything matter?

Is life an absurd joke?

Prayer had always been my answer, the current that moved me forward. I had prayed to pass exams, for the phone to ring, the bus to come, my brother to return from Vietnam. I had prayed to St. Jude for the impossible, St. Gerard to become pregnant, St. Anthony for loss, St. Patrick for luck. And my prayers had been answered. I had everything I wanted, or so it seemed. But now prayer was empty. The whole idea of life being about an afterlife, of a heaven or hell for eternity, was cast into doubt. I could not find God.

I could not pray my way out of this one. As my anxiety and hopelessness increased, physical symptoms manifested themselves. I awoke each day at four in the morning and tried to intellectualize my way out of the joylessness that had overtaken me. I lost the ability to eat; weight fell from my body. I craved sleep, the only release from my swirling obsessive thoughts. After getting the three children to bed, I would crash, only to awaken at 4:00 a.m. with hours of empty minutes, heavy with obsessive thoughts, ahead of me. I tried to make my life meaningful, fill the hours with a job selling Avon, volunteering with the Red Cross and the Probation Department, but the existential questions kept pounding away at me. What is it all about, this life that ends in death?

I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I feared I was going crazy. I had everything I thought I wanted: a home, a husband, and three children I loved more than life itself. Yet every hour of every day was an ordeal to be gotten through. Time crawled. Minutes dragged as my brain tried to work its way out of my inability to find happiness or joy in anything. The pain of depression was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I would have willingly traded it for physical pain, which I knew I could bear. I prayed to the God who wasn’t there. Just let me survive until my youngest child is eighteen and doesn’t need me anymore.

This may have been the craziest thought I had, but at the time it kept me functioning through the unrelenting void of depression. But to have missed the rest of my life, the days and years that lay ahead of me, is a thought that even today, all these years later, causes me to shiver.

But the picture that would become my one and only precious life was hidden from me then, concealed the way swirls of oil paint on an artist’s pallette hide the uncountable brush strokes that will go into creating an original canvas. All the small things that enhance life, as well as the large, were beyond my imagination. Like the simple savoring of a perfect corned-beef sandwich, the amazing flow of a game of tennis when body and mind are coordinated perfectly, the awe of peering into the dizzying depths of a crevasse on a glacier in Alaska, the unparalleled joy of sharing life with my children as they grew into adulthood and became my best friends, it was all potential waiting to be embodied.

Once when I was still young enough, I fantasized myself as Katherine Hepburn rowing through a tangled jungle in the movie African Queen. It was early April when I commandeered an old canoe and paddled into a swamp that hid between the shallow rims of Lake Wanda and Lake Wawayanda. I left the canoe moored in a corridor of cattails and entered a cove of trees, wading knee deep in murky water. The slender winter branches of a willow provided a scaffold I climbed. From a high vantage I saw millions of brown buds, each closed tight as a fist. When suddenly the sun broke through the early morning fog and began to roll over the morning, I heard before I saw the cracking open of the winter willows’ hard bud kernels. The sun shone as bud after bud sang itself into a shimmering dome as the wooly catkins burst, transforming the swamp with a silver iridescence.

That moment, which I came to call the epiphany of the swamp, holds me still. It serves as a living metaphor for the way a life can sing itself into itself, bud by bud, experience by experience. But what this experience would mean to me came much later.

At the time of my craziest thought, it was the late sixties. Treatment for mental illness had not yet entered the mainstream. There was a stigma, a shame attached to engaging in psychotherapy and psychiatry. Yet, the day came when frightening and unknown as it was, I knew I needed help. I could not help myself.

I started with a priest who was wise enough to recommend a psychiatrist. During my first visit, clinical depression was diagnosed. I was given a prescription for medicine and referred to a therapist. I was unable to tolerate the medicine, but the psychotherapist to whom I was referred would become my anchor to myself during the next five years.

One of the first insights gained in the early months of therapy was that motherhood was the solution I had created for a meaningful life. My identity was built around motherhood, just like my own mother’s was and like Mary, the mother of God. Since I had not been able to become pregnant again, my life was losing its meaning. Without being able to sustain my chosen identity, who was I?

Suffusing all this was my preoccupation with the fragility of life, the constant vigilance to avoid death and the unattractiveness of an afterlife that spoke to my diminished faith.

The therapist suggested that my desire for a pregnancy be held in abeyance until I could get my fears and anxieties about death and the meaning of life under control. This did not seem like a difficult request. I had thought pregnancy was the answer long before I started therapy and it hadn’t happened. There was no reason to think I was going to conceive now.

I was in therapy less than a year when I found myself pregnant. I was both scared and pleased. Scared because I knew how my unresolved anxieties still kept me emotionally fragile and pleased because a part of me still believed bringing children into the world was where meaning lay. With meaning, the questions eating away at me would dissolve, like soap bubbles down a drain.

The therapist didn’t see it that way. I can still see the look of concern and disappointment on his face as he calculated the time it would take for us to get back to the questions I was grappling with now that a new baby was on the way.­­­

It would be that pregnancy, my fourth and final one, that thrust me even deeper into the core questions breaking me apart.

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