Every night before I go to bed I come in to check on you. I check to see if you’re covered up, or sleeping across the bed, if you’re too hot or cold, and if needed, I adjust things to make you more comfortable. Then I kiss you, tell you I love you, and go to bed myself. The other night I was so overcome with love for you, that I felt the need to kneel down at your bedside and thank God. I thanked him for giving me such a blessing. I prayed for your health and safety. For your happiness and joy. I prayed that you’ll be blessed with love and success. And finally, I asked God to keep me around for as long as possible. I told him that I wanted to be a Grandmother.*
The thing is, I realize now that I should speak to you about faith – about religion – because it’s something that people learn from their families. It’s something, that should I be around, you will learn via osmosis, but if I’m not here for you to just absorb the lessons, I’d like you to know where I stand. People say never to discuss politics or religion, as the issues themselves are too polarizing. At the end of the day faith and religion are very personal choices and something that you’ll have to decide for yourself. I just want you to know what your father and I believe, so you go into that choice with a point of reference. You might decide to take a different path, but you should always know where you started.
My childhood church, St. John's York Mills. Image from wikipedia
I think it’d be fair to say I come from a “Church” background. Not Religious, capital R, but Church, capital C. I went to St. Johns York Mills almost every Sunday of my life (excluding summers when we were at the cottage) till I was 15 and confirmed. After that we stopped going regularly. I’m not really sure why that was. I guess I had essentially completed all my “schooling” and didn’t have a place there anymore aside from the general congregation and that didn’t interest me. Maybe my parents went every weekend for me – to give me a good foundation – and once I had it, we could do something else…. I don’t really know. What I do know is, after 16, sleeping in on Sunday morning was more appealing than church. I just didn’t feel the need to go anymore and Granny and Granddad didn’t see the need to force me. I had taken what I could out of my religious training, and now could run with it. Looking back though, I can say that those foundation years were wonderful for me. I loved Sunday school. The stories. The songs. The friends. I joined the church choir and drama club. I loved the annual Church Bizarre (Granny was in charge of prizes and I got to choose them with her every year), and I loved my Confirmation class – though in hindsight, perhaps that was more for a particular boy, than the class itself. For a long time I would have described myself as religious. I took it all very seriously. A friend once told me I wasn’t just a Christian, I was a Creationist. Meaning I believed everything the Bible said as truth, and at the time, she was probably right. It wasn’t till years later that I really started to think about those beliefs I’d held since childhood.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to question everything, and have come to a place where I’d say I’m Christian because it’s the path I’m most familiar with on my way to God. I feel comfortable with the Christian concept of God. With God’s forgiveness and love. With the Anglican/Episcopalian church, it’s traditions and inclusivity. And, I believe our spirits go somewhere when we die. I believe we can be with our loved ones again after death. Or at least I believe we’re blissfully happy. I realize this is not a belief that everyone shares, but it’s one that I’ve always held on to, and now that I’m sick I find great comfort in. When I was first diagnosed with PH I ordered a book called Pulmonary Hypertension: A Patient’s Survival Guide. In it there’s a first person narrative told by a PH patient who’s had the disease since 1983 (Take that 2-3 years!!!). The story stands out because the rest of the book is written in a clinical and informational way so you can better navigate the disease. This particular section is a personal memory, included I’m assuming, to reassure those of us dealing with our diagnoses. In the story the writer remembers a time before she knew she had PH and was driving in the mountains with her husband and 8-year-old daughter. When she got out of the car to walk around she passed out. Altitude is not kind to PH patients. According to her husband she stopped breathing and had no pulse. He got her out of the snow to the front seat of the car to try and revive her. During this time she writes that she floated above the scene “looking down through the metal roof of our car at that poor unconscious woman.” She says she felt wonderful. That there was a warmth on her back and it seemed as if her “very molecules were loosening” so that she “was expanding into the universe.” Then her little girl screamed “Mommy! Mommy!” and she writes she had to “squeeze back into her body” to soothe her. In that moment she recalls her body feeling “cramped and limiting.” She finishes her story by saying, “I don’t know what to make of all this. But we seem to come equipped with all we need to deal with the entire course of our lives, including the end. It is a great comfort to me to know this.”**
Her story was a great comfort to me. It wasn’t, however, the first time I’d heard such a thing, nor would it be the last. There are many stories of “seeing the light” or floating above our own bodies. My dear friend’s father was apparently talking to people who weren’t in the room just before he died, and telling her family things that he couldn’t possibly have known, unless his visions were true. Even your own dear Grand Mimi was as spirited as a school girl in the month before her death, talking animatedly with old friends she could see, but others couldn’t. Who am I to say they weren’t there? Frankly, I like to believe they were. I wondered aloud once what age we are in heaven. Like, if we die very old, I’m sure we don’t remain old in heaven…I’ve decided to believe that we are whatever age we want to be – the best we were – and appear to our loved ones as the best they remember. So if I die young and Sean old, we’ll be the same age in heaven. My mom won’t appear to me as a young girl even if she might appear to herself as such. At this point, whether heaven is a real place or not, is almost immaterial. I believe it’s there. I believe in God, and light, and hope, and something bigger than myself. I don’t believe when we’re gone it’s all over. And, I believe that if I have to die early, I’ll still be able to hear and watch over you. That my love will find you no matter what.
I’ve actually have had a taste of “the bigger picture” myself. When I was 16 I was in a terrible car accident with Granny and my first dog, Bailey. I was driving my mom’s VW convertible on the 401 extension to the cottage. Bailey came into the front seat and, as I pushed her back with my right elbow, I pulled the steering wheel ever so slightly to the left. Granny, who’s a panicky passenger on a good day, freaked out. She yelled “You’re in the shoulder of the road! You’re in the shoulder of the road!” Her alarm made me react too aggressively and, as I yanked the wheel to correct, I overcompensated and the car took a hard right in the middle of the highway. The fact that I didn’t hit another car still astounds me. The car, which was now going 60m/h at a right angle to the rest of the traffic, drove off the road and took a nosedive into a small ditch. But, since we had so much momentum, the car started to roll. We ended up rolling 6 times. 3 times front to back, and 3 times side to side. During one of the rolls, my seatbelt released. When Granny came to, I was about 40 feet from the wreckage lying in the grass. But here’s the thing: there were rocks everywhere, but I ended up in grass. My seatbelt released but not on the first roll, so that I flew through the windshield, but at some other point after the roof had ripped off, so I more flopped out of the car rather than anything else. The car could have rolled on me, but it didn’t. I could have landed on my head or neck but I landed on my face. Bailey, who ended up running against traffic on the highway with a with a broken leg, was picked up and taken to a local vet. The first person on the scene was a nurse – with blankets in her trunk and extensive first aid knowledge – and, despite the fact that everyone said I should be dead, I was fine. Immobile and needing nasal surgery, but otherwise fine. People always say to me, you must have been so scared. But that’s the thing, I wasn’t. As the car started it’s first roll, and the windshield filled up with grass, I was incredibly aware of how calm I felt. Not like “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.” But more like “Huh.” There was nothing I could do but I didn’t feel out of control. I felt, serene. Something was with me. Someone. Some spirit or higher power or purpose and, if that had been the end, it was alright.
I try and remember that feeling as much as possible. Someone once wrote me that if God had decided it was my time to go, then I should go in peace and not fight it. That acceptance in itself was a lesson worth teaching you. I understand and appreciate the sentiment, and I hope that when my time does come – and I’m 94 and fully in control of my body and senses – that I will go in peace and calm. But for now, I’m not that person. I’m more a “rage against the dying of the light” type. I want to be here, and I will continue to work with science and pray to God that it happens. As far as I’m concerned faith and science go hand in hand. I’m convinced there is a place for both. There certainly is in my life.
I also accept there’s a place for all Religions. A religion, in itself, is a man made construct of faith. Religions are subject to the time and place in which they were created. I’m a believer in the mountain theory. That we are all on a road to the same mountaintop, the same goal, the same point. We’re all just starting at different places, depending on our geographic location or religious persuasion. All routes are legitimate. All make sense. All end up at the same summit. How else did we get flood stories from over 100 different cultures and time periods? So if you want to be a Buddhist, be a Buddhist. If Judaism speaks to you then do that. If Christianity or Hinduism or being a Muslim are your comfort then make that choice. Find your truth and don’t judge others for theirs. Even atheists have a place. Their choice is no choice. They choose not to believe. And it is my belief that they’ll end up in the same place as the rest of us. I just think it’d be hard to live in a world where you feel there is nothing else out there. That you’re all alone. But if that works for you, it works for me. As long as you live your life as a good, decent, non-judgmental person, I have no place to criticize.
Currently we don’t have a church home. We used to go to a great Episcopalian church in Beverly Hills. We loved it and fit in right away. It had a great balance between the old school pomp and circumstance -the hymns, the robes – and a new world mindset – openly accepting gay couples and parishioners, and an out spoken female canon. We did a couple classes there (Alpha/Beta) that allowed us to question our own beliefs and what were were taught. In one class I said, “I feel God, I feel the Holy Spirit, I’m just not sure I feel Jesus.” Some churches would be horrified by such a discussion, but not this one. It encouraged us to find our own path within an environment of acceptance and belonging. We ended up leaving that church for 2 reasons. 1, we moved and it’s now quite far away, and 2, after the first year, not a day went by that we weren’t asked for something – time, money, to be a committee member – and we started to feel pressured and guilty. We didn’t have any time or money, and we ended up drifting away because we simply couldn’t meet their requirements. I have to say though I kind of miss it.
Nowadays, though we don’t go anywhere Sundays other than brunch, we still have a faithful house. We pray. Not all the time, but if we’re all together before dinner, and often before bed. We teach the Christian stories that go with the holidays, like Christmas and Easter, and I think if we found the right fit we would probably go back to church. Lately though, I’ve found that all the places we look at are just too much. Too many rules. Too much criticism. Too much us versus them. And that’s my problem with organized Religion. There’s all together too much judgement. I believe in living by values and parables like, ‘do unto others’, but what I have a problem with, is any kind of religion or group that dictates how someone should behave. Not how they should live – like being good or kind or thoughtful or giving – but how they should BEHAVE. Behavior like how you dress, or wear your hair or whom you should marry (or if you can marry at all). I struggle with being told what you can and can not eat, or who you should or should not hate. I understand that many of these things are centuries old rules and traditions, but I feel uncomfortable with the concept that this kind of doctrine is God’s will. I believe that when you start dictating what people should DO, it is more about control than faith. More about man than God. More secular than spiritual. Because at some point, some person, some human, wrote down those rules. And though they were written as God’s will, they were written by man, and man, by nature, is corruptible. Man seeks power and control. Man is fallible. There are too many directives in too many books that keep one group separate from the rest. Too many mandates that degrade one sex over another. Too many conflicting stories within individual texts themselves. The Christian Bible calls for an “eye for an eye” but also says, “thou shall not kill”. They can’t both be right. I don’t believe my beliefs negate your beliefs. I don’t believe God values one kind of person over another. I don’t believe that any God would sanction the killing of others in his name. And I certainly don’t believe that God meant for a woman who’s been raped to be stoned to death for infidelity.
I’m also reticent of religions that make you pay to move up or forward within them. If that’s not a man made construct I don’t know what is.
I guess my advice to you would be to use your best judgement and to see the great religious works for what they are, man’s version of the story. There has yet to be a scripture that claims to be a direct rendition of the word of God. It’s not fact. It’s interpretation. It doesn’t mean don’t respect it, it just means understand it’s origins. We have family members that see the Bible as the only truth and it’s a bit of a strain. Any court of law will tell you that many different people will come up with infinite versions of the “truth”. The Bible, as with all the other great tomes of religion, has hundreds of different authors writing over many different centuries, translated into multiple different languages. Don’t get me wrong, I think you should be familiar with the Bible, it’s a great book filled with amazing stories. It will help you with art and history and multiple points of reference.
Like if someone alluded to a situation being a ‘David & Goliath’ thing, you wouldn’t know what they were talking about if you didn’t know the story. Or if someone referred to wielding their celebrity like Samson’s hair, you could make the connection.
The Bible is a great thing to know. I’m just saying don’t be too rigid – whatever faith you choose. Don’t let men’s words from centuries past be the light that guides your way. Accept the light faith brings but navigate by your own stars. Find what’s right for you and always treat others with respect. You probably won’t go to church the way I did, but I do hope that you get some religious education both in school and at home, to fill in what you’re missing on Sunday mornings. I’d like you to you have something that helps you feel that you’re not alone in the universe. I also hope you, as I do, will find solace in prayer. Find the time to thank whatever power you believe in for the gifts you’ve been given. I always cry in church at Christmas because I feel overwhelmed. I’m filled with the spirit of the holiday, and family, and giving, and yes, God. I believe I’m loved. I believe I’m protected. I believe we’re not alone.
Whether I believe a virgin mother actually laid her baby in a manger is just semantics.
God Bless you baby,
* I picture God as a man because that’s how it’s ingrained in my head, not because it’s right. It’s just how I see him.
**Pulmonary Hypertension: A Patient’s Survival Guide 3rd Edition “If Treatment Fails: Congestive Heart Failure” p. 161