The phone rang at 4:30am. Though I wasn’t sure who it would be on the other end, I knew what I was about to hear.
“It’s your father. Just wanted to let you know your grandfather passed away this morning at about 3:00. He was peaceful, and he was surrounded by his children and your grandmother. OK, I have to call the other kids now.”
That was my father. It only made sense that he would be the one to call. Always the pillar of strength when times were tough. It’s not that he doesn’t care or have emotion, but he has learned to put emotion aside to focus on the real issues. Many say that I am a lot like him. I would imagine at that time, in his mind, two things were going through his head. One, that he had to be strong for my mother and grandmother, and two, that it is what it is. A Circle of Life. I can take a good guess at this, even though I’ve never asked him, because that’s what would have gone through my mind. Don’t get me wrong. I was flooded with emotion, concern, worry, and now I constantly carry this cloud of thought about mortality over my head, but I have this inate ability to see through the darkness. This attribute comes directly from him.
It’s funny about life and death. My first experience with death, at least the first time it affected me personally, was when my grandparents best friend’s husband died after a stroke. I was 12. I wore a black velvet dress with a white lace bib and red satin sash, white tights with red dots on them and black patten leather shoes. Ever since then, I always think about what I’m going to wear to a funeral and if I want to place that kind of stigma on the outfit. I always thought about him being my guardian angel in heaven, looking down on me, protecting me. But I was 12, and death was a distant event in my life. Now, I am 35, married and have four kids. My parents are getting older, as well as my aunts and uncles, my husband’s parents and his aunts and uncles are getting older, too. When I was younger, I would convince myself that since my parents were young parents, they would be around to help raise my children and see them grow. They would be a constant in their lives like my grandparents were in mine. Here I am with four kids and they are only in their 50’s. It’s a great thing. But the thought that my parents’ parents would no longer be here to see my children grow seemed like light years away. And here we are. And now life and death has taken on new meanings for me, and caused me to re-look at how I use religion in my life.
My mother is a devout Catholic. She was raised that way. Sunday mass was an essential part of the social scene for my grandparents. They had relocated from Rhode Island with four small children, and were new to the Las Vegas community. Church is where they found their center. Where they met their people. Where they built their community. They sent their kids to Catholic schools, attended all the events, knew all the parents of their friends, helped fund raise and support the sports teams, education and the Church. When I came onto the scene, it was common place to go to Saturday mass at 4:30 because that was the mass my grandfather did the collections for. He was also an usher, if you can believe it, they actually had people back then to help you find a seat in the church. It was a great job for him because of his social skills…he was often referred to as “The Mayor.” I also attended Catholic schools. And when the upper middle class area we were all growing up in began to turn into inner-city Las Vegas, my parents moved us out to the booming new community of Green Valley. We attended public schools from then on out, but we still had Catechism class every week. We went through every sacrament…baptism, reconciliation, communion, confirmation, and even marriage, regardless of our actual standing with the church and our faith. So far, my brother and sister’s kids have all done the same as well, even my brother’s step-son who was not baptized when they met. My mother ensured that he was, even at the age of 7, and that shortly thereafter he received his First Communion and Reconciliation.
Our only option for the afterlife came in the vision of Heaven or Hell. You were going to one place or the other, and if you were really bad, you would be sent to Purgatory for eternity. Yes, that was worse than Hell because you were basically in limbo waiting for God to decide whether or not you were good enough for Heaven or bad enough for Hell. God forbid a baby dies before they were relinquished of eternal sin by baptism and had to spend the rest of their life in Purgatory. Now when I think about it, I wonder if it was a ploy to get Catholics to continue to baptize their children right away so their numbers stayed strong. All of my babies were at least 4-6 months old before they were baptized. Though she never said anything, I know my grandmother prayed the rosary for those babies every night until they were, just in case.
Even as a child, I had a really hard time envisioning Heaven. I just wasn’t convinced there was this immaculate, angelic place up in the sky where the angels were. I would lay awake at night knowing that I when I was done, I was done. My body would then return back to the Earth where it would be used to give life to others by enriching the soil. The thought of my mind turning off forever was so frightening to me. It still is. I wanted so badly to be an angel and see everyone again and have that big party in the sky, but it just wasn’t working for me. I wonder if these were the same thoughts my dad had, or has, as he was not raised with religion in his life. Thus, the constant realist. Then I went to college.
I even went to a Catholic college, where it was required to take religion classes in order to graduate. They could be any religion class, it didn’t have to focus on Catholicism, and so being a History major, I took a class on Biblical Studies, the history of the bible. A priest taught this class. He wasn’t just any priest though. He was on a mission to bring the youth back to the church, and so he was laid back, and open, and honest. He didn’t use scare tactics to pressure us into believing, he used historical data and events. He broke down the parting of the Red Sea…a phenomenon that occurs when the east winds blow so hard that it exposes a land bridge for a few hours (coincidence or miracle?), and the reason why Catholics eat fish on Fridays…the fishing industry in Italy was not doing well, and so the Catholic Church declared it a Code of Canon Law. In college, I also learned the infamous Marx quote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” As soon as I heard that statement, in conjunction with the Bible Studies class I was taking, everything just clicked to me. There was no God. Religion was an invention to keep humans from doing what humans would do without law and order…freak out and start killing each other. I had convinced myself that the bible was written by guys who had taken LSD in the middle of the desert and were also suffering from dehydration, and so what they considered miracles were nearly delusions and out of body experiences because they were not of sound mind.
My mother and I fought about this constantly. At the time, I was a head strong twenty-something who had to be right, and if you know my mother, so does she. I found it difficult to respect her choices when they were not presented to me as choices. In her world, I was her child, and therefore, I would be raised Catholic, receive all my sacraments and when I died, I would meet her up in Heaven. I would threaten her with the thought that I wasn’t going to get married in the Church and that I would wait on baptism until my kids were old enough to make their own choice about whether or not they wanted to be raised Catholic. What if they connected better with Judaic Law or Hinduism? What if they didn’t want to be apart of a religion at all? I had enough serious relationships with Mormons and non-Catholics that my mother started to suggest I consider dating a Catholic because it just made things less complicated. To which I would retaliate with you can’t help who you love, and we’ll figure it out! When you receive your Confirmation, you are supposed to be given the independence to choose whether or not you want to continue with your faith, and how you choose to continue with your faith. There was no choice for me. Until I was no longer living under their roof, I would attend Sunday mass every week. I made a point to stop that right away once I got to college.
I stopped going to church, but I started taking yoga. Not that yoga was solely the answer for me, but it did help me realize that I do have a strong foundation of faith. I believe in myself. I believe in the universe. I believe in karma. I believe in community. I also began to realize that all those years of Catholic schooling gave me strong foundations on which I built my morals and integrity. With that being said, I think you can get that from any religious schooling, regardless if it is Catholic or Hebrew, my point being that it taught me right from wrong…a term that will haunt me for many years. Later, I was introduced to Landmark, which is the closest thing to atheism I have ever been exposed to, and I found it to not necessarily be a bad thing. I would still roll my eyes at my mother when she made comments about me not attending Sunday mass or contributing to the cause or not being stronger connected to my faith, but I was also starting to become more tolerant of her ideology. Maybe she would never understand mine, but I was choosing to be tolerant of hers.
When my husband and I got engaged, the first thing my mother said to me was, “You know you will break our grandmother’s heart if you don’t get married in the Church.” I knew grandmother=her, which I was slowly starting to come around to. I wanted a classic, respectful wedding that I would want to show my children pictures of one day. And, we were getting married in Vegas to the tune of 300+ guests…where on Earth would we house that many people at a ceremony?? I learned to pick my battles. When my kids were born, I negotiated baptism dates, though I assured her they would be baptised, but when I was physically ready to do so. I mean, I had to have C-sections with all my kids, I wanted to be healthy so I could relish in the experience as well. I did carry and give birth to them, I wanted to right to be physically and mentally present at something so important in their new little lives.
|Our sweet angels on their baptism day
As I became more confident in my choices of faith, I also became more accepting of my mother’s. She grew up in a different generation with different circumstances. Religion wasn’t a choice for her, it was a way of life. And quite honestly, I think it’s impressive that she has stuck with it for so long. She is an active member in her Church and she is a believer in her faith. That is amazing. I, on the other hand, am just finding my place in the universe. My husband and I had this conversation in Mexico, and though relieved, I was also a bit surprised that his answer was similar to mine when I asked him about death and God. Though we both really want to believe all of our loved ones are waiting for us in these white robes living the good life up in the clouds, we can’t help but really think that when we are gone, we are gone. It’s difficult to have those strong beliefs and have to confront conversations about death with our children. We don’t want them to be scared, we want them to go through life thinking about life, not death. Since we don’t have all the answers, we decided to go ahead and talk to them about God and being Catholics, and go by what the religion practices, as that is how we chose to raise them. Give them that opium to get them through the challenging times, and as they get older, they’ll begin to form their own opinions, which we won’t be able to change either way, just support. It’s kind of like Santa Claus, you either believe, or you don’t. It’s not a right or wrong choice to make, it’s just a choice. And whatever you choose, you live your life that way.
Speaking of right or wrong. My mom and I were driving the babies to Gymboree on Ash Wednesday, and she was planning our afternoon…First, we’ll go to Gymboree, then we’ll pick up my daughter from school, go to lunch (no meat!), go get my son, then we will go to Church where she will distribute the ashes to myself and the kids. I personally, do not stick to the “no meat” thing, but again, since we chose to raise our kids Catholic, we need to set a good example for them, more importantly that they get their ashes. My son started his Catechism classes in kindergarten, and is now in First Grade, so I see the importance of following through on something, even though it doesn’t take a priority in my own life. My daughter attends a Jewish school, and is exposed somewhat to religion in the form of learning bible stories and helping others, as well as customs in the Jewish religion. So I thought it would be a good idea to expose her to some of the customs in the Catholic Church now that she is at an age where she is understanding these things more. As we were driving to Gymboree, I began a conversation with my mom about this Millennium Generation and how it is bigger than the Baby Boomers. We talked about the parents of the Millennials and how they are referred to as Boomerang Parents, and how their parenting style has reportedly created this generation of over protected, co-dependent kids who, thanks to the introduction of technology, need instant gratification and praise for everything they do, even if it’s just standing there. We bantered a little bit, and I pointed out how her generation (the Boomers) carved and changed the way of thinking and what was considered socially and politically acceptable anymore, and how this generation, regardless of what we think of it, will do the same. We argued about how parents don’t discipline their kids anymore, and I pointed out about there not being a right or wrong. There are choices and consequences, and whatever choice you make, you have to live with the consequence. She gave the example of robbing a bank, saying that it is wrong to rob a bank. I retaliated with, it was the choice of the person to do that, and now he will have to go to jail, and deal with his consequences. What kind of quality of life did he just create for himself? She wasn’t buying it, and quite frankly, I knew she had a point, but I like to keep an open mind about things. If it came down to someone taking the life of one of my children, I’m sure my language would quickly change.
In the meantime, I am OK with being a woman of faith. Whether that faith lies within the Catholic Church, or in the comfort of knowing that I create my life, someone or some being doesn’t create it for me. It has occurred to me that if I envision something, I can make it come true. I believe in the energy of the universe. I can’t help but to be a realist. I find religion far too coincidental, and there are researchers and scientists and archaeologists who are working hard every day to prove this. I guarantee if my mother is reading this right now, she’s saying prayers for me and telling God that I really don’t mean all of this. Under her breath she is declaring blasphemy and will post a thousand quotes about atheists on my Face Book page. That’s OK. I understand and respect where she is coming from. That’s what she knows and what she believes, and I respect other’s choices and beliefs. I know not everyone shares in my beliefs. I have girlfriends who are Catholic, and they attend church and pray on a regular basis. That works for them and their families, and I don’t judge them, just as I hope they don’t judge me. If they are devout Catholics, then they were taught to be non-judgemental. But even if they do, that’s their choice, and I know who I am, so it doesn’t affect me to want change what I believe. I still believe in helping others, being kind, humble, compassionate, tolerant and grateful. I think religions provide people with the strength they need to get through life, all the while, giving them a community of support where they help others and build societies of respectful, compassionate people that help make the world a better place. I’ve taken those things out of religion and put it into my life, and I’ve allowed myself to be transformed in other ways as well. I teach my children respect and we talk about morals, values and integrity. For me, being able to take “religion” out of the way I live my life takes the emotion out of what I am trying to accomplish in my short time on Earth. I don’t think not praying to God or not going to Church every Sunday is going to send me straight to Hell, nor is it going to help me win the lottery. I mourn the loss of life and celebrate it as well. When things get rough, I look at myself first and try to figure out what went wrong, and how I’m going to handle it. Some situations are larger than life, and it feels like they will never get better, then I remember that life is short, and this moment will pass and I just need to know that I have faith. I have faith in myself and the people I surround myself with to give me strength, and I get the same results. There is no right or wrong here. It’s life, and we are all going to die, no matter what we believe. So whatever it is that helps you get through it, that helps you make the most of it, that helps you truly live life no matter your choices or consequences, do it. I can go to a church and listen to what the priest or pastor is saying, and take it for what it’s worth, and put it into my life the way it works for me. Just as I can become enlightened by what my yoga teacher is expressing during our meditation time. The reality is that we are all saying the same thing, just with different language.
Do I think my grandpa is up in heaven? I don’t know how to answer that fairly. But I do feel him all around me. Whenever I talk about him to my twin sons, they laugh, which I can’t help but think they know him…my grandfather passed away the same day I found out I was having twins.To me, that’s the universe blessing me with two souls to make up for the one I lost.As a realist, I had it in my genes to ovulate twice, I’m in my mid-thirties, it’s the odds.As a Catholic, God blessed me with these two babies and as they were coming in, my grandpa was going out and gave them each a kiss on the head and said, “Be good to my Steffie.”I miss him so much.There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about him.I even named one of my sons after him, that’s how much he meant to me.I’m always so sad to think my boys didn’t have a chance to meet him, he loved all his great-grandchildren and grandchildren so much.He would have just loved to have met these little guys.I feel his presence in the unity of our family and the bond that he and my grandmother worked so hard to create. I get solace in the fact that he left a legacy of goodwill, love and support. He showed us how to live a humble life based on morals and values. He proved to us that respect and personal integrity leads to a life of fulfilment. He will always be a part of my universe and play a factor in the way I choose to live my life.For my grandmother, my mother, aunt, uncles…he is in Heaven, and they will all be together again one day.They deserve the right to believe that.I hope they do, and I hope I am wrong.In the meantime, I will continue to live my life the best way that I know how.