A few days before Halloween, we drove home from a friend’s church where parishioners had decked out the trunks of their cars with lights, plastic skulls, and spiders, even fog machines, then backed them up into rows in the parking lot so the kids could Trunk or Treat.
“Mom!” Blaine hollered, pointing out the window. “I see the first star.” Six years old, he was wearing a black hood and black costume with a gold skull on the chest. At least this year, I convinced him to wear clothes beneath the thin material so his privates didn’t peek through the seams.
I leaned right and peered into a darkening blue sky where a bright light winked. It was as likely a satellite or a plane but I couldn’t tell for certain.
“Did you make a wish?” I asked.
Brows furrowed, he said, “I’m thinking.”
Beside him, his older brother Tristen was dressed as a zombie in layers of clothes slashed with scissors and muddied. Make-up gave him sunken eyes and cheeks and a bloody gash across his neck and forehead. For trick or treating, he got into character by putting his arms out, cocking his head, and letting his mouth fall open with a moan.
In the rear view, I caught my own visage in white paint with black eye sockets and lines around my cheekbones. At the church, a girl of about thirteen had asked what I was. I’d been folding and putting away chairs to make room for games while the adults finished decorating their trunks. My clothes were every day black so for a moment I’d forgotten the make-up.
“The Grim Reaper,” I said, setting a chair beside another.
“Who is that?” she asked.
“Death,” I said.
I met her quizzical gaze and thought about how to elaborate, what sort of explanation to offer. There was no Grim Reaper in the Bible that I remembered, but there was an Angel of Death, probably carrying off someone’s firstborn though the details are sketchy. To my relief, the girl was pulled away to the cakewalk before I had a chance to say another word.
* * *
Just the day before, we went to a memorial service at Sonrise Church for two sisters, a six year-old and an eleven year-old. They were hit by a car while playing in the leaves outside their home. It was a Sunday, dusk. Monday was Leaf Day. Leaves were piled along the curb and gutter to be swept up. The father was taking pictures and then went inside for a moment. In recounting the scene on the news a week ago, a woman who lives two blocks away said she remembered hearing the mother’s wailing even above the sirens.
The church was filled with the girls’ classmates, friends, family, neighbors, uniformed police, and firemen, and members of the small community. My boys had briefly gone to school with the girls before transferring to a public school. My husband and I taught school just a few blocks away from where they lived.
On two enormous screens, there was a picture of the girls wearing knitted hats with one piggy backing the other. After a song and prayer, a video played of each of the girls from infancy onward: working sand at the beach, dancing in their living room, hiking, hiding beneath covers with friends, cuddling in the arms of parents and grandparents. In one clip, the mother walks her youngest daughter to the bathroom to flush a goldfish down the toilet and send him off to heaven. As the water whooshes, they wave and speak, “Bye-bye.”
After the video, the pastor and the father sang, and then, one by one, family members shared stories about the children. Their mother remembered Saturday night dance parties with the music playing loud, the kids ping-ponging room to room, all of them singing along to the words. We had heard the parents had not left the house since the accident the week before, that they had refused visitors and phone calls to all but a few immediate family, but here, supported by several hundred in the community, they managed to give a eulogy, sing, and tell stories about the children that made us laugh and cry and cling to one another. On his father’s lap, my youngest watched with curiosity, asking questions about who the people were, but my oldest, Tristen, was already a puddle in my lap, his head butted up into my armpit. It took real effort for me not to succumb to sobbing.
I spoke with a friend later who agreed it must be their faith that held them up. Neither one of us could imagine speaking coherently to the hundreds of people in the church only a week after losing a child, much less both children. “That’s the appeal of religion,” she whispered sharply under her breath, “I see it. I do. I just don’t believe it.”
“That’s the appeal of religion,” she whispered sharply under her breath, “I see it. I do. I just don’t believe it.”
I didn’t know what I believed any more. Raised Catholic, we left the church when I was young. My parents couldn’t stand the hypocrites. “Love thy neighbor until he votes for the wrong guy,” my father had once said. A hospice nurse, my mother wore a crucifix to work every day but never talked about faith. When pressed, she only said, “I have to believe there’s something beyond this.” What that was or why she had to, I could never work out.
I attended a Catholic grammar school for a few years, but since then I have rarely been to church. In college, I studied Buddhism and Hinduism and visited temples in the Chicago area. On several occasions, at the recommendation of a friend, I met with an Argentinian shaman who gave me explicit instructions for herbal baths and candle lighting to help me find inner peace. During a particularly lonely period in my life, another friend gave me an Ojo de Venado, a deer’s eye shaped with clay to look like an elephant to ward off an evil eye. It had been made by her mother in South Texas and blessed by a priest in Mexico. I wore it without fail for weeks. If there has been anything consistent about my sense of religion or faith, it is my openness and curiosity.
The church my sons and I were visiting for Halloween in our own neighborhood we’d only been to three times, twice for trunk or treats, and once for a proper church service at my friend Meeta’s request. She is an Indian who is both a practicing Christian and a practicing Hindu. “Our pastor is a woman and we have several gay members,” she had said, as if that explained why we should attend. Meeta is only a little less conflicted than I about faith, and just as open. Her husband is a Christian of German descent. Her children are learning Hindi, and celebrating Indian traditions and holidays as well as Christian ones. The last time her parents visited, they attended church with his family. Her mother took communion. Meeta asked how her mother was comfortable with such a thing. Her mother adjusted her sari, threw up both hands, and said, “Oh Meeta, God is god.”
Though I had only attended a handful of church services in many years, I looked forward to the girls’ service, if only to be in the company of others who were grieving, to find some succor in the community and friends, comfort in a place of worship, something to help me recover from the shock of tragedy. The pastor at the girls’ service focused on the story of Adam and Eve in the garden and how they spent their days with God and were given only one order: not to eat from the tree. I listened intently, eager for the story, even as I wondered, Where is he going with this? Soon, it was clear. He reminded the people seated before him that Adam and Eve had chosen to eat from the tree despite God’s admonishment, and so they were responsible for the fall of humanity. Adam and Eve admitted death and suffering into the world with their one transgression, not God. God was not responsible for death. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Don’t blame God for this? That’s your message? It reminded me of my sons’ reactions in a fight or after an injury: deny fault. One might be bawling and holding his arm tenderly, while the other—a stick still in hand—will swear he had done nothing.
I looked hard at the pastor. His words gave me no comfort, only a growing irritation. He paused at length with his arms out and then urged us to remember where the girls were now: seated at the right hand of God, bathing in the warm light of their savior, Jesus Christ. I looked down at my eldest son’s tear streaked face. His eyes met mine then he leaned his head into my shoulder. My stomach fell to see him distraught. He knew a few Bible songs but we had never talked about Christ. If I’d ever mentioned Jesus, it was likely as a driver swerved into my lane or turned in front of me. What to say now?
* * *
The boys had only been to one other memorial service nearly a year before, for my mother, her death from a heart attack at sixty-three, unexpected. For weeks, I could do little but cry with my brother and sister, watch my sons play with their cousins, unable to rouse myself to join them. My mother was the sun I orbited, whose warmth and guidance I depended on. My sister and I joked that we needed our mother to help us grieve her death. No one else could have known what to say or how to help. We held her service in a sprawling park and garden, a place that had always inspired her. As my sister and I grieved, we also struggled with the children’s grief. For weeks, they asked where their grandmother was, where her soul or spirit had gone.
“Some people believe that when you die, you go to heaven,” I had said at one point to my sons. I described heaven as a warm, sunny place where the person gets to be with family and friends who have died.
“Do you come back?” they asked.
“No,” I said.
“Can you come back?” they asked.
“Well, your spirit and body are different, and when you die it’s your body that dies. Your spirit lives on, and yes, some folks believe that it can come back in other ways.”
“How? Where does it go? Can you choose where you go? Is the soul the same as a spirit? Is a spirit the same as a ghost? Why?”
“How? Where does it go? Can you choose where you go? Is the soul the same as a spirit? Is a spirit the same as a ghost? Why?”
The whole conversation tumbled down on me like an avalanche. I grasped for responses that made sense. We talked about the beliefs of different faiths. My sister married a Jewish man and was raising their children in the Jewish tradition, so I reminded them of Hanukkah and the Hebrew prayers and candles. They kept returning to the idea of reincarnation, linking it to the trees and flowers that died in the fall but came back every spring. It was a logical connection. The next thing I knew we were imagining my mother as a cloud watching over them, a tree, a stuffed animal they slept with. Then one of my sons asked, “But what if I want to see her for real?” By then, my sister had already supplied me with the answer she gave her own children when they were inconsolable, usually right before bedtime. “You can always ask Grandma to visit you in your dreams. That’s what I do,” I said.
In truth, I wanted to give them Jesus, that warm, loving light, that handsome man with his arms out to receive the children, that invitation to heaven’s delights in a body free of pain and age, and returned to everything and everyone we loved here on earth. I wanted that for my children very badly, but between their grandmother’s death and the death of two young girls, I simply could not. I didn’t buy it. I still wasn’t sure what I believed but I had an intuitive sense that if there were an omnipotent creator, the stories likely didn’t have at their outset the damnation of scores of innocents. And those stories would have done little, if anything, to minimize the children’s grief.
My explanations for death felt a little like explaining the Grim Reaper or Halloween, a hodge podge drawn from so many practices and traditions that the actual thing itself sounded a little like Frankenstein. If I wasn’t going to give them Jesus and heaven, what was I teaching them exactly? That their grandmother might be in heaven? Or wandering like a ghost to protect us from evil? Orbiting space like a star? Or reincarnated in a three foot-long plush alligator? And yet, what the pastor had insisted at the girl’s service, that Adam and Eve had brought death on humanity from not listening to their father, was no better an explanation and no less strange.
I wanted the boys to have faith, but in what? In the human capacity for magic and miracles. I wanted them to wield their word swords to fight bullies or rescue an injured animal. I wanted them to see how kindness is a form of worship, compassion a devotion, that prayer and meditation open their bodies to light and wind like the halls of a great castle. I wanted them to remember and respect the dead. I also wanted to ease their grief, though my own experience has shown that one’s joy is only as deep as one’s grief. I felt a sudden kinship with Meeta’s mother: if I believed in any one tradition, I believed in the whole lot of them.
* * *
Nearly home after the trunk or treat, the dark closing in, Blaine has had time to consider his wish. “Can I tell you what I wished for Mom? Can I?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I wished that Grandma could come back to life and be with us.”
“Oh sweetie,” I said, “I wish she were here, too.” Then after a moment, I added, “It’s a complicated wish.”
“I know,” he said, and looked out the window. How? I wondered. How do you know? What do you know? But I didn’t ask.
* * *
In the year since my mother’s death, I have felt her presence in a tangible way, like someone standing too close in line behind me at the checkout but not close enough to touch. I tell my sons this. We talk about going to Chicago to see Grandpa for Christmas, their cousins and aunts and uncles. We debate whether or not there will be snow. Without hesitation, I think, If my mother has a hand in it, there will be.
Sure enough, on Christmas Day, a two-inch dusting blankets the yard. We press together around the open sliding glass doors and listen to the hollow silence of it surround us like someone cupping our ears. Later, we follow the kids outside as they race to follow animal prints crisscrossing the yard. My father starts a fire in the pit out back. Eventually, we circle it as we lean into one another. We hardly feel the cold.