Content warning: Death! Cancer! (No I don’t have cancer but other people did and do.) The afterlife! Grief! Religion! Divorce! (No I am not getting divorced but people I know have.) This blog post is really a barrel of fun.
Oh, hi there. In my last post I mentioned I’m in the midst of a low level, not very dangerous, mostly boring, slow motion but still entertainingly unsettling (but only sometimes) midlife crisis and BOY did that worry a few people. This post probably won’t help much. But I will say, most of what I mean is that when you’re younger, there are one or two things you realize you don’t know, and you can just be like, “Oh, well! I don’t need to know how many grains of sand there are next to the ocean right now. Or why gnats exist. No biggie.” But the older you get, the more things there are that you realize you don’t know. Sure, there are also loads of things you DO know that could only have been known through the rich experiences of your life; the mistakes corrected. The answered prayers. The unexplainable miracles. The heartbreaks survived. The happiness accumulated from time spent with people you love. And most of the time you can focus on that and you’re golden. But every so often you collide with something new that you don’t know, or you realize some way that one of the old “I don’t know” things matters more to you than it did before. Even if it’s kind of dumb. Or unknowable. Even if it still doesn’t do any good to worry about it. The limited number of years left in a life make you care more. Or maybe that’s just me.
A good example of one of these things happened a couple of years ago when my sister was in the middle of her struggles with kidney cancer. She was in a constant state of being in and out of hospitals, in and out of surgery, trying one groundbreaking but excruciating new treatment after another. I was talking to her on the phone, and she mentioned with a good natured laugh that a good friend of hers said, “When you get to the other side, you’ll laugh at yourself for trying so hard to keep living.”
Julie is a different person than I am because, and I didn’t tell her this at the time, but the thing her friend said to her was a hard thing for me to take. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt and I did run the script through my mind that offered grace to this woman and let me realize she had the best of intentions and was trying to be supportive. And actually, it was a good friend of Julie's, and they understood each other well enough that it was probably a good and loving conversation. But to me, hearing that phrase touched a nerve. It really lodged a piece of sand into one of my mental oysters.
The pearl that came from that, (I guess you’ll have to judge if it’s a pearl or just a mutated piece of sand) is the song I’m attaching to this post. I’ve been afraid to show it to very many people. But writing it helped me sort a few things out.
Let’s slice off the top that living obviously meant a lot to my sister and her efforts were nothing to be laughed at in this life or the next, and I felt like that should be respected on some indisputable level.
Here’s what else unsettled me. When a person dies, in my religious culture, the most common thing we say to each other, often more common than “I’m so sorry,” is, “Good thing we don’t have to be sad because we Know that you’ll see them again. Families are Forever!” I’ve always known that’s a little bit flat footed of a thing to tell someone who still won’t see their loved one for at least the rest of their lifetime. But in this weird place in my gut I recently realized I actually have some odd questions about that. Yes, I’ve Known since my childhood that Families are Forever. Except, for example, mine kind of isn’t.
Let me just say now, I know my parents are reading this and I don’t mean this as any sort of guilt trip to either of them. And I what I really believe is what I said in my song, Family Tree, that a loving God will bridge the gaps between all the things we can’t explain, and the circle that connects us might be an unusual shape, but it won’t be broken after all. That’s what makes the most sense. But it is also why I struggle with people who paste on a smile and say, “It’s all so SIMPLE!” It actually isn’t for me, and for a lot of other people, for a lot of other reasons.
In my mind I've wondered what people picture in their minds when they tell you about the afterlife. Is it a really fancy living room with chandeliers and silk couches, and everyone’s in white and whispering? With gold leaf wallpaper? A lot of people are excited about something like that and I’m sorry but no thank you. Please let it be better than that.
So is it a glistening city with golden streets so bright they put the ocean to shame with how ornate and fancy they are? Still no.
My own brain can’t imagine it. When I try, my mental pictures turn into places that are here. The ocean. Mountains. Flowers. But more than any of all of that, it’s the people. Who is there with me is what makes a place Heaven in my eyes.
I used to work for an airline and I could get big discounts to travel all over the world. But I was single and I didn’t want to go to those places alone. Did I want to go to France? England? Italy? Yes, so much!!! And part of it was that I didn’t feel safe going alone as a 20 something woman. Also, even at a discount, I was barely scraping by and couldn’t really afford international travel. But mostly, I just knew it wouldn’t be as great as I imagined if I couldn’t be there with other people I loved. I mostly traveled stateside to see family and friends, and I’d bring one of them along when I went to cool not very far away places to play my songs. So similarly, when I think of Heaven, no matter how cool looking it might be, what matters most is who will be there.
People talk about Heaven as being a place where you will rest from all of your worries. And honestly, as a parent, that sounds terrifying to me. How will people get by without me worrying?? (Ha. People who know me best are eye rolling so hard.) But seriously, will my brain really somehow be zapped into this state of not caring about the people I love who are still alive, to the point that I feel completely relaxed and unbothered? Will I just be turned into an unfeeling sociopathic monster in the next life? It weirds me out.
So all of that makes me wonder if, according to that woman in Texas, I’ll really just be up there laughing at how childishly silly life was and that I tried so hard to stay there with all those random people that I guess, somehow, way in the back of my mind, I remember caring about but don’t really miss at all???? Because the streets are so gold??????????
I just don’t believe it.
I know what you’re going to say. You’ve flexed your typing fingers and you are getting ready to say, “But we don’t KNOW all of that. How dare you speculate such things? We don’t KNOW. Don’t WORRY about it so much, it DOESN’T MATTER right now.”
But you just told me we did know. You just said, “Aren’t you glad we Know?” It’s funny, it all mattered quite a lot to you a moment ago when you were trying to get me to Please Stop Crying about someone dying.
Side note, I was graveside, after the dedication of my sister’s grave, her casket still hovering over a gaping hole in the ground, when a woman came up to me and said, “Wow, you are still crying?” I was mostly speechless at that moment but managed to mutter something like “Crying now will help me be okay later” and hoped it might be true. But that seemed to be like a time, of all times, that I shouldn’t have to explain myself for crying. If you are in my same religious culture, we need help with this, my friends.
In my heart, I feel like I know that God won’t throttle me to the opposite edge of the universe as my siblings and parents someday just because my parents still don’t want to spend eternity together, as was decided in the 1990’s on earth. Because God is loving. And Heaven is who we’re with. And I’m doing my best to live a pretty good life and I believe Jesus can save me and my whole family.
I do believe it will somehow be wonderful beyond all my feeble imaginings. But I also feel like I started coming up with some of my scarier thoughts because of all the other feeble imaginings conjured up by people who mean well but are trying to rush everyone though the uncomfortable feelings that come with grief and loss.
Is it weird that the afterlife is more comforting for me to think about when I assume I know less about it than what people have told me? Because it is.
In the end, what I decided is that I do want to go to Heaven, but not yet. I don’t want to rush through my life and disregard the beauty of the people and the places around me. And I think that’s okay. It isn’t my choice to make really, but…
I want to take the long way home.
I think this world and this life are beautiful. I hope I will still think so after I die. That it all will have meant something. That I can say I found happiness each day, that I loved deeply with a love that endures, and that I didn’t just wish I could get it over with to get to what’s next.
That’s what my song is about. A sort of double meaning I have in this song is that I hope it also becomes a message to those who aren’t sure they can stay, not because of cancer or age, but because of loneliness and mental or emotional struggles. Please take the long way. I’ll walk with you.
One last thought, and this is kind of weird. But a few weeks ago I had a dream about my sister. She was on the other side. I was so happy to see her and started bombarding her with questions and telling her about all the worries and troubles I had. She just smiled and said, “Look at me!” I touched her hand and it was warm. The last time I touched her, she was cold and stiff, as I helped dress her body for burial. All my worries left me as I looked at her.
I woke up happy.
So I guess, maybe in a way, Julie’s friend is right, after all. What do I know? Maybe she can rest because she can finally place all of her burdens on Jesus.
Jesus brings peace to my wonderings, even without all the answers.
Here is that song. Don’t get mad. Well, you can if you want to. But I hope that mostly you feel like I trusted you with something a little scary, and that I felt like you could handle it even if you can’t relate. https://soundcloud.com/cheriecall/the-long-way
As a post script, I know many of you will have the instinct to post quotes by Very Important People who claim to know some sort of answers to some of the questions I’ve posed here, and I’m here to tell you that there is probably someone of the same religious persuasion and rank with a quote contradicting your quote. It might be an interesting read, but it won’t be the last word or convince me that Actually We Do Know.
Thanks for listening and you’re welcome (or sorry) for these existential thoughts today.