The comfort of agnosticism.

(Written six months after my son’s death in March, 2007)

Born and raised Catholic, a religious educator for 27 years, I find that it hurts to believe in God right now. In self-defense I have discovered the comfort of agnosticism. The maybe; the hope. My son’s last writings, before he took his own life at the age of 24, speak of a hope that somehow all that he loved in life, those people and places most precious to him,were not lost to him for ever. And that is all I have to cling to right now. I try to pray but I have no idea to what I am praying. I struggle with “nouning” it let alone naming, “It.” So I talk to my son. I talk to the sky. I talk to myself. I even imagine talking to Oprah Winfrey, as if somehow being on her show would immediately make me eloquent, help me put into words what I can’t even manage to think.

Unfortunately for me there have been many well-intentioned people all too willing to put my feelings and my faith into words for me. God is with you, I am told. Look for a sign; there will be signs everywhere. In pennies on the ground, in butterflies. A sign that your son is at peace. A sign that your son is with you, that everything is OK. But everything is not OK. Some kind of sign from God before my son succumbed to a despair we didn’t even guess at – that would have been useful. That would have been evidence of an All Powerful who gives a damn. But not butterflies, not pennies, and certainly not now. Now all I want to do is wail and sob.

The morning after my son’s funeral I was overcome by a need to talk to him, to touch him. The closest I could come to his own body was the body through which he entered the world – my own. Words on paper did not suffice. This unbearable and unimaginable pain required a totally different canvas. My arm became that canvas and I wrote my goodbye note with a razor, “I love you Malc, be at peace.” It felt like the sanest thing I had done all week. Much more rational than planning readings and songs he would never hear or buying new underwear he would never feel against his skin. I had made it through those responsibilities; I had co-written his eulogy and taken part in its reading. I had greeted and hugged hundreds of his friends. But it all felt unreal. Kissing his head and ruffling his hair felt real, but then they closed the coffin and I couldn’t touch him or kiss him ever again. The next morning, as I cut my arm, I felt him somehow still part of me, that ontological connection of mother and child; I knew he would read my note.

Earlier that morning as I lay awake in the after-fog of a sleeping pill, I thought I had seen a hummingbird hovering in the doorway of my bathroom. A sign? I stumbled to the computer to look up the mythological symbolism of hummingbirds. But after a few minutes I realized how ridiculous I was being. If Malcolm had wanted to give me a sign it would not have been a hummingbird, it would have been a blue jay, maybe. But you know what would have been a real sign, hearing him fart. A good, deep reverberating one. That would be a sign that all is well with my son. It would call to mind the mornings when he would fart, crack a smile from ear to ear, grab the newspaper and make some comment about bodily functions to come and reading matter required. Gross, real, earthy, beautiful…my son. The king of dead baby jokes and the author of a compendium of bathroom musings and collected quotes such as, What if the Hokey Pokey really is what it’s all about?

I miss the smell of my son. The smoky campfire smell after a scout trip, the rankness of sweat and bait after an evening’s fishing at the lake. I just miss the smell of him. And no butterfly, however beautiful will ever be able to recall him to my senses. Maybe a dead fish, but not a butterfly.

The first fight my husband and I had after our son’s death was over the fact that he washed the bedding from his bed. But we’ve closed the bedroom door again; we had done too much. It wasn’t time.

I have created a little “prayer shelf” with a religious icon, my son’s photo, some incense, a candle, and a prayer card. It grew slowly; there was no purposeful imitation of any religious tradition. It just feels right. Sometimes I talk to him, sometimes I read the prayer card. Always, I cry. I don’t feel close to any Higher Power, I just feel absolute and unalterable loss.

Last week I visited my son’s grave for the first time. It had been six months, but even so I was not ready. I don’t know what will ever make me ready. I lose my breath every time I think of him alone in the earth. The days since then have felt much like the first month after his death, the pain coming in waves.

But I’m trying to think more positively. I am forcing myself to smile more. I even danced last Saturday. And I am trying to focus on my son as a gift. But then I come back to the question, To what or to whom do I give thanks? And I realize that I miss my faith. Right now, like my son, all I have is hope.


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