When we stopped through Madison en route east we went to visit her at the hospital. She gave me books, of course: a dog-eared book of poems celebrating women’s spirituality with the best parts already underlined and even more “must-have” tomes on religious philosophy. And then she asked me, in a voice low and rasped, to send her something that would make her have faith again once I got to seminary. Something to prove God.
And here I thought faith meant you didn’t need the proof. Yet she sat before me faithless, wanting so desperately to feel God around her, and just needing evidence to believe — something other than everything written before, much of which she’d already read. Or perhaps not proof, I translated in my mind, but only a reason justifying belief in a God despite the life and world we have.
She was fifty years older than me. Her legs had grown small and thin, nearly translucent. She sat on the side of the hospital bed and her thin white legs dangled down without moving. Several years before her ex-husband pulled over to the side of the road to die while other cars zipped by.
I’m scared of death, she said. I thought to myself that people have done it for as long as I can remember; even cowardly people. But she thought that after all the alcohol and drugs, the ways she failed people, there was nothing left for her but hell. This woman, who abandoned God so long ago (even if not theology as a curious intellectual exercise), was only willing to reconsider God’s place in her life when she was preoccupied with hell instead of mercy and forgiveness. It broke my heart.
Later I would write her from Boston, saying there are much better reasons to find God again than hell. I would tell her I think people want to be happy. And as long as they’re not hurting anybody, they should just go ahead and do what makes them happy, believe in the things that allow them to live this precious, delicate, short life well. Take me, for example: I believe you’ll live eternally. I believe your spirit will live with me forever and that I’ll share it with others and demand they do likewise. And so we’ll all be taken to intellectualism without pretentiousness. We’ll talk to young children like they’re older than their years. We’ll take seriously the pain of the teenaged brokenhearted, saying to them there’s no pain worse that we can imagine (even if we ourselves have experienced the pain of divorce, of children lost to us). We’ll always remember to say I love you even when we’re being selfish and neglecting our other humanly duties. We’ll float down Wisconsin rivers in intertubes with a cigarette hanging out of our mouth and our legs dangling, stirring the brown river under us. We’ll tell dispirited young girls afraid of meaninglessness to go ahead and keep believing in the tooth fairy. And fifteen years later when those girls come back around, they’ll tell us the same.