The other morning I went into Jasper's room to wake him up, as I have had to do every morning since Daylight Savings started. It was 7am and barely light. His room was grayscale. I climbed onto the bed and snuggled his body, kissed his hair. He didn't respond. I kissed his cheek.
“Jasper,” I whispered. “Wake up.” His mouth hung open and his eyes were closed. “Jasper,” I said, a little louder. Still nothing. In that dim light he looked like a corpse.
“Jasper,” I said, loudly and sharply, and shook him.
“Yes,” he said, popping up, perfectly fine. “Sorry,” he said, because he could tell that I was really freaking out.
“You scared me,” I said, trying to catch my breath, trying to slow my heart down, trying not to cry.
“Sorry,” he said again, abashed. Then he went downstairs to play some Minecraft before school.
It was a trick of the light, it was a function of my fears, but for a second I thought my son was dead.
When I was seventeen I attended a summer program called Governor's Scholars, also fondly known as “nerd camp.” Kids from all over the state of Kentucky converged on a college campus (in my case, Murray State) to live together for several weeks. For most of us it was the first time we had ever let ourselves relax into unfettered geekdom, knowing that we would be accepted unconditionally. It's hard to overstate the value of that.
I learned a lot of things there, but one surprising thing I learned at Governor's Scholars was that I was not a real Christian.
I had joined my church on Easter Eve of that year, which also happened to be my seventeenth birthday. It was one of those solemn, candlelit occasions that made me feel very close to the mystical. And so I considered myself no different from the other kids at the camp, though I had not brought my Bible with me and had no intention of taking a shuttle bus to a local church on Sunday. Just because I didn't talk about Jesus all the time didn't mean I had no faith, I told myself. In the same way that I might listen to the Cure but not dye my hair black, I might pray when I was alone but felt no desire to tell everyone else about it.
We played a bunch of games at Governor's Scholar that I suspect must have come from team-building manuals. One of the games we played in my small group divided everything that might be valuable in life into pieces. There was a piece for A Beautiful World. There was a piece for Money, and Successful Career, and Happy Family Life, and Closeness to God. We were all given a certain number of points, with which we could buy the pieces that were most important to us. The idea, I suppose, was to force us to think hard about our priorities.
Almost immediately the bidding for Closeness to God became intense. Everyone wanted that piece, no matter the cost. I quickly saw that by giving up on Closeness to God, I could obtain almost everything else worth having in life. I got A Beautiful World. I got Helping Others, and a Happy Family.
Which is perhaps not the lesson the instructor intended.
Once I revealed myself to be a closet secular humanist, the game dissolved into mutual distrust. I thought the other kids were stupid. What was the point of Closeness to God if you had absolutely nothing else? I mean, maybe that was OK for the Middle Ages, when most people's lives were nasty, brutish and short, but in 1988, when we had access to penicillin and clean water and college scholarships, it seemed downright ungrateful. They, in turn, thought I was going to hell. Look how quickly and easily I had abandoned God, and for what? Earthly pleasures? Without God, they sincerely believed, the rest was meaningless. If the purpose of the exercise was team building, all it did was to alert everyone to the fact that I didn't belong on the team. Unfettered geekdom was one thing. But apostasy? There was no place for that in Kentucky.
Temperamentally I've always been inclined toward belief in the ineffable. I'm easily moved by the poetry of the King James, by the beauty of Early Netherlandish painting, by the pathos of O Sacred Head Now Wounded. I have been bound by faith and tradition and ritual to the miraculous. I have thrilled to the rap of the scepter on the massive cathedral doors. Still, I realize that there has been a part of me that has stayed resolutely bound to the earth.
Jasper has always been very interested in death. When I was his age, children were shielded from it and didn't generally attend funerals. We've tried to be open and honest, albeit age-appropriate, around the subject. His great-grandfather Otto died when he was two and we took him to Southern California for the funeral. I had to take him out of the service, though, when he started loudly requesting to see Otto's body.
A few months later he started pretending to be dead and asking me to perform his funeral.
He would lie on the floor of the living room, sometimes with pillows piled around him, other times with blocks. He would close his eyes and lie very still and instruct me to start talking. And so I would ad lib for awhile about how much I loved him and how much I would miss him, trying as hard as I could not to think about what I was doing or saying, attempting to treat it as lightheartedly as I would any other pretend game. Jasper would lie there and soak up the praise. When his funeral was over he would sit up and ask me to conduct another one.
Which gave me a very weird feeling when I spoke to Balthazar in the delivery room that night after he was born, because I felt that I had rehearsed.
I can no longer believe in the Resurrection. That doesn't mean I don't understand its power. In fact, I think I understand it more than I did before. I consider the Resurrection to be the most compelling, ingenious narrative ever created, a testament to the creativity and intelligence of humanity.
It's The Greatest Story Ever Told.
A beloved son dies. His mother mourns. Then after three days he rises from the dead. Mary is blessed among women; no other mother has ever received such a gift. Jesus comes back, temporarily, and then he ascends into heaven and takes his place at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
In one deft move Christianity has solved humanity's gravest, most intractable problem: the awareness of our inevitable death and the deaths of our loved ones. Our fear for ourselves and our grief for those we love has been mitigated. Jesus is our representative in a ritual sacrifice. Of course we still die, because even Christianity can't solve that biological imperative. But we no longer have to be afraid. We don't have to mourn those we've lost, though of course we do anyway because we can't help it. They're OK, though; they're in a better place and we'll see them again. Death has lost its sting.
When my brother was about twelve, he told my parents that it was much more likely that Jesus had a twin brother than that he arose from the dead. We laughed at the literal turn of his mind. But he was already expressing a fundamental belief in and respect for the laws of the world we live in. Which is something he and I share.
Sons die. They don't come back.
I bought an Easter lily anyway, in memory of Balthazar. I'm thinking of going to church on Good Friday. I mean, I have no problem with the part of the story where a socialist rabble-rouser named Jesus is murdered by the state and is buried as his mother Mary mourns. It may not be The Greatest Story Ever Told, but it's a good one, a story of this world.
When I was planning Balthazar's funeral, the only poems that spoke to me were about the eternity of the earth and our oneness with the universe. I knew that they were where I hoped to get, eventually. I believe in this life, this earth, the hyacinths and baby geese and goddamn cherry blossoms blowing everywhere.