By Trish Cook.
I hate going to church. Especially funerals. I am only here in the hopes that my presence will comfort a hurting friend, not because I believe in this bullshit.
Sit, kneel, stand, cry.
Remember how losing a parent is like a having a body part amputated. How long the numbness where they used to exist lasts, how searing the pain is once the feeling returns. Remember why, ever since my dad died decades ago when I was twenty-four, I haven’t been able to sit through a religious service without getting angry, teary.
More pomp, more circumstance, more hollow promises.
Pray—to whom, I do not know—that my friend John, who has just lost his father and is the reason I grudgingly sit, kneel, stand, and cry today, finds comfort where I no longer do.
Wonder, as I have so many times since my own father’s funeral: Why would a loving God let us walk the earth so wounded? Lie so battered? Allow us to become so bruised, each and every one of us?
Sign of Peace
I’m at guitar lesson. Stuffed into a tiny, windowless closet of a practice room. Just me, my teacher, our guitars, two amps, and an Elvis clock swinging his legs in time to the seconds ticking by.
I sit. I seethe.
At first, my anger is aimed mostly at myself for not being as proficient as I would like to be at the instrument yet. I fear this is destined to become a constant source of disappointment, rubbing my desires raw until I am mortally wounded.
Then, it turns on my teacher. Blaming him for my shortcomings somehow feels braver than surrender. “What you said last week was really mean,” I say, scowling.
I’m sure he doesn’t even remember my terrible rendition of You Give Love A Bad Name, nor how harshly I felt he critiqued it. I should realize there is nothing to take personally here; this is what I pay him for, to help me improve. And beyond that, other than our weekly 45-minute musical meanderings that occasionally veer into philosophical conversations, it’s not like I know the guy outside of this cramped little space. It shouldn’t matter to me what he says or thinks.
But it does. It damn well does.
I care so much it is a physical ache, and not just because I still suck despite constant practice. Sitting here pretty much represents the death of a dream. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always believed that if I just put all my heart and guts and grit and spit into something, the outcome would be nothing short of total victory. This has clearly not been the case with me and the guitar.
The thought eats away at my fingers on the strings, making the notes sound hollow and lost. They know what I now know. The possibilities are not endless in this life.
I expect nothing in response to my complaint. But instead I get this. “Don’t you know by now I love you, and you’re one of my favorite people?”
I am stunned into silence. This person, who I assumed thought nothing of me, or at least nothing of import, was telling me I am important in his life. That I have made an impact regardless of how little time we spend together or how little heart and guts and grit and spit I have to put into our relationship.
I think, Maybe there is a God. Maybe he’s speaking to me right now.
Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling of Holy Water
I am running my second, maybe third, half marathon with friends on an oppressive summer day even Lake Michigan can’t cool. Feet slapping steadily against the steaming pavement of a shut-down Lake Shore Drive, the beauty of the view blurred by rivulets of sweat stinging my eyes.
At mile six-point-something-or-other of the thirteen-point-one to be completed, my enthusiasm vanishes into a dark cloud conjured only by my imagination. I begin to wonder to why I am doing this, again. How I’m going to make it. What the point is. What I’m running to, or from, or why I am always running, for that matter.
Even the Shawn Mullins song on my iPod paints a bleak picture: I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve given up on you/But you make such a beautiful wreck you do. I don’t know if beautiful can describe anything about the experience at this point. I feel wrecked. Like giving up on myself.
From my state of mental ruin, I see a woman holding a sign. You are anointed to finish. Nothing is too hard when you do it in my name. I give a nod of recognition. Give thanks to whatever higher power exists—is she named Grace, Joy, Love, Hope?—for allowing me the strength to still be in the race at all.
“Your father is in a better place now,” Father Joe says as he leaves my house, the one I grew up in, grew bitter in after watching cancer ravage my father’s lungs and brain.
The one in which Dad died just three days earlier, not silently, not peacefully, not gracefully, but gasping for every last raggedy painfully-won breath. Unable to speak, unable to swallow, unable to move as we watched, our hands and hugs and voices and words lost on him.
“He fucking better be,” I snarl as I imagine blankness, blackness, the great void instead of the Great Beyond—though even any of those would be better than what he went through here.
If Father Joe hears me, he chooses not to acknowledge my profanity and insolence. Chalk it up to grief, I can imagine him thinking.
He doesn’t know it, but I truly am sorry. I am sorrier than I’ve ever been, because in my heart of hearts, I believe there is nothing left of my dad except memories. This is all we have to hold onto.
I finally learn my first extended guitar solo. So maybe all that practicing is going to pay off after all, I think. Proud and nerve-wracked, I troop off, guitar in hand, to show off my feat in public, even if it is only the public forum of him and me in my lesson.
He asks if I want to give it a try. I say sure, add a joking, “But only if you’ll play rhythm and sing for me.”
And so I do, and so he does, and it is pure beauty. Grace, Joy, Love and Hope all rolled into one.
Instead of the usual fear, I feel nothing but peace.
It’s mile twelve of the half marathon now, and I find myself alone. Running partners lost through my unscheduled but necessary porta-potty break.
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? It’s of my own doing, as always.
After a few minutes, I miraculously come upon my friend Jackie. She’d whizzed past me several miles back when I stopped to pee. I’d expected her to have already crossed the finish line. But now she looks like the walking wounded, gimping along painfully.
“You okay?” I ask, jogging by.
Yes, she nods.
I keep going, and a moment later, she is beside me.
“It’s like a classical music piece,” I tell her. “You have to get through the depressing part before the jubilation at the end.”
She smiles, and we gather strength in one another. Our shuffle-jog rises to a brisk run. We finish together in a sprint.
I score my best time ever, but more than that—I had the best time ever. At least at the end, when I was sharing the great parts and the hard parts with a friend.
I see Kristen, John’s twelve-year-old daughter, at the reception after the funeral. Tears streaming down her cheeks, shoulders shaking. Unable to eat anything, unable to do anything but cry. I see a younger me in her, and gather her to me.
“I was about your age when I lost my grandpa,” I whisper as I hug her. “I know how you feel.”
She looks in my eyes, nods. I imagine she trusts what I say, that I have been here before her. She knows that if I survived, she will too.
“Thanks,” she says.
I mourn for her loss of innocence. But I know she will pay it forward when it is someone else’s turn to grieve. She now knows the empty ache of loss, knows how to walk this path with someone else when it is their turn.
“I can’t believe I never told you this before,” he says.
I say I would definitely remember if he’d told me his father was a priest and his mother studying to be a nun when they met.
“Well, that’s how it happened,” he says, grinning.
A-ha, I think. This is why we are so similar, why our philosophical conversations have only gotten longer as we’ve gotten to know each other better. We both long for something bigger in life. The same Spirit moves us both.
It seems he has found religion in music. I keep hoping to find it there, too.
Acknowledge that maybe I already have. Because this cramped closet of a practice room is where I’ve been told I’m loved simply for who I am, where I’ve been sung to and nurtured despite my imperfections.
I leave the funeral, and find myself moved to tears again, but by something different this time. Not the dying, but the life we are living.
Nothing—not swim team sign-ups, travel soccer games, rain, sleet, wind, nor hail—could’ve kept me from being there for my friend.
And so maybe I will never again believe that standing, sitting, kneeling, repeating certain words in a certain order on a certain day each week matters, or in religion’s watered-down, glossed-up version of death, or dying, or what comes after.
What I believe now is that somewhere, somehow Grace, Joy, Beauty, and Hope still exist. Even in death. Especially in life. That this just may be who God is after all.
And that maybe, just maybe, it is enough.
Trish is the author of five young adult novels, including Notes from the Blender and A Really Awesome Mess. A graduate of the University of Chicago’s Graham School program in Creative Nonfiction, she is currently working on a collection of essays/rants/tangents (Write on: One author’s epic quest to get the f*@k over all the self-doubt, false starts, and unhappy endings to rediscover the joy of writing) about the agony and ecstasy of being a writer. In her spare time, Trish rows with a masters crew, most recently competing in Masters Nationals and the Head of the Charles Regatta. She dreams of being on The Amazing Race, but the closest she’s ever come was being chosen as a finalist for casting on I Survived a Japanese Game Show (and unfortunately did not survive that last casting cut).
I love your story Trish.
Thanks Barbara! The best part about being a writer is knowing your words somehow connected with someone. You made my day!
I’m not a big user of FB but came across a link to your essay and just finished reading through it – for the third time. Quite succinctly, I was moved. You are a wonderful writer and should be proud of your work. I was impressed by the way you wove your disparate life experiences seamlessly into the larger Catholic theme. As a lifelong Catholic now raising my own children in the faith, I felt a deep connection to the personal struggles and challenges you confronted. Just as you felt God was speaking to you through your guitar teacher, I felt God speaking to me through your verse. For this I thank you.
* you may not remember me but we kinda grew up together in Ridgewood.