In my youth, I was privileged to attend a parochial grade school. When adolescence reared its ugly head (let’s be honest, puberty was ugly), I was again blessed with an opportunity to receive a parochial education, this time for four years in high school. After high school, I continued the tradition of private schooling by applying, and promptly being accepted, to a small liberal-arts college, founded on Lutheran theology like the two schools before it.
Private education doesn’t make me better (or worse) than the next person. Neither private nor public education is perfect, and each has its pros and cons; our society is more diverse than ever, so it’s a matter of finding what works for you as an individual. For me, a Lutheran upbringing was right, first instilled upon me by my parents and later continued by my own accord. I consider myself very fortune to have been afforded the experience, especially considering the great sacrifices my mom had to make so that I could live my dreams and receive the caliber of education I craved. Her long hours of working in paper mills and at cheese companies made that experience possible.
So why do I bring up my education, when all along we’ve been discussing my father’s drug and alcohol abuses, eventually leading to his suicidal overdose? For most of my life, during religion class after religion class, I was taught that suicide is an automatic ticket to hell. (I should probably interject that if you are a serious theologian or have strong opinions either way, my ideas herein may not agree with you; my intent is not to preach or pass my beliefs onto you. I respect the difference of opinion and understand the sensitive nature of religious talk, but this part of the story must be told. It’s part of the struggle I had with my father’s death. Simply hear me out, and enjoy the perspective my story may give.)
Naturally, when the autopsy came back as a drug overdose and suspicions grew that it was intentional, my heart sank. In my youth, I had been penetrated with the concept that death and funerals need not sadden us; rather, they should fill us with joy because of the promise of a joyful eternity in heaven. We should long for the day of being reunited with loved ones in paradise, living off of faith that such a miracle is indeed possible. We should cling to the resurrection as our hope for an afterlife of no more weeping or suffering.
But let’s be honest: Funerals are sad, not happy. Even for Christians. But after the dust settles, what we learned in school or heard in church is what we cling to as our ultimate comfort. For me, God and heaven are very real, although my beliefs have become more defined more recently (deviating from the that’s-what-we-learned-in-school mentality), due, in part, to my personal challenges and faith finding. So you can imagine the internal struggle I experienced after my father passed from this life. What hope did I have of ever seeing him again? How could I find comfort or a trace of joy if he had no chance of salvation?
At the time, all I could think about was the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus. You know, the one in which the rich man, having died just like the sore-infested beggar named Lazarus, looked up from hell’s fiery inferno. He called out to Abraham, who was next to Lazarus in the new Eden; the rich man’s request was this: “Send Lazarus that he may dip his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Abraham’s response was no for many reasons, including the great gulf that exists between heaven and hell; those who want to pass from here to there aren’t able.
I kept imaging myself looking down from heaven and seeing my damned father, now experiencing eternal tormenting beyond his tormented earthly life. How sorrowful! Can the man not catch a break? And then I would have such sadness for him, even though sadness does not exist in heaven. I would ask God for just one minute, for just one favor that would defy doctrine and basic biblical principles: to cross the great expanse. Or maybe we could meet in the middle. There, I would see and embrace my father for the last time.
It wasn’t until college, shortly after my father passed away, that I heard hope for my dad’s soul. A respected professor approached me one night. He asked how I was doing, now that the hubbub of funeral planning and potlucks had died down (no pun intended). I explained everything. I regurgitated the theology I was taught from grade school to high school. And for the first time someone told me that suicide doesn’t automatically equate to eternal damnation. In our finite wisdom and human nature, we cannot claim to truly comprehend God’s omniscience or grasp his boundless mercy. Was this man just saying that to comfort me? I don’t know, but I cling to his words to this day.
He asked me, “Did your dad believe in God?”
I said, “He was not devoid of his problems. He suffered all his life. He had a sickness he couldn’t escape. But he always claimed to know and love God.”
I continued by saying that no one was by his side when he decided to take too many pills that night. When he was helpless on the floor, maybe, just maybe, he called out for forgiveness and regretted his fatal mistake. If he did not, God judges us all individually. And I will continue to live with the hope that my father is waiting for me on the other side, in a heaven where we can roam the grassy outdoors and play catch with the baseball, just like we did when I was young and innocent. There in that field of dreams.
All in all, this experience taught me that it’s OK to think for yourself, to challenge your beliefs. Beliefs morph over time, sometimes returning to the way they were, and that doesn’t mean you’re a guilty person or destined for anything bad. No religion is perfect; some of theology is open to interpretation. It’s healthy to question what has always been (some of the world’s greatest developments came about from questioning).
All that having been said, I stumbled across my father’s final letter to his own mother, who died when he was young. His words, especially his concluding sentence, hit me. When he lost his mom, he thought about death in the same way I did when I lost him: He mourned but looked forward to the ultimate reunion. Yet, his final sentence indicates that he also knew his life on earth was reaching an eventual conclusion. Is he with his mom in the great field of dreams? God, I hope so; he was so looking forward to it.
It has been ages since we last communicated. Needless to say, I miss you.
You should see your grandchildren. They have really grown. Remember Cory, the little guy for whom you babysat? He graduated high school and got a scholarship to college in the fall. I am so proud of him, and I’m sure you would be, too.
You never got a chance to meet your little granddaughter. Remember how you always wanted a little girl? Well, you got a granddaughter, but she is not so little anymore. She’ll be a junior this year and is doing great. I am so proud of her. She is a sweet girl, and you would just love her like I do.
I love them both.
As for me, things haven’t been going so well. Since you left, I’ve gotten divorced, been in and out of treatment center for alcohol abuse, and lost jobs. I’ve been so ashamed of myself that several times I tried to commit suicide. But, you know, I’m not really sure if it was from the shame and guilt or if it was because I just wanted to be closer to you. (Oh, and mention to God that I appreciate him not letting me succeed because he knew my children needed me, like I needed you.)
Mom, when you told me you were having “chest pains” but passed them off as gas, I believed you. I really did. I didn’t remember your chest pains until my brother called, asking me if I had seen you lately. And then I remembered. Shit, did I remember! I ran all the way over to the house, and there you were, lying on the floor. I didn’t know CPR. Hell, I wasn’t even sure you were having a heart attack.
All I was sure of was that you were gone. I wish I could have done more for you, I really do. A lot of people have tried to comfort me by saying there was nothing I could have done, and I want to believe that. How I really try to believe that! But it is so hard for me to do. I guess because you’ve always done everything you could do for me and the one time I could do something for you, I failed.
Even after all these years, I still think about you. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day (because you had to be my father, too). Easter. Christmas. And every day in between, I think of you. And I still love you.
I am sure God has been taking care of you, but please don’t take up too much of his time because I need him, too. We all do.
See you soon.