When my son lost his innocence in the back seat of our beat-up Volvo station wagon, I never dreamed he’d take me down with him. I’m not talking about his virginity–he’s only eight. I’m talking about the Big Guy in the red suit.
“Come on, Mom,” he said one afternoon in the dwindling days of the year, having just observed that everything Santa had brought fit perfectly, was the right color, and had appeared item for item on his wish list, all without benefit of a single flake of snow falling to the ground. “It’s you and Dad, isn’t it? It just doesn’t make sense the other way.”
No, it doesn’t make sense, not by the time you’re in the second grade. I swallowed, met his glance in the rearview mirror, and bravely gave my little speech. Santa was something his father and I did as a present, a little magic at a dark time of the year, a lark, not a lie. After a few more questions (did we actually pay for all that stuff? we went to the store and just bought it all for him and his brother?) and a few bittersweet seconds of silence, he put his hands over his ears and wailed, “Am I going to be able to forget about this by next Christmas?”
It’s hard watching your firstborn reach the Age of Reason.
From there, of course, the clock was ticking on the whole childhood fantasy trip. “Easter Bunny?” he mouthed at me at breakfast a few mornings later when his little brother was distracted dissecting an orange. I made a slashing motion across my throat. “Tooth fairy?” he asked a couple of nights after that as I was shooing him into bed. “Sorry, dude.” Would he still get the money when his teeth fell out, he wanted to know. Yes, he’d still get the money.
“Anything else?” he said, a little sharply, pulling up the covers. I did a quick mental survey of all the unmagical truths he still has to uncover on his own: that his father sneaks cigarettes late at night on the back patio, that the Red Sox might never win the World Series, that there’s very little we can do to keep him truly safe in the world. “No,” I said. “That’s it. I swear.”
That’s not true, though. There is another Big Guy who’s taking the fall in our house these days, the one who wears white robes: God. As I watched my son parry and counter and feint and finally attack the Santa story head-on, I was trying to impose some logic on my own perception of the world, but coming up short every time.
The stories that tripped me up weren’t about elves or reindeer or nighttime circumnavigation of the globe, but news stories, mother stories, stories so unimaginable to me as a parent that they hit the brain and bounced off again, rejected, before burrowing in deep.
Stories like the Bosnian woman forced onto her hands and knees by soldiers and raped repeatedly in front of her children before being burned alive along with them. Stories like the Kurdish mothers, one gassed by Iraqi helicopters along with her family, who all die from the poison; another who watches from the window of an ancient, overcrowded prison as wild dogs tear apart the body of her six-year-old son. The starving Afghani couple, unable to get their extended family across a freezing mountain pass, who finally decide to abandon their young children in favor of their elderly parents.
And that’s not even counting the stateside stories, the planes and the towers, the children abducted or abused or drowned by their own mothers or left to die the most trivial kind of death in a hot car in a beauty-salon parking lot.
Are all these suffering people bad? The Croatians, the Kurds, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Rwandans, the New Yorkers–are they being punished? And the people who live in my town, many of them my friends, with the Land Rovers and the leg waxes, horses in the barn and granite in the kitchen and money in the bank (real money, not the stock-option kind), are they good? Or is it rather that everything that happens to us is just fucking dumb luck?
Where is God in all of this? Truly, for the first time in my life, I can’t say, not for sure.
Call it the Age of Reason, Part II. Just as my son had no choice but to admit, finally, that you can’t make brand-name toys in the vast void of the Arctic and that mammals don’t fly more than fifteen feet at a pop, I can’t stop wondering if God isn’t just a childish response to the staggering random cruelty of the world. Sing along, everyone: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good . . . ” I am afraid I know already how this story ends, in the back seat of a car with your hands over your ears, trying to forget.
Believe me, this is not where I expected to be in the middle of my life. I’ve always thought of myself as a “rowing toward God” kind of girl, to borrow a phrase from the poet Anne Sexton, someone who would naturally grow closer to God in a more intense and personal way as an adult. And certainly motherhood upped the religious ante for me, with its miscarriages and forceps deliveries and those woozy first few hours postpartum, the holiest times of my life, when pain and joy and Percoset and pure gratitude toward the Almighty course in equal cc’s through the veins.
But now? Only the shock of suddenly coming up empty-handed, or maybe more exactly, empty-hearted. It’s lonely with no God to be grateful toward, it’s disheartening to think there might not be justice any more divine than what we get right here and now, and it hurts me to admit that I’m not the best person to be answering my own children’s existential questions, not right now at least.
To be specific: Santa Boy’s little brother, a dreamy, philosophical four-year-old, wants the lowdown on the Higher Power–how does God know we’re being good? Can he see? Does he have eyes? What color? And most urgently, if God loves him, why won’t God pick up his bicycle and drop it down in the library parking lot so he doesn’t have to pedal all that way himself?
On and on it goes, with me thinking guiltily of the parenting books that brightly encourage readers to “State your values!” to their offspring. What if your values are nothing but a big muddy mess at the moment? After a chat session with his mom, my poor kid is left thinking of God as some combination of Mother Nature, Lady Luck, and the Statue of Liberty who watches impassively as we scurry over the face of the Earth like bugs.
This is not good. I leave him for now to the safety of his Episcopal preschool, with its easy-to-take, Jesus-loves-me-that-I-know catechism.
My own catechism is a bit more of a problem. I know I need to read the believers and the doubters and the born-agains and the late converts, sift through Bonhoeffer and Freud and Lewis and Merton and Nietzsche and Pascal and work through all this. And I know I’m not the first person on the planet to have these doubts: Humans have tortured and murdered one another, and people have questioned the existence of God, since the world began.
As my friend Walter (cultural Jew, current atheist, practicing Unitarian, former philosophy professor, father of two) diplomatically puts it, my big spiritual crisis is completely trite by even undergraduate standards. What’s more, he points out, only those who once believed in a personal, intercessionary kind of God can mourn his absence. So I might think about choosing a new religion altogether on the premise that my problem isn’t with God but Christianity and its insistence on a sympathetic, human divinity.
Of course, I could give up religion altogether. History is filled with examples of intelligent, ethical people who lived lives of moral human decency without believing in a greater power. But then I’d have to give up the New Testament stories that I really do love, and I’m not ready for that, any more than my son wants to stop listening for the sound of hoofs on the roof.
The nativity is one hell of a good story, whether you’re a believer or not–the frightened, unwed, pregnant teenager, the angel at the door, the bureaucracy, the poverty, the animals, the shepherds, the star. My sons’ birthdays bookend the Yuletide, so I spent Christmas one year sitting in the pew on a pile of stitches with a tiny newborn in my arms and another, a few years later, being viciously kicked in the ribs by a fully grown nine-month fetus. It’s hard not to feel a little closer to donkey-riding, stable-birthing Mary–the woman or the myth–after you’ve had a few babies yourself.
From there, it’s not a big leap to internalize Mary’s anguish as the grieving mother of a torture victim. And, weirdly, it’s that image that finally offers me some sort of temporary peace as I agonize for the women of the world and all the pain they endure watching their children suffer and die, suffer and die, over and over.
It seems that when it happens, you can go mad, you can kill yourself, or you can try to change the world in your child’s memory. So maybe Mary, always annoyingly painted as the quiet, uncomplaining woman in blue at Jesus’s feet, maybe Mary chose the last option. Maybe Christianity started not with an unbelievable rising from the dead but with a mother’s entirely understandable search for meaning in her son’s murder. Think about it: Mary as the first Million Mom marcher, the prototypical Mother Against Drunk Driving, the godmother of victim’s rights.
So what if religion is nothing more than a way for mothers to insist some good come of their children’s suffering, a way for humanity to pay respect to the fierce human spirits that have gone before us? That’s enough. I don’t know about God, but mother power? That’s one story that still works for me.
Author’s Note: This piece is a complete departure from anything I have published before. Usually I work fast and funny (or try for it, anyway). This one took about eight months of almost continuous rewrites, and I was at least partly miserable the whole time. Curiously, now that it’s done, I feel better, as though God and I had a big fight and cleared the air. Who knows. As Anne Sexton says in the last line of her poem, “This story ends with me still rowing.”
Brain, Child (Winter 2003)
Art by Elizabeth Hannon