I no longer believe in God, but I still believe in Saints. I believe in Saints because I’ve met one. (Note to God: hint, hint.) Last night this Saint hung out at my house and fell asleep on my couch. Yeah, Saints do that sort of thing, I guess. You can’t begrudge a Saint a little rest every now and again. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Saint came over to my house not to sleep on my couch but to join us for Family Home Evening.
Family Home Evening is, by prophetic decree, a mandatory weekly activity for Mormons. Every Monday night is set aside as Family Home Evening. It’s a time for the family to block out the influences of the outside world and spend some time bonding together as a family. Gospel instruction, wholesome entertainment, games and other activities, songs, and ideally a really yummy dessert generally constitute the bulk of the practical application of Family Home Evening. Different families will institute this differently, but our family usually follows a fairly standard sequence of events for most Family Home Evening nights.
First we gather everyone together. Yes, with children of varying ages, this can sometimes be the most difficult part of Family Home Evening. Traditionally, Father conducts the event as if it were a meeting of sorts. Lately, I’ve not been so keen to fulfill this role, and have let my wife or oldest son handle it. But last night, my wife requested that I conduct again, and I agreed I could do that.
I tend to start the “official” part of Family Home Evening in a manner that mirrors a more serious meeting, but done in a way to demonstrate that we’re just having fun together as a family. I thank everyone for showing up, as if it were their choice. (“Get in here, you little scoundrel. We’re starting Family Home Evening whether you like it or not.” See above.) Then throughout the evening as we progress from one activity to another, I step in and announce each activity and who will be leading that activity and officially turn the time over to them for the duration of that activity. It’s really a rather fun role to be the one to conduct. I have always enjoyed it in the past, and even last night I found myself enjoying it once again, despite the religious overtones of the whole affair.
So I first call on someone to choose and lead a song. Most of the time they choose songs from the official Children’s Songbook published by the church and used extensively in the children’s Sunday Primary meetings. Every once in a while, we get a request for a song from a movie; Christmas carols always seem to figure prominently as well, no matter the time of year. Sometimes my wife will relent, but usually she enforces a selection from the Children’s Songbook. Then the person who ostensibly chose the song will stand in front of everyone, raise his or her hand into the air, and at the first downbeat, we will all begin singing. The song leader continues to wave his or her arm around for the duration of the song, no doubt feeling important despite the fact that we would be perfectly capable of finishing the song regardless of where his or her arm went after we all got started. I tend to think this is exactly like church, but since I’m not very musically inclined, I could be wrong. Maybe the congregation really does rely on the arm movements of the chorister. Yeah, I doubt it.
At the conclusion of the song, I next call on someone to pray. This is always in the form of a polite invitation. “Child Number Three, will you please pray?” But if the child answers, “No,” we always stop to teach a principle that is very important in the life of a church member. “The correct answer,” we say, “is ‘Yes.'” You always say yes when you are asked to do something in the church. That’s the great unspoken rule in the church. Only, it’s not always unspoken. We teach it plainly at home, and I’ve even heard it at church as well, although usually in more narrow conditions. “Always accept a calling,” for example. In a church with lay clergy and where every activity is headed by volunteers, you have to do something to keep the volunteers volunteering.
Right after the prayer, which is usually accompanied by the youngest children squirming or talking or just plain getting up and running around the room or even out of the room, we proceed to scripture. We usually work on one scripture for an entire month, committing it to memory. One child is asked to recite the scripture, and then say, “Repeat after me,” and then the entire family will recite the scripture. We’ve chosen many different scriptures in the past, but for a few years now we’ve been focusing almost exclusively on the Articles of Faith. Joseph Smith stated his aversion to creeds, and vowed that Mormonism wouldn’t have a creed, but when he penned the Articles of Faith in a letter explaining what Mormons believed, it was quickly adopted by the church as official doctrine, and included in the canonized scripture and published by the church. There are thirteen Articles of Faith, and to keep from getting lost, we use the current month as an index, so yesterday we recited number 8. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly. We also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” I didn’t join in the recitation.
Sometimes after the scripture, I ask one of the children to “share a talent.” I don’t always do this, because the “talent” usually ends up being a silly physical feat, and as every child realizes that he or she can do the same or a similar feat, the room erupts into chaos with children leaping to their feat and hurling their bodies through the air in attempts at handstands, somersaults, cartwheels. Last night we held Family Home Evening on our front lawn, so I figured it would be okay. What I didn’t figure, though, was that we had invited double the number of children over. A feat was performed. (One child laid on his back on the grass and bench-pressed another child–who was standing on the first child’s hands–into the air.) The adults cheered and clapped. The children sprang into, “I want a turn,” and “Look what I can do,” and “How come you never call on me?” Luckily, only three of the children obtained their feet before my wife restored order. Dejected children returned to their places on the grass.
Next up was the lesson. It was for this that the Saint had come. The Saint is my wife’s mother. Perhaps later I will explain her status as Saint. For now it suffices that she is a Saint. Only, not officially recognized by the Pope. I would seek to change that, but I am moderately familiar with at least one of the rules of Official Sainthood, which is that the Candidate must already have been dead for a given length of time before the Office of the Pope will consider the application. Sigh. So much red tape. But I’m off-topic again. The lesson. Not that the lesson itself was all that important, I guess. But that’s why she came. And I guess I could give you the gist of the lesson, if only to appease your curiosity. And yes, I know you must be just a little bit curious, because you’re still reading this, and I know it’s not because of the gripping narrative; you’re just plain curious.
Well, be appeased then. She told the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. Only she started at the end of the story and kind of went backward. There was no suspense, no buildup, no wonder and awe. It just was. They survived being thrown into the fiery furnace. Oh, and they were thrown in because they didn’t worship the king’s golden image. And she left out one of the best parts of the story: that of their commitment to do right even if doing so cost them their lives. And she couldn’t remember why there were four people in the flames–who was the fourth? She appealed to me for clarification. But you know what? You don’t have to be a storyteller to be a Saint. And you don’t even have to know the scriptures perfectly to be a Saint.
The Saint talked about being friends and the importance of friends in making good decisions, and the possibility of making bad decisions if you have friends who also make bad decisions. At one point she said, “Can you imagine the power that one good friend can have in your life?” and I immediately thought of Girlfriend and silently answered the question in my mind: “Yes, she can help you feel that you’re worthwhile even if you’re drowning in surrounding blackness.” And then I noticed that my wife was staring at me. I smiled and winked. Tried to act nonchalant. She wasn’t fooled.
If it were up to me, the lesson would be about five minutes long. But for some reason adults think that short things can’t be important, and since the lesson is obviously important, it therefore can’t be short. The Saint talked for about 15 minutes, and as she was finally wrapping up, my wife jumped in and took another ten minutes or so explaining how the children should be good friends to their classmates in school. Don’t tease. Don’t laugh at people. Even if they drop their tray in the lunchroom. Don’t make comments about people who are fat. Even if you can plainly see that, yes, they’re fat.
Finally the lesson ended and we had another song with arm-waving. Another prayer with squirmy talkative kids. (“Daddy! His eyes are open!”) As we served the dessert–fruit pizza, yum!–Family Home Evening was officially over. The children dispersed. To the trampoline. To the Wii. To Legos. The adults sat on the grass and talked. About cancer.
My wife and I have a nephew–the Saint has a grandchild–who has been battling cancer. Surgery. Chemo. Long painful process. Maybe a year, maybe two years now. I’ve lost track. You do that when it’s not you. You can look aside. Let life go on. Forget how many minutes of pain. How many hours of worry. How many days in the hospital. How many weeks in recovery. How many months of tears. Last week he went back into surgery. More cancer had been detected, this time in his lungs, and they wanted to pull it out, test it for malignancy. It was a big surgery, a big deal. And it went well, the surgery did. But they found more. More cancer. More than they had expected to find. More than anyone wanted. More, even, than anyone feared.
The cancer is in his lungs, yes, but also in the lining of the heart, in the hips, in the shoulders. I don’t know how they determined all that from a surgery on his lungs, but that was the discussion last night. More cancer than anyone hopes can be cured. Nobody holds on to hope, now. It’s just a question of when.
The Saint: “What do you suppose causes all that? Why does he have all that cancer? What caused it?” It was a question not to understand cancer, but to understand life itself. To understand fairness. To pluck meaning out of randomness. At least, that’s how I interpreted it.
My wife: “I don’t know.” She said it slowly, cautiously, but her face belied her words; she knew the truth. She knew what causes cancer; she had too much training in nutrition not to know. But I think she was responding to the unspoken part of the question, not the cause and effect, but the deeper question: why him? Why now?
I answered the same unspoken question. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” They both looked at me, surprised, perhaps. I had been silent up to this point.
“What?” my wife said.
“God,” I answered. “God wanted it. He caused it. That’s why it happened.” I stared at her, my face hardening into steel, defying her to argue against that. Seconds ticked by, our eyes locked together, judging.
Finally she nodded. “Yeah.” She turned away, glancing at her mother. “Right.”
I felt my eyes filling with tears, and I looked up at the clouds, cursing the unfairness of it all. It struck me, in that moment, in a way that I hadn’t really felt before, the complete unfairness of life. I have always been an optimist. Always believed that my life was operating under the watchful guidance of an omniscient, omnipotent, loving Father. Not just a Father in a metaphorical sense. A Father who could and would do all in His unlimited power to help you. How could you not be an optimist with a belief like that?
I had always been sure that Man’s Spirit was eternal. That this life is just a small if painful episode that will seem all-too-brief when it is over. That we existed before we were born, and that we will exist after we die. That we will go on. That suffering will have meaning, purpose. That we can look back and see what we’ve learned through it all. And I realized that I can’t really comprehend the actual truth, try as I might. I am incapable. Whether because of my upbringing or simply because I am human and share the same human shortcomings as the rest of my species, I simply can’t comprehend the truth.
The truth is that there is no I; it’s all illusion. I don’t feel like I’m just a body. I feel like I have a body. I have eyes. I have arms. I have legs. But me? I’m not those eyes, those arms, those legs. I exist independent of my body. That is the illusion. When the heart stops beating and the eyes close for the last time, when the arms hang limp, the legs no longer propel, then the illusion disappears. Then the I is finally gone. The I that thought itself more than the body succumbs finally to logic and perishes right along with the body. That’s a haunting realization, one that I’m not quite able to comprehend, even when I can at least partially explain it as I just have. And I feel so betrayed by the universe. I can’t shake the feeling of unfairness. I’m important, I shout to the universe that not only doesn’t care, but doesn’t even have ears to hear me. I’m more than just these organs. More than these electrical impulses. More than these eyes.
I’m not just a pile of bones encased in this sack of flesh and blindly following the primal urges to survive and reproduce. I have desires. I have interests. I care about things. I love to create. I experience happiness beyond description. I feel sadness deeper than nature can know. I build things. I organize. I tell stories. I read stories.
I’m interested in stories. And I’ll never know how this story ends. My own story in particular, I’ll follow it along until the penultimate page, and then … just … stop reading? Is that fair? And I’m as interested in the bigger story as well. I’m by no means an accomplished student of history, but I’m fascinated by history. I’m fascinated by science. I want to be able to follow human history, Earth’s history, for longer than my expected life span will allow. Will humans evolve into a more advanced stage? Will we obliterate ourselves through our carelessness? Will another species evolve and overtake us? What struggles will we endure? What will we discover? Will we understand the universe better? That’s a story ending I will never read, and I’m as sad about that as I am about my own story, about my children’s stories, about my grandchildren’s stories.
The tears were filling my eyes, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how unfair it all is. Life ends, and the illusion of I disappears. And my wife and her mother were sitting there, talking. Perhaps watching me. Perhaps not. And I had to get out of there. I had to think. I stood up.
“I’m going for a drive,” I said. To no one in particular. I walked away without looking at them.
“Can I come?” my wife asked, her voice bouncing in excitement. I should have known better. She loves to be spontaneous. She loves to get out. I would have done better to just go lay on my bed and stare at the ceiling. Even with all the kids around, being kids, I would have been able to sit and think.
I paused, wiped the tears from my eyes, and risked a quick glance over my shoulder. “Sure,” I said. I kept walking.
She delayed just long enough to ask her mother to stay with the kids until we returned. “My kids would be fine,” she told her. “But with all the other kids here, I’d feel better if there were an adult with them.” Her mother, the Saint, assented.
As we drove away, she asked me if I’d like to talk, or if I just wanted to think. I told her that I didn’t care, that I had wanted to think, but that I was not opposed to talking. “What would you like to talk about?” I asked her.
“I don’t want to interrupt your thinking,” she said. “Let’s just talk about what you’re thinking about.”
“Nah,” I said. “You don’t want to do that. It’s pretty grim. I’m fine talking about what you want to talk about.”
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“Oh…” I said. How to sum up? “Just about life. And death. You know. Fun stuff like that.”
So we talked for a while. Drove out to the lake and back. Maybe twenty minutes. I can’t reproduce the entire conversation. Certain parts stick out in my mind. Other parts have disappeared. For the parts I do remember, the order is probably jumbled. We didn’t talk about what I was thinking about. As she was asking me about it, she turned the conversation more toward her concerns than mine, and we ended up talking about how I felt about being married to her, being the father of my children, what I wanted in my life, and how much I was willing to continue the life I had. She was very open with me, and I tried to be as open as I could with her, as well, although I kept finding that her fears wouldn’t allow her to hear what I was saying at times.
We talked some more about how I felt I was living someone else’s ideal of the perfect life. That my life was very good, that I enjoyed it, but that I wouldn’t have chosen it for myself if I had known when I started what I know now. How I have this internal conflict because of that. I enjoy my life. I like my life. I just don’t want it. I don’t feel like it’s mine. I don’t really know how to explain that. And she kept interpreting it as more concrete. That I don’t want her. That I don’t want my kids. That I don’t love her. That I don’t love my kids. That I would give it all up if only I could be with Girlfriend. “The conflict,” she told me, “is because of infatuation. You see a life you could have had, and you want it. Even as you want the life you have.”
She asked me what I would do if I were free. If I had no wife, no family. And I didn’t really have an answer. I know a few things I would do. I know the mundane everyday things. But I don’t know what would drive me. What would give me purpose. What I would live for. What would get me out of bed in the morning, excited and eager for the day. I told her that I’m unwilling to cause the kind of pain that would be inevitable if I were to try to fashion at this point the kind of life I would have chosen from the start. I explained that even if somehow I were able to make such a transition without that pain, that I would most likely end up missing the life I have now. I would miss it, and I would want it back.
I’m not a person who wants or needs a lot of people in my life. But I’m not a person who wants to live alone, either. I don’t apprecaite the kind of chaos that my wife thrives on. But if everything were ordered and structured in my life, would I be happy with that, either? I dislike the mess of children, the messy rooms, the “Oh, by the way, I need $25 for tennis; today is the deadline” told five minutes before the bus comes, the endless case of the disappearing shoes, the constant upheaval, the petty sibling disagreements that escalate all too quickly, the five hugs over 45 minutes before they can figure out what “Go to bed. Now!” really means, the five eggs dropped one at a time onto the kitchen floor, the drill bits absconded and hidden throughout the house, the fact that we have never been able to keep a nighlight plugged in for the past twelve years. And if I didn’t have these incorrigible children, I would miss them terribly. Their hugs, their love notes, their drawings, their sense of fun. The laughter that erupts so innocently, so spontaneously from their mouths. Their smiles. How they can turn one instant into heaven, a moment you’d give your life for. Would I really trade my life, even if I could? I have an amazing life. It’s someone else’s ideal life, but it sure is amazing. Would I trade it? Would I really trade it?
What kind of monster would I have to be, to take this perfect life and trade it away, breaking in the process every one of these precious hearts? Break my wife’s heart. And break my own. I couldn’t do it. Yet I still can’t shake this sense of wrongness, of foreignness, of a life that isn’t mine. I suffer the pains of a perfect life foisted upon me. What a baby! “I feel like I’m throwing a tantrum because I have three cookies, but one of them only has ten chocolate chips in it, not twelve like the other two do,” I told my wife.
“Or you wanted a sugar cookie instead,” she said.
“I did,” I agreed. “I wanted a sugar cookie.” It’s true. I wanted a sugar cookie. Life handed me chocolate chips, told me how wonderful chocolate chips are, how yummy I’d find them. I believed it for all my life. Only now do I realize that all along, I wanted a sugar cookie.
We walked inside, and found the Saint asleep on the couch, sitting upright, her head tilted backward on the back cushion, her mouth open. Children were running and jumping and yelling around her. The noise, the motion, the chaos. None of it bothered her. What can I say? She’s a Saint.