If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. – Angel (2001)
I had a friend in college named Geneva. She was born on Valentine’s Day, and a better-suited synchronicity of date and personality seems nearly impossible. She was a beautiful person, in every respect. And she had a weak heart. Not long after I switched majors and colleges, that weakness ended her life. At the time, my reaction fell very much along the lines my “Christian” upbringing had drawn for me: it was self-accusatory (why hadn’t I ever sat her down and preached to her, asked her if she’d “met my Jesus” or something like that?); it was self-righteous (I still remember standing before the congregation of the church I was working in at the time and “confessing” my failure to proselytize); it was self-aggrandizing (I shared in that common Christian pretension, that my actions or lack thereof somehow sealed her eternal fate). And in all this, I completely missed the point…of her life and of her death.
We used to call her Pinball, because she had a tendency toward hyperactivity. To this day, anytime someone gets a little more worked up than the occasion warrants, this is the label I use…and I’m reminded of Geneva each time I do. She was kind, cheerful, trusting to a fault (we all, to one extent or another, played the role of big brother or sister with her), and her smile could light up a room. She was an encourager, always. Most importantly, in reflecting on Geneva’s passage through the world and through my life (and the lives of the rest of the Wells House Lounge Lizards), I have come to a new understanding of life, death, and many things in between. Her influence, among others, has changed the way I see the world, I think for the better. In a very real sense, Geneva lives on in me.
A lot of people do.
Grandma Durst in the ’50s, with my Uncle Dean and my mother, Pam, peeking in between.
My Grandma, Fern Durst, died in November 2010, fifteen days shy of her 93rd birthday. This was a traumatic experience for me on many levels. She was my last living grandparent, and in this sense her death was for me the end of an era. I had the privilege of living with her on the family farm from the time I returned to the US for college until (almost) the day I got married, and in those years we had become very close. In some ways, she was as much a parent to me as a grandparent, and she taught me to approach living in a way I had never before done. The day she died, then, I lost more than a grandmother: I also lost a mother, a friend, and a mentor.
(“Lost.” Death is always couched in terms of loss. The more I think about it, the less fitting this becomes.)
All of this, though, is eclipsed by the timing of her death: it was the first time I went through this process since leaving the church, and it scrawled a giant question mark across the face of reality as I had known it for most of my life. I was well into the transition from belief in Heaven and afterlife to the lack thereof, and while I hadn’t quite arrived at the negative end of the spectrum, the thought of my “eternal destination” had long been of little concern to me. And here I was, faced with the exigency of formalization: I had to put all the fuzziness in my head into some concrete form, in order to make it through the day. My upbringing demanded of me one of two things: either rejoicing in the “homecoming” of my beloved grandmother, or despair at the meaninglessness of death in the absence of the Divine. I was, epistemologically, forced into a brutal dilemma: belief in God, or spiritual disintegration at the possibility of his non-existence. It is a dilemma many Christians are faced with at intervals throughout their lives, and it is merciless and unforgiving.
This was the mother of all existential hurdles. And it hurt like hell. But it occasioned a feeling of cognitive dissonance that, in itself, brought me back to hope, and to reformulated belief in “eternal life.” The thing was, as I stood in the farmhouse my grandmother had lived in since the 1950s, and as I drove to the church for the funeral, I realized two things: I did not believe in heaven, and at the same time I felt no despair. I didn’t feel compelled to rend my garments or dump ashes on my head; I didn’t go mad with grief, “as those who have no hope.” And this made no sense; it didn’t fit the mold in which I was cast. Did I, deep down, not love my Grandma as much as I thought I did? No. I loved her very much, and I missed her very much as well. So what in the world was going on? What part of me was broken, defective, in need of repair?
I began to think a lot about the person we had “lost,” and as I did so, memories flooded in:
Grandma and I both possessed terrible tempers, and tended to lose them frequently. When I was a kid, the two of us made a pact. We became temper-buddies, co-conspirators in the quest to remain calm. We kept one another accountable. Three decades later, this pact is still an inspiration to me: when I feel the lid getting ready to fly off, I can’t help but revert in my mind to my childhood and my Grandma’s encouragement to “keep that lid on tight!” To this day–and, I expect, to the end of my days–she is my temper-buddy, and it is a bond that will never be broken.
When I first got back to the States in 1996, I was not exactly familiar with the outdoor chore. And I ended up on a farm, living with a lifelong farm woman, for whom the outdoor chore was not just part of life, but life itself. I learned more in the six years I lived with her than I did in the 18 years previous, one example of which being the art of truly finishing a job. Namely, the job of mowing. You’re not done, it turns out, until no evidence remains that a job was done in the first place. You take a broom, and you sweep up the mess you made. But even that’s not the whole lesson: it’s not just that you do it, it’s how you do it. I still remember the first time she saw me pick up the broom and begin tentatively to scratch at the clippings on the back walk. In a flash, this 79-year-old lady was out the back door, had seized the broom from my hands, and had begun to imitate–to my untrained eye–a windmill on crack. That broom flew back and forth so fast you could hardly see it. And the grass clippings disappeared as if by magic. To my amazement I realized it wasn’t even the broom that was doing the work; it didn’t even really touch the ground. It was the air; the woman was using the force of the displaced air to send the clippings on their way. I remember thinking: my grandmother’s a genius. Even now, after mowing my own yard, you will find me standing on the sidewalk, swinging my arms like an idiot, cleaning up my mess. I no doubt look like a fool, but it works…
And then there’s the chocolate pie. My God, the chocolate pie. It has ruined me for all other chocolate pies, ever. People all over Bates County, Missouri know that pie. My mother and sister still make that pie, and I presume that my nieces and nephews will someday as well. One of Grandma’s worst moments came near the end when she couldn’t get that pie to turn out the way it always had. She thought she’d lost it. But it’s still here. It’s still talked about. Generations of Dursts, Woodses, and Bramsens will be eating that pie for years to come. And when they do, even if they don’t know where the recipe came from, even if they forget, they will be experiencing a part of her, of Fern T. Durst, piewoman extraordinaire. Take and eat in memory of me, indeed!
Suddenly, something clicked in my brain. Herein lies the secret to eternity: the little pieces of ourselves that we hand off to others as we make our way through life, the things for which we are remembered (and even the things for which we are not, but which persist nevertheless). French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy wrote, in L’Adoration (2010):
There is no sense of sense: this is not, ultimately, a negative proposition. It is the affirmation of sense itself–of sensibility, sentiment, significance: the affirmation according to which the world’s existents, by referring to one another, open onto the inexhaustible play of their references, and not onto any kind of completion that might be called “the meaning of life,” “the meaning of history,” or even “salvation,” “happiness,” “eternal life,” no more than it opens onto the supposed immortality of works of art, which are in themselves nothing other than forms and modes of reference. Yet our true immortality–or eternity–is given precisely by the world as the place of mutual, infinite referral.
As I sat in the funeral service, I found myself growing very sad. Not because I had lost faith in eternal life, but because I had found it. Because so many of the people around me didn’t seem to understand what it really meant. I began to take offense, almost, at what seemed a complete disregard for a life lived fully and completely, a life lost among endless talk of “final destinations.” It seemed almost as if, as long as she ended up in the right place, it didn’t matter where–or who–she’d been along the way.
“We’ll see her again someday,” they said. People tend to say things like this at funerals. As far as I’m concerned, I see her again every day. She–her wisdom, her love, her appreciation of a job well done–is a part of everything I do. Everything anyone who knew her does. Her image remains in me, and I see her anytime I look in the mirror. Sometimes I see her smile, sometimes I see her frown and roll her eyes at me; I don’t always live up to the memories I have. But I see her, just the same.
There are lots of folks living in my mirror. Lots of folks whose lives are perpetuated in my own, and in those that come after me. I have shared these stories with you, and now you are the next link in the chain, a chain that stretches into infinity, human souls connected by human experience.
I do not believe in Heaven, but I do believe in eternal life. And it is We.