Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Home Burial

William Hodges Juvenal buried his son Julian today in the backyard of his house. Julian had died two days before at St. Judes Hospital after a protracted battle with Leukemia. After two years of chemotherapy and visits in and out of a dozen hospitals the little 11 year old boy finally let go of life and passed away quietly in his sleep.

William Hodges was not a religious man. He and his wife Katherine were bookish intellectuals who had subjected the existence of God to reason and had decided that they there is no God and that religion is a simply a man-made mechanism to keep society from sliding into anarchy. So being non-believers they did not go to a priest when their son died. Rather they held a simple civil service for family and friends at their farm on Long Island. When the guests left William went out into his garden, spent two days digging a hole, then lowered the body of his dead son into the ground and threw dirt over the grave.

Even though she was an atheist, Julian’s mother Katherine had grown despondent about burying her son in her own yard. Something began to stir in her soul—a longing for something spiritual to calm her anguished heart. She had begun to think that perhaps a proper burial with a minister or priest might have been better. As with many people who are confronting death, Katherine even began to think that there might just be some after life so shouldn’t her son go there rather than rot in the back yard.

Wiping away tears from her eyes, Katherine looked up at William as he came into the kitchen after having covered the grave. The way he calmly wiped the mud from his shoes—giving it no more thought than if he had been hoeing his tomatoes—seemed insufficiently reverent to Katherine. It was as if her husband had buried a dead canary or a cat and not his own flesh and blood. Her misery welled up in her eyes again and she began to sob.

“Would you like for me to fix you a Scotch?”, her husband asked. “Sure,” she said, “it will help dull the pain.” Even though he seemed rather nonchalant William was in deep grief as well. Both he and Katherine knew that when you lose a child it is as if a piece has been cut out of you. Where there once was the warmth of a little boy there is now an empty gulf, an ulcer writhing in pain, an oozing sore that would never heal no matter how many years would go by.

Katherine wanted to talk to her husband about their loss. William didn’t want to discuss anything. He preferred to brood over a book and try to reason away his loss by himself. So Katherine called her sister and they talked on the phone for hours.

As the days went by William returned to his study to work on his writing and Katherine returned to her studio to return to her painting. But neither parent could let loose of images of the young Julian at play. William, in particular, thought of how he and Julian would walk hand in hand in the forest of the farm looking for frogs. Julian would get frustrated with his father when he was 4 years old and go hunting for frogs all by himself. That Julian was bold enough to venture alone in the woods made his father proud. It also made him laugh the way the young boy said “it’s not fair” when William said he was too busy to go hunt frogs.

The loss of Julian tore at William’s heart, upended his emotions, and put him into a melancholy state. He tried to focus on his work but thoughts of his dead son cluttered his mind so he could not think clearly. Not all of William’s thoughts of Julian were sad. William reflected warmly on the cute way that William behaved. He laughed to himself when he recalled how Julian would fall down climbing through the brush of the family farm and then blame his fall on his father. He recalled how the boy would lie for hours on his bed talking to himself as all little boys do. “Who are you talking to?” William asked. “Nothing” the boy would answer not understanding the difference between a pronoun and a thing. And then there were the funny faces that Julian made. “Make a funny face for me Julian,” his father implored. Finally there was the way William could change his boy’s emotions from tears to laughter in seconds. If Julian was crying because he dropped his pancakes on the floor or if he had pinched his finger, William would hop around the room backwards on one foot, make funny faces himself and then Julian’s tears would stop instantly--he would then smile that wonderful cherubic child-like smile and burst out laughing. But all these pleasant thoughts dissolved into misery one morning when William walked into the basement and came across the pencil marks he had made on the wall to record the changes in his son’s height. It read “Julian 12/02/1999” and slightly higher up “Julian 10/14/2000”. William broke down and sobbed. He felt slightly ashamed of himself because he thought only women could experience such outward display of sadness. But then again he felt relieved because such outward displays of emotion were the way that one healed oneself.

For Katherine the way she thought of Julian was more, well, motherly. It tended to focus on not what the child did but how the child felt and how the mother felt about the child. Katherine’s her heart ached when she thought of Julian feeding at her breast for the first two years of his life. The life she had brought into the world began it’s first few minutes firmly clamped to its mother and hung tightly there for the first few years. Even as the toddler became a child and the child became a boy he would cling tightly to his mother’s skirts when strangers came to visit or when he was frightened by the dark. Katherine installed a nigh light in the young boys bedroom to keep the frightening dark at bay.

A few months after the home burial Katherine was sleeping in her bed while William read Robert Frost’s poetry while laying beside his wife. He reached up and switched off the lights and then fell fast sleep. Outside a full moon rose and a breeze picked up and the pines swayed in the darkness. From the window of their bedroom you could see the tiny marble headstone that marked the grave of the Juvenal baby.

Suddenly Katherine sat up in the darkness as she heard something or someone crying from the back yard. She listened closely again and thought she heard her dead son crying out “Mommie”. A chill ran across her body and she looked around the room at the moonlight spilling across the bed and the arm chair in the corner. “Wake up William” she prodder her husband. “Get up and look downstairs, I think I heard someone outside.” Groaning, William would not get up. “What? Huh? O.K.” William reached into his drawer and pulled out his pistol. Pulling on his slippers he climbed out of bed .

William heads out to the barn because he sees a shadow passing in the dark. On the way back to the house he stumbles across the grave of his son. With his flashlight he sees tiny footprints in the dirt around the grave. For some reason grass had not grown there.

The mother is not wakened anymore by the sound of Julian crying from the grave. But her mind begins to rethink its atheistic position. Perhaps she could think through the question of God again and either find Him or find spiritual solace. If she found a God then she might find a place for her son in Heaven. If she reaffirmed her atheism then she might at lest find solace from a spiritual awakening if in fact the two notions could coexist.

Katherine then recalls all that is wrong with religion in her mind. It’s a man made device she says and not something created by God. Think of all the wrongs that have been committed by the supposedly pious religious in the name of God. First there was the Insurrection where the Jews were expelled from Spain. Then there was the scandal of Lucretia Borgia, the daughter of the Pope who had an incestuous relationship with her father. The Vatican had been so corrupt for such a long time—selling tickets to heaven, maintaining an army--that Martin Luther grew fed up and started the Protestant faith. But the Protestant zealot John Calvin tossed heretical women into the river at Geneva. Then the Protestant faith splintered into the Anglican Church, the Pentecostal, Baptists, African Methodist Episcopalian, Seventh Day Adventists. All of these religions were just man made devices. There was nothing God like in their founding—only a differing interpretation of the Bible or a man made desire to make legal something with had been frowned upon by another church: divorce, polygamy, drinking.

She decides to reread Dante’s “Inferno”. While Dante’s poem is beautiful it highlights what she says is a flaw with Christianity. In the first circle of Hell Virgil meets Plato and Socrates. They are in a kind of limbo that might be purgatory. They are not subjected to the full wrath of Hell because they lived many years before Jesus appeared on earth and long before the Christian religion began. But what about all the babies and innocent mothers who were also born before Christ? Are they doomed to purgatory simply because of a fluke in the calendar? If God is benevolent why would he be so cruel?

C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” has more of a positive impact on Katherine. In this book length essay Lewis argues that there is a Law of Nature which all men know by instinct. This law says that there is a universal morality—what one culture agrees is bad, e.g. murder, is agreed by all cultures. So there must be a supreme being who put together this notion and implanted it in the minds of all Earth’s citizens. Lewis does an excellent job of arguing that there must be a God. Further he goes on to say that the Christian faith is the only correct faith. While Katherine is impressed by Lewis’s argument she is not yet converted to Christianity.

Then Katherine reads Cardinal John Newman’s “Apolgia Sua Vita”. She fancies herself a scholar but can barely understand this long boring book written in the 19th century. When it was published in England it supposedly caused many Protestants to switch to the Catholic faith. As we’ve already pointed out Katherine does not think much of the Catholic Church. She does however have great admiration for Pope John Paul II for he faced down the communists in Poland and help to bring about the collapse of the evil Soviet Empire.

Katherine’s belief in religion she often compared to that of Ivan Karamazov in the novel “The Brother’s Karamazov”. Ivan argues that logic would indicate that is no God. Moreover he says if there is no immortality then nothing is immoral. But the author of the novel Fyodor Dostoevsky is a devout Greek Orthodox Christian as was his contemporary Leo Tolstoy. So Dostoevsky’s own beliefs manifest themselves in the character of Father Zosima the elder monk at the monastery and in the way that Ivan is crushed by his atheism. Father Zosima says that you cannot reason your way to religion. Rather you must have faith. Yet another character in the novel, the Devil, who of course believes in God, says “Besides in matters of faith, proof, especially, material proof is pretty useless.”

Katherine puts aside this debate over religion long enough to motor over to the local mall to go shopping. She browses in and out of the Gap—the prices there are too high for a poorly paid artist. Looks in the window at Victoria’s Secret—her skinny frame and slight bosom would find no support there. And then runs into two young men dressed in black pants, white shirts, and ties who are giving out literature and talking to passersby. Katherine recognizes them as Mormon so she takes one of their brochures but politely declines their offer to talk at length. “I promise I’ll read this” she says as she walks away thinking “there is no way I will read this”.

Katherine decides to go to the local Episcopal church that Sunday. She notes how the preachers are always smiling. She recalled that Oscar Wilde said that preachers are always smiling because they repeat the same think over and over as they read from the Book of Common prayer. So they are glib idiots. Katherine looks around the church and sees people from the village that she’s know for years. She recalls how she criticized her own parents. They didn’t believe in God she said; they simply went to church because in the rural area where they lived it was just another social club: a place to meet friends and get invited to parties. When Katherine went to her grandparents Baptist church as a teenager all she could think was how cynical these supposedly pious people were. They smiled meekly at one another and said “God is Great” and “Praise the Lord”. But they fornicated, committed adultery, stole from one another, lied, and behaved just like the rest of us. And the church’s dogma fit neatly into their scheme because God said you can be forgiven for your sins if you just ask. So for the petty thief or the abusive husband, the sanctuary was just one great big revolving door of amnesty. Katherine left church that day feeling that much more down on religion. But still she wouldn’t give up searching for the sake of her own soul and that of her dead child.

Katherine goes to her studio one morning in April to work on her painting. Her work is abstract. She dashes colors onto the canvas with her brush and sees what shat manifests itself. After a week of dabbing blue here, brushing red over there, and spreading yellow in bright swirls she steps back from the painting to look it over carefully. She gasps and drops her coffee to the floor when she can clearly see what appears to be the face of her son Julian. His hands are folded like Raphael’s painting of the praying hands and he is looking up at a church steeple. She then begins to think again of what the Mormons in the mall told her about Joseph Smith’s vision in the forest. Could she be having a religious vision? Could she be slipping into some kind of psychosis? Her emotions were beginning to unnerve her.

Katherine is looking about the den a few says later for something to read when she picks up “The New Yorker” magazine. She reads a scathing indictment of the Mormon Church in advance of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic games. She feels vindicated in her mistrust of religion when she reads how Brigham Young had 57 wives. Polygamy it seems was not scripture but just a way to sanction the many marriages kept by the church’s founder Joseph Smith. But then Katherine’s schadenfreud turned to interest as she read of the Mormon’s belief in the Baptism for the Dead. The New Yorker explained that through prayer a living Christian could cause the soul of a dead person to go to heaven. Hence the Mormon’s interest in genealogy.

Katherine decided to read further. She went Amazon.com and ordered “The Book of Mormon”. Then she visited the Mormon Church and talked with the elders and they agreed to teach Katherine about the Church of Latter day Saints and help her pray for the soul of her dead child.

In the months thereafter Katherine is busy with her painting and her new-found faith in the Mormonism. She wouldn’t call herself a Mormon yet but she did hold out hope that the Baptism for the Dead could help her reconnect with her son or at least spirit her son off to Heaven. That night she crawls in bed, reaches up and snaps off the light, and falls asleep.

William is sleeping beside her when he abruptly sits straight up in a cold sweat. “Did you here that? I can hear Julian crying out from his grave.” He turns to his wife but she is not there. Her side of the bed has gone cold. Leaping up from his bed he throws open the window and looks in the backyard at his son’s grave which is well lit in the full moon. Across the grave he can see a shadow in the spot where grass refuses to grow. William tosses on his bathrobe and dashes down the stairs, pistol in hand, and runs out to the back yard. At the grave of his son William doesn’t find a trespasser or ghost. Rather Katherine is lying there an afghan wrapped around her shoulders and The Book of Mormon lying at her side. She too had heard Julian crying out so she went out to be with him and comfort him.

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