This post is a continuation of my last one, a deepening of it. It is about mysterious concepts I struggle with now that Tad is dead. Please feel free to share your thoughts and feelings about this either in the comments or by email to me.
I woke up yesterday with a pounding thought: "There's no way he said that!! Just no way at all." For some reason I was thinking about the phrase "I am the way, the truth and the life" attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. And all I could think was "He did NOT say that!"
I am no expert on Jesus - in fact I'm not even sure if he existed. But if he did, it seems to me that he rarely made himself the center of attention. If this story of Jesus that changed the face of the world is a true one - then something tells me it's far more likely Jesus said: "LOVE is the way, the truth and the life."
I once found myself chatting with a Mormon farmer in a remote rural town in Southeastern Arizona, the kind of guy I rarely have the chance to encounter. Being the good Atheist-but-Seeking that I am I asked him about his Mormon god.
"My god is sitting on the edge of his chair just waiting for the opportunity to jump up and encourage me; to tell me what a good job I've done and how proud he is of me."
I was struck by this cheerleader version of a deity no doubt because it is so incredibly far from the one I was introduced to as a child.
The Reverend Lee Vandenburg of the First Baptist Church basically gave us an unwritten list of behaviors. Let's call them the "In" behaviors and the "Out" behaviors. If a congregant did the In Behaviors she had a ticket into heaven --and by extension the church community-- but if he or she (openly) engaged in those behaviors on the Out list she wouldn't make it into either circle. This seems like a simple, easy-to-understand formula - and not far from the beliefs of most religions.
As my childhood world became more and more chaotic - financial problems, marital conflict, separation and finally divorce - my family kept showing behaviors on the "Out" list. When the divorce was pronounced we were told we were not welcome in the community. Quickly though it seems divorce was struck from the "Out" list and we were allowed back - or did it have something to do with my grandfather, a church elder?
As I approached adolescence it became more and more apparent to me (and no doubt to others) that I was more romantically interested in my male friends than my female cohort. As the painful truth grew slowly less opaque - despite all my attempts to pray those thoughts out of my brain - I knew what I had to do. For years Rev VandenBurg had told us that homosexuals were an "abomination". If ever there was a bigger, more terrible "Out" list hiding somewhere in the wooden desk in his office I was sure my shamefully secret wet dreams were on it - no doubt along with murderers and criminals of the type that hung on either side of the crucified savior.
I wish I could believe in Jesus.
I wish I could feel his loving arms around me telling me that Tad is in a good place. I wish I could believe that God had arms and like the Dutch paintings that gave Jesus blue eyes or the American paintings that gave him a more Anglo-Saxon mien I wish I could see God as some big loving daddy sitting on the edge of his chair.
But I can't.
I also wish I could bring myself to believe in some heavenly place. I wish I were really certain that Tad is now sitting on a cloud up there feeling some divine mojo flow through him.
Not being able to locate Tad has been the most painful part of my experience of loss. I want to know where he is. I want to know he is safe. I want to know he is well-cared for. I want to know.
To locate: "to designate the site or place of, to define the limits of."
My logical brain, the one that was taught geometry and learned to scan maps and endless library catalogs and GPS screens, wants to pursue its old habit of situating. It wants to place Tad somewhere on an X axis then a Y axis then walk away serene.
But it's not that easy.
A few months before my beautiful grandmother died she expressed some worry about what might happen to her after death.
"I know I'm getting closer. I keep having more and more dreams of your grandpa. But I'm just not sure about things...", she said concerned.
When I gently prodded she explained she was afraid for her soul's future since she had not attended church in quite a long time. When asked why she said her experience of the various church communities in town was that the leaders were all hypocrites: "They all say one thing and do another," she said.
As a leader in our small community she had seen many things in her ninety-some years - and she was not prone to idle gossip. She was clearly speaking from observed experience.
"It just didn't make sense to me. So I stopped going. I found peace and love on my own."
That day I wondered aloud with my grandma if her life as a loving spouse, a caring teacher, a community leader, a responsible parent was perhaps a godly way to go through life. Perhaps her way --even though it didn't include adhering to all the behaviors on the lists -- was closer to god somehow. I saw that she felt some relief after this.
With hindsight it's safe for me to conclude from my conversation with her that the "In" lists these men drew up --yes they were all men-- were in fact unattainable even to themselves.
Carl Jung is said to have written: "The great religions of the world are mistaken in that the ask us to put faith before experience."
How could I believe in divine love if I had not experienced it?
Given the narrow-mindedness of my spiritual teachers it wasn't possible for me growing up to experience the love of god. I mostly felt critical scrutiny from God's messengers. If indeed this church community was "the hands and face of God" their gestures communicated something other than godly love, something more akin to intolerance, judgment, small-mindedness. Like a pining lonely heart on a first date - God held a checklist behind his back just waiting for a faux-pas that would allow him to reject me.
I didn't wait to be banished from the garden - I simply excommunicated myself.
One day Rev Vandenburg's daughter contacted me here in California where she too had moved. She offered to get together and talk. Having lived far from my childhood community of faith I was eager to sit down with another adult and talk about it, try to make sense of it. I also had some real questions I wanted to ask about her father's at times illogical behavior.
When she met me for lunch in a small eatery in San Francisco's hip South of Market, Dot.com alley I was excited to see she'd come with her husband and young daughter. As a general rule I enjoy the company of children and, I assumed, a triangular conversation would be that much more lively.
But once we sat down to lunch I saw the whole meal play out in a far different manner than what I had expected.
First she told me from the very beginning - quite tersely - that her father had died, that he was a GOOD man and his theology wasn't open for discussion.
Then I realized her husband was not going to participate in the conversation. He sat nearby mostly interacting with their four year old - allowing Anne and I to catch up.
As the meal moved along however it became clear even Anne was only partially engaged. She remained guarded never really opening up to me about her joys, her doubts, struggles or desert wanderings. Here I was sharing my wonderings aloud and she played her cards close to her chest. As the end of my lunch break approached I began to feel eager to leave; I felt uncomfortable like an elevator at rush hour.
After paying the check I got up to leave when Anne said to me, "Greg I want to know where you stand on your commitment to Jesus Christ."
Sideswiped! Her question opened up a slew of ideas - many of which I'd have been happy to discuss. I was just coming back to the US after living 20 years in a country vehement about the separation of church and state. I had traveled to Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist places and had loving friends from all those faiths; friends with whom I could have open discussions about life, love, fear and faith. I had just lost most of my community to the devastation of AIDS.
I mumbled something logical enough to cover my Good Boy-ass but open-ended enough to show her that I had expanded my idea of Jesus-ness.
As I escaped our lifeless encounter I felt the rage emerge. How dare she! Was this lunch no more than a notch in her Envagelical belt? I wondered if the church community she and her husband led in Southern California was paying her for those hours. Maybe I should have let her pick up the tab after all.
Fortunately as Tad got sicker and sicker we never had this kind of dynamic - with other people or between ourselves. Though we rarely talked about God or life after death we became less defended and more loving. As we got closer and closer to his death we became more open to love.
Our urges to find fault with one another (or to retaliate in the face of fault-finding) disappeared completely most likely brought on by the sudden leukemic fork in the road, the heretofore forgotten awareness that we are mortal. This constant painful reminder coupled with dire ongoing physical pain was enough for us to drop our human urges to bite back when we felt hurt and instead practice daily gentle kindness with one another.
During this time we noticed that other people's gestures of love and support - a hug, a card, a check, a tear - would open our hearts even more, setting off bouts of unusual tears, an inexplicable mix of sadness and joy.
Immediately after Tad died I felt an incredible love emerge. When everyone left me alone with him/it I actually made a short video of his body commenting on the various parts and my relationship to them. When I take the time to watch it I sob deeply but I also notice that in the film I'm laughing with such incredible love - a similar feeling I experienced after making love with Tad. Was Freud right? Was an orgasm just a smaller version of the incredible intimacy of dying together?
So from this long trek across a hot desert of deep sensitivity, of profound love and of excruciating loss - a voyage I began with my beloved and finished alone here is what I think I might understand:
1 - When my heart opens up tenderly -- with doubt, with fear, with love, with sorrow -- I can keep it hidden. But I also have the opportunity to share it, to divulge my vulnerability to others.
2 - When I am open and vulnerable with others and they respond with love, somehow I grow bigger, I open up more (and I have a hunch they do too).
3 - If I am around someone in my openness and they choose not to be open, I feel lonely, like an object instead of a full human being.
4 - If I stay open with someone and they stay open with me until the very end - after their death their voice joins the chorus of loving voices in my head.
In the same way I can close my eyes, touch myself erotically and suddenly find the very real wonderful smiling face of Tad; in the same way I can feel his very presence while climaxing, yelling his name, spouting love declarations to him (these are followed by long deep sobs), I can also feel him lovingly supporting me. I can feel him sitting on the edge of his chair eager to encourage me and cover me in praise.
Tad's voice has merged with that of my loving ancestors: my grandma's, Melanie's, Stephen's. It has joined the voice of angels.
I can't locate this voice through searching and thinking. Instead it comes to me when I sit quite still and let it permeate me from within.
What remains a mystery to me is whether this voice is just a composite of memories I simply store in my brain or whether it is somehow something coming to me from beyond these three dimensions. Like my ancestors who saw their crop suddenly ruined and - in order to make sense out of something so unpredictable and non-sensical - blamed the heavens, am I just finding a mental shortcut by attributing this to something meta-physical?
The truth is I have had many odd, inexplicable experiences in this lifetime - mostly around dying people. But those are stories I never tell anyone. They are so unusual and impossible to comprehend - in particular by the social scientist part of me - that my brain tells me people will think I'm crazy or better yet the eery events never really happened; they were just a dream I had.
But they weren't.