An abscess in the tooth or colon curls one inward as salt poured upon a snail. And so does grief; grief is an oozing, boiling abscess of absence.
I was eight thousand miles away in upstate New York when my mother died. We knew it was coming. “Home, come I should?” I asked her when she was conscious for a moment and able to speak on the phone. My syntax was muddled by the abscessed tongue of grief, but she understood what I was trying to say. She said no, “Stay home with the kids.” She was more coherent than she’d been for years. I, on the other hand… “You I love,” I told her.
I’d like to say I handled my mother’s death with strength and wisdom but I didn’t. I curled into a bottle of gin, like a salted snail curls into its shell.
For those of you who haven’t experienced it, a bottle of gin is a strange place in which to reside, especially when you have a family living outside the bottle. The images and sounds entering into the bottle are distorted; slanted against you. “What’s that you say? ‘How are you?’ What do you mean by that? Why are you speaking in that tone of voice? Are you saying you’re leaving me? Good, go! I don’t blame you; I hate you anyway.” Also, the more you drink the tighter the bottle fits, especially around the middle, until it becomes difficult to see where you end and the bottle begins. Soon, you and the bottle become as one—a transparent shell of mean, fat, ugly, and stupid.
The year after my mother died, a few friends and I went down to New York City to see some shows and take a few dance classes. While I was packing for the trip, I saw Meredith Vieira interviewing J. K. Rowling on the Today Show. When asked what she would like to see in Harry Potter’s magic mirror, Rowling said she’d like to see her mother, who had died six months after she started writing the first Harry Potter book. “It’s one of my biggest regrets… she never knew,” Rowling said, referring to her success. “She would have loved this, I mean, just in the sense that any mother wants to know that her child is successful. She would have been at every event and would have had such vicarious pleasure hearing about who I’ve met, and she would have been fascinated and interested, and that’s a massive regret.”
New York City was boiling hot and humid and not even a hip flask of gin could help me shake the sadness of J. K. Rowling—the most beloved and successful author of our time—who wanted just one conversation with her mother to tell her of her accomplishments. I had no triumphs to speak of; I was failing miserably. But even that, the miserable failure, I wanted to share with my mother.
The following day my friends and I went to the Alvin Ailey Dance Center to take an African dance class. As we walked into the building, the company was rehearsing and the mournful voice of Paul Robeson poured forth, like salt upon my abscessed grief: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child; a long ways from home…”
My friends signed up for the class, but I fled. There was a massage parlor across the road and I ran inside. “How much do you charge for a massage?” I implored.
“Go inside; take off clothes,” said the Asian receptionist pointing to one of the tent-like partitions within the store. So, bugger the cost, that’s what I did. And I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
“Am I hurt you?”
“No, no, please, just keep going.”
And afterwards, as I walked alone through the frantic streets of Manhattan, the honking cars reminded me of the line of cars behind my mother whenever she drove. And then it hit me. What I needed—I, a committed humanist (well, to be honest, at that stage I was more of a committed drunk)—was religion. “I need religion!” a voice inside shouted.
Just then I saw a church on the other side of the road. It was a sign. “Yes, I will go and pray and find religion,” I thought. I had to retrace my steps back to the traffic light so that I could cross the road safely, and as I did, I saw a stained-glass window on my side of the street with the Prayer of St. Francis engraved upon it:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is error, the truth; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
I realized there was also a church on my side of the street. I studied the two churches—the one I’d missed seeing when I first passed by and the other, a beacon in the distance. Both were as pious and “churchy” as the other, but there was one big difference. The stairs leading to the church across the street were clear, while those on my side of the street were soiled by a drunk, homeless woman blocking the entrance. She was sobbing as I had sobbed at the massage parlor. I knew I hadn’t initially seen the church on my side of the street because I didn’t want to see her. The religion offered on the other side was easier, cleaner, less of a commitment. I read the Prayer of St. Francis again. The words, “let me not so much seek to be consoled as to console,” admonished me to act. I reached down and touched the woman’s shoulder. “Are you okay?” She stank of stale alcohol, body odor, and, I imagined, abscessed teeth. She looked up at me, her bloodshot eyes mirroring mine. “I want my mommy,” she said.
My knees buckled me down into full humanity with her. I put my arm around her and whispered, “So do I.”
As we sat together—not speaking, a union of the motherless children—I found my religion. Or rather, I reaffirmed my religion. I am a humanist and that means for me religion is not found inside the church, but in the people sitting on the stone steps. Religion is those who serve, those who study, those who help us see and understand, those who make us laugh and gasp with the truth. It is the gathering of friends to dance or mourn, it is the busy-body townsfolk who call the parents of the children getting high behind the pizza shop, and it is the brave firefighters who tamper down the flames of hell on earth. Religion is an action, not a promise. It is the life we are living, not everlasting life.
I gave the woman some money, knowing that not even J. K. Rowling’s billions could be enough for what she wanted, and I went forward determined to act, determined to be a better person; to seek to understand, to love, to give, to pardon, and console, and, through living well, to find peace.