When I was nine, I began to have my first serious, critical thoughts about the afterlife.
If the Episcopal Church is Catholic Lite, then my family was, at most generous, Miller Ultra Christians. I think it was atavism driving my parents to what little religion we did participate in, a sense of connection to a simpler, Southern past that, even then, you could sense was being buried under asphalt and masters degrees. I liked church okay, though not the occasional Sunday school class; the former took place in beautiful, unique buildings — one of the good parts of the Catholic faith that even now I feel, with a certain intrinsic nativist pride, the Episcopal church wisely chose to sift from the discarded silliness — while the latter was set in the same sort of ugly little institutional room I’d learned to despise by the end of first grade. Sermons could be boring, sure, but that’s when you dozed. Better yet, the setting allowed me to project into the past; I might imagine myself an embattled Scottish laird, receiving one last benediction before I marched my warriors off to war, or perhaps a simple medieval stone mason, trying not to get caught snoozing while the jewel bedecked priest droned in Latin. My own sort of abstract atavism.
(Side note: Atavism is such a wonderful word, perfectly suited for defining a very specific concept. I provide the link not out of pretension but because I want everyone to have it in their toolbox.)
Religion was, to me, this mostly fun little historically flavored diversion. Intellectually I realized that most of our church took it far more seriously than my parents and I, that they were there every Sunday, or would sit through all however-many-hours of Christmas mass, but that was easy to account; they just valued, or at least needed, the connection to their past more. There were the priests, of course, who obviously made their living on this strange little facet of life, but Episcopal priests are by and large either: A) semi-hip youth minister sorts who you figure on first sight probably play in a semi-hip band, or B) jocular, red-cheeked old men that can lead a boy to suspect Santa Claus doesn’t strictly consign himself to the north pole during the off-season. It was all too easy to think they were in on the joke, delivering their sermons with a wink and a lived in, “what’re you gonna do?” smile. The fact that there were people who took all this seriously, to the point of affecting their votes and feelings on people of differing sexual orientations, was a stunning revelation that somehow didn’t even occur until well into high school.
This post isn’t really about my history or feelings on religion, though; that’s fodder for a later, probably longer, piece. I’ve told you this much to provide context for the story that follows, the real story of this piece. The tale of how I came to discover what fiction truly meant to me is inextricably tied to my first musings on the afterlife and, for better or worse, human consciousness always pulls a seat to the table for religion when the murmurings of the psychological cocktail party turn to the big D word.
So let’s get more personal.
When I was twelve, my first grandmother died.
She was my father’s mother, a beautiful even at seventy-two little woman with a head of fiery red hair and an essence to match, one of those women that seem to be a genus unique to the American South, a model produced only between the world wars. She could scream your ass out of her kitchen and your fingers from the cookie batter, never buy you a single thing you didn’t need, yet never leave you doubting the fierce, even frightening depth of her love for you.
At the age I was, you tended to take for granted that the adults surrounding you, even the elderly ones, would be around forever. Hell, the way your parents go in awe of them, your grandparents can seem practically mythic, bearing a power of being that belies the relative frailty of their bodies. When my grandparents had an extremely terrible car accident on the way home from visiting us, they both went into the hospital for a long while. Even then it seemed like a setback, a brief dimming of their powers. No more.
But there are no gods walking amongst humanity, no matter what a child’s mind says. My grandfather recovered; my grandmother did not.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was on. I remember the episode perfectly; it was The Screaming Skull, an exceptionally funny yet slightly creepy episode of an exceptional show. It must not have been a school night; SciFi channel showed MST3k too late even for a budding iconoclast to be so daring, but it was late enough that when my mom walked into the room, completely dark but for the desaturated bluish hues of the movie, I thought myself caught. She wasn’t angry though. Calmly, tearfully, she told me my grandmother had died.
I didn’t feel much of anything then. A bit dizzy, like I was somehow disconnected from my body. I finished my MST, and I went to bed.
My behaviour over the following weeks was similarly muted. At the funeral I didn’t cry; I simply felt dizzy. No one said anything, but even at that age, at the height of my “terrible at reading people because I don’t really recognize they exist” phase, I could see how it disconcerted people. I didn’t care, but I saw it. My parents tried a few times to engage me, before, during, and after the funeral, but I gave them little to no response. In retrospect I can see how it was worrisome, my seeming lack of reaction, but at the time I was just befuddled and a little irritated by what seemed to be everyone’s hang up on me. I wasn’t cold, or emotionally dead, but I also wasn’t old or empathic enough to understand that I might seem that way; I was simply processing.
That processing completed on a cold night in my dad’s truck, as he drove me home from whatever late night activity a twelve-year-old can engage in. It’s profoundly strange what the mind holds on to; under torture I could not tell you what we were coming back from, or even with confidence how long after my grandmother’s death this was, yet I can recall with perfect clarity precisely where in downtown Chattanooga we were. I remember how beautiful the globes of early evening rain were on the glass, and how the petrichor scented air was that perfect sort of cool that only comes in the wake of a storm. Most significantly, I remember I was reading. Not what I was reading — given my age it was probably something quite terrible — but I was reading when my father, perhaps the most gifted psychologist the South ever produced, looked over at me and said simply, “How do you feel about your grandfather dying?”
Now, I had been asked nearly this exact question about a thousand times in the preceding weeks, though of course with “grandmother” as the secondary object. Perhaps in switching up the wording my father was utilizing some sort of mental kung-fu as taught by sensei CG Jung , perhaps it was just a lucky coincidence that he changed tactics at the moment I was suddenly ready to talk. Whatever the case, this time my answer wasn’t a verbal screen saver.
“Grandpa is going to die, just like grandma did. Mom’s mom will too. Soon, probably before I’m really an adult.”
“What do you think happens to them?”
Here, he hesitated. I was twelve years old here; this wasn’t exactly a child asking what happened to people when they died. I was old enough to know some people thought there was Heaven, and some of those also thought there was Hell, even if I didn’t realize — Catholic-Lite, remember — just how literal-yet-Loony-Tunes many of those conceptions were. This was an almost teenager asking the smartest man in the entire world what he had for an answer to the ultimate question. These are what screenwriters call Crux Points, and would have us believe irrevocably shape people, potentially turning the course of their lives on a dime. Who can really imagine the true pressure of a moment like that? Only a father, I’d guess.
My father rose to the occasion admirably. His response did in fact shape the man I became. Wisely, like any good teacher, dad knew when to get Socratic.
“People have a lot of different ideas. What would you call Heaven?”
What a question! Not, “What do you believe?” or, “Who knows?”, but “What would you call Heaven?” What would you want it to be, in other words. He wasn’t offering me false guarantees of eternal life and happiness that he himself didn’t believe, nor was he sidestepping the issue. He was choosing that moment to challenge me. He was asking me, in effect, to be an author.
And I thought about it. With a question like that, how could I not? Whatever horrid piece of fiction — fantasy themed, I’m sure — was heavy in my hands. I knew the answer wasn’t an infinite harp jam session in the clouds, but not a whole lot else. What would I happily do forever and ever and on and on, long past the heat death of the universe? To what situation would I want to bring in everyone I had ever known or cared about, along with presumably descendents and other worthies I’d never meet in life? What would be worth their time?
Infinite time, remember. What could you possibly do, what place could you possibly be in that, absent a complete overhaul of your perspective of time and space, would be worth remaining in forever?
“It couldn’t be any one thing. It would have to change constantly, and more importantly you’d have to have control over it.” I hefted my book. “If I wanted to live in the world of this book, any kind of afterlife worth living would have to give me the capability to do it, along with bringing people to experience it with me. And if I got bored, I’d have to be able to simply go to another one. More importantly, I’d have to be able make my own world, live in it, experience it fully.”
My father always possessed a gift for brevity that I even now lack. “So Heaven is being a god?”
I looked down at my book again. There was almost certainly a dragon or a wizard on the cover. Some being of ultimate power, capable of shaping the world around him to his whims.
“I guess so. The only life worth living for eternity would be that of a god, or at least something very much like it.”
And that’s what fiction means to me.