the gift

It's coming up on five years ago that my mother died. Rather, it's coming up on five years ago that she was discovered dead; no one is exactly sure how long she'd been that way before she was found, alone on her couch in front of the television. I'm sure the coroner had some idea, but if that information was conveyed to me at the time, it mercifully didn't find purchase in my shocked and grieving brain. And as I was the only one around to absorb and process the particulars of her demise - not to mention handle the logistical consequences thereof - I guess that macabre little detail dies with me.

I'm being gruesome on purpose, because I'm trying to establish context: namely, how horrific I felt about the circumstances of her passing, and how the additional guilt and shame inherently tethered to those circumstances ultimately led me to say goodbye to something else, as well: religion.

I've long credited myself with atheistic tendencies, even when I was too young to understand that's what they were. I started losing my religion as quickly as it was given to me - by parents whose own belief systems conflicted so completely that I couldn't help but see holes in both; by Catholic school teachers whose punitive natures so alienated me that I couldn't imagine a Creator who'd sanction their nastiness; by an older brother who professed Christian values one minute and physically assaulted me the next. 

But while my confidence in rejecting dogma grew over the years (manifesting in refusals to attend church, to engage in prayer at the dinner tables of my friends, to utter devotion to god along with allegiance to my country's flag), I didn't actually shed the final dregs of faith until my mother died. 

That's not something a lot of people know about me, partly because I am so vocal about my non-belief, and partly because it hasn't been something I've heretofore been keen to admit. But here is the bald-faced truth: it wasn't until I was sure I was facing eternal damnation by a supernatural deity for having abandoned my mother that I realized eternal damnation - and the supernatural deities who arbitrate its assignment - aren't real. Nor are they fun scourges with which to flagellate oneself in the wake of a devastating personal loss, but whoo boy did I think otherwise at the time. I couldn't get enough of them, in fact. Hell and God. God and Hell. I'm. So. Fucked. 

Keanu Reeves is partly to blame.

Constantine, a Reeves-helmed film about heaven and hell and the reasons a soul will secure itself a spot in either, came out years before my mom died. I'd seen it in the theater and had been entertained but not particularly engrossed. That changed when, out of what I can only guess was a perverse need to punish myself, I watched it again and again after her death. Each time a wise-cracking Keanu descended into the fiery, demon-filled depths, I felt like I was seeing my future. The movie is straight-up cartoonish in its depiction of hell, but masochistic me just could not get enough. 

If you've been lucky enough not to experience it firsthand yet, take it from me: grief can play crazy, cruel tricks with your head. I let it play with mine for months. What was already a painful experience became exacerbated by excruciating bouts of self-recrimination, fear, and crippling depression - all because I thought I would be punished, at death, for having finally cut ties with my alcoholic, emotionally abusive mother (a gut-wrenching decision decades in the making) by a god I hadn't really believed in my entire life. Thanks, religion!

The remaining ghosts of childhood indoctrination (because that's what it was; I sure hadn't gone pursuing religion on my own) robbed me of the chance to mourn my mother in peace, with love in my heart and a rational mind to guide me through the rockiest bits. Instead I looked at her and her death through a terrified fog that kept me from coming to any clear understanding of loss, regret, and familial relationships. They bumped around in my brain, those ghosts, clanging chains of fear and shame, whispering things a thousand times more vicious than anything my mother, even at her most unforgiving and manipulative, would ever say. 

Eventually, something snapped. Maybe it was my inability to reconcile God's Law (I'm not sure if there's a Bible verse about damnation for estranged daughters, but it sure seem a subtextual given) with the knowledge I am not an evil person. Maybe I rejected the incomprehensible horrors of a hypothetical, punishing god so thoroughly that all my auxiliary religious beliefs got flushed in the purge. Whatever it was, the entire system - every last silly little bit of it - suddenly screamed of fraudulence. Of disgusting and unnecessary fear-mongering. Of darkness and mystery clouding up a space where the already painful realities of life and death don't need the complication of unrealities. I rejected it wholesale. Shoved every last ounce out of my life once and for all. And the things that have filled the space left behind have been more beautiful and more gratifying than I ever could have imagined. 

It's the gift my mother never knew she gave me.