This piece was originally published in Going Down Swinging 33. You can buy a copy here.
It’s nearly midnight and we’ve been talking for nearly three hours before I think to ask him about religion. He shrugs before replying,
“Further away if anything. I think Mum’s been drawn to it, but not me.”
I nod and that’s it. For the rest of the night we talk about the funeral arrangements, medication, writing, mourning, living overseas. We don’t talk about the soul, or the afterlife or even really death itself at all – just the little things before and after, like song choices and Facebook notifications. At one point I notice the painting of the Last Supper on the wall opposite me but religion doesn’t come up again.
We’re sitting in the living room of my friend’s family home. His Dad is dying of Creutzfeld-Jakob’s Disease – a neurological disorder which the best doctors in the world know nothing about, except that it is incurable and invariably fatal. Just a few months ago he was in perfect health when he had what the doctors thought was a mild stroke. He was quickly on the mend but then the medication seemed to be having adverse effects – he was losing his balance, forgetting things. He seemed to deteriorate impossibly quickly. He was soon bed-ridden, and had lost most of his mental faculties. A week ago he was diagnosed, and given three weeks to live.
As my friend tries to explain all this to me, his mother comes into the room to discuss the next day’s hospital visitation. Her eyes are red and her whole face is puffy; I feel like an intruder on her grief. I want to say something – but the first formulation that comes to mind is, my prayers are with you. I don’t say it because I haven’t prayed for nearly a decade, so instead I hug her awkwardly and say that it’s nice to see her again, it’s been so long.
Once she goes to bed we resume our conversation. The difficulty, my friend says, has been getting his head around the concept of randomness. There are no known causes of CJD, and it affects about one in four million people. Obviously, he knows there’s no answer to this “why” question – but I can see a flicker of his Arts degree as his tired, shocked mind grinds through the question anyway. We touch on Freud, and my recently completed thesis, which was on the subject of mourning. But my contention – that mourning is not something to be “worked through” but rather an ethical necessity – seems cold and abstract in this living room from where I can see the stacks of food dropped off by friends and family who didn’t know what else to bring. Eventually, we exhaust our words and I wish that I’d brought something along too – food or flowers or a CD – but I make do with a shake of the hand and a promise to speak soon.
I was very much raised a Catholic. When I brought my first girlfriend home to meet my parents, my Mum later told me that it was only then that my Dad finally gave up his secret ambition for me to join the priesthood. When I was young, we used to have a weekly prayer night during which we’d turn off the lights and sit around a candle on the kitchen table and take it in turns to read prayers before a communal rendition of the “Our Father”. It was some years later while I watched some awful daytime movie on TV that I realised how much our prayer nights had been like séances. My favourite bit was right at the end when we’d blow out the candle and my brothers and I would scamper under the table or try to make it out the door before Dad got the lights back on, and our parents would pretend they didn’t know where we’d disappeared to. I also remember not being allowed to eat an hour before Mass because I wasn’t supposed to have food sitting in my stomach when I took the Eucharist – which mostly just highlighted for me that I was about to have Jesus in my belly (and horrified when I got Him stuck in my teeth), and being terrified of my parents’ bedroom because of the particularly gruesome crucifix above their bed – we used to dare each other to venture as far into their room as possible, getting just inside the doorframe before one of us mistook a lamp for a face or a creak as a whisper and we’d all tumble out of the room squealing with fright.
By the time I got to middle high school our weekly prayer nights had petered out and it was all too easy for me to reject my parents’ Catholicism as the same sort of spooky superstition that made them avoid houses numbered four or fourteen. I started to find excuses not to go to church on Sundays – it was usually pretty easy to avoid going to morning Mass because I’d be playing tennis, and rather than going in the afternoon – (as I told my parents) I’d sit in the park and read a book. Especially whilst I attended a Catholic boys school, it was easy to consider myself an atheist and feel rebellious. It helped that our school R.E. teachers tended to be caricatures of blind religious faith, and taught us all sorts of rubbish about homosexuality, abortion and sexual health.
Then I went to university and everyone was an atheist. But it wasn’t a question of quantity as quality; at uni I met for the first time raised-atheists, militant non-believers. People who sneered at religion and the religious, people who considered themselves intellectually superior because they believed in Reason and Science and not God. I’ve always found it difficult to articulate my issues with this brand of atheism, heralded by public figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. My unease stems from the fact that I can’t engage the militant atheist on his or her own terms – which is precisely the point, for on their own terms there is no counter-argument: believing in God makes as much sense as believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
But my problem with this particular school is not rational but tonal. My distaste for Dawkins et. al. is a dissatisfaction with what they offer in place of God. To put it another way, religion offers something Reason cannot. The Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton said of his religious parents that “[f]rom both [my parents] I got capacities for work and vision and enjoyment and expression that ought to have made me some kind of King, if the standards the world lives by were the real ones.” With the distance of years I think I can begin to say the same thing about my own religious upbringing – or at least, small parts of it, slivers of genius amongst the doctrine and the dogma.
My friend’s Dad passed away just three days after our night-long conversation. I was at the airport when I got his text message, on my way to France to visit my grandfather, whose own health was failing. I sat in the departure lounge with my phone in my hands, the sudden new weight of the thing seeming to preclude any attempt at drafting a response. But I couldn’t put the phone down either – a response seemed to be required, but the technology seemed so inadequate. And any words I could think of seemed trite and insincere. Eventually they started calling for us to board, and I settled for something formulaic.
That was three weeks ago, and in the intervening time I’ve spent almost every day in a tiny apartment twenty kilometres from Paris with my grandparents. My grandfather needs a machine to breathe, and every day a nurse comes to give him his injections. Once a week they come to give him a bath. In the time I was with him, he left the apartment once, for a party in held in his honour by the Vietnamese-Catholic diaspora community – he only stayed for a couple of hours and left before everyone else. Death, which he spoke to me about almost every day, feels like the closing down of possibilities, the foreshortening of our perception. Like a corporeal and mental myopia, to go with the already failing eyesight. Even for those who aren’t dying, there is a curtailment of possibility. My friend’s career in music journalism was just taking off in Berlin when he had to move back to Melbourne because of his Dad’s illness. Now he can’t be sure when his life will be his own again; when he tells me that his Mum keeps insisting that he never leave home again, I picture her the last time I saw her, puffy-eyed and shuffling to bed.
But the remarkable thing is that now, three weeks later, I don’t feel that it’s such a terrible thing to have nothing to say in the face of death. In the clamour of contemporary life religion is a way of slowing down; prayer doesn’t have to be a conversation with a bearded man in the clouds, rather it is paying attention to the invisible and the silent. In that sense it is the antithesis to the closure of possibility and perception that is death – as Merton would put it, it opens up normally hidden capacities for vision and expression. Sitting in silence with grandparents I’ve seen a half dozen times in a quarter of a century, or keeping vigil over a dying father in hospital, are their own forms of prayer. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Habit of Perfection begins:
Elected silence sing to me
And beat upon my whorléd ear
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear
If we care to listen, silence can sing to us. One afternoon in Paris, I asked my grandparents about the music they listened to when they were young. I’m not sure what I expected – some Vietnamese singers I’d never heard of, or maybe something classical – but out of nowhere my grandmother started to hum snatches of melody, some forgotten American jazz standard. But her English had never been great and she couldn’t remember the words. She faltered and turned to my grandfather, but being half deaf he was just looking at each of us in turn bemused, his toothless mouth creating a sort of cavity where the jawline should be. I couldn’t help but think that he looked like a helpless baby, nearly hairless and in his thermal leggings, staring confusedly at us.
My grandmother started to explain that they’d heard the song at a ball – the Americans were there – it was a ball in Saigon – it was the American Embassy ball and the women were dressed so beautifully, twirling around the garden of the Embassy. She held up her hands like she was holding a partner. Her older brother had been in love with an American woman – or she was in love with him, that was it – Gwen or Lauren her name was – she worked at the Embassy and they were all invited to the ball. It was the middle of the war but there is always time for a dance. And then my grandmother began to repeat, over and over, set to that forlorn tune, with her arms still held up like a dancer, “If she ever loved me…” On the second or third time round my grandfather seemed finally to hear her – his toothless mouth stretched into a grin and then they were both singing, falling in and out of tune. For a moment they seemed lifted out of their slumped, brittle bodies and their wrinkled faces were crumpled in concentration and remembered pleasure.