Excerpt from Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists
Here I am, six years old, playing with my friend Fay, and both of us are imagining Heaven. Fay decides that Heaven has mansions made out of gold brick. I say that Heaven has all the animals you want, and best of all, I’m not allergic to any of them. My mother wanders in and listens, and then shakes her head. “There’s no such thing as Heaven,” she says calmly. “God is a myth. All there is after you die are worms and nothingness.” Fay looks shocked and I start to cry, but my mother shrugs. “Come in the kitchen and I’ll give you a cupcake,” she says. “You’ll forget all about it.”
But I don’t forget. Instead, I obsess, lying awake at night too terrified to move, because what if I accidentally fall out of bed, hit my head on the floor, and die, and then the worms get me? My family is Jewish, but no one goes to temple, not even on the High Holidays, but at night I begin to pray to God, stubbornly resisting my mother’s teaching. She can be wrong, I tell myself, but deep inside, another voice hisses: But what if she’s right?
I try not to think about it. I turn twenty, afraid of death. I turn thirty, afraid of death, and then when I’m thirty-two, I fall in love, and though I’m still afraid, happiness tamps the fear down, right up until death enters my life and things suddenly get personal.
I am two weeks away from being married, deliriously happy, planning my life with Steven, a judge who wears an earring and makes me laugh. One night, Steven gets up and says, “I don’t feel so well.” He’s forty-two, healthy, and a runner, and we both think he’s just overdone it, but then he sits on the couch and says, “I need to go to the hospital,” and before I can get to him, he spills off the sofa, falling to the floor. I run to him and do CPR, but I can’t remember how many compressions are needed. I’m hysterically pumping at his chest, breathing into his mouth. I need to call an ambulance, but the phone is in the kitchen. I let go of him and run to the phone, scream for help, and then I race back to him, frantically continuing the CPR, pleading for him to live. The paramedics arrive five minutes later, and as soon as I see them doing the CPR, I know I have been doing it wrong. They’re holding his nose. Their compressions are faster. I’m shaking with fear. By the time we get to the hospital, Steven is dead. And so, to all purposes, am I.
I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I feel like a layer of life has been ripped from me. One night, after the funeral, I cry in my apartment so loudly a neighbor calls the police, who actually come to the apartment to make sure I’m okay. “I’ll never be okay,” I tell them. I cry constantly. To friends. To a grief therapist. To my mother, who holds me and strokes my hair, and then tells me, “There is no God. This just proves it.”
I can’t bear to think that—to imagine Steven buried in the dark without me, without anything. I don’t know what to do with myself. I dream he’s alive and a friend tells me, “Maybe he is, on another plane.” I scoff, and then I happen to look down, and I see that the crystal of my watch has inexplicably shattered, though I don’t remember bumping it on anything. I buy another watch and the same thing happens. In the next two weeks, I buy ten watches, and all the crystals smash. “Could this mean something?” I ask my friend Linda.
“It means you need to buy better watches,” she tells me. But my friend Jane says, cautiously, as if she’s afraid I’m going to mock her, “Maybe it means something. Maybe it’s a message. Maybe you should go to a psychic.”
A message! Proof that there is life after death, that there is some force, some God! I’m desperate enough to believe. So I take all the money Steven and I had saved, and I trek across the country, staying with friends. At each location, I find someone to talk to—anyone who might show me God or reason in this tragedy: priests, rabbis, psychics, mediums, palmists, even the waitresses at the diners I frequent.
The religious people are the least helpful. I see a rabbi who hushes me every time I try to speak. “Quiet,” he says. “You can talk when I’m finished.” I see a priest who tells me that Steven is with Jesus, and I should convert. The psychics aren’t much better. I walk into a psychic’s house with red eyes as large as kitchen clocks, and the psychic says, “Oh, the spirits tell me you are having your best year yet!” Her smile grows. “Are you pregnant?” she adds excitedly, and I burst into tears.
Then my money runs out and I have to come home, and that’s when I read a magazine piece in my shrink’s office about a medium. She’s college educated. She spent years denying her gift because she was sure it was a brain tumor. There’s nothing woo-woo crazy about her photo either. No turban, no flashy earrings. Instead, she looks like a college professor. I call her immediately, and before I can get my name out she says, “Something happened March 8. A man. Dark, curly hair. A heart attack.”
She charges $350 an hour—money I no longer really have—but I make an appointment anyway.
Her apartment is filled with antiques, and she sits down and begins to talk, as if we are discussing the weather. She tells me what happened, the how and when of it. She tells me to hire a lawyer because Steven’s mother might sue me for his possessions. (I do, and she does.) She tells me that I will be locked out of the apartment because my name isn’t on the lease. (It happens.)
“How do you know this?” I ask her, and she tells me that there is no time in the world—that everything is happening all at once. “Read quantum physics,” she advises. “Think of it as science we don’t know yet.”
“So you think there’s a God?” I ask. “You really think people are somewhere else after they die?”
She laughs and says, “It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t change what is.” She nods at the door and then says quietly, “You’ll see him, but you’ll be afraid.”
When I leave, I feel so much better. Until an hour later, when I don’t.
I want so desperately to believe in something—to give this tragedy meaning—but it still eludes me. If there is a God, I don’t like Him because of this cruelty, this torment. I begin to think that if I walked in front of a truck, it might not be so terrible.
A few nights later, I wake to find someone in the room, his back toward me, and it takes me a second to realize it’s Steven. He’s wearing his favorite jacket, his good sneakers. But instead of being happy, I’m terrified. I run across the hall to stay with a neighbor, and I end up moving in with her for a month. I hate myself for not saying anything to Steven’s specter. “It was just a hallucination,” my friend soothes, but was it? And even if it was, how did the medium know I’d see him?
I try every way I can think of to find peace. I start writing a new novel. I enter a toxic relationship with a controlling man who won’t let me eat, and I stay with him for two years, even promising to marry him, because I know that if I break up, I’ll be alone, and the terror and grief will come back. When we do finally split, I give myself some space, and with the help of a therapist and friends, the grief subsides. A few years later, I meet and marry Jeff, a funny, smart journalist, and I get pregnant soon after. I tell myself this happiness is all the meaning I need. I’m too busy to think about God or death. My life is teeming.
And then I deliver Max, a perfect, beautiful boy, and I become critically ill for a year, expected to die. Everything changes again.
I become famous at NYU Medical Center because no one knows what’s wrong with me. A kidney failure, they think. Something with my liver. A rare virus they’ve never seen before. And then they do an operation, and a nurse tells me later that she had never seen so much blood—that it was like something out of The Shining, pouring out onto the OR floor. They sew me back up, and my body fills with blood again. None of it is clotting, and they don’t know why.
I’m in a medical coma for two weeks, given memory blockers so I won’t remember any of it, including any near-death experiences I might have had, which, to be truthful, really pisses me off. What if I had met my own dead loved ones? What if I had seen God Himself? I wouldn’t remember. I have five emergency operations, one hundred transfusions a day, and medicines so toxic they will damage my hearing and make me lose my hair.
When I wake up from the coma, there is a woman near me praying. “Everyone knows about you,” she says, and she hands me two prayer cards. “God saved you, and these will help you pray to Him,” she says, but I’m not so sure, because if God had wanted to save me, why didn’t He make me well? Why was I still sick?
She leaves, and I find myself holding the prayer cards tightly in my hand. I don’t pray, not exactly, but I say out loud, “I can do this.” I mean that I can survive—that I can fight my way back to my husband, my son. I don’t know what power is out there—God or positive thinking or the energy of a phrase that becomes my mantra— my way of never ever giving up—but I begin to feel stronger, less panicked. I say the phrase to myself when the ring of doctors comes round and they all talk about mortality rates as if I’m not there. I say it the first time I have to try to walk, after a month in bed, dangerous because it could start another bleed, but my muscles will atrophy if I don’t try. “I can do this,” I say out loud. “I can do this.” And I can.
Three months later, I go home. My family settles back in. I have a baby so new and delicious I want to inhale him! I have a husband who tells me I look beautiful, even with my patchy hair and my swollen, bandaged belly road mapped with surgery scars. Everything looks different to me now. Colors vibrate. I can’t believe I’m alive, and I feel different. Changed. As if I’ve come through something and I want it explained, but again, I don’t know where to turn. I wish there were a manual for faith, a set of directions, or even better, a map.
I still have to be in bed for another few months, so I read medical books to figure out why I had this disorder, how it had happened, and most terrifyingly, if it can happen again. And then I remember the medium telling me to read quantum physics, so I order book after book for the layperson.
When the quantum-physics books arrive, they echo what the medium said to me—that the world is stranger than we can imagine and time is man-made, and perhaps everything really is happening at the same moment. I imagine that this is how psychics work, that there is nothing magical about it, that it makes perfect scientific sense. Perhaps they’ve honed a skill we all have: that is, to dip back and forth in time to pick up thoughts and events, which are energy. Perhaps it’s a gift, like having a talent in singing or art. Maybe a healer is simply manipulating that energy in order to heal, and there’s nothing mystical about it at all. The more I read, the more excited I get. There are scientists who believe in parallel universes and think we may have doubles. The one thing I learn from these books—the one piece of information that drumbeats in my head—is that there is so much we don’t know about how the universe works, so much we aren’t aware of—portals and wormholes and forces and all kinds of amazing things—and couldn’t one of these forces be something like God?
When I tell Jeff what I am starting to believe, he sighs. Despite this reaction, I get him to agree that there is a force out there, and we can’t know what it is, at least not yet. I don’t feel that I’m deluding myself. In fact, the only way I can describe what happened to me because of my experiences with death and psychics is that I now have a feeling, an unshakable sense of knowing, much the way people who discover Jesus do, only I don’t believe in a Heaven or a Hell, or a God with a beard who judges.
Things begin to make sense to me. Am I fooling myself when I begin to think I survived my illness because I had to raise my son—because he’s the important one? Am I fooling myself to think I have to write books that reach people, that change them, before I die? And am I fooling myself when I say I don’t feel it all ends when our breath stops?
Perhaps you think I’m crazy. That I’m imposing meaning where there is none, because isn’t everything random? It doesn’t feel that way to me anymore. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I’m going to continue to question, to try to figure this out. Isn’t that what science is all about? What I do know is that despite not knowing, I’m no longer afraid. I think there is something. And it beats inside of me, just like a heart.