When the pastor at my church has a heart attack, I am still a little girl who wants to believe in God. I lose my faith that day, hugging my little cousin close to me while the pastor’s wife cries and we hide behind a chair.
I look around for God, but I don’t see him. I see death though, sitting in the first pew; he recites psalms just like you and me.
I do not worry about God or death, but I do worry for the pastor, for his wife; what it means for people to be in pain. I read about other people’s suffering and write about my own. Then I write about everyone else’s.
Suddenly I see it everywhere; the sad eyes of schoolteachers, the lilt in the voice of a grocery store clerk who is lonely, the tender spots on a school mate’s arm where cigarettes scalded skin.
I’m not sure what hurts worse: the truth or the lies spun to cover it up.
I fill notebooks with stories of people who find joy in each other. Pages upon pages describing the necessity of being held. There’s always pain, but the suffering is never eternal. There is always someone there to witness it.
Often, that’s enough.
I write about people finding each other when they need someone, about marriages and babies being born. I write beginnings more than I write endings, and I’m still not very good at letting something run its course.
Though I am ten years old and I’ve never been kissed, I write paragraphs about how important it is for two people to do this simple thing, because sometimes words are inadequate. That much I do know.
One week in the middle of a hot, dry summer I am walking through the woods with several other children who believe in God. They do not know I am there under false pretenses. That I’m there to confirm my atheism and do handicraft. My bunkmate has asthma and she wheezes so deeply in the night that it frightens me. If I prayed, I’d pray to God to heal her lungs so that I could sleep.
While I am looking for signs of God in the trees, my mother opens my journals, soiling the pages, and finds the Devil in the paper.
I open the door to my bedroom, which has been thoroughly ransacked. I do not take a step in — instead, I hover in the doorway and hold my breath. My journals, all of them, the scraps of paper I hid away in the walls like a mouse, everything laid out in front of me — not reverently, but mockingly. Tears sting my eyes, so I close them tightly. I am still a child but I know that all I want in that moment is to die.
When my mother appears behind me, forcing me into the room — steeped in my shame — her litany begins with disappointment and morphs quickly and feverishly into disgust and, perhaps, terror. She must sense my humiliation, waving through me like nausea, but she wants to be sure of it — she takes my jaw tightly in one hand. Though she is small, her grip is fierce and as she crushes my mouth closed and forces me to look at her while she hurls her accusations — that I am sick, abnormal, and bad.
Her brown eyes, dark because there is no light there, look at me and are so filled with hatred and fear that in that moment, I realize the truth.
Though I am wishing for my death in that moment, I am not wishing for it as hard as my own mother is. If either of us prayed, I’d hope that God wasn’t real, lest he decide to hear it and smite me down for this — whatever I’ve done — for which I cannot atone.
I might be the Devil myself, if the very woman who brought me into the world is looking at me as though she’d personally like to take me out of it.