Some of you will have heard this story many, many times over. It’s cathartic for me to re-tell it, and you can choose not to read!
Does Christmas ever make you wonder “Where Is God?
It’s not a question I ask in public because people tend to wince and slide you to one side of their brain as a “happy clapper”, or more disturbingly, sagely nod and make a mental note that you are part of an exclusive club of chosen believers. But when you have stared down Death, it’s a question you eventually face. Along with Why? Why? Why?
Why must we believe in something beyond ourselves? I have been asking this since I was 13 when I was invited join a youth group. Which I did, so I could make friends and meet boys. However I found something greater. Fear. A paralysing fear that lasted decades. I went along to the first meeting in Adelaide, in the old AMP building. I sat in a movie theatre unsuspecting, wondering why there was no popcorn or coke. As the film rolled, the story unfolded – disappearing Christians, the unrepentant, the newly saved, all facing Armageddon. In the final scenes, those who refused to accept the “mark” were sent outside to the back of a church to an awaiting guillotine, where they and their friends were beheaded for failure to comply. The final scene was of girls screaming and the sound of the slice. I wasn’t religious before, but I was a sure-fire convert after that. I was rushing to front of the Church each week, leaving zealots in my wake, to be born again and just to be sure, again and again.
Every week I trotted off to church (because I was quite fond of my head) and would listen to the converts being born again, speaking in tongues and releasing horrifying screams as apparent demons left their bodies. Even as my fellow Christian teens were swooning and falling to the ground with the power of Jesus, I doubted the authenticity of their newly found salvation. I knew that later they’d be out in the car park pashing, while they were waiting to be picked up by their parents. Eventually I succumbed to peer pressure. I was at the front, again, knee deep in the writhing teenage bodies of the newly saved. The pastor kept slamming my forehead and shouting stuff in a language I didn’t understand. Finally I couldn’t bear being the only one left standing, so I affected a swoon and fell backwards to the suspiciously relieved yell of “Praise Jesus”. You can’t rush salvation, even salvation through embarrassment.
I escaped the pentacostals and found Scouts. Venturers in fact. Here it seems teens were not as fluent in God. More in setting fires, climbing mountains, exploring caves and generally doing all that outdoorsy stuff. I was never the outdoors type and was relentlessly harangued for bringing my hairdryer on a two-day hike. We still had to pledge allegiance to the Queen and God. But at least there were boys who didn’t chat me up with “I can see the light of Jesus in your eyes.” Cringe.
As an adult I wandered through metaphysical bookshops and read books by Shirley McLaine and Louise Hay. I also read the Celestine Prophecy – the worst literary construction I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. I found angel cards and meditation. I found counsellors to walk me through the trauma of my fear of being possessed, damned or beheaded or all of the above.
My significant other saw no need to answer the big questions and I attributed this to him being brought up on a farm where he saw life and death every day, however around the time of meeting him I discovered Buddhism. I was off to see visiting Tibetan monks one day, who were travelling around Australia. They appeared in the hall at one of the high schools. Not exactly the holiest of places but the gym mats were hidden behind pin up boards and metres of orange fabric, to build some kind of ambience. I thought this religion could be for me. The Dalai Lama talks of compassion – not fire and brimstone, beheading or eternal damnation for believing in the wrong god, or sex out of wedlock, or over indulging in Champagne or red wine.
It was a stiflingly hot day while I awaited the ceremony with my complimentary handful of rice, locked in my anxious, sweaty palm. Through the gym entrance, in strode the faithful. Impressively a man with dreadlocks and a colourful waistcoat dropped prostrate to the floor and then jumped back in prayer and acknowledgement to the monks. They hummed, in that deep guttural way, and the room seemed to fill with a relaxed sense of goodwill.
The humming continued. For a really, really, long time. Finally, as a gesture of abundance we needed to throw our rice gently to the floor. However mine had slowly cooked and flew from my sweaty hand in great big globules. Some of it, regrettably, landed in the lush hair of the devotee in front of me. Embarrassed I apologised and grabbed a pamphlet on my way to the foyer.
The first page I opened stated “there are 7 kinds of hell”. I looked around at the young monks with their cleanly shaven heads, peaceful dispositions and karmic perfection that seemed to ooze from their pores. How could they appear this way knowing there was not just one, but seven types of hell? Despairing slightly, I decided to read on. Perhaps I had misinterpreted. The first kind of hell was described as “cracked like a lotus hell”. How bad could that be? An enormous white flower with a slight imperfection? Then I reached “trudging through the mud of rotting corpse” hell, and quietly replaced the pamphlet, and Buddhism, with further agnosticism.
Around the same time a group of Pitjatjatjara women came to town to have talks with BHP. A girlfriend and I were ushered into cars and told to follow. We were sitting in some scrub outside Whyalla, listening to them singing and stoking a fire. They’d brought kangaroo tail to cook in the coals.
Although we were allowed to take photos, we were forbidden to show them to men, as this was secret women’s business. The eldest woman, who had a slight white beard growing beneath her chin, gestured to us to go behind some tall bushes with some younger women. We inquired as to why when she replied in English, “take off your top, you dance now”. They suggested we paint our breasts. Both my friend and I instinctively looked down and contemplated our paltry bosoms compared to our voluptuous counterparts. Maybe not. Our defiance meant we were relegated to collecting firewood and I’ve been told that we were the subjects of great hilarity after we left. I’ve heard that Aboriginal people can sing you to wellness, or sing your soul to heaven. Their mystery was not revealed to me, because although there was something deeply spiritual about this meeting in the salt bush in Whyalla, I was somehow culturally locked out. In a wilderness coloured with anglo-centric images of a male, god-like ‘being’, and tiny unpainted breasts.
Do all teenagers search for God? I’ve advised friends to send their kids into sports in an attempt to get them to avoid predatory religions and consequently, a potential headfuck that could last for decades. My stepdaughter announced one weekend after she had turned 15, that she had converted to Islam and would now be wearing the hijab in the presence of men who weren’t family. Why, oh why, did they let her quit dance classes? It’s just a phase and she’ll grow out of it I suggested to my shocked husband, the farm had not prepared him for this. All teenagers get religious at some stage I expounded, based solely on my own experiences.
One morning while I was dropping her off at school, we were listening to the radio. She was staring sullenly out of the passenger window, when a song dropped it’s lyrics neatly into my lap – “Jesus is Mohammed and Mohammed is Jesus….” What an interesting song, I enthused, so proud of my ability to connect with the youth. At this point she turned. She swung around to face me and angrily proclaimed “One day Mohammed will come and burn down all the crosses and false prophets…” At which point I rear ended a giant Fairlane with the personalised plates of CLINT 01.
Twelve years on and we laugh about that. She’s a single mum and, I think, a “non – practising” Muslim? Does that make me a non-practising Christian I thought? And how much practise do we need?
On several occasions I have sought answers from psychics. Each time I was sceptical. One told me that I would have two children through IVF and that I would lead a very happy life. Wonderful! Just what I needed to hear as I headed into the terrifying ordeal of IVF. Numerous scans, instruments that appear outrageously phallic and doctors who panic when you start to cry and say “perhaps you could make an appointment with one of our counsellors” as they check their watch and hand you a tissue.
Six months later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ahem, could you not have forseen this momentous event, oh great psychic of the northern suburbs. I lost my hair and I had a large painful scar across my right breast. The chemo took away any prospect of fertility, the radiotherapy made me incredibly tired and left my breast cooked with no cancer and no chance of breast feeding. It was facing the prospect of death when I thought, what will happen to me when I go? I pondered the beheading, the seven types of hell and the voices from beyond. I decided it was all crap. I decided I’d talk to my own God, in my own way and the mystery would eventually reveal itself to me as it does to everyone else. I had no time to grieve before a further trauma would rear its ugly head.
Twelve months later my sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer, metastatic bony disease. One night she turned over in bed and got her foot caught up in the sheets, her leg twisted and her right femur snapped in two. We rushed her to hospital where they pinned her leg and found an extremely aggressive tumour had weakened the bone. A scan showed tumours in her leg, ribs and spine.
In Brisbane she found a doctor willing to fight the cancer with her. She underwent 6 hours of chemo almost every week for 12 months.
She maintained her role as mother, changing nappies, even attempting to go back to work. But the pain in her back and leg was excruciating. She was supposed to take a litany of drugs. She went to the shopping centres, bald and wearing huge earrings. “I have cancer, deal with it” she told staring shopkeepers.
Six months later I attended the christening of her two sons and she was talking about having more children. She’d read Lance Armstrong’s book and was determined that God and her own will were going to cure her. She fought really hard and then they found tumours in her spinal fluid and in her brain.
After 10 months she was becoming forgetful. She attended my brothers wedding in January and the messages from her brain were not getting through to her legs all the time. She went to get in the mini bus to attend the reception, and her legs gave way. She crawled and grabbed her way up to a seat and sat their looking regal and composed in her beautiful new dress.
I visited her at least five times throughout the year and the last time was in April. When I arrived, expecting to take her shopping, play cards and have girly talks like we had done on every other occasion, I found that she had been admitted to palliative care. Dubbed, “God’s waiting room” I stayed overnight with her there, and all day for three days. She was shaky and in and out of consciousness, sometimes in a delirium. The tumours in her brain had grown and radiotherapy could not kill them. She looked at me at the end of her bed. I was a blubbering mess and true to form she said, “I’m worried about you, you should look after yourself.”
At one moment she asked for me and I told her I was there. She stared at me, displeased and said “but you’re so old, you look like you’re forty or something!” I was forty at the time. Thankfully she didn’t say fifty.
She fought as hard as she could to stay. She so wanted to bring up her boys. That last night, I watched her lift a shaky hand out from the bedcovers and push imaginary food into her mouth. Her throat had closed up and she was barely able to swallow. She was starving. I fed her a whole tub of ice cream and poured water into her mouth drips at a time for hours. The palliative care nurses said they didn’t give patients like Gail a drip, they just let nature take its course. That’s when I realised nature was going to let her starve to death and die of thirst. I felt I understood the physical pain of a heart that was breaking. I lay on her bed and talked to her while she was sleeping about all the fun things we did when we were kids.
On the last night at ten to four, Friday morning of the 28th of April her husband rang to say she had passed away. I sprinted over to the hospital and ran into her room. She was still in the bed. I gave her one last hug and a breath of air squeezed from her lungs and for a brief moment I deluded myself that they’d made a mistake. But she was gone. I told her how much I loved her, kissed her pallid, cool brow and said goodbye. On that morning there was not a breath of air and the street was silent and still. There were no fly-overs by RAAF planes, no phone calls to ministers, no TV coverage to mark the occasion. Just a giant, gaping, Gail-sized hole in our hearts.
After we buried Gail, doctors found a tumour in her little boy’s brain. I was starting to feel as though I was walking around in some nightmarish soap opera, that was failing in the ratings, so the writers were spiking the storyline with unbearable tragedy.
Four months on I was holding his hand and kissing him on tiny, cold, purple lips after the nurses had removed all the tubes and placed him in the bed in his favourite Wiggles pyjamas and his teddy tucked under his arm. We buried him with my sister. On that day the heavens opened and Brisbane’s drought seem to break as vast torrents of rain fell from the skies and washed away my tears, as I wept again. He was two years and ten months old and I loved him.
Many of us under these circumstances may be forgiven for thinking that God has forsaken them. But my fear of death and the afterlife evaporated. I felt the presence of something benign and compassionate in their hospital rooms. I remembered the born agains once ordered me to “witness” to others when I was a teenager. They meant get out there and tell people they needed to be saved. Embarrassing, for a girl of fourteen, to approach strangers in the mall and ask if they know Jesus. But “witnessing” is not achieved in this ridiculous way. It seemed to me it was occurring in the oncology and palliative care wards. The way the nurses hugged the visitors when they cried. The way they spoke to patients as adults and not as dependent children. Or the way they bathed their painful bodies with gentle compassion. The way they removed machinery and arranged their bodies as though they were sleeping when you came to say goodbye. Spend some time here, and you may come close to finding something that’s a whisper of God. It may just be that it is at the beginning and the end that we are closest.
On returning home, I found myself one day, driving my friend’s 5 year old son to the beach, when we passed a mosque. “What’s that?” he asked of the tall spire with a bulbous top, “a rocket?”
No, it’s a mosque.
What’s a mosque?
It’s like a church. People who believe in Jesus go to church, people who believe in Mohammed go to a mosque.
Who do you go for, Jesus or Mohammed?
Crows or Port? Arsenal or Man U? Allah, Buddha, Siva, Jedi? I don’t really care who your God is, or if you think this the ramblings of a lost soul. I like to think my sister and my nephew are together and they watch over me and thus they do. As for WHY? I try not to torture myself with questions for which I’ll never have answers. What happens after we die is the Great Mystery. No one really knows, not your Imam, or your priest, your psychic and it certainly won’t be revealed in the screaming rantings of an overzealous believer. Face death and you might get a tiny flash of insight through a curious keyhole in the cosmos. Hold someone’s hand as they die and that flash may last a second longer than a moment.
It seems pertinent at this time of year to hope that more of that mystery will be revealed, daily, as we take time to breathe in the smell of our kids, or in my case, my friends kids and my remaining nephew, to linger a little longer on the hugs we give our families and friends, to fall asleep on the chest of my husband, to hold my mother’s arm while we shop, to laugh in an unseemly manner at my brother’s jokes, to be present for every second we get to share with the people we love. Clichéd? Maybe. But for me “God” resides here, in these kinds of moments.