That Time You…Didn’t Know What You Believed
When the mystery of faith goes unsolved
What I find most difficult about grief is the disobliging nature of it.
Its waves come without warning. When we try to stifle them, up they rise. When we will the pain of it gone, it sticks to our bones with a stronger grip. And while we can’t wait to be free of the cycles of tears, anger, guilt, and questioning on torturous loop, we also cling to grief in desperation for the comfort of the pain. We ask ourselves this: If we woke up one day, finally rid of it, would the person we mourn have vanished from us completely, once and for all? So the grief remains a kind of closeness because we can’t find the answer without a leap of faith. That’s altogether terrifying. Grief is powerful in that way.
I approached Easter this year with dread, troubled by these questions and a tug-of-war raging inside me.
When you lose someone, there are some holidays and traditions that don’t jostle you as much as others. I know because I lost my father, Pop, almost five months ago. Over Mardi Gras, I didn’t miss his presence on the route because Pop didn’t really involve himself with parades. He’d go to one parade to spoil his grandkids, carrying them up to floats for the best throws. He went for that and for powdered sugar donuts and a comfortable chair from which to absorb the scene. Carnival stung this year because every time I smile or enjoy anything there is a dullness to it because my heart is broken. But, I didn’t dread a carnival without Pop because it just wasn’t one of his holidays.
Easter was different.
In my family we knock Easter eggs. Knocking eggs, egg pocking, or egg paquing is an Easter tradition that came to south Louisiana via the Cajuns. In the April edition of New Orleans Magazine, the “Streetcar” column is dedicated to the story behind this custom. The game is pretty simple. It’s man-to-man, egg-to-egg. Players face off, each one with a hard-boiled egg in their fist, and they knock the ends of their eggs together. Whoever’s cracks is the loser. The game keeps going around the table until it’s finally down to one Champion Egg. We’re unsure of the origins of the first egg paque in Pop’s family, but we’ve done it on Easter Sunday as long as anyone can remember. And Pop, in particular, holds the record not for the highest number of Champion Eggs, but for the most notorious egg pranks.
Among the most infamous is the year Pop and my uncle dyed one raw egg. Just before dinner, after each place setting was adorned with a nest of hard-boiled eggs and candies, they snuck the trick egg into one of the nests. Unfortunately for them they chose the nest of one of Grandma’s guests, a lady who was wearing an expensive long chiffon dress. When she knocked her egg with her neighbor, the yoke dropped onto her gown and slithered between the pleats of chiffon. Grandma was furious and promptly marched into the kitchen, grabbed an egg from the fridge, and cracked it over Pop’s head at the dinner table.
He didn’t pull that prank again, but while the rest of the family played by the rules he would use anything–a robin’s egg candy, the back of a stainless steel spoon–and try to fool the rest of us into thinking it was a real hard-boiled egg tucked in his grasp. Of course we were never fooled. We’d eye the phony egg, barely visible in Pop’s fist, and laugh with him. He engaged in this buffoonery every year, the incessant clown that he was, and we all looked forward to it. “What would Pop use as an ‘egg’ this year?” we’d wonder each Easter Sunday.
So this first Easter without his shenanigans was one to dread.
Supposedly egg knocking has been around for centuries and is common in Europe. I think it was the Greeks who started it, and in the Greek Orthodox Church the eggs are dyed red to symbolize the crucifixion of Christ. The cracking of the shell when the eggs collide is said to symbolize Christ’s resurrection from death. The egg then, is a reminder of rebirth–the new life in Heaven that awaits believers. But the belief that I’ve come to this season is that Easter can be a rather agonizing time in which to grieve. All the talk about life after death, resurrection, and the gates of Heaven opening for a new life in new bodies–that’s heavy stuff when a loss is still raw.
Heaven used to be a no-brainer. I mean, it was easy to place it into that category of beliefs that were of second nature. Of course Heaven existed! But that was before I had a horse in the race, before I had a stake in it, before it absolutely had to exist. Now, everything is at risk because the person who meant everything to me is somewhere out there and for the first time, I have to face where that somewhere is…or isn’t. For Christians, Easter is the holiest day of the year. Doctrine is written around the idea of Jesus taking the sins of mankind and dying with them so that death would no longer be a loss, but a victory. Try taking that in when all you want is to see someone again. It’s either a comfort or an inner trial.
Grief is disobliging. It doesn’t answer without a fight the questions triggered by words and phrases that force an examination of the mystery of faith. What do I believe after all?
This consumed me as I approached Sunday. As I watched my kids–who were unaware of my struggle–go through their baskets of toys and chocolates, while I listened to my pastor preach about the ultimate miracle and God’s promise, and as I picked up a hard-boiled egg and wished with all my might that Pop could be there, tricking me with a walnut or something posing as an egg in his clutch. Easter is the ultimate miracle–the promise that something better is waiting. But what about my miracle that I prayed and prayed and prayed for back in November when I pumped my father with every homeopathic treatment I could find after the doctors gave up? What about the promise of that miracle? I didn’t get my miracle. How can I not then question everything that once came easy when now everything is so damn hard?
Grief is indeed disobliging, and it is unquestionably a way to feel proximity to the person we miss. The more I hurt, the more it’s like Pop is near. And as much as grief exhausts me, I can’t let go, because I don’t know for sure where Pop is. Boy, would he hate that. But I also think he’d understand because the mystery of faith is the result of it being an entirely personal journey. Faith isn’t one doctrine, one philosophy, simply tossed out and accepted without question…without a little pain even. Something as big as life after death deserves introspection, time, and patience. If faith is that easy, why does someone have to die to provoke a conversation about it?
There’s so much I don’t know and may never know about what happens after this life. But I do know enough to know that I’m questioning everything because I have experienced unconditional love. Pop hung the moon in my world, and I was the apple of his eye. I know what it means to adore and be adored. I know what it means to be positively spoiled with love. But now my father is gone, and I just have to know that I’ll see him again. The alternative is too cruel. And while the agony of all of this is sometimes unbearable, I wouldn’t trade the experience of loving someone that much for the chance to not feel the hurt I feel today. I’d rather have loved then and hurt now than to never have loved at all. And I suppose just saying that is one small step in the bigger journey toward a complete picture that I hope to God will be revealed to me one day in its entirety.
The Champion Egg this year went to my oldest son, Billy. Like Pop, he’s charmingly disorganized. Like Pop, he’s generous beyond measure. Like Pop, he’s an artist, a serial goofball, and has an inner light that radiates from within. Pop was there on Sunday in him, especially when his winning strategy was suspect. Pop was there in Mom as she pranked the grandkids with a fake egg. He was there in each one of us as we sat in comfortable chairs on the deck of his home and absorbed the scene. Pop lives on within us. I believe that.
What about my unbelief?