Six

My parents had been awake for almost 24 hours. They were exhausted. After some discussion about attempting to rest in the noisy intensive care unit, they decided to go home, see their grand kids and get some sleep. My mom offered to set her alarm so she could wake and call to check in at 2 and 4 a.m. But I promised I would watch Grandma carefully and call right away if anything changed. My mom needed real sleep.

My grandfather still refused to leave my grandmother’s side, but the exhaustion was taking its toll on him. Even on the best of days, his growing dementia peeked through his otherwise composed and amenable facade. Exhausted as he was now, it threatened to overtake him completely.

After my parents left we sat together, huddled over Grandma. We spoke quietly of mundane things. I was pleased that he remembered me, as tired as he was. At least he seemed to. He had gotten fairly adept at hiding his confusion over the last few years. Once, after a long, in-depth visit, he asked me if I had ever been to his house. I practically grew up in his house.

As the conversation evolved, Grandpa told me how angry he was at my mother and my uncle for forcing him out of his house and throwing away his belongings without asking. They had discussed the transition to the assisted living center with him extensively beforehand, but only I could remember that now. That experience was gone from him, leaving only the upset of a major life upheaval.

“I think your mother is taking my money,” Grandpa said, forgetting both my mother’s unwavering moral compass and the reality that their social security income wasn’t even enough to cover the facility. Thank goodness for Medicare and Medicaid. These programs and the good people who had helped my mother activate them for my grandparents’ benefit were lifesavers. I gently reminded him where the money was going, careful not to upset him. His face seemed to register echoes of what I said coming back to him in the dim light of the night. Dementia was a bitch. The exhaustion wasn’t helping things either. I knew he’d be better after some sleep.

I watched as my grandpa washed his face wearily in the room’s tiny sink. At 85, he was still physically strong and healthy. I worried what toll this would take on him.

“Grandpa, why don’t you go upstairs and change into some fresh clothes, get comfortable and then come back down here and sleep in the other bed next to Grandma?” I asked. “I promise to call you if anything changes at all.”

After much cajoling he finally agreed. Grandma and I were alone.

It was dark. Only a thin stream of blue light illuminated my grandmother’s rising and falling chest. I held her hand, rubbed her back and tried to keep her feet elevated. The beeping, buzzing, whirring sounds of the unit seemed farther away somehow.

There was something strangely familiar about it all.

I grew up in hospitals, at least until I was six years old, when my dad died. Until then we were in and out of hospitals and clinics with everything from tests to transplants. You’d think these early experiences would have made clinical settings unbearable for me but, strangely, I loved them. I had fond memories of roaming hospital hallways, playing in waiting rooms and running on the PT treadmill. I even loved hospital food. My mom always made a big deal about selecting whatever we wanted to fill the tiny little compartments on our trays. She turned hospital stays into grand adventures.

I watched my grandma breathe, in and out, in and out. Occasionally she would raise her hand to brush away some invisible offender from her mouth. From time to time she would pinch and pull lightly at her clothing. Now and then she would succumb to a fit of coughing. There was no evidence that she was aware of her surroundings or my presence. I sat there with her, holding her hand, watching her chest rise and fall, rise and fall.

After a while my hand gravitated toward my phone and earbuds. I could listen to a podcast. Or to a show. 30 Rock maybe? Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? I wanted something bright and colorful and upbeat and happy. It was almost involuntarily, this craving of distraction.

No, I thought. Not now. I must be here. I’ve come all this way. I don’t want to miss this. This is sacred space. I am in a sacred space.

So I sat, watching her breathe in and out, in and out; feeling her hand, warm and soft within my own; listening to the distant beeping of the unit beyond; and thinking, thinking, thinking.

My grandmother was a very religious person. She loved her faith, the LDS church. She credited it with many things including stabilizing her marriage to my rough and tumble grandfather.

He had sprung from broken roots. I didn’t know much about his parents except that they had once been bootleggers. When he was young the family had split. His mother had worked an endless array of odd jobs and his father had become a homeless alcoholic. My grandfather had risen out of remarkably difficult circumstances.

My grandmother had come from a more refined background. I was never exactly sure what had brought the two of them together, but together they had come, their disparate personalities and backgrounds bringing trouble in their wake. But then they had found the LDS church and through it they had stayed together and managed to raise two of the most intelligent, well educated and genuinely kind people imaginable. My grandparents both credited the church largely for that. The church had worn the rough edges off of my grandfather and gave them a common purpose. My grandmother believed in the truth of the church unequivocally.

I had a harder time with that.

Looking back, I supposed it had all started when my father died. When you watch someone so close to you inexplicably snatched away, it changes your perspective forever. It fractures your world. At the very least, it brings forth questions which, for me, may have been the most life altering thing of all.

After my dad died, several church members tried to comfort me by telling me that he had been called to serve a special mission in heaven. Even as a kindergartner, I knew this was bunk. Really? Thousands of years before and millennia yet to come, and God couldn’t wait an extra 30 or 40 years?

Then my friend’s mother got brain cancer. Our whole church ward rallied around her, praying for her and supporting her and her family just like they had done for my dad and us. But she got better. She lived. My dad did not.

Either God’s graces were cruelly random or praying to him was less effective than mailing a letter to Santa. The questioning floodgates were open.

Then my mom remarried. Like so many LDS people, she and my step-dad only dated for a matter of weeks before becoming engaged. They were married within a few short months. The upheaval was pronounced.

I couldn’t attend their wedding as it was held in the LDS temple. I was too young to have undergone the Endowment ceremony (reserved for worthy adult members) so I wasn’t allowed inside. While they wed, I passed the time rolling down a grassy hill outside. I wore my white baptismal dress for the occasion. Grass stains be damned.

There were many religious issues that collided with my intellect over the years. I don’t intend to list them all here, as it would be both pointless and tedious. However, a few were particularly formative and thus essential to this telling. One of which came when I learned that my mom and step-dad’s wedding was “for time only” and not “for time and all eternity” as most temple weddings, known as “sealings,” are. In the LDS faith, a “sealing” is a marriage that binds together a man, woman and any subsequent children for all eternity. A “for time only” wedding is for this life only. As with all non-temple weddings, in the LDS view, the sacred bond of this union is terminated with death.

I was still very young when I discovered this and it troubled me. I didn’t understand why they were restricted to a lesser marital version. So I did what children do and I started asking questions. I discovered that in the LDS church a man can be sealed to as many women as he likes, whether they be living or dead, but a woman can only be sealed to one man, whether he is living or dead. My mom had been sealed to my dad, so she was done.

I didn’t want my mom to remarry at all. What child does? But still, this concept galled me. It wasn’t fair and, even at that young age, the implicit gross sense of ownership appalled me. I pressed many teachers and religious leaders to find a reasonable explanation on this doctrinal point, but I never received a satisfactory answer. To the contrary, each answer I received only made me feel worse. I was told that people are like chickens- you can have many hens in the coop, but only one rooster. I was told that men were pre-ordained by God to lead and women to follow, thus having multiple women under the umbrella of one man made sense. I was told that this was how God wanted it and that should be enough for me. It wasn’t.

I wondered about the women who had died and whose husbands had gone on to remarry, sometimes many times. Did they get no say in becoming a plural wife? I was told that they would be able to choose whether or not they wished to stay in the marriage in heaven. As to where she would go once her eternal marriage (an essential aspect of being allowed into the highest level of heaven) was nullified, no one was sure. Perhaps, I was once told, she would become a celibate handmaiden for more worthy married couples? I learned internal angst at a very early age.

My new step-father was a good man with a kind heart. Unfortunately, he came to us battered and damaged, carrying the ample baggage from his own childhood and his very recently demolished first marriage. The early years were hard. That’s how I looked back on it from the vantage point of adulthood. As a child, I didn’t possess the perspective to discern any of this. I only knew that my home life had gone from heavenly to perilous and I couldn’t comprehend why it had to be this way.

Despite our struggles, he was to be respected as the priesthood holder and head of the house. My mom had always been in charge. I didn’t understand why she was handing over the reigns. I began struggling with the concept of the priesthood and resenting the power it gave men over women in our church. Sexism, both deeply real and perhaps occasionally perceived, played a recurring role throughout my childhood.

It might be difficult for those of other cultures and faiths to understand why any of this mattered. So what if some obscure church policy was unfair? So what if men held more sway than women? Plenty of religions contain similar flaws. To that I would say only that the LDS faith was not my religion. It was my whole world. My family was so deeply entwined in the LDS church that even now, some 30 years later, I have difficulty separating the two.

As a child my family attended church for three hours every Sunday, four with choir practice and often more with the various church meetings that inevitably followed. Monday nights were for “Family Home Evening” (at-home church lessons), Tuesday nights for Relief society (the adult women’s gathering), Wednesday nights were for youth group, and Fridays and Saturdays usually featured a smattering of wedding receptions, missionary returns and farewells, baptisms and more. Throughout high school I attended “Seminary,”religious education classes which were held every weekday morning at 6 a.m. We prayed before every meal, upon waking and before bed. We read the scriptures (the bible and the Book of Mormon) as a family every morning and individually at night.

The LDS church was the sun around which my family orbited. This blessed me with a great and omnipresent community of loving individuals. It also placed me in direct and unending contact with an organization which I often found to be deeply injurious.

I questioned openly for a long time. Some of this was brought on by circumstance, but I think questioning was always in my nature. I was innately analytical. Once or twice I was removed from church classes for asking “faith challenging” questions. But once I began to ferret out the truth, the real truth, I stopped. There were never any real answers anyway, only illogical platitudes. So why bother? My personal beliefs began to solidify and I slowly took my thoughts underground.

As a teenager, I began living a secret life.

The reasons for this are numerous. At this point, things had improved in our house due largely, if not entirely, to the interventions of well trained therapists for whom I would always be grateful. I loved my mom and step-dad deeply. I didn’t want to hurt them. I had seen enough of the emotional damage wrought by the actions of my more overtly rebellious step-siblings to know that the path of openness and honesty was not worth the cost.

Whats more, by this point my own beliefs differed significantly from those of the church and the church was our whole lives. There was no point in highlighting that. There could never be any progress made. No understanding reached. The church was a brick wall. You couldn’t win against the church. No amount of logic, evidence or fact could trump God.

So, I simply began living two lives- one in which I went to every church activity and made my parents proud and another in which I did whatever I wanted to do.

This is not nearly as salacious as it sounds. As it happened, there weren’t many taboo things that I really wanted to do. I was repulsed by alcohol. My father had died of non-alcohol induced liver disease. Drinking felt like a betrayal. How could I willingly damage my liver, when we would have done anything for his to have been healthy? I was never attracted to drugs, for similar reasons coupled with an innate loathing of the mere idea of a compromised ability to think and to choose. I didn’t steal or murder. I didn’t vandalize or abuse.

I did have an enthusiastic interest in members of the opposite sex, I savored the occasional well placed swear word, and I sometimes went where I was not allowed to go. Also, I disagreed with several of the church’s doctrinal points. In short, I was a typical, somewhat analytical, teenager. In my world, however, I was engulfed in a life of sin, the guilt of which could be overwhelming. Except when I was having far too much fun to care.

Then I left and went on to college where my life was free- so, so free. Until it wasn’t.

 

This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.

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