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April 15, 2024

After Life 30

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Thirty: The Puzzle

"Any ideas about why Gerry took off in the middle of her story about living close to God?" Roj asked.

"She went to the parish church she attended during her life. Her angel says she is perched in the choir loft, in silence."

Roj snorted. "Now that's a rare state for her. But I wanted her to keep talking about her life in Portugal. It was such a beautiful memory she shared with me, of a life so ordered and simple that she and her family could -- I don't know, sort of relax about daily things and hear about God more clearly."

"Her childhood was in a brief time and place of calm, as her parents wanted it to be. They, and many of their generation, didn't want the children to know the horrors of what you call World War One, or the fears they had about the war that was on their horizon, drawing closer."

"And," she pointed out, "they also didn't have a television screaming out panicky messages and bullshit to their kids, filling the babies' heads with fear and cravings for what they didn't need at all. That was clear from the memories."

"You didn't seem to fear what you heard from television," Desai observed.

"Except the weather reports! They made it sound like every blizzard or thunderstorm was going to be the end of the world! But you know, Dad kept a pretty close eye on what we watched, and could be fairly critical if a TV show didn't meet his expectations." She smiled, thinking of her father's comments about game shows. "Besides, we didn't have cable until I was in high school, so half the time there was no television at all."

A mere hop through the rainclouds brought them to St. John's Church. Roj walked in through the closed doors, looking about in the low light shadowing the pews. The choir loft held a ghost, Gerry, kneeling against the railing, sunk in on herself in a posture of prayer. Roj furled her essence into one of the choir chairs and waited in silence.

"'Where two or more of you are gathered in my name ...'" Gerry mumbled. "'I am always with you, until the end of time...' I heard those words, both in Portuguese and in English, and even at the end of my life, I didn't really understand."

"I don't understand, either," Roj said. "What are you talking about?"

"Oh, Roj-child, it's not my job to tell you. You have to come to your own understanding, that's what I've been told. I've called you stupid, but I couldn't see my own ignorance -- I heard the words, and I knew what they meant, and I believed in them ... but only to a point. I couldn't see the Reality behind them, and didn't bother to explore it." She turned and faced Roj. "I thought saying that I believed was enough, that it wasn't my responsibility to turn believing from just being my job as a Christian into the kind of believing that is real because you've stepped up and ... shaken hands with it, said 'Good morning, I'm so glad to see you, what shall we do today?'"

"Wow, Gerry, you're really being cryptic. Do I have to figure out what you're talking about?"

"No, I've just been humbled by my own memories, that's all. I can see why -- at least in part -- why I'm here, being a ghost, looking for other ghosts. I was informed that I had to help some others, but she didn't say how or who ..."

"Your guardian angel?" Roj puzzled. "Why would she decide what you had to do?" Desai may have some explaining to do.

"No, she's just ... didn't anyone ever tell you that angels are messengers of God?"

"Huh-uh. Do you mean messengers like the butler in old movies who shows up with a card on a tray, or do you mean that angels are like cosmic telephones?"

Gerry cackled loudly. "Come on, girl, let's get out of here. I'm too old to think that laughing at jokes in church is all right unless it's the priest telling funny stories." She flew out through the stained glass window that looked down on the choir loft and landed in the nearby cemetery.

"There, that's where I am -- my remains," she said, pointing out a headstone. "I think of them as 'my crumbs' because that's all that's left. And there's my husband, and all three of my kids, too. No grandchildren, thank the dear Lord, but then I think only the oldest two even bother themselves with church things, Christmas and Easter Catholics at that. Good thing I can't move things like you do, or I'd put the fear of God into them in no time flat."

"Hey, Gerry, you were telling me about life in your village in Portugal. Did people there in your parish believe in ghosts?"

"Of course. Every family had its ghost stories, relatives who showed up after they were dead, houses that were haunted by lost ghosts, sounds that had no explanation, furniture or dishes moved around when no one was looking. And everyone stayed away from the cemeteries unless they were visiting a grave or attending a funeral -- no one went looking for trouble."

Roj, who had only recently narrowly escaped trouble for which she'd gone looking, had no comment to make.

"We weren't afraid of ghosts, though, we just prayed for them to be released from this world, or led to the next. That's a good reason for children to learn about God, you know. Then they can pray for their dead family members, like my grandkids should be praying for me, the weasels.

"Where'd they bury you, Roj-girl?"

"Bismarck, North Dakota. Matt and I had already talked about religion a little, and he knew I wanted to be cremated, so he paid for the funeral expenses, and once he was out of the hospital, flew with my remains to North Dakota. I've never visited there except as -- crumbs, as you put it. I don't know if I have a grave marker, or if my folks visit where I was buried, or what. It was all kind of sudden. Should I care about that?"

"I don't know. When I was alive, I wanted to be put into the ground near my mae and pai, but it's not like they hung around to say hi to me." Gerry pointed out another grave. "There's poor old Joao's headstone. It was good to see him move on." She shook a fist at the sky. "Come on, Joao, I helped you, you need to help me! Get some prayers moving!"

"You probably knew a lot of people who are buried here," Roj said.

"Quite a few. We attended this parish from the time we came to America until I died, although I did like St. Stan's in Modesto -- I had some friends who moved to a retirement home there, and we'd get together and go to Mass and then to breakfast afterwards. It was just before I met you that I was hanging around St. Stan's, missing my old cronies, wondering if they remembered me in Heaven."

"You're pretty unforgettable. They're probably waiting for you and wishing you'd get on with your story about being close to God in your village, so that I could learn what I need to know to help Matt."

"See this girl, Lord?" Gerry shouted, looking up into the rain. "She deserves some slack for being so single-minded about her dopey boyfriend!"

"Gerry, he isn't dopey, he was never dopey!"

"He knows even less about God than you did, and that means he's just about as dopey as they come."

Roj frowned. "Not dopey, just ignorant. But he doesn't know he's ignorant, so how will he learn? It's not like he can hear me all the time, and my guardian angel sort of hinted that I'd have a hard time finding him when he dies, so I can't do for him what you've done for me ... so far."

"So far? You expect me to figure out what you need, is that it?"

"No, I don't expect you to figure it out for me, I don't even expect me to figure it out for me, because I don't make the rules. But I still feel like there's something about your village life -- or your religious life -- that has to turn the key in the lock for me, so to speak."

Gerry mumbled to herself a little. "We woke, we ate, we worked, we played, we ate, we went to bed, we slept. We prayed. We remembered that God is with us, that only God could save us from the evils of the world, but that didn't mean that God would make us rich or never let us die. We all die. Sometimes dying is what keeps us from the evils of the world."

Raising spectral eyebrows, Roj gave Gerry the eye.

"There was this farmer whose pretty wife was ... very friendly with the farmer's best friend. No one could say that she was unfaithful, and Mae and Pai never even hinted that she was. But the farmer died when one of his rams butted him right in the chest. Less than a year later, his widow married his best friend. I overheard Mae and Pai talking about it after the wedding, if God didn't take the farmer from this world before there was anything to make him jealous or his wife unfaithful. The old people always said that God will never send anything into your life that you can't bear."

That means that Matt can bear my death, even though he doesn't believe it yet.

"So, you came here with your parents, and stayed close to God." Gerry doesn't seem to have a countdown clock clicking at all.

"Eh, not as much. We lived too far away from town to get to church except on Sundays. A little mission church, priests from Stockton came -- that was hard, because they didn't come to say Mass until they were sure the dairies were done with the morning milking and clean up. Fasting from midnight to nearly eleven was nasty." She chuckled. "The Pires boys were altar servers, and you never knew when one of them would pass out right there in the sanctuary, standing there one second and on the floor the next. My father would shake his head and remind me and my sister after Mass not to marry weaklings like that!"

"That's mean," Roj observed, remembering how rude Gerry could be.

"He just wanted us to marry good providers, strong and sensible, that's all." Gerry turned to her, and suddenly she flickered, turning from an old woman with no upper teeth and an underbite that any crocodile would envy, to a strong-jawed, fresh faced girl with sparkling eyes, back and forth. "He had really wanted me to marry to the baker's boy, and the Borges' oldest son for my sister, so that we'd both have good incomes as wives, but he was afraid of what the Spanish and the French and the Germans were up to ... "

"He was right, then. That's when you came here?"

"This isn't supposed to be about me, it's supposed to be about God," Gerry said. "God gave us a chance to get away from Europe, and Pai took it. We survived, even though Mae had to put up with Tia Maria until we could get our own house." Gerry waved her arms as though shooing away a persistent fly. "Yes! I'll get on with it!

"Angels! One-track minds! She told me to get off talking about myself and my mother, what kind of nerve is that?"

"Angel-nerve," said Roj. "What does -- she -- want you to talk about?"

"Well, living in a community where we all had to rely on each other in our family, but the family had to rely on God. That God was with us all the time. There was this one priest who said it best -- he said we 'live in the presence of God,' but was always reminding us that 'in the presence' didn't mean God was a judge in a courtroom, or a king in an audience chamber, or someone watching us behind a fence. He said God's presence was all around us, and we live in it, like babies in a mother's womb."

Everything froze around Roj, as she willed a time to process the amazing thought. We live in God's womb? There was no rain, no Gerry, no cemetery. God was always -- over there, up there, following us to know when we were sleeping or awake or bad or good -- ahh, I thought God was like Santa Claus in the song -- but ... God is here? All around me? I'm in God? She looked around her, as though looking at a new world. There was nothing to see; there was everything to see. There was joy, and sadness, and laughter, and song, and sorrowing weeping, and bounding greatness. There was a stream of symbols cascading toward her, and as they circled her like a helix, they came clear and said, Are you ready to help Matt yet?

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-05-28
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Ralph Bland
06:18:54 PM
Not a Catholic myself, but visited many churches in Ireland and felt the conviction and faith that built them and kept them going all these years. (I even thought of you and Bernie when I was at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Bernie's philosophical conjectures, your After Life, both steeped in Catholicism and religious imagery).I think in your spirit world you are introducing and providing your reader with some kind of answer for what their or anyone's existence is and has been about. Roj's education of faith and the presence of God coming from Gerry and Desai seems to be preparing her spirit--which is what she has left from her time on earth--to find an answer to what she has left behind before she moves on.
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