I Never Had a Chance: Exodus 4:18 – 11 (cont’d)

Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest heavens; from Gustave Doré's illustrations to the Divine Comedy.

Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest heavens; from Gustave Doré’s illustrations to the Divine Comedy.

My father picked me up from the airport for Christmas, my first one home post-college. There were changes in the air that year. It was our first time being together as a whole family since my brother had come out of the closet. Also, my father had recently said goodbye to his brother Henry. He was also gay, so maybe the proximity of the revelation of his son’s sexual orientation on top of the death of his homosexual brother… I think it was a bit much for him. Henry also did not have the most graceful exit, and the whole thing felt raw. The month before, my father had sped down I-95 to catch Henry before he died, but he wasn’t going to make it in time. Instead, he had to say his goodbyes over the phone. Henry had led a troubled life, and he told my father in his final moments, “I’m not ready to die. This just wasn’t the life I had planned for myself.

We arrived at home from the airport late, and my mother was already asleep. My father had always been nurturing and up for any one-on-one time his children, so he suggested hot chocolate with a dab of Bailey’s and some conversation. I was tired from all the traveling, but I agreed. Our chat began in the superficial – work, weather, television. But before long, as the hour stretched past midnight and the twilight squeaked on, we transitioned into more serious conversation. He told me that he regretted not being able to get to Henry in time before his death. He didn’t blame himself though, because he had tried his best to get there. However, the whole the experience was rocking his world a bit. Here, his older brother was dead, and he was left alive. On average, that happened a lot, he supposed – younger brothers experiencing the death of an older one. Those were just simple odds. But for some reason, he could not wrap his mind around the fact that his brother had experienced the moment of death already – that ultimate moment that we would all experience. He had grown up with a person who now no longer existed, and one day, he would join him. He wondered what he would be thinking in that moment, if he would be peaceful or if he would go kicking and screaming into the afterlife, like Henry had.

I have never seen my father drunk (including that night), but he unfortunately cannot say the same about me. The conversation was just a bit too esoteric and blunt for me, and I felt a twinge of anxiety, one that I had not felt in a long, long time. So, I snuck a few extra sips from the Bailey’s bottle until the buzz came on and deadened the sense of apprehension. My tiredness became exhaustion, and I excused myself to bed.

The next day, as I sat across my father in our neighborhood pizza place, I had my first panic attack in nearly four years. My eyes blurred; my heart flew up into my throat. I jumped up out my seat with such ferocity that my father jolted and shouted. Are you okay? No, Dad. I’m not. I sprinted for the door and started pacing in the parking lot. He recognized my behavior immediately, knew it to be the return of my childhood anxiety. But even though he was so familiar with my panic attacks, it surprised him. He assumed all of that was behind me. And when he came into the parking lot to calm me down and take me home, there was both fear and guilt in his eyes. He knew that he was the cause of all this pain, at least by proxy.

See, I have never liked thinking about death, and his candid words about how he was processing his brother’s passing were a bit too much for my brain to handle. It brought back a rush of fears that I believed were settled in my mind. Simply, it triggered my apeirophobia – that is, my fear of eternity. It was a fear that defined my childhood. I remember the first time I processed the concept of death, the idea that one day, this would all end. But my Sunday School teachers and my parents had a solution. If I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, then I would go to heaven and live forever. This was a comfort to millions and millions of Christians, that this life was a mere blink in the eye as compared to our time in heaven, and for some reason, that rubbed me the wrong way. It devalued the life in front of me – it also made everything, including heaven and faith, utterly pointless to me. If we would continue to exist forever, then what was the purpose of this life? Why do good? Why ever take satisfaction, or displeasure, in any experience? Why try? I was barely in first grade when I started waking up my parents in the middle of the night, begging for them to take away this eternal gift. I did not want to live forever, I whined. To go on and on and on. I couldn’t picture it. When I thought about the heavenly experience, all I saw as a sky that traveled on endlessly, with no Earth below it, nothing to ground me. And my body just flew throughout the clouds, hovering in space-time. I was with others, with my family and friends, with all of humanity, with all the faithful servants of God, flying into the infinite expanse, but even with all that company, I felt utterly alone. It was my greatest fear. When I succumbed to the anxiety, I typically began pacing wildly around my house before trying to run outside onto the sidewalks, to get out of range of the fear. Later, I learned this was the flight portion of the fight-or-flight instinctual response. My body was reacting to the thought of eternity like a caveman responded to the sighting of a predator. Run, fight, or die. I would run.

As you can imagine, this fear set me in direct opposition with my faith (this was before my sexuality set me in further opposition). As I got older and the ”episodes” became more frequent, I grew more reticent about being honest with my peers. All of my fellow Christian friends and relatives openly spoke of their excitement for the paradise of heaven, their great reward for a life well lived and a faith well kept. Half of all the sermons at church referenced God’s gift of eternal life, and nearly every prayer thanked the Lord for His grace. I could not tell them that the mere thought of eternity sent me hiding under the pews, shaking with nihilism. They would think I was ridiculous.

So I kept it in. I learned some extremely unhealthy coping strategies. Getting tanked helped significantly, because it scrambled my thoughts and calmed my heart rate. But that had its obvious side effects. Mindless distraction also proved to be effective, though I could not rely on that in the most extreme circumstances, when the thoughts attacked me at a particularly high ferocity. Before long, my fearful thoughts conjured within me something resembling an existential rage. Why had God created me with such a deep alarm – one that flew in the face of His entire pitch for belief? I knew Him to be all-powerful, so this must have been His doing. He could easily take it away. I began losing my faith around that time. I felt like Pharaoh in Exodus, like God was actively hardening my heart and putting me on display for the world, as an example of bad faith for the true followers to avoid. I felt abused.

I resented God for forcing a gift on me that encapsulated my worst nightmares. I was angry. I resented Christians who taught me to live solely for the afterlife, who made light of my fear for it was inconceivable to them. I was afraid. I resented myself for obsessing over something so far outside of my control – for being weak. My heart hardened. I did not want to die like Uncle Henry, having not seen the importance of this life, having not lived it as intended. I did not want to sit on the edge of eternity and regret everything. I was consumed by fear.

Why was I consumed by fear? So God could show His power. Why did God need to show His power? Because I was consumed by fear.

And so the cycle continued – the one started with Pharaoh.

Right now I am in a lull – panic attack free for almost a year. I do not rely on unhealthy means to keep my apeirophobia at bay – therapy has helped provide me with concrete exercises to quell the physical symptoms from getting out of control. But I feel the fear creeping still, lying-in-wait for the next triggering tragedy or too-blunt conversation. I have learned to stop avoiding the concept of eternity, and instead to begin conceptualizing it in different ways, so as to take away some of its power. But the experience has still hardened my heart. I worry that letting God in will send my mind rolling across the floor again. I worry that my logic will never allow my faith to come back, because I logically know that my faith led to some incredible moments of fear. But I’ve been actively engaging in the Bible for a few weeks, and it all seems okay for now. So maybe there is some hope for a softer heart in the year ahead.


Have you ever experienced a fear of death or eternity? Has anything helped you deal with those thoughts? Sound off below.

Simple: Genesis 29 – 30

Jacob’s New Home. True Love. Seven Years for Leah. Seven Years for Rachel. Children for Power. Children for Revenge. Children for Love.

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.

Genesis 29:16-17 (NIV, emphasis mine)

OldBarneyLight

Barnegat Lighthouse, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

These are the facts. Henry developed some sort of infection on his head and face – the exact diagnosis was vague. And the prognosis wasn’t much better: who knew when it would go away, who knew if it was infectious, and since this was Jersey in the 60’s, there was no way the teacher was letting him come into that school. She made it clear: traditional schooling would be an infeasible option for Henry this year. The infection developed near the end of summer, so they could just defer his enrollment and do the whole fifth grade thing a year later – but that meant a year of pre-adolescent idleness. Or they could homeschool him – but both parents worked to make ends meet. They went in to the school principal to come up with a creative solution, one that didn’t involve missing an entire year of school or sacrificing half their family income. The principal recommended hiring a tutor, and he had just the guy: a formidable young man in his early 30s – intelligent, excited, and diligent. They agreed to this option with an appropriate amount of reluctance; they just had not planned Henry’s year to unfold this way. The tutor started his sessions early that autumn and met with Henry every day for a period of six months.

Something sinister happened that year between Henry and his tutor – we know that much for sure. And it seemed to be, or rather, the consensus reached by his family was that whatever evil occurred between the two of them resonated throughout his life with the most negative of consequences.

I first met Henry at my Pop-pop’s funeral. He wore a kitschy powder blue suit two sizes too big. He was gaunt and dark and donned a large gold ring from his pinky, an artifact from his senior high school with the jewel missing. I turned to my Aunt Leisa with a puzzled face, and she whispered in my ear, That’s Henry. My confusion continued. He’s your other Aunt.

No, Henry wasn’t a transgendered woman, and frankly, that thought would have never crossed my pubescent mind. I knew she meant, He’s your gay Uncle Henry. Why do you think you’ve never heard of him? He stood up on the pulpit, his clothes hanging off of him loosely like a puppy’s collar, and announced that he had a poem to read, written by his lifelong partner and lover Luke. I could hear the sound of all the eyes in the room collectively roll. He unfolded a printed sheet from his pocket and read a clearly plagiarized poem in the vein of “Oh Captain! My Captain!” He finished without fanfare and returned to his seat. I saw him only a handful of times after that – he lived across the country after all and rarely came through town. And no one liked his partner Luke. He was a huge part of the problem – an enabler in the most classic sense.

Henry died a decade later from complications stemming from chain smoking and drug abuse. The doctor explained it by saying that Henry simply wore his heart out much quicker than the rest of us. His addiction to painkillers had slowly chipped away at his insides, and his tobacco use had developed into COPD. Simply: His organs had nothing left to give. He called my father from his deathbed. Henry said that he wasn’t ready to die – this just wasn’t the life he had planned for himself. There was no funeral. We all came to the collective consensus that his life was a tragedy and worthy of deep reflection. Where did things go wrong? How could it have possibly turned out this way?

Simple answers often feel the best. Cause and effect. A trajectory. The family settled on this narrative:

Uncle Henry developed his condition at a young age. The family hired a tutor.
The tutor sexually abused Henry – systematic, cruel, and consistent – for half a year.
Because of this trauma, Henry turned to homosexuality.
Homosexuality led to Luke. Luke led to drugs.
Homosexuality led to isolation. It led to alienation. It eventually led to madness.
Luke encouraged the homosexuality, and thus, Luke encouraged the isolation, alienation, and madness.
His family said no more drugs, no more isolation, no more Luke.
Henry said no.
And then so on until… the ending.

That was his sad, sad story, at least to the majority of the family. Henry’s parents never acknowledged the abuse, and while others – including my father – intuited this storyline, no one ever really talked about it. It was just the story. No need to talk. This was it.

The early Bible thrives on the concept of simplistic narrative, and Jacob’s early life gives a prime example of it. Jacob finds a woman he loves in Rachel. Rachel is defined by a single simple word; she is beautiful. Her father says that in exchange for seven years of labor, Jacob can marry his daughter. But trickery! After seven years, Rachel’s father gives Jacob his less attractive daughter Leah to marry. Leah is ugly. And so begins the one-upmanship. Leah and Rachel fight for the affection of Jacob. Rachel is barren while Leah is fertile, and so Leah looks to catch Jacob’s eye with children. When she can no longer conceive, she gives Jacob her maidservant to sleep with in order to continue her line. Rachel counters with her maidservant, to give her line. A classic duel over affections. Who will win out? Everyone wins, because eventually, the children that pile up between the four wives will end up being the fathers to the twelve tribes of Israel.

I do not mean to mock or even draw criticism to the narrative presented here. If the Bible attempted to present its vast history taking into account every nuance of humanity, then its girth would make it impenetrable. However, the attractiveness of the simple nature of these narratives remains potent. Leah, Rachel, and the whole gang here act like one-note characters in a melodrama. Their cause-and-effect motivations elicit strong reactions and clear lessons but fail to come across in sympathetic or realistic ways. I am intended to relate to these people on the broadest of levels, so that I can glean the lesson quickly and completely. And this method of storytelling is effective. The whims of man will end up fitting into God’s ultimate plan. There. That’s a lesson I picked from that story, and there are many more available if I glance at the tale from different angles.

It is dangerous to apply this simplistic approach to our real world interactions. It risks the reduction of an entire life to a sole action or trait. Does any single word accurately describe your entire persona? Are you merely gay, hefty, jealous, or kind? You would be a boring individual if that were the case.

And so to reduce my Uncle Henry’s life to a simple list of actions and reactions feels horribly inadequate – not only for its complete mischaracterization of homosexuality but also for its obviously missing details. All we have are sparse facts, and we are left to connect the pieces ourselves. And for a family entrenched in conservative thinking, the simplest and most sweeping explanation ended up winning out. No room for nuance. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents had made their judgment. Something horrible happened to Henry, and we all saw how it ended. This is what homosexuals do. They abuse children and make more homosexuals. They do drugs and wallow in hatred. And then they die from their own malice. Henry did not choose what happened to him, but he made a lot of dumb choices thereafter.

But this narrative did not sit well with my father. After my Pop-pop’s funeral, he took my brother and me for some Jersey-style pizza: thin, soggy, plain. I asked about Uncle Henry, what he was like, growing up and today.

He told me his older brother was the funniest person he knew – always a jokester. Henry used to whisper in his ear at night that the moon was hungry and wanted to eat him. They could spend hours on the Long Beach Island shores, particularly in the winter, walking to and from Barnegat Lighthouse. They paid their dollar and walked all the way up the winding staircase to the top and looked out into the endless ocean. Henry liked heights. He liked roller coasters, too, and the two often made trips to the local theme park, that was before Six Flags bought it up and made it all corporate. He always stood up for his brothers. He was the toughest guy in school. A big kid smacked my father one day, and Henry found him and broke his nose. Three weeks later, the big kid drowned during the school picnic. There was no connection, but Henry felt responsible. The accident haunted him. He considered himself a devout Christian and often quoted the Bible. He said God would see him through. He was discharged from the Navy after a mental breakdown. He had chronic back pain. He struggled with addiction. He never held down a job. He lived off government support. He lived in a trailer. He called my father once a week. He could go on for hours. He was always invited to come stay with us. He only said yes to that once. His body withered. It failed him. He called my father on his deathbed. He begged not yet not yet not yet. He died with Luke by his side, while my father sped down I-95 to get there in time. My father was told by the hospital that he could keep the remains. He gave them to Luke. Luke called my father once a week. He would go on for hours. My father thanked him, from the bottom of his heart, for staying with Henry when the other members of his family abandoned him – when their parents abandoned him – when their characterizations of him were horribly inadequate – when they summed him up with only one word. My father cried on the phone. They spoke every week for a year. Then, one evening, Luke called my father, got the voicemail, left a message, said goodbye, took a bottle of painkillers, and drifted away. My father sped down I-95, but it was too late. He delivered Luke’s ashes to his family. He took my Uncle Henry’s ashes. He drove up I-95 straight to Jersey, to Long Beach Island, to Barnegat Lighthouse. It was winter. My father climbed the spiral staircase and let his brother go.

I cannot believe in the concept of simple. My father taught me better than that.