When I was a kid, I was quite the prayer. Every night I dutifully said prayers that began with the well-known, “As I lay me down to sleep…” and ended with a list of every single person that I loved and a request that an eye be kept on them. I used to get confused, though. I was never quite sure to whom I was actually supposed to be praying: God? Jesus? I mean, I knew that one was the dad and one was the kid. I just didn’t know which one was directly involved in my affairs and which one was only loosely affiliated with the job. I used them interchangeably to cover my bases. Going along with my interest in prayer was my desire to find out about and figure out how to get to heaven.
One of my stepfathers was an avid fisherman, and I used to have to go with him all day, every day in the summer when I was 6 and 7 years old. I hated him, and I was convinced that everything he did pretty much guaranteed he was going to hell. I hated fishing. I hated having to be quiet and speak in whispers all day. I hated seeing him put worms on the hook and watching them wriggle frantically. I hated watching the fish die; I always cried. So I tried to find other ways to amuse myself and to remove myself from the hell-bound, worm- and fish-killing stepfather. I wanted to show God/Jesus that I wanted no part of this.
I was really interested in talking to people about what they thought of death and heaven and hell. I used to make my way around the lake or along the river to talk to all the fishermen who were old men. (I loved my grandpas dearly, you see, and in my mind all old men were somebody’s kind and sweet grandpa.) I would ask them if they were afraid to die and what they thought was going to happen to them when they died. Some of them were nice and would talk to me, while others just wanted the pesky, noisy little girl to go away. I kept this up until one old man tried to put me in the trunk of his car, telling me how good he was going to make me feel. Then I ran like hell, knowing he was going to hell. After that I contented myself with playing with my stepfather’s night crawlers.
If he was going to eventually kill them, I wanted to at least make sure they had an interesting life first before they went to worm heaven. It seemed like the Christian thing to do. I would make these worm families with names and personalities for each one. There would be Henry, the father worm, who came home and drank at night and took out his frustrations and insecurities on his family. There was Katherine, the mother worm, who would sit by the window looking out at the rain and clipping coupons—saving her pennies for the day that she could leave. There was Claire, the teenage daughter worm, who was sullen and quiet and who shut herself in her room and wrote dark poetry and song lyrics and waited for the day when she would be out of the house. Their blissful reverie ended, of course, when one of the family members was cruelly snatched out of my hand and impaled upon a hook.
In addition to my prayers and constant thinking about heaven and hell (and whether my doomed worm family was going there), I wanted to work on paving my own way to the great cloud playground in the sky. One way that I saw to do this was by being well-mannered and polite—like saying “excuse me” if I burped or “bless you” when someone sneezed. Except I didn’t trust myself to always remember to say these things. I was afraid I might suddenly forget or be distracted and miss the opportunity. The only way to ease my anxiety about all of this was to sit for long periods of time, usually rocking myself, and say enough of these polite phrases to last me a lifetime. Just in case I forgot to bless someone when I was 15, 29, 45, or 82, I wanted to have enough of them said out loud and built up that they would serve as an insurance policy against later rudeness or forgetfulness.
I’d sit Indian-style, rocking from side to side, saying, “Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, excuse me….” over and over. I would work on excuse me until I was tired of saying it, and then I’d switch to a long list of bless you’s. I’d work my way through every polite word or phrase I could think of:
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
“Pardon me, pardon me, pardon me, pardon me…”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…”
“Please, please, please, please…”
I’d spend an afternoon doing this every so often, convinced that I was building up a good supply and that Jesus/God would see the earnestness of my efforts and—even if I occasionally forgot to say these things in the future—would let me into heaven.
One thing that I knew was a big no-no was suicide. Killing yourself was the quickest way to get to hell. Unfortunately, I was very curious about it. Thoughts would creep into my mind like, would it hurt? Would I chicken out? Would I go to hell immediately or would I hang around and rattle chains for awhile? I felt incredibly guilty when I had these thoughts. If suicide was the ultimate sin, then surely thinking about suicide was something to be avoided at all costs also. I made a conscious exception once, though.
There was a small house that my school bus passed every morning on the way to Simpson Elementary. It was a modest little one-story house at the intersection of Johnson Ave. and Philadelphia Ave. Every Christmas they covered their house and filled their yard with Christmas decorations in outlandish contrast to the neighbors next door. I looked forward to seeing this house every morning around the holidays, because its colorful cheeriness stood out against gray, slushy winter mornings and the drudgery of going to school.
I made up my mind that I wanted to write the people who lived in that house a letter telling them how much I liked their Christmas decorations. I worried that they wouldn’t take a letter from a little kid seriously, so I tried to figure how to make them REALLY understand how much I liked their decorations. I decided to pretend to be an adult and write the letter, except this didn’t seem to have enough gravitas, either. Eventually my mind hit upon the perfect solution—I would tell the family in the letter that I had been just about to kill myself when I saw their Christmas decorations and changed my mind. I realized I was risking my own salvation by doing so, but it seemed that making them feel so good would be worth it in the long run. God/Jesus wasn’t an idiot and would realize that, wouldn’t he?
I decided to tell this family in my letter that they reminded me there were still good and beautiful things in the world and their Christmas decorations had saved my life. This, I felt, THIS was the way to make them understand!
I never sent that letter.