The Shadow of Death

Spring 1990. I was turning seven years old, and I was opening presents at Dad’s house where only a few months earlier I had wished on a turkey wishbone for a Nintendo system.

My wish came true, and Mom let me set the new game system up on the extra television in her room. I became a video gamer. Well, at least in the sense that I was holding a controller and interacting with the system.

I loved The Legend of Zelda — the original one — but looking back, a rather curious thing happened: I didn’t play that game to win, but to think. I wouldn’t have known what I was doing then, but I meditated over that game.

About death.

I couldn’t help it, nor did I really want to, but my thoughts kept pushing themselves toward death and what it meant to die. I, in all my childish naïvety, tried to imagine what death was like, what it would mean to suddenly stop experiencing, well, anything. I struggled to understand oblivion, without knowing what the hell “oblivion” even was.

Despite some interactions with churches, the thought of there being an afterlife rarely entered into the meditations.

My grandma died, and with her passing, death became real to me, no longer an abstract but a looming threat.

That was before I was ten years old. I was able to move past the meditations as a number of changes happened in life, resulting in a new school, a new environment, and good friends who I spent time with outside of school.

Quite a while would pass, with death or the wonderings about oblivion never creeping up in my mind, despite both of my grandfathers dying during these years.

I’d visit a few churches semi-regularly throughout this time, mostly as an excuse to spend time with friends; still, this was enough, I think, to cause me to take for granted that death led to an afterlife.

Summer 2001. (A Faith Odyssey?) I went all-in on the church/faith experience resulting in a doubling (or perhaps quadrupling) down on the idea that after death comes an even greater life.

There were no meditations, no ruminations upon what it is to be mortal, to be inexorably destined to die. There existed only the strong belief that oblivion didn’t exist, that death was merely the doorway by which we are translated into either Heaven or Hell.

Spring 2006. Five years into my time as a Christian. I was watching V for Vendetta at the theater. For whatever reason, during a poignant montage involving Natalie Portman’s Evey, the stronghold belief in an afterlife shattered within me.

I missed a lot of what would happen in the next several moments of the movie as wave after wave of old fears flooded back into me, paralyzing me in my seat, terrorizing my mind with vivid thoughts of oblivion, thoughts which were all too familiar and yet for which I was altogether unprepared to deal with.

A few more years would pass during which I would call myself a Christian, a period during which I’d work doubly hard not only to convince others that Christianity was real, but to convince myself as well. I found solace in experiences which seemed spiritual. I did everything I could to suppress my fears, everything except the same meditations which I once “practiced” as a child, meditations which led not to fear but to attempts at understanding.

Summer 2007. My grandmother died. To be sure, I had grieved at least a year earlier, when the realization set in that my grandma was already gone, a victim to multiple strokes which robbed her of her self. Were I in the meditating way, I no doubt would have spent much time trying to reconcile life with loss of self and what that actually means for, well, “eternity.”  Grandma’s passing was not marked by the sort of sad mourning which seemed typical of death, but instead we celebrated Grandma’s life at a memorial service in an art center which she had patronized. I set aside my fundamentalist teetotaling ways and drank my first drink of wine — of any alcoholic beverage — in her honor, along with the rest of the room.

Fall 2010. Reading the Bible sans study guides or theologies. I happened on Deuteronomy 22, particularly the part of it which prescribes what was to happen in different rape situations. I read that the God of the Bible thought it best to demand a man who rapes a virgin to marry her without the possibility of divorce, a short, rather easily missed passage which nullified in an instant my belief in the Christian God.

But I couldn’t ascent to atheism. Atheism meant death was everything I had always feared it to be. Without Christianity, I naïvely called myself a pagan for a few months, before finally realizing that I was, in fact, an atheist. I had to be brave in the face of certain oblivion.

This month. My step-dad very unexpectedly passed away. He had been a constant in my life for over a decade. I was at the funeral; I touched the casket.

Still, it doesn’t seem real.

I’m almost thirty-three years old now, struggling to find perspective on events which I more bravely faced as a boy aimlessly exploring the forests of Hyrule, entirely uninterested in the main quest, needing only an idle backdrop against which my mind could struggle to understand.

Unlike childhood, though, I’ve now had the unfortunate opportunity to explain death to my preschool-aged daughter. She remembers her grandpa in her heart, and it’s so very sweet to hear her talk about him

I’d trade most anything for such an innocent understanding.

That’s where I’m at today, at sixes and sevens — or complete confusion. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that my favorite Bible verse during my Christian years was 1 Corinthians 15:55.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

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