"Grandpa's asking for you," my aunt whispers in the way people will when death looms over a house.
"Me?" I whisper back. "But -- why me?"
In the basement Grandpa is tucked in a recliner, surrounded by his card-playing buddies from the Knights of Columbus who have come to say their goodbyes. Doctors had recently diagnosed my grandpa with mesothelioma. Shocked, my entire family had made a pilgrimage to my grandparents' home in Wyoming. For the last few days, against the backdrop of the purple Bighorn Mountains, we have been adjusting to the news, wiping tears and tending to Grandpa's requests, which were few -- until now.
To my family, Grandpa represented everything that is still right with the world. Not one of us ever heard him speak a judgmental word about another person, even when family drama unfolded and the rest of us shared our opinions in quiet corners. He always gazed squarely into the eyes of anyone he met, extending a solid handshake and pat on the back. And to us, his grandchildren, he was a magnet of love. He hummed in the mornings and did a little dance of excitement when he'd spot any one of us coming into the kitchen for toast. In accordance with his affectionate nature, he called me and his other granddaughters "honey bunch".. And, even though he was considered a "man's man" who served in the army and worked on the railroad for 30 years, he always met his grandsons with a warm hug, never a distant punch in the arm. Upon his request, any one of us would have walked a thousand miles for Grandpa -- any one of us, that is, except me, except now, because I think I know what he wants.
Moments earlier I had studied the card players as they came in, about a dozen of them. They embodied a ruggedness notable in the men of Wyoming, accentuated by caps, boots and jackets embroidered with workplace emblems. As they entered they removed their hats, straightened their thinning hair, and selected seats from the hodgepodge of chairs we had pulled from other rooms. While we poured coffee and offered Perkin's muffins, the men strained to hear Grandpa's words because his disease, which was slowly suffocating him, made it challenging for him to talk.
Shortly after they had all settled, Grandpa turned to the man on his left and asked, "Joe, will you lead us in prayer?" Joe quickly obliged, clasping his hands together and bowing his head. The other men followed suit as Joe began to pray. "Dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we gather here together, all of us Christians, to be with our brother today..."
I watched as peace replaced the wince of pain on Grandpa's brow. He had been a deeply faithful Catholic his entire life. Devotion to God and church was a staple of his character, and so this prayer was his nectar. I, on the other hand, felt uneasy. My organs seized with a familiar anxiety that washes through me in moments like these and so I slipped upstairs.
I haven't always felt uneasy around prayer. My relationship with God started in a country church on the North Dakota prairie; the church was bright, with a creaky balcony, and a yard that bled into surrounding wheat fields. There, faith seemed simple: pull a stranded neighbor out of a ditch; deliver a hot dish when someone is ill; plow farmers fields when they are down; be kind. I was drawn to God because I wanted to embody the goodness I experienced in church. I also knew how beautifully love could radiate from people who loved God, people like my grandpa.
Perhaps because of my desire to draw closer to God, I was predisposed to falling into a seductive, born-again world that led me through teenage years of wearing Jesus T-shirts, listening to Christian music and, by college, working at a Bible Camp. The Christians I met in those years taught me that to love God, one couldn't have a quiet faith like those at my home church. No, one must be "on fire" for the Lord; one must save others from their sinful ways. These people also taught me, with an almost obsessive zeal, that same-sex relationships were evil, though I never heard a peep about such things back home. Since I had known that I was gay from an early age, a chasm was forged in my spiritual landscape. Like thousands of gay kids, I learned to brace myself around religion because within it I was no longer considered good.
"Grandpa wants you honey." This is my mom now, coming up the stairs and repeating his wish. I take a deep breath, grab a coffee pot and descend slowly. When I hit the bottom stair, Grandpa motions me near and uses all of his energy to force, in a barely audible voice, these words: "This is my granddaughter, the one who wrote a book."
The book. My book. My soon-to-be published memoir. I become light headed as I feel the eyes of the praying, faithful, God-centered men on me. And while I should beam from Grandpa's pride, I don't. Instead, I pretend I don't hear him. I move into the circle of men, pour coffee and speak loudly about nothing before they can ask me questions. I do this because my book is about the thing I have learned does not go with religion: me. And to talk about my book would reveal what I believe they will reject: gay. In his weakened state Grandpa can't compete with my flurry of distraction, so he closes his eyes and fades away.
My grandpa is gone now. I have often wondered what he thought during his last years as many churches gathered money to fuel anti-gay marriage campaigns and reinforced their position of righteousness by asserting his granddaughter's position as a sinner. I wonder what he thought about the church, that is, not what he thought about me.
My experience with religion has compelled me to explore the historical, cultural and theological roots of what I had taken for granted, to unpack my belief system. And today I don't find connection to divinity through religion. In many ways I think religion may even obstruct divinity. But navigating these waters has not been easy or black and white; the same institutions that have caused such pain in the world also nurture such beauty in so many people.
When Grandpa shut his eyes on that afternoon I believe he floated into the otherworldly space that he seemed to occupy on his last days. I am pained that out of fear I silenced my dying grandpa, just as I have learned to silence myself. And if I were to say my own prayer today, it would be that in his transcendent state, my grandpa saw me as I was as a child: unashamed, brave, good, when I understood God's love to be as sweet as my grandpa's, before religion got in the way.
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