I remember the moment I first realized I was going to die.
I was eight at the time, and my grandfather had just passed away. I was not particularly close to my grandfather, as he lived in Mexico and I was growing up in Michigan, but I have fond memories of him. He had a mischievous sense of humor, and a broad smile. His smile was amplified by his moustache, so to me his joy seemed immense. I remember him as a happy man who was always able to find the humor in life.
Seeing how much I loved to play Carmen, my grandfather bought me my first “Carmen kit”. It consisted of a set of castagnettes and a fan (for Carmen), as well as a red cape called a muleta and banderillas (for the bullfighter), and a set of horns (for the bull). This was a much better alternative to wearing my mother’s skirts and borrowing the red tablecloth reserved for Christmas for the bullfighter. I had two (rather unwilling) participants to play with: my younger brothers. The youngest was, of course, the bull as he still had some baby fat which in my mind meant he looked best suited for the part. I had hours of fun playing this game-it was my favorite. I recall looking over my shoulder to see my grandfather watching us, his face full of joy.
I grew up in a very Catholic setting, where God was never questioned, nor was the church. I was always to do good, otherwise not only would I be punished by my mother but I would receive an even greater punishment in the end: I would ultimately go to hell. “And God is always watching”, my aunts would tell me. These were the ruling principles of our life as a family, and there was enough fear of hell to keep me motivated.
When my grandfather died, I asked my aunt what God would determine for his fate. Would he go to hell? After all, he was a trickster, and would sometimes do bad things just to get a laugh. She assured me he was going to heaven, but I questioned her further. How exactly did she know this, and what are the guidelines for getting into heaven? It was probably not the time for such an interrogation, but my whole world was turned upside down and I needed answers right away. What if I too could get away with some mischief and still go to heaven?
What followed changed my life. My aunt did her best to explain the afterlife to me, according to the Catholic church. She explained heaven and hell and painted pictures of what goes on in both. Heaven seemed to have all of the delicious candies I loved and was full of puppies and kittens, while hell sounded worse than the scariest horror movie scene I had caught a glimpse of at a slumber party. For years in my mind the devil looked exactly like Freddy Krueger.
More importantly, my aunt introduced the concept of purgatory. This changed everything, and made no sense! First of all, why hadn’t anyone told me about this sooner? The idea of a sort of waiting room seemed worse than hell itself!
My grandfather’s death was very hard on my mom, who as the oldest of the eight siblings was especially close to him. We took a family vacation to Acapulco shortly after his passing. Things were different. I no longer wanted to play Carmen with my brothers. Instead, I would spend hours looking out at the horizon line where the ocean meets the sky. I couldn’t stop thinking about my conversation with my aunt. As I looked out on this line, I saw the sky (ie heaven) and the ocean and what surely lied beneath it (hell). The line was clear to me, and there was no in between purgatory bluriness.
I decided to ask my father, a scientist (and the only non-catholic I knew) about this line. Where exactly was it that the sky meets the ocean? Could we go there and look at it? Perhaps we could take a boat out there and see it up close?
My dad, in his very rational, scientific way explained to me that if we did take a boat out there to where I thought the line was, the line would not be there. It would be further out. In fact, we would never reach the line as the “line” did not exist. There was no border, no boundary, no limit. He went on to explain about the earth being round, etc, but I basically stopped listening when I realized that there was no real “line”. It was, as he said, an “optical illusion”.
What if all of these lines, limits and constructs that I had been taught to follow were also false? What if there was no heaven, or hell, or purgatory? After all, how could someone actually decide who goes where when there didn’t seem to be a solid basis of rules and guidelines to follow, and in addition one could be forgiven through confession if one chose to confess and followed the prayers the priest would prescribe and didn’t do the act again, etc…
My Carmen costumes became a constant reminder of death. The killing of the bull did not seem fun to me, as I wasn’t sure what would happen to the bull after he died, and it only reminded me of my grandfather and made me question what had really happened to him. Perhaps he was not in heaven. And if heaven doesn’t exist, perhaps he is just gone. Dead.
I kept asking questions. My mother enrolled me in catechism school, thinking that this would give me the answers I was looking for, but it only lead to more questions. The last straw for me came with the chapter on creationism. Not only did the theory seem completely absurd to me, but when I tried to introduce the class to the Darwinian concepts that my father had told me about I was told that those were completely false. The teacher pulled me aside and asked me to stop asking questions in front of the class as I was creating doubt in the room.
I had one final question:
“My dad is a scientist. He works in a lab, and I know he believes that we are connected to chimps and that Darwin’s theories are true. Will he go to hell?”
“Yes” was her answer.
I decided then and there that I was done with this belief system. I spend the rest of the semester locked in the girl’s bathroom when I was suppose to be in catechism class, reading about Jane Goodall and trying to figure out my own beliefs. In doing so, I became aware of my mortality, but also of my own life and the fact that I needed to make my own rules to live by for my time here on earth. Time-the present time-was all that I felt I really had to count on.
To this day, time is the only thing I know for sure, as I still don’t know what might happen after I die. And as I watch the horizon line on the beach here in Florida, I am reminded of these questions, and of my own curiosity and desire to question borders, boundaries and limit