battle with belief.

by Michael V. Rainey

I grew up as part of the LDS (Mormon) faith.  During my high school years I left the church, no longer believing in the dogma.  It led to a time of uncertainty in my life.  I’d always known the answers to life - they were very easy to look up: 
Read this scripture,
Ask this church leader,
Reference this article and then don’t look into it any further. 

Pushing all that away meant I had to define my beliefs for myself for the first time in my life and while I felt it was the right thing to do, it did worry me.  I was left with far more questions then I could ever answer and had to decide upon my future relationship with a higher power.

I never really decided what I believe.  While I feel no need to be part of an organized religion, people are often surprised to hear that faith still has meaning in my life.  The trouble for me is, I don’t know what I have faith in.  I do believe there is more to this universe then what we see and directly experience, but does that imply the presence of a deity?  I don’t really know.  Maybe.  I have had experiences I can’t scientifically explain and I have no issue using metaphysical terms to label those experiences.  Sure, there is probably a scientific explanation for these things that we just haven’t fully discovered yet, some quantum mechanical phenomenon or psychological oddity that explains away these events.  But I’ve learned not to let it worry me, to accept uncertainty, to accept that it’s okay not to have the answers and that it doesn’t make these events any less meaningful.

But there was a time that I realized I haven’t completely let go of the idea of a deity, because I was furious with him.  It’s when my mom was in the hospital.  Or my step mom rather.  Let me step back here.

My parents got divorced when I was nine years old, and my relationship with my birth mother gradually deteriorated over the years.  She got remarried almost immediately after leaving my father to a verbally abusive asshole.  They were only married for a little over a year at which point he tried to steal all of her savings.  Stealing from a single mother of three is particularly damning (ie asshole).
She next met an Evangelical man named Rick and they started seeing each other.  Rick is a fundamentalist Christian, believing in a literal translation of the Bible and believing anyone not a Protestant Christian was going to burn in hell.  As Mormons, we fell under that category.  They dated for years, and Rick proposed several times to my mother, but always with the caveat that he would only marry her if she stopped being Mormon.  I watched her gradually change to his religious viewpoint as she didn’t want to lose him in her life.  When she was fully converted they finally got married, and Rick moved in to our house and began trying to convert her three sons, my brothers and I. 

My older brother left for college that same summer and didn’t have to deal with it much, but I soon found myself Bible bashing with my mother and stepfather.  If I brought other Mormons to the house, they’d take the opportunity to tell us all we were going to hell and so on.  At the time I felt like I could handle it - I grew up in an Evangelical town, and arguing religion was nothing new for me.  

One Sunday I was getting ready to go to church and Rick asked me to go to his church instead.  I told them I’d gone to their church the week before, so this week I would go to the Mormon church.  He left, then came back a few minutes later telling me they’d canceled the insurance on my car, and if I tried to drive to my church they’d call the cops and have me arrested.  While I don’t believe that’s an arrestable offense, I didn’t want to push it so I stayed home.  But as Rick couldn’t get the better of me, he instead turned on my little brother David, telling him he was going to hell and forcing David to go to his church.  My little brother was twelve at the time, and when I heard about this I decided I’d never respect Rick again.

My relationship with my stepfather and mother worsened and eventually culminated with them kicking me out my senior year of high school.  It was around this time that I left the Mormon church for good.  Granted, this had been Rick’s goal and if I’d left earlier maybe it would have relieved some pressure at home, but I wanted it to be my own decision.  I’m sure I could have handled the situation more maturely, but I was a teenager after all.

About a year later, my father married a woman named Tara.  Tara is an amazing woman; she’s strong, compassionate, patient, and loving.  She immediately took my brothers and I in and loved us as if we were her own sons.  In fact, we very quickly felt as though we were.  When someone says the word mom, it’s Tara that pops into my head now.  I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am to have her in my life, as I’m sure I’d be far more lost without her support, love, and wisdom.
She’s a truly good person, and those are far too rare.  So a few years ago when she had to get heart surgery, it shook me to my core.  You see, Tara had been born with a weak heart (only physically, figuratively her heart is like iron).  It had been a struggle her entire life, many a family occasion had been interrupted by her fainting or struggling to keep her breath.  The time came that she needed surgery to repair her heart or she wouldn’t make it much longer.

Tara tried to remain the rock of the family.  She comforted every one else with the news; she made plans, insisted that this wasn’t going to stop her living her life.  It’s the only time I’ve ever been mad at her.  She wouldn’t stop and let someone take care of her for a change - she kept right on being the matriarch.  She said she’d always been living on borrowed time.  She survived not one, not two, but three serious car accidents not to mention a bout with skin cancer.  There are even photos of her mother pregnant with Tara, living in Las Vegas where mushroom clouds are clearly visible in the background.  I’m no doctor, but that can’t be good for your health.  Because of all of this, she decided nothing could hold her back, which means she’s never been good at resting when she needs it.

But as the surgery drew near, the gravity of the situation began to settle on her.  There was some doubt that she’d even be healthy enough to undergo surgery until the week before.  I donated blood for the event (she didn’t want some strangers blood, that would be icky she said). 
The day came, and we waited.  And like most men in that situation, I tried to put on a brave face.  My two little brothers (one blood, one step) were both with me, and we were all scared.  I tried to be confident: trying to show that there was nothing to worry about, that we shouldn’t be scared because we were in a great hospital with one of the best heart surgeons on the west coast.

But I was scared, and I didn’t like being scared.  And for the first time in years, I thought of God.  I didn’t know if I believed in him or not, but I knew I was scared and that fear turned to anger.  If God existed, then I was fucking pissed at God.  I had had so many people in my life take advantage of me, hurt me for their own selfish needs, treat me like shit.  This woman, who had no connection to me whatsoever most of my life took me in and loved me like her own.  I had a complete family for the first time since elementary school, and God was going to take that away?  Seriously, what the fuck?  God wasn’t a comfort in that moment, he was someone to blame.  Looking back I realize it was because the alternative - feeling the potential loss of my mom - was more then I could handle.
My anger soon turned to my older step brother.  He didn’t show up to the hospital, he was too scared to be there.  It gave me something concrete to concentrate my anger on.  No more abstract deity, here is someone I can point to who is hurting someone I love.  But again I pushed those feelings aside.  I concentrated on keeping my little brother’s spirits up, trying to support them.  

Tara made it through the surgery and was transferred to ICU.  A few hours later, she started to wake up and we went back to see her a couple people at a time.  The relief I felt was incredible, holding her hand for just a moment meant more then I can say.  When she asked to see my older step brother and we had to tell her he still hadn’t shown up, it broke my heart to see her reaction.  She was hurt - it seemed that she felt more pain in that moment then she felt having her chest cracked open hours before. I know Tara, I know how incredibly supportive she is.  If he had been in the hospital there is nothing that could have held her back from seeing him.  And he’d always been a selfish prick, but I figured he might come through when she really needed him.  He didn’t.  To be honest, I still have not forgiven him for this. 

Tara recovered gradually and the family spent a lot of time in the hospital over the next week.  My father barely left her side; the only way I could convince him to go home to sleep in a bed was if I stayed up all night in his place.  We got to know the nursing staff, a group of kind and talented professionals.  And as I walked to the cafeteria throughout the day, I kept passing the chapel.  Finally, I went in.  I didn’t know if I believed in God or not, but I thanked him or the universe or whatever for keeping Tara around a little longer.

The recovery took six months, during which time she couldn’t get in a car, had to stay in bed, and couldn’t lift anything over five pounds.  For an active woman who took so much pride in taking care of those around her, it was a very long six months.  But she got better.  She eventually took in more sons as my parents adopted kids, and she became a grandmother when my little brother and his wife had an adorable baby girl.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately.  Last year, Tara was diagnosed with Leukemia.  They found it early, but it’s not treatable.  That atomic testing outside of Vegas has finally caught up with her it seems.
Somewhere in the next five to ten years we’re going to watch her get weaker and weaker.  We’ve already made a few more trips to the hospital as simple infections now have the potential to be fatal.  We joke about her getting a punch card from the hospital so the tenth visit is free.  Humor helps, we’ve always used humor to diffuse situations in our family, but the truth is we’re all scared.

The initial fear and sadness surrounding the news has subsided with time.  Death is after all inevitable, and you could say we have some advantage as we actually see it coming.  But that initial fear of loss has become something else. 

Now I’m scared that she’ll pass before I have children of my own.  She’s the strongest woman I know, and the thought of my kids never getting to meet her, never getting to have her be part of their lives, never getting to learn from her breaks my heart.  They’d be missing out on so much.  I feel like the world will be missing out on so much when she goes.  I feel like the meager accomplishments I’ve made are due to her guidance and support, and though I feel prepared to take on the world because of the time we’ve spent together, it fills me with disappointment that others won’t get to know the woman I’ve known.  Even stories could never do her justice.

And even after all this time, I still don’t know what I believe in.