A friend of mine shared an unexpected conversation he had with a gentleman who me met at church. “What do you think,” he asked him, “are we at the ‘endtimes’, or what?”
My friend is a very learned fellow who has studied many things, including scripture, gave a vague but polite answer while privately musing, “In a sense, we’re always in the End Times, and I suppose we always will be.”
Personally, I think anyone who is spending a lot of time thinking about the end of the world should start using Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble’s new memento mori journal Remember Your Death in order to constructively contemplate their deaths and ponder how to best engage in living.
The whole thing got me thinking about my mother, though, the woman who deserves a portion of any blame or praise you care to send my way. She was constantly riffing on end times scenarios, which is why whenever I engage on the topic — or watch the world do it — I am equal parts amused and confused.
I do think if my mother had possessed a good memento mori journal — or had kept a skull on her desk, like Sr. Theresa — her fixation would have been less lugubrious than the stuff she would regularly dish out to me as I was growing up.
I wrote about that, a little, in Chapter 7 of my book, Little Sins Mean a Lot — a look at gloominess and griping. Here’s the first part of it:
“Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”My mother resided on one of those dark planets. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate both the lunacy and the sorrow that launched her toward it, and this appreciation colors my memories of her with a kind of rueful humor. In truth, in the twenty years since her death, I’ve felt closer to her than I ever did in life, especially when I recognize in myself some of her habitual gripes and grouchy expressions emanating from my own mouth.
–Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: A New Hope
One of my strangest memories is of my mother telling me to make sure she was buried with her communion pin and prayerbook, and that if I forgot, she would come back to haunt me.
I was four years old at the time.
Even at that tender age, I accepted that people and pets lived and died, but I hadn’t yet worked out that “people” included my parents. That reality struck me as I sat on the basement steps, one afternoon, watching my father play the piano. He was a very fine musician, but – owing to a disagreement between his own parents as to whether he should learn the piano or the violin — he never studied, and couldn’t read a note of music. This deficiency accorded him a measure of humiliation all his life, and kept him from calling himself a musician, but he could play any instrument he picked up, and was particularly impressive at the keyboard.
Watching him play that afternoon, I sensed the joy he took in making music, and I think I also sensed his melancholy. In that moment, at that young age, I had no way of expressing an interior knowledge so secret and so harsh — that music would forever entrap him within a dichotomy of pleasure and pain.
Unable to articulate it, all I could do was bawl. I watched him play, understood something for which I had no words, and – deciding that it all had something to do with love and death – became incredibly emotional; I worked myself up into a fine hysterical frenzy that scared my father’s hands from the keyboard and sent my mother running, demanding to know what was the matter.
“I don’t want Daddy to die!” I wailed and gasped. “And I don’t want you to die!”
“We’re not dying!”
That meant nothing to me; I was howling, by now, and beginning to hyperventilate. I pronounced sentence upon my parents as my lungs burned scarlet: “But you will, someday! Someday you’re both going to die!”
My mother, way out of her league in terms of consolation and looking for anything she could use to put an end my disordered freak, said, “You gotta stop thinking about it; it’s bad for your veins!”
Traditional Chinese Medicine might coincidentally concur with her on that, but at the moment, this was no help at all. Considering that someday my parents were going to die, and at any moment my veins might be collapsing, I let go another wail, at which point my father — no drinker but by now completely spooked — availed himself of a bit of Johnnie Walker Red. My mother, in the end, seemed somewhat reassured. After all, death (particularly her own) was one of her favorite topics, and so my sensibilities were doing her proud.
To a point, there is nothing wrong with that; the church and her saints teach us that memento mori (“remember your death”) is a valuable tool for habituating mindfulness in our lives. My mother used it more for entertainment purposes, coupling it with a taste for eschatology. Sometimes as she poured my Rice Krispies before school she would intone, “The world is going to end in the year two-thousand,” and then float back to the coffeepot. My cereal would snap, crackle, and pop itself soggy as I did the math. Crap. I’d only be 42 years old. That didn’t seem very fair.
But the truth is life is not fair, at least not to our human understanding of fairness. As Christians we know that “all things work to God’s own purpose” – and God’s purposes are always right and just — but we tend to forget that in our day-to-day living. Perhaps beside memento mori, we should scribble memento iustitia Deo (“remember God is Just”) to help bring the point home. Then we might be less inclined toward the small habitual sins of gloominess and griping, which not only scare little children, but also leave them – and all of us — wondering what the point of life is.
“We live out our hell on earth,” my mother used to say, “that’s what I think.”
“What about the people in purgatory?” I once asked.
“Purgatory is for the people who didn’t suffer enough on earth,” she’d posit. “Everyone has to get their fair share of suffering.” On that downer of a note, she’d give me something snacky to eat and send me outside to play. I would sit beneath a weeping willow tree, or within a cove of fragrant evergreens, and finger the soft moss, and wonder how she could talk about “hell-on-earth” when there was so much heaven all around.
I was a good deal older before I realized that my mother had lived a hard and unsettled life, one so full of hard luck, instability and violence that a philosophy of casual fatalism and nearly continual grousing seemed not only understandable but a reasonable sort of survival tactic. When the world is hard, one needs a shield, a way to say, “This touches me not,” particularly if one has a sensitive nature. The more I learned about her childhood, and watched as her “bad luck” continued, the more I could accept that it all looked like hell to her.
Yes, Mom could have used a good journal in which to set down her thoughts and perhaps work some things out. We all could. I am glad to think, however, that while I have been in many ways a bad Catholic mother, their standard breakfast was horror-free.