Oct 10, 2014

Life after death: I want to believe

Painting by Billie based on a photo by David Muench
I've lost my share of loved ones. Probably more than my share for my age. Parents and grandparents, my sister. Aunts and uncles. My favorite uncle Richard died of cancer in 2002. I lost Nelson, one of my closest friends in the world, to AIDS. And John, a man I was involved with for a long while and nearly married three times, died a couple of years ago.

Where are they, all of those people I loved so much? Do they still exist somewhere other than my memories? Even though my father was a Methodist and my mother a Christian Scientist, and even though I did a lot of religious seeking and reading in my youth that included a lengthy fascination with Judaism, I do not believe in or subscribe to any type of organized religion. My favorite aunt and cousin are active Unitarian Universalists, and I like UU beliefs and principles a great deal, but I don't attend. It's not for me.

I believe that the Bible is only a collection of ancient books. I can track that belief to when I was maybe eleven or twelve and discovered Greek mythology. The resemblance of stories and characters in Greek and Roman mythology to the Bible was immediately obvious. When I was an undergrad, I read about Scandinavian, Egyptian and Native American mythology and religion, and again, the similarity of certain stories (in other words, the archetypes) jumped out at me.

That doesn't mean I completely exclude the possibility of a higher being. For me, great literature and art, science and physics, the vastness of the universe and the complexities of the human body and brain are the greatest arguments for the existence of a higher consciousness than any holy book in the world. Oddly, the complexities of quantum mechanics give me hope, too. No one can explain quantum entanglement (I sooo don't understand this stuff, but I watch science documentaries). If something so inexplicable can exist, why not life after death?

While I respect everyone's personal choice to believe what they wish, and while true religious principles put into practice can be a beautiful thing, people who force their religious beliefs on others deeply offend me. I am sick of reading about religious sects committing or advocating genocide, and I'm sick of the oppression of women and gays and people who don't believe as others do in the name of religion. My favorite song, if I have a favorite, is John Lennon's "Imagine". You know how it begins. If you listen to all of the lyrics, it is obvious that Lennon is not telling us that Heaven doesn't exist. He is simply telling us to treat other people as if this life were all there is. I don't understand why people can't do that, no matter what they believe. Doesn't it make sense?

I didn't intend for this to turn into a diatribe about religion, though. I mostly wanted to talk about life after death.

For me, the worst thing about death is the concept of nonexistence. (Although I keep telling myself that if I no longer exist, I won't know that I don't exist.) Despite my lack of religious beliefs, I want there to be something. I like the concept of reincarnation, the wheel of learning and renewal, although it seems too much like wish fulfillment to be true. I like reading case histories of near death experiences, because it is tremendously comforting to imagine so many of my loved ones on the other side, waiting for me.

So it's difficult for me to completely dismiss the possibility of something. We've all had inexplicable things happen to us; everyone has a ghost story or two. Not long after my mother died, she came to me in a dream. She was running around in her waitress uniform getting ready for work like she did when I was a kid, and I grabbed her hand and said, "Mother, sit down. You're dead. We need to talk." She smiled and sat down in an armchair (we were in one of my childhood homes) and said, "I know. I just came back to talk to you." In my dream, we spent hours talking about everything: the past, the people we loved, and especially my sister, who had died five years previously. We talked, and we hugged, and she told me she was okay and not to worry about her. When I woke up, I knew I'd been with my mother, that she had really visited me. I could feel her in my heart.

My sister Ruthie's sudden death twenty years ago was very difficult for me, and I'm talking serious depression with Prozac and psychotherapy. When my mother died five years later, it brought back all of the trauma of my sister' death, and I plummeted back into the depths again. At one point, I started trying to think of some image or scenario that would comfort me and alleviate my grief somewhat, so I tried to imagine Mother and Ruthie together in some sort of afterlife. They were very much alike in many ways. They loved the beach and the ocean, they were both artists, they loved to read. They loved to drink, perhaps too much, and enjoyed small parties with their friends and relatives.

So I started with that. I imagined a house right on the beach, with big windows facing the ocean, and lots of comfortable furniture in soothing beachy colors. I imagined Mother in a long, flowing dress sipping scotch and doing an oil painting of the sunset at her easel, and Ruthie sitting at a counter in the kitchen, drinking coffee and reading one of her favorite books. I imagined the two of them in their bare feet taking long walks on the beach or a dip in the ocean whenever they felt like it. Sometimes I would join them.


Another painting by Billie, from a photo by David Muench

After imagining it for awhile, my beach house got bigger and acquired more residents. Nelson arrived, starting the party, mixing drinks and telling us little known and scandalous historical facts; since he was also a close friend of my mother's, he fit in perfectly. My favorite uncle Richard showed up on the couch, playing Johnny Cash songs on his old steel guitar. And others arrived. At one point, my beloved cats who had passed away all appeared, romping through the house, playing and wrestling, or stretching out in front of an open window, sniffing the breeze and watching the seagulls fly by. My dear Spike joined them last month.

There's a huge library in my beach house because we all love to read, and a gourmet kitchen for my great aunt Frannie so that she can make homemade pasta and shoo-fly pie. Since I also love the mountains, the back windows of the beach house have a stunning mountain view. (Sounds like Malibu without the movie stars and the landslides.) When my former fiance John died a couple of years ago, I gave him an apartment of his own upstairs where he can build gorgeous custom furniture out the best woods and read science fiction and play with his dog, and not irritate my mother, who couldn't stand him. John and I spend time there together peacefully, with all of the difficulties of our relationship resolved so that we can just take pleasure in each other's company.

Creating the beach house in my head did ease my grief, and every time I think of it, I smile. Is the human mind so strong that we can create an afterlife for ourselves? Wouldn't it be lovely if we could?

9 comments:

ChrisB said...

Your paintings are simply stunning. As someone who is always the last one picked for Pictionary, I am in awe of anyone who can create magic with color.

This piece is one of your best.

Anonymous said...

A very moving article, beautifully written as always, that resonated and stayed with me for a long time afterwards. The paintings you included are absolutely gorgeous and echoed the various emotions I felt reading your article: peace, sadness and joy intertwinned, hope, tolerance, respect... You put into words something that we don't understand and are sometimes scared to think about. I've spent half of my life living near the beach and the other in the mountains, and imagining my own house with my departed family and friends there, I felt a little bit happier, comforted and more at peace after reading you. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful idea and message with us.

Billie Doux said...

Thank you both so much for your lovely comments. I almost didn't put this one up, and now I'm glad I did.

Juliette said...

This is beautiful Billie xx

Onanymous said...

This was really lovely. Thank you.

Remco said...

What a beautiful idea. I'm reminded of a quote from a Supernatural episode I saw recently:

"It was your storytelling. That is the true flower of free will. At least, as you've mastered it so far. When you create stories, you become Gods, of tiny, intricate dimensions unto themselves."

Memories of the imagination can sometimes be more powerful than memories of real events. Who is to say they are less 'real' than reality? The present reality is so fleeting anyway. In the end, everything is just memories.

Billie Doux said...

Remco, that was just lovely.

Anonymous said...

You can have eternal life through Jesus Christ. Accept Him as your Savior. David Jeremiah and Charles Stanley are great preachers. Try their websites and books.

Nadim said...

Hi Billie,

I just read this piece and I absolutely loved it. As you know I've lost both parents so this was very touching, and I really like the concept of imagining a house where everyone you lose lives in. I'm going to try this (and I've also lost two cats after 15 years so they can keep my parents company too hehehe). Thanks a lot.It's a really uplifting way to look at it as I too hate thinking that maybe there's nothing after deaths. I love tips like this that can help us cope with grief!

You are very inspiring! Hope you're doing great!
Best
Nad