Beyond Belief

published October 19, 2014

“You can’t make yourself believe in Santa Claus.”

When I heard that from Andy it seemed completely reasonable. In a few flashes I remembered my young mind. The part that was afraid of the dark. The part that was so excited by snowfall that I’d stay outside until I was soaked to the skin and my extremities hurt. And I remembered Santa.

“You know I thought I saw him once.”

“Oh yeah? And who do you think you saw now?”

I didn’t answer him. He wasn’t trying to be mean. It was the argument we had often. We were both scientists, biologists, but it was only me who believed in an afterlife.

“It’s not about capital “G” God anyway. I’ve told you that a million times Andy.”

“There’s just something?”

“Yes. Why is that so offensive?”

“It’s not offensive. You’re just half-assing it so you don’t have to pick a church.”

It was friendly banter most of the time. We’d been friends since the sixth grade. We went to the same private Catholic school.

“If that didn’t cure you of an afterlife, I don’t know what would.”

Andy was the third, and last, child of a Catholic father and a mother he only described to me as “growing up handling snakes.” I never met her. She died in a car accident when Andy was seven. He was in the car with her. He remembers it all, he says. And when he talks about it there’s less pain in his voice than an emptiness where the pain should be. Andy is the happiest guy I know. When he thinks of his mom I think he wishes she’d had time to have fun.

“She was so serious most of the time. Not mean or anything, just sober and careful about everything.”

Andy’s mom didn’t go right away.

They’d been driving on an icy road, carefully, but a car lost control entering the highway next to them. It slammed into the passenger side rear and sent the sedan spinning. Andy says he remembers 3 complete rotations on the ice, all with enough centrifugal force for him to think the whole time that they were about to flip at any moment. Andy’s mother put her hand instinctively across his chest, holding him as he screamed. She was silent. Their car bounced off a concrete barrier and spun back into oncoming traffic. They were struck next by a truck.

“We were like a football getting punted off field. It felt like we were airborne for ages.”

The car landed butter-side down and Andy’s mom hit her head in three collisions: the driver’s side window, the windshield, and the roof before her neck settled into her shoulder like the vertebrae had been reduced to dust.

“It’s horrible Andy.”

“It was, but she was in shock the whole time. I’d never seen her so peaceful. She was drifting back and forth between consciousness and kept smiling at me.”

Andy remembers her asking if he was okay, which miraculously he was. He’d been too small to be thrown against anything. All around him parts of the car were forced inward, but nothing touched him.

“Don’t call it miraculous.”

“It’s just a word Andy.”

“It’s bullshit.”

He was a seven, so there was no more Santa Claus, but he believed in the god his parent’s shared. He loved his mother as well as a kid could. She loved him like an adult who grew up handling snakes.

“She could still talk for a few minutes. It was slow coming, but she had this expression on her face like she knew what was happening. I stared at her. There was blood everywhere, but her face was so calm, and I guess I was in shock too, we just sat there looking at each other. I asked her if she wanted to pray with me. She couldn’t nod her head. Her smile opened up a little more and she said: No.”

A car pulled up behind them and tried to help. The snow was coming down now and several other cars had become involved with the collisions. Andy remembers it getting quiet for a few minutes.

“It blocked all three lanes. Everything came to a stop. I remember little thuds, but no more crashes. Mom was the only one dying.”

Nobody wanted to touch her. They couldn’t get to her anyway. They tried to fish Andy out of the window, but he refused to go. He could reach her right forearm. He squeezed it and her eyes would open for him for a few seconds. Even at seven he wasn’t wondering if she was going to make it. There must have been panic there, but he never described it to me that way.

“I asked her not to go. She smiled again and told me not to worry about it.”

It was what she said when he asked her if they’d see each other again that seems to have framed his worldview.

“I don’t know Andy,” is what she said.

“She’d only ever told me how certain she was of it all before then. It was terrible and big and true until the end. Then she was just smiling, like her life was all a moment.”

“It’s all she had time for.”

“Exactly. So it doesn’t matter what you pin to yourself when it’s easy, when there’s time for believing. In the end she just knew, nothing to believe. No time for it. Like you said. I’m not sure what she knew, but she didn’t need to believe she was dying for it to be real.”

Her life became both trivial and true, for a few moments. Andy started to cry, he told me, and with the last few puffs of air in her she told him simply, “It’s it,” and “be you,” before the final cut off, “nothing-”

“Which means about as little to me now as it did then.”

Andy wanted to believe after that, but he couldn’t. He watched her drift off, remembers when the mom he’d loved for seven years became an object, when there was nothing there anymore. He was alone in a car. He was cold. There was no sense of wonder or magic. There was no Santa. He passed out. The next thing he remembers is being home again, with his dad.

“So you don’t believe in anything?”

“I believe in plenty of things.”