by Tamuira Reid
Part of being a parent is being prepared for anything. Natural disasters. Snake bites. Broken limbs. Tiny fingers getting slammed into heavy drawers. Occasionally, though, I find myself caught off-guard. That moment when I realize my Survival Guide for Mothers is missing an important chapter.
Case in point: Last week. The walk home from school. Ollie, my five year-old stops suddenly, squints up at the sky, then at me.
I want to know God, mama.
Text him. Lets have pizza with him. God like pizza?
I don't know.
But you know everything.
Except this. This is not really in my wheelhouse. I go to church for weddings or funerals and not much in-between. I was raised in a family that half-followed Christian Science, a religion that favors unwavering faith in God and self-healing over traditional medical intervention. Even as a child, I could never understand why someone would suffer through a pounding headache or horrible menstrual cramps or a hellish fever instead of simply popping a Tylenol like the rest of the world. My father was bitten by a black widow one Easter, and instead of going to the doctor, he decided to heat a needle and systematically cut the infected tissue from his arm. While this obviously made him superhuman to me, you are so fucking cool, dad, I was also confused by it.
Being a Christian Scientist meant going to Sunday school, but only if Taco Bell was a solid reward for good behavior. It meant knowing a few commandments, part of the Lord's Prayer. It meant the annual clearing out the medicine cabinets before the “real ones” came over on Christmas Eve, those relatives so devout that our aspirin or Rite Aid cough syrup might actually make them sad.
Later in my life, Christian Science meant losing people. A grandma. An aunt I adored. A cousin who took me roller-skating for the first time. Women who believed their cancers could be treatable only by miracle, not by chemo. Women who died long before they should have.
So when Ollie asks to know God, my immediate reaction is no, baby boy, not you, too.
I woke up the next morning, grabbed a cup of coffee and cuddled up to my sleeping son. As soon as he felt my weight against his body, he opened his eyes and smiled at me and said, If we can't find God, let's just text Jesus instead.
I finished my coffee, trying to think of a million reasons why we should not go to church. It was a beautiful day, better spent in the park than in a stuffy basement somewhere. The laundry wasn't going to get done by itself. My feet hurt. Couldn't find my metro card. I wanted to bleach the bathtub instead.
I caved. Confident he would hate church just as much as I did. Confident that he would see right through the whole glitz of it all, run for the hills, never look back. But a church. Where the hell to even start with that?
I remembered that a colleague of mine, a kick-ass medieval literature Professor who grew-up on the East Coast, went to school in Berkeley, and was now raising her kids in Queens, mentioned that she went to Sunday services with her family. She was by far one of the coolest woman I knew, balancing work and motherhood with this sort of bohemian ease. That and she carried a Swiss army knife in her book bag,just in case. If she went to church and survived, then maybe we would come out unscathed.
She recommended a place close to the NYU campus. Catholic. Big. I Google mapped it and realized it was on my morning route to work. I must have walked by it a million times over yet, if you asked me, I couldn't tell you a damn thing about it. No recollection at all. It's kind of like the scaffolding that's been holding up the side of your office building for months on end; you don't even realize it's there until it's not, the sun suddenly blasting down on you from above.
We dress in whatever is clean, which means black jeans and a leather jacket for me, Yankees sweatpants for him. I am nervous. He is excited. We hold hands and follow the rest of the crowd inside.
It smells the same. Like old people and books and wood cleaner. Stained glass windows line the side walls. A podium and endless rows of pews, pews like the ones I took naps in when my parents were busy pretending to pray.
We take our seats and wait. Ollie picks at a hole in my pants and I pop an Altoid. I think about the pack of cigarettes in my purse, wonder if God knows I am smoking again. It's only until the semester is over. It's just been a hard year.
Ollie gasps a little and I turn around to see the parade starting (procession?). Priests sauntering down the aisle in their flashy robes. Altar boys. Altar girls (this is a nice addition). Some other people who look important. And I'm impressed. It's pretty and otherworldly and comforting in some crazy way. The ritual of it all. Like Sesame Street Live but with less kids and more old white guys.
A few complicated songs later — I still can't follow a hymn book to save my life — and the children are whisked away to a secret room for their religious education class. Ollie goes easily but squeezes my leg first, like he's telling me it'll be okay. Like he's telling me not to worry, mom. And I am suddenly very alone.
A Johnny Depp look alike senses my panic and says, come with me. I follow him down the corridor, down a flight of stairs into a generous basement space, equipped with folding chairs, an old fireplace, and lots of chattering middle-aged patrons of the church. Mr. Depp points to a long table in the back, go, and I obey, only to find a huge spread of gourmet coffee and jelly donuts. I load my cup, my plate and head over to the group, palms sweaty. What do I say? Will they know I have cigarettes in my purse?
We pound donuts and coffee with our feet up on chairs, breathing. Laughing. Kid-free. I meet a woman from Tribeca who has an autistic seven year-old who plays the piano better than Beethoven. A couple with a daughter in the same school as my son. A grandfather wearing a scarf of gold chains who just came back from a weekend party in Amsterdam, a month later. And I know, in that moment, that I am a giant asshole for thinking all church people are boring. I am an asshole because I thought their faith made them weak.
But this leads to an even larger problem on the parenting front: do we expose our children to everything now, and then let them decide later what to keep? Or do we keep them from the stuff that scares us?
Ollie asked for chess lessons in a smelly east village bar, and I didn't hesitate. Balanced him on my hip at a Planned Parenthood rally. Bought him Dali Lama t-shirts and Che Guevara baseball caps and let him listen to Drake more than once. He's travelled the world, lived in the South Bronx before the gentrification, seen naked people on stage reciting poetry in the name of art. And I can't take him to church? I have been subconsciously grooming him to be a mini-me this whole time, under the guise of being some progressive, anti-establishment type of New York City mother. Child as appendage instead of child as something in and of himself.
I feel guilty as fuck.
I am almost disappointed when Ollie comes back, a good hour and a half and three donuts later. I'm having more fun than I used to in my bar hopping days. It's like happy hour with a small side of God.
Immediately I notice Ollie isn't on my same high. His face is twisted and pinched, glasses sliding down his nose, hands stuffed into pockets. I wanna go, mama. Like, NOW.
I say a quick goodbye to my new friends, with promises to meet up in the near future. And I actually feel like I mean it for once.
We make our way outside, back onto the city sidewalk, back to our world. Ollie looks at me, tears falling down his cheeks. He slides out of his ninja backpack and throws it on the ground.
God is a dick! He screams.
I wait, knowing better than to interject. Eventually, a few passerbies later, Why do you say that?
They told me God is love and God loves everyone but then why are so many people sleeping outside? Why do so many people not have homes or pasta or toys? That is not love!
I catch the lump in my throat, think carefully. No, honey, God is not a dick. The government is.
What is government?
I pick up his backpack, swing it over my shoulder before hailing a cab. That, my love, is a long, long story.