“So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:25
The Christian tradition in which I grew up placed a high value on credulity. My salvation was irrevocably clinched when I was five, at the hour I first believed in Jesus as my personal savior and invited him into my heart (just to be on the safe side, I issued several more invitations in the ensuing years). Although my faith changed shape and found different Christian expressions over the next three decades, doubt wasn’t a significant part of my landscape. Rotten things happened from time to time, usually to other people, and I was comfortably complacent about my faith.
But when our three-year-old son died in 2002, what I believed suddenly mattered a great deal. I didn’t “lose my faith.” Instead, the tepid faith that had benignly ushered me through life to that point suddenly became something worth fighting for. I didn’t need to know why bad things happen to good people; I just needed to know that someday I would see Charlie again. Well-intentioned folks often sympathize with bereft parents by sighing, “I can’t imagine losing a child,” but the truth is that nobody loses “a child,” in that generic sense – you lose this child, this utterly unique configuration of body, mind, and spirit, whose scents and textures and private jokes are such a part of your own life that you feel, as the cliché goes, that a part of you has died – and another part of you wishes that the rest of you could quickly follow.
So, at home with nine-month-old Jack, I found myself watching daytime TV shows featuring mediums who claimed to connect their audience members with loved ones who had “crossed over.” In the year that had passed since the horrors of 9/11, the popularity of these shows had skyrocketed, as if all at once America had discovered its mortality and was clamoring for consolation. I skulked around the “inspirational” section at Barnes & Noble, leafing through book after book about near-death experiences, ghostly visitations, and psychics who claimed to convey messages from the dead. I began to squirrel away bits of cash in the bottom of my sock drawer, formulating a secret plan to find just one bona fide medium and buy the assurance I craved. I was too embarrassed to tell my husband or anyone else about my plan, mortified by my own gullibility and by my failure to take God at his word, but obsessed by the idea that if I found the right person, I would never be burdened by doubt again.
The next part of the story I have told before: just before Easter, I got my first call from a mentor I had been matched with through the hospital’s bereavement program, a mother who had lost her son to cancer a few years earlier. The conversation started awkwardly; as a staunch introvert, I didn’t have high hopes for this program, but I had dutifully signed up for it because it seemed like the “healthy” thing to do, the grief-work equivalent of eating my vegetables. As the woman told me about her son, his name began to ricochet through my brain until a jolt of electricity shot through me and I realized why his name was familiar to me. It was on the headstone next to Charlie’s grave — our sons were buried next to each another. We were dumbfounded. Our stilted getting-to-know-you interview gave way to a profoundly joyous, mystery-filled conversation. I felt that, like Thomas, I had been invited to thrust my hands into Jesus’ wounds and feel for myself. With the same generosity Jesus showed to Thomas as he struggled with his doubt, God reached out and pulled me close again. What I wanted, it turns out, was not proof, but connection.
Later, I was catching up on the website of another little boy who was battling the same rare cancer that had claimed Charlie’s life. A.J. and his family were from the Iron Range; they had been living at a Ronald McDonald House for more than a year so A.J. could receive experimental treatments at the U., and I suspected that he would not be going home. A.J. was a Batman freak. He wore his holey Batsuit every day, his parents drove him around in a do-it-yourself Batmobile, and his knowledge of Batminutiae was inexhaustible. That day, I knew what I had to do. I fished my secret stash out of my sock drawer and took my psychic money to Toys R Us. I bought the coolest Batmobile I could find, tricked it out with accessories and action figures, and packed them up with a new Batsuit and some toys for A.J.’s sister and brother. As I dropped them off at the Ronald McDonald house with a light heart, I understood that I didn’t need a medium to connect me with Charlie’s soul; I just needed God’s enduring, unfathomable, inexplicable love.