Today is his 28th birthday. But I don’t think about that. Instead I lean over the steering wheel to look up at the topmost hill, where tall white letters gaudily display the cemetery name—Rosehills. Who decided that would be okay? Is it supposed to be some deep metaphorical statement on Hollywood and death? I’ve always wondered, but I’ve never had an answer.
To my right I see the building where we held the wake for my grandfather just after Christmas in 2000. I was eight years old then, and I remember sitting with my cousins in the room with the vending machines while my parents greeted the mourners.
I keep driving, eventually having to switch gears for the hill. Palm trees line both sides of the road and aluminum balloons placed beside graves blind you as you search for the low curbs where the names of the streets are printed. I vaguely remember I’m supposed to be looking for Carnation Lane or one close to it. When I finally find it I have just as much trouble wandering from headstone to headstone looking for the right one. I don’t visit often, especially not with my parents, but I sometimes think someone has secretly been moving the marker a little every few years.
But there it is. It’s the same picture I keep with me, taken a few months before the accident. You can’t tell on the bronze, but his eyes are blue. There’s an angel and the words “Loving son and brother” engraved next to the photo. It seems strange to me, the juxtaposition of such a morbid reminder of how short life can be and the way his smile is so genuine and . . . alive.
My mom lays out a blanket for us to sit on while my dad trims the grass around the stone and arranges the flowers we brought. I never know what to do after finishing that, so I sit in silence, not really sure if any words would be appropriate.
It’s my first time home since coming to college. For some reason I thought visiting my brother’s grave would be a good idea. Why, I have no idea, but it felt like the right thing to do. I couldn’t explain to anyone just how much I’d been through in those first three or so months, but they could see very clearly how happy I was to be home. In a way, I know my experience that semester was not unique, but it set me on a path on which I never thought I would find myself.
Technically, I was raised in a Catholic family. As a kid I hated going to church because it was boring. In high school I hated going because I hated religion. I went through the motions, even completing my Confirmation when I was fifteen, but none of it had any meaning for me. I guess looking back at my life and simultaneously trying to figure out what the future held, it just didn’t seem a supposedly merciful, loving God could play any part in either. Call me an idealist but I wanted to do something with my life that would make me happy. And suddenly I didn’t see the point in any of the things I was doing at the time. Why try so hard in high school if it would only land me in a university where I could try equally hard to get a good job where I could try equally hard to make money until I either retired or died? And then, what? Would I go to heaven? Was there a heaven? Did I simply fall into a deep sleep from which I would never wake, having never enjoyed the short life I had?
But perhaps what most boggled my mind was all the injustice I’d seen in the world. How could such terrible things happen in a world where a perfect God existed who had the power to stop it? How is it that those who try to make a difference face so many difficulties, and suffer so much for simply being good people? Why does it seem easier to not care, to be a terrible person? Why is it that most often the worst people I ran into were self-proclaimed Christians? Why was there so much hypocrisy in the Christian community? How could a religion that believed in a God who loves everything turn around and accuse certain groups of causing the unraveling of our country’s moral fabric?
Why did God take my brother from us? Why did He take him so early? How could He continually hurt my parents? Yes, I know they’re not perfect, but they’re good people, and they try so hard just to get by and to give their children what they never had; yet they’ve met with nothing but misfortune. And why, though this may be selfish, did He create that barrier between my family and me? I was born a year after the accident, so I never knew my oldest brother. I was named after his best friend (he’d always wanted a younger sister so he could name her), but I always felt I had no right to mourn him. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know the family that existed before him. You know the way you feel when two of your friends have inside jokes they say in front of you, and you just kind of sit there uncomfortably? That’s exactly how I felt around my family.
It’s difficult growing up with the realization of not your own mortality but of those around you. And it’s even more difficult when none of your questions get answered. Eventually the easiest solution is giving up, and that’s precisely what I did. I gave up on God, and faith, and salvation. He’d obviously abandoned me, so I had every right to abandon Him.
My life didn’t exactly improve after my decision, but I was fine with just being a good person and living life the way I wanted. That is, until I came to Princeton. Suddenly, I was on the other side of the country with no really close friends, no direction, I felt inadequate in every way imaginable, and I honestly didn’t know if I was cut out for this place.
Then one day in December, two of my hallmates invited me to Manna’s Large Group. They’d been really involved in the fellowship since the beginning of the semester and I was curious to see why. I don’t remember the sermon well, but what stuck with me was just how genuinely happy these people were. There were a lot of freshmen there who were going through the exact same difficulties I’d encountered, and a lot of upperclassmen who were having rough times; but the difference between us was the fact that they had something greater than those troubles to find comfort in. I’d never been so envious of anything in my life. I wanted that joy and that peace, but I didn’t know if I could ever get to that same place.
I kept coming out and trying to get more involved, but I still had no answers to my questions. To be honest the only thing that kept me from giving up all over again was the community I found. Here were intelligent, open-minded, sincere people who cared even though they knew nothing about you—better yet, even though they knew everything about you.
Around finals time I remember everything just kind of fell apart in my life. Going home turned out to be one of the toughest things I had to do. I didn’t feel I really connected with my family or my friends, and I had no way of explaining to anyone what was going on in my head. I left for England about a month after coming home, with a mixture of despair, hope, and nothing (I remember keenly the numbness and listlessness). I knew no one when I got to Cambridge, yet I felt less alone than I had all year. Suddenly I actually had time to think. And I found myself turning to prayer and to scripture. I can’t say why, but I did. For the first time in my life I was getting to know myself, figuring out the things I had to fix in myself. But, most astonishing of all, I was looking to God to help me. Almost miraculously, I stumbled upon a lot of the answers I’d been hoping to find. They may not have been what I expected or what I wanted to hear, but they were the answers I had needed to hear all along. It dawned on me (and this seems obvious) that I did believe in God—I couldn’t be angry at something if I didn’t believe existed, and I realized being angry would never get me anywhere; being a Christian wasn’t going to stop me from trying to make a difference in the world, and trying to figure out why those injustices existed wouldn’t help solve the problems at hand; everything happens for the best, though it may not seem like it at the moment; and as for everything I’d lost, I had no right of ownership, because it was God who had brought them into my life and it was God alone who had the right to claim them as his own.
The reason those people seemed so happy was the fact that they had accepted God as the only way they would ever find joy. It was those who looked to what I’ve endearingly come to call “earthly things” (i.e. people like me) who would always struggle with finding meaning in their life. And most importantly, I found trying to approach faith intellectually would get me nowhere; God wasn’t something you learned about; it’s something you experience, something you choose to accept not because you have proof (though you may believe you do) but because you simply do. Faith isn’t about concrete answers, but accepting that there is something, someone out there who knows everything you will never know, and who never gives up on you, even when you’ve turned away from Him. It’s about trust, and believing in something greater than yourself, a love that transcends any human definition.
This year marked twenty years since my brother’s passing. I didn’t visit his grave, mostly because I didn’t want to face the fact. And there are days that I still don’t. There are still days when I don’t feel up to confronting the problems in my life as a Christian. It can take its toll, and I find myself wondering if everything I “learned” really meant anything, or if it was my way of covering up for all my previous failed attempts at Christianity. Are these my cop-out answers, meant to distract myself from the feeling that I should keep searching? But I think, in the end, I know it’s not. Finding God was what kept me going, and still is.