The walls are decrepit and painted over with a shade of baby blue that reminded me of an infant’s room, oddly enough. The room itself was nothing more than a crib with four walls with a hard surface beneath us that had no place being in a crib. But neither do soft things either, apparently. It was difficult to think with the stifled crying and outright sobbing that permeated the horrible room. At least the local church was kind enough to lend us their most horrible room at our convenience every Wednesday night. Even on Ash Wednesday, which happens to be today, and everyone was wearing ash on their foreheads.
The burly man sitting next to me was a leaky faucet of tears. One of the church volunteers handed him a box of tissues, to which he blew his nose loud enough to interrupt the speaker currently behind the wooden platform made from cheap plywood and hearty nails. The man inched his way closer to me, almost to the point his head was touching my shoulder. I didn’t exactly mind, though. Now I found that any kind of touch seems special, or abnormal even. They say once the dust settles it will be easier. Well, it’s been a year and my dust hasn’t even touched the ground. The closest thing I had to any dust was the ash on my forehead right now. And I felt like a fool. A pouting student in the corner sitting on a stool with a dunce cap on his head.
I used to believe in God, went to church on Jesus’s birthday and resurrection anniversaries with my wife, Debra—now divorced. I prayed most nights before I went to sleep. I thanked God for the gift he gave me—my beautiful wife and my newborn infant, Gordon. He was a precious little angel. But when I found him stiff, blue, and lifeless in his crib, all my plans for fatherhood expired with him. No first words, no first steps, no unwrapping his first Christmas present, no teaching him to throw a football. No more family. Debra left four months after Gordon passed. She kept her faith, while I buried mine with Gordon. Six feet deep, never to return.
I only come to these meetings on the advice of my psychotherapist, Dr. Jamie Davis, who has also had the tragedy of losing a child. But even she and her husband divorced. She didn’t offer that information; this is a fairly small town and people talk. She wears the wedding ring but doesn’t speak much about her personal life. I’m not sure therapists can talk about those things with a personal opinion. For ethical reasons or whatever. I don’t know much about that stuff. The only reason I’m seeing a shrink is because I was standing on the Pennway Bridge, ready to jump into the ravishing water and allow it to take me to its ample depths. The mental hospital I ended up at mandated that I see a therapist. I was reluctant at first, but after meeting Dr. Davis I kind of felt sorry for her. She spoke words of positivity and recovery, but her eyes bore sorrow and melancholy, like mine. She suggested I attend group meetings, whether it be secular or religious. I chose the church because in some twisted way I wanted to see how these jerkoffs can still praise a God that, without mercy, kills children.
“And Betty and I are doing our best, with the strength the great Lord has provided for us. We’re all so lucky to receive his comfort and love,” the man at the podium said before stepping off and kissing his wife standing beside him on the cheek.
His name was Winston or some old-time name like that. I actually liked the name but hated him. His wife, I did like though. She was a natural blonde with a yoga body. It was clear that grieving didn’t affect her physical well-being. Thanks be to the Lord…or whatever.
“Timothy, would you like to come and say a few words?” the pastor looked at me.
I didn’t feel like going on stage in front of everyone. I had only been in front of the crowd twice since I started attending this group two months ago. And I didn’t say too much.
“Yeah. Sure,” I replied as I got up and walked onto the platform where the podium stood.
All the sheep’s eyes gazed upon me, waiting for the nectar of my grief and triumph that they expected I was to attribute to God. But not today. Even with this ash plastered on my forehead, I decided tonight would be the night to rid myself of this toxic environment.
“Hello, everybody. It’s nice to see you all here on Ash Wednesday,” I started, wondering why I began my speech like I was a pastor.
“Um, I know it takes a lot of courage to come on stage here and—and be vulnerable. Not that I’m applauding myself or anything like that, but…you know."
A metal clang rang from behind me. Someone opened and shut the door behind me, so I turned around to see who is interrupting.
It was Dr. Davis.
She wore a dark blue parka and black pants, with her hair pinned down. She shuffled her way by, mouthing apologies to the people in the metal chairs. Her eyes finally looked toward the stage where I stood baffled. She opened her mouth, agape for a moment before closing it. Then she took a vacant seat and smiled at me. I gave a soft nod and decided to change my speech—the one holding God responsible for his crimes against humanity.
“I-I don’t like making speeches. And I damn sure don’t like talking about my dead son. Yes, I said it. Dead son. I know everyone dances around the word dead and death. But isn’t this a place where we’re supposed to let our emotion speak for us? My therapist said that’s what these groups are for,” I huffed.
“Okay, son, I think it’s time for another person to come on stage,” the pastor said as he held his hand out for me to step down.
I waved him off. “No, no. We all have a right to speak. And I haven’t said anything inappropriate.”
The old pastor, with a frown, took a step back.
“I know nothing I say will bring my son back. And talking about him won’t either. Do we just move on? Forget him and live happily ever after? Or will this pain always reside within us?”
People began to murmur.
"I just want everyone to know that I loved my son, and I’d do anything to get him back,” I cried out.
“There, there,” the pastor got on stage and placed his arms around me. “Let’s get you some tissues and a seat.”
“I’ll go next,” Dr. Davis said, with her hand raised.
She shuffled past the seated people again and touched my arm gently as I descended the stage. Her touch brought to life something within me, something I hadn’t experienced in some time—warmth?
“Hello, all. My name is Jamie. This is my first time here,” she said.
“Hello, Jamie,” everyone said in unison.
“Well, I came here tonight because I didn’t know where else to turn. The other groups I looked into didn’t seem like they were for me. Before I begin, I’d like to say I’m an atheist. I know this is a church and a religious support group, but maybe I can make some positive connections. Jesus ate with the sinners.”
I looked among the group to capture their reaction to her announcement about being an atheist. I hadn’t the courage to yet say it, but she did on her first time. The group was a sea of pouting, melancholic, irritated, disapproving, and frazzled faces.
She continued. “My son died soon after he was born. Not even six months. SIDS. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. My husband began drinking, and it wasn’t soon after that he became violent. At first, it was small things—throwing a coffee mug at the wall, breaking a vase, that kind of stuff. Our sex drive was nonexistent. At least mine was. I caught him with another woman in our bed when he thought I was working late. He blamed me for not being a ‘dutiful’ wife,” she said, using finger quotes on dutiful. “Even though I’m a professional in psychology, I still blamed myself. So, I forgave him and began having sex again. But it wasn’t like before. There was no love, sensuality, or even humanity to our sex—it was unbridled rage he took out on me. He began by choking me against my will, then when I told him to get off, he would just continue,” she said, now in tears. “My own husband raped me, and I felt stupid if I were to tell anyone. I guess it’s easier to talk to strangers; that’s why I’m here. Now, that he left for good, moved on, I still feel stuck here in the heavy sand of an endless hourglass of misery. That’s…all I have to say for now.” She stepped off the stage and took an open seat, grabbing some tissues on her way.
The old priest pursed his cracked lips and furrowed his eyes like she’d admitted sleeping with Satan. Which I suppose that’s what the end of her marriage felt like. How alone she must feel, being on the other side of the table. She’s spilling her heart out while being assessed—in this case, judged by many strangers that thump the Bible so hard, their pages are beginning to chafe. Two more people got up on stage and said their piece, or peace I might say. The group ended as it always did—with a prayer. A prayer that our “souls” will find peace with God. I always said amen at the end, but never would I believe anything about it.
At the unofficial after-gathering, the church folks talked among themselves. Yet, no one offered or welcomed Jamie. She sat there, with tears still welled in her light hazel eyes that looked reminded me of autumn leaves falling from the tree—conserving its resources. And it seems Jamie is running low on resources of any kind. She got up to leave, but before she got to the door, I walked to her and called her name.
“Timothy, hi. What a coincidence seeing you here. I mean, I know it was my advice, but still,” she forced a laugh that made me cringe in the pain it held. It is the laugh I now hone—all the time, and maybe forever.
“Well, this is somewhat of a small town, right? How many grief group meetings can there possibly be?” I returned the exact same laugh.
“Even though I talk to people every day about their lives, it’s still hard for me to open up. And I tried my best, but no one except you has even shot a positive glance my way. I feel like there’s a scarlet A painted on me or something.”
“No, no. I think you did great. Very brave of you to do what you did up there,” I replied, this time with a slight smile.
The old priest wobbled his way to us. “Timothy, son, if I can have a word with Jamie alone, please?”
“Um, sure,” I hesitated but went to grab a stale donut from the refreshment table, just within earshot of the priest and Jamie.
“I’m sorry about your son and what has happened to you, I am,” the priest said. “But this may not be the group you are looking for.”
“W-what do you mean?” Jamie asked, audibly astonished.
"This is the house of the Lord, and we will honor thy God at all times, even through tribulations. It’s because of people like Job from the Bible, who inspire us to become more Christlike every day. I believe you’ll benefit from another group,” the priest replied, sincerity in his tone.
I peeked over my shoulder as I chomped on my donut. Jamie crinkled her nose and sniffled, her mouth set in a hard line, and her eyes a mist of bereavement and disbelief. She nodded, and the old priest patted her shoulder before walking away.
I walked back to Jamie before throwing away the rest of the donut in the waste bin near the table. But she stormed out before I could reach her. My fingers gripped the handle of the door as I thought of going to comfort her. But instead, I decided I needed to do something first.
I walked up and got onto the stage, taking position at the podium. “Hey, assholes!”
Everyone turned to look at me, their eyes wide and mouths open in shock. They looked like blow-up dolls with ash on their foreheads.
“You call yourselves Christians? Do Christians turn away people in pain because they’re different? Do Christians judge with malicious intent? Children have died. Our children. And all you can think about is that woman’s choice to not have a religion? I wonder why. Religions are cults. You all need to evaluate your priorities. We’re here to support one another—religion or not. We’re all still human...We're all still human."
Nobody said anything, including the old priest, who only stood frailly in a silent appall. I left before anyone could say anything. The brisk breeze hit my face, and for the first time in months, I felt a modicum of relief hauled from my weakened shoulders. I pulled out my cell phone to call Jamie and ask her to dinner, where she can be heard. She can be seen. But most of all, she can feel like a human.