Light streams in through the cross-shaped windows. A light layer of clouds is visible in the sky, gray but not gloomy. My sister Ann is on one side of me and my niece Rachel on the other. They are participating fully in the rituals of this ceremony. They are believers. I'm just there.
Ann and I were visiting my brother John and his family this weekend. Our nephew Matthew, recently in a serious car accident, was appearing in his school play, and our niece Sarah was being confirmed in her church.
It was a good weekend, good to spend time with family, and there was much laughter. But hovering over it all, though only occasionally mentioned, was our mom.
Sarah is the youngest of my brother's four kids, the last to be confirmed. Mom had been there for the other three; Sarah's was the first since Mom died. I'm sure Sarah was aware of that, but it wasn't brought up.
But now I stand or sit according to the rituals of the church. John and his wife sit in the pews reserved for parents of the confirmands. Ann and I sit with the other kids. Mom's presence--or the lack of her presence--starts to overwhelm me.
I'm surrounded by believers. Well, of course; I'm in church. But as an agnostic, I neither believe nor disbelieve. Certainly I don't believe in organized religion, or the literal truth of the Bible. But sometimes I think there is an order and purpose in the universe, an order that might have been decreed by what, for lack of a better term, could be called God. Other times I think no, there is only chaos, there is neither purpose nor point to anything we do.
Mom's views were even more extreme. She believed in nature, and the cycle of all living things. She believed that all living things had their purpose, but that purpose was only to live, to be, to have that moment in the world, and then to move on. She firmly did not believe in any kind of afterlife. "You don't exist before you're born," she said, "and you don't exist after you die."
So why, in this holy setting, am I thinking of her?
Maybe her beliefs were right, in a literal sense. But I look at Sarah, her white robe setting off her newly red hair. I look at the banners and the crosses and the clouds outside the windows. I watch as everyone else goes up for communion, and I wonder what sarcastic comments Mom would mutter if she were here.
Of course, just by wondering that I realize: She is here.