by Emily Varga
To me, it’s a technicality because I don’t consider myself religious and I don’t practice the faith, but I was brought up in a home with Catholic parents who thought it best that their daughters learn about the religion too.
When you’re Catholic, you have to make your First Holy Communion to take the host, and eat it, during a church service. (You have to have learned about Catholicism for close to two years of your life). The host is the little piece of bread that the priests bless. It’s “the body of Christ.”
You have to be old and wise enough to eat Jesus’s body. Things like this never made sense to me, but my parents were Catholic, so I was Catholic.
When I was six and a flower girl at my cousin’s wedding, I walked right up to the priest, took the host from his hand, stuck it in my mouth, and ate the cardboard-tasting wafer. The priest smiled. I had walked up there so confidently, there was no way he could turn me down. My parents reminisced on this every chance they got. It was the funniest thing I’d ever done. I never understood why.
Fifteen years after grabbing that host, making my parents laugh uncontrollably, I’m sitting in a church again, a different church. There are rows of hardwood pews that just look like long benches, split by an aisle. Everything is old and wooden, including the beams hanging overhead. The stained-glass windows look ancient but are still painted the same rich blues, reds and greens that they were years ago. In front of me is Jesus hanging on a cross. The cross is far larger than me. It’s daunting. There are candles everywhere and statues of biblical figures I once knew. Today has a much different feel. Standing in this church, everyone’s wearing black, everyone’s eyes are glossy and their cheeks are stained with tears. Everyone’s staring at my family in the first pew.
Being in the church makes me angry. The priest stands at the altar, preaching. He’s saying my mother’s life was cut too short, that up in heaven they needed her. God needed her. She had a duty to fulfill, her time on earth had expired, her work here was done.
This isn’t true. Her work wasn’t done, not even close.
Who was going to teach me how to make her meatballs, who was going to take my drunk phone calls at 2 a.m. crying because I thought I was going to throw up, who was going to help me pick out a wedding dress, who was going to watch Dateline with me, who was going to be my best friend?
I know that these thoughts weren’t about my mom, these thoughts were about me. But she is my mom. My mom.
The priest keeps talking, spewing what sounds like bullshit to me, but I listen. I can’t blame him really; this is his life’s work. We stand, we kneel, we sing, we pray, we stand, we kneel, we sing, we pray… I go through the motions. I want this to end.
I’m barely listening to the words coming from the priest’s mouth, but I stare forward at Jesus on the cross and sob. I can’t breathe. Every time I open my mouth I choke. Every time I try to relax I remember my reality; I will never speak to my mom again.
Everyone is in the church behind me, trembling and distraught. Not because of the joy that this woman brought to their lives, but because they’re realizing just how short life is. Funerals don’t honor the dead. Funerals make us reflect on our own lives. Funerals scare us into our reality.
This September day, sitting in the church, we bid our final farewells coming only three months after my mom’s cancer diagnosis. Her life was cut short, and I was supposed to believe that this was her fate. A brain tumor was my mother’s fate. Losing feeling in half of her body, laser surgery, chemo, radiation… That was her fate. In Catholicism, we don’t question our fates. In Catholicism, death isn’t the end. Death means saying goodbye to the human body, but not to the soul. The soul gets to live on forever. But my mom’s soul doesn’t talk to me, calm me down or wipe my tears. If her soul is alive, where is it?
These thoughts are continuously flooding my mind. This doesn’t happen to us. To families like ours.
Finally, my heart-wrenching circle of thought comes to a halt. I wipe my eyes and bring my gaze forward. I realize where I am. I realize that this hour is finally ending. The priest says it’s time for us to consume the body and blood of Christ, the bread and wine, the two things I never understood.
We stand up. I look at my fifteen-year-old sister. “What am I supposed to do with my hands?” I ask through the corner of my mouth.
“What?” Her eyes are wet with tears but her expression changes. She’s puzzled. Why are you worrying about something so silly? I imagine she’s thinking.
“Don’t I have to place my hands a certain way? Like one under the other?” I whisper. I haven’t been to church in years.
My sister smiles and for a few seconds we debate how we should arrange our hands, putting one beneath the other, hoping the priest won’t see. We stare at each other, “He wouldn’t yell at us if our mom just died, right?” We laugh. It feels wrong, but it’s honest. And with that, we walk up to eat Jesus.
I come back to my seat, praying that the dry piece of bread won’t make me throw up all over the pew. What a sight that would be. My mouth so dry and sticky from crying, I finally push it down my throat wishing I could ask for water.
I watch as family and friends pace to the front of the church. “The body of Christ,” the priest says. “Amen,” they respond. I hear this over and over and over again. Everyone circles the pews, munching on their cardboard wafer. Their eyes are glossed over.
Three of my friends are here; they had devoted their lives to me the second they found out my mom was sick. As I watch them walk toward the front of the church I become more and more confused. My friends aren’t Catholic. What are they about to do? It happens in slow motion. All three apprehensively walk up to the priest, their hands awkwardly out in front of them as if they’re going to scoop water and wash their faces.
They take the host, and one by one, reluctantly place it in their mouths. They wince. I realize I’m smiling. There are still tears in my eyes but there was laughter building in my throat. It was innocent. They walked up by mistake; they didn’t realize their fate until they made it to the front of the aisle. My friends are sinners at my mom’s funeral. I laugh even more. My dad and sister look at me, perplexed. She’s laughing?
I later found out that a man in the pew next to them forced them out and proceeded to shove them up the line of people. “We didn’t know what to do,” they’d later tell me. They were forced into eating the body of Christ and I laughed and laughed.
Funerals aren’t for the person who’s died. Funerals are for everyone else. Catholic funerals give us a ceremonial goodbye and a place to say farewell. Death is unknown, and religion makes it more bearable.
My mom wouldn’t have wanted us standing in a church we never attended, crying over her now that she was out of pain. My mom would’ve preferred we all lie on the couch and reminisce about her thick and silly New Jersey accent, or the time she accidentally baked her acrylic nail into a pie on Thanksgiving.
My mom wants us to live. My mom wants us to survive without her. My mom wants us to grieve in whatever way will ease the pain. Whether that’s laughing at my friends sinning at my mother’s funeral, or sobbing as she’s lowered into the ground.