Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Last Day


Do not let not your heart be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also.
John 14:1-3

Church is almost over, and my daughter is squirming in my arms trying to get down and run around. I turn her so she is facing me and lean her into my chest, wrapping my arms around her. She curls her body over my pregnant belly, and I can feel the baby within me kicking in response to her presence. She wriggles in time to the kicks fluttering against her stomach, and the congregation starts to sing the final communion hymn.

I take a deep breath and kiss the top of my daughter's head. We're singing I am the Bread of Life, a song we often sing at communion, and one that almost never fails to make me weepy. Now, in the full throes of pregnancy hormones, tears are inevitable.

With lips pressed against my daughter's hair, I try to sing: I am the bread of life, they who come to me shall not hunger, they who believe in me shall not thirst. My voice is wobbly. The song talks about how Christ will raise us up again after we die, and I'm not a big fan of thinking about death. I don't know many people who are. And although I feel like I should be crying for joy at the thought of someday being raised to eternal life, I'm not. I'm crying for the fact that we have to die, all of us, before we get there. I release my daughter long enough to brush a hand over my eyes.

Sensing her chance, she slithers down to the floor and makes a run for it. I lean over my husband and catch her just as she's disappearing into the aisle. I smile at her with a slight shake of my head, and pull her back on to my lap, where she contents herself with poking my belly. The baby kicks back.

And they who eat of this bread, even if they die, they shall live forever.

I'm no longer singing, my voice too choked with emotion to attempt to carry a tune.

Behind me, I hear another wobbly voice, and I glance over my shoulder to see an elderly gentleman. He's standing up with his arms outstretched, his body curved slightly forward as he sings, his eyes wet with tears. My heart turns over and I look away, ashamed of the intensity of emotion I read in his body and hear in the timbre of his voice. I feel like I've been caught spying. But he doesn't see me. His eyes are on the cross.

I wrap my arms around my two children, one inside and one out, and cry. I'm crying because they will die, both of them, their death the ultimate and unavoidable end of the gift of life my husband and I gave them. As my tears drip down on my daughter I feel a different sort of shame, shame that my sorrow is so great when so far I've lived a life almost untouched by death. I've never lost a parent, a close friend, or -- unthinkable -- a child. I've lucked out, so far, and yet I cry as if my heart is breaking.

I glance over my shoulder again at the man behind me, and wonder if the veil between this life and the next is thinner for him than it is for me. I'd be willing to wager that he's lost loved ones, that he's singing to them now with the hope of seeing them again, singing, perhaps, to his mother or his father or his wife. And here I sit with my arms so full of life that I, quite literally, cannot hold it all.

And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.

I rummage around in the diaper bag for a tissue as my daughter slides down off my lap and tries to escape again. I catch her by the wrist, and against my thumb I feel the tiny flutter of her pulse, this rhythmic beating all that stands between life and death. I want to sink down on my knees beside her, wrap my body around her, press my lips against her chest and whisper to her heart to keep beating. Perhaps because I had complications when I was carrying her, I feel all too aware of how fragile these bodies are, what a miracle it truly is that we cling to life at all. This sense of the miraculous, this thin veil, becomes overwhelming when I am pregnant. I feel tenuous, blurry, housing a life that cannot yet survive on its own, counting down the days until I know we'd have at least a fighting chance of survival outside my womb.

I poke my belly and wait for a reassuring kick. My daughter was a calm baby, and although my midwife wasn't worried -- she's just a thinker, she told me, you wait and see when she's born -- those interminable stretches of stillness terrified me. Not so with this baby. I'm housing a mover and a shaker now, but even though I feel this movement almost constantly, and even though this pregnancy is, so far, complication-free, still I creep to my closet in the middle of the night for a quick eavesdrop on my baby's heartbeat with the home Doppler I convinced my doctor I just had, for the sake of my sanity, to have.

Yes, Lord, we believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world.

The idea that all of God's children will be raised again to live with Him forever in paradise sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? Sometimes I wonder if I only believe it because I am too much of a coward to believe anything else. I twirl a strand of my daughter's soft red hair around my finger. I want to believe that she will live forever, but if I had a choice I'd rather keep her here, with me, on this earth. Because here's the rub: I may believe in eternal life, but I know we will all die. And trusting in something that, as a dear friend of mine once said, is hearsay at best, is hard in the face of something I know is a certainty. Death is quantifiable but eternal life is an unknown, and despite my faith, I'm awfully fond of things I can measure, test, and prove.

I think back to my high school algebra class, where I learned that Pascal, who gave us the binomial theorem, was also a religious philosopher. He had a conjecture that came to be known as Pascal's Wager: If you believe in God and there is no God, you have lost nothing; but if you believe in God and there is a God, then you have gained everything. I remember scribbling this down in my algebra notebook, jotting phrases like "expectation value" in the margins and feeling something inside me starting to unclench. Belief is slippery and hard to grasp, but a theorem, something with measurable, mathematical odds, this was something far more suited to my personality and disposition.

I think about Pascal a lot, and although I've since read plenty of rebuttals to his wager, I haven't yet lost the comfort I get from his reasoning.

And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.

When the song is over we kneel and pray the closing prayer. Then we stand to sing the last hymn -- not another tearjerker, thankfully -- and my daughter finally makes her break. I sprint after her, arms supporting my belly as I run. A moment later we are out in the sunshine where all creation cries life, and I scoop her up and twirl her around. When she's old enough to ask me about death I will tell her what I've been taught to believe. I can't offer her absolute certainty, much as I wish I could. But I have Pascal, I remind myself. I can offer her a wager, and more than that, I can offer her hope. I will offer her faith. I set her down and she runs back toward my husband, who picks her up, the sunlight glinting off her hair.

Elrena Evans holds an MFA from The Pennsylvania State University and writes the column Me and My House. She is co-editor, along with Literary Mama Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant, of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008) and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, forthcoming from DreamSeeker Books. She writes for Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today blog for women, and lives with her husband and three children in Pennsylvania.

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I'm still soaking up your words, but wanted to say thank you. This piece so overwhelmingly speaks to me that it's hard to write a comment right now. Thank You!
Thank you for that! What a lovely affirmation. Even as a doubting Thomas, I find it inspiring.
That hymn makes me cry too! What a beautiful essay this is.
Beautiful!. . .and honest. Thank you for sharing not just your stories, but also your heart.
I cry too when I hear this song. Just the opposite, I have had many, many brushes with death of friends and family - old and young. I always thought that was why I cried. Elrena brilliantly makes the connection for all of us - death is not natural. It is right to cry - both from sadness but more for the JOY that awaits after death. Thanks, Elrena.
This quote "Pascal's Wager: If you believe in God and there is no God, you have lost nothing; but if you believe in God and there is a God, then you have gained everything." reminds me of what some an old wise man told me, that old man was my grandfather!!! Ian
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