"I dare you to try it," Andi always knew how to keep the dumb ideas going.
Never being one to turn down a good dare, I put my backpack on the floor next to the pew we were sitting on and threw a leg over the railing. It was about twenty feet down to the bottom pews below us. I figured it was less dangerous than it actually was, because my teenage brain was likely not developed enough to really have any common sense yet.
I sat on the edge and angled my feet and then put one hand on the railing. I looked at Andi’s blond head and big grin and then down at my fingertips, which each were covered with a Band-Aid because I was trying so hard to grow out my fingernails. I hoped they would grip alright.
Then, in a moment of pure bravery (idiocy,) I swung the rest of my body around and was hanging for a brief moment with two Band-Aid-covered hands gripping the railing.
That pose only lasted momentarily, as the Band-Aids proved to not have any grip at all, and then my body was flying backwards into the abyss.
Somehow my body managed to land between the rows of pews, although I don't remember anything about the landing other than experiencing a very big POP! inside my mind, and then everything was flooded with bright lights.
I looked up into the brightness and could make out what seem to be shapes or shadows moving around me and I could hear a very high-pitched noise that seemed to be some kind of singing. I felt safe, painless, and surrounded by love. (Later, when trying to explain the experience to others, I likened it to being surrounded by angels and that I felt that they were all people who cared about me and could have possibly been people who knew me well. But at this point I was certainly not worried about what they were. I just knew they were there with me and that I was okay.)
In order to properly frame this situation, I should mention that I was attending a private Christian school for my middle school years, due to the fact that my parents thought it would make me be more well behaved. Obviously, it was not working.
My experience with religion up until that school tenure was fleeting at best. I attended Sunday school classes as a youth on occasion, and then went to church once in a while with my mom, mostly to spend time with her. My dad did not like very much about church so we rarely attended as a family. (Although, my father was the one person I knew who loved everyone and everything in the world the most, he just did not like organized religion or anyone telling him what to believe.)
I was like my father; however, I did like the singing and the community that church offered. But at age 14, I was more likely to rebel against any organized anything than to really give it much thought. I figured The Bible and it stories were an important part of our nation’s culture and enjoyed the stories as teachable moments. I did not like the idea of believing some guy came down from some heaven in order to teach us anything more than what all of us are supposed to teach each other in this life anyway. And I certainly took issue with God being portrayed as a white man.
The experience of hitting my head though, was thought-provoking. First, because it made me realize how physically vulnerable humans really are, as I was knocked out pretty well from the fall and ended up in the hospital that night, (after having problems saying certain phrases due to everything being jumbled when it came out of my mouth). And it was also thought-provoking because it made me wonder about what really was out there beyond this experience here on earth. It felt like there was some other dimension. And I really didn't know how to categorize all of those thoughts without it seeming somewhat aligned with religious beliefs and stories.
Looking back, I think that experience helped me a lot with processing the death of my father a short twelve years later when he dropped dead from a heart attack at the young age of 54. I was so upset by losing him that I spent the first few days after he left, feeling like I was half still on earth, and half in that realm that I went to when I fell off the church balcony. I described it then as feeling like I was in a "twilight zone". I didn't have any other way of explaining how it felt to still be connected spiritually to the soul of my father, while experiencing the excruciating pain of that loss.
During those days, my two-year-old son, Joey continued to talk about seeing my father there with us, and constantly was having conversations with him. He saw him in the hallway and suddenly stopped crying when he was throwing a tantrum; he told me that Grandpa was there, and that he was OK. And when we went to my father's new grave at the cemetery he invited Grandpa to come home with us. He told me that Grandpa was not in the grave. We also had a toy phone from a Happy Meal that would randomly start ringing sometimes and Joey would answer it. He said it was Grandpa calling and he had whole conversations with him. No one else could get that phone to ring and it never rang again after that. I've been told that young people often see and hear things that the rest of us can't anymore. I now believe it.
Also during those few days after the death of my father, a black cat sat on my porch outside my window for exactly three days. I always figured if my dad could be reincarnated, he would choose a cat. It was his favorite animal. That damn black cat stared at me, as I stared at it out my window. And even when I tried to scare it away, it wouldn't go. I had never seen that cat before and I never saw it again after those three days either. However, the day that my father died I saw a dead black cat on the road on the way to get to the location of the ambulance he was in. I remember thinking how depressing it was that the world was so full of death that day.
Sometimes I wonder if I imagined that cat on my porch, but I did have conversations with my family about it and they seemed to see it as well. In my current life as an attorney I am not talented in every area, but I certainly can do research. And I have done a lot of reading about religions and their beliefs. So many of the major world religions have a component where they believe the spirit stays in the area for about three days after a death. I'm not sure what that cat was, but after trying to scare it away and realizing it was not going anywhere I started to talk to it and I told it to tell my dad things that I wished I had been able to say before. I hope that somehow he got the messages.
Most of my life I have been very interested in science and the exploration of the unknown. I've experienced conversations with very scientific people who have questioned their ability to be spiritual or to believe in religion due to science sometimes proving religious stories wrong. However, I've also spoken with many people who believe that in order to be a good scientist, one needs to have faith in the unknown.
As a deep-thinking, gifted adult, I question a lot of things about the world and about the people in it. And I certainly question the issues of spirituality. I am not quick to believe anyone's theories about the unknown without some scientific proof. However, some of the things I've experienced were proof enough to me that there is something else out there… that we are all connected somehow, in ways that cannot be explained by the science of a physical world. And those elements of the unknown keep me waking up every morning, wondering what other interesting and exciting things might happen because we just don't know what is possible
So after all, I have no more answers for you than anyone else does. But I can tell you that I believe that science and religion can exist hand-in-hand. And that in this physical world we all need something to believe in. The teachings of religion help us understand each other and tie us to a somewhat-shared past. They provide us with a common language to talk about things we don’t know about and give us hope that we will all be alright in the end. Now as an adult, I am much more willing to listen to religious claims and stories and take them to heart in the hope that as humans we will continue to grow and use those teachings to be better to each other. And that someday we will see our loved ones again or at least be united in the overwhelming love that I felt when I was floating somewhere above my crumpled body on the floor between the pews when I was thirteen.
I am now teacher at a religious private school and that is something I could never have imagined doing, even just a few years ago. I still continue to question any type of teachings that are meant to make anybody believe anything specific when what they talk about is truly unknown. But, I am more at peace with my connection to religion and spirituality than I have ever been before. That makes me feel closer to my dad and all my other friends and family who have died. And I look forward to seeing them all again in that weird twilight zone and singing with them someday.