Dogged by the Dark

Author: Mel Livatino

Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder where His love is.

One morning each week I wake up alone. On that day — typically a Wednesday — my wife is with her daughter, who takes her for a day and a half each week. Kathy has advanced dementia. She no longer knows my name or her full name; she forgets she has children and grandchildren; she does not know where we live; she no longer knows the names for such common things as kitchen, refrigerator, bedroom, grass, sky, sun. And of course she is no longer capable of conversation. So while I miss her for that day and a half, I am also glad for the time alone to think and write and read.

Those mornings when I’m alone start much the same. The room is dark when I awaken. I do not want to be awake yet, but I am, so I lie on my back and look into the dark space above the bed. That’s when the hurt begins. The hurt is brought on by a sense of aloneness. It has grown since my retirement from teaching nine years ago, which coincided with the onset of my wife’s dementia. I know as I look into the dark space of the room that this hurt will weave itself into everything I do that day. It may go undetected while I’m concentrating on something — shopping, driving, cooking, writing, reading or talking to someone — but it will be there beneath the surface. And when the day goes slack, the hurt will become palpable again.

Sometimes all I long for is sleep and night. Churchill, who knew this state well, called it his “black dog.” Lincoln and Hemingway were also frequented by this state. The American novelist William Styron wrote a memoir about it called Darkness Visible. In this state, God seems remote, even nonexistent.

So this morning I do what I usually do when the hurt is as palpable as the dark over the bed. I begin saying the “Our Father” slowly, concentrating on each phrase, pausing between phrases to let the words settle into meaning before I go on to the next phrase. When I am done, I say the “Our Father” again. Some mornings I go to the “Hail Mary,” then the “Glory Be.” I may do several of each. This morning I do only two “Our Fathers,” and then I just look into the dark.

The hurt is still there as I remember listening yesterday to a homily a dear evangelical friend of mine gave me a week and a half ago. I’d had the CD sitting upright in its slim slipcase between the emergency brake and the console for a week. I had deliberately set it in this military posture so it would not drift out of sight or consciousness — because my friend had told me it was fantastic, and she is almost never wrong about things. Two days ago, when I finished the previous audiobook — Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending — I put this homily into the CD slot.

Yes, there is divorce. Yes, there is death and disintegrating bodies. Yes, there are people who sustain great physical and mental damage. Yes, there is great sadness and pain in our lives, but there is also the rain and the seed, and there is the heat of God upon our cheeks.

Christopher de Vinck, Introduction to Nouwen Then

Ravi Zacharias is a barnburner “itinerant Christian apologist,” as he calls himself in the homily. I said barnburner because it is a readily understood expression, but it would have been more accurate to say he is a houseburner because Zacharias intends nothing less than to burn down the unappreciative, unloving and unloved secular house we live in so much of the time. He wants nothing less than to put his listeners into the house of God, the house where we are loved without conditions all our lives.

Listening to this evangelical homily was a unique event for me. I had never listened to a non-Catholic homily in my life. Nor had I ever wanted to listen to one. I expected there would be shouting and carrying-on, fire and brimstone, talk of sin, repentance, the devil, commandments. God knows what all I expected, but I did not expect the speaker I was listening to. I surely did not expect this man to slip through the crack in my heart I have been living with for more years than I care to remember.

Zacharias’ homily is a 72-minute commentary on the book of the minor prophet Hosea. In that book, God orders Hosea to take as his wife a prostitute named Gomer. Hosea greatly loves Gomer, despite her whorish ways. It is Hosea, unbeknownst to her, who provides her bread and water and wool and oil and drink when Gomer leaves him and dwells with her lovers. And when she tires of them, he takes her back again. It is a story of a love beyond all bounds. It is a metaphor of God’s love for us.

Like all good homilists, Zacharias spends most of his time pulling threads of other stories through the warp and woof of the main story. About 40 minutes into his homily he tells a story from his Indian culture.

We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

A man from a village in India falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful woman from another village. He begs for the woman’s hand in marriage, but she dismisses him. He begs again; she dismisses him again. This goes on for many months before one day the woman says to the man, “All right, if you want my hand in marriage, you may have it, but there is one condition. You must prove that you love me.” When the man protests that he does love her, she says, “No, you must prove it. You must go back home to your mother, kill her, cut out her heart and bring it to me.”

At first the man cannot believe his ears. But finally, hopelessly
in love, he agrees to her wish. He goes home, kills his mother, cuts out her heart and begins his journey back to the woman with the bloody heart in his hands. The path is treacherous, and at one point he trips and falls in some brambles, and the heart leaps out of his hands. When he goes to pick it up he can’t find it. He searches and searches, badly cutting his body on thorns as he is searching. Finally he sees the heart and takes it back into his hands. Just then he hears a voice coming from the heart: “Son, are you hurt?”

I shall never forget precisely where I was when I heard that story. I was southbound on Green Bay Road in my hometown of Evanston, Illinois, and when I heard the last words of the story, the tires of my car had just entered the junction where Green Bay gives out and enters Ridge Road. When I heard the words, “Son, are you hurt?” tears welled up in my eyes.

Off and on for the last 15 hours, except for sleep, I have been thinking about that story. As I finish the second “Our Father” I am thinking about it again. I am thinking that this is how God loves me. No matter who I am or what I have done, God loves me. It is comforting, but it does not take away the sorrow of aloneness.

Ever since my twenties, when I began in a noticeable way to think for myself, I have wondered about the existence and nature of God. Most days of my life for the last nearly half century these questions have come to me unbidden. I have lived all this time with a longing for an absolute and unshakeable faith in God. But clouds of doubt surround the longing. Sometimes brilliant sunlight breaks through the clouds, but the clouds are always there. I had pretty much resigned myself that my life would be this way till I drew my last breath.

But yesterday, and now again this morning, Mr. Zacharias makes me wonder. What if I ignore the clouds? Clouds, after all, come and go, but sunlight is always there, whether we see it or not. What if I say, okay, I don’t know if God exists but that does not stop me from believing He exists. What if I quit looking at the clouds and look only at the sunlight when it is there? And what if, when the clouds obscure the sun, I say to myself, sunshine is there, I just can’t see it right now? What would I lose if I did this? Right now, in the dark of this bedroom, I can think of nothing I would lose. And what would I gain? Knowing that I am loved as no mere human could ever love me, that, as Julian of Norwich put it so well, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

In the dark of the bedroom I let all this sit inside me for some time. Then a thin rim of light begins to outline the pulled shades of the room. Soon it will be time to get up and go to my ex-wife’s house to watch my newest grandson, Michael, my 10th grandchild, who will be 6 months old tomorrow, while my ex-wife drives his brother and sister to preschool.

On the drive over to her house I continue thinking about the house of God that Mr. Zacharias has given me, the house in which God is like the mother whose heart has been cut out but who still asks, “Son, are you hurt?”

At the house I play with my grandchildren with a joy I cannot remember. And the joy is in their faces and eyes and giggles too. It lasts only 10 minutes, but I know it will be the best time I have today. Luke, who is 2, gives me a bright smile and a high-five. Ce-ce, who is 4 and whose real name is Siena, lights up when I tell her I found the children’s card game Go Fish. She jumps and claps her hands and her eyes sparkle. Then she and I begin counting in French with joie de vivre from un to dix huit (a number we have always considered special and magical because of its sound). I say the words, and she echoes them perfectly: un, deux, trois, quatre . . . until we joyfully ring out dix huit!

When I watch Michael, the time does not drag. He smiles at antics like putting my forefinger in my mouth and snapping it out to make a large popping sound or “taking off the tip of my thumb” by sliding it beside my forefinger. It doesn’t matter that his response is minimal, an ordinary response for a baby, for I remember reading recently the poet Philip Larkin’s wish that his friend’s child be ordinary. God bless the ordinary, for the ordinary is more wonderful than we can ever know.

Thinking this makes me remember one day many years ago when I walked into my class and looked at rows of tired faces, bored faces, faces that looked like they had no reason to be happy. Without thinking, I suddenly said to them, “You look unhappy. What would make you happy? What would make your faces break out in sunlight and joy?” A student who thought he knew the score said, “A million bucks!”

“Ahhh,” I said, “so money is the answer.” I addressed the whole class: “Would money make you happy?” A few smiling faces. I waited and then asked the question again. More smiling faces. “Better yet, a lot of money?” I asked, letting my voice and face play with the phrase. Now almost everybody was smiling.

“Okay,” I said. “What do you think you’re worth right now?” The smiles disappeared. At first no one said anything. Then one young man said that since he owed money, his net worth was a minus figure. Laughter and heads nodding in agreement. Someone said he had almost $500 in the bank. A woman said she had $78.90 in her checking account.

“This sounds dismal,” I said. “Thank God, I don’t believe you.” I let a long pause occur, a lot of white space in the air. I just looked at each of them till they got nervous. After a minute of silence, while I did a long survey of their faces, I pointed to one student and said, “How much for your right eye?”

“Huh?” he said. “I don’t get it. What do you mean?”

“I mean how much money would it take for you to sell me your right eye?” The thought so jolted this young man that he jumped back in his chair, as if I were actually going to reach out and pluck the eye from his head.

“Okay,” I said, “let me make you an offer. How about the million dollars that would make the first student happy? Would that be enough?”

“Hell no, I’m not selling my eye for a million dollars.”

“Okay, how about a hundred million dollars? Would you take a hundred million for your right eye?”

“No way!”

“Good man,” I said, “Never sell cheap. So how about a billion?” He just looked at me through the eye I was bidding on, but he couldn’t bring himself to sell it, even for a billion dollars.

So I opened the question to the whole class. “How much would any of you take to sell your right eye?” I started bidding, moving the number up slowly. When I hit 10 billion dollars, a kid in the back said, “Yeah, I’ll take 10 billion.” But I noticed he couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence: “to sell my right eye.” “Well,” I said, “if Bill Gates needed a right eye, I bet he’d gladly pay that much.”

Now I said to the kid who just sold his right eye for 10 billion: “Okay, how much for your other eye? You just got 10 billion for your right eye. How much would you take to sell your remaining eye?”

“No!” he cried, “I’m not taking any more money for anything!”

So I asked the rest of the class what they would take to sell both of their eyes. I went clear up to a trillion dollars and didn’t get a single taker. “So,” I said, “you’re sitting on 10 billion just for one eye and you have another eye left in the bank — and then you have your ears, your tongue, your hands, your fingers, your feet, your legs. What are you worth?”

Every now and then I remind myself of that day in class because, like my students, I, too, forget what I am worth. I forget it every day. I especially forget it in the dark of those early mornings when hurt is upon me. We all forget how much we’re worth. We forget it most hours of every day.

Later that morning, driving home from playing with Michael, out of the blue I remembered a woman from my youth whom I hadn’t thought of in many years. She was a distant friend of my parents. I saw her only once or twice a year for perhaps 10 or 15 years, and then I never saw her again. I haven’t seen her in 50 years.

Her name was Dorothy Litz. She was married to a good-looking man who was always very nice to my sister and me. But Dorothy, who was called Dottie, was even nicer. She was also beautiful. And she had one other quality, a quality I have looked for — though without actually thinking about it — in every person I have ever met. I don’t have a name for that quality, but she had it in spades, more than anyone else I’ve ever encountered.

It was a combination of joy and happiness and a rich pleasure at being alive and being in your company — and not a scintilla of it was fake. She radiated this quality. It was so spectacular that it is still with me more than half a century later. Her husband died when he was in his 30s. She never remarried, at least not during the time I still saw her, but she also never lost that radiant quality of joy and happiness combined with such obvious pleasure at being alive and in your company.

Though I haven’t thought of her in many years, driving home that morning I was thinking of her again. She was right there where my windshield is, and I suddenly realized I was yearning for this woman who was like an aunt to me and whom I hadn’t seen in more than 50 years. Why? Why was I yearning for this woman who is only a distant memory?

As the blocks passed I realized she was the woman in Zacharias’ story, the mother whose heart her son had cut out to give to the woman he had fallen in love with and who says to her son, when he trips and falls amongst the thorns, “Son, are you hurt?” Then I realized this woman from my boyhood and the woman in Zacharias’ story were images of God’s love, incarnations of that love. Finally I realized I hadn’t felt the hurt of aloneness since I started thinking about the mother in Zacharias’ story — since, that is, I became aware of God’s love for me.

Over the next few days the skeptic in me begins to pound away with questions. His hand on his hip, his head cocked, he snarls, “Oh, yeah, how long do you think this happy horse – - – - is going to go on? What do you think is going to happen the first time some driver cuts you off? Or when Kathy does something radically foolish to foul up your day? Or when something goes drastically wrong in your computer? Or you smash your finger with a hammer or stub your toe black-and-blue? Or when the black dog of depression visits again?

I have no answers to these questions. Just because the mother loved the son totally, doesn’t mean the young man didn’t fall upon thorns. Just because Dottie was a beautiful, sweet, kind and radiantly alive woman doesn’t mean her husband would be with her all her life. Love, even God’s love, doesn’t change reality.

“And what’s going to happen,” my inner skeptic yells at me, “when the Big Question inevitably comes back to you: ‘Does God re- ally exist?’ It will, you know.”

Yes, I know. But that question is now easier. That question can just sit there unanswered, sit there, paradoxically, beside my belief that God loves me. I remember that the pastor narrating Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead says in his letter to his son, “So my advice is this — don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. . . . Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. . . . I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”

Finally, the skeptic, now really pissed off, says, “Well, if God loves you so much, how come family doesn’t visit more often? How come Kathy has dementia? How come people tear each other apart with hatred, kill each other by the millions? How come beautiful good people die young? Why is there cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease? Why are there plane crashes? Why do we get old and feeble and ugly and die, maybe alone, maybe unloved by another human being? And why, oh blessed one, have you behaved selfishly every day of your life?”

I can only think to myself that these are the conditions of the world, this is the nature of existence. We are creatures, not gods; this planet is material, not spiritual; we are divided beings. Were these things not true, God’s love wouldn’t matter. God’s love matters because we are limited and selfish and conflicted and mortal — because we are flesh.

“You sure of all of this?” the skeptic says.

No, I’m not even certain of God’s love, but I intend to keep believing.

The next morning in the dark of the bedroom I wonder how this awakening to God’s love came about. Did a single homily bring this on? After some time in the dark I realize I have been moving in this direction for years. Each month taking care of Kathy has taught me something about love. I used to think, for example, that I could never help someone use the toilet. And at first it was disgusting. Then it became ordinary (and I remember Larkin’s wish that his friend’s newborn be ordinary). Finally I realized that taking care of Kathy, including the messiness of toilet matters, was the very blessing I needed.

Every day I see others who love much more simply, much more directly, in vastly greater ways and with much more ease than I do or likely ever will. My ex-wife, for example, has taken care of our grandchildren from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week for several years now. No charge, she just gives those days to the grandchildren and to our son and his wife. I, on the other hand, have led a long life of seeking my own comfort and advancement. Such ways are ingrained. I doubt they will ever go away. But in taking care of Kathy I have inadvertently stumbled upon a love I had not previously known. It is only a splinter of the real thing, but in that shard, like a hologram, I finally see the whole picture.

I am still a deeply selfish person. I probably always will be. I get to write almost every day, to read, to watch what I want on TV, to see wonderful films. I get to see Ce-ce and Luke and Michael several times a week, and in their faces life is more beautiful than I’d ever known it could be.

Does my family love me? Do those few people in the world I most need to be loved by love me? The other morning I awoke when the light was already making a rim around the shades of the bedroom. In my half-awake state I was remembering the day a little over 20 years ago when I received the news by phone that my father had had a serious stroke in another state, Florida. I remembered the sharp panic in my stomach when I heard that news. Though we had had a rocky relationship, I knew in that instant, and without qualification, that I loved my father.

In taking care of Kathy I have inadvertently stumbled upon a love I had not previously known. It is only a splinter of the real thing, but in that shard, like a hologram, I finally see the whole picture.

Rocks border coasts, but the ocean still makes its way in. Even if it is night and we cannot see, the ocean’s water is always flowing over and around the rocks. So, too, with love. It may be night and the water may not be visible, but it never stops flowing past the hard places in our lives.

In those dark mornings when the black dog of depression and aloneness are upon me, I am looking at the rocks, not the water. A moment after I remembered the day I learned of my father’s stroke (he would live almost eight more months), I imagined something similar happening to me. In that moment I suddenly knew that my family would feel the same panic in their stomachs that I had felt when I learned about my father’s stroke. They would be at my door as fast as they could. In that moment, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I knew my family loved me. I knew that water is vaster and stronger than rocks.

God’s love is even greater, vastly greater, but most of the time we are looking at the rocks, not the water. We see and feel where we are hurt; we see and feel what we don’t have but want. We live our lives hungry for candy, anger and sleep, as a poet once put it, and for all the other things we imagine ourselves not having: pleasure, fame, status, power, love. Such cravings are the constant focus of the popular media. They splash themselves all over our TV programs and the magazines at the checkout counters of our grocery stores. It is only our cravings that we can see. What we fail to see, however, is what we have been given.

We stand, sit and lie every moment of every day in God’s love — but what do we notice? That our feet hurt, that the back of the chair is too straight, that the bed is too hard. We look out at the world and all the things of this world that we crave — but we fail to notice that we are looking through trillion-dollar eyes, that those eyes are the gift of God, and that they are only the beginning of God’s love.

Julian of Norwich thought suffering, and even sin (which at its root means missing the mark), were not so much evil as they were necessary to discovering God’s love for us. That might not be the church’s official teaching, but I see what she was driving at. Suffering, and even sin (missing the mark), seem like the long way round. Could it be that for some of us the long way round is the only road open to the house of God’s love?

I do not know. I am only a wanderer without a road map. I’m just trying to pay attention and keep my eye on the house at the end of the road. I know the road will be full of hills and turns and loopbacks and that for stretches I will lose sight of the house of God’s love. But I will continue to hope for another turn or rise in the road so I might once again see the house of God’s love — especially in the dark hours of early mornings.

Mel Livatino’s essays have appeared in The Sewanee Review, Writing on the Edge, River Teeth, Under the Sun and other publications. Four of his pieces have been named Notable Essays of the Year in Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays annual (2005, 2010, 2011, 2012). He is at work on two books: The Little Red Guide to Publishing Creative Nonfiction and God: An Inquiry, the latter about the existence and nature of God and evel. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.