Writing means so many things to me, things that are hard to express because the mere act of language infers distance. (And lately, there’s much more space than I’d like between my mind and my laptop screen.) Although writers often wax lyrical about connecting with readers, and I do value that immensely, I suspect that I write mainly for myself. Writing helps me to process issues, experiences and conversations that sometimes need a lifetime to break down. Writing encourages me to clutch memories before they slip away with time and distance – like here, where putting these words to the page catapulted me to a time, place and event that changed me forever … in ways that I am still uncovering.
I have lost few things in life, faith being one, jewellery the other. When I was in my early twenties, my mother reluctantly gave me a crucifix necklace, one that had been passed down from daughter to daughter for generations. She was convinced I would lose it and thought it was hypocritical (perhaps even blasphemous) for me to wear it. In a family of devout Catholics, I was the odd one out. The child who was kicked out of Sunday school for asking too many questions; the child who pleaded, reasoned and negotiated (a chronic condition 😉), arguing that compulsory Mass attendance would ultimately prove counterproductive. Yes, I was precocious.
I was so fearful of losing the precious necklace that I wore it for the first time only in my late 20s when my father was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer and given weeks to live. I felt hypocritical wearing it, but I was desperate – so desperate that I told myself everything would be all right if the crucifix dangled close to my heart. My father surprised his doctors, living for another year and, and I was convinced the necklace had something to do with it.
On the tail end of a holiday, nearly a year to the day after his diagnosis, I bolted up in bed, reeling from a bad dream that I couldn’t remember. I reached around my neck, as I did every morning, but the chain, and the crucifix, was gone. I panicked, turning my friend’s room inside out, to no avail. The phone rang. It was my mother, urging me to catch the next train home. Five hours later, I burst into my parents’ bedroom to find the parish priest giving my father the last rites. I froze. I had known that my father was dying but it had never occurred to me that I would witness his final moments. My legs didn’t work and, for the first time in my life, I lost my voice.
If bereavement is a skill, I was woefully unqualified and, for months, I had terrible dreams about my father’s illness. I’d wake up, thinking he was still alive until that awful reality set in. As for owning up to the lost necklace, I bought time with a few fibs, telling my mother I had left it at a friend’s place, later that it was at the jewellers for repair. Meanwhile, I tore apart my room at home, even though I knew the necklace couldn’t have been there. I was certain I’d lost it on my holiday. Friends remembered me wearing it then. I retraced every step, contacted every hotel, to no avail.
Then one evening like any other, I had a strange dream, one that I remember vividly to this day. My family was snowbound in a log cabin, lounging in front of an open fire, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. My father stood up to leave and I had the self awareness to know it was a dream and that he had died. I begged him not to go, saying ‘If you leave, I’ll wake up and you won’t be here any longer.’ He insisted that he’d always be with me. Then, before walking out into the cold, he turned to tell me: ‘You’ll find what you’re looking for where it has always been.’
When I woke from the dream, the air in my room seemed electric, every nerve cell in my body, activated. I jumped out of bed and opened the drawer to my vanity, where I kept the jewellery that I hadn’t managed to lose … or temporarily misplace, as I always preferred to say. I took out a small box, one that I’m certain I had checked countless times since my father had died. And there was my crucifix necklace. The necklace that I still have today, the necklace that I still wear from time to time.
Whether my faith is truly lost, or just temporarily misplaced, isn’t yet clear.