The Brood: What Do We Retain?

by Holly Mohr

“So how are you really?” He asks. “It’s been a long time since we’ve actually sat down to talk. I don’t think we’ve had a real conversation since your father’s death.”

I appreciate the question. Honestly, I appreciate it every time someone asks it, but I never know how to answer.

I’m grateful my dad’s death didn’t totally unhinge me, as I feared it might, given how emotionally complicated it was to see him when he was alive. I feared witnessing his death would send me over the proverbial “edge.”

But I’m functional, even highly productive. I’m occasionally in touch with my feelings, though sometimes I’m numb. I can rarely locate which “step” I’m on when I see the “stages of grief,” though I’m choosing not to find that too alarming. All in all, I’m passably “fine.” But I try to muster up a more meaningful response this time.

“I hear people say all the time that they pray to their loved ones, not just for them, and that they can sense the presence of that person,” I say.

“People talk about knowing the person they’ve lost is at peace and feeling them very near. I don’t feel those things. My dad feels far away, totally inaccessible. I’ve had those feelings of connection before, when I’ve lost friends . . . but not this time.”

He is listening closely. It seems okay to try to try to explain the next part, though I don’t quite have the words. Honestly, I don’t even have the concepts.

“I keep . . . not being sure if it’s safe to approach him,” I begin.

“That is, I don’t know what kind of state he’s in. If I try to talk to him now, what will it be like? Will it be scary?”

He looks puzzled but curious. I continue.

“Like, how much of who we are changes after death? What do we retain? And . . . how long does it take before we heal? I guess I’m afraid to try to talk to him too soon and experience the same pain, the same fear I did when he was alive.”

He hears me now. And he has a theological answer: “Well, you know, we believe that in the Kingdom, we’re completely transformed.”

“I know,” I say. He knows I know; I can tell it’s part of why he’s confused.

“But is he there yet?” I wonder out loud. “Or rather, I guess I don’t have a sense of how long purgatory ‘takes.’”

I feel like a college kid again, coming to a priest with basic spiritual questions. I feel little, and unsophisticated, but also safe. I know he’s not understanding what I’m really asking yet, but I also know he’s making the space for me to show him. This is why his presence is satisfying; he’s willing to take the journey with me.

He tries again: “It’s Saint Augustine, isn’t it, who talks about purgatory not happening within time? That even though we experience the world in time, after death it’s all as one?”

“I know,” I say.

“I know we’re not really talking about time. But we do talk about process, right? We talk about there being some sort of process of the experience of purgatory. And even though speaking in terms of time isn’t quite right, there does seem to be a period of change that takes place. And that change can be painful, right? That’s why we talk about it in terms of fire. It sounds intense.

“And I guess I’m nervous about approaching him depending on where he is in the midst of that process of intensity. If he’s in the middle of experiencing this hard, painful thing that’s trying to burn away all the fear, all the damage, the misunderstanding, the illness . . . he’s not going to go into that peacefully. I see him clenching his fists as tightly as possible, his face crunched up into a canine growl . . . It’s scary. I’m not sure if he’s ready for me. And even if he’s not experiencing all of that in terms of time, we still are, right? It may not be time.”

I look up. He nods, slowly but definitively. He hears me.

“So, I know, and I do believe, that we’re transformed completely in the Kingdom. But if he hasn’t reached that point yet, I’m a little terrified to get in the middle of that process.

“And even if he is in the Kingdom, what does it mean that Jesus kept his wounds after the Resurrection?! It is chilling to me to think that even in heaven our wounds aren’t healed. Will it ever be safe to approach him if he hasn’t healed his wounds?”

When I go home that night, I keep thinking about the story we hear every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, the one where the Risen Christ appears to Thomas (yes, the “doubting Thomas”). Thomas does not recognize Jesus until he puts his hand in Christ’s side and feels into Jesus’s wounds. When Thomas realizes he can trust this experience, he fully lets down his guard, crying in a kind of relieved ecstasy, “My Lord and my God!”

Talk about a mindfuck, though. Jesus descends into hell to free the souls of the damned; he extricates himself from this hell, rising from the dead and putting an end, once and for all, to the power of sin and death. He walks around, utterly transformed in the newness of life. But he still has those damn wounds from the crucifixion. What. The fuck.

What would it mean for my dad to keep his wounds? To continue to carry his unabating sense of abandonment and neglect that colored his expectations of every relationship? To continue to live within the untreated mental illnesses, physical illnesses, personality disorders that kept us all walking on eggshells, nauseous and hyperventilating if we came too close?

As I get ready for bed, wondering what sort of dreams are in store this time, I remember that in Jesus’s case, the wounds take on a different function post-Resurrection. When Thomas cries out in recognition, it’s not just because Jesus “proves” to Thomas that he’s “real.” I have to believe it’s because Thomas experiences healing when he touches those wounds; a burden is lifted, and he can’t help but cry out.

Yes, Christ’s wounds are there, but the wounds become gratuitous pools of radiant life, rather than nagging reminders of pain.

The image Catholics use on that Second Sunday of Easter is of the Divine Mercy. It’s from a vision of a saint, Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska. She saw the wounds in Jesus’s side becoming fountains of cleansing and transformative mercy.

So what if?

What if my dad keeps his wounds, but they become sources of healing, rather than portals of poison and dysfunction? Is it possible?

Can I extend my heart far enough to imagine that his vulnerability could become strength to welcome and embrace? That his limitations could extend healing connection to me and to others? Can I imagine his finally seeking forgiveness, his finally having the capacity, even, to forgive? Is it safe for me to imagine that that sensation of protection and care I sometimes feel over my shoulders might be him? Might he finally know how to look at me with love that’s unmixed with anger and pain? Am I ready to receive that gaze?

I don’t know if he’s there yet. I don’t know if I am.

But I do believe, with God all things are possible.

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