The Day I Stopped Believing In God
How learning about death changed everything.
One day when I was 9 years old, I walked through my hometown wearing a white cotton T-shirt, handmade polyester pants meant to look like real jeans, and North Star runners. Everything felt good. I wasn't wearing socks or underwear. I couldn't feel any of my clothing. Nothing bothered me. I felt weightless, like I could walk forever, like I was a natural element, like wind, something that had always existed and always would. I didn't feel anything but the sunshine on my skin and pure joy, pure confidence in myself and in my world. I can't remember what happened that day before I started walking around town or why I felt so free. I just remember thinking everything was perfect, everything in life was perfect, and I fully belonged in the world, in that town, in those clothes, in my body.
By the end of the day I would stop believing in God but I didn't know it at the time.
At first I walked with my uncle Edward. He was very tall and had red hair. I had bumped into him by the feed mill. I was climbing down from the top of it and he was watching me with one hand on his hip and the other shielding his eyes from the sun because he was afraid I'd fall. A teenager had fallen from it, he said, and was paralyzed for life. He told me he was a "good man." He said it in German. That meant he'd been appointed by the church to help out a widow in town. He had to do good things for her, he said, fix things and help her budget her money.
I asked him what a widow was. I told him I'd never get married and he laughed.
"Do you want to bet?" he said.
I shook his hand and said yes, a million bucks.
I said good-bye to him and walked to Main Street. I waved at a lot of people and they all waved back because we all knew each other. I walked into the funeral home and saw old people gathered around a small coffin. I knew there was a little boy in there. I went to have a look and I touched his arm. His mother was my mother's friend. When they came to visit I'd run and hide because I didn't want to have to play with him. I pressed hard on his arm with my finger but he didn't flinch.
Sorry for running away when you came to my house with your mom.
I didn't say it out loud but I knew that he was an angel now and could hear everything. I looked at him until a woman gave me a popcorn ball from her purse and told me to eat it outside on the sidewalk.
I was on my way to the old folks home to sing for Grace. She was the reason why I was walking around town. My mother was trying to do housework and wanted me out of her hair. She told me to go sing for Grace, like usual. When I got to the old folks home, I had popcorn stuck in my hair because I had eaten it in the wind. I walked to Grace's room. I walked past very old people in chairs. A woman called me by my mother's name.
Do a cartwheel, she said.
I did three in a row in the long corridor and the woman shook her head and wiped her eyes.
Grace lay in her bed and looked dead. She didn't open her eyes the whole time I was singing. I sang "Children of the Heavenly Father." I got bored in the middle of a verse because she wasn't smiling or reacting at all so I stopped and flicked the light off and on in her room but she still didn't do anything. I left her room and thought about telling someone that Grace had died but I was suddenly afraid that I'd be blamed for it. I walked outside into the sunshine; I had been breathing through my mouth so I wouldn't have to smell things inside, and ran on the giant spools of electrical cable that were stored in the empty lot next to the old folks home. If I worked hard I could get them to move like giant logs, like a log-rolling competition, all over the lot.
A man drove up in his car and asked me to stop rolling the spools of cable. I was standing on one, high above him, and I smiled and said OK. I jumped down and kept walking. I walked to the farm on the edge of town and Frank Klassen was standing in the driveway talking to his friend, Harold. I asked them what was up and Frank said, "Stillborn calf this morning, not pretty." Harold put his engineer cap on my head. I picked up stones from the driveway and asked them why.
"It happens," said Frank.
I asked Harold if I could keep his hat and he said sure, why not? I kept walking.
I walked to the hospital to see if anyone was skateboarding in the underground tunnel. Teenagers were there, doing tricks. They were skateboarding up and down the curved walls. When they saw me they stopped and asked me if I wanted to see something. I said yes and they walked with me to a door and opened it.
It's the morgue, said one of the boys.
I asked him what a morgue was and he said it's where they keep the dead bodies. The boys stepped inside the room that was the morgue. They told me to come too. I stepped inside carefully. I was still wearing Harold's engineer cap. One of the boys took it off my head and told me to show some respect. The other boy laughed. He pushed me further into the room and then both boys ran out of the morgue and held the door closed behind me. I tried to open it but it wouldn't budge. I didn't want to yell. I didn't want to get caught in the morgue. I tried the door again but nothing happened. I stood quietly in the center of the morgue. I wished I still had Harold's hat but the boys had taken it with them. It was cool in the room. There were steel cupboards and a steel table. I didn't see any dead bodies. There was a window but it was high up and there was nothing, not even a chair, to stand on.
I went to the window and looked through it. I had to crane my neck backwards to see the blue, perfect sky. I rubbed my hands together the way I'd seen my dad do it when he was thinking about doing something. I hoped that rubbing my hands together would give me a plan for how to escape. I walked around and around the room. It took 164 steps to walk around the room the first time. The second time it took fewer steps, so the third time I tried to make it around the room in even fewer steps by taking giant strides, as huge as I could make them without doing the splits. Eventually, I cried. I wasn't afraid of the dead bodies. I was afraid I'd never be found. Everything had been so perfect; I'd been so free, so weightless, so happy.
I went back to the window and craned my neck to see the sky. The sun was setting. Eventually, I fell asleep in a corner of the morgue. I used my North Star runners as a pillow and tried to stay warm by curling up as tightly as I could. I was woken up by a woman I knew from church. She was an orderly at the hospital. She didn't have a husband. She was so surprised to find me there that she didn't remember how to speak English and kept repeating the same thing, I don't know what it was, in German.
She walked me home, and my mother asked me what had happened. I told her I had wanted to watch the teenagers doing tricks in the tunnel. She hugged me and made some food for me and let me watch TV. Then I remembered that Grace might be dead. I didn't want to tell my mother. I told myself that first thing in the morning I would go to the old folks home to find out if she was dead or not.
That night I slept in my parents' bed. It was my mom's idea. She sang songs. She sang hymns and hit songs from Broadway musicals. She whispered things in German to my dad and he looked at me for a few seconds and then hugged me and told me that there were some cruel people in the world, it was true, but that God loved everyone.
My parents fell asleep before I did. During the night I got very hot and tried to cool off by turning my pillow over and sticking my leg outside of the blanket. It didn't work. I got up and got myself a glass of water and a handful of Cheerios and went to my own room and lay down in my narrow bed. I tried to fall asleep by closing my eyes and doing my usual imagining that I was a champion freestyle skier and a slalom skier and a ski jumper. But it didn't work. I couldn't fall back asleep. I heard birds. The sun was coming up. The sky was perfectly blue.
Miriam Toews has won the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction, the CBA Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and the Writers' Trust Marian Engel/Timothy Findley Award. Her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is now out from McSweeney's. She lives in Toronto.
To learn more about All My Puny Sorrows, click here.