Thursday, February 8, 2024

“Losing my Religion” by Sheila Perkins

“Aw, the poor wee thing. Whatever is going to happen to her?” the church ladies whisper.

But their murmurs fade into the background as I focus on the polished walnut casket draped in white roses and lilies. I'm petrified to look yet I can't avert my eyes.

My mind is fixated on comprehending the sight before me; it's my mom, yet not quite her. Only her upper half is visible, the rest hidden beneath the glossy dark wood of the coffin.  She appears to be sleeping peacefully on a bed of cream-colored satin. Her hands are folded gently under her heart and her hair is neatly brushed back. There's a heavy layer of blush on her cheeks, giving her a slightly artificial rosy glow. She looks pretty.

Her smile, however, seems forced, like the ones she gives me when I've messed up but she decides not to scold me about it. But I know it's all fake. She's not really smiling.

I can't see her eyes either; they're closed tightly as if she's focusing on something that doesn't involve me. I stand for a minute, willing her to open her eyes so she can see me even though I know that's not possible. It’s one of my few superpowers; staring at people until they wake up. But it is not working this time. My hand, seemingly of its own accord, rises and brushes against her cheek.

My mom's skin feels frigid, colder than any skin I have ever touched before, but I don't have time to dwell on it; my Aunt Isobel snatches my hand away, her grip tight as she turns me towards the congregation.

“Let's go, dear. It's time for the ceremony.”

All eyes are on us as we take our place in the front pew alongside my dad and my brother. The bench is hard and cold against my legs, but I hardly notice. My gaze remains fixed on the casket, as if by sheer willpower, I can bring my mother back to life. But deep down, I know it's futile.

Religion isn’t a big part of our life. We only go to church on Christmas and Easter. But I understand that God is important. My friend Jada taught me that.

Jada is a devoted Catholic and just last week she explained all about Confirmation to me, a ceremony at her church that required special clothes. We both held our breath as she carefully unwrapped blue tissue paper to reveal her beautiful white dress made of soft satin and delicate lace. I couldn’t believe my eyes.  

“Try it on,” she said. I didn’t need to be asked twice. As I buckled up the shiny white patent leather shoes that completed the ensemble, I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror hanging behind her bedroom door.  I looked like a princess. Or maybe a bride! I was jealous and wished fervently that I could be a Catholic.

Now, I turn to gaze at the pews filling up behind me. To my annoyance, everyone is dressed in black. My Protestant congregation looks like a somber shadow compared to the memory of Jada's beautiful, white confirmation dress.

“Humph,” I mutter, maybe a bit too loud.

I feel my brother's elbow dig into my side as he hisses at me to sit still and be quiet. He’s four years older than me and since our mom got sick, he’s been the one taking care of me, so I'm used to obeying him. I look at him to see if he’s serious. But right now, all I can see is fear in his usually confident face. His freckles stand out against ghostly pale skin. 

It makes my stomach clench and brought up the memory of Dad telling us Mom was dead. My brother burst into tears and ran out of the room. He hardly ever cries. He’s the bravest.

To show him I can be brave, too, and he doesn’t have to worry about me, I put my hands in my lap and face forward, waiting for something, anything, to happen.

I can't bear to look at the coffin any longer, so I focus on the noises surrounding me. My dad is clearing his throat quietly but repeatedly, something he does when he’s nervous. My aunt blows her nose loudly and someone else is sniffling every few seconds (I don't dare turn around to see who it is for fear my brother will give me another elbow in the ribs.)

The loud drone of the organ bounces off the rafters and I sit up straighter, craning my neck to get a good view of the minister who will be conducting the ceremony.

The service begins smoothly. The minister spends a few minutes saying how amazing my mother was, which I agree with, and then we all stand to sing a hymn. Some people know the words and melody by heart, but even though my brother finds the correct page in the hymnal for me, I am only in first grade and can't read that quickly. So I just pretend to sing.

It's when we sit down again that the unthinkable happens. The minister has resumed his sermon, only to declare, “And now, dear friends, let us take a moment to honor Margaret's memory and acknowledge that she has ascended to a better place, the Kingdom of Heaven.”

What?!? My mom's in a better place now?? How can that be? Even a six-year-old kid like me knows that's not true. A better place would be for my mother to be here ... with me.

I've barely finished this thought when he goes on to say, “The Almighty has a glorious design for each of us, and on this blessed day, He is embracing Margaret into His eternal kingdom.”

Wait. Is this truly part of God's plan? To take my mother away from me and leave me to alone without her? It seems cruel, unfathomable. 

I clench my fists and make a silent vow to have nothing to do with God or church, now or ever again.

“NO!” The word is out of my mouth before I can even think. As soon as it's uttered, a chorus of gasps echoes behind me. My aunt and dad exchange panicked glances, their eyes wide with concern.

My brother stands up and mumbles, “I've got it,” as he clasps my hand and leads me down the aisle to the back of the church. I keep my gaze on the bright red circle ablaze on his cheek. He is looking steadfastly at the heavy wooden door before us, ignoring the pitying looks and whispers and pulling me along in his wake.

As the door thumps closed behind us, the warm sunshine and gentle spring breeze lift my spirits immediately. My brother drops my hand and smiles.  “Let's get out of here,” he says.  

He begins to run, much faster than I can. My legs pump furiously as I try to catch up, arms swinging like windmills. But it’s okay. I know he'll wait for me at the park.


Sheila Perkins has always had the writing bug but it wasn’t until the pandemic that she could focus on what she loves most … telling stories. During the Covid lockdown, she took several courses and workshops to hone her long-neglected writing skills. Lo and behold, four years and two novels later, she still looks forward to those hours each day she spends pecking away at the keyboard.

To read more short stories, poems, short memoirs and essays, see here, (and scroll down).

See Brian Henry's upcoming weekly writing classes, one-day workshops, and weekend retreats here.

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