“I don’t believe in hell,” I blurted. It was a half-shouted whisper, a hiss only audible to the person next to me—we were in a church after all.
My dad looked up from his spot beside me.
To my declaration of disbelief in the bargaining chip that was supposed to keep Christians in line, keep him from behaving the way he’d been behaving his entire adult life, he sighed and said, “For my sake, I hope you’re right.”
The response caught me off-guard. What was a girl, barely a teen, supposed to say when her dad practically told her he was sure he was going to Hell? I didn’t have a sarcastic remark or a snide comment so I did something I rarely did in those days, I looked into his eyes. They were sad, probably still glassy from his last drink. It was impossible to tell at this point in his life whether he was completely sober or if he’d had a few.
The fact that he didn’t look sick, shaky, or like he was about to throw up probably meant that he’d had at least a few pulls from the brown, acrid bottle of Canadian whiskey hidden under our couch. He wasn’t drunk, he just needed it to function. Maybe it was this truth, the understanding between himself and his creator that even though he was in church, he was still hovering just on the edge of drunk, one foot poking the line between this world and the next, that led him to respond the way he did.
I didn’t know then that I would never forget those words. That for twenty years or more after they were spoken, the fact that my dad, the singer, the songwriter, the man who put on clown costumes for our birthdays and made hand puppets to keep us entertained, would only escape hell if it did not exist, was never far from the top of my mind.
I don’t know what made me say it, I’m not sure I even knew I felt it until I blurted it out. But I had been giving a lot less power to the church by that point in my life. Sitting on the wooden pew, listening to the minister talk at us about God and his capability to forgive, but also about the very real possibility of an eternity of punishment for earthly sins had started to feel wrong and I struggled to feel God’s presence. I didn’t feel him between these four walls and I couldn’t understand why my father, who had made monumental mistakes in his life but was still caring, kind, sensitive, gentle, and devoted to his God in many ways, was at risk for eternal damnation.
If anyone had reason to wish ill will on the man sitting next to me, it was the people who lived with him. We were the ones who faced his mistakes every day, who watched him let go of the thin strings of sobriety tying him to a normal life time after time. We were the ones who suffered because of his choices, maybe not at the heat of the fires of hell, but on the edge of a life of ever-looming uncertainty—we suffered, yet we forgave. Or at least, we tried…
Without another word he stood, on steady feet for now but who knew what the next few hours held, and made his way into the sanctuary, joining the rest of the choir for practice. He joined their ranks and I took a seat in one of the pews.
When he stepped forward for his solo, I sat a little taller.
This was it. This was where I found God. I didn’t find Him through the Minister or in the giant wooden cross hanging above the altar. I didn’t feel Him with me when I stood over my bathroom sink trying to muffle my sobs and praying as my dad screamed at my mom to give him back his bottle. I didn’t feel Him even as I talked to him, pleading with Him over and over to make it stop, to make us normal, to help my dad.
But I felt Him when my dad started to sing. When he shared the voice that you knew was a rare gift, whether in a church, on a stage, or from the edge of my bed on a sleepless night, the icy grip my dad had on my heart melted for just a moment. I felt Him because this must be what it was like when God spoke to you—this eruption of goosebumps as his sweet baritone filled the room and the warm feeling of contentment that washed over me. For a brief, peace-filled moment, his voice quieted the drum of anger that constantly pounded within me and everything was ok. There were no promises he wouldn’t be a sobbing mess by 8:00 tonight but right now his voice was clear as glass and it was impossible to picture his shaky hand barely holding on to a cigarette. His words were as smooth as the wood of a shiny black guitar and it was hard to imagine that sometimes we could barely understand his slurred speech. His eyes were shining and it was easy to forget the darkness that came over them when the demons were fighting within him, because in his voice you could almost hear Heaven.
In that quiet moment with God and my Dad I knew…I knew that it didn’t matter if there was a hell or not because no matter he’d done, no matter what mistakes he’d made, there was no way God would reject one of his angels.