The youth-written stories in YCteen give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Talking to the Ceiling
My mind has stopped believing, but my heart still prays
Percy Diego Lujan Silventes
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Everyone stood around the house, either smoking or talking about how good a person the woman in the coffin had been. She wasn’t really a member of my family; she was my uncle’s mother-in-law. I walked outside and leaned against the house because I’d been standing for too long.

My cousin was standing outside too, and I noticed she’d been crying. The person who had just died was her grandmother. It’s always uncomfortable to see somebody sad, but I kept calm because the woman had enough sad people around her. Christians believe that if you’re a right-doing person, you’ll go to heaven after you die. Assuming my cousin believed her grandmother was right-doing, I said, “She is in a better place now.”

Starting to Question

I think my cousin was grateful for my words and, at 10 years old, they were what I believed. In the early years of my life, I had been told that death was as simple as going to heaven or going to hell. I took what I was told as fact. It was easy to comprehend, so why would someone complicate life by trying to explain it another way?

But coming to this country from Peru when I was 12 altered what I took for granted. My mind got wider, and I started to question what death really meant. Part of this was me growing up and thinking more analytically, but it was also because here I found myself surrounded by a multicultural society and a secular (non-religious) way of thinking. In school I learned about the scientific method, and I became convinced that for me to accept something, I had to first have proof that it’s real.

No one can prove the existence of heaven. Therefore, I decided to throw my belief in God to one side and welcome logic and reason as ways of explaining the world. But it’s not always easy to not believe in God, because there are always people who think you are a bad person for not believing. Adults often don’t take you seriously, and think that you are too young to decide for yourself. So I have had to keep reminding myself to stay strong in my new beliefs.

Cycle of Life

After reading a novel called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by the British author Mark Haddon, I discovered a non-religious but beautiful way of seeing death that made it easier for me not to believe in God.

It works like this: when we die and our bodies return to the earth, they combine with the soil. Plants will use the soil; animals will eat those plants; other animals will eat the animals that ate those plants. Life on the planet would not be possible without death, since death is part of the cycle that makes the most marvelous thing in this universe happen: life.

People may think it’s creepy that their bodies will rot until they’re unrecognizable. But I’m not scared of this happening to my body because, while I use my body to move in the world, I believe it doesn’t belong to me alone. It belongs to the whole planet.

One Meter From Death

But even though I believe this, sometimes my emotions need a better answer than the ones science has—for example, when death is literally one meter away from me. One Saturday afternoon more than a year ago, I was in front of the computer at home when the phone rang; it was my mother.

She’s a home caregiver and she was at the apartment of an old man she’d been taking care of for the past couple of months. He had Alzheimer’s disease and had recently suffered complications. On this day, she asked my father to send me to the man’s apartment in Manhattan. I supposed she wanted help tending to him.

When I arrived at the apartment, my mother asked me if I wanted to see the sick man. Without thinking, I went to his bed. He was very pale; he had his bony left arm at one side of his body, and his equally bony right arm over his body. As he breathed, it sounded like he had something liquid and heavy in his lungs. His mouth was wide open trying to suck in the air above his face.

In fact, my mother had called me because she knew the old man was about to die, and she wanted someone who spoke English there to talk with the woman who lived with him. So, while my mother gave him water using an ice cube wrapped in a handkerchief, I went to the living room to sit with the woman.

A Fact of Life

image by Yong Han Chen, image by Yong Han Chen

Once again, I felt an obligation to make this person feel better in the midst of losing a loved one. Even though I had given up all my religious beliefs, I thought I should give some religious hope to the woman to help her feel better.

“Are you a religious person?” I asked.

The woman waved her hand, meaning she wasn’t. So I decided to share my non-religious way of looking at death. I talked about Mark Haddon’s book, and it turned out that she had also read it. She also thought it was a very good book, and began recalling some of the characters and the plot.

I thought she was a very open-minded lady. Her beliefs may not have reassured her that she would ever see her dying friend again, but she understood death as a fact of life. When we finished talking, the woman rose from her chair and walked inside the room. A minute later, she appeared at the door. “I think he died,” she said. I quickly stood and went inside the room. My mother and the woman held a small circular mirror on top of the man’s mouth, and when they saw no moisture forming, they knew he had died.

I stayed alone in the room with the body as my mother helped the woman begin notifying friends of the man’s death.

Mind vs. Heart

Some people say you go to heaven when you die. Others say you’re reincarnated as somebody else. Sitting in that room, I didn’t feel any spirits or any supernatural power in action. My beliefs agreed with what I saw happening when somebody died: absolutely nothing.

But while my mind understood things in one way, my heart felt them in another. For one thing, I felt a little nervousness and fear because, even though I knew the man would not get up again, those movies about zombies still have an effect on you. And I felt confused, because I wished I had a better explanation for death. It’s hard to deal with death when you don’t believe in a better life after death.

“Is this it?” I thought. “Does a great thing like life end just like that?”

My mother and I left before the paramedics came. We walked close together toward the subway station. My mother told me he was now in a better place.

I listened to her, but didn’t comment. I looked up to the sky. There, the moon shone in a red circle over the city; it was a lunar eclipse. A signal from the man to let us know that everything was alright, that he was happier now? My heart thought so. Even though my brain wouldn’t have agreed, it didn’t react at that moment. In that moment, my heart was stronger than my brain.

Beauty in Death

Many cultures picture death as a fearsome figure, but seeing that man’s suffering as he tried to breathe confirmed my belief that death may come as a well-deserved relief. This is probably one of the few things I now believe by faith alone: that the last moment of life will be the best moment. All your successes, all the things you achieved, all the things you contributed, are paid back to you the moment you take your last breath, even though you can only enjoy it briefly.

And of course, as Mark Haddon’s book showed me, another reward in death is the opportunity to take part in the beginning of new life. So if I were to personify death, I would draw it as a beautiful woman. Why a woman? Well, women are the beginning of new human lives, and death is the beginning of all lives on the planet.

My Two Sides

My grandfather died a few months ago, and in my mind I accepted his death, too, as part of the planet’s process of destruction and recreation. However, that day I found myself looking at the empty ceiling and talking to it. And even today, I sometimes feel my grandfather’s spirit is walking with me, seeing me make my family proud. So a side of me continues to use not my head, but instead the unthinking heart.

Whenever I have to say farewell to a close loved one in the future, I will probably find myself praying to the ceiling again. This is how I live: sometimes, even if my brain is reasoning, my heart is praying.

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(NYC-2008-12-03)

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