When I was ten years old I passed through a period when I could not sleep. Probably the first sleepless night was an accident, or perhaps the first two, but I began to worry about them, and soon I couldn’t sleep at all. Long before bedtime I would start feeling anxious, and however tired I might have been all evening, by the time I was ready for bed I was awake and alert. In my anxiety I would go to my parents, trying to laugh, make light of it all, and they would laugh with me, aware of my worries and wanting not to add to them. We would laugh at my comic arrival in their bedroom, at ten o’clock, eleven, eleven-thirty, at twelve; when it got that late they would say, “Oh David, are you still awake?” and I could see the concern behind their smiles, and perhaps a trace of annoyance, as they let me come with them into their bed, and promised that if I were too tired the next day, I would not have to go to school.
My memories of my father are vivid from those years. I particularly remember the long hot summer evenings, when we would have opened every window and door, trying to catch a breeze (my father announcing its arrival with a shout like a command: “Feel the breeze”); by the late evening it did get cool, and quite comfortable, as we sat reading in the living room. He would still be wearing a white shirt, rumpled by then, from work, and an old pair of khaki pants that he relaxed in. He did not smoke at the office — I think he felt a doctor shouldn’t smoke in front of his patients — but in the evening would take some cigarettes from my mother’s pack and smoke them between the hours of his nap (he always took a nap after dinner) and his late bed time. He had a can of beer beside his chair, which through the evening must have been two or three cans: he was not a heavy drinker, but would have a drink before dinner and those several beers afterwards. My father sitting with several buttons of his shirt open, so the thick graying hair of his chest showed; his light occasional sips from the beer; the three or four long, quiet exhalations of smoke from his lungs (when I later took up smoking, I would try to duplicate exactly those sounds); the rustling sound as he turned a page: I sat on the couch less to read than to be enveloped in that atmosphere. I was too old, by then, to sit with him in his chair, feel the warmth of his breath on my head, smell the faint odor of his sweat, but being just a few feet away was almost as comforting.
Those nights when I could not sleep I began to ask the unanswerable questions. I don’t remember whether my sleeplessness was a result of the anxiety they caused me, or whether, already awake, I stumbled upon those questions that were to cause me so much anguish. At first they did not exist in my mind as questions, simply an attempt at comprehension: I was trying to understand eternity, and I could not. I would picture endless blackness, like the utter darkness I had experienced once in the depths of a cavern; I would imagine myself moving through it with no end to my movement. I would try to imagine existing with no expectation for tomorrow, next week, next year, or the end of time, because there would be none, only an endless present. I would try to understand how God could exist with no beginning to his existence, how there could be an existence with no beginning, and then, by analogy, would try to conceive of my own life with no end, but I couldn’t do it; I would imagine myself, in that eternal blackness, thinking, “But it all must have started sometime, so it must sometime be going to end,” and if it all did end sometime — the universe, God, everything — what would there be in its place? What had been there before it began?
It may be that I was just afraid of dying, that I had suddenly discovered death — certainly the thought of eternal non-being terrified me — but somehow I was equally afraid of eternal life. What I could conceive of it — an existing with no particular purpose, goal; a thousandfold anxiety at its indeterminate future — seemed impossible, incredible, grotesque, an existence no one could want to lead.
Great thinkers have said that of all the eternal possibilities, endless life on this mortal Earth would be the worst. Yet, I also think that in those days what I most wanted was an assurance that my life as it existed then would infinitely continue, that there would be one after another of those quiet summer evenings with my father.
I finally took my fears to him, late on one of those nights when I couldn’t sleep. I have calculated: he died when I was sixteen, and I was told then that he had known of his illness for over six years. I was experiencing those fears at the same time he had discovered the disease in his body that was to kill him. I can remember my mother telling me of his long silences in those days just after he had been to the doctor; she had to wait several days for him to tell her what was wrong. I have often wondered if, by coincidence, I was asking him those questions at the worst possible time.
I remember his first reaction, a laughing quizzical concern, as if he were amazed I had brought those things up. I don’t remember exactly how he answered me. I don’t remember, either, that what he said particularly set my mind at rest; there was a long period when I could only get to sleep in bed with my father and mother. But I do remember something he told me, and perhaps it was the most important thing, just because it is what I have remembered, through all the years.
He must have sensed my solitude. For as I tried to imagine eternity, I did not envision a physical location, and therefore did not picture anyone around me. I knew that eternal life was to be spent in communion with God, but I didn’t know what that involved, what activity could last through eternity. I pictured only myself, in endless space and time, and the answer my father offered me — not as a little story you tell your son to allow him to sleep, but as a belief so much a part of him that it came naturally to his mind (if he had believed there was no eternal life I think he would have said that) was that I was not alone, that I lived in the presence of God. It’s odd as I think of it: he didn’t say that I would some day live in the presence of God; in a way he wasn’t answering my questions at all. But he said that when we are young we are unaware of God’s existence, of any existence, in fact, but our own; as far as we are concerned, the universe revolves around our being. It is only as we grow — perhaps he said if we grow — that we discover we are not the center of things, that the core of existence lies elsewhere, and, inasmuch as we continue to grow, we move out from concern with ourselves, try to center our existence in that core. The whole process of growth, in fact, involves that moving out from ourselves. Inasmuch as we grow at all we are involved in a search for God.
Those few words — it took him only moments to say them — did not make the universe any smaller, or simpler for me. I have no memory of immediately putting what he said into practice. I doubt that I really understood it; I had never thought of God in anything even remotely like those terms. But it must have impressed me. It is what I have remembered through all the years, even more than my fears.
Those fears have not disappeared. It seems the nature of human existence that, no matter how well we once explain them away, they do return, because they are not rational concerns. I still sometimes envision the darkness, feel the leaden weight of eternal time. But I think of my father, facing death straight on, devoting even his last days to his family, patients; I think of my wife, son, friends, the many lives that I touch just by being alive; I think of God, in an infinite universe, calling others into being that he might love them — just as, by loving, even we can call others into being. And my fears are not dispersed (I must learn to live with the fears within me always), but I do see a shadow, a hint, of the nature of eternal life.