The Art of Dying
And not only would she read to me, and show me the illustrations, but she would also talk about the day when I, Angel…
My mother’s mother Olga was religious — religious bordering on madness. Jesus and the Bible were every-thing. Not that I really understood the madness of being over-the-top Christian at the time, but I had overheard my dad, more than once, refer to Olga, and her equally religious sister Ebba, as the old Jesus witches, so it probably wasn’t an altogether good thing, this Jesus thing.
Still, Olga — during my long summer visits with her — was my largest and most reliable source of income, so, really, what wrong could she do? Really, she was very, very kind to me, shamelessly called me the “Angel Child” for all to hear. Mom and Dad, if within earshot, would roll their eyes or shake their heads (or both), for they knew, all too well, a different side of me. Well, be that as it may.
Olga, though, God’s child that she was, would often — especially on those long rainy days when you could not play outside and you’d run out of mischief (for now) to do in the barn — would often read to me from her old, ginormous, Gustav Doré Bible, and every so often she’d show me those amazing etchings of his, illustrating various Biblical scenes. Truth be told, I was fascinated by his illustrations and could hardly get enough of them. I could get enough of being read to, though; but since I, by this time, had figured out that staying in Olga’s good graces was profitable, I sat through these readings, Angel Child that I was.
And not only would she read to me, and show me the illustrations, but she would also talk about the day when I, Angel Child, would see the light of Jesus for myself and be saved. She didn’t press the issue, but she never left it alone either. Once or twice a week she would forecast, and enjoy, my eventual coming home to Jesus. This was a dream for her and I could tell that were this to happen, or when it would happen (one day, for sure, according to her), she would be the happiest Jesus witch in the world.
Another name for me back then was “Lill-Uppa,” which basically means Little Ulf in some sort of strange grandmotherly shorthand — or, possibly, that was how I said my name as I began talking, Uppa. Who knows, and it’s too late to find out: all who might have known have now passed. Anyway, so she would dream of the glorious day when Lill-Uppa would find Jesus; and not seldom she would voice this dream, even with eye-rolling and head-shaking parents present. Yes, one day. She was sure of it. And so she’d read me some more of the Bible and show me some more of those amazing Doré illustrations.
I especially remember his illustration of the Devil tempting Jesus during his forty-day desert vacation. Jesus standing, nimbused head and all, and looking over-the-top holy, the Devil with wings like two large sickle-blades kneeling to Jesus’ right, indicating with a sweep of his right arm all the land and riches he would give Jesus if only… Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t buy this, of course.
“Look,” she would say, pointing at the Devil’s face. “Look at that sneaky, sneaky face. See that nasty face, see how vicious he is. He’s trying to fool Jesus, you know. He doesn’t have any lands or riches to give him, he just wants Jesus to break his fast, so he can prove that Jesus is not as good or as strong as he thinks he is.”
And then Olga would moisten her lips with her habitual quick in an out of her tongue, and she, herself, would marvel at the image, at the Devil, at Jesus, and I (even at, what was I? seven or eight, perhaps) got the very firm impression that my grandmother really believed that this is what they actually had looked like, Jesus and the Devil. Kudos Doré, I guess.
And then she would not omit to mention (as in predict) the glorious day when Lill-Uppa would be saved and meet Jesus for real. What a glorious day that will be.
I think I was eleven, might even have been twelve, the summer that I made her dream come true.
During the week in question, there were a series of tent revival meetings in the village. A well-known (to Olga and Ebba and many of their friends, anyway) pastor was in town, preaching, exhorting, and saving souls. Each night, at seven o’clock, the meetings would start, everybody welcome. Olga and Ebba had both attended, and more than once. Each time I had declined their invitation to come along. This particular evening neither of them was going — things to do, foods to cook — and this is when I decided to go see what the hoopla was all about.
I told Olga I was going and she beamed at the good news. “Oh, Lill-Uppa. Oh.”
At about a quarter to seven, then, I mounted one of the bicycles that we had at our disposal and pedaled off to meet Jesus. It wasn’t far: down to the nearby railway tracks, turn left before crossing them, up a long, slight incline, over the narrow, high bridge, and up to the crossroads. The tent had been erected just to the right before you got to the larger road. Not a very large tent. Not circus-sized or anything. It’d seat perhaps a hundred or so. Nice inside though. A little altar and a pulpit. The wood benches were placed directly on the (still freshly) mowed grass, and the softly lit space (the sun was still quite high in the sky this far north) had a wonderful and summery smell to it.
I walked down the aisle, benches to the left and right of me. The tent was about three-quarters full, I’d say. A voice or two expressed surprise and/or delight that I was there (Olga had no doubt talked up the Angel Child in the neighborhood). Smiling and nodding, I found myself a good place to sit about halfway from the pulpit and as far to the right as I could get. I was there to see, not to be seen. Sliding past a few more smiling faces, I sat down and waited for the show to begin. The tent was filled with the susurrus of whispering, anticipating trees. More people entered.
Looking around, my eyes met quite a few others, all in smiling faces. It was almost like a surprised, communal welcome. Surprised, I guess, for I was the only child there, that I could see; most of the gathering were old people, older than fifty would be my guess. Perhaps one or two in their twenties or thirties, but mostly gray hair. I wasn’t surprised by this at the time but I am now, recollecting this. Of course, coming-to-Jesus meetings are not a teenager thing, but I would have expected some children at least, and a lot more regular (as in not elderly) grownups.
Again, I liked the way the tent and the grass (crushed under so many benches and feet — relinquishing odor) smelled and to this day this fragrance is part and parcel of what makes up a Swedish summer evening for me. That lovely smell.
But now we’re getting down to business. Someone, probably the pastor’s assistant, closed the large tent flap over the entrance indicating meeting-in-progress (though I was sure they would let strays in, even so). Once done, the assistant sat down on a single folding chair in the back, and here came the pastor, rising from the left-hand front bench (where he had been sitting, talking to some people he seemed to have known from before, he was so natural and friendly with them).
He stepped up to the little pulpit and surveyed the gathering with what struck me as very kind eyes.
Now, memory does not serve up a good image of the pastor, so I’m going to hand that task over to imagination: he was tall, six feet and an inch or two. Almost looming. Cropped brown hair, balding. A very warm smile. Blue eyes, still surveying his flock. The pastor’s smile remains kind and warm and welcoming: happy to see you all here, truly.
Then he closes his eyes and bows his head in what I assumed (and rightly so, I’ve come to realize) was prayer.
I am not going to recount all he said and did (though I found what he said about India and his two missions to that vast, far-away, heathen-filled country very interesting), or all that the gathering said and did (which included several songs I didn’t know, but they did, and loudly) and jump ahead a baker’s hour to where the good pastor, again with that really wonderful smile of his, said: “Who, then, tonight, are ready to meet our Savior? Who are ready to be saved?”
For the longest time, well, at least a full minute, nobody moved or said anything. No susurrus now. What I’ve later come to know as a pregnant silence. Then, from two rows behind me, an old lady rose and made her way to the aisle and then down it for the pastor — who had abandoned his little pulpit and now stood in the grass in front of it to greet any takers.
Once she had made it all the way up to the tall man, she fell down on her knees and the pastor put his hand on her head and looked up (blissfully) and said, “I welcome you into the house of Jesus. You are saved.”
At that I heard a loud “Hallelujah” from behind me, which was quickly followed by several more, rising like large birds for the ceiling. The old lady rose and turned around and I saw that she was crying. Smiling and crying — happy, it seemed, beyond belief. A small place inside me envied her.
While she made her way back to her seat, sort of parting a sea of greetings and congratulations, someone else stood up, a man in his thirties (one of the few) who strode up to the pastor and then fell to his knees. The pastor saved him and just like the lady, the man rose, turned, smiled and he, too, had tears in his eyes. Again, that small place inside me envied.
Two or three or four more people followed suit (I don’t have an accurate count for by now a crazy notion — spawned and nurtured by that envious spot inside — had taken over and I was truly nervous, fearing, I think, that I might follow suit and myself stride down to the pastor for his blessing and warm welcome to the house of Jesus.
And that’s when I realized that not only would it be so nice to suddenly be as happy as these saved people all seemed to be, but I could also see Olga’s face suffused with rapture, radiant, when I would tell her, returning home to her, that I had been blessed by the pastor, accepted by Jesus and saved. She would be so, so, so incredibly happy. So happy in fact that I am not sure that it was entirely my volition that, after a minute or two of no further takers, rose me to my feet, made my way to the aisle, and down it up to the now looking-down-on-me and beaming pastor.
I looked up at this big smile and he nodded to me, yes, he nodded, please kneel. So I did.
Now, here’s the thing: I had anticipated an avalanche of bliss the moment the pastor declared me saved. I had envisioned gates opened to flood the darkness of my young life with heavenly light. I saw myself floating on clouds and crying for the sheer joy of it.
So, I kneeled.
To hear the good pastor deliver what I’ve later come to realize was his stock formula, “I welcome you into the house of Jesus. You are saved.”
I braced myself for the bliss-impact.
And braced myself for the bliss-impact and brace myself some more. For the out-swinging gates, for the billowing robes of Jesus as he rushed out through them to welcome me with open arms.
And braced myself some more.
Yes, the Hallelujahs behind me were as loud, if not louder than for the others, but the huge expectations which by now should have been bliss-filled grew hollower by the second. For a breath or two or three the emptiness did battle with disappointment, and by the fourth breath I realized that this was not going to happen, bliss was not going to crush me. And in the same (fourth) breath I also realized that I must not let this show. I must appear as blessed, as saved, as joyous as my forerunners. Anything less would be bad form, and would, of course, be impolite toward the pastor.
So I rose and turned and beamed and beamed and strode down the ally of Hallelujahs and somehow found my seat.
Apparently, I was the final act of the show for soon more and more people rose and some made for the now re-opened tent flap while others made it up to the pastor to shake his hand or have a word. I rose, too, and made for the evening outside.
The air had cooled a bit, especially with the absence of so many people close by, the sun still up though, birds flitting about and still singing some of them, I remember actually noting this, despite my rapidly growing problem: I was saved. Near enough a hundred people, many of whom knew Olga well, and would no doubt recount the Lill-Uppa miracle come morning, had seen this; and I had played the part to perfection — for by now, at eleven or twelve, I knew how to play parts to perfection.
Yes, I was saved, officially, objectively, but not even close subjectively. In fact, I was about as un-saved as they come. So, what, what on earth do I tell Olga? Do I keep up the charade to make her happy, or do I tell her the truth? Could I, indeed, tell her the truth? The empty chasm where bliss should have been, the huge disappointment of the missing Christ? No, no, I could not tell her that. Even at eleven (or twelve) I knew that this might, if not break at least damage her heart. So, since it would be worth it to see her happy: I decided to stay saved; and perhaps I was having an unusually slow saved-reaction, perhaps I would wake up tomorrow in a sea of bliss.
So I made it all the way back to her house and climbed the rickety stairs up to her room and entered. She looked up from whatever she was doing (most likely reading the Bible) and said: “How was it?”
“Mommi,” I said. That’s what we called her, my mom and me. “I’ve been saved.”
It was worth it: She lit up like a little sun. And then she erupted into a glorious cacophony of praise and thanks peppered with Hallelujahs and other holy words (I assumed they were). And then she hugged me and then she held me at arm’s length and took a thorough inventory of her newly saved Lill-Uppa as if to make sure I was not an apparition or something.
Me, I felt a weird mixture of pride and shame. I had really made her happy, but I was — wasn’t I? — deceiving her. I wasn’t going to wake up tomorrow morning in a sea of bliss, was I?
When she seemed done thanking God and Jesus for this little miracle called Angel Child and his finding Jesus, I told her that I was quite tired now and wanted to go to bed. She nodded that she understood, as if she knew that being saved was hard work, so no wonder I was tired.
Olga, on the other hand, was more awake than ever and left the room to spread the news.
I slept in a little alcove tucked in between Olga’s room and the southern outer wall; low, sloping ceiling under the outside roof. Hardly four feet wide and maybe twelve long. But a nice, low window perfect for looking out through when you were lying down in your soft and warm mattress-on-the-floor bed. And I was looking out through it now, down at the village below and the railroad tracks. No trains this late, all quiet out there in the un-saved world. And I was trying to figure out how to break the news that the saving hadn’t taken, hadn’t stuck. That I was, in fact, un-saved, or would certainly be come morning.
And perhaps this being saved business was hard work for I soon fell asleep and didn’t wake up until Mommi knocked on the little door and told me that breakfast was ready.
To this day I don’t really understand how she took my news so well. For one, I guess, she would have noticed my hesitation and plain awkwardness picking at my breakfast and for two, perhaps my mom had warned her that I was not always the most trustworthy of humans (as if Olga didn’t already know). I just don’t know though.
Observing me rather closely she asked me how I felt this morning, and I must have answered something along the lines of “it didn’t take” or “it didn’t last” or words to that effect — none too diplomatic, would be my guess. But she didn’t break down and cry in some kind or reversal of the praises sung the night before. She just nodded and said, “Maybe some other time.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Maybe some other time.”
But she was nonetheless subdued, no doubt. For most of that day, and the next, for the whole week — by which time I had more or less forgotten all about it and had stopped paying attention to what possible effect.
To this day I am glad that I came clean, though, which was not quite par for the Lill-Uppa course. But I knew, in my bones if nowhere else, that this was an important issue, and for me to play-act saved for the rest of my stay (several weeks to go) would have been way beyond the pale, even for me. And I got to see her so, so amazingly happy, if only for that one evening.
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