My 3-year-old granddaughter is very interested in animals that are “distinct.”
“The dinosaurs are all distinct,” Bess tells me solemnly, and then adds, a vague note sounding here, “and some of the alligators, too.”
The question of distinction -- particularly our own -- demands attention. I mean, we’ve ceded the dinosaurs. But what if “some of the alligators, too,” includes me? I understand that it is precisely this fear that makes hardcore atheism such a hard sell.
“This is it. You’re going to die. And rot. Me, too. But we’ll always have the periodic table.”
Not the best sales pitch I ever heard.
Contrast that with the old gospel song:
One bright morning,
When this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away …
To a land where joy will neverend,
I’ll fly away.
Well, atheists rejoice! Turns out there is eternal life for nonbelievers, too. It has nothing to do with bright mornings or joy, and certainly not joy that never ends, but it is -- at least as near as I can tell -- everlasting. It’s called email, and you will continue to receive it long after you have taken your last breath.
My mother died on Dec. 21, 2011. Just yesterday, she received an email from a congressional candidate in California who laments that he has not heard from her lately. Me, neither. But he, unlike me, expects to hear from her soon. Because, without her, his opponent will win and that misbegotten victory will make the mass dinosaur distinction look like a romp in the park.
Mother gets regular electronic missives from this man, along with Nancy Pelosi -- who wants Mother to know “the Republicans are at it again!” -- and the folks at Wells Fargo, who want her to know that death, apparently, is no bar to low interest on a home loan. Which, okay, so it’s not “God’s celestial shore,” but it could be a nice 3-bedroom, 2-bath at less than 4 percent fixed for 30 years.
Lifescript Advantage wants Mother to know “these four signs of a heart attack.”
“Too late,” I think as I hit delete.
Nordstrom wants Mother to know they are having their big half-yearly sale. I stop and count up the number of half-yearly sales Mother has been called to and missed in four years.
Michaels wants Mother to know their Christmas decorations are 70 percent off. I think of the evergreen wreath we placed on her headstone last month.
It feels, in the words of “I’ll Fly Away,” like “cold iron shackles on my feet.”
There’s a delicious irony here, because my mother never had any interest in things electronic. She hated push-button phones and cellphones and, in particular, telephone answering machines. She steadfastly refused to “leave a message after the beep.” It didn’t matter. I always knew it was Mother even before we had caller ID because she would pause, unhappily surprised once again to be listening to a robotic voice rather than talking to me, then mutter in her thick Texas accent, “I hate these damn things,” just before hanging up. Thus leaving several messages after the beep.
The “Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline” people and the “Protect Obamacare” people and the “End Citizens United” people and the people who want “the Koch brothers STOPPED,” and, oh yes, “an end to violence” want her to sign petitions.
Scott Peters wants her to know she’s the reason he’s running. Someone named Rick Palacio wants her “to take a few minutes” and fill out a survey to let him know how he’s doing.
When Paul Ryan became speaker of the house, Mother received this boldface, large-font message:
This could be a DISASTER for seniors, women, families and most middle-class Americans. [Not to mention, it would seem, the dearly departed.] But it doesn’t have to be. Please, Betty, click here and donate before it’s too late.
I would suggest, indeed, I have repeatedly suggested, that it is, in fact, too late. Granted, my mother was a self-described “Yellow Dog Democrat,” meaning she’d sooner vote for a “yella dawg” than a Republican, but her “click here and donate” days, even for the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, are over.
“Please remove her from your list,” I type, and hit “send.” I’ve tried using boldface, large font and yellow highlighting along with exclamation points. Yet, I am greeted every morning with a stranger’s salutation, “Dear Betty.”
Not a month ago, someone named Angela Maclean, who says she serves in the Office of the Commissioner for Higher Education in Montana -- a state my mother never, to my knowledge, lived in, though I think she visited it once -- emailed to ask Mother “to chip in” and elect education-friendly state legislators “for Montana’s children and their futures.” I’ve tried telling Ms. Mac-lean and others that Mother’s “chipping in” days, like her “click here” days, are over, on account of her being dead.
But death means nothing to the new eternity. Death means nothing to these online disciples of the “eternal life through ether” theology.
So, atheists, rejoice! “Just a few more weary days and then” we can continue our never-ending quest to chip in for Montana.
[Melissa Musick Nussbaum’s column is My Table Is Spread. Her latest book, with co-author Anna Keating, is The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life and will be in bookstores in February.]