We are amalgams of animal and angel, with a mind in the middle

Because I earned good grades, a lot of the other kids in my Catholic schools in California -- St. Euphrasia Elementary in Granada Hills, Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills, and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles -- called me a teacher's pet, or a brown-noser.

Okay, yes, I admit I was nice to the teachers, especially the white-haired nuns at St. Euphrasia. In fifth grade, some of the kids were so mean to our teacher Sr. Marie Claire, she was sent home for the year with shingles!

The two most important ladies in my life were my Nonna and my Aunt Alice -- 50 and 60 years older than I, respectively -- so I didn't think of students and teachers as Us vs. Them. I knew that someday, I would also be a white-haired old lady, that we were all on a continuum together, and I hoped, that when I got to that age, somebody would be kind to me.

But the moments I remember most keenly from my 16 years of Catholic education are those when I not only disagreed with my teachers, but stood up to them in class, refusing to pretend that just because they were older and in charge, they were necessarily right.

One example is a high school English teacher who insisted that Longfellow's A Psalm of Life -- which reads in part:

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Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints in the sands of time

-- was expounding on the permanence of man's achievements.

Everybody else in class nodded in agreement, but I felt compelled to raise my hand. With some indignation (please remember that I was still a teenaged person, and not yet humbled by life), I said something like: "Permanence? Permanence! It says footsteps in the sands of time, people. Not concrete. Not granite. SANDS. Anybody else walk in the sand on the beach? What happens to your footprints? They get washed away! Blown away! The sands themselves get moved away in storms!"

I rested my case. And was completely overruled by the teacher and my peers. I was wrong, they were right, and let's move on to the next poem, please.

Then at LMU, when I was a freshman in Philosophy 101, the laconic professor leaned against his desk, blew the swath of salt and pepper hair out of eyes, and held out an egg. He was explaining that Pluto and Aristotle saw man as a striated being, and was using the egg as a visual aid. "Picture layers," he said. "Body on the round bottom, Mind in the middle, and Soul on pointy top. The body is base, the soul sublime, and mind is the filter between the two."

Again, all the other students just nodded and jotted down those words in their spiral notebooks.

I looked around, and realized I was the only one who was raising my hand.

Dr. Salt and Pepper looked a bit startled by my apparent breach of total acceptance. He pointed at me. "Yes?"

"Um," I said, not quite as self-assured as I had been in high school, "Doesn't that model of man suggest a hierarchy? I mean, doesn't it make the body below or less than the other two, mind and soul?"

He sighed, not particularly aroused or interested, "Obviously." He placed the egg gingerly on his desk, then picked up his textbook, thumbing to a particular page.

I raised my hand again. Now his voice had an edge of irritation. "Yes?!"

"But," I looked around and found no supporters, everyone staring at their pens. "Um, I mean, weren't Plato and Aristotle all about uplifting mankind, that is, not just striving for the perfection behind this life, the shadows on the cave wall? It seems to me that in this life, the egg is flipped on its side, you know?"

My hands were making egg shapes in the air in front of my face. I'm part Italian. It's what I do.

"I mean, right? The egg is not like this, standing up, but like this, on its side. Not one above the other. But Body is next to Mind which is next to Soul. They are all equally powerful and interacting. They are like three walls holding up the house. I mean, don't most humans make most decisions based on their bodies? Hunger? Thirst? Shelter? Procreation? Your feelings come from your brain, but those come from the release of hormones, right? I mean, you can't get in front of physical reactions. You can think. You can feel. But those come first, right?"

Again, with only one condemning glance from Dr. S and P, and the total disinterest of my fellow freshman, I was overruled. Case closed. Ignore that bossy girl. The class moved on.

But I never forgot the sands of time. And I never forgot the egg.

Nine years later, I had long ago graduated, married, was the mother of two children, and was pregnant for the third time. I can't repeat what my response was when in the third month of that pregnancy, the ultrasound technician said: "Hey, look, you're having twins!"

Five months later, at what they explained was full term for twins, my beautiful five-and-a-half-pound golden-haired twin sons Gabriel and Jacob were delivered by emergency C-section. Gabe died in the delivery room. Then two days later, at Seattle Children's Hospital, Jake joined his brother in Heaven.

I have long described the period that followed this way: I had two kids here, I had two kids there. I literally rode the fence between Earth and Heaven for a year and a half -- not knowing where I belonged, if or how I could be both places at once -- until my youngest son Duncan was born, and I decided to stay.

There is no closure when you bury children. Jake and Gabe died 25 years ago, and I can still be driving alone in my car, and find myself crying, for no other reason than missing them. Of course, I look forward to seeing them in Heaven someday. In fact, I count on it. But the hole they left in my body, in my heart, is real and can't be filled by anyone else.

The first month after the twins died, I felt buffered by a thick padding, what I now understand was shock. Ladies from our parish dropped off meals each night. Family members flew in for the funeral, then went back to their own lives. About a thousand dollars' worth of cut flowers turned brown in our living room.

Then one morning, I woke and for a second or two, there was nothing. No feeling. No memory. Like a radio alarm clock that comes alive at the appointed time, but there is no station selected. Static.

Then it hit. What felt like a garbage truck falling from the ceiling onto my chest. BOOM. Radiating out from my crushed heart, the pain was so heavy and encompassing, I could barely breathe. My breasts had enough milk for twins, but no baby was there to drink it. The skin over my belly was slack, covering a crater that had housed two kicking boys for almost nine months. Their blue nursery downstairs had two of everything, but no feet would ever wear those tiny socks.

The emptiness where Jake and Gabe had been was gaping, and stretched to an infinite horizon. I teetered on the edge of that chasm, held there only by the need to care for the two children on this side. Without them, there would have been nothing to keep me from toppling forward into that void.

For about six months, I lived a double life. Robotically meeting the kids' needs during the day -- making breakfast, lunch, dinner, dressing them, bathing them, putting them to bed -- then each night, I would pace and cry and mumble. Most mornings, I would wake in a crumpled pile on the living room carpet, smooth myself down, and do it again.

Then one evening, as I sat folding warm laundry in the dark, I watched a "National Geographic" special about gorillas. A mother gorilla had been showing off her new baby gorilla, passing it around in a circle of her gorilla girlfriends. Somehow, when the baby was handed back, its neck had been broken. It was dead.

The mother gorilla hung on to that limp body for a month. She rocked it, held it to her breast, picked fleas off of it. As the weeks passed, and the body became frayed and tattered, she would lay it at the base of a tree, and move further and further away. Finally, one day, she just kept going.

I sat on the carpet, in the dark of my living room, in a house in a city in a country on the planet, and howled.

The noises coming out of me were not what anyone would consider human. They didn't originate in my brain. They didn't emanate from my soul. They came from the depths of my animal self, my mother beast. This was what she had needed. A month with the two small broken bodies of my litter, my offspring. Time to hold them, time to love them, time to slowly adjust to their lifelessness. Time, time, time was what was needed by my body to understand, to grieve, and finally, to move on.

But of course, our civilized culture would not accommodate this time. We no longer lay out our dead on our dining tables in our parlors. We don't wash them ourselves. Don't dress them ourselves. Don't have time to sit and talk with them in the wee hours, to curse them for leaving us, to cry, and laugh, and howl.

Bodies of our beloved dead are whisked away, to be readied for burial or cremation by discrete professionals in some sterile place. This is meant to make it easier on us, I suppose.

That night, I fully knew and appreciated that for my body, for the animal being that I am in this life, on this earth, this practice makes death harder.

My soul knows my darlings are safe with God and my other family and friends in Heaven. My mind understands birth, life and death, the cycle in which we all participate. But my body? My spirit cannot show it Heaven. My mind cannot explain to it the circle of life. My body learns by doing, by living it. It is a creature. It eats, drinks, sleeps, poops, works, makes babies, feeds them, will do anything to protect them, with all the instinct and ferocity of other creatures.

And this is when I remembered the egg. And knew my intuition about the three parts of us was right, all along. The egg should be on its side.

What Pluto and Aristotle and Dr. Salt and Pepper were trying to grasp, to explain is this: we are each a mysterious amalgam of animal and angel, with a conscious mind in the middle.

Perhaps Jake and Gabe gave me the greatest gift, when their deaths made me aware that I was perched on a fence rail between here and Heaven. We all are. One leg dangling on each side. One foot touching dirt, the other clouds. I know I belong in both places.

And it goes without saying who was right about that sands of time thing.

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]


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