THE LAST TIME I SAW HIM ALIVE, he had spent the day in Pompeii. We were visiting Italy and had stopped in Rome a few days. On this day, I stayed with my husband, Austin, for another round of sightseeing in the Eternal City, while my mother and brothers, Joe and Chris, took a day trip south to that strange and ancient town.
They had a tour guide. She showed them around the ruins, devastated by heat and ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. She highlighted relics of first-century Pompeiian life, preserved for fifteen hundred years under layers of ash. They saw the town’s forum, its frescoes, its homes and household objects—wine bottles, coins—even its brothels, where the walls were painted with ads of the sex positions for sale. They saw the Garden of Fugitives, where petrified bodies lay in rows along the ground, grayscale like an old war film.
When the city was excavated in the mid-nineteenth century, archeologists discovered voids left by Pompeiians whose bodies had decomposed in the hardened ash. Plaster was injected into the voids, revealing the very moves and expressions these people were making when the soot stopped them. Today, in the garden, their gray faces bear the shapes of horror, their bodies the postures of anguish. Their arms bend over their eyes. Mothers crouch over infants, desperate to save them. For years archeologists thought that the cause of death had been suffocation beneath the ash. Twenty-five meters of volcanic debris covered the city over six hours. Later research revealed that they died in the heat, with temperatures as high as 482 degrees. Pompeii was an inferno without flames.
I next saw him ten days later. “You should come,” my mother said. “You should be with him before the men take him away. They’ll wait for you. I’ll make them wait for you.” When I arrived, his hands and face were cool.
I don’t know anyone who enjoys talking about hell.
I’ve seen the preachers and sidewalk prophets wagging their fingers and waving flames on picket signs. They talk about hell, but I don’t believe they enjoy it—they’re compelled by conviction, a sense of duty to speak what they’re certain is true.
The rest of us are squeamish, silent.
I know people who think hell is a medieval anachronism and are baffled that anyone still believes in it. They toss hell into the pile of other gilded relics that give them the heebie-jeebies—priests, crucifixes, homophobia, Right to Life. They don’t like to talk about hell because what’s the point? Hell is a fiery fairy tale.
I know others who bury a vague belief in hell deep within. They think they have to believe in hell in order for their Christian convictions to hold together. If hell isn’t real, then what does Jesus save us from? They look to the scriptures. They see Jesus—whose compassion they emulate at the food pantry, at the church welcome table, at their potlucks—pledging to throw the unrepentant “into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” They shudder and shift their thoughts to their own salvation. They pray that all whom they love will be spared from hell alongside them. Then they tuck the belief back in the buried place. They don’t like to talk about hell because talking about it is unfashionable, and because thinking about it is, frankly, terrifying. If they have to talk about it, say, in explaining their faith to a curious agnostic, they choose their words like bad chess players, tentative in every move.
I know others who don’t like to talk about hell because of their reverence for things not yet revealed. These are the devout who abide in the arrondissement of mystery. They, too, look to the scriptures. They see Jesus preaching the blazing furnace, but they also see Jesus promising to draw all people to himself. They’re hopeful that all will find themselves among the glorious saints in light. But they’re wary of speculating about a thing as enormous as eternity, so they settle into quiet hope.
I used to keep my beliefs about hell tucked latent in the hidden place. After Joe died, they began to eat at their cupboard, like moths in a sweater drawer. At nightfall they beat their thousand wings against my stomach and chest, unnamed, discernible only as nervousness, hurry. They were blurred in the flurry of shock, sadness, remorse, and forgiveness that also swarmed in me that summer. But as the shock wore off, the sadness found expression, the remorse resolved and forgiveness was given, the beating persisted. It was as subtle as the sound of those sheer and powdered wings, but incessant. And I realized that, in the hidden place, I was worried about Joe’s salvation.
I was fourteen when Joe was first sent to rehab, and when a prayer for him began to burn in me, like a cinder. Lord, save my brother. I am straining to remember the substance of that initial spark. What did I mean by save him? Save him from addiction. Save him from loneliness. Save him to love. Had the vernacular of damnation come to me at fourteen? Was I asking that Joe be saved from hell?
I thought that salvation meant joy in God’s company, here and always. Salvation was the happiness I felt with the friends with whom I was discovering faith. It was the memory of the glittering eyes of church ladies, the clatter of cups and spoons sounding up the stairwell during my parents’ Bible study when I was a child. It was the happiness that one feels when one is surrounded by love. And I thought that hell, it seems to me now, meant love’s opposite: not hate, but separation. Separation from God. From others. From one’s own self. When I thought of hell, I imagined not fire, nor torture, nor suffering in any bodily sense, but mere and total isolation. I thought that if a person died in this psychological condition, there he would remain.
When I think of this now, I feel as if I’ve swallowed ice.
Can I even say I believed in hell? I barely thought of it. It was a vague and implausible opposite of my lived experience, and of the hope that I attended to. I expected instead that Joe would recover, that the distance between us would shrink, that we’d be friends, as siblings ought to be—holy love hemming us in.
In college, I learned what a tract was. At eighteen I was eager to tell others about God’s love, and, with the urgency typical of college freshmen, I was eager to find a tribe. One spring break, I traveled with a group of fervent students to the beaches of Panama City to hand out tracts and seek spiritual conversations with day-drinking strangers in the sand.
On one of the tract’s pages was an image of two cliffs separated by a bottomless ravine. The cliff on the left was marked Sinful Man. The cliff on the right was marked Holy God. Pointing from left to right were arrows that read Morality, Good Deeds, and Philosophy. The arrows reached toward God but fell downward, into the bottomless ravine. On the adjacent page was the same image of two cliffs, but a cross marked Jesus Christ bridged the ravine, enabling a little cartoon man to walk toward Holy God.
It was the first and last time I used a tract. But unknowingly I carried this image with me—secret cargo of consciousness. Deep in my being, where the carousel turns and the slides tell our stories, I saw Joe on the left and myself on the right and a deep ravine between us. Only Jesus could usher my brother to God, and—Is this what I wanted most?—place my brother beside me.
I don’t know what drove him out of church. Perhaps it was a benign teenage act of independence, or the movement of a modern person toward a worldview that prizes the rational over the religious. Perhaps there was an incident along the way, somewhere in the church basement—a wound. Or many wounds—here a tone of voice, there a puckered brow—a series of subtle rejections from the mainstream, and before long he found himself entirely outside, an organ rejected from the body.
Divergent belief caused the distance between us—belief, and the secrecy, solitude, and shame that isolate addicts. Joe started using drugs when he was twelve. It was normal kid stuff at first—pot, mostly—but when his friends went to college and got jobs, managing and curbing their use, Joe’s use raged. He did any drug he could find, every drug I’ve heard of: uppers and downers, street drugs, stolen meds. Any combination of drugs, by any means. Pop. Sniff. Smoke. Sip. Snort. Shoot. This went on for years, until a girlfriend urged him to get clean, which he did for a while to win her. She left anyway.
In his mid-twenties he was consumed again by familiar habits, more covertly this time. It wasn’t until after his death, when he was thirty-two, that I learned about these later years of use and saw that all along it was addiction that made Joe distant. He ignored calls and skipped commitments. When Thanksgiving or some family occasion forced us into the same space—Dad’s Volvo, Grandmom’s living room—he seemed to disdain my company. The closer I moved toward him, the further he moved from me. He loved me. I know this because his friends tell me how proudly he talked about me. And now I see that he never stopped coming to Thanksgiving, that he always chose to place himself in the family car, which themselves were acts of loyalty. But at the time I saw him only as remote and unkind.
When I turned twenty-five, he wrote to me, “How the fuck am I supposed to know it’s your birthday if you don’t have Facebook?”
By then I was coolly angry, and discouraged by the distance that had become so familiar.
I wished he would call me. I wished he’d toss his arms wide when he saw me. I wanted him to check that I got home safely, to appraise the guys I dated. Now I see that the brotherly protection Joe could offer was of a different kind. To spare me the pain of his habit, he hid.
There were times, though, when I felt Joe turn toward me with the fullness of his presence. When our father was dying, we were often at our parents’ house. Joe cooked dinner, I did the dishes, and together we lifted Dad beneath the shoulders so that he could sit up after lying down. Once in the late afternoon of our final vigil, we were stretched on our parents’ bed. Joe leaned against the headboard. I lay on my side, propped on one elbow. Dad lay downstairs in a hospice bed.
“I’m so tired,” Joe said.
“I’ve stopped hanging out with my friends. Stopped playing shows”—he was a producer and DJ—“I don’t have the energy for any of it.”
I’m a musician too, and I had cancelled gigs since Dad had gotten sick, too tired to rally a crowd, afraid I’d cry on stage. “Caregiving is exhausting,” I said.
“And lonely,” he said. Leaves outside the window shifted, and the patches of sun on the wall swayed like light on rippled water. “This is where we need to be, though,” said Joe.
In Italy, two years after Dad died, Joe would make me breakfast, or I’d set out hors d’oeuvres and we’d sit together for an hour here and an hour there, on the claw-footed couches in our Venetian apartment, above the valley in Chianti, on the shoreline rocks in Vernazza. I knew he’d been depressed after Dad died. He carried it in his body, moved slowly, left my calls unanswered. I didn’t know he’d begun using heroin. I thought he’d been clean from hard drugs since that second stint in rehab. In Italy, he didn’t tell me that he’d been using. But he did tell me that after Dad died, he couldn’t stop thinking about the void.
He said it with a laugh, self-conscious and even a little amused by how very melancholic it sounded. “The void,” he said, italicizing the word. “You know, the nothing beyond death. The obliteration of existence. That void.”
Joe had often jabbed at my faith: sometimes his words were cutting, as in, you’ve thoughtlessly inherited Mom and Dad’s religion; sometimes they were playful, as in my sister is a wizard. But he never said much about his own beliefs, except that he was an atheist. In Italy, he told me that nihilism had been gnawing at him over the past two years. “For months, I just kept thinking about the void,” he said. “It’s so damn depressing.”
He seemed bright here in Italy, clear-headed and inspired. He woke early, made plans, invited me along, asked if he could join me and Austin at a museum or for dinner. He had an earnestness I hadn’t seen since we were kids.
One night, we drank wine from a bottle on the shoreline in Cinque Terre.
“It was watching Dad die that got me thinking about the void,” he said. The water lapped on the rocks. “That and my buddy Nate who’s doing his PhD in nihilism.” He laughed. “A PhD in nihilism. I can’t believe he hasn’t killed himself.” He lit a cigarette. “But it was really Dad’s death that started it. That was pretty fucking spooky.”
Joe and I were both in the room that morning two years ago. Dad lay in the hospice bed, blanketed in white. The light came in violet through the panes. To me, the room was holy. To Joe, the room was haunted. And when I released Dad into the hallowed dawn, Joe saw only hollow dark.
After Joe died, I read a book about heroin called How to Stop Time. The narrator is a former addict. Her father had Parkinson’s, and she watched his body slowly degenerate. She was attuned to time’s passing the way a person who is trying to fall asleep suddenly hears a clock ticking and can’t unhear it. Each tick signaled life’s end. Heroin was an alternate way of marking time. She no longer lived by the clock, or by the position of the sun, or by nine-to-five, as most of us do. Instead, she kept the hours of the cop, the high, the nod, the coming down, and that maddening craving for the next fix—all this a delirious attempt to become exempt from the chronology that ushers us impartially toward death. Heroin was a liturgy.
“I used to be an atheist,” he said that night on the shoreline. “But religious impulse is so historically pervasive—just look at this country, the art, the architecture. Then there are all the myth systems before Christianity. Maybe there’s something to Campbell’s monomyth. Maybe there’s a unifying something beneath it all, something—”
“Transcendent?” I said, then regretted feeding him the word. Just listen, I thought.
“Yeah. I guess I’m more agnostic these days. And not so convinced about the void.” He stared toward the black horizon. “Not that I buy into Christianity. I mean, your faith seems pretty sophisticated though.”
Before us, stars were beginning to rise. We saw them as pricks of light, barely bright. Somewhere in the cosmos, explosions of heat and glow, hydrogen and helium were erupting.
“Thanks, Joe,” I said. “That means a lot coming from you.”
One Christmas in our twenties, I invited Joe along to church as I always did at Christmas, and he declined as he always did: “You know that’s not for me.”
“Fair,” I said. Then, tenuously, “I’m just curious, Joe. Do you ever wonder if God is real?”
“Every day,” he said.
“Was your brother a Christian?” a well-meaning Calvinist, a gray-haired seminary professor, asked me after the funeral.
“He was not,” I said.
“Well. We’ll pray that God would be merciful.”
Since Joe died, the binary of saved and unsaved, believer and nonbeliever, feels like child’s talk. When we teach toddlers about color, every apricot, rust, nectarine, and terra cotta is simply orange. Every navy, cerulean, jasmine, and steel is simply blue. As we grow, we come to see the difference between the hues. What language do we have for the spiritual shades between saved and unsaved? What words illumine the gradient between the poles?
What I’m after, it turns out, is a lexicon of silence.
Lately, wordless communion feels like the only sensible way to relate to God, precisely because it doesn’t aim to be sensible. I sit in silence. I try to connect to God’s presence with me. I am a Quaker in search of the inner light, a mystic in contemplation, a Greek repeating the Jesus Prayer until I slip beneath the words into God’s wordless company. These practices seem more concerned with the mysteries exchanged in the private chamber of the heart, to the tick of an eternal clock, between the soul and its patient creator, than with outward signs that assure the saved of their place in heaven. My brother did not take the words of worship to his lips while he lived. But I imagine the hidden, sacred center of his being: If I got up close and cupped my ear, what murmuring would I hear? Maybe all his life, beneath my brother’s defenses, beneath the irony and the sorrow, in secret and in silence, God was communing with Joe. Maybe now, God is communing with Joe.
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? is the first book I ever read that invites Christians to hope against hell. Balthasar says that judgment is nothing other than love. Love is brilliant—and brilliant light is blinding to those who have been in darkness. So those who have been in darkness may at first find the light of love to feel like judgment. But their eyes will adjust, they will behold God’s beauty, and they will choose to gaze on it eternally.
In Italy, we spent days gazing on biblical scenes. Ubiquitous were the renderings of Bethlehem, Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Pietà. In museums, on sidewalks, in alleyway shrines, and cresting churches and government domes stood haloed apostles, winged cherubs, and gold-leafed saints. On a sidewalk in Florence a gaunt John the Baptist, cast in bronze, pointed away from himself. At the Vatican Museum we saw a Madonna and Child from Matisse, a crucifixion from Chagall. We craned our necks to see Michelangelo’s frescoes. Joe loved this art history tour. He bought a book about spiritual symbols in art. He wanted to crack the codes. Perhaps God was adjusting Joe’s eyes, preparing him to behold a little more brilliance, day by day, and a little more still.
I wish I could say, I am certain Joe is saved. When I try to speak the phrase, I feel a string from my sternum tugging the words back into my mouth. I swallow them. They seem at once too big and too small; audacious and clichéd; a haiku for the ineffable.
In silence I discover that my first prayer for Joe, and every prayer after it, was just the sister in me longing to find my brother beside me. I wanted his friendship. I wanted something in common—common friends, common rituals. He was once a wide-eyed boy who said to his sister, “Look at this” and “I’ll show you how.” I wanted to return to that kind of kinship. I wanted his eye contact, his laughter. Rather than pray for him, I wanted to speak with him. Save him to my side, said the cinder. That cinder has burned in me ever since.
The last time I saw you, I prepared a feast.
You and Mom and Chris were returning from your long day in Pompeii. You had boarded the tour van at dawn; from the loft bed above the dining room where Austin and I slept, I heard you shuffling to the door in the dark. You traveled down the coast, all the way to Sorrento for lunch, and you put your feet in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Then you toured that ancient, ashen city.
It was our last night together on our two-week Italian tour. The next morning, I’d leave for a flight out of Venice. You, Mom, and Chris would stay in Rome two days more, then visit Barcelona before flying home. And so it felt right to put a ceremonial finish on our trip: to shop for groceries, set out hors d’oeuvres and champagne flutes and put Prosecco in the fridge so it would be chilled when you got home.
You were due back around eight. In the early evening, I went to the store near our Roman apartment and filled a basket with oily focaccia, feta, burrata, olives, red peppers, spinach, salami, cherry tomatoes, diced tomatoes, zucchini, conchiglie. I got things you might like.
At the apartment, I poured Chianti for myself and Austin and set cheese and olives on a wooden board in the living room for your return. Then I pulled serving platters from the cupboards. I covered them with beds of spinach. I cubed the feta, sliced the burrata, rolled the salami, julienned the peppers, then set handfuls of each—of olives and tomatoes too—in a round on the platters, like color wheels. I asked Austin to set our places. He pulled a cloth from the cupboard and parachuted it over the long walnut table.
I was boiling water and had warmed the oven when you came home.
“Smells good in here,” you said. You came into the kitchen and looked around.
“Good!” I said, “Dinner’ll be ready soon. You want a Campari?”
“Totally,” you said, and you poured me one, too.
“Is this what you do for your friends at home?” you asked. You thought I’d done well. You saw that we had this in common, this love of cooking for the people we care about.
At the table, your face was flushed from sun, and you and Mom and Chris recounted in awe all you’d seen and learned about the ashen ruins: the plaster casts, the terrified faces, the mothers crouched over their children in a desperate, primal act of protection. It was as if you’d all had the same bad dream and were just waking, bewildered, relieved to return to Rome. Then we passed the platters and toasted the Eternal City:
Cent’anni. Cent’anni. A hundred years, and a hundred more.
Catherine Ricketts’s writing about music, grief, and spirituality has appeared in The Millions, Paste, Measure, and Relief. She studied writing at the University of Pennsylvania and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University. She lives in Philadelphia.