“When I was 8, a little girl I went to school with told me that since I hadn’t been baptized, I was going to Hell. She actually said ‘h-e-double hockey sticks’ like even pronouncing the word might damn her too. I ran home and begged my mom to baptize me.
Tears running down my face, the word ‘forever’ on my tongue, shaking like the leaves falling from the trees outside my bedroom window, I begged.
My mother pushed my hair back from my face and pulled me onto her lap.
‘Be a good person,’ she said. ‘Help other people and be kind and treat everyone you meet how you would want to be treated.’
I nodded. I could do that.
‘Baby,’ she said. ‘If there is a God, he’ll accept you. He’ll accept you.’
That was my first lesson about you. I tucked my mother’s words into the spaces between my ribs and listened to them expand with every inhale.
The first time I was angry with you was that same year.
I had gone back to the country where my parents were born and on every corner I saw the scars of genocide, the wounds of ethnic cleansing. My father’s childhood home was burned to the ground with only the foundation still peeking out from between the weeds. Army tanks rolled down the street where my parents had first held hands as college students. An entire country, bleeding and breaking.
My parents told me the story of Adem Jashari- a nationally celebrated war hero, the face of liberation, a fearless fighter whose entire family was killed in one vicious siege right when his outstretched fingers seemed to be closing around freedom for his country.
The Jashari family was killed on a clear March day in 1998. When I walked through their house in the summer of 1999, their blood was still splattered against the walls, faded reminders of their deaths. I held my fingers out as I walked through the rooms, touching ghosts as I went.
‘Sixty people,’ my dad said. ‘His whole family.’
Behind the house was a graveyard for the Jashari family and as I walked through the rows of the mass grave I mentally calculated the age of each of the people now sleeping beneath the cold ground.
Adem was first. Forty-two.
His wife, Adile, lay next to him. Forty.
I wove through the rows of graves, reading each headstone and moving on until I saw my brother’s name.
On top of the grave lay a plastic bag with two light blue shoes in it. The dead boy with my brother’s name had been only 13 years old when he was ripped from this world in a storm of bullets and blood. How am I supposed to believe you have a plan for everyone and if you do, why is that boy dead beneath the snow while shoes he’ll never wear rest on top of it?
I’m trying to understand, I swear, I really am. But some days, the world just seems so violent, so horrible, so nonsensical that I feel shards of glass in my lungs when I try to breathe. Is this our fault? Can you control us? Can’t you stop this? Did we lose touch with you somehow? Did we lose touch with ourselves? Are you even there?
I’ve been looking for you all my life and I’ve never found you in a church or between the pages of a dusty Bible. The places I’ve found you are the catch in my sister’s voice before she laughs and the wrinkles lining my grandmother’s face. I’ve found you in sunsets that look like they’re bleeding and the way my father’s eyes are the color of celery. Sometimes I see you in the faces of strangers on the train who look like my dead grandfather. Last week, my little sister asked me what happens after we die and I looked to the clouds like maybe you’d written the answer there for me.
Life is a gift from you, right? I know you’ve probably heard by now that last fall, I thought about returning it. My mother said she talked to you a lot during that time. What did you say to her? What should I say to myself? Do you forgive the people who put gun barrels in their mouths and whisper one last prayer for oblivion? Do you dry their tears when they get to you or turn your face away from their broken hearts?
I like to think that you’re sitting in the sky, resting amongst the planets and looking down on your creation, but some days I’m just not sure. Is it okay to say that? I know it’s not very original, but when I think of you I picture long hair and a robe, maybe a trident of some kind. I’m sure that if you’re there, you spend a lot of time watching us and crying. Smiling, too, and laughing some days, but mostly, there must be a lot of crying. Did we ruin everything?
One last question. We all come to you when we’re broken and on our knees and looking for salvation.
Who do you go to?”
Fortesa Latifi - Letter to God