The holy maple bar: Notes on an afterlife, without religion

While lack of religion is freeing in many ways, I also came to understand the holes in people that faith could fill

Published March 18, 2023 7:30PM (EDT)

Maple Bar Donut (Getty Images/Garrett Aitken)
Maple Bar Donut (Getty Images/Garrett Aitken)

After the dead lizards have been plucked out by the long-necked net, my aunt and I take seats in the reclining plastic chairs next to the pool outside her house. It is the last week in June and my time in Starkville, Mississippi, has taught me the true definition of heat, the heavy weight of humidity.

My cousins slice through the dampness hanging in the air and rush toward the pool. The oldest, his eyes towards the sky, asks my aunt if there will be rain. She tells him maybe, and that if so, she'll have to bring them inside.

The youngest, a preschooler at a local Catholic school, closes her eyes and clasps her hands in prayer. Just over the joyful hollers of her brother, I hear her words slip out into the thick air: Please, Grandma, don't let it rain today. Please Grandma. I want to play outside. Don't let it rain. She holds the tender moment for a second, then joins her brother in joyous celebration of cool water against hot skin.

I ask my aunt if her daughter prays to her grandmother often and she nods. When I ask my cousins what they know about her, they list off dozens of details about her life.

While the lack of religion was freeing in many ways, I also came to understand the holes in people that faith could fill.

She was a Spanish teacher. She used to take her students on yearly trips to Mexico for language immersion. She was from Ames, Iowa. She loved to drink Pepsi and eat maple bar donuts. She screamed the loudest at my uncle's high school wrestling matches and skipped church to watch the Bears play on Sundays. She loved fiercely and deliberately and would have given anything to see them both in the world.

Our grandmother has been gone for 14 years, but to see her talked about by children born years after her funeral, it doesn't seem like it's been 14 weeks. 

Coming out as bisexual was, in many ways, easier for my family to swallow than saying that I had given up on their faith. Obama-voting Christians, they at least knew a few lesbians. A life without religion, even in the Christmas-and-Easter-only traditions my family kept most of my childhood, felt unimaginable. 

While the lack of religion was freeing in many ways, I also came to understand the holes in people that faith could fill. When the world burned or you failed in grand and fantastic ways, I imagined there being a comfort in knowing that if you were to die you would go to a better place, and that no matter how you failed, even your God was waiting to forgive you.

As an adult, I started to gather the things around me that felt holy, felt true, and lashed them together into something that felt honest and durable, reaching out toward what others found in their religion.

* * *

I carve through the roundabouts and accelerate again quickly, hoping to catch the store's hours posted online. I'm in pajamas, having given up on the day, before I took a look at the calendar and jumped in the car.

I'm on the phone with Mom. It is a lazy Sunday in a sleepy, tourist town on Puget Sound. I soar through Commercial Street without hitting a light. Mom tells me about her bike ride earlier, out near Spokane. She tells me how clear the sky was and how far she went. For her, God hovers closest to earth on the weekends where her legs burn in lactic acid and her breath gets short.

Eating a donut on what would've been her 79th birthday, I know that I am as close to the woman who died 18 years ago as I will ever be.

I put the phone on hold and pull the car into the drive-through line. The cashier asks what I want and I say two maple bars and an old-fashioned, for my partner. When I merge back onto the street heading home, I take Mom off hold and take the first bite of the maple bar. 

"How is it?"

I still do not believe in a God, have not prayed or gone to a church for years, but understand that even in a life such as mine, there are moments when I touch that inner power that brings some to tears and tongues in the pews. In that moment, eating a donut on what would've been her 79th birthday, I know that I am as close to the woman who died 18 years ago as I will ever be.

"It is good," I tell Mom, "the best I've ever had."

* * *

There are scientific facts that touch the inner power in me that others find in their faith. One summer, I buy a shirt from which a flower erupts through a skull and tie-die it in the backyard and feel like I've touched the place where holiness lives in the human body. 

There is a beauty and comfort for me in knowing that I will one day return to the earth I came from. There is a great beauty in the hope that my body will feed the planet that has given me so much. I know this will not undo the damage I have done as a human being, with my lithium batteries and plastic salad bins, but it is something, I imagine, like writing a $25 check to someone who knows you will never pay back what you owe: Not much, but all I can do.

In college, over a Thanksgiving break, I visit my grandfather's house with the rest of my family and my partner. He has lived in the same house in Central Idaho since 1977 and is three hours from the hospital that he used to go to for cancer treatments. Nobody even brings up the idea of moving closer to one of his children, knowing that he would say, in his awkward, too-polite Midwestern way, to f**k straight off.

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After the obligatory conversation around the kitchen table that my mother grew up with, catching up on how school and work is going, and what we want to have for Thursday's dinner, I stand up to grab a glass of water. Passing by his fridge, I notice a note sticking out from under a family picture.

I recognize his handwriting, but see that it is a recipe for iced tea, which he does not drink. Two details click into my mind simultaneously: My grandmother drank iced tea more than she drank even Pepsi and my grandfather was her only caretaker the last few months of her life.

I drink only Pepsi when I'm drinking soda, eat only maple bars when donuts are being handed out, and root only for the Bears if there is a game on screen.

I imagine the story immediately. Her dictating the directions to him as he scribbled them down, referring to them to make her iced tea until it become routine. I wonder if the note had been forgotten behind there or if he has chosen, all these years, to keep it on the fridge.

My grandmother has been gone for years, but my grandfather still says "we" and "us," not "me" and "I" when he tells stories. It is possible that he is addressing his dog, who he takes everywhere with him, but having known the man for twenty-some-odd years, I doubt it.

It is possible that my grandfather will never leave Salmon, Idaho, because he doesn't want to have to pack up all the belongings he's acquired over the decades, look for a new house, pick a new place to move when his children live in three distinct and separate areas. But knowing that my grandmother, to whom he was married for nearly 40 years, is buried up on a beautiful hill that overlooks the city and the river it is named after, I doubt it.

* * *

My grandmother lives in me too. I drink only Pepsi when I'm drinking soda, eat only maple bars when donuts are being handed out, and root only for the Bears if there is a game on screen. Her favorite number, and its Spanish translation, scatters itself across years of old usernames and passwords. 

Holding my crying newborn in my arms, I instinctively sing songs from her favorite band, Peter, Paul, and Mary. "Puff the Magic Dragon," "If I Had a Hammer," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," songs I remember best echoing through the house in Salmon 20 years ago. The melodies move through me like a muscle, as if involuntary, as if not coming from me at all.

* * *

The night my grandmother died, I sat in the spare bedroom of the house in Salmon. Having been taken suddenly, the morning after my eighth birthday, on the six-hour drive over two mountain passes in the winter, I knew in that half-formed way that children often do that my grandmother would not make it through the night.

Seeing her frail and skinny on the couch, I broke down in tears. She had been awake all day, the only time she'd done so in months, and pulled me close to her. I kissed her and told her goodbye.

Sitting on the edge of the bedroom, watching a portable DVD player, I cried. My sister, three years younger, cried in the confused, unsure way younger children often do. We watched "Raiders of the Lost Ark," one of my favorite movies at the time.

At the end of the movie, when the Ark of the Covenant is opened, all the souls contained within escape and whip through the gathering, killing the Nazis. I imagined my grandmother's soul as it left her body and wondered if it would come through the room, giving my sister and I a last kiss goodbye.

When I was ushered out the back door, while adults kept themselves between us and the bed where my grandma had laid, I pulled the hat over my eyes, like Indiana Jones does in the movie, and cried.

I thought at the time, my grandmother hadn't had the chance to say goodbye, so strong was the pull from heaven for her soul. But, sitting in a plastic recliner on a hot day in Mississippi 14 years later, watching a child that was named after her pray to her for a clear day, wishing for a Pepsi to beat the heat, I wonder if she has ever truly left.

By Keegan Lawler

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