I prayed to that picture, prayed that Danny would live as a body, not just a soul. I’d often babysat for him, played with him and made him giggle his tiny giggle and smile his cute smile. I liked the way his baby body fit in my arms. I liked his baby-powder smell. I prayed on my knees until I fell asleep on the floor. I was asleep on the cold floor, bent over in prayer position, the way people of the Mideast pray to Allah, when my mother came home from the hospital and found me there, still praying in my dreams.
“He’s only an innocent baby who never had a chance to do anything wrong or steal anything or hurt anybody yet,” I pleaded with God. “Please, please, please let him live and be happy again. Please God. I’ll believe in you forever if you let him live. I’ll always be good and never sneak candy or steal cookies or not do my homework. I’ll help Mommy scrub the floors. I’ll do anything you tell me, just let Baby Danny live.”
“What are you doing on the floor, you crazy kid? Get into bed,” my war-orphaned mother said, pulling me up by the arm and tucking me in. “There’s nothing we can do. Baby Danny is dead. Go to sleep, and you can come with us in the car to the funeral in New Jersey tomorrow. There’s nothing we can do.” Her voice caught in her throat.
She turned out the light, because she was always saving electricity and pinching pennies as she’d had to in her orphaned youth. I had to sleep in the dark, could never have a nightlight. It made me an anxious kid, because I imagined all kinds of terrible, horrible monsters in the dark – ones I’d seen in Hollywood movies: Godzilla, who ate everyone alive; The Thing, a big vegetable creep who could only be killed with fire; The Beast with Five Fingers, a disembodied hand that crawled around in the dark and choked you; and of course, Dracula, that fang-toothed guy who drank your blood until you were dead. But Baby Danny, only six months old, who’d never hurt anyone and was cute as anything, was really dead. I sat up in bed and turned on the light just long enough to punch the Jesus photo off my nightstand.
I’m a Greek-Albanian-Italian who comes from a half-Catholic, half-Muslim family. My grandmother, Lucia, was an African-Neapolitan, olive-skinned beauty with shining black irises. My mother was a blue-eyed, blond Polish, war orphan who was probably Jewish. It was difficult to decide to whose God I belonged. When something good happens everyone praises God. When something horrific, senseless, and tragic happens, people say: “It’s God’s will. Everything happens for a reason!”
“Everything happens for a reason?” I’m 75 years old and widowed, and that saying is something I’ve never understood.
I sing lullabies from various cultures to my grandchildren and tell them happy stories that make them giggle and smile. When the lights are out and they’re asleep, I read Rumi’s Sufi poems, and Allen Ginsberg’s; Pablo Neruda’s sociopolitical poems, and Mary Oliver’s; Ernesto Cardenal’s and Grace Paley’s ecological poems to fall asleep, with the moon, a nightlight, shining in my window. I pray for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to stop killing each other. I pray for swastikas to disappear from synagogues and mosques and for the Ku Klux Klan to stop burning the cross in hate. Of all sounds on Earth, I love most the sound of babies giggling and children laughing as they play, and birds singing morning prayers and evening vespers. I never prayed to anybody’s God again.
Author's CommentRaised as a Humanist by a scientist father, an Italian immigrant who struggled tenaciously to educate himself, who was a highly compassionate person, and a war orphaned Polish-Jewish mother who’d become tough to survive, I learned early on that true feelings for others does not necessarily arise from ardent religiosity. Indeed, hatred and prejudice can hide behind fanatical religiosity, as it seems to in our time of some extremely intolerant, very conservative, Evangelical Christians and insane Daesh perversions of Islam. I grew up without religion, and when I found it for myself, I later returned, because of the injustices I witnessed, to Humanism, where I found empathetic authors, poets and scientists who work to improve the human condition and understanding. This piece seems apt for our time when religious wars cause havoc and extremists kill in the name of their gods, and there is still no reason to why the innocent so often suffer profoundly.