I was six when I recognized my dad’s handwriting on a note that lay waiting for me and my brother Christmas morning. The note thanked us for the milk and cookies and was unmistakably signed: Santa Claus.
I didn’t say anything until I was 12.
For six years, I pretended to believe. Then, I finally told my parents.
“I know,” I whispered.
“Know what?” Dad asked.
“About him,” I replied.“About you-know-who.”
“I know it’s you,” I added. “You two.”
Mom craned her neck, but only Dad spoke.
“Huh,” he said flatly.
“I’ve known I was six.”
“Six?” Mom stammered. “You’ve known all this time?”
“So you’ve just been pretending?” she followed.
I nodded again.
“Wow,” Mom said.
I’m not sure why, but me telling Mom I knew the truth about Santa Claus seemed to bother her more than me. I wasn’t sure if Mom was more upset that I figured it out or that I kept the secret and pretended to believe for as long as I had.
Something about the way Mom reacted made me wonder what else I believed that I probably shouldn’t have.
The only public schooling I ever had was in kindergarten, and I went to three of them: Ridge for about a month when my family still lived in our old apartment; Oakdale, where I pissed my pants and got my shoes stolen twice; and finally, Pleasant Hill, where I finished the last two months of the school year.
At Pleasant Hill, I was in the p.m. group, so I took the bus home with a bunch of elementary and middle schoolers. I only really knew one kid on the bus, and he got off right away at the very first stop. My ride home from Pleasant Hill was a bit more than 40 minutes.
There was a kid on the bus—a sixth grader named Keith Harris—who’d turn his eyelids inside-out. Keith scared the shit out of me when he did that. I had bad dreams just thinking about those pink, veiny lids.
I had a lot of bad dreams.
Sometimes, I’d forget to get off the bus. When I forgot—and I did fairly often—Mom would have to pick me up at the dispatch. She’d pull up flustered and in a hurry, and I’d have to run just to keep up with her on the way out to the car.
“We’ve got him again,” the receptionist said when she called Mom the Tuesday after Easter. “Charlie wants to know if he’s slow or something.” The receptionist—a heavy lady named Pam—wore so much eye shadow that her lids just kind of hung suspended like a pair of half-drawn shades. “He wants to know,” she added, “if your son is retarded.”
Charlie Maykeens was the bus dispatch supervisor. It bothered him that I missed my stop so often and ended up at the dispatch garage. It bothered him so much, it might’ve made him angry.
When Mom finally turned up at the dispatch that Tuesday, she offered excuses—the same ones she always did—about us being new and me just having trouble with the adjustment. She apologized as if she owed them something.
In June, kindergarten ended, and I didn’t miss my stop ever again.
After kindergarten, I went to Catholic grade schools. I did 1-4 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, 5-8 at St. Andrew.
At both schools, believing in God was important.
Nobody talked about God at any of my kindergartens.
Believing in God seemed a whole hell of a lot like believing in Santa Claus: Nothing about it made much sense, and it felt awfully pretend.
Every Friday at St. Andrew’s meant church, which was always terrible, but not because of God; church was terrible because of our principal, Sister Janice Elaine. Sister Janice played guitar and sang at mass, and she insisted that we sing and respond both loudly and clearly. If we didn’t, she’d keep us afterward and force us to recite hymns and sing responses until she was satisfied that we were doing so with the spiritual intensity and fervor she deemed necessary.
“Jesus hung on a cross for you,” she yelled one Friday. “The least you can do is sing—articulate clearly.” Her voice rattled through the tiled alcoves and empty confessionals. “He died so that you—” she pointed, “might live.”
She walked down the aisle with her guitar slung across her back as we all but screamed out songs and shouted refrains.
I hated Sister Janice Elaine.
I hated that she kept us late and made us sing, made us shout things that didn’t really make sense, things I couldn’t believe. But I especially hated Sister Janice Elaine during the late-spring months—May and June—when the temperatures crawled higher and the humidity rose to almost stifling levels inside the church.
No matter how loudly we sang or how intently we responded, it wasn’t enough for her.
She chastised our collective efforts. “It must come from your heart. You have to believe it with your spirit.”
One Friday in late May, shortly before the end of the school year, Sister Janice Elaine was dissatisfied with our rendition of “Sing to the Mountains.” She said it wasn’t believable.
She only held back my class—the 8th graders—and let the younger students go to lunch.
“There’s no joy in your voices,” she growled. We knelt in the pews, our backs straight as boards. She liked to make us kneel, she said, because then she knew she had our full attention.
“You’re old enough,” she continued, “to understand the power in this song, to understand why it’s important. And,” she added, “you’re an example to the younger students. They watch you, and they learn,” she snarled. “You need to believe,” she paused. “You need to make them believe.”
She was about to continue, to say who knows what about “Sing to the Mountains” when Jeffrey Phillips groaned and wavered. His eyes rolled up into his head, and he tumbled down, suddenly and immediately, and passed out exactly where he knelt. His head smashed off the pew, hammered the tile floor, and he began to convulse. I shouted for Ms. Darten, our eighth-grade teacher.
“Help!” I yelled. “Help!” I repeated. Panic leaked from my mouth. “Jeffrey!”
There was a flurry of movement behind and around me, and I remember Ms. Darten as she squeezed into the thin pew. She smelled of coffee and chalk, and her half-moon readers dangled from a thin chain that hung around her neck. Mr. Lietsig entered through the other aisle as Jeffrey continued to writhe and shift on the hard floor. Spit came from his mouth, and he gasped for air. I stared at him. I wanted to do something, to try and help him, but I couldn’t do a goddamned thing.
Kids moved out of my pew, out of the pews in front and behind me, and at some point, the paramedics arrived. I just sat there. Somehow, I never moved. Finally, Ms. Darten’s hand fell upon my shoulder, her readers suddenly perched on the edge of her nose. The silver chain swayed in a gentle U just above my head, and she nodded. I followed her down the aisle, out of the church, and back to our classroom. Neither one of us said a word.
That afternoon, I worried about Jeffrey; we all did. Ms. Darten had us say a prayer for him. She made the prayer up, and it was really short. We stood in a circle and held hands while she spoke. After that, the classroom stayed mostly quiet, and at 3:15, I went home a little different.
Maybe we all did.
The following Monday, I rode the bus to school. I waited outside with my friends and classmates until the morning bell rang. I tried not to feel different, but I did.
Jeffrey Philips never came back to school.
There were a whole bunch of things Jeffrey Philips never did again. And there were so many things Jeffrey Philips never did at all.
A few weeks later, I got up in the middle of the night and made a list of all the things Jeffrey Phillips would never do again. Then, I made a list of all the things Jeffrey Phillips would never do at all.
I’m not exactly sure why I made the list, but I know that for a while it made me feel better. I didn’t feel good, but I felt better, as if writing down the things Jeffrey wouldn’t ever do again somehow gave shape and substance to who he was. But then I kept writing and writing. I wrote things I hardly understood, and the list made me feel worse.
When I told Mom about Santa and how I didn’t believe anymore since I knew it was her and Dad, she told me that beliefs were only as strong as the person who believed them. Back then, I didn’t understand what she meant.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was killed in the Syrian desert. Some deranged terrorists cut his head off. They made a video of it, a video they put on the internet. They forced my friend, Jimmy, to say a whole host of things on the video—things I know he didn’t, couldn’t believe—before they beheaded him. I’ve never seen the video, and I never will. But I wonder about that video quite a bit. I wonder why they made it. I wonder if they were actually deranged or if they just did deranged things because of what they believed. Or maybe they did deranged things because of what they didn’t believe.
I think it might work both ways.
When I found out about Jimmy, I couldn’t believe it. He’d been missing for a while, and I think I knew something bad might’ve happened, but I don’t think I or anyone believed that something as fucked up as him getting beheaded on video could ever have happened.
I thought about making a list for Jimmy like I did for Jeffrey Phillips. Only Jimmy’s list would’ve been different; it would’ve been a list of all the things he believed. At first, I felt like I had to make a list of the things he believed since the people who killed him made him use his last words to say such terrible things. I thought that maybe I owed it to Jimmy to write down the things believed. But I never wrote that list.
It’s been eight years since Jimmy got killed, and it’s still hard for me to believe I live in a world where something like that can happen.
My mom was wrong: Beliefs don’t have anything to do with the strength of the person believing them. Beliefs are what we hold onto until experience tells us different. Beliefs are hopes, and they might not mean a goddamned thing. Then again, they might mean everything.