The Whispers of Humility: How Cherry Soda Gave Me Faith

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An excerpt, from Chapter One: Humble of "Confessions of The Color Blue." A poetry and prose novel depicting adolescent maturation and mental health. The following is dedicated to my late Grandmother.

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I never once thought churches were beautiful. 

My family wasn’t very religious growing up, and not for any specific reason other than that lifestyle just wasn’t us. My mother was raised Catholic, then turned Christian. My father was a borderline atheist, his parents having embraced the more free-flowing era of the sixties. Ultimately, my parents left it up to me to choose a path. We had healthy discussions of the afterlife and of God, but He wasn’t someone or something we studied in depth.

As we would drive around suburbia, then a small town upon moving, I would press my face against the chilled fogged glass and watch as steeples passed by. I would observe the woodwork on the exterior doors and the water-stains by the base of the concrete foundation. I pictured grandmothers and grandfathers shuffling into these buildings as the Sunday morning orange light washed the fenced courtyard where people once gathered for brunch and weekly celebration. The stained glass from the outside reminded me of my great grandmother’s home, complete with the pink carpets and smell of musty floral soap. She hung crosses around her small home in amounts that equally matched the amount of money that she had stuffed in socks, hidden away but always there.

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I had friends who shared with me religious texts and faithful quotes, but it felt foreign. I wasn’t a part of that world, maybe not even allowed. Anytime I stepped into a church I took in the atmosphere the way an artist does rather than a believer: the wooden oak; the creaking of the floorboards; the stainless glass curated of specific yellows, greens, and reds. The dusty window edges chipped, the must climbed up the paneled walls, a ray of the sun casting its light as if it’s not meant to be there either. I would see the space as a potential for an art piece, not for love and gathering. I would have much rather investigate what’s under the rusted rails and curtains than the passages of His voice. Nothing was or is wrong with this, but my lack of faith for me became a ticking grenade. When this grenade exploded, it defined my vision, and it made me turn from a girl to an eventual adult.


When I was younger, prior to being a teenager, I had a handful of fears. But I did not fear the dark, nor spiders or snakes. I loved horror movies, video games; the sight of blood and needles was intriguing. Yet, despite my passionate interest in becoming a doctor, I feared one big thing: Death. The idea of dying was…horrific. I would sit up at night in a hot sweat, almost screaming. For a twelve-year-old, it was a bit odd. We should be fearless and have a sense of immorality, I thought. I explained to people who lifted an eyebrow that my past life must’ve really kicked the bucket hard, and that fear transferred to this life. That would always get a few good laughs. Regardless, I couldn’t shake it. I felt that for someone my age I knew too much, and perhaps I did. All the interchanging with moving and medical exposure I endured put me on a fast track. I had grown up with a few disabilities and moved around my entire childhood. I didn’t just see churches, I saw different communities and felt mental strain early in life. Even in my infancy (with medical coding, not breathing, from lack of air) and otherwise caused me to grow up too fast. But it turns out I didn’t know anything.


A phone rang in the kitchen. My body was spread across a tile floor with my Nintendo DS and cartoons playing on the television. When my father answered, his face went pale. My grandmother, his mother, who had been battling multiple forms of aggressive cancer, had days to live. In the fastest possible time, with a speeding Expedition SUV and a red-eye flight we were in Florida. 


Upon arrival my body was shaking, I didn’t know how to react. The emotions were high; I was exhausted. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a hard, non-cushioned chair in hospice with a visitor sticker on my t-shirt. My grandmother was collective and calm, which is an understatement of her fierce personality. She was once a nurse, and a legend in the hospice and medical world. She had many people flying in from all parts of the country to visit her — well deserved. I stared in awe as handfuls of groups walked in over the course of hours. To me, she looked like the Queen of England. My grandmother was the woman I learned to swim with, and the person who made the best cheese pies. Yet, this woman in this bed with IV’s and wires were different. Her soul was wrapped up, a collection of her life in front of us all. Her achievements and memorable personality to those she interacted with in life showcased in front of my innocent young eyes. I remember thinking, “Wow, there is so much to do with this one life.”


While I knew my grandmother was sadly on her end of life path, I didn’t understand what hospice meant. Finally, my Mom informed me — it was for those often terminal and close to end of life, unlike a hospital or clinic. This was my biggest fear. I was standing in my worst nightmare. My body locked up and I felt numb. I suddenly felt the need to run, get far away. 


But the room was not what made me feel numb; it was the other rooms, the faces of humans I didn’t even know the names of. When the tears were at an alarming rate amid those standing in the room with me, I would slip out the door in search of oxygen, and I found myself peaking into other rooms, accidentally. Many were unoccupied, but those that were stuck with me — the peering eyes of a little blonde twelve-year-old girl — white-knuckled and sweating — locked with those who noticed. After my exploration, my heart rate was finally back to normal. I turned to go find my grandmother's room, but instead my eyes latched onto a young boy. He had sandy, curled hair and looked about my age. He had a blue crew-neck shirt and jeans, his face smug. I was standing on the other side of a half-circle nurse station. I watched as he turned and clutched a six-pack of diet soda. I rushed around the station, relieved to find someone my age to talk to and make some sense of this place. 


He noticed the sound of my shuffling shoes and turned around. He was silent and looked me up and down. “Hi.” His voice was oddly confident. “Hi.” I responded and looked down at the cherry soda six-pack. “What are you doing?” I proceeded to ask. He followed my gaze down to his right hand. “These are for my mom; they are her favorite.” He smiled, his right front tooth gone. He had partially tanned and freckled skin, I thought he might live in Florida — the sunshine state. “Oh, who are you visiting?” My nerves teetered in my voice.


“My mom is the patient here.” His voice skipped slightly. The color drained from my body. I opened my mouth to speak, tears prickling in my eyes. “I’m sorry.” I was barely audible. I pictured my own mom, with taped wires and bags, her skin still youthful but turning grey like my grandmother’s from being ill. He nodded and smiled. “See you around?” I nodded, and he walked around the corner. I never saw him again. 


I wondered if his mom explained what hospice meant. I started to hope she didn’t. I rushed back to my room, rabidly looking for my mom. I wanted to tell her I loved her, I had already missed her, and I needed to know that she wasn't going anywhere. What if I was carrying a six-pack of cherry soda?


Upon arriving back to the room, the sun had set. It was our second day here, and I wanted to collapse. My mom was nowhere to be found, nor my father. The room was quiet, a man in a suit smiled at me and nodded as he passing me in the doorway. The room was now just the two of us. I stood there, and for the first time during our visit started to sob. My grandmother patted the side of the bed, the ring on her finger lose as she was thinner than I’d ever seen her. I sat down, not knowing what to say. “What are you doing these days?” she asked. I sniffed. “I…playing…violin.” She brushed the tears from my cheeks. “That’s a beautiful instrument. I like it when you play.” I forced a small smile, the weight of the world on my chest. She brushed my hair out of my face and looked at me deeply. She held her concentration for what felt like a lifetime. It was as if she saved this moment for me, the youngest of her family and friends wandering the halls, the most unknowing. “You’re going to do amazing things.” She started to brush my hair, and I leaned into her chest, crying. “Amazing things,” she kept repeating. Before I knew it, my mom and dad walked in. “Sarah, we need to go.” Visitor hours were ending, and we had an early flight.


This was it. The last time I would get to see her. I clutched around her thin body, eventually causing my parents to pull me off, but I fought. “No, no, please, no.” I cried and kicked, careful not to hurt my grandmother. I sobbed and screamed and nearly caused the nurses to intervene. In retrospect, there was no easy way to do it; I would’ve held on forever. I was pulled out of the room, the light oak door slamming in my face. That was it. We flew back home, and when the wheels touched the tarmac she passed away. A few days later, back on a plane, we went for the funeral — the black, cotton, three-quarter sleeved dress itching my skin. 


Once again the floorboards creaked — the smell of must and hushed voices. Falling coins and loud noises echoed — red stainless glass. I sat stiff, my back pressed against the hard back of the mahogany wood. “Please, God, talk to me,” I whispered as I kicked my feet nervously on the ground. “Please.” I was so scared; I needed a response. I needed to know that death was not simply what I just witnessed. I needed to know there was a heaven, or some sort of afterlife with animals, especially dogs, and plants, and warmth. I heard nothing.


The next morning I felt a wave of nausea, a usual side effect of my severe anxiety. But this time it put me on my knees. I crawled to the toilet as my dad grabbed the bags to load into the car. He stood ajar in the doorway; the heavy burgundy door stopped by his foot. He couldn’t collect his thoughts, my mother joining my side as he rushed out of the room, slamming the door. I grabbed the porcelain edges and dry heaved. I realized then I was small. 

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This world was big. So many violin songs to play. Cans of cherry soda discarded in the trash — millions of stained-glass windows from the churches of Rome to the low-population towns of Nevada. I’ll never sit in that Florida church again, but it was embedded in my timeline. Was I so insignificant? I thought of all the people that walked in and out of that hospice room, how they had shared a path for a short or long period of time with her — my grandmother. I was lucky enough to be one of them. My mother had left me alone for a few minutes to collect my things. I washed my face, my eyes bloodshot. I looked in the mirror. “I don’t know if there is a heaven. Or if you exist,” I whispered to myself.

Suddenly, I felt alright. A weird sense of warmth washed over me. The words waved in my head: “I’m here.” I stopped shaking, I breathed for what felt like the first time. I wish it were more groundbreaking than that, but I find the most impactful things are often the simplest.


Maybe I could finally hear God because I sat in silence and chose to speak to Him, and not just to myself. This moral isn’t wrapped in religion, nor does it limit you if you are not religious or have a different God. I stared at my reflection and didn’t feel alone; I saw a girl in the image of her grandmother, her mother, and perhaps of Him. I was the collection of timelines, and I was lucky enough to get a timeline too, filled with chocolate-chip pancakes, radio music, and my favorite, silver nail polish.


I think the moral of humility, maybe even of modern religion or faith, is to project questions out loud so those who are in a position to help, can help. To admit you don’t know the answer, so fate and others have some space to contribute to your life. To be humble is to know that you are only a piece of the puzzle. That morning I understood that I already had this instilled in me. I just had to acknowledge it was there and how to use it. Humbleness, or humility, is a powerful and misunderstood art form. It’s not an easy thing to grasp, either. 


The innate ability to trust your choices and the voice inside yourself cannot be done at the wave of a wand. Being a good leader, or a humble and kind person, has almost nothing to do with how much you are right, but how often you convey the truth about the situation around you, and the truth about yourself. You are significant; this life is huge and vast and beautiful. The power of sadness and loss is the measurement of their love and impact. I realized I wanted to keep saying “I don’t know” so that I could explore the answers. Churches suddenly became beautiful, not for their architecture but because of why the walls were built in the first place. A celebration of this life — our lives, cherry soda, and all.

Written by Sarah McKinnon.

The empty cathedral hums.
The smell of must and damp corners.
She’s breathless from forcing a smile.
Honey on the lips,
But words of vinegar drip on the floor,
She watches her reflection in it.
Exhausted—
She knows in time her heart will heal.
Holding a single rose,
The thorns pressed against her cold fingers,
She sits very still in the silence
And decides to ask the pressing questions out loud,
One at a time, picking the petals.
They rest on the ground, abandoned whispers.
She concludes softly that she doesn’t know all the answers,
Even after the rose is gone.
— Sarah McKinnon, Confessions of The Color Blue