Alex Grech's blog

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Limbo Rock

Children who die without being baptised go to limbo, where they don't enjoy God, but don't suffer either, because whilst carrying the original sin... they don't deserve paradise but neither do they deserve hell or purgatory.
Pope Pius X, 1905.

I’m at an age where many of my favourite people are dead. I can close my eyes and rapidly find myself in a movie of faces and shadows and snippets of lost conversations. My mother has found one hour for herself and is sewing a dress for my sister on her old Singer. The trumpet-playing skinhead Nannu Karm is reciting an episode from his handwritten autobiography Suldat Qalbien jaf evita' l-Gwerra (The Brave Soldier knows how to avoid the War). Nannu Manoel is frying golden chips and stealing a swig of Johnny Walker from the hidden cupboard and blowing raspberries so I can scream at the giant moles on his cheek. Paola is sunbathing alone on the terrace of her apartment in Mosta.

Sometimes my dead people clamour for attention, as I see something unravel I know I have seen before. Other times they are so close they are almost in my rear view mirror, whispering stuff I know is for my own good.

None of my dead people would have gone to Limbo, of course. But the news that the Vatican is ‘reviewing the state of Limbo’ and that Cardinal Ratzinger a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI believes that Limbo is a mere ‘hypothesis’ has thrown my safe topography of the afterlife into disarray.

To get a handle on this: until 6th October 2006, once you snuffed it, you were on a well-documented elevator ride to the afterlife. Press 1 for Penthouse Heaven for the good, beatified, exemplary members of society. Press -1 for Basement Hell and eternal damnation for the bad eggs who will fry to kebabs. And there, just beyond the revolving doors, suspended in time, grey or beige leather or whatever your favourite murky material, press 0 for LIMBO.

Limbo. The temporary status of the souls of good persons who died but did not go to Heaven. For many years, the word alone made me shiver. Even more than Hell, because I come from a generation that believed that Hell harbours most of our rock icons and some of the most interesting people we met.

Limbo is for the almost-rans, trapped in a perpetual waiting room, without any assurance that they can get to the ultimate destination. Limbo is for those who didn't quite make the grade. Too good to be bad, not quite good enough to make it straight to the good afterlife. Lost souls in a perpetual state of disappointment.

I was brought up in perpetual terror of Limbo. My mother threatened me with Limbo if I did not eat any vegetables, refused to wash my ears, take my cough medicine or threw darts at my sister. Limbo was for children who were never to see the face of God and His choirs of angels. For some reason, my mother took poetic licence with the Church's dictat that Limbo only existed for dead kids who did not make it to baptism, and extended it to include a raft of misdemeanours. My four year-old brain had to take daily decisions on what was allowable during play time, in case of a premature death leading to a one-way ticket to Limbo.

It was an odd approach to child-rearing. I guess my mother was sly and kind enough to realise that Limbo was the perfect deterrent for young children to stay healthy and safe. Maybe she got her Limbo and Purgatory all mixed up. Whatever it was, for a while, it worked. I was determined that the one place I was not going to end up in, in perpetutity, was Limbo. I cannot determine the damage it did to my sanity or my outlook of life in the future.

Limbo is part of our vernacular. Management gurus have made a career of reminding us that in life things are never in black and white, and always some shade of grey. Think of U2’s ‘Stuck in a moment’, any status where a person or a project is held up, and nothing can be done until something else happens or lurches into life. Think of a girl who has left you hanging on a phone and may or just about may not get back. Limbo has extended as far as a programming language for writing distributed systems and has a place in legal jargon. It is found in poetry, theatre, comic books and anti-submarine weapons systems.

As I grew up, I embraced Limbo. We discovered the Limbo dance in puberty. We coaxed unsuspecting girls to sway their chests under a home-made limbo stick in the basement of somebody's birthday party, waiting for the proverbial moment when the last contestant grazed the stick or hit the floor. In the 1970s and early 80s, the term 'Limbo Rock' became synonymous with the Malta we loved to hate. We were trapped in a place we never made, with escape the only option to a better life with an unlimited choice of toothpastes, foreign imports and freedoms to embrace. Limbo is now for middle age. When you are too old not to know your limits, too young to actually start to believe that most of what you wanted to get done will never happen, and that you have to let go of the superflous. And make your life simple again, like it used to be, when you were a child.

On 2nd October at 3.30pm, my son Jacob decided to put a piece of toy into his ear, while his mother was preparing his tea. It was, admittedly, the first day at his new school – a traumatic experience that can excuse momentary acts of madness in any four year-old. But by the 3rd October, several attempts by competent doctors to extract the bug’s eye from the right ear proved unsuccessful. So at precisely 13.10, on my wife’s birthday, I found myself at a St Luke’s operating theatre, dressed in those frightening green gowns, to ‘help calm down’ my only offspring while he was anaesthesised. And as my son struggled in sheer terror in my arms while four people tried to put a plastic mask on his face and told him to breathe out to make the orange balloon fill with air, my mind tried to cope with my own terror in slow-motion by spinning elsewhere.

How have we lived with stuff about original sin for millenia?

How many grieving parents have had to deal with idiots telling them their newborn are in a place called Limbo?

How have we continued to believe that real life bureaucracy is extended to the afterlife, that not having a child's passport stamped with baptism in this life means you've lost your child's insurance policy to a better life in the next?

How do you explain Limbo in a world where six million children die of malnutrition every year and where the much-maligned Muslims believe that children go straight to heaven without passing any test?

What kind of religion makes you believe children go to Limbo?

Then Jacob stopped screaming and went limp in my arms. And a kind lady with blonde streaks in her hair tapped me on the shoulder and led me out of the door. And I wept, like I have not done, for 22 years.

And then on the 6th October, the Pope goes and banishes Limbo.

It made me feel like Jacob putting the eye of a plastic bug into his ear had some kind of purpose in it. Thousands of distraught parents have one less pain to think about. And my mother is grinning somewhere, knowing she prevented me from having more fillings than I now actually have by reminding me of Limbo as I prepared to bite into another chocolate burbon biscuit, smuggled under the bed sheets.

Now Limbo’s no more, I kind of miss it. There is now no buffer. No Chinese walls. No waiting room. You’re either up, or down. Good or Bad. I thought of writing a story called ‘I want my Limbo back’. I wonder if the term will fade out of common use. And one night, I dreamt of my mother and father at the Sliema Chalet under the moonlight in a fifties evening dancing the Limbo Rock again.

Every limbo boy and girl
All around the limbo world
Gonna do the limbo rock
All around the limbo clock
Jack be limbo
Jack be quick
Jack go unda limbo stick
All around the limbo clock
Hey, let's do the limbo rock

Chubby Checker, Limbo Rock.