Hell has a sign plastered beside its door: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate”
I read that once in a work by Italian poet Dante Alghieri. Those words of his appeared in the first of the 3 books of his Divine Comedy – the “Inferno” (Italian for “Hell”) in the 14th century. The words of seduction, bidding us to enter its abyss:
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Hell. The first thing that you do when you enter, before you take off your shoes, your gloves, your coat.
Hell. when you cross its threshold, the first thing that you’re told to do is leave all hope behind.
I’ve abandoned hope, and I’ve walked its streets, barely clinging to my own sanity. So many times. I’ve followed the instructions as I passed through its gates, to descend into that void.
Hell. Many have described it as a realm of lakes of fire and screaming souls. Gnashing teeth and the lilke. My Baltimore catechism painted that image of it beautifully for me in my formative years. In no uncertain terms, I knew it in the womb, and onward.
Hell. As a spectator in this world, you can watch it, available 24/7, on cable, over the air, and on social media.
Images of bombs dropped on a village of innocents. Those screaming souls, cries of agony. Laughing demons that keep those in agony there. Those who’ve abandoned all hope long ago.
I walk the streets of Hell on a daily basis. I walked it in my youth as a taunted and bullied gay kid. I walked it as a young adult, watching a plague called “AIDS” decimate my gay brothers all around me.
I walked through Hell’s side roads of muggings, gay bashings, alcoholism, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation.
And I walked through the worst kind of Hell. I turned away from the light of a God who I thought wanted nothing to do with me. I was sent to that corner of Hades by a Church that weaned me as a child, only to reject its own.
I’ve been to Hell and back, many times.
Hell. Dante spoke of it in terms of circles. Degrees of agony, or darkness, as you moved further from the light. That spear piercing your soul as the distance between you and the source of all goodness grows. When the gulf of darkness swallows you slowly.
Hell. It’s quite obvious, when you’re trapped in that realm. You knew it when you crossed its gates and saw the sign. Hope was no option. You sold your soul already. You sold it when you handed your ticket to the gatekeeper. When you gave him all of the hope you had left.
Hell. You are in a place where a fire so dark, so intense rages that it destroys you from inside. You scream and beg for respite but it will not let go. Will not stop. And as it burns, as it destroys its host, it will not grow weak, will never be reduced to embers. It feeds on itself, on you.
As your hope fades, hell only grows stronger. There is always another circle in hell that can be created, farther from the light. The fire lives and breathes yet you cannot see it. You feel it, and know that to claw your way out of its grasp demands that you defy the words at the gates of the place where an eternity of despair and pain began.
To leave this place of darkness requires that you recreate the one thing that the fires in the dark devour. You must pick up the shards of hope, now reduced to ashes. Though they be destroyed, you must hold on to that which you lost.
You must wish for the miracle of being whole again. Nearly impossible when you can barely think through the pain, rationalize through the insanity.
Hell. To escape its clutches and hope again requires nothing less than a miracle.
She didn’t want him to die.
She’d adopted a hamster and I helped her decide which one to pick out a few months ago. Oh, she struggled with the decision. What to buy him, where to put him. What would he want to eat. What bed to put him in and whether he could possibly catch what took away her other baby.
Her most important task, however, was figuring out what to call him. Now THAT would be a major dilemma (so I thought).
“Ok, Sophie, take the nicest thing you can think of. Right this second. The first word that comes to your brain, and add ‘Mr.’ in front of the name for him.”
“Mr. Cuddles! Ohh, I love him so much already! That’s perfect!”
I’m like an uncle to Sophie and her sister. Her mom will send photos of her doing her flips and turns at gymnastics. She’ll send photos of Sophie and her sister chilling and scrolling on their iPads.
But best of all are the pictures that result from Sophie’s Mr. Cuddles selfie sessions. That camera of hers aimed at his smiling hamster face for the world to see as she passes them along. And they’re always followed by smiley emoticon faces, laughing themselves to tears.
I love that.
But today was different.
Today’s face didn’t have a smile as the message came through from Sophie. Tears were streaming down the face of the emoticon on the message. In fact, she sent 3 faces with tears covering them. In a row. This was bad.
“I have terrible news. It’s about Mr. Cuddles. He’s sick. I think that he died. I think he died of old age.”
A couple of other tear-streamed faces followed. She was speaking of the hamster who was quivering and cold in the past tense. You could just feel the agony from the little girl, sending messages and probably hoping for a miracle in the face of what was happening in front of her.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
No. Sophie needed to stop speaking of him as if he was dead. She was handing that ticket to the gatekeeper. About to walk into the dark place, but she messaged me. Told her mom what was happening. She hadn’t completely handed the ticket over. Yet.
So I learned all sorts of interesting things about hamsters. One being that they don’t deal well with cold.
At all. They go into hibernation and have to be brought out of it. They exhaust food stores that were never created if cold triggers that reaction. He’d run, hadn’t eaten enough, and was in shock.
Sophie had to leave for practice so she passed Mr. Cuddles off to her skeptical mom. Over FaceTime, I coached Liz on how to care for the hamster; feeding him and keeping him warm. Reluctantly, she wrapped Mr. Cuddles in an old towel and cradled him against her chest. Certain this wasn’t going to end well and dreading Sophie coming home.
The eulogy was prepared and being delivered a couple of hours earlier. Hope was all but relinquished. But when Sophie got home, he was staring at her, ready and waiting for his next round of selfies.
“OH MY GOD. WHAT DID YOU DO?? MR. CUDDLES. OH MY GOD HE LOOKS NORMAL. HOW DID YOU DO IT?”
Google can be a friend when you need it, I find. Or maybe what it contains. Someone else’s fears, experience and wisdom. Their near loss of hope and their recovery. How we get ourselves out of the pit of despair. Often we see our own plight, a way out, in someone else’s story.
“I HAD NO IDEA HOW MUCH I LOVED HIM UNTIL I THOUGHT HE WAS GONE.”
Those were the words that stayed with me.
I’d said the same, so often, about my father, about my grandmother, about lost friendships, bitter quarrels. I’d abandoned hope so many times, and walked through the darkest places in its absence, and from the mouth of an 11 year old girl, I was reminded of the one thing that made coming out of that place possible.
Mr. Cuddles, I’m happy to report, is doing beautifully.
Sophie has gone back to her daily routine, knowing that her buddy is alive, well, and going about his regular wheel running, treat chomping, and camera mugging. She’s probably a little wiser to the ways of hamsters, hibernation and what it is to love. She’s 11 and has much more to learn about that most important lesson.
It was an important first step when she’d given up hope.
When asked to write a piece on hope, I agreed, but then pondered it, and procrastinated. I had no idea, if truth be told, what to say. So much I’ve seen lately, personally, on the news, all around me has been dark. I’ve struggled in my own past with loss, with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, bullying, and the list goes on.
I wanted to write the great opus on hope, with little to offer in the way of words available to me.
This is a simplistic rendering, I realize. A happy ending in a world where hope doesn’t result in happy endings. Where hamsters die, people are murdered, children abducted, families in lands near and far destroyed by disease, war, famine, hatred. Where hope is a luxury available to few. Some hang on to it for dear life, when all is lost and they suffer horrifically. Have lost horrifically.
Hope is a ticket that is so readily handed to the gatekeeper. And who can blame any of us for abandoning it? The world demands it daily of us at its gates.
I don’t have the anwers. For my own level of hope ebbs and flows as I go about my own way.
I don’t often know how to move forward, as was the case with this topic, this piece. But I do know that the story of a hamster, brought back to life when we thought him all but dead, came out of nowhere, when I needed to believe, to find hope most.
There is a verse cited often as being among the most beautiful passages in the New Testament. I first learned it in a Catholic song I loved as a kid, called “Charity.” I learned it before I’d ever read a word of scripture.