Some people are so fatalistic and so neurotically attuned to our own bodies that we are certain every new sensation means that we are dying. Each stuttered heartbeat is a latent blood clot; every twitching muscle warns of early-onset ALS. Others, like my husband, live blithely in the face of our inevitable doom. David manages to wake up early, make coffee, and complete the New York Times crossword puzzle without losing three hours to researching signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer. I ask him how he does it and he says he does not know.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped people like me. I’ve coughed five times today — do I have COVID-19? Better make sure that I can still smell sour milk. I earned a PhD in biomedical science, which one might think would ground me in reality, but the depth of research I can access and understand only deepens my panicked spirals. “Please don’t die,” I sob in David’s arms more often than I’d like to admit. “Please don’t let me die.”
Terror at the prospect of death is new for me. I grew up steadfastly Mormon, nurtured from birth into a home and church where I was reassured that if I kept God’s commandments and refused to have sex before marriage, show my shoulders, or let a drop of alcohol or coffee pass my lips, I would be ushered into a glorious afterlife with my family. Observance of every rule, paired with my belief in Christ, made me worthy of paradise, a status reaffirmed each year by priesthood leaders who thoroughly probed my adherence. But there was a catch. In order to reach heaven’s highest tier, I had to marry. And by my late twenties, everybody in my life was worried.
The median age of first Mormon marriage is 22. If I did not marry — soon — I would be restricted by the religion I loved to a life of solitude, celibacy, and loneliness, constrained to virginal adolescence, gossiped about at parties, and set up with strange, awkward men with whom I had only singleness in common. There is an adage in Mormonism, oft-quoted and uniformly held, that no other success can compensate for failure in the home. My research PhD — an aberrant achievement for a Mormon woman — made me successful “in the eyes of the world.” But by LDS standards, it made me a failure. I was one of those dreadful career women, the ones I heard so many cautionary tales about as a girl. They were pointed out at meetings, explained in whispered asides with comments like, “She regrets it all, you know. She’d give up every achievement, every award, if she could just go back and choose a husband and children instead. No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”
The only option for women like me — single, female, Mormon, alone — was to wait, faithful and celibate, until I died, at which point I was promised that if I had lived faithfully, I would be blessed in heaven with a long-awaited spouse, the fulfillment of my divine purpose, and the killer sex life I never had on Earth. And there it was — the workaround. When your immediate future looks bleaker than what is promised you in heaven, you cannot help but wish to die.
If I died soon, I reasoned, I could save myself from any future sins that might disqualify me from being rewarded with a heavenly husband and not have to face the bleak prospect of living seventy more years in arrested development. Of course, I couldn’t take my own life. That would be a serious sin and could disqualify me from the afterlife I desired. So I took a more subversive tack. I scrupulously observed every Mormon rule. And then I “forgot” to buckle my seatbelt in cars and on planes. I walked alone at night, veering directly into the path of anyone who looked like they could kill me. I ate expired food. I went hiking without telling others I was gone — anything that would give me plausible deniability in the event of my death. The power was intoxicating.
Three years of recklessness passed with no reward. Except one: I opened my eyes. I remember sitting through an interview-turned-lecture where the stake counselor in front of me, confident in his superiority, floated the idea of physically forcing unmarried women like me to date men from the congregation. I sat in a church meeting and realized that if any other organization decided to categorically disqualify me from every meaningful leadership position due to my genitals, I would walk right out the door.
And at long last, I did. It was a quiet leaving, a slow fade to black made possible by the fact that turnover in a singles ward is so high that any one departure can go largely unnoticed. The millstone of tradition around my neck felt light as air when weighed against the prospect of listening to my own conscience. So I left.
Unmoored from certainty and no longer beholden to the idea that marriage would underwrite my salvation, I fell through the roofs of several relationships of varying duration and quality. For the first time in my life, I chose. I learned. I kissed (a lot). I contracted mononucleosis as an adult, confounding my doctor. I reveled. I regretted. I lost. I listened. I grew. And then I crashed into David — tall and kind, with floppy chestnut hair and deep blue eyes. Not a Mormon. Never Mormon. Great.
We moved in together, making me the first person in my Mormon lineage to live with a partner before marriage and cementing my status as a Failure in the Home. It would have been scandalous enough for me to be a woman without children in her 30s, let alone an unmarried, inactive, PhD-toting scientist living with a never-Mormon fiancé. Once I dared to bring David to Thanksgiving, only to face my beloved grandmother as she demanded to know why we didn’t plan to ask an LDS bishop to perform our marriage. “She’s a Mormon, you know, and in our family that’s very important!” she yelled as I fled the room in tears, pumpkin pie untouched on the table.
David and I planned our wedding for April 2020. Rather than dither over wedding cake or flowers, I agonized over raising a champagne glass in front of my family. Would my aunts walk out? Declare me evil? Confront David’s parents? Cry? Just after our RSVPs were in, the pandemic forced us to cancel our celebration. We chose to elope instead, reading handwritten vows in a public park’s sunlit gazebo, witnessed only by David’s parents and a masked Lutheran pastor. Pastor Bill married us for time and all eternity, a phrase I specifically asked him to include as we prepared the ceremony. “No problem,” he said with a smile, and when he pronounced the words they held the same weight I’d heard them hold in countless temple sealings. I wiggled into my unaltered wedding dress inside our 2002 Subaru Forester. The tripod set up for my family to watch on Zoom tipped over during the vows. We shipped 100 roses to our apartment and spent our honeymoon inside. I’ve never been so happy. And it is the sheer magnitude of that happiness that makes me so afraid for it to vanish.
I have no idea what will happen when I die. Part of me hopes David and I will peacefully disappear, like waves drawn back into a vast, unknown ocean. Part of me fears my Mormon family is correct, that I’ll be tortured for my choices and torn from my spouse. This part wakes me up at night, shocking me from sleep and into David’s arms. But most of me hopes against all evidence that we’ll be all right, that we’ll wake up as if from an earthly dream into a beautiful eternal life together.
In the meantime, I listen to every sensation in my body. I am alive on high alert. Each beat of my heart reminds me that it will one day stop beating. Each night I sleep reminds me that one day David or I will not wake up. I am terrified to die. But here is David’s hand in mine. Is this not better than every promise my religion made to me?
It is. It is. It is. And so, for now, I live. ⋑
Jessica Sagers is a neuroscientist and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.