When I was a child, I woke up praying and went to bed praying. I was certain God heard me.
I made deals with God, such as, if you can please find a way that I would be able to get a shiny pair of shoes with a little metal heel that would clip,clip,clip on the sidewalk like Lisa Olivier’s then I would be very inclined to accompany my mother to church in the early morning with all those nuns.
I spoke to God less frequently than I spoke to Jesus. Jesus was the cooler guy of the Catholic trilogy especially in the 70’s, or at least in the church community I happened to belong to. It seemed interwoven with Gordon Lightfoot and Cat Stevens. I sometimes, in fact, got Cat Stevens and Jesus mixed up in pictures. I almost never spoke to the Holy Spirit because I had a lot of doubts around this ‘ghostly’ apparition that was supposedly the backbone of my being.
Ours was a house of illusion, however, because no amount of rosaries could keep us all alive and no amount of singing Morning Has Broken would keep me mother out of the hospital and no amount of deal making would keep my childhood free of life lasting scars.
When I became a mother, I still had silent ties to the God of my childhood, though tenuous. A week into my child’s life, my mother began to lose her mind. Not in a dramatic Ophelia-like fashion, but a far more creeping way, in small losses, each day, like eroding sand, where you must continue to stand as though you have solidity in your life.
Then my brother Leo died, my opus, my fulcrum, so that afterwards I would forever be a piece of debris in a windstorm, never finding centre again. Then my mother, succumbing to the erosion of her life, let go, like a great white bank, whooshing back out to the deep sea. Then my brother Mark, tragically killed, thereby burning the last remnants of that Holy Spirit in a pyre of loss so great that I think it must devour what is left of our family.
My conversations with God become arguments. Pleading, accusations at three am, curses, whispered apologies, then finally, raw begging.
For many years, I wondered how the world had seemed so safe? Now I imagined the skinny, cold, calculating shadow of the Grim Reaper just offstage, as though simply waiting for his cue to bring out his schtick for the crowd; vigilant death now firmly cast, waiting for the most poignant moment to enter stage left.
Lately, I have been less aware of the small bit player with the killer line, falling into the comfort and numbing of habits: driving to work, making dinner, shopping for clothes, helping with homework, feeding the cat. The minutia of the day filled my mind like soft insulation, a welcome tenderness.
Until recently, when my son stumbled through the door with his best friend, looking drunk, laughing and shouting. I had rented a movie, duly poured my Friday night glass of wine, and was sure this was the moment I’d been dreading—the drunken teenager and friend scenario. But no, he wasn’t drunk, he was concussed because a random teenager had cold-clocked him for no reason. My stomach lurched, gave way to nausea. My brother Leo had died of a head injury so the signs were all too familiar and as my son who seemed like another person by now, had a brain that was swelling inside his 15 year old skull.
As I drove to the hospital, my son kept asking over and over, why am I in the car? Where are we going? Why am I here? And as I waited at the lights, I wondered, how much was his brain going to swell? Was it going to swell like my brother’s had, beyond the placeholders of sanity and function?
I found it hard to shift the gears in my car, forgetting how, my hand trembling so hard I could not make it to third, instead driving in second gear in a howling, hurling panic towards the emergency room at Victoria General. Nothing good had ever happened to me in a building whose second name was General.
While we waited to be admitted, he was not behaving as my ‘son’; typical with head injury, he began exhibiting anger, shouting and swearing and even at one point, giving the nurse the finger. Had I not known head injury symptoms so well, I might well have chastised him. As it was, I felt a growing hysteria as he exhibited symptom after symptom in a methodical, textbook fashion.
Later, I would be told he needed a CT scan because they wanted to see if he had a brain bleed. Unless you have sat beside someone dying of a head injury, this won’t mean much to you, but a subterranean part of my own brain began to pray, in a childlike voice, to a long lost God, begging like a fool for forgiveness. Forgiveness of all I may have done, all I may still do, for a deal whereby my son live and I die, or worse, that we both go at the same time.
A mother’s mind is a strangled, irrational thing in an emergency room at 4 am.
When the doctor came back he motioned for me, the dreaded forefinger come hither that had all the charm of a King Cobra fang. I knew before I tried that my legs wouldn’t lift me from my chair but then I turned, and my son’s best friend was staring at me, and in that moment I realized for his memory of this, I had to stand and act as though I could take this on, as though whatever was happening was somehow survivable.
He didn’t have news—he wanted me to look at the scans with him instead. I said I wasn’t sure I could do that and explained about my brother and explained that I couldn’t breathe, and that I might faint. He sat me down and walked me through it in a way I could tell he’s been here before, maybe with bad news for a mother or father, his voice lowering, almost conspiratorially, pulling back instinctively as a healer must do, leveling the blow with no intent to kill. Instead, he said the thing I needed to hear and those were that he still had a ‘beautiful brain’, a gorgeous, healthy brain’. Woosh! and woosh again as I felt the air come into my lungs, a long steady breath that found me the happiest person alive.
Walking out into the dewy dawn with my still concussed son and his friend, laughing now a little at the way he had behaved so crazily, we drove home, the horizon a soft, gentle blue and I felt so lightheaded I wondered if I should even be at the wheel. I lay on my bed, still feeling the close call drain out of my body, thanking, thanking, thanking myself to sleep.
While my son is now off at summer camp, I know this experience has long roots that have grown down deep into my psyche so while he may be fearlessly hiking I will be wondering always, what awaits him, how I can protect his mind? How does a mother go on? Many do, I chide myself, after much worse, much worse. Gratefulness is a powerful thing, I think, straightening, and letting go.
Just for good measure, I say a Hail Mary, swearing to keep promises made in the belly of the night.