St. Anthony’s Mistake

St. Anthony’s Mistake

St. Anthony’s Mistake 1600 1200 Olivia Flaherty-Lovey

 Last fall, my mother stopped praying.

It was raining, the type of rain that was streaking down the front windshield of the car in silvery strips, distorting the road in front of us into braids of black and gray. It was the type of rain that did the talking, and for most of the ride my mom and I sat listening – to the wind weaving through the trees, the gentle hum of the engine, the crackle of radio static puncturing the film of water unraveling from the sky. As we turned into our exit, we passed a pileup of cars, the metal bumper of one crumpled into the hood of the next. An ambulance sat a little ways down the road.

My mom shook her head and let a breath out from between her teeth. “Yikes,” she said, as our car crawled past the wreck. A man wrapped in a flimsy emergency blanket was standing by the hood of his car, or what used to be his car, staring at it as though trying to will it back to life. “What would you do if you were him?”

I shook my head, acutely aware of how warm and dry I was. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Pray, I guess.”

My mom let out a laugh that sounded more like a scoff. “Yeah,” she said. “I haven’t done that in a while.”

 

Growing up, it almost seemed as if my mother never stopped praying. Any time we came to her with a problem, she’d tell us to pray – to St. Catherine before tests, St. Christopher before traveling, St. Anthony when something was lost. She prayed everywhere – on the sidelines of my soccer games, as we circled the grocery store parking lot searching for a spot, even in the checkout line of the grocery store itself. When we were little, my sister Sarah and I used to beg her to stop, to at least save it for the privacy of our car. “Everyone will think you’re talking to yourself!” We’d protest. “No one will understand.” My mom smiled slightly as she nudged the shopping cart along the aisle. “That’s ok,” she said. “No one needs to.”

She insisted on raising us Catholic, even though my father’s parents swore they’d only come visit if he married a Jewish girl. My parents got married anyway, in a ceremony where a priest stood under a chuppah and proclaimed them man and wife, destined to create a home where they could bow their heads at the dinner table while their lips moved to different prayers. Did God speak Hebrew or Latin? I once asked my mother as she buckled Sarah into her carseat, taking care not to tangle the IVs trailing from my sister’s chest in her seatbelt. “Both,” she answered simply. “He speaks every language in the world.”

Every language in the whole, entire world. I was in awe. As we drove down the highway, I watched the trees dip in and out of the window frame and wondered which language He would answer me in.

 

Ever since I can remember, though, for our family Sundays meant Church. Sundays meant Sarah and I sitting on the floor of our shared room, stuffing our feet into too-small shoes that we never replaced since we only had to wear them once a week, anyway. Sundays meant fighting over who had to go first to have my mom coax a comb through our tangled hair, until I had to go first every time. Sundays meant sliding into our favorite pew in the very last row, passing the time by making up stories about the people frozen in the stained glass windows. There was a man in a white robe holding a limp fish and an angel with his arms spread wide and a woman hunched over on a rock, cradling an infant swaddled in blue. When it rained outside and the water slipped down the other side of the pane it almost looked like she was crying.

My mother stopped going to Church sometime last summer, I think. She had never missed Church before. Ever. If we were sick, she would hand us a thickly-bound copy of “The Beginner’s Guide to the Bible” and sit with us as we flipped through the stories, glossy pages with pastel-colored drawings showing men in robes and sandals guiding animals through sandy stretches of desert. If she was sick, she would instruct our father to take us to Mass. He never complained, but would loom comically large over the wooden pews, his lips pressed together and his arms crossed against his chest so tightly I wondered how he would ever unfurl them. When Sarah was in treatment and I was being shepherded to Mass by a well-meaning neighbor or babysitter, I would call my mom and ask if she was going to Church, too. Her answer was always the same. “Of course, silly goose,” she’d say. “God doesn’t take a break, so neither should we.”

Once, I asked her to describe the chapel at the hospital. She said it was beautiful, complete with rows and rows of wooden pews leading to an altar of green marble, with high arches surrounded by intricate stained glass windows showing a gathering of angels. She told me that when the light came in from the outside the halos of the angels glowed slightly, and the room was coated in a pale golden mist.

I stumbled upon the hospital “chapel” one day, when a doctor came in to change Sarah’s IV and I was politely ushered out of the room and told to “go explore.” I had gotten used to everything by then – the way my warbled reflection stared back at me from the gleaming tile floors, the number of times I had to roll up my flimsy hospital gown so I wouldn’t trip, the rhythmical dripping of fluids into IV bags harmonizing with the steady beeping of heart monitors. The sign was so small I nearly missed it – a silver plaque nailed to the wall with the word “Chapel” engraved in tiny font. The door was like every other door in the hospital, gray and foreboding, and I thought how wonderful it was that they managed to fit stained glass windows behind a tiny slab of metal. I pushed it open and stepped inside.

It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the light, but once they did I almost wished they hadn’t. I was standing in a small, windowless room, completely empty except for a couple of plastic chairs. There were no arches, no pews, no stained glass windows – just a small wooden cross hanging at the front. I imagined my mother kneeling on the cold tile, and pricks of anger erupted down my spine.

I never told her that I saw the chapel, but on Sunday I called her and asked if she was going to Church. “Of course, silly goose,” she said. “God doesn’t take a break, so neither should we.” She told me the pews were so filled with people that morning that she had to sit on a folding chair near the door, but she didn’t mind – she had a better view of the room that way. She said the priest read from the Book of Luke that morning, her favorite. She told me about the service, how the sun had slipped in through the windows of the hospital chapel and bathed the room in pink and gold.

 

My second grade Religious Education teacher was named Mrs. Ryan. Her gnarled hands were yellowed and papery, the skin stretched tight over the joints, and she walked with a limp that only made the unnatural curve of her spine more pronounced. Sometimes when she folded her hands in prayer, beads of blood appeared from between the grooves of her skin, but she never unclasped them. She would stand at the front of the room with her chin tucked down to her chest, eyes closed. I could just make out the trails of veins, lines of pale purple and deep blue, etched against the insides of her eyelids.

She was the one who told me that saying prayers was like sending letters up to God, and I, in my naive, seven-year-old innocence, I believed her. I pictured shooting letters shaped like glittering stars up to a giant mailroom, bins overflowing with hundreds of envelopes of all shapes and sizes, tiny messengers scurrying around delivering them. I pictured God Himself hunched over a table, pens and papers littering the floor, His hands smeared with ink as He carefully answered each letter and passed it to a nearby saint for them to mail. I imagined the saints immortalized in the stained glass windows in Church, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep as they stuffed letters into envelopes and shoved them into sacks to be delivered back to Earth.

I used to think maybe that was the issue. Messages got delivered to the wrong people all the time, after all. Things got lost in translation. Maybe St. Anthony had just made a mistake, had accidentally given us things we hadn’t asked to find. I was ten when I found out my best friend would be moving across the country. I was twelve when I found out why my teacher stopped wearing her wedding ring midway through the year, that it wasn’t just because she had gone swimming one weekend and it “slipped off.” My sister was four when they found the tumor in her brain, nestled snugly in the middle of her cerebral cortex, right beneath the parietal lobe. “We consider this the most loyal type of tumor,”  the doctor had said in a halfhearted attempt to lighten the mood, using a gloved hand to point to the mass on the MRI screen glowering down at us. The kind that just doesn’t want to let go.

 

This Christmas break, I go home. We don’t go to Church. We cook dinner and eat it with no mention of grace, neither Hebrew nor Latin, and my mother closes her book and turns off her light without pausing to kneel beside her bed the way she used to. I wonder when exactly she stopped praying, but I don’t ask.

In my psychology lecture at school we study diagrams of the brain, crinkled folds of pink and gray, and as I stare at the screen above the tousled hair of the boy in front of me I can’t help but imagine it pulsing slightly, like a heart. Our professor tells us how brain development is critical in the early years of childhood, how things like brain surgery before the age of 5 can have “detrimental” effects on later development. We learn about epilepsy, and our professor brandishes her laser pointer at the screen to represent seizures, making it slide tauntingly back and forth across the diagram of the brain. She tells us that late-onset seizure disorders are common among childhood brain tumor survivors, that seizures start in the temporal lobe and streak comet-like from one hemisphere to the next, and my classmates bow their heads over their notebooks like people in Church and scribble dutifully. Brain tumor, seizure disorder, temporal lobe.

But they don’t get it. None of them get it. When they stare at the diagrams on the screen they don’t see the curve Sarah’s back makes, eerily graceful, as it arches off the ground, her body wracked by some laser pointer in her brain bouncing from one hemisphere to the other. They don’t know what it feels like to look at your sister’s eyes and know she’s not seeing you, that the fear rises from your stomach in bubbling waves, so hot you worry it will blister the inside of your throat. And they don’t know that it’s when you’re helping her balance on her side so she doesn’t choke and the floor below is damp with spit and her hair is so filled with sweat it’s dripping slowly from her hairline into the gentle groove of the scar on her forehead – they don’t know that it’s then that you first realize how small and innocent and painstakingly, indescribably beautiful she is.

And once you realize that, all you want to do is ask your mother to teach you how to pray.

Christmas break ends. My brothers start school again, then Sarah, then me. Sarah starts taking Keppra, an anticonvulsant used to treat epilepsy with a list of side effects so long they barely fit on the label. Four pills at breakfast, four after dinner, every day. In the mornings, she stands in front of the mirror and carefully arranges her curls so that they fall in front of the scar on her forehead. The best part about starting at a new school midway through high school, she says, is that no one knows her. Or anything about her. “It’s crazy,” she says, tucking her medication bottle deep into her backpack and piling her books on top so the pills won’t rattle in class. “None of them think I’m weird or different. I’m just new.” After the bus tires have finished spitting gravel into our yard and continue down the street taking Sarah with them, my mother breathes out a shallow, shaky sigh, lowers herself into the kitchen chair and closes her eyes. Part of me wonders if she’s trying to pray.

Sarah is going to a Jesuit school next year, just outside Cincinnati. Their motto reads “Vidit Mirabilia Magna” –  “He has seen great wonders.”

And I don’t doubt that. But sometimes, when the New York sun starts to drip in molten streaks into the Hudson, I wonder if the same God who created mountains and dusted their peaks with silver, if the same God who curls the water into waves and sends them to lick the shore, if that same God sits with marionette strings dangling from his fingers, sometimes lazily flicking the one that makes Sarah’s body wrack with convulsions. I wonder if the same God whose praises are sung in churches adorned with flowers and ferns knows that somewhere, there’s a woman kneeling on the cold tile of a hospital floor. I wonder if He knows there’s an older sister who sometimes tries to pray, sometimes in Latin and sometimes in Hebrew and sometimes in English and sometimes not at all.

And I wonder if He knows there’s a girl named Sarah who’s seen almost as many things – maybe not all of them great wonders – as He has. A girl who’s seen so much she creates new worlds on canvases when the real one becomes just a little too cruel. At night, she sits at our kitchen table and splays out her colored pencils and begins to draw. She sketches oceans and skies and fills them with colors I’d never think of – blue twisted with red, orange that melts into pink, a gray that shimmers when the light bounces off it. When her sketchpad fills up she paints on her Converse sneakers. She creates mountains slicked with snow on hers and a sky brimming with stars on mine, and sometimes when I walk across campus I look down and wonder which star it is, which prayer got lost in the mail so many years ago.

 

(First published in Hippocampus Magazine).

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