THE LAST TIME I TELL ANYONE I don’t believe in God is the summer before ninth grade. My mother and I are lying in my parents’ bed, still awake at three a.m. This is how we spend almost every night that July, because it is a hundred degrees even in the dark, and the casts on my legs extend from my toes all the way to my hips, and even with the maximum dosage of codeine and valium, I can’t stop spasming long enough to sleep. My damaged brain sends one insistent command to the muscles in my legs: contract, contract, contract. They try to bend inside the plaster, and when they can’t, they writhe. In the daylight, I sometimes joke that I’m possessed: a fucked-up marionette with jointless wooden legs. But at night I don’t feel like kidding. The backs of my legs are chafed and bleeding where the skin has been rubbed off, and there’s only a minute or two of stillness between convulsions.
Lying there in the sticky Virginia dark, I ask my mother whether or not she thinks there’s a God. “I’m not sure,” she says. “I don’t know.” The moon hangs large enough outside the bedroom window that I can see the outline of her tired, fine-boned face turn toward me in the bed, her hair wild on the pillow.
“I am,” I say, with stupid, feigned certainty engendered by adolescence and pain. “God isn’t real.” I’m silent for half a beat and then, all of a sudden, I look at her and snarl: “This is all your fault.”
This is the cruelest possible thing I can say to my mother, who fears her body failed to keep my twin sister and me safe, delivering us too early and too small, so that Frances died after less than thirty-six hours, and I emerged from the NICU with cerebral palsy: a neurological disorder that renders my brain damaged and my body spastic, off-balance, and largely wheelchair-bound.
In fact, twins are at high risk for preterm birth and early rupture of their amniotic sacs. Frances and I were born at twenty-seven weeks and, between us, we weighed less than four pounds. My mother, of course, is blameless. But in her grief she doesn’t feel that way, and I know that. I am lying when I say that I believe any of this her fault. I’m also lying when I say I don’t believe in God. She reaches out to touch my face, and I yank my cheek away and turn my head. I can hear that she is crying.
The temptation is to say that having an identical twin who dies just after birth means living with the hieroglyph of loss carved into you from your earliest breath, but that’s imprecise, and a concession to melodrama. The truth is closer to this: you wake up in the morning just like everyone else wakes up in the morning; you resist the light coming in planks through the blinds; you pull your dress over your head. Usually, while doing this, you’re thinking nothing or only that your feet are cold or that you wish you hadn’t left your laundry unfolded in the basket overnight. Meanwhile, though, somewhere just outside you, this small, heated weight is hanging in the air. There is another heartbeat at the farthest edge of your hearing and every glance of your body in your peripheral vision has the potential to feel suddenly stolen: you’re looking at someone else’s shoulder blade, even if it looks just like yours. This sense of another body—in yours—or barely beyond yours—or instead of yours—marks your life like a lighthouse lamp, waning and flaring in the distance.
I don’t know who told me about Frances. She goes as far back as I can remember, and I know our origin story like a myth: the twinning of two identical girls in the safe dark of a mother’s stomach, the violence with which they were torn from her, how they shuddered in the light. One girl clung to the messy new universe. The other wanted something different and abandoned her little body, streaming off in pursuit of another world. Each one was a half of something.
The pale pink card that bears my birth announcement also bears the news of Frances’s death. My sister is a single, slim file in the back of a cabinet in our parents’ house: two polaroids, a hospital bracelet, our ultrasound printouts, a footprint barely as wide as my thumb. I know what her nose would look like, down to the small rise in the bridge, know how her voice would sound, but have never heard her say a word. She would be a woman by now.
Sometimes, lying in bed at night, I conjure the weight of her ankle tossed over mine in the casual, intimate sleep of sisters, and I could almost swear that she’s in bed beside me: the rise of her shoulder blade visible in a soft blue T-shirt, her face buried in the pillow, her legs and bare feet pulled in tight toward her body. Spastic, I still sleep curled up like I’m in the womb: the last place we were properly twinned. Sleeping, my tightened body makes a hollow built for her.
I am utterly certain some version of Frances still persists somewhere. I feel her nearly constantly, and so I have to believe in some divinity, some life beyond this one I’m living. Even as I would like to throttle the God who killed her, I’ve always had to believe he’s real. I have to believe that, somehow, there’s an order to her early death and her brief life.
My family never went to church regularly when I was a child, but in college I start going quietly to Mass. The cathedral is beautiful, and my father grew up Catholic, so I have some cultural affinity for the church. It seems as natural a place as any to hunt for a present God. I sit in the back, learn all the prayers, and never speak to anyone except in the moments immediately after the Our Father when ritual dictates you turn and greet your neighbor. A few times I almost ask the priest about converting, stopping just short of actually having a conversation. Those years, I read a lot of Milton and Hopkins and Donne, and carry Christian Wiman’s poetry collection Every Riven Thing with me like a Bible. I read King James scripture and dog-ear most of the pages in an anthology of stories about belief. I write almost exclusively about faith and its absence, and from all this I build and take apart a hundred Gods.
I dream the wild lover who took over Margery Kempe’s body and made her wail, and the God Flannery O’Connor scratched on Parker’s back. I wrestle with the personal, inflexible Christ the billboards in the mountains at home in Virginia promised. I map the Lord onto a boy I adored as a young girl: with a Carhartt jacket and a soft southern accent, a fucked-up family and eyes such a clear, pale blue they sometimes looked like ice or air. I search out God in Virginia clay and the wood-heated house of my childhood neighbor, who watched Christian television by herself all day and liked it when I read to her from the Psalms. I want a God who is rustic and resurrected and material, who will talk to me in the staticky silence I hear playing in my head all the time.
My senior year, I write my undergraduate thesis on Paradise Lost. I never miss a week of church. But my faith is a quiet, messy, and uncertain thing, largely secret and unspoken. I grew up twenty-five miles from Jerry Falwell’s Baptist mega-church, in the heartland of what often feels like the worst religion has to offer: bigotry and prejudice, rabidly anti-intellectual attitudes, the inability to yield even a single hard-edged certainty up to kindness or questioning or complication. I’m more than a little embarrassed by my own desire for religion, which seems to conflict with both my progressive politics and my rational mind and so, while I’ve learned enough to talk comfortably about the role of Christianity in literature, taken theology classes, and become a regular at Mass, I’ve continued to insist, in all my public posturing, on the kind of critical distance academia rewards. I learn to say I’m interested in religion instead of I’m desperate to feel close to God. I explain, I’m attracted to ritual instead of I know something transcendent happens when I pray a Hail Mary; I can actually feel the air heat up around me. Sometimes I wear a little silver cross around my neck, but I make sure to keep it tucked underneath my sweater or my dress. I downplay its significance even to my college boyfriend, a sweet and logical Jewish agnostic.
“It’s just family jewelry,” I say. “I like the history.”
“I believe in some kind of God,” I say, “but I’m not a Christian.”
In early August 2014 Kate and I are having dinner in my apartment in Oxford, Mississippi. I moved here just about a month ago to get a graduate degree in poetry, and she’s the first real friend I’ve made. She’s got one of those laughs you can tell is borne up out of a true place in the gut, and is prone to a rapid, slightly caustic banter I like because it matches mine. But, more than that, somehow I’ve already got the sense that I don’t need to translate everything I say to her into some saner, more palatable form before it leaves my mouth, that, in fact, she understands a lot before I even say it. She already knows about Frances, and now we’re trading longer, messy backstories over risotto in that underwater light that marks a southern summer evening. I care a lot about God, I tell her, which is the truest thing I know how to say about it.
A week or two later we’re sitting at Saint John the Evangelist, the only Catholic church in Oxford. I marvel at how, even after a couple of years away from Mass, the routine feels intimately familiar. I make the sign of the cross, touching my forehead, then the shallow at the center of my collar bone, then the margins of my left and right shoulders. I bow my head, lean forward in the pew: Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us….
The church is all white stucco and wooden beams and filtered light falling from the ceiling onto the burnished pews. Above the bent body of Christ on the cross is a window painted with a white lamb and thorns, all the orange glass lit up like it’s on fire as the late afternoon pours through. Logically, I know that the lamb with curled legs in the window looks like the one on Frances’s gravestone only because both designs use the same stock image, but I can’t get over how close she feels. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us….
The priest divides the host and my gaze ricochets up and down between the crucifix and the window: Bent body, lamb. Bent body, lamb. Bent body, lamb.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
We keep going to church, and by early fall we’re staying not just for Mass, but for the weekly spaghetti dinner and the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults sessions that are a prerequisite for formal conversion to the Catholic Church. Kate, a little overwhelmed by just how involved the whole process is, starts referring to RCIA as “how to be Catholic class.” The directness of the phrase appeals to me, as does the sense that it might offer a blueprint for how to be faithful. How to stop the cruel and shaking fear that overtakes me sometimes, and feel closer to whatever portion of my sister outlasted her early death.
Sometimes, I feel like a tourist in church, like I lack the discipline or selflessness or certainty for real devotion and just want the trappings: the lovely building, the chorus of voices, the candlelight and the ritual and the firm hand taking mine. But I’m fond of those great lines in Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story”: “having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and the wonder of ritual.” His protagonist muses that “a prayer, whether recited or said with concentration, is always an act of faith.”
So I say the prayers, and I go to class, and I try to take directions. I come to find Saint John’s church community steadying not just spiritually, but on a daily, worldly level. I’m comfortable sitting at the plastic tables in the church basement and eating big-batch spaghetti and iceberg lettuce and drinking sweet tea. I love the little girls in flowered leggings wielding washcloths heavy with the scent of industrial cleaner as they help their parents clean up. I like that they’re smiling, and don’t look at anyone like they’re a stranger. I like that our priest looks a little like Stanley Tucci in a collar, has an easy Mississippi drawl, and references SEC football in his homilies. The space has no pretensions and makes me want to be a more generous version of myself. I want to be a light in the world, I think. I feel a little less alone every week we go. And it gets easier and easier to say my prayers with devotion: to make the air heat up.
But I can’t enact many of the gestures the Catholic Mass requires. I can’t genuflect before the altar, or stand up steadily long enough to cross myself with holy water. I can’t stand or kneel when the liturgy requires it and, every time I watch the congregation file up to take Communion, I think about how hard that procession will be for me when I’m confirmed. I find some work-arounds: I sit on the very edge of the pew and lean forward to approximate kneeling, and I work hard on my posture when the congregation is supposed to stand. I can bow quickly instead of genuflect, and Kate takes easily to crossing us both with Holy Water and squeezing my hand hard after she files up to get blessed by our priest, sharing with me a little of his grace.
One week, a man in the pew in front of me notices I’m not kneeling during Communion and asks if I’m okay. “Yeah,” I say quietly, “I just can’t.”
“Oh,” he replies, “I thought maybe you were just too hot or something.” It’s very warm in the church. I’m embarrassed.
When Mass is over Kate leans down, grinning, and whispers in my ear, “Girl! You too hot to kneel.”
I dissolve into hysterics, and after that, it’s a joke we share. Girl! You too hot to _______ .
Really, though, I’m struggling. Is it absurd to adhere to a religion whose most central rituals my body won’t even let me perform? What am I to make of all the parables in the New Testament where Jesus heals the crippled and the lame? And, most importantly, if I believe we’ll all eventually be resurrected back into the world, then is this body—this bruised, broken, wreck of a form—the one I’m stuck with for all time?
I’ve always laughed at the fanatics who occasionally come up to me on the street and offer to lay hands on me and heal my maladies. It’s utterly ridiculous, and more than a little offensive, but I won’t pretend that being healed isn’t a dream I’ve had since childhood.
God finds ways to answer my questions. I can’t believe I’ve become the kind of person who can write such a sentence, but there it is. One week, Father Joe gives an entire homily on the importance of Christ’s bodily suffering, and the ways in which our own bodies often bear the marks of our struggles, and our sacrifices, and our striving. What looks most like a blemish, he says, is often a reminder of holiness and of the Lord.
The next week, in class, he discusses the anointing of the sick and clarifies that Christ only heals your marred body if it’s necessary for the salvation of your soul. “We all have the bodies we’re meant to have,” he says. We all have the bodies we’re meant to have. What does it mean if my body is not a punishment, or a mistake?
I go home and pray the rosary. Maybe I don’t have to hate my body? I ask Kate on the phone. I say it aloud again just to test it in my mouth: I don’t have to hate my body.
I close my eyes and picture our church: Christ’s bent body on the cross, picture of a lamb.
I go to confession after Mass the Thursday before Easter. It isn’t glamorous or dark the way the movies would have you believe. It doesn’t smell like sandalwood, and there are no flickering candles casting holy shadows on the walls. I want this to be beautiful, I think. I feel like it would be easier if it were beautiful. Instead, Father Joe and I sit face to face in folding chairs under florescent lights, and he smiles at me. At first, I talk in generalities, avoid what’s difficult: I’m too motivated by physical beauty. I’m prone to gossip and to judgement. I like food and drink to the point of gluttony. But I work my way up to my greatest shame: I fear that my anger at God, and at my body, has made me selfish and sometimes even wicked. I lay out a litany of ways I have been cruel throughout my life, ending with that July my mother and I lay in bed and I hurt her just so I could watch her hurt, just so someone else might be in pain alongside me.
“I hated her,” I say. “I hated God. I swore he wasn’t real.”
When we’re confirmed in the church we are allowed to pick a saint’s name. I know the first time Father Joe mentions it that I want to pick Francis, and hear the echo of my sister’s name inside my own, some small way to make my real sense of her presence manifest.
It’s not until after confession that I feel like I can say that aloud to anyone.
Bent body. Lamb.
Easter Sunday, I don’t give a damn about my faltering body stumbling down the aisle toward the Eucharist.
“From now on you will be called Francis.”
Bent body. Lamb.
I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.