I WANTED TO LIGHT her a candle at the holy sanctuary at Chimayo. I chose a Saint Christopher candle: she had just died.
Melinda may have died at forty-nine of a heart attack, though there was nothing wrong with her heart. Or she might have died by choking, following a week of seizures.
Or it might have been Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick. I keep getting different stories, depending on whom in my family I ask.
Melinda never believed in God, as far as I know, so I chose Christopher, a saint purged from the rolls of sainthood, declared legend, in 1969. Not a figure likely to bug her in the afterlife. I bought the candle at the Chimayo gift shop: it was tall, enclosed in a glass decorated with images of the lost saint, a bearded and muscular man shown carrying the Christ child on his back, his feet in water. Christopher’s legend has it that he was very strong, and his ministry became carrying people across a rough river in which many had drowned. He had a “fearsome face” and the Golden Legend of the saints has him standing at five cubits, or seven foot five. Folk depictions often portray him as an ogre.
Christopher, the story goes, had wanted to serve the most powerful king of all. He started with a Canaanite king, but when Christopher saw the king cross himself at the name of the devil, he went to serve the devil instead. He found a thief who called himself the devil but noticed one day that the thief shied away from the cross, so finally Christopher devoted himself to Christ, who didn’t appear afraid of anyone, and he took over the job of saving people at the river. One day he carried a little child who grew astonishingly heavy as Christopher walked, so much so that Christopher complained the whole world couldn’t weigh so much. At which the child said, “You are carrying the world and him who made it.”
Christopher was the patron saint of lost causes, according to my family. Actually he was the patron of travel and against storms and of a good death.
I slept in a room with Melinda and some other cousins throughout the summers as a child. The room had two sets of bunk beds and a Monty Python poster I had tacked up with Helen, the cousin closest to my age, both of us older than Melinda. The room had a table painted pale blue over many earlier layers, so each flaking chip offered a time capsule and a rainbow of color. That table was haunted. It had been used by my mother and her mother and sisters to conduct séances when they were children, and it answered questions—by tipping—through a spirit named Simon. I don’t know what layer painted Simon in, but the table once hurled itself across the room at my grandmother May’s friend the reverend, who had called it evil.
No one told us all this when we were children. A good thing: my little cousin worried incessantly and slept poorly as it was.
My grandmother had grown up in England during an era of mysticism, and my grandfather came from Barbados and grew up with spirits. My family loved séances and reading the future in tea leaves and palms, and used to speak to the dead regularly, back when we had none in our own circle.
The shore bungalows were tiny, rickety, and had no hot water or phone service and few lights. At night we sat around the oilclothed table with kerosene lamps. We played Monopoly and Risk and Pit and poker, and my little cousin who died tended to be a bad loser—it may have been her extreme sensitivity—so we mostly let her win. My grandfather built the bungalows himself on Barnegat Bay in New Jersey, on land he either bought for forty dollars or squatted for free, depending on whom you ask.
When Helen and I were both down the shore we always went to the bathroom together, no matter what—one would wait for the other to have to go, if need be—though as we grew it required squeezing ourselves in, one shoved up against the door. It upset Helen’s mother, my Aunt Catherine, that we went to the bathroom as a unit, but she couldn’t get us to stop. She seemed to think our strong attachment had some kind of lesbian aura, but it didn’t; it had everything to do with creating our own world and sealing the rest of the family out. As children we played games that never ended, games we based on TV shows like The Man from uncle—Helen was agent Ilya Kuryakin and I was Napoleon Solo, though sometimes instead Helen dated Ilya and I dated Napoleon—and that we never dropped even as we fell asleep, and we snapped into as soon as we woke up.
“Wake up, Napoleon,” Helen would say if she got up first, or I’d wake first and say, “Ilya, Ilya.” As teenagers we dropped the games but kept the habit of shutting ourselves away. Whatever we played together as kids, we would be asked to include Melinda, and while we might give her a small role, we would not share our secret narratives with her.
During my drug years Helen used to say “Hello, Auschwitz” when I pulled down my jeans and exposed my jutting hipbones in the bathroom, a joke we would these days be more sensitive than to make. Helen, who now goes by Olivia, would have no qualms about insulting me—we’re still that comfortable with each other—but would not make a Holocaust joke. I’m tall and big-boned like my father, and at that time weighed about a hundred pounds.
I think Helen worried, though she’d happily smoke pot with me. She may have been the only person back then who fully knew my life, the speed and meth and heroin, the drugs I brought with me and walked into the cattails to do, the boys on motorcycles I went a little way away to join. I had a habit of disappearing. Though the whole family knew I did drugs; Helen tells me I would sometimes come back to the house and pass out, and certainly rarely seemed sober. No one, not even my parents, who had given up on the job of being my parents when I turned fourteen, said anything.
Chimayo, in the desert of New Mexico, had a ruddy, sandy heat, a sun that seemed to have a personal stake in bearing down on you, nothing like the spongy and careless swelter of summer New Jersey. The actual sanctuary—the part that makes Chimayo the “Lourdes of America,” as the handouts put it—lies off the church, in a very small chapel with an open pit of sacred dirt used for healing. It is tiny and rickety like the shore cottages, built of mud. A pit in the center of the floor opens to the holy dirt, with a child’s yellow beach shovel stuck in it for pilgrims to dig samples to carry away (you can bring a bag, or buy a “holy dirt bag” at the gift shop, by the candles). You can rub or sprinkle the dirt on injuries; you can eat it. You can send it to people, as I could have sent it to Melinda, if I had gotten to Chimayo sooner, though she would simply have thrown it away. Discarded crutches and ventilators and canes fill a small, dim anteroom, with photos of people visitors came to pray for. Rosaries drip from little statues of the Christ child and the saints.
I prayed at a kneeler before a hammered tin Virgin before going into the sanctuary. It was dark, the uneven floor worn smooth by decades of pilgrims. I waited patiently, in a line of women, to pray. I had no idea what I wanted to pray for. The stakes felt too high: the holy place, the death about which I couldn’t find words. My brother had gone to Melinda’s funeral; I was too far away. It lasted twenty minutes, he told me, with no one speaking for her but one cousin who’d barely seen her in the last twenty years. “When did we go from stoicism about dying to nonchalance?” he wrote. The funeral depressed him a great deal. My cousin seemed isolated in Florida, with few people in her life. I couldn’t pray for her to be returned to that existence. Nor could I let her go.
I scooped my dirt with the yellow shovel into a plastic cask I bought at the gift shop. I almost bought a holy dirt bag, but I knew if I did I would laugh when I used the dirt instead of believing, and then it wouldn’t work. I planned to sprinkle it in my teenage son’s room, with a prayer that his adolescence will not take him as far to the end of the ropes of human living as mine did me. I have a collection at home: a Virgin-shaped plastic bottle of water from Lourdes, courtesy of my aunt Philomena; colored sand from a mandala created over a week by Tibetan monks, blessed, then swept up and given away. Now a casket of dirt. I keep a drawer of these things, insurance against my human failings.
It’s not clear why the dirt is holy. It may be that a Penitential Brother named Bernardo saw light shooting from the ground and found a crucifix at the site of the pit, a crucifix that miraculously kept returning to its place of origin when he removed it to a church. Or it may be that the same Bernardo found the body of a Guatemalan missionary priest and a crucifix. Both versions are true, say the gift-shop materials, to the storytellers, though everyone agrees that before Bernardo the native peoples found the dirt of the sanctuary healing, too.
The sign in the parking lot at Chimayo reads, This is a holy place. Please do not leave your car parked here overnight.
My cousin, now as nonexistent as Saint Christopher, had been married, had held a job, had even lived the 1980s New York life—getting her legs waxed and eating sushi, I remember, both yuppie things then—but all of that was behind her at the time of her death. She had spent the past fifteen years collecting disability, been divorced for several decades, lived in a condominium in Tampa. She seemed isolated, a woman with bipolar disorder—possibly schizophrenia—who went on and off her meds and had psychotic episodes in which she flew up north unannounced and arrived without luggage.
We never talked in the family about any of this. My father when he saw Melinda reported only on whether she had gained or lost weight, which she did a great deal of in both directions, probably the reason she would go off her meds. She had been eating-disordered as a teenager, refusing meals, then binging on potato chips in the dark; she struggled to be thin. People talk about going off meds as irrational, something only a crazy person would do, but after all it’s hard to stay on drugs with side effects that include obesity when your relations mostly pay attention to whether you’re fat.
Melinda had seizures ten days before her death, alone in her condo, and spent several days passed out on the floor. She had never had seizures before, but her medication had been changed from an anticonvulsant—many of which are used to treat bipolar disorder—and that change seems to have triggered convulsions. She spent eight days in the hospital getting the seizures under control, came home, and within a couple of days died, of what I can’t pin down. Aside from the convulsions she had nothing wrong with her.
I talked to Melinda two days before her death. She sounded silky and distant, rehearsed, not quite there: “I did have seizures but they are under control and I am going home now.” She had worked, when she worked, as a reservationist for Air Canada and her voice still carried that airline inflection; she could sound like a flight attendant: We did experience turbulence but we are now landing….
I fit my candle into the guttering row, in New Mexico, far even from my husband and my son. I live now on the coast of Washington. I tried to put my finger on the quality of absence of someone living in Florida versus the absence of her being wiped off the earth. It could strike me as no different, that week, or it could send me breathless into a bathroom stall to cry for a while—I was working in New Mexico—or it could make me try to picture the earth with everyone on it standing upright, a bristling globe, with an empty space for storms and good deaths. And probably lost causes.
Little Melinda had been the child every adult in the family wanted their girls to be. Strikingly pretty, with black hair, pale skin, and big gray eyes framed by long black lashes, quiet and obedient, she never got into trouble and got good grades, unlike me, and also unlike Helen, who smoked pot and dated men who drove junker cars and failed at school.
The older cousin by six years, I cared for Melinda in her childhood and held her hand, walking her over to the beach across from the bungalows. I held her up in the water; the bottom of the bay grew lush with seaweed and crabs would nip at your toes. Most of us kids did not mind that, but she sobbed if it happened. When our plumbing cracked, which it did often, she would cry that we’d all get typhoid or cholera. I sat up with her in the dark—Helen could sleep through anything—trying to calm her down.
Much of what comes back to me is a quavering little voice saying, Susie? It meant she couldn’t sleep and wanted me to pacify her. The shore darkness had a peculiar character, flush with motes and thick with floaters, an atmosphere awash with nothing. You could see what you wanted in it, or what you feared: spirits, bodies. One night, when my older cousin Mark had crawled under the house to fix the pipes, Melinda started crying in the darkness.
“Mark’s going to die,” she cried. “He’s going to die of cholera.”
“There is no more cholera,” I told her. “It’s gone, wiped out by antibiotics.” I lied like this, all the time, to Melinda. In fact, Mark would outlive her, though his wife would die—very suddenly, in her fifties, of a stroke—a few months before the death of Melinda.
I could not understand how the adults could fail to notice that Melinda was scared all the time. Or maybe they did. It was a prime directive for me and Helen, and Mark and my brother Chris, all of us older, not to upset Melinda or sully her innocence. We turned off our Doors records if she came into the room; we tried to get Mark to stop telling us horror stories in the little bungalow if Melinda wandered in, like his trademark story of a man dying on the front steps of the big bungalow, drained of every drop of his blood. It turned out to have been an attack by giant mosquitoes, mutations from the nearby nuclear power plant. Our pleas didn’t work, though; Mark would scare us all senseless no matter who told him to stop.
Melinda’s mother, my aunt Millie, convinced her daughter the Rolling Stones’ ode to Valium, “Mother’s Little Helper,” was about a little girl who liked to help her mother. I told Melinda flat out it was about women on drugs. I got in trouble for that, my aunt and mother saying what they said to me all the time, “Why’d you have to go and tell Melinda?” Nevertheless Melinda adored me—wanted to be me—perhaps explaining my aunt’s lifelong antipathy toward me. Which doesn’t matter anymore, as my aunt died a few weeks after her daughter. I talked to her on the phone, just a little before Melinda’s death and her own. Aunt Millie had grown forgetful and didn’t remember that she didn’t like me, so it was perfectly pleasant. I hoped she didn’t remember talking to me when she got the news about her daughter, fearful and cautious Melinda gone, and me still here, and dialing.
My brother sent me the news of my aunt Millie’s death by email. I asked him please not to email news of people’s deaths—I had grown up with my aunt, had seen her all summer and on every holiday and as much as she may have disliked me I was, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “in the habit of her,” and he wrote back, “I am just getting tired of all this stuff.”
I understand. I am tired of death also, and there have been more recently than I’m outlining here.
I get it as I get the Catholic Church not wanting an ogre saint, a Saint Shrek, though people who have found him useful will venerate Christopher nonetheless. Some functionary from the Vatican has inserted into the literature at Chimayo that the official church position holds the dirt is not holy, but just dirt. It does not miraculously renew itself in the pit, the disclaimer—published on the page before the pages of miracle testimonies—notes; it’s trucked in every day and blessed by the priest. It has no curative powers in itself. “Something about this place helps people experience their God”—that’s as far as the Vatican will go. The church is as tired of miracles as I am of my family dying, and my own improbable survival. I wonder if I, too, am somehow nonexistent, more legend than fact, and therefore hard to dispose of.
Though I guess in this thought I’m being self-important, as the church is in the handouts on Chimayo, believing that those who come to the sanctuary and dig the dirt and are not healed will think of their priests and their bishops and cardinals and even their pope and lose faith. As I imagine my aunt and the rest wondering how I lasted, when I doubt they think of me any more than they ever did. No, people who believe in something will believe it, and search for the next thing, the thing that has no fear. They can’t explain it and won’t try, any more than I can say why I miss her so much. They’ll brush off the dust from their withered arms and legs and shrug their shoulders, moving on to the next story, the next open door.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.