ON MY BROTHER DECLAN’S third day on life support—the morning he becomes newsworthy—strangers begin to leave messages on the home phone. A funeral director leaves his number. An alarm-system salesman warns of the characters who scour the Globe and the Herald for stories like Declan’s, for tragedies that strike families from well-off towns, leaving their homes empty and vulnerable. “Because of your circumstances,” the salesman says, “I’d be happy to give you the system half off.” I delete these messages.
I glance up quickly at my younger sister, Shaigh, who is dozing in the chair next to Declan’s hospital bed, her Chinese medicine notebook open on her lap. She has fallen asleep while administering a pressure point on Declan’s hand. From where I’m sitting I can just barely see his chest rise and fall, in time with the hiss of the machines.
The next message is from a woman named Dianne Burrin with a gravelly smoker’s voice and a thick Boston accent—maybe from Woburn, maybe Arlington, it’s tough to place. I take down her number as an image of my grade-school lunch lady with her chignon wig and penciled-in eyebrows pops into my head. “I have a holy relic of a Polish nun,” she says. I think I hear the quiet pull of lips on a cigarette. “Her name is Sister Faustina. She has performed miracles. Documented ones.” She exhales, then coughs, dislodges some phlegm, and excuses herself.
I distance the receiver from my ear.
“If you like, I could come by and say some prayers over Declan this afternoon.”
Hearing a strange woman call Declan by name has unsettled me. No thanks, Dianne Burrin. We don’t need any more strangers or any more strange religion in the room. Sorry, but no. As much as we need the miracle—desperately so—someone needs to be rational around here, and no one else in my family seems up to it.
My parents enter just as I’m placing the receiver back on the cradle. They lean over and kiss Declan, and I avert my eyes. They always linger there and whisper something to him. Seeing this act, its intimacy, witnessing their tired pain, hurts more each time I see it.
They are beginning to look generally unkempt. The skin beneath my mother’s eyes is leavened dough, and the gray is peeking through the roots at her temples. My father has a coffee stain on his button-down and one pant leg is tucked into his ankle brace. I jot down a note to call one of their friends to bring in a change of clothes. There are small things that people can do to help. Dad still has his stethoscope slung around his neck, but it’s more security blanket than instrument. He’s the father here, not the doctor.
“No messages today,” I say.
Since we got here, it has become my self-appointed job to call the home voicemail and to keep track of and relay the messages. I am a fact-checker for a magazine in town, so my notetaking is meticulous, a point of pride. The task also gives me something concrete to do. So far, I’ve had to call a couple times a day or the machine gets full—so many people, from every corner of our lives, calling to wish us well. My parents seem to find some comfort in these messages; today is the first day I’ve wanted to guard them from the callers.
“Really? No messages?” Shaigh says, now awake. “You were on the phone for a while.” She is nearly finished with acupuncture school, but sometimes I think she should be a private detective. The gal has a nose for a lie—or maybe only my lies—like no one I’ve ever met. I’ve never been able to get anything by her. When we were growing up, she knew I’d taken my parents’ station wagon for a joyride before I even pulled out of the garage; in high school she knew every time I came home drunk; and she covered for me that week in college when I was incommunicado because I’d taken a roadtrip with the boyfriend my parents hated. Shaigh has known my whole life that I’m not all I’m cracked up to be, that I simply have a talent for hiding the less worthy parts of myself. I give her a lot of credit for loving me in spite of this.
She also knows that I’m terrible at lying on the spot. “Well, there was one,” I say, and choose the message that seems least likely to cause my parents additional anxiety, “but I didn’t think we’d be interested in what she was peddling. It was a lady from Saint A’s. Dianne Burrin. Do you know her?”
Mom, who has stopped speaking since Declan was admitted, shakes her head. Her silence, so wholly uncharacteristic, is unnerving, and somehow sacred, and not at all without sound. She swipes her thumb back and forth across Declan’s hand.
“Name sounds familiar,” Dad says. He knows more people at Saint A’s than any of us because he goes to daily mass. Mom goes Sundays. Shaigh goes at Christmas and Easter, though she’s more interested in Buddhism these days. Much to my parents’ disappointment, I have given up on it altogether. The fact-checker in me has made it harder and harder to ignore the troubling things I’ve learned about the Church over the years. “What did she want?” he asks.
I explain what Dianne Burrin would like to do, and then I say, “I’ll call her right back and tell her we won’t be needing her services.”
“How did she even know about Declan?” Dad asks.
I hold up the newspaper with the article about Declan. They read it together. Dad begins to cry. Mom doesn’t; she has become the winter day too cold for snow.
The newspaper article has most things correct. Yes, Declan, nearly eighteen, is a recent graduate of Winchester High School, class of 1999. Yes, he led his lacrosse team to the state championship last month and was nominated All-Scholastic. And yes, he went into anaphylactic shock three nights ago while working as a counselor at an overnight lacrosse camp.
I’ve heard the inside story again and again from Declan’s bulky, awkwardly hugging friends who were there that night, playing video games, as a bowl of pistachio nuts was passed around the room. One friend offered him some. Declan—the same brother who has sworn off all nuts his entire life because he knows he is allergic to peanuts—asked his friend if pistachios were anything like peanuts. His friend said no. For some reason—a reason I’m wondering if we’ll ever know—Declan tried some. He threw up. Then, as his throat tightened, he searched frantically for the trainer. When he found her, she slid the needle into his thigh, but the EpiPen didn’t take. He stopped breathing, and he fell.
“The reporter made a mistake,” I say, gesturing toward the newspaper. “He wrote pine nut instead of pistachio.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Shaigh says.
“Of course it matters. If he ate a pine nut, he wouldn’t be here.” A fact-checker could lose a job over something like this.
“This isn’t about being right, Fi.”
We’re careening toward Our Argument: that I always need to be right, that I can’t accept constructive criticism. All I’m going to say about Our Argument is that I don’t want to have it today.
Father Dugan, the hospital chaplain, enters, wearing a plaid short-sleeved button-down, his white undershirt showing at the top, and jeans; he is followed by the young emergency-room doctor. Dad goes to Father Dugan and clasps his hand between his two; the doctor’s he takes with one firm shake. The doctor then passes Dad the clipboard, and Dad steps toward the corner of the room, head down, finger snaking down the page.
The doctor looks over my mother’s shoulder at the newspaper. “He’s a handsome guy.”
“Yeah,” I say, and take a closer look. There he is. Eyes open. Smiling open-mouthed, showing the crooked tooth he chipped in a rollerblade accident when he was a kid.
I turn and look at Declan, at the tube in his throat, and then, gently, I lift his lip to peek at that tooth. My curiosity is unfair. If he were awake, he wouldn’t want me touching his lip. Since I moved back in with my parents, our siblingship had a friendly distance, a mutual space-giving that allowed us each to maintain some independence while both living at home. I recall a conspiratorial smirk in the backseat of the station wagon a few months ago, both of us puffy-eyed and exhausted, going to church at six in the morning on a holy day because Dad had nagged us to—his roof, his rules—and I hadn’t had the energy to protest. Moments like that made me think my brother and I would eventually become good friends. A tear comes, which I try to hide, but the quick inhale gives me away. Hands, my mother’s and Father Dugan’s, press onto my back.
“You need to sleep, Fi,” Dad says. “Go.”
Shaigh slips her arm into mine. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s go to the hotel.”
But before we leave, Father Dugan says a quick blessing and departs, and Shaigh has few questions for the doctor. Each day, very methodically, she has been asking him questions. When we first arrived, she started with the machines. What exactly do the blinking lights, the levels mean? And the tubes going into him, what are they delivering? How often does he get the drug Ativan? Today, she wants to know about the chart that has measured the swelling in his brain. She wants to understand; she wants to follow his progress. Calmly, kindly, the doctor explains. She nods, seeming to comprehend. But I know my sister, and I know she’s plotting when to put her needles into Declan without getting caught. She’s much better at getting away with things than I am.
I have handled this situation differently. Usually I am a details person—my paycheck depends on it—but with Declan, I only see the big picture. I have only asked a single question, and I asked it three nights ago, at the moment Mom tracked me down at my friends’ house, after we’d just finished a joint and I was one pink piece short of winning a game of Trivial Pursuit, to tell me that Declan was in the hospital. My mother’s response—Yes, yes, he is alive—is all I want to know, and apparently all my mother wants to say. I haven’t been able to bring myself to ask my father a single question. As a physician, he knows what’s going on, but I don’t want to ask him something that might pit his expertise against his hope.
I take a deep breath and walk toward the door.
“What do you want to do about Dianne Burrin?” Shaigh asks.
“I thought I’d settled that,” I said. I should never have told them about her. I don’t want her to come. No more strangers. No more visitors. No more prayers that don’t work.
“As long as her prayers are in the name of Jesus,” Dad says. “I’ll be okay with it.” My father, always, always by-the-book. Drives me nuts on most days, but today I like that he is setting up conditions. Maybe, I hope, Dianne Burrin won’t meet them.
Mom and Dad hold one another’s eyes and shrug. They’re both okay with this.
Shaigh is the tiebreaker. “What do we have to lose?”
It is evening and Dianne Burrin is more than an hour later than she promised. I’ve started to hope that she’s been maimed in a car accident and won’t be able to make it before visiting hours are over. I admit this hope to Shaigh because I think it will make her laugh, but she only gets annoyed and asks me why I have to be so closed off to people who are trying to be kind. This is the other iteration of Our Argument: that because I believe I’m always right, I won’t admit when I need help.
But this is different. We do need help. I recognize this. I just don’t want this lady giving my family false hope.
I begin to protest, but I go quiet when Dianne appears in the doorway, asking if she has the right room. The woman is petite—all angle and bone—except for the whorls of white-blonde hair that rise up like white licks of flame. She is not at all the woman I had conjured in my mind. She doesn’t appear to have nearly enough body to house the voice I heard over the telephone.
Out of breath, she grasps the doorframe and steadies herself.
Shaigh steps in and asks Dianne Burrin if she would like to sit down, if she’d like a glass of water, as if Shaigh were welcoming Dianne into our new home.
“No, no,” Dianne says. “I’m fine. Just a little winded from the stairs. But I like the exercise. Keeps me young.”
No, it doesn’t, I want to say, as I take in the wrinkles fanning around her eyes and combing above and below her lips.
Dianne is wearing a lot of layers for the middle of summer. All of the other visitors have dressed in summer clothes because it’s July and Boston has been experiencing a heat wave, and when they haven’t known what else to say, they’ve started rubbing up and down their goose-bumped arms and complained of the hospital’s air conditioning.
I introduce myself but stay firmly planted beside Declan, my hand on his shoulder.
Dianne takes a step toward Declan and rests her hand on the bed. Her nails, short and squared, are painted neon pink. She’s not wearing a wedding ring. Her right hand, which she places, uninvited, on Declan’s foot, is covered with a Nicotine patch. An odd place for it.
Then we do what we always do when a new visitor comes to the room for the first time. We collectively take Declan in. Shaigh tells Dianne not to be alarmed if Declan has a seizure; the doctors have assured us that he feels no pain.
We see the mountains and valleys of his blanketed body, stretching the full length of the bed. His hair has a dark sheen because he hasn’t had a proper shampoo today; his eyebrows, gone thick in the last year like my mother’s side of the family’s, are in some disarray; the breathing tube and mouth guard cover his lips; the surgical tape intended to keep the tube in place during his seizures is beginning to curl and unstick from his cheek; and it’s looking like he might need a shave. His beard is sparse, still adolescent. If he were awake, if he were breathing on his own right now, I’d tease him about his peach fuzz just to get a rise out of him.
Our attention moves back to Dianne as she rustles around in her purse. Then she holds out her hand, open-palmed, and reveals a tiny glass vial. Shaigh and I take a few steps toward her to get a good look. Inside is what looks like a flattened brown splinter, less than a centimeter long.
“Here she is,” Dianne says in a hospital voice that is louder than the hospital voices of our other visitors.
“She?” Shaigh whispers under her breath.
“She’s a first-class relic,” Dianne says. “An actual piece of bone from Sister Faustina’s body.”
“Doesn’t look like a bone,” I say. I don’t think I’m being rude. I think I’m being honest, stating a fact, but Shaigh nudges me. This little splinter is quite frankly not at all what I’d had in mind, my only other experience with a first-class relic being a photograph my third-grade CCD teacher had taken of Saint Catherine of Siena’s skull during her trip to Italy. I’d had to sleep with my parents for weeks because of the nightmares. In my dreams, Saint Catherine’s skull appeared everywhere. Under my pillow. In my lunchbox. Mid-air, underhanded from a pitcher’s mound.
But this relic is much different. It’s got my fact-checking pulse pumping. How do we even know this is a bone, never mind Faustina’s bone? Which bone is this anyway? Does it matter? When it comes to holy relics, is a bone a bone?
Because really, the most surprising thing about this relic is that it is here in this room. The fact of it, or rather, the accumulation of facts that have brought this relic to this room at this moment—that this strange woman is holding a sliver of a dead Polish woman’s bone in her hand, that she is here with the intention of asking that dead woman to intercede on behalf of my brother, and that my brother is indeed in need of a miracle through the help of this dead Polish woman—all of this is hard to compute. It is overwhelming to think of how many internet searches and interviews I would have to do and how many experts I would have to track down in order to verify each of these bits of information. If this were one of my fact-checking assignments, it would be an exhausting, perhaps impossible, investigation.
Dianne moves to the side of the bed and touches the relic to Declan’s forehead and then slips it in her pocket. I wish I could have taken a little longer with it, studied it harder. I wonder if Dianne would notice if I slipped my hand into her pocket, or if, through telepathy, I can tell Shaigh to trip the little lady on the way out the door so that I can get my hand in there undetected.
I want to ask Dianne where she got this splinter of bone because the longer she is here, the more suspicious I am of her motives. I picture her at home, curlers in her hair, exhaling smoke rings from her nose, waiting to hear about people from Saint A’s who are in need of a miracle so she can come on over with her bone in a clear cylinder. Though she hasn’t asked for any money, she is no better than the funeral home director or the alarm-system salesman, preying on families experiencing tragedy. I never should have told my family about her, and yet I did, and now I must admit that the lady—and her audacity—are starting to intrigue me.
“Where does one get something like this?” I ask. If this is the only chance I’m going to get with the source, I’m going to ask her questions, no matter how rude Shaigh thinks I am. I want to know if this lady is a fraud.
“I am a friend of someone Faustina has healed.”
I’m ready with another question—I want to know how much she’s going to charge us for her services—but Shaigh is quicker. She knows me too well.
“So what can you tell us about Saint Faustina?” she asks.
“Well, first of all, she’s not a saint yet,” Dianne says.
Even Shaigh looks a little deflated by this news.
“There has been one miracle attributed to her,” Dianne says, holding up her pointer finger, pink nail toward us. “She has healed a woman, Maureen Digan, from Roslindale. She had Milroy’s disease and the doctors were ready to amputate her leg, but after she visited Sister Faustina’s tomb and prayed for her intercession, the swelling in Maureen’s leg went down and she was cured. It was deemed a miracle. With one more miracle Sister Faustina will be canonized.” Dianne takes out a sheet of paper and hands it to me. She coughs a juicy cough. “Here are the prayers.”
I hand it to Shaigh. “I’ll watch this round.”
“Suit yourself,” Dianne says, unfazed. She shows us how to ask for Sister Faustina’s intercession. The prayer is the Hail Mary with a new sentence tacked on the end: “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” Apparently these words were given to Sister Faustina from above. She and Shaigh say the prayers together. It seems like a nice prayer, but not radically different from others people have given us, and it’s certainly not specific to Declan’s situation.
“I’ve been saying these prayers with my mother each night,” Dianne says. “It has been a comfort.”
“That’s wonderful,” I say, although I really want to say that her mother must be very old by now and what good is a miracle if it’s wasted on an old person.
Then she takes the prayer and presses it into my hand. She promises that she will pray fiercely for Declan. When she says the word “fiercely,” she draws her lip taut over her gray teeth.
Our next shift with Declan is at three in the morning of the fourth day. As always, there are new gifts lining the windowsill, signs that people have come to visit while we’ve been asleep. Cards, poppy seed bread, ham and cheese sandwiches, Dunkin Donuts coffee, a get-well balloon, laminated prayer cards, a pin stuck to his pillowcase, holy water in small plastic containers in the shape of the Blessed Virgin. There is a photograph of clouds; when you stare at it long enough, the clouds turn into the face of Jesus. There is a cotton swab with oils that have supposedly sweated from statues of Little Audrey.
My favorite is a plastic doll called a Moonie with a note from two girls in bubbly handwriting. When, as directed, I squeeze its stomach, the pants drop. It’s somewhat inappropriate for the occasion, but I appreciate it for this reason. I conclude that Declan must have mooned these girls once, perhaps more than once.
Our parents get ready to leave. “Any change?” I ask.
My mother shakes her head, and I feel fresh sadness.
“We tried the prayers to Sister Faustina,” Dad says. “They weren’t bad.” He means this to be encouraging, but he’s so tired it comes out sounding like he’s talking about a mediocre steak dinner. “They helped keep us awake.” He puts his arm around my mother and guides her toward the door. He looks back over his shoulder and says, “Give them a try for us, will you?”
He knows that saying “for us” is the trump card. He knows I’ll do anything for them right now. “I’m rusty,” I say.
“It’s okay,” he says.
When Shaigh goes to the lobby to get a cup of tea, I sit by Declan and tell him about Dianne Burrin. “I know you were there this afternoon,” I say to him. “So I won’t repeat anything you may have overheard.” But could he tell she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring? Did he know what that meant? It meant she lived alone with her mother. It meant she was an old religious spinster. Could he imagine anything worse? I pause, realizing what I’ve just said. “Of course you can imagine something worse.” I apologize. I feel myself getting emotional, so I push ahead. “And another thing about Burrin.” Calling her by her last name feels a little edgy, a little disrespectful, which keeps me from breaking down. “She’s going about this relic thing all wrong. I think she should ask Faustina to cure her smoking habit; she should take care of herself first, then worry about the rest of us. She’d be more convincing that way.” I can hear him saying that it is funny—if you stop and think about it—that the only healer he can get to come to his aid is a lonely old chain-smoking saint peddler. But I can’t laugh right now, Deck, I think.
The nurse who could be a linebacker comes in, examines the machines, pushes some buttons, gives me a nod of acknowledgement—she does not greet my weak smile with a smile—and walks out. “I’m sort of afraid of that nurse,” I say. I peek out behind the curtain to make sure she’s left the room. “We’re not getting any sympathy from her, that’s for sure.”
Then Declan begins to seize. I hold his hand and hover over him, hopeful, in that moment when his eyes roll back, that somehow he can see me. My desire to be the first one he sees when he opens his eyes is a selfish desire, but it’s there all the same. About thirty seconds later, all is calm, all except my insides, which have been wound up from his seizure, from all my talk of fears—what with the real fear, the real one, lying right there in front of me, happening, before I even knew I was afraid of it: My little brother. I could lose him.
I drop the pen I’ve been holding. As I bend down to pick it up, I see a pool of blood beneath the bed.
I jump for the nurse’s call button.
The linebacker nurse comes in and quickly reattaches a tube. She looks nervous. She has made a mistake. “It’s okay,” I tell her. I am trying to be kind, but I can’t take my eyes off the blood, how it gleams like ice on the linoleum tiles.
The nurse lumbers off and returns with a mop. “How did you even see that?” she asks.
I raise the pen. “Dropped it.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” she says. She crosses herself, kisses her fingers, and looks upward. At that moment, I want to dive across the bed and tackle her. Just like I’ve seen my brother do on the football field, I want to land my shoulder in the woman’s gut and send her flying. It’s real easy to pray, I want to say, when you’ve already received what it is you’re praying for.
I hope this is not the miracle we’ve been waiting for, even if it may very well have saved this woman her job. Surely Sister Faustina understands that we have something different in mind. Surely someone knows that we’re praying for the curative kind of miracle, that Declan needs the kind that heals.
After the nurse leaves, I turn to Declan. “Fine. I feel like a goddamned hypocrite, but I’m going to try these prayers, okay? If you want me to stop, feel free to interrupt.”
I place the piece of paper with the prayer over his leg. Then I take the rosary in hand, and I begin. I read through the prayer again and again, the touch of the beads between my thumb and forefinger moves me forward. It’s been so long—maybe ten years. My thoughts fly off to the past, to my confirmation retreat, the last time I held a rosary, when I was crying and praying for forgiveness, because I’d given up my virginity too soon. “Have mercy on us,” I say and feel a little pressure in my chest. I say the Hail Mary. I’m concentrating. Then I’m not, so I squeeze the beads and they bring me back. Shaigh comes in with a coffee and a tea and her acupuncture supplies slung over her shoulder, which she slips under a chair. I think she’s going to make fun of me, but she sits down beside me and recites the prayer out loud. I join her. By the fifth round, I can say the prayer by heart, and there, somewhere in the words, in the repetition of them, I lose my bearings. The words are right there, written on the sheet of paper, ready-made, prescribed, yet somehow, as I say them, I feel them changing. Like a poem? No. Not exactly. The words, their meanings, don’t deepen each time through. The words almost don’t matter. They’re scaffolding on an old home.
When we finish, we sit quietly. The doctor enters. Shaigh kicks her acupuncture supplies further under the chair.
When Shaigh and I return from the hotel at ten am, we learn that the doctors want to schedule a family meeting that afternoon. This isn’t a good sign. If Declan were improving, it wouldn’t take a meeting with two neurologists to give us the news.
I excuse myself and head straight for the lobby. The elevator is full, so I take the stairs in twos down the eight flights. I need a phone, and I need privacy, so I can set a few things straight with Dianne.
I can’t get the quarters in quickly enough. After ten interminable rings, her machine picks up. I tell Dianne that our family is finding the novenas to be helpful. “I believe they are deepening my prayer.”
Immediately, I become aware of the layer of grime on the telephone receiver, the way it slides in my hand. I wish I hadn’t said that. Never in my entire life have I spoken to anyone about how I pray—or don’t pray—and it feels false, or less true, now that I’ve mentioned it out loud. I want to erase that statement, the sentiment, from the machine.
I clear my throat. “Actually,” I say, and let out a little laugh, “the most impressive thing about them is that they’re helping me stay awake.” My father’s line doesn’t sound right, or benign, coming from me. But I’m back on terra firma. Defenses up, though against what I’m no longer sure.
I’m calling, I say, because I need to double check that I’m doing the prayers in the right order, that I’m doing enough of them, that I can be sure Sister Faustina is not mixing signals, causing errant miracles, because I’m doing the prayers wrong. Much like the telephone calls I make from work, I read through exactly how I’ve said the prayers and tell her that if she could call back to verify that I am doing things correctly that would be most appreciated. I am fact-checking a prayer.
“I need to know soon,” I say. The quarters plunk into the stomach of the payphone. “By this afternoon.”
We leave the doctors’ meeting heavy with the news that Declan is not improving; they say he never will; they have given us the options for his care. We walk the corridor in silence. Dad holds Mom’s waist; Shaigh and I follow, arm in arm.
We turn a corner. Declan’s door is ajar. I tug Shaigh’s arm to walk more quickly. Didn’t we close the door when we left? What if they took him somewhere while we were gone? But then we peer in and see Dianne, her hair in curlers, tented by a scarf, sitting in the tall chair next to Declan’s bed.
Mom and Shaigh ignore her and walk to opposite sides of the bed. I stand at Declan’s feet. Dad remains at the door.
No one acknowledges Dianne. I feel responsible, as if she had interpreted my fact-checking inquiry about the prayer as an invitation to return. I hope she won’t mention my telephone call because I’m afraid I’ll deny it.
She stands and walks toward the door. “I came,” she says, “to answer any questions you may have.” In my peripheral vision, I can see her turning back and forth between my sister and me, trying to gauge which of us called, which of us she can rely on for a certain level of empathy or, at the very least, a certain level of eye contact. It may be my fault that she’s here, but I keep my eyes on my brother. I try to accept what the doctors have told us, but I can’t.
“I also came,” she says, “to ask if you want me to bring my friend. I wasn’t sure if you got the message.”
Declan’s right hand twitches. Mom takes it. A seizure is coming.
“I haven’t checked the messages today,” I say.
“I deleted it,” Shaigh says without looking up at me.
I’m angry about this for two reasons. One, Shaigh was on my turf. By checking the messages, it meant she was checking on me. Second, I’m upset that she didn’t tell me what Dianne’s message said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I forgot,” she says.
I know this is a lie. I turn to Dianne. “Tell us about your friend.” In the quick expand-and-contract of Dianne’s eyes, I see that she recognizes me as the one.
I feel the next wave of Declan’s seizure at his feet; I press my thumbs to his arches.
Dianne clears her throat and speaks. “My friend is a healer,” she says, her voice a pitch higher, more desperate sounding. I can see she’s taking a risk here. She’s admitting that her Sister Faustina isn’t coming through and that she’s grasping at straws. I want to be kind to her and mean to her at the same time for suggesting this. “He has cured people just like Declan, even worse.”
With his free hand, Dad alternately clenches and stretches his fingers. He does this when he’s nervous or when he’s angry, or both. “That won’t be necessary,” he says, “but thank you.” Then he pushes open the door a little wider, and I feel my composure drain. He wants her to leave. He believes what the doctors have told us.
Declan’s seizure begins. Mom and Shaigh lean in close. His neck jerks. His hands slap at the bed.
“Go please,” Mom says, the sound of her voice enough of a shock to make Shaigh look up from Declan toward me, then back.
“I understand,” Dianne says. “You need to be alone right now.” She picks up her pocketbook and slings it over her shoulder. On her way out, she says to me, “You can call me at anytime.”
“Now,” Moms says.
As Dianne shuts the door behind her, Declan goes still. I feel out of control, like I’ve taken on the violent abandon of his seizure. I turn to my father. “Why not?” I ask. “Why not let the healer come?” But as soon as I say these words I want to take them back. I just asked him the question with the answer I’ve been trying to avoid.
The plan is made. Declan will be taken off the machines tomorrow morning. As I set the hotel alarm clock, I hear noises from outside. Quick gunfire-like explosions. I pull back the curtain and see a bright flash of red light. It’s the Fourth of July. I’d forgotten.
Shaigh arrives, her acupuncture bag over her shoulder. She had wanted to stay behind for a few moments alone with Declan, to say goodbye.
“Take a shower,” I say. “It’ll feel good.”
As soon as I hear the faucet, I pick up the telephone and dial. It’s late, but I don’t care.
Dianne picks up at one ring, as if she’s been waiting.
“We’ve changed our minds,” I say.
“I see,” she says, the words tucked into an inhale.
“I thought you were quitting. That first day you came to visit, I saw the patch.”
“I like to give the appearance once in awhile.”
I don’t like the word “appearance” coming from her.
“I’m worried about your health,” I say.
“Thank you,” she says, and takes another drag. “But you haven’t called in the middle of the night to discuss my smoking habits.”
I glance quickly at the bathroom door. “We want the healer.”
“Honestly, dear, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Your family was against it, and I impose myself only upon invitation.”
“I’m inviting you. We’ve changed our minds. We’re not giving up. We need the healer.”
“I’m just not sure….”
I hear the faucet go off, the scrape of the shower-curtain rings against the rod. “Please,” I say. “Tomorrow.”
I hang up as Shaigh emerges, towel-turbanned, pink-skinned, and nightgowned.
“Who was that?” she asks.
“I scheduled a wake-up call.”
She seems to consider this and looks at the alarm I’ve just set, that I’ve set every time we’ve gone to sleep. “You’ve started acting irrationally,” Shaigh says, drying her hair with the towel. “That’s why I checked the messages.”
“You should talk.” What I’m about to say is a gamble and it’s hurtful, but by Shaigh’s expression, I know I’m on to something. The Chinese medicine book. The questions to the doctor. The acupuncture needles stashed beneath Declan’s bed. The facts have been adding up.
“What are you talking about?” She flops her head on her pillow, facing away from me.
“At least I haven’t been sticking needles into Declan when I’m not licensed to do it. That’s what I’m talking about.” I pause. “And it doesn’t seem to be working.”
She turns to me and I can see that she’s crying and she’s angry and that I’ve hurt her.
We’re careening toward the edge of something very different from Our Argument. Neither of us knows what we’re doing or what we’re saying. Against my family’s wishes, I just invited a healer to come to the hospital. Shaigh’s been sneaking her needles into the best children’s hospital on the East Coast and sticking them who-knows-where into our dying brother. Our Argument is no longer about being right, about not needing help. It’s about not knowing what’s right, about admitting to a desperate need for help, and flailing, grasping at anything to save our little brother, whom we love and have loved for eighteen years and who will die tomorrow. We are in uncharted territory. We don’t know how to pray. We don’t know how not to pray. “I’m sorry,” I say.
As I pull the covers up over us and wrap my arm across her, I realize I didn’t give Dianne any information. I didn’t tell her what time.
We join our parents at about five in the morning. Neither of us has been able to sleep. All morning I watch the door for Dianne. But then the doctors and nurses arrive and I turn my whole focus to my brother. It is time.
Declan lasts hours longer than the doctors expect. He breathes, with effort, on his own. We sit, watch, and draw each breath with him. Without the tubes he looks like himself—his thin lips, the extra layer of flesh around his cheeks and under his chin, his nostrils unflared, unlaughing.
And then, at three fifteen, he goes. We are all there to witness it. We see him breathe and then not breathe. We see his color drain. Mom climbs onto the bed, one knee, then the other, and then she slumps onto her right hip. She gathers him into her arms and rocks.
There are obvious things that I don’t think of, such as that we have to leave the hospital without Declan, that he will not be coming home with us. We check out of the hotel, which has been taken care of by friends. The four of us walk together toward the parking garage. It is a clear morning, the humidity gone. Normal details—a jogger in spandex, a man walking his dog, a neon McDonald’s sign, an old Pontiac with “for sale” and a phone number written in white letters on a rear window—seem to mean more than themselves, but I can’t interpret their message. They are facts that fail to find a foothold in my mind. None of us can remember where we parked the car and it takes twenty minutes to find it. For twenty minutes, none of us cries.
While Shaigh and I are settling in, buckling up, my mother looks into the back seat—not at me, not at Shaigh, but at the space in between. Dad pays the garage attendant. Then as he is readying to pull out onto the street, I see Dianne, standing on the corner with an obese man with long white hair and a white beard. He is wearing all black. He must be the healer.
“That woman should be shot,” Mom says. Her voice and her sharp tongue have returned and she is angry. It is easy to be angry right now.
My sister and I catch eyes. She knows it was me who invited them, but she won’t say anything. Our secrets are safe.
I know I should admit that I called. But I don’t. At some point I will. But right now it will only intensify my parents’ pain. Instead, I do what comes naturally. I poke fun. “Wouldn’t ask him to heal my cellulite,” I say. It is a mean thing to say, but I feel I can be mean. I can say or do just about anything, and no one will dare to blame me.
“Stop, Fi. You don’t have any cellulite. You have beautiful legs,” Mom says. “And be nice.” Then she turns to Dad. “Go.”
He pulls out onto the street, and I unbuckle my seatbelt and turn around to look at the healer out of the rearview window. I find myself hoping, as he steps off the curb, that he will sprain his ankle, so he will be forced to cure himself before my very eyes. But as he safely crosses to the other side, as he grows smaller and smaller and eventually disappears around a corner, I realize that I genuinely wanted to meet him.
Because suddenly I am overflowing with questions. If I got him in a room, I might never stop asking. What was the first thing he’d healed? The most life threatening? The most mundane? How can he stop himself from healing all day long? Does he specialize in humans, or does he treat animals, too? I wonder how he discovered he could do this, which hand he uses, if he even uses a hand. I wonder why I haven’t heard of him before. Does he advertise? Has he ever thought about helping Dianne with her smoking? Is he married? Does he make sure his wife doesn’t even get a common cold? Because even if a healer failed to convince anyone else he could heal, surely, he’d have to convince his wife? Because how else could she believe—even if there was nothing in the world she wanted more?
I turn around and buckle my seat belt. Away from the city’s tall buildings the sky opens to wan blue. There are whitecaps and sailboats on the Charles River. Mom shouts at Dad to stay in one lane, and we head homeward, where Declan, people have told us, will be on the five o’clock news.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.