My parents had moved again, farther east, closer to the mountain. While I was away at school, I wasn’t told the secret inside their new dream home. But I understood why they withheld, because we believed that to utter the word “cancer” only made it more real and intransigent to healing via prayer. We never sought—and neither would we have accepted—any medical diagnosis; that would’ve been “erroneous thinking.” This had changed since Mary Baker Eddy’s time because she’d trained her practitioners to medically diagnose so they’d treat (i.e., know the Truth) the right issue. But by my era a hundred years later, the church had moved away from a personality-driven, cult-like following to become a recognized religion. So, no, we didn’t diagnose, we didn’t name the disease; so while away at school, I didn’t know what was wrong with Mom. I had inkling that the challenge wasn’t as trivial as a bee sting, though. When I called home for twenty minutes each week—on Sunday, when the rates were low—I told them about my most recent race and the G-rated activity in Lawrence. My folks always said, “Everything’s fine,” when I asked about Albuquerque. Mom eventually admitted that she had “a female challenge,” and so I backed off big-time. Still, I noticed how her long-distance voice wasn’t disappointed or harsh with me, but rather, it was soft and fading; it was not defeated but increasingly weary.
I finished my junior year, and by mid-May, I showed up in Albuquerque like Father Karras from The Exorcist. There was evil in Mom’s mind, and I was going to help rid her of it.
They say our homes are a reflection of our inner state: a cluttered home may reflect a disorganized psyche; a dark home, depression; a slick, concrete, and stainless-steel decor with spotless tile may reflect a psyche yearning for orderliness, predictability, and perfection. A home full of poltergeists was perhaps simply my fear that I wasn’t good enough, that I was vulnerable and alone and anxious about imagined dangers in a large world. Perhaps as an adolescent, I created a more understandable nemesis, a poltergeist, which was just as elusive and intangible as the fear that I sublimated into distance running.
But then again, maybe there really was something evil on Apache Street. Even Mary Baker Eddy believed that she was constantly attacked by “malicious animal magnetism” or “mesmerism,” which were thought attacks by others to do her harm. She’d have her most faithful followers stand guard outside her bedroom and pray to resist the mental attacks by her enemies.
So, what about this home on Antelope Avenue that was full of a disease that ate alive those who weren’t faithful enough to remain well? Mom worried that someone had thought bad thoughts about her and had given her breast cancer.
My parents’ new home was a flat-roofed, pueblo-style, simulated adobe. It hunched on a full acre of natural landscaping with yuccas, cacti, and sagebrush surrounding it. The neighbors were close enough that my folks felt obliged to wave but far enough away that they didn’t have to talk to them. The whole outfit looked as self-contained and autonomous as the Alamo—which was to say that my parents had breathing room. They could swing a dead cat if they’d a mind to. Yes, it was indeed a dream home, where people left you alone unless they were invited over, where you’d assume that all was well inside.
The interior of the house was comfortable and unpretentious. By the kiva fireplace, the large picture window took in an inspiring view of the gray, majestic Sandia Mountains. Turning around, one saw through the sliding-glass doors a brown, smoggy city with the muddy Rio Grande River snaking through it. Between the two views was a central atrium—the heart of the house—that Mom had nurtured to green lushness. As her health failed, the greenery failed as well, and Dad eventually replaced the vegetation with plastic plants. Her watercolors hung on most of the eggshell-white walls, with one corner of the master bedroom reserved for her children’s plaster handprints and grade-school artwork.
Half a dozen well-oiled firearms rested high in the master closet, and a single, loaded .44-caliber Magnum pistol nestled in Dad’s bedside drawer. Bad guys and rowdy teens would be quickly dissuaded if they thought we were vulnerable and easily victimized. On Mom’s side of the bed were her Bible and Science and Health, close at hand for the exact same reason as Dad’s pistol. Although the house on Antelope Avenue didn’t feel like home to me, I was glad not to return to Apache Street. My dream home was any house without poltergeists or an incubus.
I was shocked: when I entered her bedroom, Mom was already in the space between needing a wheelchair and being bedridden. She said, “Hi, T-Boo,” and I said, “Hi, Moo-Moo,” because she was my mother and loved me despite everything, and I was her son and loved her despite everything as well. Then she averted her eyes out of shame that she believed in Error; just exactlywhat she’d warned me against. Was she now the hypocrite and not I? Was this the consequence, her illness twisted into a metaphor? I knelt next to her rented hospital bed and reassured her with the same words she’d given to me over the past twenty years. In my mind, this was just another one of those things that we’d get through, like chickenpox or ringworm, and we began marathon prayer sessions. Actually, we prayed every waking moment, and I didn’t even go out on runs through the mesa or up the mountain. That sounds selfish, considering that my mother melted between stale sheets, but at the time, it was a big deal for me to take even a single day off from training. So we waited with strained patience for the certain healing. All Mom had to do was realize that she was created in God’s perfect image—and have enough faith—and then she’d manifest a perfect body. Healing could be spontaneous or gradual, who’s to judge? Still, what was she waiting for? I wondered. Why the need for all the suffering until she eventually got well? She’d concluded that it was a test for her, and I’d concluded that it was a test for me. Examples of nonmiraculous (i.e., scientific) spiritual healings were in the Christian Science literature scattered about our house, and testimonials came off the tongues of church members every Wednesday evening where we venerated God and Jesus Christ and held Mary Baker Eddy unctuously.
I drank the Kool-Aid and so was confident in my religion. But, of course, nobody close to me had yet died. It was not part of my belief system that death could visit a Christian Science family member unless he or she was very old. After all, even Mrs. Eddy eventually died at eighty-nine years old. Mom was only forty-one, plus I figured my personal failings were irrelevant to her expected healing. The Truth healed and was all that mattered. I could still facilitate my mother’s understanding of the Truth, or even have a single moment of clarity, regardless of my foibles and hypocrisy. It was as predictable and replicable as gravity. Gravity always worked, even if I was a chameleon. You should’ve seen me: I played a white chameleon, with faith and purity, as I knelt by my mother’s bedside. The good son on his mother’s bus. Please don’t conclude that my history to this point meant that I faked it. The truth is that I truly believed, and I truly tried to save my mother through prayer alone.
Was it narcissism again? I could heal my mother’s breast cancer solely through prayer? Please understand that I was trained that way, and it was certainly a good time to have confidence. I needed to overreach. Cs and Ds were no longer good enough. I needed to remember my phone number.
To be clear, I didn’t return home to preside over my mother’s slow rot but to make up for all the ways I’d disappointed her over the past couple of decades. I couldn’t freeze up with stage fright as Error’s calico crotch hovered nearby and reminded me about tangled webs. I was in a fast heat.
I’m curious, but have you ever witnessed a loved one dying of cancer? I hope not, but if so, did your loved one refuse to take medication or to receive any medical treatment whatsoever? Remember, Mom was an expert at dragging her feet when it came to medical interventions. When I bent down to hug her, she smelled like cancer. If you don’t know what that smells like, then I envy you. Someday, there may be a scratch-and-sniff in books or a button on computers so readers can smell cancer if they’re curious—or burst into tears again if they already know. Suppose your loved one’s lungs filled with the runoff from the internal assault as she drowned in a dry bed. Was she eaten alive as you stroked her face? Did her lips stretch tight against her teeth as her eyes crinkled shut? Further, suppose that you loved this person but were also angry with her, and you mistakenly assumed that you had a full lifetime to work through your issues together, when in fact you did not.
As the days tromped over us, Mom’s breathing became shallower and the waves of pain more frequent. I reminded her to know the Truth, but her shame only intensified because she obviously believed that disease could exist. Another way to look at it was that she believed that she’d created bad karma for herself, albeit those weren’t the words we ever used. Certainly, we never blamed bad luck or out-of-control cells.
And that’s the way it went for a couple of weeks until Mom looked up at me and said, “I feel better now.”
Arrogantly, I said, “Of course, Mom,” because that’s what was supposed to happen. “You’re God’s perfect child.” I went for a smug run up the mountain.
The next morning, Dad woke me and asked if I wanted to see Mom’s body one last time because she was dead. My sister wailed in a way that still haunts me. I sat up in squinty-eyed denial, numb. I mean, she was better! I’d gone on a run! But Mom wouldn’t want me to view Error, the betrayal of her body, and what was left behind, so I told Dad no, I didn’t wish to view her body. I was finally respectful of my mother’s wishes.
Before Dad awakened me, he’d sat by that rented hospital bed and talked to Mom’s image, which floated above her corpse. He said the apparition was exactly the way her body looked: on her side with her hands beneath her face, the same hands that painted watercolor windmills, and the same face that pressed down into mine with coffee breath to kiss me awake when I was little. I remember how guilty she felt because coffee had caffeine. So she switched to an appropriate uncaffeinated tea. As I grew into my disconsolate adolescence, I missed her coffee breath. I also missed her face after I’d fled it, the same face from which I couldn’t stay away. Dad said the apparition’s eyes were open and the mouth moved as it talked to him for twenty minutes as if it were a long-distance phone call. It just happened to be a Sunday. Her last words as an apparition were, “Take care of the kids.” She seemed to know that with her passing, our family would splinter: three years later, Dad would take a second wife, take away my house key (which was not unreasonable, since I’d become a young man, but it was still a monolithic point of awareness to me that this dog was now truly on his own and alone in the world). About a decade later, the second wife would drunkenly discharge a firearm in the same master bedroom in a botched suicide attempt during their nasty divorce. It’s all so different from how I envisioned my family’s future when I went to bed the night before Mom died. Back then, at twenty years old, I thought my parents would grow feeble together, that I could always return home, and that I had a birthright. It would take me many years to understand fully what a splintered family looked like and that I was a member of one.
As bizarre as this apparition stuff sounds, this is not some magical-realism thing, and Dad was not a crackpot; I’m just telling you what he told me, and I believe that he told me his truth. Dad was a respected member of society, heroic in some ways when there were crises around the state needing a heavy military hand. He was a major on that morbid morning, and not a superstitious man. Mom was not particularly prescient when she allegedly said, “Take care of the kids”; she just took people at their word: Dad had often announced that he never wanted kids and that the responsibilities of fatherhood were unsavory to him. As a boy, I refused to believe him, but in retrospect, it’s true that when I gave him a small figurine labeled “World’s Best Father,” it went into the trash within a week. See, he couldn’t tolerate sentimentality, would not reciprocate attempted intimacy, and refused to be beholden to anybody. He accepted cards and gifts reluctantly. Don’t misunderstand this; he wasn’t a mean man, but he was an emotionally disabled man. Dad’s earliest memories are when he lost his own father to cancer at three, and his eldest brother at four, who died in a horrific motorcycle accident. Both were laid out in the living room for the little boy to say goodbye. Dad had to mute his emotions to survive. His stepfather soon came into Dad’s young life. Bud was a crusty old cowboy who bragged about beating a black man almost to death when he insulted Bud’s dog and beating down another after the man had negatively commented on Bud’s rodeo skills. That left Dad’s second-oldest brother, JD, a jovial foreman in the local slaughterhouse, as his most relevant male role model. JD was an enormous man and a good old boy for sure, known to take bets on the length of his penis, and then, smirking, lay it on the chopping block as proof—to women’s titters and men’s impotent exclamations of “Jeezus H…” as Dad collected his big brother’s bets. I think that’s a Tays tale. The point is it was told with admiration. So, it just didn’t occur to Dad to hug a boy when he lost his mother because he hadn’t been hugged as a boy when loved ones died. It just didn’t occur to him to tell the boy about his mother’s apparition until some months later. It was tough in Roswell, New Mexico, at the end of the Great Depression and through World War II, so Dad grew into a practical man light on sentimentality. He had awakened me merely to view Mom’s body before he disposed of it. He at least knew to do that, as he had viewed his own father’s ravaged body and his brother’s broken body in their living room. But first, he summoned my maternal grandma, who had stayed with us during Mom’s “challenge.”
Grandma was a Christian Scientist, too, and allegedly had healed her own breast cancer using only prayer. She, too, went into the bedroom and talked to the same apparition as Dad saw. Grandma was no crackpot either, and neither was she any longer an inspiration. My grandmother loved and was loved, but she was also stoic and stern, having endured not only the same Great Depression, war, and poverty as Dad had, but she also suffered a childhood of foster homes and sexual violence. The second morning after Mom died, Grandma came into my sister’s bedroom, where I slept on the trundle bed, as Grandma was staying in my room. But that morning, I was in my sister’s bed with her, and Grandma said, “Sweet boy,” because she thought that I was consoling my little sister when in fact, she was comforting me. I took the credit because I couldn’t stand myself for needing a fifteen-year-old girl to comfort me after she wouldn’t allow me to comfort her.
Grandma had married a waiter who became a maître d’ and seated the glitterati of the day: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Red Skelton, and others. I never heard Papa string ten words together, not even after he lost his only daughter to cancer. In some ways, Mom married a man similar to her father, and she sometimes expressed her frustration regarding noncommunicative males. She saw me that way, as well. Actually, I was indeed that way with her—opaque—because I didn’t need the hassle of her knowing about my inability to meet her standards or my typical choice to ignore them. My unrestrained behavior was preferable to piety. I was aware of my dissimulation, but perhaps my true gifts were compartmentalization and rationalization.
Today, I wish I’d gone into Mom’s bedroom. Would I have seen the same apparition that Dad and Grandma saw? If so, would anybody call me an apostate today? Would I still awaken late at night dreading the inevitable, eventually conceding that at least death makes life precious? Is this neurosis or clearheadedness?
But Grandma didn’t tell me about the apparition until days later. I typically found out about the illnesses and deaths of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends, the institutionalization of cousins, and their marriages and divorces months and sometimes years later. Apparently, it didn’t occur to anybody on either side of my bloodline that I might like to know such things, that I might actually care or have loved someone other than myself, or that I would want to know that my mother’s apparition hovered in the master bedroom. I thought all of this was normal back then, decades before I became a psychologist, before I gained the perspective that many years provide, before I witnessed other people supporting and nurturing each other, before that morning when my family of origin exploded, before I created my new family. I thought that people were normally walled off, shut down, and alone, and that I was weak because I yearned to be understood and connected to others. I was different from many of my relatives who had to cultivate a more Depression-era, stoic-cowboy, born-alone-die-alone attitude to survive because of where and when they’d been plopped at birth.
So I waited in my sister’s bedroom as they took away Mom’s body. When I finally went into the master bedroom, I smelled her death sheets, her pillow that still had an impression upon it, and the overall lingering scent of putridity. What right had I to pretend that I was better than I was? I was not a white chameleon, light, goodness, and innocence, but rather black, mystery, evil, and now death. She had groomed me to be a good boy, and either she or I had failed. When she needed me most, I was not up to it. When dealing with things like God, cancer, fear, and righteousness, my duplicity did not sit well for either of us.