Having what a vocations director might describe as an active temperament, I have always, half-consciously, thought of prayer as a minimal, low-risk, nearly symbolic response to necessity or catastrophe. Like the person who hands a nickel to one of the ticket agents at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the person who offers to pray for the recovery of a sick friend, or the raising of funds for a new basilica, meets the requirements, but barely. Yesterday, good news arrived that has made me giddy enough to question that prejudice, if only for a moment.
On Saturday, someone informed me, through a post on my Facebook page, that a mutual friend had suffered a massive stroke. There was to be a prayer vigil the following evening. The news reached me right in the midst of what was starting to feel like London’s last great plague outbreak. An unusual number of people I knew were falling sick – a few from cancer, a few others from migraine or spinal problems. Doctors had succeeded in unblocking the carotid artery of a favorite uncle – great news in itself – but not before afflicting him for a number of days with a Foley catheter.
A pestilential atmosphere brings out the best in some people. My late Great-Aunt Betty, a licensed practical nurse, turned her house into a hospice, where she cared for a cancerous sister, an aging mother, and a father-in-law who looked like he might go on living until science discovered a cure for old age. She was a hearty and energetic woman with a booming laugh and a ferocious embrace. Healthy people sometimes shrank a little from her attentions, like Polish lancers before a German armored brigade; sick people welcomed them like Ukrainian peasants welcoming…well, a German armored brigade.
I am not my late Great-Aunt Betty. Most of the people in my immediate circle have been blessed with inhumanly strong constitutions. The few who have died, died suddenly. Aside from the obvious – don’t look horrified or try to cadge painkillers – I’ve no idea how to make myself useful around a sick bed. Not that anyone would have been able to do much in these cases without powers of bilocation. For the most part, the new patients were long gone from my daily life, connected now only through e-mail, Facebook, Skype and the other boulevards of the global village. I received updates on their condition with the same kind of weary helplessness as I do reports from the war in Afghanistan.
The summons to the prayer vigil, then, came as a kind of golden ticket – a get-out-of-guilt-free card. The site of the vigil, my friend’s parish church, was an eight-mile northward walk from my house. Since a series of unavoidable errands would take me about the same distance south earlier the same day, showing up to the vigil would involve a forced march of some 17 miles. Nothing lends substance to a symbolic gesture like blistered feet and chafed loins, so I welcomed the challenge, and of course, the chance to tell anyone who asked that I’d made the whole trip on foot – uphill, both ways.
The mission’s timing was fortuitous in another way: it caught me in one of those deep holiday depressions that infect the mind and turn thoughts into pus. A couple of weeks earlier, while surfing the Internet for news to blog on, I discovered I was able to read into every single item a personal affront, a sentence of doom, a confirmation of my own cosmic and cultural irrelevance. Desperate to interpose some artistic distance between myself and the experience, I made it the subject of a sonnet. This one was truly awful:
I claim no true connection to the story;
Just one click renders that detail minor:
Our fates and hides are fused, a priori.
“Violent Assaults The Thing for Girls Now”:
Co-eds are leaving rivals dead or bruised.
My pugilistic wins, which number zero,
Feed penis envy toward all those accused.
“Pooch Dodges Death and Finds a Doting Fam” —
New digs that mark a come-up from the pound.
His bliss makes me demand of old I AM:
“Why couldn’t I have been a basset hound?”
Joan Didion thrived on solipsism;
I look forward to an aneurysm.
The fact that it was not I but my friend – a husband and father of four – who had the aneurysm made me shudder when I re-read these lines. Tempting fate is fine, so long as the fate is really yours. Throwing karmic spitwads and then ducking is lousy form, plain and simple.
So I hoofed it, made the vigil just as it was beginning. It was five o’clock – one of those springlike Valley winter dusks. Slumping into one of the front pews, I heard the priest who was serving as master of ceremonies deliver the welcome news that we needn’t kneel. As he led us through the five decades of the Rosary, with all the Glory Bes, Fatima prayers and choruses of “Ave, Maria” in between, I groped through a haze of fatigue for the names and faces of all the old friends who’d taken sick. My goal was to create a sort of mental spreadsheet of people and illnesses, prognoses and life circumstances, to submit to God — doesn’t neatness always count?
Hopefully not, because my thoughts bounced around like ping-pong balls in an air pick Lotto machine. The hypnosis of church services, the chanting and the statuary, has a way of knocking down the wall between memory, hope and fear, creating an endless and tangled present. One moment I was looking at the priest and thinking how much we must resemble the villagers in Mrs. Miniver, when they celebrate Mass in the bombed-out church. The next I was looking at the statue of Mary and wondering how I would have reacted if my mother had told me – when I was, say, nine or ten — that she was going to have a baby.
Rather than meditate on the Joyous Mysteries, as the day and the Advent season prescribed, I was meditating on all mysteries. Aware that this is not standard operating procedure, I finished the Hail, Holy Queen with a sense of having slacked in a tug of war. Hopefully the rest of the team had put their backs into it.
They might have at that. In yesterday’s letter I learned that the stroke patient won’t require brain surgery, a very rare thing for someone affected in his dominant side. He’s communicating, and insisted on helping the nurses clean him. “Even the doctors recognize a miracle,” my informant crowed.
That’s the Vatican’s call to make. It’s enough for me to know that my friend and his family won’t have such a bleak holiday season. If my distracted mumbling entitles me to a share of the credit, I won’t be too proud to accept. Sometimes when I’m done counting my blessings, I’ll start counting other people’s. I’m greedy like that.