My HIV Test

By Paul Luikart

CutHere’s something I never told my parents: some years ago I got an HIV test.

I was working and living at a Catholic Worker house in Phoenix, a place I wound up after college. I had a freshly conferred bachelor’s degree in creative writing (not exactly bait for corporate recruiters) and a swirling head full of idealism.

Imagine: I assumed I could save the world. I thought the world could, in fact, be saved, or even that the world had some notion of its need for salvation in the first place.

Among other things, the Catholic Worker had a soup kitchen, and on Saturday nights I was the staff person in charge of making sure the goulash got cooked and served, the local parish volunteers had jobs to do, and that general peace and order were maintained among the guests.

“Guests” was acceptable terminology for the homeless men, women, and kids who shuffled in for dinner, out of the dusty alleys, wearing their tribulations as ripped up jeans and sunburns so bad they’d sometimes turn black. [Read more…]

The Strength of God’s Gaze

By Laura Bramon

Holy FlowerThe first time I saw her, I made up a story about her, and it was all wrong.

This was in the autumn several years ago, when, in my third-time’s-a-charm attempt at entering the Catholic Church, I stumbled into Adoration each evening at my Capitol Hill parish. Here, in the cool of the day, God’s body gazed like a gentle eye from the altar while our priest heard confessions in the back, and the usual suspects—the older woman on whom I fixed a story, and an older gentleman in a bright blue windbreaker—beheld and snoozed, respectively.

Who was this older woman?

Seated in the shadow of a pillar, wearing a gray coat and a little gray cap, she was nearly invisible. I would have missed her entirely had I not glanced back on my way to my own perch, where I knelt on the floor near the altar. Her countenance glowed in an intangible way, as if she had swallowed a lit candle. Her eyes held an expression of unfurling desire and relief.

Each evening as I walked the side aisle, I stole a glimpse of her face. [Read more…]

A Letter To My Sister

SistersEve, my sister
The one who took the fall
Eve, my sister
Mother of us all
Lift up your head
Don’t hide your blushing face
The promised One
Is finally on His way
—Mary Consoles Eve, “Rain for Roots”

You have been my first companion in a lifetime of laughter, quarrels, and confidences. Without you, the oldest of three girls, I would never know what it means to be a little sister, to race down to the end of cul-de-sacs on bikes, to fight kicking and screaming while our mother wept on the stairs.

I would never know what it was like to be defended with more vehemence than we ever directed at each other.

When you were two and I was a newborn, you introduced me to a visitor, walking him up the stairs to my room. “This is John Chester,” you told him, pointing to my crib. My parents thought it was hilarious, you mixing up my difficult name, Christiana. But I think you were disappointed that I wasn’t a boy so you gave me a name, pretending I was one anyway.

I know I’ve disappointed you since then. But you’ve still continued to name me.

I remember the shock on my classmate’s face in junior high, whose crime was talking behind my back; her punishment was an earful from you. I felt just a little sorry for her but also incredulous that you would fight for me. At that moment, you named, to everyone else listening that I was your sister.

I didn’t know much of life without that security. It was a heart lesson about you: that you would constantly surprise me, that you were fiercely loyal to me, even when I didn’t deserve it.

Years later we lived only a few miles apart. I, the single and newly graduated writer living alone in a creepy apartment complex, scared from staying up too late reading the latest Harry Potter. You, the young mother of four small children, up at all hours of the night with kids. And still you rushed to my aid when I called you, terrified, alone, sick in the middle of the night.

You spent the night on my couch.

Now, we are thousands of miles apart and, now I am the mother to my own small children, while your oldest is graduating high school.

When our little sister telephones from Texas, I can hear something in her voice. Her first words display the intricate weaving of a lifetime of shared familial meaning. At first, I think she is going to tell me that our grandmother has died, or that there’s something urgent with our father who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago.

But this time, it’s you.

“She’s in the ER,” our little sister says about you. “But it’s probably just a panic attack.”

Panic is such a mild word for the overpowering sense of falling into darkness and fear that comes with such an episode, as if it could be washed away with a cup of tea and a warm bubble bath.

We are all, three sisters, intimate with such darkness. And you are saddled with the burden of being the oldest daughter in this family who is struggling through the complexities of cancer, dementia, and a shrinking nest.

But this is something worse. At midnight, another call comes from our mother. You haven’t had a panic attack. You’ve had a stroke.

A stroke. At forty years old.

Suddenly the litany of terrible things we only imagined could happen, finally has; the things we have all feared in those darkest moments of panic—pain, sickness, and death—are all possible.

And I am far away, only able to imagine how you feel, how you look in that hospital bed. You can’t use your hand, and even though your speech is slowly returning, the whole right side of your body is numb. I get the updates via text; your friends come to cheer you up. Your youth pastor shares your progress with your listening prayerful world.

Even though I’m grateful so many people are surrounding you, I want it to be me sitting beside you, fighting for you the same way you did for me, staying up late by your bedside.

Maybe you are too gracious and too busy healing to be disappointed with me. But I can’t help feeling like I’ve failed you as I sit thousands of miles away, my prayers, tears, and words the only things I have to offer.

You’ve always taken the fall for your little sisters, taking the brunt of some of the early pain of learning and struggle. As my own oldest daughter lives out an internal urge that I will never understand, this urge to manage her siblings and even, at times, her parents, I see how much pressure you have always lived under.

You truly are the “mother of us all.” From you, I learned about sex, how to fight in marriage, how to mother strong children, how to love with a vehement love.

I can only imagine, sister, your fear that this stroke will unmake you; that your hands and body are moving without your consent. I have nothing to offer you, save to remind you that nothing can really unmake you, except the fear itself. Nothing can un-create what God has knit together in that valiant heart of yours.

Let me be a witness; remember, I have seen you fight. I have felt your fierceness when we were on the floor kicking each other as children. I have seen you fight for me, for our sisterly bond. I feel your love even more now that I’m a mother, knowing that you sacrificed your sleep for your scared, lonely sister.

I have seen your strength mature you into a beautiful lioness.

I know, too, that you are good at renaming. Now, use that strength and rename this cursed stroke:

My sister, the one who took the fall
Lift up your head…
He comes to make his blessings flow
As far and wide as the curse is found
He comes to make His blessings flow

 

Image above is by Laura Betancourt, licensed by Creative Commons.

Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published pieces on death, fairytales, and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. She lives with her family in the rural Midwest where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.

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Who’s Your Daddy?

FamilyAdoptive parents develop radar for insensitive language and story lines pretty quickly.  Wes Anderson’s simplistic treatment of adoption in The Royal Tenenbaums (We’re not biological siblings? Let’s make out!) stuns me. Arrested Development, usually brilliant, employs a similar incestuous twist between adoptive siblings at the end of the series, implying that adoption just doesn’t “count” when it comes to defining families.

These aren’t the only examples of adoption as questionable entertainment. Despicable Me, The Jungle Book, and Juno, all present varying levels of cringe-worthy plot points and lines.

So why didn’t I consider this risk when buying tickets to see a student production of Annie, Jr.? In my enthusiasm to support my friend’s kids and hear “Hard-Knock Life,” I didn’t consider the obvious subject matter–and our adopted seven-year-old son’s reactions. [Read more…]

The Long Regretful Wait

By Tony Woodlief

PhoneMy mother’s quavering voicemail was right: I hadn’t called in a long time. I justified my neglect with the assurance that I’d called on her birthday, I’d called on Mother’s Day, I’d made my dutiful calls even though I suspected she was mad at me. I made them and she didn’t answer.

I hadn’t called in a long time, but goddammit, neither had she.

My mother’s tears always put a knot in my gut. Once as a boy I fell asleep on her bed, and woke to her weeping. On the television were men, some in brown uniforms, some wearing white sheets. They stood shouting in the parking lot of our local library. The next day Mama put a letter in our mailbox, and the newspaper published it.

A week later, angry people were calling our house. Mama argued with some, hung up quickly on others. I beat her to the phone once, and a woman asked: “Just what is your mama’s problem with the Klan?”

Only God knows what my mother would have done to that woman, had she possessed the power to reach through the phone. [Read more…]


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