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…]

Grief and the Weight of Glory

ClotheslineThe wind whips through the quilts and sheets on our clothesline, cracking now and then like a benign thunderclap, tugging at the clothespins I inherited from my grandmother’s childhood farm. My daughter and I watch them as we swing together on the playset her father built a few seasons ago, before she was born.

This spring morning my father calls to tell me that his mother, my grandmother, who passed down those clothespins, has fallen asleep.

“Do you mean she died?” I say, knowing the answer but wanting him to say it clearly.

“Yes.”

We don’t say much after that. It’s not as if this was unexpected. She is ninety-three and has been dying slowly since her kidneys failed months ago. But there is a finality to it, my last grandparent, the last connection to another generation, as if slowly, my family, my history, my memories are being whittled down from top to bottom.

This is how it should be, I know. But it hits me in a way I’m not expecting. [Read more…]

The Wounds of Resurrection

Doubting ThomasAs my husband prepared for an Easter sermon a few weeks ago, our dinnertime conversations during Lent turned to Jesus’s appearance to the disciples after his resurrection, to the episode where poor Thomas is saddled with his unfortunate moniker. Carravaggio painted a terribly potent picture of Thomas probing Jesus’s wounds, his lord’s flesh curving over the doubter’s finger.

With its emphasis on suffering, broken bodies, deprivation, and wounds, Lent’s focus isn’t far from the realities since my father’s cancer diagnosis a year ago: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, the failure of his natural killer cells.

When you have a loved one with cancer, you enter the cloud of unknowing, or perhaps it’s a club of unknowing, a society of those wedged in the grief and emotional confusion that a non-linear illness brings to all who are involved. In this club you might become more familiar with the less famed side effects of chemo like neuropathy and a sensitivity to hot or cold, with the comments people make in an effort at sympathy, or with the ebb and flow of sadness, guilt, and normal life.

Lent puts us in mind of those wounds and scars, of bodies failing, of death. But when Easter comes, and we celebrate resurrection, it sometimes feels like those wounds are mended too quickly. Or perhaps they were never really healed. [Read more…]

A Dancing Christ

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On Holy Saturday, I woke up at my sister’s house in northern Minnesota with a visual migraine, an aura with no consequent pain. They happen occasionally, and mine are always pretty textbook: wavy sparkling spirals and shimmering crystalline lamellae. The aura is technically termed a scintillating scotoma, a result of a sudden tidal wave of neurochemicals and sudden neuronal silence in the occipital cortex. It’s both a terrifying and a benign experience, due to the fact that it’s a “positive” vision: something has been added to what’s seen rather than lost to darkness, internal electrical modulation piling atop the maps of the world the occipital region is continually building.

Easter has a hint of this duality, this feeling of things being both or all at once, a discomfort in overlapping edges, things unseen, things seen and mistrusted. A whole faith turns on the one thing people desire above anything else and can’t have: a friend returned, seeking rewarded, loss reversed. Though I have to wonder: would anything have mattered, would God have changed or hope for any future been snuffed if the resurrection had not occurred, if Christ hadn’t separated himself from our fates and our greatest suffering—the loss of who we love—at the last minute?

I’ve been reading the apocryphal Acts of John in small pieces a lot lately. To call it a book would be to ignore that it is in pieces; the puzzle of its fullness can never be solved and also can be solved in multiple ways. It was likely written down in the second century and tells the story of the Apostle John’s journey to and life in Ephesus. But I’ve been reading it for the dancing Christ John gives us after the Last Supper, the moving man of flesh approaching the arch of his life’s trajectory. [Read more…]

The Living Among the Dead

mushroomThanksgiving Day after I turned four: high fever at dinner, a drive through a blizzard, then a spinal tap. Meningitis. The nurse promised me angels, and they floated from the bright examination light to the floor, and this is all I remember: paper angels filling the emergency room, snow falling outside, my mother crying.

For two weeks while my brain boiled, I was in the hospital bed and outside in the falling snow, both at once. My parents made me testify about the angels (but not about the snow) to our church, and later, I teased my father about this, about people who wanted a miracle so badly that they confused miracle with inflamed brain. He shrugged and said maybe they’re not so different.

I have been putting things side-by-side, trying to make sense of images that occur and reoccur and tie themselves to other things, snow and angel, miracle and spinal cord smolder. The signs of crisis averted, barely. Bear with me. I’ve been walking in circles, encountering the same signposts, over and over since my grandma died this summer. I’m looking for what I’ve lost, the signs for loss that only seem to point back toward themselves, building a constellation of images around the shape of something I can barely see. [Read more…]


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