When I was a child, we attended mass every Sunday, arriving early so that my mother could prepare for the scripture readings. Always as we entered, the colors and smells of the church would overwhelm me: the white altar, the golden tabernacle, the heady odor of incense and of the wine that I was not yet allowed to take — more than a metaphor, the real blood of Christ. But then we would sit and my legs would itch, and I would wonder why anyone ever bothered with church.
My father cared little for the faith. He was there because my mother was there. He only listened when she read. Her strong voice, shaped and accented with the dark tints of her native tongue, would rise to fill the nave, and while I was too young to understand the meaning of the verses in full, this was the voice that had read me bedtime stories, and it soothed me.
I left the faith when I was sixteen. It ended when my religion teacher made a comment about homosexuality — about how their love was less pure: that it was not what god intended. I asked him how he could possibly know exactly what god intended. When he couldn’t answer, I politely told him I would not be taking my Confirmation and walked out of the classroom.
Mother shook her head when I told her. I wish you could see what I see. Then she pulled me into a hug and told me that it didn’t matter. So long as I believed in something — the sky, the stars, the possibility of good — she would be proud.
I was twenty three when we found her unconscious in her bedroom. I had awoken to the sound of my father crying into the telephone, yelling at someone for an ambulance. It took a moment for me to realize what was happening; even then, I didn’t understand until I walked into the bedroom and saw her lying there, her eyes blank, not breathing.
I began to scream.
My father dropped the phone in frustration, and I could hear the dispatcher asking if he was still there. I picked it up.
Can you do CPR?
The dispatcher told me how to find her sternum, how to place my hands. Push down two to three inches, firmly. I felt her ribs break under my palms.
I never heard the sirens, but I suddenly found myself pulled out of the way by the EMT. They loaded her into the ambulance, and my father drove us to the hospital in silence. After an hour of waiting, the doctor came in to talk to us. He told us they had managed to restore her heart beat, but that her brain was damaged beyond repair. She was gone. He asked my father whether they should keep her on the machines.
Her funeral was held in the new church that I had never seen built — the church that she and my father had donated to, after I had left the faith. It was the first time in seven years I had stepped foot into a Catholic place of worship. The smell of incense was overwhelming, the carpets red as the communion wine. When time came for the sacrament, I remained seated — I was a child once more, unworthy of the saving graces of communion. I fidgeted in my seat, my legs itching with the effort of sitting.
I waited for her voice to comfort me.
Originally published in Headwaters 2011, the UNCA Creative Arts Magazine.