I’m driving my minivan down Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, past the SnackShack, the Ford dealership, the U-Lock-It, and the Super Chicken, listening to Lorraine, who is sitting in the seat next to me, talking. It is a hot, sticky October day—the overcast sky like a blanket, keeping the heat in. Lorraine likes to talk. Correction: Lorraine loves to talk—and to smoke, sing, eat, anything that will keep her mouth moving. She is forty-four, so dark that her skin shines like polished mahogany, and growing fat from all the potato chips and pork rinds that she eats when she’s not talking.
“Honey, let me tell you,” she is saying. “How I get here? Don’t right know. Didn’t mean to get here, but here I am. Lord Jesus. Jesus loves me, you know? Loves you, too. He do, even if you don’t know it, but he do.”
“How many children you got?” she says, changing the subject.
“Three,” I answer.
“How old are they?”
My eldest, Sam, is twelve, I tell her, and my twins, Rose and Jonathan, are eight. Then I wait for the story that I know is coming—the one about how Lorraine landed in prison. She has told it before, but because her mind doesn’t work quite right, she doesn’t remember.
“Ain’t that nice now,” she says in her smoker’s contralto. “Two boys and a girl. Praise Jesus. Bet they favor you. My own children, I got two boys and three girls, all grown. First there’s Larry. He make me a grandmother first. His father was something else. Lord I loved that man. Would have done anything for him, sure enough. I give him three fine children. Three fine ones, and what he do? I was working up at the printing press then. Had me a good job. Steady. I was going to school, too. LSU. Working full shift every day of the week, don’t you know it, child, and going to school, too. Come home. What do I see? That man in bed with my favorite auntie. My favorite damn auntie. Mamma’s youngest sister, don’t you know. Caught them in my own damn bed. Didn’t think nothing about it. Just ran into the kitchen, grabbed me the gun in the cabinet, and shot that motherf—er right in the head. Missed and shot him again. ‘Cause I wanted to kill that mother dead.”
She looks out the window, begins to hum along with the radio. “Shot him good,” she says. “Spent a week in the hospital. But you know, he still living.”
“Do you mind if I turn the radio down?”
“Still out there catting around. But me, I get sent down to St. Gabriel,” she says. “Five years in St. Gabriel. Got out for good behavior. But five years, five years plenty long, and I ain’t lying.”
I turn the radio down.
“But you know, it when I get out that the trouble started. While I locked up I good as gold, but when I get out, oh, Lord, that’s when things start going bad for real. Stayed with my mamma, and got a job, sure enough. Working at the dry-cleaning plant. But every day I come home, and I do a little stuff. Every damn day. Relieve my pain. One day, though, everything change: I come home, and set everything out, all easy like. I got my cocaine right here on the table, right in front of me, like I always do. I got my beer right next to it, nice and cold, straight from the refrigerator. And my pack of cigarettes. That’s when I heard it.”
An SUV filled with frat boys tailgates us for a couple of blocks, and then, with a roar, passes on the left going about 70 miles an hour, rock music blaring out the open windows, purple and yellow Louisiana State flags fluttering in the wind.
“That’s when you heard what, Lorraine?”
“I reach for the cocaine, but that’s when Jesus call me. Heard him as clearly as I hear you. And Jesus said, ‘Lorraine, my love, put that down.’ So I reached for the beer, and Jesus said, ‘Lo, my love, put that down.’ He took the taste for it right out of my mouth. So then I reached for the cigarette, but he didn’t say anything. Which is how I know I still have his permission to smoke.”
This part of the story is new to me.
“I’m truly blessed,” Lorraine says.
Lorraine has AIDS. Her brother, who was a cross-dresser and a prostitute until his own death from AIDS just a few weeks ago, had lost his vision, then his ability to control his bladder, and finally his sense of his own individuality. Lorraine doesn’t seem aware that she, too, could succumb to the more dismal ravages of AIDS, but it’s hard to tell what exactly Lorraine does or does not understand, because her brain is slowly being eaten away by disease—cytomegalovirus ventriculoencephalitis, to be precise. She forgets things, like whether or not she still needs to go to the bathroom, and what your name is.
“You just got to believe,” she says.
Which is a good one, given that, though I admire what appears to be Lorraine’s deep-seated faith, and even envy it, I myself am not entirely sure that there is a God at all.
“Just got to call on Jesus,” she adds.
Only I am a Jew. Not that Lorraine knows it, or that I want to tell her. It would just complicate things, and I don’t want to get into a big theological discussion with her about why I haven’t accepted Jesus as my personal savior, and I certainly don’t want to give her a capsule history of Christian anti-Semitism. What does Lorraine, or for that matter anyone I know, have to do with all of that? Lorraine simply loves Jesus, and she wants me to, too.
Which is no real surprise: you can’t live in Baton Rouge, as I do, without bumping up against Jesus just about every time you walk out of the house, not only on your doorstep in the form of local missionaries but also on your neighbors’ lips, on the billboards that dot the highways, on the airwaves, and especially in the hundreds of churches that seem to define—even more than petrochemical plants and shotguns and Spanish-moss-draped live oak trees—this particular corner of the world.
“Take your pain to Jesus, honey,” Lorraine says, as much to herself as to me. And then, looking straight at me, she says, “You a good Christian, child. You really is.”
Lorraine lives, along with eleven other HIV-positive adults, at St. Anthony’s, a residential treatment facility where I began doing volunteer work one morning a week shortly after my twins started kindergarten. I signed on for this job chiefly because I wanted to give something back to a community that, for no discernible reason, had put me and my family on easy street, and also because Jewish tradition instructs us to visit the sick. One rabbi in the Talmud goes so far as to say that he who does not perform this commandment is like one who sheds blood.
I had another reason for choosing this particular kind of work: my mother, 1,500 miles away in Washington, D.C., had been struggling with cancer for years, and from such a distance there was next to nothing I could do to comfort her. But I could look into the face of death itself, or into the faces of the dying, and in this way perhaps prepare myself for things to come. Plus, if I were being completely honest, I also wanted to see if I could take it. I wanted to know if I, the ultimate weenie, the girl who cried whenever Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat up into the air at the beginning of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, had the stuff.
That being said, my job at St. Anthony’s chiefly involves running errands and reading the New Testament aloud, which at times, given the anti-Jewish passages, is discomfiting. Also, hanging out with the residents, most of whom are destitute, and taking them to doctors’ and dentists’ appointments. That is why I am out now, driving around Baton Rouge on a typically disgustingly hot and humid day. Lorraine had wanted to get cigarettes. Then she wanted to get a sixpack of Coke. Then she wanted to go back to the discount cigarette store and get a lighter.
One problem with the job—I am thinking as Lorraine and I tool along—is that it’s boring. The other problem is, people die.
Geraldine died in November 1998. She was my first. Before falling sick she had made a career as a check forger. Landed in federal prison once, in Virginia, and did two stretches in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for Women. “Oh,” she would tell me, “we had us some good old times, we did indeed! Me and my old man, he was working delivering flowers, we’d start drinking beer around nine in the morning, keep going, have us a party in the back of that van! But in prison, I saw the light. Became a Christian. Confessed my sins and was washed clean. Jesus is good, oh Lord, he is good to me!”
In Geraldine’s room at St. Anthony’s there were snapshots of her children and grandchildren thumb-tacked to the bulletin board, and pastel curtains hanging in the one window. She kept her things neat, and her room spotless. She was fifty-four, and had been the first black child allowed to be born in Baton Rouge General Hospital. By now she was gaunt—skeletal, even, her cheek bones hyper-prominent, her eyes enormous, patches of her scalp showing through the scant hair on her head, toothless—but until a couple of days before she died she retained enough energy, enough sense of fun, to cut loose. I don’t think she was scared of anything, even dying.
Once Geraldine insisted that I drive her to her auntie’s house—an “auntie” need not be your aunt by blood but rather an older, maternal woman for whom you have special affection—to deliver a box of clothing that Geraldine had been keeping for her own lover, himself in a coma in the public hospital. The house was in a neighborhood straight out of an Eastern liberal’s worst nightmare: sagging front porches, cardboard taped over broken windows, garbage and skinny dogs in the street, vacant-eyed young men huddling together. Inside, the stench was terrible: a combination of old dirt and rancid diapers and beer and rot and body odor, of generations of furtive couplings and freezing cold winters and broiling hot summers and not enough food and not enough light and no access and no way out. There was a sagging sofa. Pictures of Jesus, blue-eyed and halo-lit, were tacked on the walls. Duct tape held the windows together.
What was I doing there? I was raised in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, bred to decorate and play tennis and make my grandmother Helene’s fabulous pot roast. I felt as self-conscious as when my mother insisted on calling me Jen Hen Rooster Dooster in front of my friends. Auntie looked me up and down—Geraldine had been too tired to get out of the car—and then indicated that I was to put the box in the corner. I did as instructed, went back outside, drove back to St. Anthony’s. I was shocked when I returned a week later to be told that Geraldine had died the night before. Her relatives were in her room, throwing her belongings into Glad bags.
Gerald was next. He died in May 1999. He was in his mid-thirties, from Sunshine, Louisiana, and his country accent was so thick, and he spoke so quickly, that I could barely understand him. His legs were useless, two heavy sacks of unmoving infection—polyradiculopathy; his sight was failing—CMV-related retinitis; there were days when he was certain that angels had visited him the night before, and days when he swore that the mother of his one son, a pretty woman who had died a year or so earlier, also from AIDS, had beckoned him from heaven—cranial nerve palsies, nystagmus, ataxia. “I’m going to a better place,” he told me over and over, and one day he beckoned me to his bedside and confided that he himself was an angel. I read him the 23rd Psalm, Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, Daniel in the lion’s den. I have never known a sweeter person.
I was at St. Anthony’s the morning of the day Gerald died. By then, he’d already been visibly failing for weeks: he could no longer see anything but shadows, his face had taken on an empty look, and he dozed with his sightless eyes open. Though I no longer felt that Gerald was present, and I don’t think he heard me, I went to his room and told him I would be back to see him again. Which even I knew was a lie. He died that afternoon, and I didn’t even go to his funeral in Sunshine because at the time I was trying to promote my first, just-published book and my publisher had set up a phone interview with a writer from a woman’s magazine.
“Oh sweetheart,” Lorraine now says in her lisping, Southern, sing-songy voice as I swing the minivan into the parking lot at St. Anthony’s. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Lorraine,” I say, though I don’t mean it. I don’t love Lorraine at all. Not even a tiny bit. The people I love—truly love—are few, and Lorraine barely scratches the surface. And yet when she opens her mouth and sings along to the “Queen Latifah” theme from TV or, even better, lets loose with a gospel number—her voice rich and flowing and mellow, a river of melted chocolate running through her vocal cords—every cell in my being vibrates.
Go where I send thee. How shall I send thee? I will send you one by one. . . .
“See you next week, Lorraine,” I say, jumping back in my minivan, finding the NPR station, heading for home.
As a child growing up in McLean, Virginia—the same cushy suburb where Robert F. Kennedy’s family lived and where Kenneth Starr, to the continuing disgust of my mother, now makes his home—I didn’t know anyone, either Christian or Jewish, who professed any kind of real faith. The only person who even came close was Mae Carter, our black Baptist maid, but she parked her religion, along with the oversized pocketbook that she always carried, at the back door, and never spoke about such matters at all, at least not in my presence.
Occasionally, on nights when my parents were out, Mae did remind me to say my bedtime prayers. I would recite aloud a simple prayer that my father had composed, asking God to bless our family and help make me a good child—and then, after Mae had turned off the lights, I would add one or two prayers of my own that were far more fervent. I was a fearful, lonely, anxious child. Every night I begged God to spare me and my loved ones, including the dogs, from any number of calamities, each of which I would have to name, individually. But no one knew about my silent nightly ritual—no one would understand it—and as I grew older I dropped it.
And so the pattern continued as I grew up, went to college, moved to New York to work in publishing, married, became a mother, and moved back to Washington, where I grew my own vegetables, learned to make pesto, and developed a passion for gleaming hardwood floors and tribal rugs. No one in our circle, even among the church- and synagogue-goers, even among the most rigorously observant, was truly a person of faith.
Then my husband took a job as a professor at LSU in Baton Rouge and we moved, with our three young children, to the Bible Belt, where just about anything that happens is attributed to the will of God. And not only by ministers: my very Waspy, very blond friend Betsy talks about her “mission” to work with small children; my neighbor Ellen talks about how God wants her to use her gifts and would be seriously annoyed with her if she were to stifle them. Even the governor does a version of God-speak: last year, he ascribed the rains that finally broke a long drought to the power of prayer. True, the governor is a moron, but the point is that no one blinked an eyelash, either when he first asked Louisianans to pray for rain or when he proffered his explanation for how it eventually arrived.
It was all very new to me; but I must admit I rather liked it. My rational mind kept telling me that God, particularly for people like Lorraine who find themselves in a world of trouble, is nothing more than a security blanket. This is the God Who forgives you your evil ways, and all you have to do is call on Him at the very end, and—presto!—you get into heaven. Still, on the whole I felt more at ease among the faithful in Baton Rouge than I had among the Ivy-educated lawyers and doctors and policy wonks and journalists in Washington. I liked the idea that God cared—liked it better than the idea that He was no more than a big sop for those who could not take reality or, alternatively, that, if He existed, it was in some way that was beyond human comprehension. At St. Anthony’s, not only did He exist, but also, at times, He came down to earth to say howdy or give a thumbs-up.
I had been volunteering for about a year when my book was finally published, to rave reviews from my closest friends and family and almost utter silence elsewhere. Then I turned forty. When I walked into St. Anthony’s on my regular day I discovered everyone sitting in the living room, with birthday party hats on their heads, waiting to eat the fantastically delicious peach-torte cake that one of the residents, Little Chuck, had made in my honor. Shortly thereafter, while on summer vacation in Maine with my family, I had what I can only call a crisis of faith.
It was a very physical thing. Sitting under the gorgeous arching blue sky, smelling the pine-scented air, listening to the birds call to each other, watching my three children, all tanned and freckled like in a Gap ad, playing hide-and-seek among the trees, I felt my faith, never strong to begin with, leak out of me like milk out of a smushed-up carton in the back of the car. I felt it in my chest, where my heart tightened up into a hard little nugget, angry and mean, slit-eyed and fulminating, and I felt it in my extremities, which suddenly seemed filled with something tingly and stinging—some existentialist Pepsi Cola, mixed, perhaps, with acid. I had had anxiety attacks all my life, but this one felt different and more threatening.
I thought I knew enough about Judaism to know that, at least on one level, it does not require of you an absolute and constant belief in God—a quality that I had always found vastly comforting. A friend of mine, a rabbi, liked to talk about Jews as “God wrestlers,” in the sense in which the patriarch Jacob in the Bible wrestles with the angel and thereby earns his new name, Israel—meaning, as the angel informs him, “You have wrestled with God and with man and prevailed.” Being a Jew in this sense means having a kind of divine permission to argue with the divine itself. Or as my rabbi in Baton Rouge was fond of saying: God is bigger than religion. But I was sweating buckets anyhow—the rivulets were pouring down my ribs and landing in the waistband of my newly purchased J. Crew walking shorts. My entire body shook with fear.
It’s such a cliché that I am embarrassed to admit it, but my immediate crisis in faith came about courtesy of Darwin, that old joker. He had never bothered me before, even when I was a child and used to stare, fixated, at drawings in the World Book Encyclopedia of man emerging from the apes. So we emerged from the trees: what of it? In my own private cosmology, that hardly meant that God had not, somehow or other, also created us and breathed into our souls some yearning to reach Him. I just didn’t think about it too hard. But now, in Maine, I was doing nothing but thinking about it, and my problems were magnified by my reading of Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works.
What I got out of this book—which I struggled with under the overarching blue Maine sky, reading and then re-reading paragraphs—was that we human beings had been fashioned by the forces of evolution to have minds capable of postulating God. Or, to put it another way, the ability to conceive of God was programmed into our common human hard drive over hundreds of millions of years and now served, along with our ability to make art and compose Budweiser jingles, as the outer limit of those qualities of high intelligence that gave our species such a ridiculous edge to begin with.
It made sense. On the other hand, it was awful, even obscene. Because a world without God—even for someone like me who had never been dead-certain that He existed in the first place—was a much lonelier place than a world set in the palm of His hand. And also, from a Jewish point of view, if God didn’t exist, then the mitzvot, or commandments, starting with the Big Ten and moving on up through laws informing every aspect of life, including the commandment to visit the sick, ultimately meant nothing. If God was only a figment of our flimsy yearnings, why bother? I felt cheated; I felt like a fool who had fallen for the biggest Lothario of all.
One evening, I sat with my husband and my father under the miraculous dome of the sky—that wonderful northern sky undimmed by pollution or city lights—trying to sort things out. My husband, whose style of perception is highly cerebral, basically does not believe in God, but he values the entire Jewish tradition and has, over the years, grappled with its ideas. As for my Dad, he is an inveterate synagogue-goer and had raised us kids on stories of the happy days, back in his home town of Baltimore, when Jews were really Jews. And yet Dad also didn’t snuggle up to God on any regular basis. In fact, as a family, we had never talked about Him at all. We talked about Israel. We talked about What Was Good for the Jews. We talked about anti-Semitism. The rest of my extended family had long since abandoned any kind of serious practice of religion at all, and my mother’s view was that both God and religion were “crap.”
“Dad,” I finally said, “I’m having a little difficulty with God.” We had had a wonderful dinner, and as we sat there under the stars I told him about Pinker, and how suddenly I felt both lonely and unhinged, for if there was no ultimate moral center of things then everything we call ethical was no more than a human confection. I don’t know exactly what kind of assurances I expected to get out of this encounter, but I was hoping at the very least to be pointed in another direction, to be shown an error in my thinking that might itself point to bigger possibilities.
Dad leaned back, gazed at the stars, and said: “I’ve personally never believed in any particular conception of God, although I’ve found it fascinating to study how religious thinkers have grappled with the notion of the divine over the centuries, and I suggest you read, for starters, Maimonides.” He continued in this vein for a while, and then—in an effort, I suppose, to make me feel better—said that if God Himself came down from the heavens to proclaim that He did not exist, he, my father, wouldn’t change his way of life by one iota. “I’d continue going to shul,” he said, “I’d continue observing shabbat, I’d continue studying Jewish history, metaphysics, and law, and I’d continue to embrace Jewish communal life—because, Jennifer, the Jewish tradition itself has inherent value, with or without God.”
Which was all fine and good, but didn’t help. What about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The God Who led the children of Israel out of Egypt? The God Who spoke through the prophets, imploring Israel to repent and return? The God Who loved Israel above all other nations? The God Who commanded “Justice, justice shall you pursue” and “Do not oppress the stranger, the widow, and the orphan”? I felt like the Little Prince, up there on his lonely planet in the middle of the vast cosmos. My husband counseled me to get to work again as soon as possible, saying that things would begin to make sense as soon as I was back at my computer. But this avenue seemed choked off, too: for me, writing and praying had always been complementary activities, a kind of working out, in words, of the story I wanted my soul to tell. But now the words themselves seemed meaningless—an endless stream of monkey chatter.
When St. Anthony’s first opened its doors in 1986, most of the residents were gay: AIDS was then primarily a disease of homosexual men. But since then the face of the crisis had changed, and in Baton Rouge as in much of the South it was growing fastest among drug-abusers, many of whom were black, and affecting equal numbers of men and women. St. Anthony’s has twelve bedrooms for residents, and at the time of my own crisis it was staffed, at the top, by a professional administrator and a social worker; but the people who really ran the show and knew what was going on were the “care-givers”: health aides who typically worked in teams of two. These were the people who brushed the patients’ hair and cleaned up their messes and wiped their spittle and blood and held their hands and said, “I love you,” and “Jesus loves you,” and “make damn sure you’re taking your medication because if you don’t you’ll never get better and don’t you know that we love you and we don’t want you to die. Jesus is good, yes he is, there you go, drink all that juice, it’s good for you!”
Depending on the season, too, there were particular residents who, by virtue either of duration or of their own leadership qualities, were “senior” in the eyes of staff and other patients alike—people to whom all would turn for help. When I started volunteering at St. Anthony’s, in October 1998, the person in this position was Little Chuck. He had had a successful catering business before he became ill, and like a lot of people in the food business, he loved not only to cook but to take care of other people, mother-hen style. He was, in his own words, a fairy—his bedroom stuffed with more tchotchkes than a gift shop, the walls plastered with lewd posters of half-naked men. More than anyone else in the place, with the possible exception of Joyce, one of the care-givers, he knew everything that was going on. Who was sneaking alcohol. Who had spent the weekend smoking crack. Who was hiding potato chips in his room.
Not that he shared any of this information with me, at least not at first. It wasn’t until I had been volunteering for six months or so that he began to warm up to me, and then to take me into his confidence. That was a big deal for me. Then he made that fabulous peach-torte birthday cake, and I knew that I had somehow passed through some gate. Now, no matter how badly I might be suffering from lack of faith, or how bored I might be as I shlepped around Baton Rouge in search of discount Kools or Little Debbie chocolate-fudge brownies—the kind in the blue box, not the kind in the pink box—I couldn’t quit.
So despite feeling that something vital had been removed from my guts, draining me of vigor, and sapping me of the ability to put one word in front of the other, I could not really claim that, when I got back to St. Anthony’s after vacation, I felt like a fraud. But I must confess that I did feel an odd sense of disconnect, which was only heightened by my crisis of faith. On any given day, I was present at conversations that centered on death and overcoming death through Jesus, and as a resident held my hand or let me give her a Kleenex, the assumption was that I, too, was on the Jesus boat. But I wasn’t, and now I wasn’t even sure that I believed in any kind of God, by any name, at all.
During my vacation, a new resident had moved in. Ieesha was only twenty-two but already visibly dying: she was covered with sores, her hands trembled, her feet were swollen, her eyes bled ooze. Nevertheless, she hung on, terrified of dying, demanding, whiny, and, as far as I could tell, utterly ignorant of what was happening to her, or why. I didn’t like her, and sensed that she didn’t like me, either. Nevertheless, every time I came, she would ask me to take her to the shopping mall. I would push her along in her wheelchair, and she would complain. If I took her to Sears, she decided she wanted to go to J.C. Penney’s. If I got her to Penney’s, she didn’t like the merchandise. When I told her that I had to get going, she would begin to cry. I would apologize, wheedle, coax. I felt like slapping her, and felt guilty for wanting to slap her. She made me nervous. I also felt that, somehow, Ieesha knew—sensed—that I was a fraud. One more dogooding rich white lady who simply didn’t get it, and who, moreover, did not even believe in God.
But Joyce, the nursing aide, told me: “Don’t take no crap from her, Jennifer. You the one doing her the favor. You don’t need to take no lip.” Of course she was right, and she ought to have known. Joyce herself had been working at St. Anthony’s for years, doing whatever she thought it took, at any given time, to help, and she herself did not take crap, under any circumstances. “You treat me nice and I’ll treat you nice,” I had heard her say, more than once, to more than one uncooperative resident. Or: “You think Jesus wouldn’t take his medicine? You better get down on your knees and thank your savior that you got this medicine that most people can’t afford, and then you pick up that glass of water and take those pills.” Everyone loved her, and more often than not, it was Joyce’s face that would be the last that a dying resident saw. When Ieesha died, in late October, she was surrounded not by her own family—who had been absent the entire length of her stay—but by Joyce, another aide named Cathy, and Little Chuck.
And now the deaths kept coming. Nathaniel—who had contracted the HIV virus from a blood transfusion and, until the day he could no longer get out of bed, had worked as a garbage man—died after a heroic struggle. Thomas died in November, Donny in December. A very pretty young woman with café-au-lait skin and two young children moved into Ieesha’s old room and died the next day. Pody died. Kevin died. Ernest died. Some more people died whose names I cannot even remember. I didn’t understand it. What was the point?
“They all going to a better place,” Joyce said. Sure they were. “You just got to believe,” Joyce said. But I didn’t, and I certainly didn’t believe in the beautiful fairy tale of heaven. There was no solace. “It’s okay, faith is difficult,” my rabbi finally said to me one day when I cornered him in the parking lot of our synagogue and told him about my crisis of the summer. He added: “The struggle itself is the proof that you’re in relationship to the divine.” But I didn’t buy it.
Then, in the spring, Little Chuck died. He had broken his hip in December and landed in the hospital with a high fever and a raging infection. He stayed there for almost a month before finally coming back to St. Anthony’s to die. He lay in his bed, under his quilts, in traction, with all those lustful, come-hither, half-naked men gazing down upon him. His T-cells had been virtually non-existent for more than two years. He had thrush, hairy leukoplakia, gingivitis, diarrhea, seborrheic dermatitis, fungal infections, retinitis. He died holding Joyce’s hand. The last words out of his mouth were “I love you.”
Shortly after Little Chuck’s death, Joyce asked me whether I was planning to write any more books. I told her that I hoped to, but that the whole enterprise was complicated—agents, contracts, what’s fashionable and what’s not, blah blah blah. Basically, I told her nothing, partly out of a defensive attitude that I’ve developed over the years in an effort to ward off bad karma (so if you’re a writer, how come I’ve never heard of you?), and partly because, in my experience, most people don’t really understand that writing is more than a hobby. How could I tell her that yes, I was working on another book, but that since my crisis of faith I had felt so dry inside that the words weren’t flowing, and that, even if they did, I was having problems with my agent—who wasn’t returning my phone calls and hence made me feel like a geeky freshman girl with a crush on the high-school quarterback—and that even if I could manage to straighten things out with my agent and get all my work done, it was entirely possible that not one single publisher would be interested in my book? My own mother didn’t really understand what I did; what could I expect from Joyce?
But she was not put off. “When you sit down to write, what do you do? Use a computer?” she said.
“You ask God to help you out?”
I stammered something along the lines of how I felt it was selfish to ask God to help me write when there were so many more serious problems in the world. Thinking: any God who cares about my career isn’t the kind of God I want running things.
“Nothing’s too small for God,” Joyce said. “He is the Creator, isn’t He? And He gave you a gift of creativity, didn’t He? Why wouldn’t He want you to use it?”
The next time I sat down in front of my computer, I tried it. I closed my eyes, bent my head, and asked God to help me tap whatever gifts I possessed. I felt stupid, and in any event God didn’t answer. The screen lay blank before me. I watched the dust motes dancing in the sunshine. I wrote a paragraph, then deleted it. I logged onto AOL, and messed around on the web for a while. I e-mailed some friends. I checked to see if any of them had e-mailed me back. Then I had lunch.
The next day was no better, or the next. When I returned to St. Anthony’s the following week Joyce asked whether I’d come to my senses and asked God for help.
“Actually, yes,” I said.
“Good. What He say back?”
“He will,” Joyce said. “Give Him time. He’ll let you know when He’s ready.”
“I don’t think so.”
Joyce was silent for a few moments, then she looked at me and said. “Not everyone ready for God. But He gives us different gifts. He needs me, but see, He needs you, too. You a good person, Jennifer. You a good person.” And off she went to tend to Augusta, originally from Nigeria, whose legs were so swollen that she could barely walk. “Gotta get you into a nice hot bath,” I heard from down the hall. “Help ease your pain, girl. We gonna try to ease that pain.”
When she came back, she asked again whether I would humble myself enough before the Lord to ask Him for help.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“How do you know unless you try?” Joyce said. “Got to give Him time.”
So the next time I sat down to write, I called on the Lord to help me out, as best He could.
“Dear Lord,” I said, “Please allow me to use the gifts that You have given me.” I didn’t hear anything, but I went to work anyway, and this is what I wrote.