The Residue of Faith and Fury

New York Times/June 12, 2001
By Savannah Waring Walker

My sister had yellowish skin and a yellow cast to the whites of her eyes. She was feverish and listless and wouldn't eat. She ended up in a hospital, where the diagnosis was hepatitis. But the hospital turned out to be a long way away. Before she could get there she had a hazing to endure - a trauma of the kind inflicted by parents who disagree on how sickness is healed.

Dad was a lapsed Presbyterian who believed in medicine, Mother a Christian Scientist who believed in prayer. In the hearts-and-minds department he couldn't compete; she took us to Christian Science church and taught us lengthy prayers. She held us pretty much in thrall with her dogma, as dumbed down by our childish minds: Pray fervently, and God and I will always love you; pray the right way, and you'll never get sick.

Dad didn't even have a church to take us to - or rather, the one he had was medicine, and its dreaded houses of worship were the very ones that Mother told us we'd never see the inside of, if we prayed the right way.

Clearly my sister, however fervent, had imperfectly followed Part 2 of the dogma.

Failures like this happened - though owing to luck and good genes (or prayer, depending on your view), we kids rarely got as sick as my sister now was. Still, Mother would say, great or small, illness was not real. It was merely a challenge meant to help us readjust our prayers. The complicating factor now was that the challenge had arisen in enemy territory: Grandmother's house, an ocean away from where we then lived.

Dad was confrontation-shy, but his mother, a decidedly unlapsed Presbyterian, was just as forceful as his wife. Reunions offered the women ample opportunity for furious religious arguments, and this time the fury would get physical. A sick 8-year-old could prove one side right; we were on Grandmother's turf, and without flinching she pressed her advantage.

One afternoon after my sister had been unwell for days - after the town G.P. had been summoned, over Mother's objections, and had shaken his head, urging a hospital stay - we sat unmoving in Grandmother's family room, my parents and I, surrounded by familiar things: tapestry cushions; a Seth Thomas mantel clock ticking gently; the black phone that Grandmother lived on, with its brass dialer levered in one number hole. On the wall opposite the mantel hung a collection of Madonna-and-child portraits. In the bathroom behind the wall my sister, closeted with Grandmother, was screaming.

Half-starved and burning with fever, she was being pinned down in some way in the bathtub while Grandmother administered an enema. Not that I, governed by Christian Science throughout my 13 years, even knew what that was. But Grandmother had said, "The child's constipated, that's why she's got yellow eyes." I knew what constipated meant. The remedy, provoking those endless cries, still resisted my imagination.

I stared at the wall that hid it all from view, focusing on the portraits - the cherubic faces of Jesus. Grandmother said he had died for our sins, and Mother said he had died to prove that physical life is a Lie of Mortal Mind, and somehow, because of that, my sister was in there being hurt.

The serenity of each image, as I desperately concentrated on it, helped keep me silently in my seat. I didn't know what else to do. Apparently neither did Mother and Dad, who continued to sit there just like me. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the enema didn't help. My sister was ill enough long enough that the hospital became inevitable.

She stayed several days; recovery took weeks. But I have always wondered what my parents were thinking as we sat there that afternoon - what my grandmother was thinking as she conducted her assault. My theory, for the record: Mother was thinking to prove something to Dad about the twin evils of medicine and his mother; Grandmother was thinking that if the child could not go to the hospital, she would bring the hospital home; and Dad, trying to shut it all out, was thinking something like "Beam me up, Scotty."

Of course, the real challenge was making sense of what I was thinking. For years - even after I had turned coat on Mother and Christian Science - getting sick or hurt would bring on a tidal wave of fear and guilt.

I would submerge in it, paralyzed, as it pummeled me with the debris it carried: I was a failure in prayer, a failure to Mother; my illnesses had driven a wedge between my parents. Most devastating of all was a toxic fear of the H-word, the doctor: the trusted, powerful person who in treating me would damage me, in helping me would make me beg for help. And I would hear my sister's cries all over again.

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