Friday, August 29, 2014

Believer by Jeannette Pontician

Julie has no patience for religion, but she agrees to take her cancer-riddled mother to a faith healer; by Jeannette Pontician.

Margie is a Believer, so it didn't surprise Julie when her mother said, "The Lord will take care of things, Julie. I believe in Him." Her eyes never wavered as she patted Julie's hand. Julie nodded and forced a smile, dark hair hanging like drapes along her olive face. She kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead, gripping the steering wheel.

"God has a plan, Julie. I know it. My church group is praying hard," Margie said before opening the car door. Julie paused for a moment to wipe her eyes before following her mother into the building.

The elevator ride up to the oncology floor was silent. Julie stood there, holding tight to her coffee, watching her mother rub her fingers over the cross that dangled from around her neck. The doctor's office was on the top floor. The waiting room was full of soft chairs and blue painted walls. Margie walked in, waving to the nurses behind the reception desk.

"Dr. Isen will be with you in a moment, Margie. Have a seat."

"This office reminds me of what it must be like in heaven," Margie whispered to Julie as she sat down.

Julie furrowed her brow, then picked up an old magazine from the glass table and flipped through the pages. It wasn't long before she was helping Margie out of her chair and into the large office at the end of the hall. It had a wall of windows that looked out over the city below. The sun filtered in through the Roman shades, lighting the room with a warmth. Margie took a deep breath before sitting in a green upholstered chair that sat opposite the large desk.

Dr. Isen was a tall man, thin and balding. His white coat draped off his shoulders like it was still on the hanger. His hands were always ice cold, and Julie put hers in her coat pocket. He sat in the desk chair, leaning forward, fingers moving up and down on his tablet. His face became solemn then broke into a smile. A smile that seemed rehearsed.

"We have tried all the options for treatment, but the tumors are not shrinking," the doctor began.

Mom pushed herself to the edge of her seat, clasping her bible in her lap as she listened, blue eyes catching the light that flowed into the window behind the doctor. His words seemed blurry to Julie, a foreign language punctuated with the words cancer - metastasis - terminal.

"Thank you, Doctor. God bless you," Margie said when he finished.

"They can help with more information at the desk," he said, holding the office door open.

Julie's eyes met his as she passed; she forced a smile as he patted her shoulder.

"God will take care of things, Julie. You have to have faith in His will," Margie said as they walked down the hall, holding the rail. Julie stuffed the hospice brochure that the nurse slipped to her in her pocket. There wasn't any more conversation after that. Julie dropped Margie off at her doorstep, then sped away.

Margie called the next day. There was a faith healer coming; they would go next Saturday.



It was early when they arrived; snow was falling, removing all the color in the world with a blanket of white. Julie pulled into the parking lot, avoiding the large, water-filled crevices that shimmered with oily iridescence. The building was old. Its worn, red brick walls appeared almost dark brown in places where the snow had touched. The large windows were framed with peeling white paint that littered the ground beneath them.

"Are you sure this is the place?" Julie asked.

"Said so on the sign out front," Margie said, nodding towards the small wooden sign that marked the entrance.

Julie glanced over at Margie sitting in the passenger's seat. She seemed so small, sitting there clutching her Bible. Her coat seemed to swallow her; its bright red color contrasted against her pale skin that seemed translucent, plastic wrap over thin, blue veins. On her head, Margie wore a white scarf covered with pink roses. It fell down on to her shoulders, lacing her arms and back.

"Is that the scarf Daddy gave you?" Julie said.

Margie sighed and ran the scarf through her fingers.

"It's from his trip to Argentina. I always loved this scarf."

Silence filled the car. Julie let her eyes wander to the mirror and watched the small stream of exhaust pour out behind them.

"I thought there would be more of a crowd," Margie said.

Margie craned her neck, looking around the empty parking lot as they tucked themselves in behind an old minivan that was covered with several inches of snow. Margie leaned back into the seat, fingering the gold cross that hung low on her chest.

"Maybe this weather is keeping people away," Julie said as big snowflakes fell from the sky, pressing against the windshield.

"Snow never bothered me. I think it's beautiful. One of God's lovely creations."

Julie let the car idle as they sat there. She rubbed her arms to brush off the cold and began wondering why she hadn't insisted that they stop for coffee. This holy trek, which her mother had insisted on, would have been better if she had a hot coffee with steamy ribbons swirling from the top. They had passed several donut shops, but in the interest of time Julie didn't stop.



"We have to be early so we can get a seat in the front row. Evelyn said he doesn't always move to the back rows. Her brother saw him in New Tripoli and he said it's best to sit on the end or in the front row," her mother had said after she climbed into the car that morning. It had been a few minutes past six when Julie pulled up in front of her house.

"I don't know why you didn't stay here last night. We needed to be on the road by six, it's past that now," Margie said as soon as she shut the door.

"It's only ten after, there won't be any traffic, its fine," Julie said, gripping the steering wheel.

"You always have to make things harder. I brewed a pot of coffee for you thinking you would be early, but now you're late. I don't know why you just didn't sleep here last night," her mother's voice poked at her like a stone that was caught in her shoe.

"I just like sleeping in my own bed." Julie spied a coffee shop out of the corner of her eye. She hesitated, but caught a glimpse of her mother checking her watch, so she sped past and entered the freeway.

Now, an hour later, they sat in the parking lot, waiting - no coffee.

"What time does it start?"

Margie pulled the flyer from her bible, which she always carried. Its presence irritated Julie, like a third person sitting between them.

"Nine o'clock. Evelyn said they would start letting people in around eight. Did you know that he has two confirmed miracles in South America? Two."

Julie tossed her head back onto the headrest, letting a sigh escape her lips.

"We should go get some coffee," Julie said, more toward the headliner of the car than her mother.

"No, we should stay right here. They might let us in earlier and I want to get a good spot. I had coffee at the house. You would have known that if you stayed there. I don't know why you have to live across town anyway. You should be closer, we could go to services together on Sundays."

"I have a job Mom. It's close to my job."

"You're not working today."

Julie crossed her arms and turned away from Margie. The thought of staying in her childhood home was more than she could bear. The same yellow walls covered with religious pictures and family portraits, portraits that contained her father. The house had seemed like a waiting room since he died. It caused Julie's skin to itch and her nerves to rattle sitting there among memories and old magazines, her father smiling down upon her, trapped behind glass in picture frames. He had always livened the house, and made living with her mother and religion bearable, but he had taken his light with him to the other side.

That's what her mother had said. "The Lord needed him, Julie. He was called home," her mother's voice sounded like static when she called to let her know. No sense of sadness or worry, "It's a better place, the Lord's house."

Julie just stood, holding payphone receiver in the hall of her dorm. She felt as if a shock had been sent through the phone and electrocuted her. Her mind went blank as the sadness and grief buzzed through her. She had just been home at Christmas break, and her father seemed fine.

"Are you coming home for the funeral? Reverend Elliot has a wonderful sermon planned," Margie droned on as Julie dropped the receiver and slid down onto the hall floor.

"Heart attack," was the explanation her mother gave the morning Julie came home. She stood in the hallway, shaking her head and rubbing her hands over her cross.

The funeral was small, and her mother seemed to drink in every word that flowed from Reverend Elliot's mouth as if he were a rock star on the pulpit. It seemed more like a high school reunion for Margie than the death of her husband. She stood next to the casket at the funeral in a black dress with that gold cross gleaming. The bible was there, sitting on a small table, shreds of sticky notes pushing out from various sections. Julie frowned when her mother sang loudly, lacing the church with her praises to her God. Julie sat low in her seat and stared at her father's picture perched on his casket. He seemed to wink at her when her mother finally became silent.



"You're going back to school so soon?" her mother asked, twisting a dish cloth in her hands as Julie tossed her clothes into a suitcase.

"I have to. Dad wouldn't want me to mess up my grades."

"But the semester just started, surely your teachers would understand."

Margie followed Julie out into the hall, down the stairs, and to the front door.

"Gotta go, Mom, love you," Julie said. She kissed her mother on the cheek and closed the door behind her. It took her three hours to get back to campus that day. She stopped twice for coffee - and to cry. That was almost six years ago.

"Mom, do you miss Dad?" Julie asked, eyes facing forward.

"Of course, but he's with God. That comforts me, " Margie said, looking out the window.

Julie turned away. "Not me," she whispered.



It wasn't long before the lot filled with a steady stream of cars. Her mother remained silent the whole time, flipping through pages of her bible, mouthing the words, and rubbing her cross. Julie tried to relax, but the thought of having to sit through more of her mother's religion made her head ache more than her need for caffeine.

"We should go in," Margie said, closing her bible and adjusting her head wrap. "I'll need your help, I think."

Margie leaned on Julie, clinging as they sidestepped potholes and ice rushing to get out of the falling snow. She felt so frail, like a thin rope had wrapped itself around Julie's arm. Her mother was out of breath when they got to the top of the three stairs, stopping for a moment in front of the heavy, wooden doors. There was not a line, like Margie promised, only a trickle of ill people, pale and fragile, climbing the three steps into the vestibule. The warmth hit Julie like a welcoming friend as they stepped inside. Julie dusted the snow off of her coat.

"It's a beautiful church," her mother commented, leaning into Julie. Julie could feel her mother's weight pressing against her. "Let's go down front."

The church was small. The altar was plain, a simple wooden table covered with a purple and gold cloth. There was a cross that seemed too large for the small church. Its dark wood seemed to overshadow the worn walls and chipped church benches. They sat in the front, as her mother requested. Julie made sure she sat at the end of the row, pressing herself to the edge of the church pew.

"You need to go to church more, Julie. There are so many things to be thankful for," her mother whispered after they sat down.

Julie hadn't been in a church since her father's funeral. She didn't see the need. She had attended services all through her childhood, sitting for hours in uncomfortable clothes while her mother seemed entranced by every word. Julie always felt like an outsider at the services, like the only one who realized the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes. Everyone else would seem emotional, happy, faithful; Julie usually felt bored. It was lonely without her father there. Often, while her mother was singing or mesmerized by the sermon, Julie's dad would fall asleep, head bopping with soft snores. Julie would giggle and poke at him, only to get stern looks from her mother. Her dad would just smile and wink at her before slipping off to sleep again. Afterward, they would go for coffee - just the two of them. Her mother never came; she stayed behind with the women from her Bible Study.

"Why don't we have coffee before church?" Julie asked one day, sipping her coffee and swinging her legs. "Might help you from falling asleep."

"Then how would I get through the sermon?" her dad replied. He winked at her.



Julie let out a soft sigh. Margie had opened her bible and began to read. Julie could hear her breathing; there was a new whistle when she inhaled. Julie watched her mother out of the corner of her eye, noticing how old she seemed. Her hair had long been gone, a casualty of chemotherapy, but now there was grayness to her skin and deep creases that were a byproduct of all the weight loss. Her blue eyes seemed softer, like worn denim instead of the brilliant sapphires they used to resemble.

"What?" Margie asked when she noticed Julie's stare.

"Nothing," Julie said, turning away, a heavy lump pressing in her throat.

The Healer was a slight man, with black hair that seemed to shine purple under the two lights that poured down from above. His voice had a thick accent, and Julie found him hard to understand. It was as though his words were laced with syrup, long and sticky. He was not a young man; his face was carved with the passage of time, eyes dark. Julie was surprised at his attire. He wore only a black pair of pants and white cotton shirt, no robe or ornate jewelry. From his neck dangled a small cross that glimmered in the light.

"He's truly a man of God. I can feel it," Margie said, leaning into Julie. Julie shifted in her seat and coughed slightly.

Her mother beamed as the Healer spoke. She listened to every word while he moved back and forth, speaking of God and better places. He tossed his hands in the air, shouted, stomped his feet, and the whole congregation seemed moved - except Julie. Her mind was cluttered with sadness as she gazed towards her mother and the others.

The Healer began moving about the room, stopping and placing his hands on people. His eyes would droop shut as he tipped his head back, whispering in inaudible tones. Julie could feel her mother tensing next to her, gripping her fingers into the edge of the wooden pew. The Healer seemed to float as he moved, the wails and cries of the people empowering him. There was a young girl behind Julie who began crying and clutching her chest after he placed his hands on her head.

"Thank you, God! Thank you!" her mother cried in a loud voice. The girl shook and fell, hands slamming down on Julie's shoulders. They were cold, and Julie thrust herself forward, letting the girl fall onto the back of the pew. Julie's purse fell off her lap, spilling its contents on to the floor below. Margie eyes went wide and gasped.

"I'm so sorry," Julie said, turning around and trying to help as the girl's mother scowled at her.

Julie stood there glancing at the girl, reaching to help but being turned away. She reached down to pick up her belongings, stuffing them into the open purse.

"Julie, sit down," her mother said.

The Healer's hands were warm when they touched her, resting there on the back of her head. Julie froze, listening to his whispers, trying to decode his message. He removed his hands and Julie turned her face upwards, meeting with his eyes. They were like two black stones, smooth and shiny.

"You have it wrong. I'm just here with my mother. She has cancer," Julie said as she kneeled below him.

He smiled at her before extending his hand, assisting her as she pulled herself off the floor.

"We all need help, child. We all lose our way and need direction," he whispered to her.

Julie remained standing, watching as her mother kissed the back of his hand after he placed it on her forehead, tears streaming down her face and into the curled corners of her mouth. The church seemed quiet then. The sun had chased the clouds away, and slants of light fell down through the long, thin windows and onto the worn carpet.

The sun was blinding when they stepped outside. Julie lent her arm to her mother going down the steps and into the parking lot. There was a cool breeze that lifted the ends of Margie's head wrap, letting the edges dance in the morning light. Julie heard her sigh before letting her arm go and making her own way around the potholes and ice pack.

"Be careful," Julie warned.

"I'm fine now."

The car was cold when they climbed in, and Julie rushed to turn the heat on. Margie sat quietly gazing out the window; her eyes seemed to shine again.

"I think you'll be alright now, Julie - when I go," her mother said as they pulled out of the parking lot. "I was worried about you, but the light of the Lord is with you now."

Julie reached out and squeezed her mother's hand tight.

"Let's go home and get some of that coffee," Julie said as they pulled out of the lot.

6 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this. You have managed to describe this difficult relationship without getting sickly-sweet. A light touch, such as the one that you have shown here, is effective but can be a struggle to bring off. You have the balance just right.

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  2. i also thoroughly enjoyed this, not at all mawkish, and i´m glad you resisted any temptation to give it a (false) happy ending. it is what it is.

    Michael McCarthy

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  3. Touching, emotional, and very well done. I like how in the midst of dealing with her mom's terminal cancer, the reader is given insight into yet another personal tragedy when her father passed away. And how, in both cases, the moments, while sad, felt so very awkward.

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  4. Elegant in construction in that the story begins with the daughter's love and concern for her mother, and ends with the mother's love and concern for her daughter, and in between is the unfinished emotional business of coming to terms with her fathers sudden death. A moving story.
    ...And well done that healer for spotting it!
    Some nice phrases such as; 'Her mother's voice poked at her like a stone in her shoe.'

    Brooke Fieldhouse

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  5. An evocative exploration of the concept of faith in one family. Through Julie's eyes the story seeks a balance between the firm believer, Marjorie, and the memory of Julie's father. Julie is caught in the middle between her mother's religion and all its trappings--the church, the Bible, the pastor, the faith healer--and her father's somewhat ambivalent view of it all. Julie sides with her father's views and tolerates her mother's--until her father dies. Then distance from her mother is her only escape. Maybe in the last line of the story, in sight of her mother's coming death, she takes on her father's view and in a way fulfills the blessing of the faith healer as well. Reconciliation is perhaps all she can hope for. A very good family portrait.

    James Shaffer

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  6. An interesting topic to explore. There are some very poignant imagery/phrases. Overall I liked the story. I did find all the flashbacks to be disorienting and sometimes seemed unneeded (why flashback from the car outside the church to their conversation at the house earlier that morning?). The story also seemed to majorly fizzle at the very end. Sometimes I like stories that leave it up to the reader to decide what they think will happen next, but so much of this story hinges on the issue of belief and whether or not the Healer has any real power that to leave that completely undecided seems like kind of a cop-out.

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