One sunny Monday morning about fifteen years ago, my mother was attacked in her home while she was doing her hair. She was getting ready to go to her teaching job at a nearby church preschool when she heard the doorbell ring. She went to the living room and peeked through the curtains. A man she didn’t recognize was standing there. Deciding he must be a salesman, my mother quietly replaced the curtain and went back to the bathroom.
The man, whose name we later learned was Kenneth, went around to the back of the house, where our overfriendly black Lab watched him break in. He came across my mother’s purse in the living room, then continued to the master-bedroom suite.
My mother never saw Kenneth. He grabbed her from behind and started punching her repeatedly in the face. When he was done hitting her, he simply left, taking her purse with him.
At the hospital my mother’s face was so swollen and purple that I wasn’t sure it was her until she said, “Cindy, it’s OK. I’m all right.”
A few days later Kenneth’s mother turned him in after seeing his picture on the nightly news. He was sentenced to fifteen years. My father installed a high-tech security system and bought a ferocious guard dog, but my illusion of our home as a place of safety was shattered.
My mother returned to work at the preschool after two weeks. (She would have returned sooner, she said, but she didn’t want to scare the children.) Kenneth had chipped one of her facial bones, and her left cheek still sagged a little, but otherwise she was OK.
More remarkable than her physical recovery was her emotional resilience. She never experienced flashbacks or post-traumatic stress, or even felt afraid when alone in the house. (I, on the other hand, wouldn’t be comfortable at home alone for years.) By the time Christmas rolled around, she had sent a New Testament to Kenneth in jail, with a card telling him that she’d forgiven him, just as Jesus Christ had forgiven her.
My mother and I rarely see eye to eye on religion, but her grace and strength remind me daily of all that is good about faith.
Cindy Y. Ogasawara
Past midnight on September 10, 2001, I was lying in my uncomfortable twin bed in my tiny graduate-student dorm room. I’d been attending journalism school at Columbia University in New York City for a little more than a month and was still so new to reporting that I hesitated to call strangers on the phone. The city’s summer heat was finally lifting, and my twenty-fourth birthday was just a few days away, but sorrow was seeping into my bones. My eyes filled with tears, and though I rarely went to synagogue and seldom prayed, the prayers of my childhood spilled from my lips. “Shema Yisrael,” I whispered, then sang it louder and louder and louder. “Adonai eloheinu. Adonai echad.” (The Lord is our God. The Lord is one.)
I moved on to the Jewish prayer for healing, whose melody and words have always comforted me. I’d learned these prayers during countless fidgety Sunday afternoons in synagogue classrooms, and I’d sung them to myself as a child during late-night bargaining sessions with God.
In the dark hours before dawn on September 11, 2001, those old prayers came back to me. Before all the passengers on those planes awakened, brushed their teeth, kissed their spouses goodbye, and left for the airport; before all the secretaries and janitors and business executives put on their shoes and grabbed trains and taxis to work, I lay in the dark crying and singing, singing and crying.
My mom was raised in a large Catholic family, and she took the best parts of her religion to heart. Our family’s life centered on a tiny stone church, where I knew almost everyone in the congregation. Mom worked as the catechism coordinator and often discussed and debated religion with our aging, lovable priest. I remember Father’s musty smell, a combination of incense and old books, and the way he would gesture with his arms during Mass.
When my mom told me that Father had AIDS, I don’t think I fully understood what it meant. (We later learned that Father’s “friend,” a kind man with thick glasses who came by regularly, was also infected.) Before Mass on the day Father was scheduled to announce the news — which everyone had already heard — our bishop arrived with a cameraman and a reporter in tow, ready to make an example of this diseased priest. My mom would have none of it. She stood toe-to-toe on the sidewalk with the bishop, a man whom few dared question, and refused to let him bring his cameraman inside. She would not allow him to exploit our grief.
I eventually lost faith in the Catholic Church, but I have not lost faith in my mother.
Mountain Center, California
My parents had faith in things they could see: our blue Buick, our house by the sea. God’s name was never mentioned in our home except in vain, usually by my mother when she couldn’t find her cigarettes. When I wanted something, I told my wishes to my stuffed rabbit, Suzanna, who had black-button eyes and cottony skin.
There was a girl at school named Amy who said that when she wanted something, she prayed to God. She said God always heard her, even though he didn’t always give her what she wanted. I doubted the part about God listening.
Amy had four brothers and a mother with shiny red hair who volunteered in the schoolyard and could jump rope like a kid. Her father traveled all over the country on business. One night he came home from a trip and found that his house had burned down, and Amy and her four brothers and her mother had died in the fire.
Our schoolteacher told us to say a prayer for Amy. That night, out of curiosity about prayer and affection for Amy, I decided to give it a try. “Dear God,” I said, “make sure Amy is having fun in heaven. Don’t let her be afraid.” A gentle feeling came over me, and I thought I saw my bedroom curtains sway back and forth.
The next night I spoke to God again. This time I asked him to take good care of my mother and father, thinking not of the times when my mother threatened to give my dolls away and laughed at my crying, or when my father taunted me because I couldn’t count to ten in French, but of my parents’ gentler moments, like when they came into my room at night and smiled gently down on me in the darkness.
For many nights after that, I put my faith in a God I couldn’t see, and I blessed everyone I knew. I prayed for my best friend, Johnny, who had a cowlick and shiny brown eyes and a birthmark on his left cheek. I put in a good word for Queenie, the Dalmatian who often chased me, and his owner, Mimi, who wore her hair in a pink turban. I asked God to make the kids at school quit teasing me because I was pigeon-toed and had corkscrew curls. God never answered me, but sometimes, when the world turned dark, and the sounds of the night came into my room, I felt something in my chest: a warm, familiar hum.
New York, New York
When I was ten years old, I was born again, and thirty-six years later I still mark that experience as a turning point in my life. Through the years, however, my faith has often been tested.
When I was twenty-two, my best friend developed leukemia. Erik was closer than a brother to me, and he lived with my family for two years as he slowly died. For a long time after that, I still believed in God, but I did not love him.
When I was thirty-four, my sister Vanessa, who was living with my wife and me and our two children at the time, was killed in a car accident. She and her best friend were found dead in a cow pasture just beyond our driveway. Vanessa was eighteen years old and had just graduated from high school two weeks earlier. It didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t.
My daughter Rachel was recently killed by a drunk driver while attending college in California. She, too, was eighteen years old. My wife and I had faithfully prayed for our daughter’s safety every day.
I teach an adult Sunday-school class at my church. We are studying the Book of Job. The question I must answer in my life is the same question Job had to answer — the same question, really, that every person who claims to have faith must answer: Do we truly love God, or do we love only ourselves and simply ally ourselves with God because we fear his power and desire his protection?
I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I am learning to relinquish my need for an answer. God leaves us in the dark, but he does not leave us alone.
When I was growing up, I was thankful for the presence in my life of caring adults other than my mother and father, who struggled to be good parents but couldn’t always give me the love and attention I needed. Now I have eleven nieces and nephews, and I want to be a source of support for them as they grow up and face many of the same family difficulties I did.
My husband and I take our nieces and nephews places and offer them a level of attention their parents can’t muster because of the day-to-day demands of parenting. When we visit, we are often met at the door with cheers and hugs, and fights erupt if we spend more time with one sibling than with another. Being an aunt to these kids and giving them what I so desperately needed as a child is the most fulfilling part of my life.
Recently my sister told me that she does not consider me a good influence on her four boys because I do not worship Jesus as the Lord Almighty. She also said that my husband and I are sinning against God by refusing to allow him to bless us with children.
Since she became a mother, my sister has chosen to believe in an authoritarian God and to adhere strictly to Catholic doctrine. She has never asked me about what I believe, but she has looked at what I have done — lived at a non-Christian retreat center, married an atheist in a nonchurch ceremony, stopped attending Catholic Mass — and concluded that I am not good enough for her children.
I often envy my sister the simplicity of her belief. I know the security it gives her, because I felt it too when I saw the world in black and white. Now my faith is full of holes. I could make a list of my beliefs about God today and have them all change tomorrow. But when the pain of my sister’s judgment and the separation from my nephews becomes too much to bear, I go to bed and imagine Jesus is there with me, cradling my head in his lap and stroking my hair. I cry, and Jesus cries with me, and I know, without a doubt, that my sister is wrong.
When I was a child, visits to my father’s Southern relatives were mercifully few. The last one I was forced to endure was at Christmastime when I was ten years old. Instead of a serene, snowy holiday in Colorado, I faced a dusty brown Christmas in Tennessee.
Grandma, a tiny, deceptively fragile-looking woman, seemed never to have had a generous thought in her life. Her bony, nervous daughter, Lula, had never left home; Lula’s boozy husband, Grady, had simply moved in with her and Grandma after the wedding. Their seven-year-old daughter, my cousin Billie Sue, was obsessively coddled and protected. She still slept in her mother’s bedroom, as Lula had done until she was grown. They all held to their “values” with a fanatical determination. The two most important were “Trust in the Lord,” and “If the nigras don’t like it here, they should go back where they came from.”
My cousin Billie and I often had disagreements, and she would run crying to her mama with tales of my cruelty, which always led to my apologizing to Aunt Lula for my behavior. My mother, who had enough problems with her disapproving in-laws, would plead with me: “Please don’t say anything to upset her. Just do whatever she wants while we’re stuck here.”
That year at Christmas I tried to lay low and avoid trouble until the visit was over, but without meaning to, I committed my worst sin yet. Billie was holding forth on what Santa Claus would bring her when I interrupted to ask, “You don’t still believe in Santa at your age?” Of course she reported this blasphemy to her horrified family.
Grandma had already expressed her disapproval that I was not attending Sunday school. Her sour features curdled even more at this new evidence of my evil influence. My mother was mortified: Santa’s existence would not be denied under my grandma’s roof. “Just pretend!” she hissed.
On Christmas Eve there was a big family get-together. The whole clan was there, and the climax was a visit from none other than Saint Nick himself, who bore a striking resemblance to Uncle Grady, down to the authentic red nose.
My mother’s menacing warning echoed in my head as, one by one, my young cousins sat on Santa’s knee. When my turn came, I looked around for a way out, but there was none. Santa asked me if I’d been a good girl. I forced a smile and said, “Yes.” The adults nodded their heads and grinned smugly. A few couldn’t resist rubbing it in: “And you thought there was no Santa Claus! Now what do you say?” Grandma, beaming with triumph, said, “Did y’all see the look on her face when Santa walked in?”
As their laughter pelted me, my sense of alienation intensified. Eventually those feelings would develop into a fiercely stubborn resistance to social pressure of any kind.
In college I had contempt for all religious beliefs, which seemed to do little besides create rifts between people and justify acts of violence and the oppression of women. I even found fault with the Buddhists: Where was their sense of urgency? Did they plan to make this world a better place by meditating?
After graduation I worked as a cocktail waitress at an Irish pub. One afternoon I spotted a gorgeous man with soulful brown eyes sitting alone at a table in my empty section, watching a soccer game on TV. After I recovered from the shock of my good fortune, I approached him and struck up a conversation. His name was Ben, and we discovered we had similar philosophical and political leanings. We began spending time together outside the pub, and I found out that he was still recovering from the breakup of a three-and-a-half-year relationship and was closed off to romance. I settled for a platonic relationship over no relationship at all.
It wasn’t long before I found out that this liberal, artistic, open-minded man I was trying desperately not to fall for was a devoted Presbyterian. I feigned composure while my mind raced: He goes to church? But he’s so . . . liberal! Didn’t he know that Christianity and conservatism go together like Thanksgiving and turkey? The next time we met, determined to get to the bottom of this, I said tentatively, “So, tell me about your church.”
I had never heard someone speak so thoughtfully about his or her religious beliefs as Ben did that day. He talked about times when he’d struggled with his faith, or even lost faith completely, as well as moments when he was as sure of God’s presence as he was of his own breath. He told me that he did not take his faith for granted: he treasured it when it was strong and nurtured it when it was weak, but he never gave up on it. The more he spoke, the more I could feel a part of me being wrenched open. I suddenly yearned to believe, as he did, that we are being taken care of, and that all we need to do is open our hearts and trust God.
I am working on talking openly about God (or “the universe,” as I sometimes prefer to say). It is still a challenge for me to let go and simply believe, but it is a challenge I am willing to face.
I was thirty years old, lonely and struggling financially, trying to recover from an abusive failed marriage. All that gave me hope was my four-year-old daughter.
I had resigned myself to being a single parent when I met Frank. He was the sort of honorable man I almost didn’t believe still existed. We fell in love and began making plans for the future. At one point I literally got down on my knees and thanked God for bringing Frank into my life.
Not long after that, Frank was in a motorcycle accident and broke his neck. The diagnosis was permanent paralysis from the shoulders down with no hope of improvement.
Those first weeks Frank was in the hospital were horrible, but somehow we made it through. After six months of recovery and therapy, Frank was discharged, but he couldn’t go back to his old life. This once powerful, accomplished, independent man was now an apprehensive person, totally reliant on others.
When I considered the future we would face together, I was terrified. Sitting in my car in the hospital parking lot with tears rolling down my cheeks, I cried out to God for help. I desperately loved this man but wondered whether I could accept this responsibility. Who would take care of me?
A voice in my head, so clear it was nearly audible, said, He needs you. Then, I will take care of you.
That was more than eighteen years ago. Frank and I are still together, and he is still paralyzed. In spite of the wheelchair, he is the same honorable man I fell in love with. I’m grateful I listened to God in my car that day, when my faith overcame my fear.
As the Spirit moves my congregation, they raise their arms and sway back and forth, eyes closed, some of them squeezing out tears. A woman spontaneously begins to sing in tongues. Others join in, their unrehearsed harmonies overlapping like ocean waves. Everyone rocks in holy rhythm until the song fades to a murmur.
I’m the dutiful but skeptical worship leader of this church and a recent graduate of a Baptist college where phenomena such as speaking in tongues are regarded as fraudulent and not a part of proper Christianity. But tonight our one-story cinder-block church has been taken over by a visiting preacher, Brother Jesse. This sweaty, greasy-haired traveling evangelist shouts in a raspy voice: “And He was bruised for our iniquities, and by His stripes we are healed!”
Earlier Brother Jesse told me the Lord has anointed his ministry and that God chose him when he was a child. “Where there’s faith and an anointed servant,” he said, “God will work miracles. ‘Greater works than these will you do,’ Jesus said.”
Jesus also said to humble yourself as a little child, I thought.
Now Brother Jesse begins his healing gospel. “The Lord is showing me that someone here has a spirit of migraine headaches. You’ve been suffering for years.”
A woman weeps loudly.
“Yes, Sister, the Spirit of the Living God is here to heal you tonight.” The evangelist extends his right hand above his head and points his left directly at the woman as several men from the church gather around her. “Believe, Sister. Your healing is nigh unto you now. Your faith will make you whole!” His voice gets louder and harsher with each phrase. His face drips sweat. He begins to speak in tongues, machine-gun bursts of random syllables. The churchmen place their hands on the woman’s shoulders and head and join in with their own tongues of fire. There’s a crash as the woman falls back against the folding chairs. Slain in the Spirit, overwhelmed by the presence of God, she hits the concrete floor, where only a quarter inch of industrial carpet breaks her fall.
The music grows louder. The evangelist rants on. People stream to the front, and he lays hands on them and commands they be healed of headaches, backaches, and ulcers. One by one, they fall to the ground and praise God for healing them.
Brother Jesse lifts his hands and says, “God is telling me that he wants to heal vision tonight. Praise God. We have no blind ones here, but we have many who have afflictions of the eyes and wear eyeglasses. It’s not God’s will that any of us have deformities. If you are a people of faith, cast off your glasses tonight. Bring them to this altar and receive your full vision.”
Dozens come forward, take off their glasses, and let the healer touch their eyes. My teeth clench, and I push my own glasses up on my nose.
The evangelist looks over at me, and his mouth puckers as if he’s just eaten something sour. I frown back. He turns away with a snort of indifference. “You must believe and act, or you don’t honor God!” he continues. “Doubt and disobedience are the enemies of faith.”
In my mind doubt is not the enemy of faith. Faith grows in the broken ground of doubt, not in hearts made hard by arrogance and certainty. I keep my glasses on.
The next night everyone else has their glasses back on, too. Brother Jesse has moved on to another town. I continue cultivating a field of doubt where I hope faith will grow.
My parents got divorced when I was seven. There’d never been any talk of faith in our house, but after their marriage ended, my father’s life took a spiritual turn, and five years later he joined a small rural church in France.
Being the sort of skeptic that only a twelve-year-old can be, I thought he’d flipped his lid or been brainwashed. I had no faith in any church or religion. How could I, since God hadn’t kept my parents together?
Every August several priests from other countries came to my dad’s little church to perform faith healing. One year I was visiting my father when the gathering occurred. I had heard of “miracles” during these events; now I would actually see for myself what happened.
I sat in the back while people filed to the altar, where priests with long white robes and gray beards stood in a circle. The people knelt in turn, and the priests laid their hands over each person’s head and prayed. When the priests were done, people cried or shook, and some couldn’t get back up without help. No way am I doing that, I thought.
Just then I felt my grandpa nudge my side. We were among the only ones who hadn’t gotten in line, and now it seemed that we, too, would go to the front. Reluctantly I took my place behind my grandma. When she reached the altar, I saw her fall and have to be helped back to her feet. It all happened so fast. Now it was my turn.
As I stepped inside the circle of white-robed priests, my eyes must have been as wide as an owl’s. I knelt and closed my eyes. The praying started.
What I felt next was an amazing physical sensation, like a warm light traveling from the top of my head to the bottom of my legs. It was the most wonderful feeling I’d ever felt.
Tears in my eyes, I stood and went quietly back to my chair. Ever since that day, I’ve had faith.
Saint Ignatius, Montana
The kidney donor lay half naked on the bed, covered to his waist by a thin white sheet. He opened his eyes and smiled groggily up at me.
“That’s a pleasant surprise,” I said. “Hardly anyone smiles after surgery.”
All around us, nurses and surgical assistants counted needles and gleaming silver scalpels, and the surgeons monitored vital signs through glasses fitted with shining lights and magnifying lenses. I applied pads for the portable EKG, preparing the patient for transport to recovery. He continued smiling. It could have been the ketamine or propofol in his system, but there seemed to be something genuinely tranquil about his expression.
“Aren’t we the happy one,” I said.
“Of course I am,” he responded. “I’m not sick.”
“That’s true,” I said. He was a firefighter and had the slim, athletic frame of a man in his prime.
The anesthesiologist gave me a you’re-just-a-nursing-assistant, do-your-job look, but I couldn’t help continuing. “I just have to ask,” I said: “Why did you do it?”
Some of the surgeons frowned in disapproval, but I was only saying what was on everyone’s mind. Even the nurses sorting instruments paused to listen.
The patient’s grin widened. “Faith,” he said.
“No, in people. All people.”
Before I could ask him to elaborate, the surgeons gave clearance for him to be wheeled to recovery.
In the hallway outside the operating room, I took off my mask and threw it in the trash, still thinking about the man’s reply. Could I, who walked the crowded city streets every day, blind to everything but my destination, give the same answer? As I holed up in my studio apartment each night, eating ice cream and watching the news, did I have any connection with humanity at all?
This man had seen the sick girl on the news asking for life — begging for it — and he’d responded by offering her his kidney. He didn’t even know her. The exchange defied the basic laws of self- preservation.
I walked down the hall and looked through the window of the operating room next door. On the table the young girl was being prepped for surgery, orange swabs of sterile Betadine dripping down her skin, breathing tubes projecting from her sleeping face. A nurse walked carefully past me, carrying a small container. Inside it was the young girl’s salvation.
My parents were Unitarians, but as a teen I joined a Methodist youth group because my best friend was an active member. I enjoyed the weekly movie nights and lying around in the youth room, which was aglow with black lights and adolescent hormones. One evening the minister, a pudgy, middle-aged man with a receding hairline, asked if I wanted to be confirmed. Having no clue what it involved, I said yes.
When confirmation day came, I had to wear a dress, which unnerved me more than any other detail of the ceremony. I was a tomboy and never wore dresses. My seamstress mother had sewn me something floral with padded shoulders. I looked more like a football player in drag than a teenage girl preparing to accept Christ.
Before the other teens and I were to ascend the stairs to the sanctuary, where all our families and the congregation were gathered, I said to the minister, “I can’t go through with this.”
The minister twisted his hands in concern. He grasped the puffy shoulders of my awkward dress and asked, “Have you lost faith?”
I had no response. I was fourteen. Despite the weekly confirmation classes and the color-coded Bible I’d so diligently highlighted, I had no idea what “faith” meant, much less what it had to do with standing in front of a hundred or so people and consuming a piece of dry bread and a thimbleful of grape juice.
When I got home, I ripped off that confirmation dress, hopped on my bicycle, and set out on a sweaty ride along the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood. To this day, trees, sky, and open spaces are what I have the most faith in.
Gretchen A. Dietz
As I sat before the bathroom mirror to get ready for a date, glaring at the latest acne outbreak on my face, Mom would ascend the stairs and call out, “Is he Catholic?” Not, “Does he treat you like a princess?” or, “Is he a good kisser?” Being Catholic was the only test that mattered. Mom was certain that my marrying a Catholic would assure a “successful” marriage (i.e., lots of babies) and eternal salvation for me — and, I imagine, for her as well.
But I was never attracted to the boys I saw at Mass on Sunday. The non-Catholic boys I went to public school with were far more intriguing. For my mother’s sake, though, I tried to date ones who were, if not Catholic, at least Christian.
Then Julian, a painfully shy boy in my Spanish class, mustered the courage to ask me out. Julian was like no boy I’d ever met: He was always on time and respectful to my parents. He opened doors for me. And he didn’t kiss me good night until our third date. He was a musician and encouraged me to pursue my artistic interests. We could talk about anything or just sit and say nothing. He always made a fuss about my long legs, and I felt beautiful every minute I was with him.
And — oh, yes — he was an atheist.
I softened the news by telling my mother Julian was “agnostic,” quickly adding, “But don’t worry. I’m not going to marry him.”
Being a dutiful Catholic girl, I tried to convince Julian to believe in something resembling God, but his mind operated on pure logic. To make matters worse, Julian wasn’t sure he wanted children, and I’d told him I wanted some crazy number like five. After seven years, despite the fact that he was always good to me and the sex was unbelievable, I convinced myself that I needed to keep looking for a Catholic who wanted kids. Julian begged me not to break up with him. I’d never cried so hard in my life. My heart still seizes when I think about it.
I went on to meet Mr. Catholic-Wants-Kids and marry him in a big church wedding. We traveled and had some laughs, but I was unhappy. If I wanted sex, I had to initiate it, and it usually ended with him saying, “There, that should hold you for a while.” I felt like a vase on a shelf: an acquisition initially admired but rarely noticed or appreciated once the newness has worn off. After sixteen years of marriage, I left with my dog and my sanity. Ironically, I’d never become pregnant. We’d never even bothered to find out why we couldn’t have children.
Two months ago I ran into Julian, and we had a cordial chat. He said he was married with one child and seemed shocked to learn that I had no children. I wanted to tell him that he was the only person I’d ever really wanted to have a child with, but I didn’t. It wouldn’t have been fair to him. Why should he have wanted to make a baby with a woman who would have raised his son or daughter to believe a dogma he couldn’t swallow?
The biggest irony is, about fifteen years ago, I abandoned my faith. At least as far as the God of Catholicism goes, I am an atheist.
The death of my older sister Mary Ellen, at the age of five, hit my parents hard. While my Irish-Catholic mother wrapped herself in the comforting shawl of her faith, my nonbelieving father had no such balm for his loss. He looked at the world with instinctive apprehension and always cautioned me to “be careful.”
My father allowed my brother and me to be raised Catholic, and we attended Catholic school and went to Mass with our mother every Sunday, no matter where we were. When my brother decided to enter the seminary at fourteen, our father uttered not a word of protest.
When my brother was ordained, he wanted to give his first blessing to our parents. Our father, who had no understanding of Catholic rituals or doctrine, took me aside and asked what it meant if he knelt to receive this blessing. I assured him it did not signify any belief in the Catholic faith or belonging to the Church. He was relieved.
Twenty years later my father had a massive heart attack. While he lay unconscious in the hospital, my mother asked my brother to baptize him to “save his soul,” and he did. I lived far away and wasn’t there in time to protest. When they told me what they’d done, I was outraged. It felt as if they had violated his integrity.
My father died without regaining consciousness. If there is a heaven, I’m sure he got there on his own, by being the good man he was and staying true to himself.
San Andreas, California
My daughter Michelle was enrolled at the North Carolina School of the Arts, one of the top high-school arts academies in the country. She had high SAT scores and a great academic record, but she didn’t want to go to college. She was adamant. She wanted to dance.
I told her there was no real future in dance, that she should get a degree first. She told me she didn’t care about the money, and if she was ever going to do this, she had to do it now. “Don’t you believe in me?” she asked. “Don’t you believe in art?”
I began to realize that if I didn’t support Michelle’s dream, she was going to chase it without me. That summer, instead of taking her to tour college campuses, I went with her to audition after audition at dance studios around the country. It still didn’t make sense to me: even professional dancers barely get by. But Michelle persisted, and after graduation she got an offer — a small offer, but it was a start. She packed up her belongings and traveled to Orlando, Florida, to become a ballet dancer. She was not a lead or soloist (they, at least, make a living) but one of the secondary members of the company, who worked sixty hours a week and earned well below minimum wage.
At the company’s fall opening, I watched my daughter dance with joy on her face, and I finally understood that to be an artist requires faith. People who paint in garrets, rehearse in walk-ups, write poetry in parks, and practice en pointe until their toes bleed do it because they believe in art. They believe that their passion for it will sustain them. And somehow it does.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
The first time I saw him, he was helping Robbie Kilgore paint the fence that separated our backyard from the Kilgores’. I froze on my way to the swing set and stared at the stranger’s blue eyes, thin face, and long brown hair. Bare chested and tan, he wore cutoff jeans and had white paint dripping from his hands down to his elbows. I recognized him immediately from the portraits that hung on the walls of my second-grade classroom at Visitation Catholic School: he was Jesus.
I was surprised by his humble posture. Wasn’t he supposed to be lifting his hands to the sky or standing on top of a mountain, preaching to his followers? Despite this, I felt sure of his identity and proceeded to do what any Catholic girl of seven would: develop a crush on the Son of God.
I mean, how could you not fall in love with Jesus: all that wisdom and suffering in his eyes? He was quiet, shy, and — appropriately for a teenage messiah — a bit awkward. And, true to his reputation, he was perfect and kind, always finding time to give a piggyback ride to one of the thirty-plus kids who roamed our block.
It took me a few weeks to accept that the object of my crush was not Christ but a recent high-school graduate whose fights with his parents had led him to live with the Kilgores that summer. My crush, however, persisted. I took rides with him in his blue Volkswagen Bug and accepted invitations to listen to his Cat Stevens albums. What stays with me about that experience, however, is not the sweetness of the crush but the awareness that I once lived with such faith as to expect miracles in my daily life.
Long Beach, California
My sister is convinced that God speaks to her. She is not mentally ill or even especially irrational. She has a master’s degree and a steady job as an elementary-school teacher. But after my sister became engaged to her husband, she sent out an e-mail to all her friends and family, telling the following story: She’d known that her boyfriend was going to propose while they were studying in Spain for the summer. Wanting to be sure that he was the one, she’d prayed to God for some sign that she should marry this man. When she opened her eyes, sunlight was shining through the blinds onto the wall in front of her. Somehow the fragmented light spelled out the word yes.
When I read her e-mail, I laughed out loud. Then I felt embarrassed for her. I imagined her friends forwarding it to their co-workers for a good chuckle. Even my religious parents acknowledged that it was strange. My other sibling and I still talk about her story with puzzlement and disapproval.
But part of me is jealous that my sister believes in something so firmly that she doesn’t care if others laugh at her or not. Part of me envies the comfort she finds in God and religion. Part of me wants badly to have her faith.
It wasn’t that I disliked my job on the twenty-fifth floor. It was challenging and exciting. I valued the friendships I’d made there over ten years. I certainly didn’t dislike the two lattes I drank a day, nor the ten-dollar salads at lunchtime. What I disliked was the distance it put between my children and me. Most mornings I was dressed and gone before they were even awake. My husband picked them up at the Montessori preschool and fed them dinner in the evenings. Sometimes I didn’t get a chance to say hello until it was bath time.
One day, while walking downtown and sipping my second latte, I heard a voice.
Give up the glamour, it said.
I turned around to find the person who’d whispered at my shoulder, but all the other pedestrians were hurrying past me. I tried to shake it off, but this message from nowhere nagged me. Had I sacrificed my relationships with my children for my career and the downtown scene?
My husband and I ran the numbers: my monthly parking fee, my latte-and-salad habit, the pricey business wardrobe, and the kids’ expensive day care. It turned out the time I spent away from my children netted us only five hundred dollars a month. Was that extra money worth my absence from their lives?
I took a leap of faith, quit that job, and put my daughter in a half-day kindergarten program at my parish’s elementary school.
By the time my son entered kindergarten, a part-time Web-master position at the parish had opened up, and I got the job. Writing code is both challenging and exciting, and I’ve made new friends at work, but my favorite time of day is when the school bell rings, and my children come dashing down to my office.
Mom died one year after our parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, leaving behind Dad, a stern authoritarian who’d dominated our household since our early childhood. As girls, my sisters and I had dreaded his wrath and his flustered baritone voice: “Carmen! Concha! Lupe! Lucy! Marie! Quiet down!” All five of us have married last names now, but we still think of ourselves as “the Delgado sisters.”
The day after Mom’s funeral, I drove alone to Dad’s house to check on him. He had just returned from the cemetery and was upset. Evidently someone had cleared all of the flowers from Mom’s grave. He said, “All I found is this ribbon lying there.” He unrolled it and handed it to me. The ribbon read, TO MY BELOVED WIFE. Dad lowered his head and cried. I hugged him and told him I was sorry. “I thought of going to complain,” he said, “but I didn’t have the energy. I can’t do it anymore. I’m tired. I’ve spent all my life trying to protect your mom and you girls.”
All those years I’d thought our tough, stern father didn’t like us. Now I saw he’d done the best he could while pushed to the limits by discrimination, poverty, and hard work.
My sisters and I all commented to each other on how different Dad seemed after Mom’s death. He sent us cards stuffed with money on our birthdays and Christmas and called each of us often, forging loving relationships with all of us. I frequently flew down to Los Angeles to visit with him and listen to his stories of growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Five years later Dad had a heart attack and ended up in the ICU. The doctor said he’d suffered complete circulatory-system failure, and there would be no recovering from it. All that was left was for us to decide when to remove the life support.
That night I woke after just a few hours’ sleep and prayed to Dad’s patron saint, the Virgen de Guadalupe: “You haven’t heard from me before,” I began, “but my father has always believed in you.” I asked her to guide us in the decision we faced and not to let Dad suffer.
After five days the doctor advised us that it was time to let Dad pass on. My sisters and I gathered around his bed, and the doctor removed the many tubes and cords. We were shocked when Dad opened his eyes wide and asked in a scratchy voice, “What happened?”
For a moment I thought we might need to resuscitate the doctor. “This is nothing short of a miracle,” he said. Not knowing what would happen next, we held Dad’s hands, stroked his hair, and told him to rest.
Early the next morning, when my sisters and I arrived at the hospital, Dad was not in his room. The attending nurse said he’d been moved to the cardiac unit on the second floor. We found Dad sitting up in bed, laughing at a rerun of I Love Lucy, and sipping a thick liquid through a straw. His eyes lit up when he saw us. In a voice still raw from the tube he’d had down his throat, he struggled to tell us all that he could recall.
“The last thing I remember,” he said, “I was with your mom, driving to Las Vegas. She really wanted to go. When we got there, we went into a big casino. The lights were very bright — so bright they almost blinded me. And your mom said she had to go to another part of the building and that I should wait for her. She promised to return for me. I waited and waited, but she didn’t come back.” Dad began to choke up. “So I had to come home by myself. That’s all.”
Generally, when people have a near-death experience, they describe going through a dark tunnel toward a bright light. But Dad went to Las Vegas.
Concha Delgado Gaitan
El Paso, Texas