By Brooke Champagne
Featured Image: The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1843; Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sac-
ramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but
a powerful medicine and nourishment for the
weak . . . Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace
rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not
a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where
there is a place for everyone, with all their prob-
—Pope Francis, “The Joy of the Gospel”
The true vision and knowledge of what we seek
consists precisely in not seeing, in an awareness
that our goal transcends all knowledge and is
everywhere cut from us by the darkness of in-
—Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses
I’m nine years old the day my mother dies and comes back to life and, if I ever believed at all, it’s the day I give up on Christ.
The reverse might be expected—miracles, the power of prayer—but when I make my final judgment, I don’t know yet, won’t know for a long time that she has died and returned. At that point, I’m only told she is pregnant and there are complications. The baby, my would-be half-sister, is gestating at twenty-three weeks and because my mother is sick, must be delivered. Everyone waits and prays. Doctors work and pray. At school, my teacher’s hand on my shoulder a few seconds too long in that comforting way, her eyes say: I’ll pray for you. Before bed I press my hands into a teepee and try earnestly at first, then only pretend to pray.
My mother’s singular death-day memory, she recalls later, is the moment when according to Scripture, she might have seen the light, though here the primary sense was smell: a priest with severe halitosis read her the last rites. As he anointed her forehead, slanting into his Latin, she thought just before the line went flat: to hell with this, I’ve got to live, I can’t die breathing this stench. Years after these ninety seconds during which she no longer technically exists, when there is space for our collective levity, we call this sentiment grace.
Because Mom is in the hospital, my Confirmation must be postponed. My parents divorced soon after I was baptized, one sacrament built upon the dissolution of the matrimonial other. It’s a cursory, Mardi-Gras type of Catholicism practiced in my family and most families I know: everyone says they believe and sometimes attend Mass, but mostly they drink to all that. My father, a nonbeliever altogether, spurns Bible for Bellow, chalice for tumbler.
I suspect my stay with him during my mother’s illness might be penance for a past I haven’t fully pieced together. I know he scared me once when, tumbler sloshing in one hand and mouse in another, he swung the rodent by its toothpick tail, insisted what was dead couldn’t hurt me. And I’ve heard the story from before I had a memory, the one about my parents’ marriage being over: during a fight, he said fuck the baby, and the baby was me. But there is so much I can’t fathom, and I don’t expect God or my father to reveal any of it. I’ve teepee’d. I’ve tried.
These nights, motherless at my father’s, I listen for skittering mice, wishing them dead. My books aren’t here, just my grandmother’s dusty red Bible on the nightstand (as a rule, untouched by my father), lying there not as reading material but as proof of itself. The main character, Jesus, was a child once too, according to Luke, who ran away from his parents to preach in the Temple. That’s the difference between me and Jesus: he gets annoyed because he understands what no one else can, while I wallow in my understanding of nothing. It’s why I can’t get into the Bible, or Jesus as a character. He knows too much, and knows he knows. I fall asleep with my hands in their skyward position, all I can offer.
Later that night, the ringing phone wakes me. The slam of the receiver. My father’s cry from the next room.
In this Gentilly Woods home (which, decades later, will be gutted by the hurricane some 700 Club holies said God had decreed for our city’s many sins), in the moment I don’t yet know my mother is dying across the river at St. Luke’s, while my father’s words float through the slatted panel doors separating our rooms that too closely resemble the screen of a confessional, I silently watch him.
His skin smell is everywhere, bourbon and oil. He tears his hair. The tumbler clinks hard against his teeth, but he doesn’t notice. He spills. My hands are at the slats. He weeps as if atop the Mount of Olives a different sort of sermon: God has fucked him over, God sucks, God doesn’t really exist but just in case, He better bring her back. Through the slats I see his form cut horizontally in half, and watching him cry, I can’t know what I don’t know. That a tragedy has occurred, that it will be sublimated by a miracle. I can’t remember if another call soon followed, if his cry became joyous. I know only what I see, both then and now, in that second of my memory: my father praying, my father desperate, breathless in love.
Within the confines of the Catholic Church, I’m never confirmed. When the time comes I’ll skip the classes, lean into the side of the old stone church with a boy, allow both sides of my favorite Sunday school verb: to receive and to be received. Only now, long after my mother’s resurrection, and after our city’s flood, do I pinpoint my moment of confirmation: my father crying over my mother, his sacrilegious prayer so far beyond all my teepees, his worship for her exceeding anything he’d feel for literature or other lovers or even me. For her, I saw, he would kneel and beg and believe. In fear of what I don’t know and what I do, I’d like to touch his cheek, pray together so piously it might spring some faith, offer ablutions with our tears. Yet I don’t open the door. Instead I ache remotely, like him, to someday find and create my own miracle of a love that never dies. In that way I’ve remained confirmed.
Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded The Normal School’s inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay, and was a finalist for Chattahoochee Review’s 2019 Lamar York Prize in Nonfiction. Her writing appears most recently in The Florida Review and Waxwing, and is forthcoming in Barrelhouse. She is working on a collection of personal essays entitled Nola Face.
Originally appeared in NOR 17