On the screened-in porch of my in-laws’ house in central Massachusetts, I am reading a book. Sipping from the tumbler in my hand helps fight the unseasonable chill in the June air. The ice cubes are shrinking, diluting the alcohol, and clinking every time I raise the glass to my lips. The rain is whispering some message I can’t quite decipher, but I like the sound of the drops hitting every leaf of the woods bordering the backyard. Sometimes I want to walk out into those trees and be completely engulfed — to disappear.
The sound of my mother’s ring tone makes me pause. I drink, listen to the rain, and feel the pull of the trees. Then I push the green button on my cellphone and say, “Hello.”
“I had to call you,” says my mother in New Jersey.
I swallow another mouthful of whiskey. The burn is reassuring, like the feeling of warm sun on my bare back.
“Today I closed my eyes,” she continues, “and imagined I was touching the robe of Christ. And suddenly I felt better.”
Mom wants to share her joy with me, and I am happy to listen. I want my mother to feel joy, which has been fleeting for her of late. When she catches some — knowing that it may stay for only a few moments — she is eager to share it with the people she loves.
My mother tells me an aunt I haven’t spoken with in years will be undergoing surgery in the morning. Mom talked to her on the phone earlier, and my aunt said she’d heard that imagining touching the robe of Christ can make one feel better. There is a Scripture that goes along with the story, and my mother recites it for me, giving the chapter and verse. She says, “Your aunt is strong, but it helps to have faith in times like this. God has a plan, and it helps to let go — to trust in him.”
I wonder what she might mean by “times like this.” Times when one is facing a health crisis? Times of spiritual doubt? Anytime one feels helpless? Though my mother is always glad to talk about her religious beliefs, I do not pose these questions; nor do I ask whether the uglier facts of this world are also part of God’s plan. My mother is clearly exalted tonight, and I do not want to bring her down. I want her to be able to get up off the couch she has been lying on for months, debilitated by depression. She needs to feel that I support this religious joy, that I believe what she believes. So I say nothing.
There have been too many “times like this” in my own life for me openly to call myself a Christian anymore. And yet I am my mother’s son. I can still burn with the love of Jesus Christ. She has passed on to me her proclivity for divine communication, having told me since I was small that God will use me for some great purpose. She kept saying this even after I stopped going to church and began writing essays and stories that questioned everything she believes.
But the faith my mother tried to instill in me is strong, and when I fall into my own depressions, I still do occasionally pray. I even imagine Jesus in the form of a man, with sandals and a beard and a comforting voice and a robe that one might reach out and touch in times of need. I must admit, this can help; it has helped.
I take another sip of whiskey and swish it through my teeth, numbing my gums. When I swallow, the burn climbs my throat, and I try to imagine this burning sensation all over my body. Maybe this is what it feels like to touch the robe of Christ. Wasn’t it wine that Christ transformed into his blood? Shouldn’t that blood have the ability to intoxicate us? Maybe Christ’s burn betters the lives of those who receive it; maybe it helps them forget their troubles, to stay in the warm glow of the now with no regard for what they will face when the burning subsides.
Mom and I talk about my sister, who has recently graduated with a master’s degree in public health and is constantly traveling around the world to nurse incredibly poor children. My sister needs to have this volunteer work ahead of her always; it is not enough to be working full time as a nurse in Baltimore. My mother compares these trips to climbing a mountain and says what my sister experiences after she returns is like coming down from the mountaintop. I remember my youth pastor using this same analogy when we would come home from the retreats I attended twice a year all throughout high school. We would play sports all day and worship God at night, singing along to songs strummed on acoustic guitars by college students and hip young pastors.
There was a ritual we performed on the last night of these retreats: At midnight the leaders passed out candles until every kid had one. Then we’d all sing a song about Jesus being the light of our life, and as we sang, we’d light our candles in the campfire one by one and go off into the woods to find our own private space and be alone with God. Walking away from the fire, I’d hear the other teenagers’ singing voices fade like the bells of sheep grazing in distant fields. Then I’d realize that only my own voice remained, and I’d stop singing. The candle often went out, and I remember the full moon bathing me with light as I walked into the forest. A few kids would always meet at a predetermined place to smoke cigarettes, betraying the counselors’ trust for the sake of a nicotine rush, but I never joined them, and they were only a small minority.
I always went to the same place. I had discovered it the first time I’d been to the camp, as if drawn there: heading straight into the woods, keeping my eye on the flame, I walked until I was on top of a tree-covered hill capped by a large rock. I stood on this rock, looked up at the sky, and prayed — not for money or fame or a muscle car or girls or a starting position on the varsity team or anything that would have made sense for a teenager. Instead I prayed that God would use me, as my mother had said he would. I prayed that my life would mean something. Soon my cheeks would be streaked with tears, and my body would be shuddering, and I’d confess that I was not worthy and apologize for not being a better person. After a few minutes of crying and praying, I would begin to get lightheaded, and this was when I’d feel as if Christ had come to me, as if I could have reached out and touched his robe and been made whole. On that small hill in the forest, standing on a rock, I fell in love with the idea of Jesus, and I believed he would always be with me, whatever happened.
When the bell rang in the mountain church’s small steeple, we’d return to our cabin bunks, where our youth-group leader would talk to us about what we had experienced. We were a few dozen boys in bunk beds, some of whom had allegedly had sex with girls; some of whom I’d seen beat up other teens in the park across from the high school; some of whom wore the T-shirts of heavy-metal bands and drank on the weekends and experimented with drugs. But as our youth pastor spoke, all of us lay zippered in sleeping bags and listened, as quiet as small children taking in a bedtime story. He would tell us that what we’d felt in the woods was real, because God was real, and that sometimes God revealed himself to us on the mountaintop so that we could get through the tough times after we came down from the mountain. Although none of us ever spoke about what we had experienced alone in the woods, our collective silence seemed to confirm our belief that God had come to us. And believing helped.
“Your sister needs a mountain to climb in her life,” my mother says to me, “and so do you. You would have been a great preacher. You still could be.”
My grandparents thought I was going to be a preacher, and I did too once. Even now I sometimes feel guilty because I didn’t become a preacher — only an English teacher and then a writer.
I drink the remainder of my whiskey, swish it through my teeth, and savor the burn.
“I also told your aunt what you said about being wise,” my mother says. “How wisdom comes from suffering, and that’s why we have to suffer. Your aunt liked that very much.”
“I’m glad,” I say.
“When did my children get to be wiser than me?”
I tell her I’m not wise, as I walk inside to the liquor cabinet and pour myself another inch of gold.
“I love you,” my mother says.
“I love you too.”
“Can I call you tomorrow? Sometimes it helps just to hear your voice.”
“Of course, Mom.”
And we say goodbye.
Sitting alone on the porch, I think about calling my sister; we have been keeping each other informed of what our mother says to us in her times of need. We compare notes and make sure we are supporting Mom properly, and supporting each other too. But I do not call my sister. I think about going back to my book, getting lost in literature, but I don’t do that either. Instead I open the porch door, walk down to the grass, and feel the light rain on my face.
I know that I can walk into these trees the way I did on those youth-group retreats; I know that if I pray long enough — letting out all the fear and frustration and sadness — I will cry and shake and burn and feel unworthy and then exalted as Jesus Christ visits me for a brief moment.
I listen to the rain hitting thousands, maybe millions, of leaves, and recognize this to be the voice of God. But what does it say?
I think about how Christ turned water into wine when he was here on earth, and how my more lamentable Sunday-school teachers used to say that it was only grape juice. I think about how Christ knew we hungered for something more mind-altering. I think about how he ate and drank in this world, and how the world called him a “glutton” and a “drunkard” (Matthew 11:19). I think if he were here right now, I would drink his wine until I could no longer stand. I would take him to my mother, so that he could lift her depression for good. I would sell everything I own and walk the earth preaching and eating and drinking with those who know how important a drink can be.
But the truth is that though I can walk into those trees and find Christ, I cannot bring Jesus back out of the forest. I cannot take him to my mother so that he can lay his hands on her. I cannot make Jesus Christ appear every time life has me feeling so dreadfully sober.
And so I do not walk into those trees. Instead I take another sip of whiskey and enjoy the sound of the rain hitting the leaves. I spread my arms wide and offer my face up to the sky. I’m waiting for the whiskey to kick in, waiting for the thinking to stop, wanting to believe again, but also allowing myself to hear the sound of God’s voice without trying to figure out what it might be telling me.