When I was seven, I was taught to pray to the God I learned about in catechism class: our omnipotent savior in a skimpy loin cloth, his outstretched palms and bare feet trickling blood where long nails held him to the crucifix. The nuns and priests of my childhood were formidable, never to be challenged or questioned, so it wasn’t until my late teens, with my first communion, confirmation, and Sunday service far behind me, that I began to move away from the Catholic Church. I stopped reciting the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and the confessional Act of Contrition, the prayers I had repeated in what I saw as a guilt- and fear-based religion threatening eternal hell for serious transgressions. Over time I moved my beliefs to a more universal spirituality that felt less rule-bound, and more open to personal interpretation. This is all putting aside the scientific questions evoked by Adam and Eve, apples, and snakes.
So, walking toward MIT’s medical department with my dog, Roxy, to refill my blood pressure meds a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find myself reciting (internally, of course) the Hail Mary. This is something I do once in a blue moon, when I’m afraid and want to call in the big guns of my childhood. I was thinking about my pending trip to Rome with Laura and Noam, and the possibility that we would meet the seemingly more contemporary and forward-looking Pope, Francis.
But meeting the Pope wasn’t the thing that was moving me to pray.
In late November just two months before, flying home after a visit with Laura’s father, and her sister, Linnea, in Kauai, I had a medical issue on the plane. A half hour into the flight I felt discomfort building in my chest, and within fifteen minutes it intensified, spreading to my shoulders, neck, and back. I kept calm with some deep yogic breathing, pressing my fingers to my heart area every few minutes to convince myself I was not having a heart attack as long as I felt no specific pain there. When the pain continued to increase, I complained to Laura. She made some sympathetic murmurs from beneath her headphones, remaining focused on her Italian lesson. I finally put on a bit of a Woody Allen routine, using my arms and hands and intense facial expressions to portray to her just how I felt, until she gave me some tums for my pain and half an Ativan for my mind. She even took a minute from her lesson to suggest that I might have gas pains from hurrying back after a rich meal to the tiny (and foodless and boring, aside from the pervasive, hypnotic smell of plumeria) Lihue airport four hours earlier, for this first leg of our flight home. I paced, I changed positions, I leaned forward, backwards, sideways, stood and stretched, but two hours into the flight my pain was a solid “8”. A Woody Allen “13.” I was officially scared.
“Laura, I need help,” I said, pulling the left side of her headphones from her ear. “I think we ought to tell the flight attendant.” Laura, a nurse, clicks into gear during a real crisis, and I watched her ‘get’ that this was a serious situation, and not just me needing to burp.
She moved quickly, and in seconds a flight attendant was crouching next to my seat. The first thing she asked me was whether I felt the pain before I entered the plane. She was probably trained to avoid a lawsuit first, and tend to a sick passenger second. Satisfied I was at potential risk, she called through the speaker, “Is there a doctor on the plane? One of our passengers needs medical help.”
The experience felt suddenly surreal. These things happen to other people. There was a buzz of conversation as the passengers looked around to try to figure out who the sick person was. I looked around the plane as well, maybe out of denial but mostly out of self-conscious angst. But a female doctor blew my cover by rushing to my side, taking the place of the attendant. She questioned me calmly and quickly. “Are you on any medications?” I told her yes, for blood pressure. “Did you take all of your meds?” It dawned on me then that I had been skimping on my meds the last two days, as I hadn’t brought enough along, and I told her so. She didn’t seem too concerned. “Do you feel nauseous? Does your head hurt? Can you describe the pain, and tell me exactly where it’s located?”
“It started in my chest, and spread to my lungs, then my back and shoulders,” I said. “I feel like my ribs are going to explode.” The passengers had fallen silent. I was dressed for comfort, not for attention, and I self-consciously pulled my Google t-shirt down over the waist line of my black leggings to try and gain some normalcy and order. Laura observed with the face of calm concern. Standing close by, the flight attendant suggested that I might be having an anxiety attack, and I felt insulted. The doctor, who turned out to be a pediatric surgeon, listened to my heart with a (I am tempted to say tiny) stethoscope she pulled from her own bag. My heart rate was slightly elevated, but sounded normal, she told me. She took my pulse and blood pressure, which was just outside my normal range, at 145 over 84. She eventually gave me two Mylanta tablets and told me she would check on me again.
I watched the flight attendant pull down a heavy, gray oxygen tank from an overhead compartment, offering it to me with simple instructions: “Put this over your mouth, and breathe. It might help.” The sight and fact of the tank elevated my nervousness to a nine, although the oxygen did seem to help calm me down. Concurrently, my pain had downgraded to a six, and eventually, with a half dozen antacids and the oxygen tank on board, to a one.
In the end, they wouldn’t clear me for the connecting flight until I took a loudly-announced solo walk out of the plane, with all heads turned toward me in silence and pity. I endured a brief exam by three young medics who had been called in to treat me. By then my blood pressure was 190 over 95, and I signed a waiver because I refused to go by ambulance to a hospital. I was sure that dragging out this experience would cause me to stroke out. Strokes run in my family.
A few days later, I had an EKG and an upper GI series, and learned that I had a “sliding hiatus hernia”. How lovely. The docs who tested me had no idea whether this hernia was the cause of my flight episode, and the unknowing left me uneasy.
So here I was on my way to the pharmacy, as the days to my next lengthy flight approached, reciting my childhood prayer toward the sky:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
(I dutifully and habitually bobbed my head at the word “Jesus”)
“I’ll tell you what,” I said, still using my 'inside voice', and glancing up surreptitiously, “Show me something that might bring me back toward the Catholic Church, at least in spirit.” After all, there was a chance I would meet the Pope in Rome, and this was a good time to remember my religious roots.
I had, as usual, been contemplating during the ten months since my mother’s death whether the people we love are really gone when they die – “lights out” as my friend Gene likes to say, a sentiment echoed by my son Jay, who attended Catholic school until college, and my brother Paul, a physicist who requires scientific proof, and others - or do they remain around us in a different way?
My mother was my biggest cheerleader; she enjoyed and applauded my writing, and at least every few months she asked me in her inimitable Waltham accent, “When are you gonna finish your book about working with Noam?”
I don’t know whether my blog pieces will become a book. I write because I’m driven to, and many stories, like the people who visit our office, stay with me - and sometimes haunt me. But something has kept me from writing the things queued up in my head since my mother died last March. There are lots of excuses. With the selling of the summer cottage Laura and I shared in Maine and the concurrent renovation of our downstairs apartment, I felt I had no time to write, but the basic truth is, I wasn’t putting aside the time. I feared the writing I'd held so close for eighteen months would crash and burn like my childhood beliefs. When my mother died, she expected I would be writing a book. I didn’t want to let myself down, but mostly I didn’t want to let her down, especially in death.
Once I reached the MIT medical department, the pharmacist told me my prescriptions would be ready in another five minutes, so Roxy and I ambled over to the nearby waiting area and I took a seat on one of the long, padded benches next to an older woman. I was drawn to the vibrant yellows and brilliant blues of her jacket and hat - not the usual MIT attire - against her dark skin. She caught my eye as I sat, and reached out and took my hand, holding it firmly. I felt strangely at ease in this very odd circumstance. Looking at Roxy, she said, “The spirit world knew you wouldn’t let them comfort you in life, so they sent you this dog.” She looked like a reasonable, normal person, emanating a sense of calm and straight-forward confidence, and I found myself leaning toward the experience. I was touched, because despite my many friends, she was right, my dog is my best friend. I thanked her, and she went on to talk with a middle-aged woman across from me about her life’s purpose as an artist. She was still holding my hand, to keep me in the conversation, as if she wasn’t finished with me.
“Get yourself some paint brushes, a pad of drawing paper, and some water colors, and start painting,” she said to the woman, who was wiping tears from her cheeks.
The woman said to her, “I bought a package of drawing paper and some colored pencils over a year ago, but I haven’t opened them because I’m afraid I’ll fail as an artist.”
“You already are an artist,” she said.
The pharmacist called my name, and I pulled myself away, as the stunned woman asked in a small voice, “Is it ok if I use colored pencils?”
I collected my meds and looked back to see the two women hugging in the waiting area. The artist stood up and wordlessly squeezed my arm before leaving, and I looked over to say a reluctant good-bye to this lovely, dropped-from-the-sky stranger, and saw that she was walking toward me. Then she pulled me aside, to a spot where we stood alone.
“I tell my children,” she said, standing inches from me, her face in mine, “that I won’t always be this woman of full flesh and body, but when I’m gone, I tell them, I am going to come to you as a stranger and put my eyes up to yours and tell you just what you need to hear.” Then she put her arms around me and whispered loudly into my ear, “You are worthy of this. Now get back to your writing, and don’t be lazy.”
I was dazed with disbelief, and crying. What had just happened? I could feel my mother in those words – in the phrasing of it, and in the little jab about not being lazy. That was her sense of humor. After all of my questioning about whether the spirits of those we love can reach us after dying out of this world, I was sure, in that moment, that if not specifically the spirit of my mother, something in the universe was sending me a message I needed to hear.
But being me, I needed more. I asked this woman, a complete stranger just fifteen minutes earlier, “Where does this come from, for you? Is it intuition? How do you know this? How do you do this?”
She formed an angle with her left hand, pointing and tapping all of her fingers on her chest, and said, “God. It’s God.”
I thanked her, mumbling something incoherent even to myself. Then I tucked my meds into my deep coat pocket, pulled gently on Roxy’s leash, and walked back to my office.
I doubted I could ever explain this to Noam, but I was ready for the Vatican.