“She talks to me,” Cathy told me three months after Mom died. “I’ll be in the mall, and she’ll tell me to buy something. Tell me I need new underwear.”
It was Thanksgiving. We were celebrating the holiday at my uncle Pete’s apartment in Madison. He lit taper candles in the dining room while his girlfriend carved a turkey in the kitchen. There were four of us. Cathy set down five plates.
“Lots of cultures do something like this to honor those who’ve passed on,” Cathy said over the electric carving knife’s buzzing. She had just started college and spoke with the enthusiasm of someone who was enjoying her Ritual and Religion class a little too much. She set Mom’s jade-colored urn on one of Pete’s chairs. I raised an eyebrow at Pete, but he shook his head.
I half-expected Cathy to pour Mom a glass of wine and cut her a piece of turkey, but it was just the plate and silverware gleaming in the candlelight.
“Did Mom ask you to set her a place?” I asked later that night.
“No,” Cathy said. “I just thought it was a nice idea.”
“So what does she say to you?” We were lying next to each other in Pete’s guest room.
“Just little things. Like some nights, if I can’t sleep, I’ll hear her singing that song she used to sing us.”
I stared at the water-stained ceiling, trying to remember the words to the song. I remembered most things—Mom’s baby oil and herbal soap smell, the tiny gap between her front teeth. But each thing I was starting to forget—the lullaby’s tune, the exact sound of her voice—was a loss.
I missed the sound of her voice the most. It was loud and musical, but the exact tone and pitch had left me. Cathy told me she hadn’t forgotten it because she still heard it each day.
“That’s your mind,” I told her. “That’s your mind creating an illusion of what you want to hear.”
“Whatever you want to call it, I hear her like she’s in the room with me,” she said.
“Mom didn’t believe in that type of stuff, Cathy,” I said.
“Well, I’ve never heard her,” I said a moment later.
When Cathy responded, her voice was smug in the darkness.
“Maybe you’re not listening.”
The following October, over a year since Mom had been gone, I went to visit Cathy at her college. Cathy was a sophomore at Bradley; I was a senior at the University of Illinois. I expected I’d do the normal things a visiting older sister would do—namely, buying alcohol for Cathy and her friends and watching chaos ensue.
Cathy had other plans. An hour after I arrived, she ushered me into Parkview Evangelical Church.
“It’s helped me so much,” she said in the car. “I know you don’t like this kind of thing, but please, just come with me.”
The church’s hallway was lined with pictures children had scribbled. Various Bible scenes—Noah and the Ark, Adam and Eve, Joseph’s multi-colored coat. All a blur of Crayola.
Cathy led me to a room that smelled of stale coffee. People were sitting in a semi-circle in metal folding chairs. Everyone greeted Cathy, and she introduced me.
“This is my sister, Corrie,” she said. “She’s visiting me, and she wanted to come to youth group, too.”
While this wasn’t an accurate description, Cathy had such pride in her voice that I couldn’t contradict her.
A man in his late twenties stood at the front of the room. He had large teeth and even larger ears. He introduced himself as Andy.
“I’m glad you could come,” he said. “We’ve heard so much about you.”
We shook hands, and his eyes crinkled in a smile. Cathy introduced everyone. People smiled and repeated my name to help them remember it. A guy close to my age with a thin, aquiline nose said, “Corrie. Pleased to meet you, Corrie.” His eyes never left my breasts. No one else seemed to notice.
I was reminded of what my mother always told Cathy before she left for church in high school. “It’s the church kids you have to watch out for. I’m serious. They’re the ones with the real repressed desires.”
Andy clapped his hands to announce that it was time to begin. He reviewed what the group covered last week—the qualities of a good, Christian man.
“This week, we’ll talk about the qualities of a good, Christian woman,” Andy said, winking at me. “Corrie, you picked a great week to drop by.”
Cathy was always more of a believer than my mother and me. When I was nine, I got kicked out of Sunday school. I had upset the teacher by asking, “Since Jesus said to love our enemies, should we love Satan?”
On the way home, my mother told us we’d never have to go back to church. I leaned back in my seat and smiled, watching the tendrils of smoke from my mom’s cigarette weave around her head. In the side mirror, I saw Cathy. Her was face red and scrunched up, and she kicked my seat.
“I want to go back,” she said. Eventually, my mother distracted her by blowing perfect smoke rings toward the back seat. Cathy tried to stick her finger in the middle of the hazy donuts, but before she could, they were gone.
When Cathy was ten, and I was fourteen, she began attending church with a friend from her class. She would come home talking about sin and Jesus dying for us. She fixated on odd details like the size of the nails used in the crucifixion. My mom and I would listen like we did when Uncle Pete waxed on about a new woman he was seeing. We kept our mouths shut and our heads bobbing in noncommittal interest.
While Cathy went to church on Sundays and youth group on Thursday nights, I systematically read all the religion books in St. Charles’ public library. I absorbed those religions like a serial dater—initially becoming infatuated, then disappointed, and finally unable to commit.
At the end of junior high, Cathy wore a white dress to her confirmation ceremony. She promised to renounce the devil and always have faith in God. My mother bit her bottom lip as she watched the ceremony from the third row.
Andy picked up an acoustic guitar that was leaning against the wall. The tune was vaguely familiar. It was probably something I had heard on the radio before realizing it was a Christian rock song and changing the station. The enthusiasm of the people in the circle embarrassed me. One girl raised her arms like she was doing the ‘Y’ part of the YMCA, except she stared at the ceiling. On my left, Cathy swayed her right arm back and forth like a giant windshield wiper. Her chin was angled up to the roof, her eyes closed. Her soprano voice was clear and strong.
I sat rigid, unable to feel the beat in the music.
After my Sunday School incident, my mother never went back to church, and she never prayed before meals. She didn’t even pray in the hospital at the end of her life. Most of what she had to say about organized religion was against it.
Once, near the end of her life, she sent away through the mail to become an ordained minister just to prove anyone could do it. Cathy wasn’t amused.
“There,” Mom said, presenting the certificate when I returned home from college one weekend. “Now I can baptize you myself if you want.”
Mom only brought up religion when Pete visited. While we sat around the battered kitchen table, Mom would urge Pete to tell us “the church story.” The story was set back in Pete’s twenties, when he lived in an old farmhouse in Riverdale, Illinois. Pete always called it “the farm,” but Cathy and I privately referred to it as “the commune.” He lived there with ten other people, including a girl who, after taking mushrooms, climbed on the roof and crowed like a rooster as dawn lurched over the horizon. A few hours later, she came down sunburnt and disoriented.
That girl was my mother.
One afternoon, Pete was dealing with a rough breakup. He told us he walked about a mile down the road before he passed the local Baptist church. Church hadn’t let out yet, and he could hear the pastor’s voice from the road.
“I won’t ever know what came over me,” he told us, although Cathy and I believed it was acid. “I pulled open the double doors and walked down the aisle of the church.”
Then he dropped to his knees.
“Help me,” Pete told them. “I’m lost. I don’t know what to do in this world.”
Two male members of the congregation led him out of the building and locked the door behind him. To retaliate, he stole a small plastic display board—the type that read, “The key to heaven was hung on a nail” or “Smoking or nonsmoking? Make your reservations for eternity now”—off the church’s lawn.
He carried the thing back to the commune. It stayed there for years, its black, plastic letters still spelling the last message the church employees had put up that Sunday, “Want salvation? Apply within.”
After my uncle told the story, we’d all offer our own commentary.
“Maybe they were scared of him,” Cathy said once.
“Yes, but what would Jesus have done in that situation?” my mom asked.
“You don’t believe in Jesus.” Cathy furrowed her brow.
My mother sighed. “I believe in helping people who need comfort.”
* * *
Andy’s sermon had all the subtlety of a caveman swinging a club.
He paced back and forth. Bullets of sweat collected at his brow. A mist of spit sprayed from his mouth, as he emphasized certain words: “sin,” “respect,” “faithfulness.”
There was bottomlessness in his eyes, and I had to look away as he talked about the importance of modesty and the Christian woman.
“Some women don’t have that modesty,” he said. “Some women dress with such little respect for themselves. They show their cleavage and their stomachs. God cries when he sees what little respect these ladies have for themselves.”
I pursed my lips, wondering what Andy would do if he took a walk through my closet. He would have found a lipstick-red halter top and a black corset-looking thing with intricate laces. In my underwear drawer, he would have found thongs and pairs of panties with “Boy Toy” and “Open for Business” stamped in sparkly acrylic lettering.
“If you got it, flaunt it,” my mother had been fond of saying.
“It’s sick,” Andy continued, “sick what men think when they look at women dressed like that.”
His eyes bulged as he talked, and he made stabbing gestures with his arms. It seemed aggressive and out of step with the portrait of a serene-looking Jesus that hung on the wall behind him. Cathy’s expression was smooth as glass.
“Don’t you wish you could believe?” Cathy asked me almost a year before Mom died. In a few weeks, Mom would find the small, red bump on her forehead. But that day, we knew nothing of adenocarcinoma, of the stink of the hospital, of death.
Cathy, my mother, and I were sitting around the kitchen table. It was Halloween, and one of us had to get up every few minutes to offer candy to trick-or-treaters.
“No,” I said.
We had been talking about ghosts and spirits, which Cathy believed in, and the talk led to a discussion about believing in God.
Cathy shrugged. She left a few minutes later to go to a Halloween party. My mom and I finished up with the trick-or-treaters. My mother was polite to all the children and parents, but she gave extra candy to a teenage girl dressed like a pregnant nun.
“Aren’t you subversive?” she said, handing the girl one of the king-sized bars she usually reserved for the next-door neighbors’ children.
When we sat back down at the table, I was eager to go back to Cathy’s comments. Cathy got the good grades. Cathy had the nice boyfriend. A distrust of religion was one area where I was sure to please my mother.
“I’ll never believe in that stuff,” I said with the air of someone scoring a point.
My mother frowned as she swallowed a bite of her Snicker’s bar.
“You might wish you did someday.”
I snorted and told her I doubted that. She shook her head.
“Trust me. One day something will happen that will bring you to your knees. If you don’t end up believing, you’ll sure as hell wish you did.”
“You’ve never believed in stuff like that,” I said.
My mother tilted her head.
“When your father died,” she said, “I could barely get out of bed. One day, I looked at the clock and it was 4:22 a.m. 422 was your father’s favorite number. For weeks after that, I kept catching the clock when it turned 4:22. I let myself believe that it was your dad’s way of telling me to stay strong.”
She was silent for a few minutes, studying her hands. She rarely talked about my father, and so I was silent too, afraid that anything I said would break the spell and prevent her from telling me more.
“Life is hard,” she said. “I don’t blame anyone who believes things to make it easier for themselves. We all do what we have to in this life.”
Andy pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his face with it.
“Let’s wrap up by sharing our joys and concerns,” he said, gesturing for us to come forward. I watched as everyone rose from their chairs and sat on the floor. They formed a circle. I followed, filling in next to Cathy. Since there were only five of us, the circle’s radius was only four feet. I could feel the heat of the thin-nosed boy on my right. I could see that Cathy’s hands, folded in her lap, were dry. Her cuticles were raw and red. She was wearing the same perfume Mom used to; its scent filled the air.
“Okay,” Andy said, sitting two people to the left of me. “Let’s start with any joys.”
“My grandma got out of the hospital on Tuesday,” a girl to Andy’s right said. “She had bypass surgery two weeks ago, but they think she’s going to be fine.”
“Praise God,” Andy said. “That’s great Ashley. Your grandmother will continue to be in our prayers.”
Everyone nodded, and I watched as the girl on Ashley’s other side squeezed her hand. Ashley smiled.
The thin-nosed boy raised his hand. Andy nodded, “Paul?”
“My dad found a job,” Paul said. The smile on his face made my heart pang. “He’s going to work as a financial representative for Prudential.”
“That’s great,” Andy said. “If we keep our faith, through the Lord anything is possible.”
Paul nodded, his smile still plastered across his face, as he accepted everyone else’s murmurs of congratulations.
“Any other joys?” Andy asked. No one said anything. “Any concerns?”
No one spoke, and I thought we’d be able to move on, but Cathy raised her hand.
“I have kind of a joy and a concern,” she said.
“Sure,” Andy said, nodding.
“My joy is that I’m really glad my sister is here with me tonight.” I watched as people nodded.
Andy said, “We’ve loved having you, Corrie.”
“My concern is that I know my mom dying has been hard on both of us. But I’ve been able to talk with Jesus through all this, and I know Corrie doesn’t have that. I pray that she’ll be able to.”
Andy nodded, staring at Cathy. Then he turned his gaze to me.
“It’s hard to walk alone,” he said. “Let’s all join hands and pray for God to listen to Corrie as she tries to get through this difficult time.”
My face was red, and I could hear my own heart beat. I felt like Cathy had sliced me open. Paul smiled and grabbed my hand. I caught a glimpse of Cathy’s face—apologetic and worried—and felt her hangnails rough against my skin. Then I closed my eyes.
We had been in the hospital the last time Cathy and I held hands. The same hard grasping—warm skin touching warm skin. It was a gesture that was desperate and frantic, and it came toward the end. My mother was worried she was getting too weak to say all the things she wanted to say to us. So before she got worse, my mom spent twenty minutes alone talking with Cathy and then me.
When Cathy emerged, she was crying. Her blue eyes looked even brighter against the red, puffy skin around them. She squeezed my hands, as we passed each other. Cathy told me later that she had told Mom she didn’t know what she would do without her.
Mom had answered, “I’ll always be with you, Cathy.”
I’ll never know if my mom really believed that, or if she just knew Cathy needed to hear it.
After Cathy and I unlinked hands, I went into my mom’s room. It smelled like every hospital room—that mixture of cleaning solution and dread.
I sat next to my mother’s bed. She was pale, and there was a lattice of blue veins under her skin. I held her hand. I tried not to cry. She gave me miscellaneous snippets of advice—the Cliff Notes of Life.
“Watch how a man treats waitresses and secretaries,” she said. “Eventually, that’s how he’ll treat you. Only change your last name when you get married if you really want to. And please don’t waste too much money on make-up and things to change your appearance. You’ll be better off if you just save that money and spend it on a nice trip.”
She sighed. Her eyes began to water and her voice trembled.
“Take care of Cathy. You’re very different people, but she respects you. And find some happiness. Don’t overthink everything.”
Right before they came in with the morphine, she said, “Don’t be too proud to find some comfort after I’m gone.”
Sitting in the circle in Cathy’s youth group, I realized what I was waiting for. I was hoping that my mother would give me a sign, that she would comfort me the way Cathy was comforted.
But all my ears picked up were the sound of Cathy’s breathing and the loose change jangling in someone’s pocket as they shifted positions.
“Well, I hope you had fun this week,” Andy said, after we opened our eyes. “God be with you all.”
Everyone stood. Andy walked toward the back to talk with some of the other members of the group.
“Hey, I’m going to say goodbye to a few people, and then we can head out, okay?” Cathy said, not looking at me and instead picking at her cuticles.
“I’ll wait for you outside.”
“Corrie,” she said, turning back to me, “I’m sorry if what I said bothered you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. Cathy smiled and nodded, turning to walk away. Before she could, I touched her shoulder. “What do you think Mom would think of all this?”
“She’s already told me,” Cathy said, her eyebrows raised, as if daring me to contradict her.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“We all do what we have to in this life.”
I wove through the smiling faces, out the front doors and into the night. It was chilly; as I walked to the parking lot, the leaves crunched under my shoes. The sky was starless, a plain black expanse jutting over the trees, the cars, and the brick buildings. The silence was so complete, I felt like I was drowning in it. I sat on the hood of my car, and I waited.