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True Vine at Five Points Baptist Church
l feel giddy getting dressed, putting on my black tights and cleaning the mud off my winter boots. My friend Julie Reichert, the cancer survivor from my dream, has helped me load Shirley's camera and said I look nice in my church outfit. I have selected the True Vine Baptist Church for my first Sunday. It is the only church I have ever noticed in my neighborhood, perhaps because it's located a half mile from my house at a particularly busy intersection where five South Valley roads cross. There is usually a long line at the traffic light there, which permits me, rare in this western car culture, to take a moment to look around at my own neighborhood. I have periodically seen the True Viners standing together outside the church. Possibly, I have noticed them because most are black in a city where the African American population is only five percent. I have seen pressed white shirts and ties on the men, colorful dresses and even hats on the women, and once, when the door was open in the hot weather, I heard beautiful gospel music coming from inside. So I pick this church.
Honestly, I know nothing about the Baptist church, other than it's Christian, which in my current state of mind is not a point in its favor. I am still furious at Shirley's funeral priest. But I put all that aside, an anthropologist doing field work, and suddenly I remember that more than two decades ago, in college, I took a class in the anthropology of religion. Through all the intervening years, the definition of religion, as supplied to budding anthropologists by Clifford Geertz, emerges in my mind: religion is a system of beliefs that imbues everyday events with mystical overtones and treats this created world as if it is really real. I remember this definition precisely, as if I'd memorized it yesterday. I jot it down on a yellow legal pad, put the pad and Shirley's camera into my bag, and start my car feeling that I am heading into a big adventure, though I am only going four blocks.
It has snowed-rare in Albuquerque-and I drive carefully down Bridge Boulevard toward the Rio Grande, past the True Vine on my right. At the light at Five Points, I take a left and circle around through two parking lots and stop across Bridge, directly facing the church. I arrive at 10:20, and the place is deserted, which suits me fine, because I am self conscious as I climb from the car to take my True Vine photo. I have never had a camera and never take pictures. I am so nervous about having loaded this one incorrectly that I have brought along a throwaway for backup. I position myself on the median between the east and westbound lanes of Bridge Boulevard and take a few shots.
I focus first on a big sign, posted on the side of the building: "Come worship with us-Everyone welcome!" Truthfully, I don't feel welcome in church. Church is for believers, I think, not for people like me who are so consumed with doubt, they don't believe in anything at all. Who are suspicious of faith and who don't trust the Christian right. Who seriously considered, with Shirley's best friend Marcia, a self-proclaimed sinner, whether the roof might blow off the Catholic church when we stepped over the threshold for Shirley's funeral.
I return to the car with cold, wet feet. The day I left Shirley's, the snow was two feet deep and the temperature was below zero. Here, I watch the icicles along the church roof melt. They drip so fast that the whole long row could pass for public art-a fountain designed especially for the True Vine Baptists. I wonder how this modest little church will look inside, what the topic of the sermon will be, if the churchgoers will welcome me, like the sign promises, or glance at me sideways, singling me out as an intruder. At least nobody saw me with the camera on the median strip. I feel safer knowing this.
At quarter to eleven, it's still completely, ridiculously quiet at the True Vine Baptist Church, and suddenly it hits me that maybe, despite the sign, there won't be a Sunday morning worship at eleven. Does this happen? Can it?
I feel sick just thinking of it. This is my first step. This is my first Sunday.
This is my search for the spirit.
If nobody shows up, does that mean the spirit has deserted this place-and me? That I, and all the people who used to gather here, have been flatly rejected-by God, no less? That I picked, of all the churches in Albuquerque, the one that has packed up and gone out of the spiritual business?
I look around the strip mall in whose parking lot I am waiting. Selene's Novedades, the Zapateria Pedrito, and the Imperial Furniture are all closed. Their doors are locked and barred. But that makes sense. It's Sunday. Shops are closed, and churches are open.
I watch two Hispanic kids in T-shirts and sunglasses throw snowballs at each other in their front yard.
Nobody comes to open the doors of the True Vine, and when it's just ten minutes to show time, I hear myself chuckling-a strange combination of amusement and dread, acceptance and resentment. If there is a God, I think, this God must like to sock it to people like me. In all good faith, I have come to church, and, as they say in the North Country where Shirley lived and died, By God, I'm gonna go.
I get out of the car and cross the street.
I know the door will be locked, and it is.
I feel completely lost as I jiggle the doorknob and cup my hands around my eyes to peer through the narrow windows. I see nothing. Then, still hoping, I cross the little church yard to the other building in the compound, and I try that door. It's locked, too.
But standing there, locked out and alone, I happen to notice a brass plaque set into the stucco at the corner of the building, and, with nothing better to do this Sunday morning, I wander over to read it. It says:
Organized August 7, 1987Shirley's married name, her last name, was Carter.
Dr. L. E. Hightower, President
State Conference of New Mexico
Dr. V. L. Bobbs, Pastor
S. Bradford, Deacon
J.C. Carter, Deacon
W. Carter, Deacon
Pat Walts, Secretary/Treasurer
Dorothy Bobbs, Director of Missions
Anna Carter, Mother of Church
Donated by Crestview Funeral Home
Carter, says the sign. Carter, Carter, Carter. Shirley has two sons and a daughter with the first initial J and another son with the initial W. And her middle name was Ann.
Anna Carter, the sign says. Mother of Church.
It's worth a picture to me, and as I slide the protective door back from the camera lens, I suddenly remember an e-mail I received from Shirley's friend Marcia just three days ago:
Peggy (the blonde who sat next to me in church and at Shirley's memorial and still works at the nursing home) just called me to tell me the following: there has been a man at the nursing home for years who has gigantism (-he's well over seven feet tall, probably more, and is a little slow which makes him very open and therefore uncomplicated). He is dying and has had a visit from Shirley! She adored him, and he, her. She took care of him all the years she worked there. He has told people that he has seen Shirley, that he is not afraid, and that he is "ready to go home." He has no agenda to make this up. It is my fervent belief that HE HAS SEEN SHIRLEY and that she will take him home to wherever she is. Sounds like something Shirley would do. She will lead the way for him. What do you think? Do pass this along to her kids if you think that is appropriate.Immediately, I forwarded it to Shirley's kids. Then I called my and Shirley's mother. "Shirley has been spotted!" I said as soon as she picked up the phone.
"By who?" she asked, and when I told her it was Shirley's giant, she said, "Oh, yes!" We have all heard about him from Shirley, who worked as a nurse's aide in a county nursing home for twenty-two years.
I get her camera focused on the plaque as best I can.
Water drips fast from the icicles.
I cry every morning about Shirley, who died on Christmas night, just one month ago.
I look at the plaque, bright gold in the New Mexico sunlight.
Carter, Carter, Carter. Mother of Church.
Shirley Ann Carter, my sister, had a great sense of humor and loved to laugh. Her laughter and her smile were bright beyond belief. They had healing power. Did she send me here, I wonder, to this particular church in which, at least for this week, I won't be finding any spirit? I don't know. But maybe.
I cross the street and get back in my car.
Every morning I wake up around five, when it is dark and quiet. I light a candle. Irrationally, I feel I must do this so Shirley, who has never visited me in New Mexico-or anywhere else, for that matter-can find me. The candle came from the Sanctuario at Chimayo, one of the oldest Catholic churches in the United States. It is a place where, at least in legends, miracles happen. The dirt there is considered holy. In a small room next to the altar, a hole has been cut in the concrete floor and red dirt is visible. Pilgrims from everywhere are allowed to take a little. I have visited the Sanctuario three times since I've lived in New Mexico (I don't know why), and each time I take a handful of this dirt. One of them, I put in a plastic toothbrush box and gave to Shirley. I found that box under her pillow after the undertakers had come to take her body away for the last time, out of the house, the bedroom, the bed that had become her universe.
The rest of the dirt, I leave loose in the cup holder on the dashboard of my 1988 Dodge Colt Vista. My dashboard is currently covered with desert items: petrified wood, old stones, dried sticks. The Chimayo dirt blows around when the windows are open, leaving a film on everything. I don't care. It is holy dirt. All dirt is holy, I think. Besides, I have seen the woman who tends the church bring it in from outside by the bucketful and dump it into the hole in the floor, which takes some of the mystery out of it. It was she who gave my friend Madalyn three candles in red glasses when we visited the chapel on New Year's Day, 2000. Immediately, on the spot, Madalyn gave one to me. I never lit it until I began to light it every day, for Shirley.
I like to reflect on life (and death) as the morning light arrives. I like to think over important events as a way of cementing them in my memory. But this week, I am realizing how much of the past seven months with Shirley-but most particularly, the last two weeks of her life, when she took what I have come to call the Final Dive-is a blur. I want to remember what happened which day, who was there. I have made a calendar and stared at it, filling in the squares with small events, as if by putting pencil marks inside the borders of each day, I can tame the events themselves. I have called one of our sisters and four of Shirley's six children with the same question: Which days were you there? Can you remember, exactly, what Shirley said and did on those days?
I have, in my mind, divided the Final Dive into three stages. One: Shirley is totally bedridden, totally helpless, but mentally alert. Two: Shirley is speaking in English, but often incoherently. Ranting. Three: Shirley as we knew her is gone but her body is alive. The technical term for this, we learn from Hospice, is non-responsive. The coma state. I feel compelled to know exactly when each stage began and ended.
But nobody's memory is clear. We contradict one another. Sometimes we think things happened during the final two weeks that actually happened a month before. And sometimes the reverse. "When did you buy all the books of logic problems?" I ask my nephew Johnny. "It was on an earlier trip," he says. But it wasn't. He made eight trips to see his mother since the summer. Six hundred and fifty miles each time.
During the Final Dive, Shirley's kids-I say kids though they range in age from thirty-three to forty-two-did those logic problems, obsessively, while I stretched out on the couch and read Mad magazine, which was the most intellectually challenging reading I did for the final three months. I had been there a long time. Officially melted down. I lived on chocolate milkshakes, peanut M&Ms, and caffeine-free Diet Pepsi. I read Mad magazine, sometimes aloud, even if nobody listened.
Today, though, I am not there but home. I have my first acupuncture appointment since returning to Albuquerque. I feel, have felt, in desperate need of it but have had to wait until now, the end of the month, due to financial strain induced by seven months out of the work loop. I lived on credit cards and cash advances-something Shirley did not approve of. I kept it secret from her, mainly.
In the waiting room of Alexcia Trujillo's acupuncture office, I pick up a book called The Amazing Brain and turn to the chapter on memory. I have always had an excellent memory, but neither I nor anyone else who was there can remember Shirley's last two weeks-at least not moment by moment. I choose a random paragraph and begin to read:
Memories are stored among the neurons of the brain in some kind of relatively permanent form as physical traces, which we call memory traces. If only we knew the code, we could read the entire lifetime of experiences and knowledge from these traces in the brain.I lift my eyes from the book to stare at the pale yellow wall in wonder. My memory traces of Shirley, my whole life with her, are precious to me. I don't want to forget her nor replace a lifetime of memories with the strange, pre-death, two-week fog. Interestingly, paradoxically, nothing feels as threatened as the most recent time period, her last time period, though much of the problem is trying to fit what happened then into those little squares I have drawn on a legal pad-the ones marked December 11th, December 12th, December 13th, and so on. My niece, Shirley's older daughter, also named Julie (both of us for my mother), has said that we can't pin anything down because time had no relevance by then. I distinctly remember that altered space, altered state, altered time, when Julie and I would immediately write it down when we gave Shirley her various medications, because five minutes later neither of us could remember if we had done it. How we laughed over our medical record in which I had flipped the page labeled Thursday to start the next one and labeled it Tuesday. Time, those last two weeks, was like the sea, and we were floating in it, sinking through it, taking it into our lungs.
For months, each of us who loved Shirley had told her, directly, that we freed her to "go." Letting go, telling her that we released her to her own destiny, was horrible to the extreme, an act of selflessness which no one felt competent to make, but one by one, no matter how excruciating, we all did it because we couldn't bear to see her suffer any more. I was there when our mother, eighty-eight years old and losing her second born, called Shirley on the phone. I had visited my mother to tell her she must do this. "Shirley," my mother said, for she had rehearsed a speech which she performed for me afterward, "I love you with all my heart, and if there was any way that I could change places with you, I would. But I'm ready to let you go."
Shirley's death was like a booby prize that everyone was forced to unwrap in front of her. As she got worse, we said it over and over again. "You don't have to stay, Shirley." I had specific words ready-words from my Buddhist tapes: "We will never forget you. You will always be with us and we will always be with you. We love you, now and forever. But we let you go." I said these words until I was blue in the face, as my mother would say, starting in August when we thought she would die any day. Any minute. I said them clear-eyed and matter-of-factly because the Buddhist tapes say that caregivers should get their crying and grieving done early so later, when the dying person is weaker, they won't be so emotional. It's unfair to cry too much, the tapes say, at the end. It creates emotional turbulence for the dying person, who has to focus on her caregivers instead of herself.
But suddenly, several days before Shirley dies, when she is in Stage Three of the Final Dive, my niece has a stunning insight: We also have to give her our permission to take as long as she needs or wants to die. Now we troop back into her bedroom to whisper, "You can go or stay, Shirley. We are here for you, as long as you need us, no matter what. No matter how much time you need." We say this into her ear when there is no sign of Shirley anywhere, except her body which doesn't even look like her anymore. Red marks, a sign of liver failure, have spread across her chest until they meld into scarlet blotches, and her skin is a color I've never seen in nature. "That's the color I want to be for Halloween!" her grandson, Alan, had said when he saw her in October. I remember how Shirley laughed.
When Alexcia is ready for me, during our pre-acupuncture treatment conference, words gush, spew, tumble out of my mouth. I wake up once or more every hour, I tell her, all night long. Once, recently, I sat up screaming, "I'm gonna die!" And after I composed myself by saying out loud, "It's O.K. Everybody dies," I looked at the clock and saw that I'd been asleep exactly twenty-eight minutes. I have no balance and am falling over in every pose during my Beginner's T'ai-chi class. I don't like to leave the house. I have heart palpitations. I itch. I can't concentrate. Ever since I've returned to Albuquerque, I have had a horrible metallic taste in my mouth, and it doesn't go away, no matter how many glasses of water I drink.
"In Chinese medicine, that's grief," Alexcia says. "The metallic taste comes from the lungs, which are in charge of the breath. The breath takes in and lets go." She pauses. "Taking in and letting go," she repeats.
Can I let go of grief without letting go of Shirley? I told Shirley over and over again that she could go. I watched her go, helped her go, listened as her daughter Julie talked her over the Great Divide. "Your body doesn't need to breathe any more, Mom. Your heart does not need to beat. Don't panic," Julie was saying, and I felt my own heart ache with love for her and Shirley.
I saw Shirley's last breath.
I was there when she let go.
We didn't touch her at the end. She had waited so long and tried so hard to die that we were instinctively afraid-Julie, Shirley's youngest son, Neal, and I, who were with her-that if we touched her she would feel summoned, compelled to come back into that ravaged body. Can I keep her memory and let everything else go?
They hurt today, the needles. Little explosions inside my skin. Alexcia says my lung and liver meridians are blocked, shut down. The chi is not flowing. I have weak blood and a troubled mind. I lie there, staring at a mobile that tosses rainbows into the room, until I climb off the table an hour later.
I post-date a check, just for tomorrow, but Alexcia flatly refuses to take my money. "I care about you," she says.
I am pierced, freshly, by her generosity.
That night, I only wake up three times.
When I get up at five in the morning, this morning, there's just a little metal in my mouth.