Then an evangelist rigged a pulpit of dirt floor and plywood off the only dead-end interstate in Texas. Two nights and he’d fly bullet-fire straight up I-27 to Amarillo, the same direction runoff once rivered cotton fields together like a shimmering thread, back when farmers believed God left a bottomless ocean under all the upturned dirt and the government gave them enough money to pump sacred rock. Story was a farmer paddled a canoe the 124 miles from Lubbock to Amarillo. I lived in Lubbock, above the southern end of that once vast aquifer. I was twelve, with little idea of the drying sediment, the vanishing well, under my feet, though as far as I could tell West Texas was desert. A shrug in the middle of forgotten. At the time, I feared one thing only: Dad would die because of me.
Mom heard about the evangelist on the radio. Heard the word “healing” in his billing. Her heart stirred. She announced to our family of seven we would parlay revival at Lubbock’s empty fair grounds, and absolutely no one was surprised. When I recall how often the Holy Spirit nudged Mom in the late nineties, I’m struck by her brunette hair, hot-rollered and swept full at her shoulders. Lit red in sunlight, loose strands pretty in the breeze. She heard so much from God in that decade, her hair curled with it.
We went to two or three prayer services a week. Some were open invitations to apocalypse, others weeknight steadies of sermon and hymn. Always, we purposed to meet a miracle head on, like hitting a wall of rain dropped from purple clouds. I had three sisters and a brother, all of us named by the letter K. I was Kathleen, the oldest, though I went by my initials, K.D. Following me: Kristen, Kelsey, John Kyle, and Mary Katherine. We filled the brim of our van, a seven-seater Toyota Previa with a long gray sliding-door that yawned family values. Dad up front, fallow and bone. Thirty-eight years old and four stages down with colon cancer, though he assured us God’s will sparked in his very blood. I didn’t know what organ the colon was till Dad’s got paired with a primary tumor, but Mom insisted she’d homeschooled me on human digestion. She pulled out a biology book with color by number sketches and pointed to an amorphous circle in the groin of a not yet colored-in diagram of the body.
What did I remember of her carefully planned curriculum? Grammar’s promise of explanation and list. An anatomy lesson when Mom, a veterinarian, instructed me to watch her perform an autopsy on a cat. Leaning under the bright surgery lamp, she lifted the cat’s purple liver, which was the length of my palm, and placed it in my gloved hand. The liver quivered room temperature and gelatinous. Mom hooked the rope of the cat’s large intestine and held it up. She said blood pooled dark in the chest cavity because the cat mortified. She said the acrid smell signed decay.
No adult heard the news about Dad without a shuddered heave and dial to their internist. Even the mailman dropped his blue canvas bag with a thud and cried. Obstinate to a 10% survival chance and the medical industry producing such charts, Dad declared healing in the name of Jesus and Mom drove him home from Covenant Hospital. Dad took my ripe face in his hands and said God had his own plans. He said that I was beautiful. I went on to hide my crying, so much was the burden of weeping among adults who held with no grip their sum in the planet’s equation of gravity and time.
The state fair usually came in June and sugar-powdered the air for a week of pig races between contestants with names like Rush Limhog. But the night we drove to Lubbock’s east side, it was April, early summer in West Texas, and we never went to the fair. Mom said the food was heart-attack, the rides slapdash. Still when we pulled up to the revival, I pictured a Ferris Wheel in place of the tent. A gigantic sparkling bangle with a cotton silo for backdrop. From my swinging seat at the top, I might have seen Lubbock, Texas glittering to the edge of Caprock Canyon, a drop to nothingness by night. I would have seen the city’s metro tower. At twenty stories, it was the tallest building in town and historic for being one of the last dominos standing after the tornado of 1970 swept half of Lubbock flat again. Skyline of metro building, of Wells Fargo bank, of shining red double-T on the university football stadium, of Loop 289 enclosing the city in convenience. Circling Lubbock’s hem, pumpjacks in buck and bow. Boys sometimes mounted the pumps to bunco cash from one another or, if still alive, outrun an Exxon narc. Due west, streetlights mapped asphalt grid past the dollar theater to the stoplight for my flat-roofed white brick house. I would have longed to hazard my life at the Ferris Wheel’s midnight, breathing air so dry you think it’s light. To forget the prayer service of seizing and tongue-lit prophesies. Such wishing would immediately have broken me like the wooden spoon Mom used in place of a hand. Since I believed God knew all my transgressions, I would have asked his forgiveness for my snap in faith, the greatest sin. I’d have prayed he heal Dad anyway. Night fluttered overhead like an eyelid, and I stood in the parking lot. The empty fairgrounds filled with tawny head beams. I feared the evangelist inside the tent, feared his brick finger would expose my waifish faith. My people believed doubt trapped miracle in heaven, Dad in diagnosis.
I passed between the tent flaps and adhered to a metal folding chair next to Dad. He tugged at the crease in his Levi’s. Dad wore slacks on Sunday mornings, denim for nights like these. Tonight was going to be a warm one, like day wouldn’t let go. The air felt pestilent, as if every particle had grown legs and was buzzing around the light with the flies. I imagine Dad itched to walk barefoot on the cool lawn faking pastoral in front of our house, only ten minutes away. An eyebrow-raising distance across untouchable worlds in Lubbock. Not that he didn’t want to be at the revival. He was there on God’s terms. But I rarely saw the man in shoes at home. I now think of his toes curling and flexing in those black boots next my sandaled feet on fairground grass. The twitches of the patient. His feet like mine, middle toes webbed and longer than the first. Slender of foot, and slightly arched. A black fly crawled across my knee, its tall legs bent and soft. I flicked it away and felt the fatigue of faith. Prayer for healing is a long haul. Dad asked me what was the matter. I said that nothing was. He rested his hand on my leg, then took my hand in his own. The space between our shoulders, a view of the tent’s freestanding microphone, closed. I didn’t think of this, the brisk cotton of his polo, my ear pressed to his arm, as prayer then. Dad smelled of cloves and faintly of salt. He let go. I readjusted in my seat and looked around. The tent’s flat ceiling, the empty seats waiting to be filled. Maybe God would come to this very place.
Dad gnawed his bottom lip. His lips chapped even when he’d been well. He licked them before he kissed you or else pressed a slag of Carmex to your face. I used to wait until he wasn’t looking to wipe the smudge off my forehead. The round silhouette of a Carmex jar bounced in his pocket as he juddered a leg from pain or anticipation. If excitement, I recognized it. Blackburn men were thrill junkies. Uncle Bobby wrecked my grandmother’s Lincoln off-roading in a dirt field outside of San Antonio. From the sidelines at the Cleveland 500, he awed in the wake of speed. Dad himself was more into planes. As a young Air Force officer, he trained on fighter jets then shipped off to Guam to track wind speeds of Pacific Typhoons in C-130s, a cargo aircraft. “School buses of the sky, Kate,” he’d told me. “People at the top sent us up there when they got bored.” Seven years in the Air Force, and Dad went commercial, flying planes in the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series, nicknamed “Super 80s” for American Airlines. He said that he was a glorified taxi driver. Quite. Running his finger along the wing of a model plane, he taught me it was speed that broke the force of gravity. If he could have wagered on speed, Dad would’ve bet everything. When he wasn’t working, he trained for marathons. He also logged entire afternoons next to the spinning blur of his table saw wearing nothing more than a pair of safety goggles, shorts, and cowboy boots. When we once borrowed the neighbor’s go-kart, Dad dropped in the seat next to me and said, “Punch it, Kate!”
The man I’d known didn’t fully reconcile with the one sitting next to me in the tent. He was losing weight, shaking in prayer. Cancer quickened in Dad something beyond cheating physics. At each prayer service, he paused before he stood to answer the altar’s call. He was caught in a familiar high-stakes bet on his body, what speed is all about. Wasn’t he a pilot? A man paid salary doing what human bodies weren’t made to do? He knew the tension between fear and excitement, but this was different. If only he were aiming for the eye of a typhoon, wind speeds at 440 miles per hour. If only he were manning a Boeing plane. Or a ten-inch ripping blade. He hesitated whenever a preacher scanned the room and asked, “Who will the Lord touch tonight?” Maybe doubt tugged at him. Maybe he relished the moment of prayer to come, the miracle, the thunderous crack in the air between heaven and earth. In the years since, I’ve wondered if Dad ever got used to walking the cut-rate aisle between rows of the zealous, hands bird-winging like they were pushing him on or reaching out to catch him. How does one get comfortable with asking not to die?
Wind and sun mapped the faces of people filling up the tent. Where years had aged the skin, relentless gales and daylight deepened their creases into West Texas hide. Each person there could have been a storyteller. Thick were their faces with the living. My parents stood out among the crowd. Mom was muscular, her skin dewy and smooth, glowing with high pay and early nights. She cradled my baby sister, Mary Katherine, who was eleven years younger than I, though nothing aged my mother. Anyone looking might have wondered what turn in life had brought this woman to a gathering of the hard-up. People did look, befuddled at first, and resentful. Side-eyes glanced and stuck. They deciphered a woman I would struggle all my life to see. Had they leaned in, the brethren would have smelled Mom’s bright clean citrusy Estée Lauder warming to dark rose. Had one of the women embraced her, she would have felt my mother’s clenched limbs, the steel will she’d sensed. But few people approached Mom. She looked like a dare, and most people chose truth. The distinction in income. The berth for vice. They measured her from a distance. Across the space, Mom returned the glance.
Most of the folks there were white working class. And if we’d gone knocking on the doors of people living around the fairgrounds, the faces of most of Lubbock’s black and Hispanic families would have answered. I-27 divided the city in half, but it was a border, not a center. The zoning east of the interstate was stockyard and section 8. Jim Crow, too, though the year was 1998. Inside the tent, focus shifted from Mom to Dad, and found in his body part of the answer they were looking for. Metastasis to Dad’s liver had tinted his skin yellow. His shoulder bones peaked under his button up. He seemed to be a young man growing old so fast you could watch it happening if you stared. But nothing established the gravitas of our situation, melting away distinctions among the tent’s denizens, like the sight of me and my siblings. We hemorrhaged nerves. We quaked with the future, the church’s future, the future of the faith. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Here were the five children of a woman with a dying husband. Have mercy. Eyes filled with watery hope, as though the very thought of fatherless children harkened God’s intervention. Some smiled with satisfaction like they’d been cast briefly into the years to come and beheld there, if not Christ’s return, the amazing fact of Dad’s recovery. One woman braced herself over the metal chairs in front of us.
“God will restore the years the locusts have eaten.”
I smiled weakly. Mom nodded.
“Amen,” Mom said. “Thank you.”
If you’d spoken to me that night, I might have confessed the time I went behind Mom’s back to shave my legs. She’d forbidden it before the age of thirteen, an arbitrary deadline she designated for puberty based on no bodily evidence whatsoever. Rather, I hit a miserable early breakout of acne and cramps when I was eleven. My shirts stretched taut across my chest. Mom said that I had elevated hormone levels because of the steroids in dairy products, and took me to Wal-Mart to buy a bra. I shuffled back from the dressing room sobbing because a woman had walked in on me. Mom sighed.
“Oh, K.D. It’s nothing that woman hasn’t seen before.”
Still, she refused to let me shave. “Everything changes after you do,” she mourned. She told me even the hair didn’t grow back the same. But after a year of wearing pants or tights every day until I couldn’t bear the heat and shamefully pulled on shorts, I learned from the daughter of the only midwife in town how to shave your legs without anyone knowing. Micahl ran a shower as usual and snuck in with the razor.
“Your legs will feel so smooth,” she said. “Call me after you do it.” Mom’s razor was a three-blade Gillette with a steel handle. In the shower, I worried I’d betray myself by dropping the razor, my clumsiness a stone clang reverberating through the house. But I passed the neat blade over my skin without incident. I sat naked afterward on the bathroom rug running my hands over my legs. Micahl’s giggle teased the line between us. “Told you.”
A day later, Mom’s voice bolted down the hallway. She perched on a stool in front of her vanity mirror, lit by a frame of round lights. Freshly showered, her hair was twisted in a towel. She plucked her eyebrow with a silver pair of tweezers she’d owned for fifteen years. Mom used to say those tweezers were her oldest prized possession and that her children would know which of us she most favored by whom she willed the tweezers to. Only once did she loan them out, and then to a woman named Chase from Bible study who described everything from the sunset to a baby bib as “awesome.” Chase chirped that her baby girl had a splinter festering in her arm and Mom offered her the tweezers. When Chase didn’t return them for two days, Mom said she should have known. “Chase has always been a flake,” she said. Mom drove the 10 minutes to cross West Lubbock and knocked on Chase’s front door. Chase looked confused, but Mom didn’t care. “So what if they’re a pair of tweezers. They’re good ones, and they’re mine.”
I thought about Chase nearly every time Mom brought the tweezers out of her makeup basket. Most people underestimated Mom’s doggedness. I usually didn’t make that mistake, but as she shaped sleek dark arches above her eyes, I flinched watching her. She held me waiting on something her mind had already formed into a boulder, so steady was her precision as she leaned into the mirror, her complete and unhurried calm. Only Mom could turn tweezing into the hands of an interminable clock.
She set the tweezers back in her makeup basket.
“I know you shaved your legs.”
I am sure now Mom found traces of my transgression: her razor in the wrong spot on the rim of the tub; a trail of small hairs dried near the drain. But none of this occurred to me as I stood dumb in the doorway of Mom’s bathroom. I was a trusting child. I felt she’d caught me in the act, a shining razor in my hand.
“Do you want to know how I know?” she asked.
She turned from the mirror and faced me. “God told me.” Her lips pinched to the side as though she heard the words fresh from the Lord again. I felt I heard them too, in the air above us. “K.D. shaved her legs.” A sobless, unquivering stream of tears sprang down Mom’s face. I thought she was crying because I’d deceived her and ruined part of my body, and in so doing broken something in my relationship to her. I still think that’s what she wanted to convey. But two decades later, I know Mom’s bait and switch. She didn’t call me to the bathroom to show her pain. Mom wanted me to understand God shared an omnipotent line with her. Nothing escaped his notice, nothing hers. I would be made to believe it that very morning.
My mother and her holy panopticon.
Stockyard air, thick with manure and grass and chemical, wicked the tent walls. My eyes fixed on the evangelist. He stood at the fore under crossed tent poles that doubled as a kind of crucifixion and he fussed up a drizzle across his forehead. The evangelist looked made of Thanksgiving leftovers, lumpy and beige. He wrapped his hand around the microphone and the speakers popped and buzzed with the weight of it. He exhaled. If I’d been more of a rebel, I would have rolled my eyes. If I’d been more like Dad, I’d have nodded and said, “Tonight’s the night.” Mom closed her eyes and mouthed the words to a silent prayer. But I peeled my legs up from my seat and tucked my hands underneath them. Something like an invisible string between my shoulder blades tugged my back into a stake. I didn’t cuss back then, so I whispered, “Please.”
“You are called to make your requests known!” the evangelist boomed. “Believe and you will receive it!” His cheap PA system vibrated with the ancient truth. I’d heard the words before, when preachers prayed over Dad. When Mom prayed at night. Our prayers wove together scripture from all parts of the Bible, most of which Mom taught my siblings and me to memorize each morning before we did our math lessons. The evangelist’s words came, in part, from the Gospel of Mark. Even now I remember them: “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
“For the power!” a woman in front of me cried. “And the glory of the kingdom!” Inside the tent, we swelled into a congregation. We chorused Hallelujas! in call and response to the evangelist. His tantrum worked like a feedback loop. He shouted, “Glory!” We shouted, “Amen!” Our excitement roused him. He seemed to grow and take up the whole of the tent’s altar. He paced rapidly back and forth, the microphone cord whipping behind him. Then he held his hand in the air to pause. He lowered his voice to a growl.
“Come Holy Spirit. Fill this tent.”
My stomach flipped. Adults were liable to say anything once the Holy Ghost was called down. Stately men fell to the ground and rolled about. Women squeezed your hands, saying God had a word for you. They strung words together from Psalms and the apocalyptic book of Revelation without blinking. All of it made me sick for my bed on the bottom bunk and stash of stuffed animals back home. The unpredictability panicked me, but I believed every word. Nothing struck me as phony. If it had, I might have startled less. But I believed I was witnessing the hand of God touch the bodies of his children. I thought the people surrounding me were stronger believers than I was. Warriors, I called them. Awe filled me as they were bathed in an invisible fire. I also feared that by such light they would see I was nauseous with the possibility of Dad’s death. Any one of them could have cried, “Oh ye of little faith.” I pictured Mom shaking her head as though she’d known all along.
Dad closed his eyes. He looked like he was waiting. I felt an impulse to lean over and ask if he was okay. I wanted his hand on the nape of my neck, as it rested in a memory I tendered of standing next to him years earlier. The sun dropped behind our cul-de-sac and I didn’t move, so content was I to be near my father. I remembered the sprinkler waving back and forth its fingers of light, Dad’s hand as warm as the summer air. I stopped myself. Dwelling on what life had been like before exchanged dangerously in earthly signs. Instead, I looked at my knees.
“I believe,” I said, “he will be healed.” The chair in front of me rattled with the body of a man thrashing in the spirit. It had arrived. Dad clapped. He cheered like he was at an Aggie football game. In the front row, a woman lifted her legs to plank in front of her. The foot of one leg reached only to the ankle of her other, longer leg. The evangelist sweat his way to her. She closed her eyes and shimmied her hands in the air. The evangelist looked as though he might swallow the microphone whole as his drew it to his mouth and bawled.
“By his wounds.”
“We are healed!” the congregation sang back. The evangelist knelt in front of the woman. She lifted her chin and he spoke as if only to her.
“By his wounds.”
The woman shook her head and whimpered. Then she nodded in acceptance of the unfurling miracle. The evangelist raised his voice.
“By his wounds.”
“I am healed.”
“By his wounds.”
“I believe,” I said. The microphone thumped against the woman’s calf as the evangelist grasped her shorter leg. His face blistered red and he towed one leg to meet the plane of the other. He pulled slowly to work the leg forward. It grew from the woman’s waist without jolt or pop, but steadily, though quick. Finished, the evangelist held the woman’s feet together where they met evenly. He lifted them aloft to check and prove her stagger had been cured. The tops of her yellowed white tennis shoes aligned in a neat pair.
“Praise God!” He settled her feet on the ground and stood. The woman leapt from her seat and kicked in time to some music. I turned to Mom agape, but her jaw had hardened into a beautiful set line that meant, “I’m no idiot.” Then another man in the front row held his legs aloft. One leg extended past the other.
“In the name of Jesus!” the evangelist called out and grabbed the stunted leg. He pulled the man’s leg to length, probably two inches. The crowd wailed. For a moment, I forgot Mom’s skepticism. My stomachache gave way to a calm that comes with engrossed observation. I felt I was watching humans grow tails. For once, no one around me seemed excited enough. Our impromptu choir continued bouncing on their feet and squeezing shut their eyes, thanking God, as though these were exactly the kinds of miracles one expects at revivals. I thought there should be more shock, more blanching, more sense of the after from before. But the man, now healed, danced across the tent with so many others as if miracles really were just happening.
“Those people were planted,” Mom said later. She would go on to explain how you could slouch on one hip such that your legs looked uneven when you stretched them out in front of you. She modeled the ruse with her arms, rearing one shoulder back and thrusting the other forward. When the basket for the offering came by that night, Mom passed it without looking one way or the other. She must have told Dad not to take to the aisle for a healing, not to be a patsy, because he stayed put. So, the evangelist came to him.
He wore wide-framed glasses that enlarged his eyes. If, as the scriptures say, the lamp of the body is the eye, the evangelist’s soul was dim. His bloodshot stare came to rest on Dad and he lifted his wide, leathered hand and pointed. My mouth went dry. I waited for my excruciating conviction.
“God wants to heal this man,” he said.
“Amen!” I said.
He kept his finger in front of him as he stepped down the row, like he might pin a miracle on Dad’s forehead when he reached him. He took a handful of Dad’s hair and thrust his face up. “Satan, we command you in the name of Jesus, let go your hold on this man.” The evangelist brandished Dad’s head back and forth, as though he might shake Dad free of cancer and make casualty his scalp. A tremolo of Yes Lords flooded us. Greased fingernails fluttered over Dad’s upturned face. A canopy of arms closed over my sisters and my brother and me. The saints thatched a circle with Dad at its center. Kelsey crawled onto Kristen’s lap. Both of the girls’ eyes widened. This might be it, the thing we’d been waiting for. Mom’s jaw relaxed. She looked at Dad with a secret turning in the corner of her mouth. Their faith was what mattered. God could work through even the lowest of the low. Mom leaned across my sisters and brother and bowed her head. I climbed to the floor and pressed my face to Dad’s knee. The smell of salt and sweat and body replaced my fear. A sound made of dozens of smaller sounds, voices in throats raised in praise, rushed above us. I knew it could happen, right then, right there in the sanctuary of fairground and highway. A vision filled the thick shadow of bodies in which I dwelled. The evangelist gargled praise in the name of Jesus and I could see a gray cylindrical tumor on Dad’s colon loosen and disintegrate. I saw the fifteen lesions on his liver which had appeared on his CT scan dissolve. I saw the furtive bodies of the men and women above me peel back. I saw Dad stand, the word Hosanna on his lips. Let it be so.
“Amen!” the evangelist said with one last shove of Dad’s head. He released his hold. Tent light appeared in triangles as each man and woman pulled away. One woman sprang up and spun and spun. Dad blinked as though adjusting to the light, earthly light, stained vermillion light of canvas tabernacle. His sandy hair, usually so straight and softly parted to the side, spiked in a mess of directions. I stood stiffly and returned to my seat. Mom bounced Mary on her lap. Her mouth resigned to a tight line, resigned to the whole unpleasant business of being in the tent. And now the prayer was over, resigned to wait for the end of service.
“A charlatan,” she said as we packed back into the van. I remember passing an old white man plucking a banjo. I remember the late spring air, late in the day. The smell of juniper and cow shit.
There were other healers. There was the one who wrote a book about the end-time apparitions he beheld, yes Lord, while trapped in a communist prison. In his vision of the antichrist, Satan took the form of a blackbird saying, “Power has been given to me to be able to come against the Christians in a short time.” He prophesied on cassette tapes Mom listened to that America would burn at the hands of socialists. She sent money to his organization for years before learning he embezzled her giving for personal travel and affairs with women. But before the scandal broke loose, Mom wrote a letter, asking if the prophet would send a blessing for her sick husband. A blue and purple handkerchief arrived in the mail smelling of incense along with a bottle of something like essential oils. Mom pressed the handkerchief to Dad’s forehead and prayed down a healing. I was not there, but I imagine Mom foreseeing the skies unbroken with light.
Mom said when Dad was healed, he would testify. She said that the whole reason the cancer invaded his body was to bring glory to God. “We’re going to get a bigger van,” she said, “and we are going to hit that interstate. Everyone’s going to know what the Lord did.”
I’d never seen either of my parents speak publicly, but dreams of life after prognosis transformed them. They had been called.
Sure. They once were your average, middle-class white Americans. A pilot and a veterinarian just trying to raise their kids right. Good people.
They once were Catholics. Back in the day, when they were young and living in East Texas. When they were college-bound. Focused on careers, and having kids. When they knew God, but didn’t really know him.
But now, John and Mary Blackburn were exceptional.
But now they were called to withstand a trial by fire.
Now they would spread God’s word, right there at the end of the 20th century.
The jaundicing of skin, loss of weight, winnowing of muscle, were merely tests of our faith. By May of 1998, twelve months after diagnosis, Dad couldn’t walk more than a few yards at a time, but this only intensified our hope. “How much more miraculous will it be,” Mom said, her wet eyes glittering, “when he is healed.” The pain of seeing him suffer, the suffering he endured, was made bearable by the dividends we envisioned every time we sought out another healer.
When Pat Stanton pressed her manicured hand to Dad’s forehead, a silver bracelet dangled from her wrist and arcs of light flecked across his face. Pat prophesied healings in a brick Baptist church on 34th street, Lubbock’s rundown retail main. People on 34th street sought boot repair and kung fu classes. Thrift shopping at Goodwill and the Salvation Army. Thai food at Bangkok, barbecue at J&M’s. Porn at Adult Books, right across the street from the old gray building of Grace Church, our own congregate of the literal. For prayer on Thursday nights, Christians went to the old Baptist church, where Pat Stanton crooned holy in services called Miracles on 34th Street.
Pat was a dignified healer. Veins roped her hands and her fingers sparkled with rings. Her hair was a teased high bob of silver atmosphere. She wore pleated business dresses and sturdy leather heels. Pearl earrings.
“The Lord is near to the downtrodden and broken,” she melodied. “Rest in his presence.” She hummed along with the pianist, then sang. Her voice carried the words of a hymn at first, then she broke into her own lyrics as though, inspired by the presence of God, she were following a new unwritten script. “Come, Holy Spirit,” she sang. “The healing power of your word.”
I sat in one of the fibrous green pews next to Mom and Dad, and I felt safer at Pat’s services than in other evangelical spaces. An older man played with the change in his pocket and lifted a quarter. He held it out to my sister, Kelsey, who gleamed with delight. As an adult, Kelsey confided in me she had no idea Dad was dying. “I didn’t even understand the concept of death,” she said. “I was eight, and the only thing I knew for sure was, when Dad got healed, we were going to have a big pizza party.”
But I was older than Kelsey, and the possibility of Dad’s mortality loomed. At Miracles on 34th Street though, I was less afraid the holy spirit would reveal my fear for Dad’s life. The jubilation of fellow believers was quieter. No one came up to us with visions. When folks passed out in the spirit, they seemed to snooze peacefully on the floor. I used to think I felt comfortable near Pat because of her voice, but I now think it was because she was a woman. Pat didn’t need to dominate the room. She didn’t need to yell, to overpower.
Mom also found solace at Pat’s service. One night, she curled into a whimper as Pat sang. I’d seen Mom look afraid before, but her fear was usually combined with a rigidity in her spine, a strained neck that bespoke her stubbornness, an insistence against her own misgivings. That night, she looked worn out. Almost helpless. I touched her arm.
“I’m okay,” she said. “It’s just hard right now.”
I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but my family was more vulnerable at Pat’s prayer meetings, where there were no penalties for showing fatigue in one’s faith. No judgement for weakness. Pat called the sick forward and placed her hand on their temples, their necks, as though to cool a fever. Men and women wept softly when she prayed. The volume in her voice never rose. Only cadences and song. Only prayer. At Miracles on 34th Street, the pressure to perform radical belief abated, and my family briefly became the fullness of what we were—a family of seven hardly apprehending what was happening to us.
Maybe because of this feeling of vulnerability, when I watched Dad ask for relief, I had different visions. I pictured a much tamer version of healing, one absent high bawd and applause. Air empty of hands. No tours testifying on the road in a big van trailing dust clouds of one Texas town after another. Instead, I believed if Dad were made well, my family would go back to the homeschooled but average-enough family we’d been before he was diagnosed, before the weeknight church services. Before the tent revivals. Dad would walk back from the altar. Maybe the family would huddle together for a minute. The we’d go home. It would all be over.
There was the healer from Malaysia who spoke in tongues. He was the cousin to another of Mom’s friends from Bible study. Tracy said her cousin would be in town for a few weeks. Said he had the gift, and it was real. He knocked on the front door and shook Mom’s hand. From the go, he was soft-spoken. By this time, Dad was living in the living room, forever changing that term. His abdomen so filled with broken liver, he leaned forward when he walked with the weight of it. That afternoon, he had only to cross from his green La-Z-Boy to the couch, which he did with a grimace. He slumped in the middle of the sofa when the holy man sat next to him.
“Tell me what God has put on your heart,” Tracy’s cousin said.
Dad held his hands in front of him, held something no one could see, as though he could show what words failed to say.
“I’ve got this cancer—”
“John,” Mom said. She found purchase on the other side of him her piano bench posture. This is one of my most vivid memories of my father: flanked by the holy man and my mother. “Don’t say you have cancer,” Mom continued. “Say the cancer is in you.” Mom believed you could claim a curse, a disease, a destiny, by language alone.
Dad lifted his finger and thumb to the corners of his mouth and pinched his bottom lip.
“The cancer is in me.”
“Okay, John,” the healer said. He lay his hand on the back of Dad’s neck.
I don’t see my younger siblings in the recollection of this holy man. This moment is spot-lit, as though isolated from the very space where it is set. I’m sure Kristen, Kelsey, John, and my baby sister Mary Katherine were all there. Mom liked to bring everyone together for the occasion of miracle, whether in our home or some other place of her choosing. We believed that, where two or three people spoke the name of Jesus, there the air transformed to his spirit. Hence, one could not count the number of churches in Lubbock, Texas. But that afternoon, I see a church of only four. I sat at Dad’s feet and curled my legs against my chest. Dad took my hand. Tracy’s cousin began to speak a language I’d never heard. In the way that some knowledge becomes imbedded through no specific event, I understood Tracy’s cousin didn’t know what he was saying. Words spoken in tongues are translatable only to God, and a translator if there’s one nearby. The words emerge from the soul, outside our human comprehension. The beauty of the language is in its expression of desires that align with what must be. Just as I’d never been slain in the spirit, never danced holy, I’d never been moved by the strange tongue. Among the imaginations of the more charismatic evangelicals, this omission owned a loss: an absence of knowing that dialect which only God and I share. It’s not an unbeautiful idea.
Then Mom released a long “um.” I opened my eyes. At first, I thought she couldn’t find the words to say. Shock enough. Underneath her eyelids, her eyes shifted wildly. She held her chin aloft. Then she released a melisma of vowels.
There is something alienating about being the daughter of Mary Edens Blackburn, and the essence of it lies in hearing the woman rapidly utter her private language with God. I only heard Mom speak in tongues once and it stunned me. As strange as Dad had become to me in his dying, stranger and more unpredictable was the woman I opened my praying eyes to watch. I didn’t imagine a miracle. I beheld a vision of my life to come with only my mother, a woman who spoke to God in a language I didn’t understand. I gripped Dad’s hand tighter.
In remembering this part of my life, I’d hoped to encounter Dad as conflicted about choosing faith over chemotherapy. I’ve since wondered how influenced he was by my mother. She proudly considers herself an outlier. She adopted Thomas Edison’s motto that there are some people who think, some who think they think, and some who would rather die than think, counting herself among the first category. She chose to homeschool, in rejection of government institutions, and to homebirth in dismissal of the medical industry, though she was a veterinarian. “Medical practice is embedded with agendas,” she said. Pharmaceutical companies. Experimentation. Dad embraced each lifestyle choice, but they were Mom’s ideas. I’ve often imagined Dad choosing faith out of loyalty to Mom. I preferred this version of him—a man who, in his struggle between reality and love, feels more akin to who I am now.
But my memory yields no such father. In place of what I longed to remember, Dad breaks my grasp and grabs my wrist as though to catch me. His eyelids press tightly together. The music of tongues goes on and on. Dad’s forehead is white-knuckled in determination. He squeezes my arm. My fingers turn purple. When the prayer ends, a red imprint of Dad’s hand blossoms below my wrist.
In truth, I don’t find a daughter quite so conflicted as I would like to believe I was. I lived in fear, but that’s different. I was a twelve-year-old who couldn’t comprehend the future ahead, a future that I, now thirty-four, have lived. If I could collapse the twenty-two years between us and appear before my twelve-year-old self, I’d have a few answers for her. Dad does die, on a summer night at the end of June. Her faith won’t be saving anyone’s life, not even her own. I’d like to say, “it’s not your fault.” But the twelve-year-old would refuse my claims. Evangelicals, when presented with evidence of their future, reject it. We believe the struggle is against spiritual powers of darkness, not flesh and blood. This is our carte blanche. We are in the world, not of it. The twelve-year-old would see me as a perversion of communism and ignorance, a harbinger of the demonic. A check on her faith, as Satan tested Christ in the desert. The twelve-year-old was good at tests. I would say, “God didn’t tell Mom about the razor,” and the twelve-year-old would respond adamantly, perhaps with a rattle of anger, “Who can know the thoughts of God?”
When I remember the last holy man who prayed for Dad in 1998, I think of Mom’s face held aloft to heaven. I think about the way Dad studied the red impression of his fingers across my skin. Flesh and blood.
“Whoa,” he said. He laughed a little. “I didn’t realize. I’m sorry.”
Both my parents might have made good evangelists. Their spirituality matched any wildcat preacher’s in Texas. So did mine. Our house was as thick with visions and prayers as any tent.
I think about how Dad was dying even as the holy man and Mom cried in tongues, “life.” Life had become a foreign word. I think about the bruise of Dad’s hand on my arm.