Sunday, January 9, 2011
Church of Lost Hats Sample of Eire
The Andrews family was sitting in the sun at the beach. There were five of us sprawled on two blankets with a navy blue and green tartan. Duncan Andrews was writing in his journal as he sat up next to his wife Janet. The waves’ incessant angry and soothing sound filled my ears, and I lay on my back gazing at the deep blue sky. I was holding hands with my girlfriend Emily, and her hand was smooth and strangely cool. Behind her sunglasses, she watched her father’s face as he wrote in his journal. Duncan was agitated and sometimes covered his face as he kept up with his notes in the brown journal he always had with him. Janet Andrews lay on her stomach with her swimsuit top unsnapped, and her brown back glistened in the late morning sun. The sides of her breasts were nicely tanned too, and I looked away when she glanced at me. I had come to Bermuda for three days to visit Emily and her family and take a break from my theological studies in New York, a break I badly needed after my first winter in the Northeast. We were staying on the eastern part of
, and our beach was near a strip of land called the Achilles Heel. It was an accurate name for the place where we all were. St. George’s Island
Duncan Andrews was an English professor at the State University of New York in
. His younger daughter Hannah, who was thirteen, had an advanced case of bone cancer, and she was involved in an alternative treatment with a medical clinic in Albany Bermuda. She had tried a year of chemotherapy in New York, then at Yale Medical, but it wasn’t working.
I had my own store of memories of cancer and chemotherapy, but Hannah’s was much more serious than mine had ever been. I had been one of those success stories that the doctors would gather around, both happily and professionally, to watch. Duncan was on an extended leave from his teaching, and he was working on a new book about Shakespeare’s sonnets and the people who might have inspired the poet. His own inspiration was a lovely thirteen-year old girl with cancer. The Andrews hadn’t told me everything about Hannah’s new treatment, but I was catching up in pieces. Hannah gave herself injections from a small green case with the caduceus on the front, the medical staff of life and the two serpents coiling to the top in sacred battle with horrific disease. Though no one said anything about my purpose with the Andrews, beyond my desire to be with Emily, I was cast in the role of family priest that everyone could talk to in turn. The Andrews didn’t go to church, but it felt like all of nature was a church for three days.
“The beach is practically empty,” I noted absently, and
looked up from his writing. Duncan
“Some people do work. Even here,” said
He was in his late forties, with grey hair and a grey vacation beard just beginning to sprout.
cried sometimes in front of me, twice since I had arrived in Duncan Bermuda. My girlfriend Emily adored her father, and I liked his thinking and the sad web of boyish wrinkles around his eyes. He was smoking a lot of late, and I occasionally bummed a cigarette to smoke with him, a habit Emily did not approve of in her father or her boyfriend. I could tell was thinking about Hannah again. Duncan
“Nick, could you pour me a glass of wine?”
I reached into the cooler. There was imported beer, a bottle of chardonnay, grapes, and some turkey sandwiches. I grabbed the chilled bottle and uncorked it. I poured the wine into a plastic cup with unnecessary fancy ridges and handed it to Duncan.
I selected a St. Pauli Girl for myself. The buxom German girl on the label always cheered me up.
It was almost noon. Hannah took her shot at , depending on where they were. Hannah was meticulous and efficient at finding a vein on the back of her hand. When her left hand became bruised, she would switch to her right hand for a few times, and
would give her the injection. Duncan
Janet Andrews turned over in the sun, and I saw the white stretch marks on her thighs. She was still very pretty, and sometimes people thought she and Emily were sisters, which Janet really enjoyed. She wasn’t vain—just an attractive woman who truly enjoyed being sensual, with both intellectual ideas and feelings. I occasionally thought of her when I kissed Emily. There were tiny beads of sweat and sand on her chest as she adjusted and snapped her bikini top.
The sea had become calm. I got up for a swim.
“Want to join me for a dip?” I asked Emily.
“I think I’ll read. You go ahead.”
“I’ll come,” Hannah said eagerly.
Her parents looked up and watched Hannah closely. The bone cancer had weakened her, but she still was a good tough swimmer. She was wearing a goofy hunting cap that I had given her from my childhood collection of hats; it was kind of hat with the ear flaps that Holden Caulfield wore to cheer himself. Hair loss is a bitch, I knew from experience, so you need to turn the tables with weird hats. She untied the silly hat and took it off, and there were only a few wisps of red hair left. The hairs drifted in the breeze, and Hannah didn’t seem to care about how she looked. She walked with me over the pinkish sand to the surf, and I took off Emily’s Yale sweatshirt as we walked. There were more people arriving on the beach now. Some of them had colorful umbrellas stuck in the sand.
“It’s ,” called
. “Just so you know.” Duncan
Hannah just waved back at her father. She grabbed my hand by reflex when the water hit our legs. The sun sprayed its blinding reflections on the water, and we walked diagonally into the water, away from the searing brightness. Light waves tossed whitely at our legs. Hannah wore a red one-piece suit, and I wore my old black and gold
West Point swim trunks. Even after leaving West Point, I still loved my academy clothing remnants, and I could spend whole afternoons in Army-Navy surplus stores. We waded beyond the waves to the smoother swells. The water was calm, so I decided not to worry about Hannah. I looked back at Emily and her parents, and father and daughter were buried in their books. Janet read a magazine.
“I’ve always wanted to be an otter, you know,” Hannah confessed to me. “They can swim and eat at the same time, which is pretty cool. The males chew up the females’ noses during mating, which is not so cool. What kind of animal are you?”
“I’m a hawk. A red-tailed hawk. They’re the messenger in the Native American tradition.”
“It’s a bird of prey too. Is that a conflict for a priest?”
“A man has to eat, and feed his little hawks. But I did drop out of West Point.”
The water was almost to my waist, and Hannah dove into the approaching wave. I dove too, got all the way in, and I looked up at the surface from underwater, seeing the cloudy spears of light reaching into the darkness all around me. I could see Hannah’s dark form kicking ahead of me. I wanted to grab her thin legs, but that might not be funny under the circumstances. I came to the surface and stood on my tip toes, facing the beach. Hannah turned towards me and climbed onto my back. The playful otter. I swam out with her hanging on my back. I could feel her body on mine and the occasional brush of her thin legs, trying to help me with the kicking.
I thought about painting. Painting Hannah. I had left my paints and canvasses back at the Episcopal seminary in
where I studied theology. But I had brought my sketch pad and charcoal pencils to work over the weekend. I had drawn two charcoal sketches of a bald Hannah from recent family photographs. Emily had no idea I was drawing her sister in a serious vein. I was trying to find the right shape for a painting that would last forever. I prayed with all my heart that Hannah wouldn’t die. Drawing Hannah had felt like a self-portrait in a strange way, a sketching of the feminine half of my own soul that I was now able to see on the outside. And without her hair, I sometimes had flashes where she was a little boy to me. A tough little boy. I didn’t know enough about the new treatment she was doing, and Duncan had such strong opinions. Perhaps they had given up on the traditional chemotherapy too soon. Manhattan
“Do you want to marry Emily?” Hannah asked, her breath sweet in my ear as we braced for a wave, floating then together for a moment in the swell, her body still tight on mine.
“I’m too poor to marry a Yalie.”
“Not now, silly. After you graduate.”
“I don’t think she would like being a priest’s wife. As a matter of fact, I’m sure of it. She would hate it. I would hate it.”
“She loves you. You should see her face when you kiss her. I would certainly be happy to be your wife. As long as you didn’t chew up my nose.”
“I would never do that. To you or your sister. Not even to your mama.”
Hannah started giggling, and she held on tight as I floated and paddled. I’m a tugboat, I thought. Transporting pure gold. Chemotherapy had been my alchemy, the origin of my call to the priesthood: The craft of the body and the blood. Now I could see the same breathing, bleeding spirit in a beautiful, bald girl. The Christ presence could be found in women in the same pattern as in men. Part of me wondered if I dated Emily just to be with her sister. Truth be told, I was in love with all three women in the Andrews family. Emily was the just the one with whom I got to express my love physically.
“Nicky, I’m tired.”
I turned back towards shore and soon we were walking in the white foam, then on the wet sand. Dry sand stuck to our feet, and Hannah held my hand tightly. We toweled off by the blue and green blankets, and Hannah sat down with her medical kit. Duncan, Janet, Emily, and I all watched her. Hannah spread rubbing alcohol on the back of her hand, and just the alcohol smell took me back fourteen years to Stanford Children’s Hospital. I looked away self-consciously, but then I had to watch, like the rest of the family. She found the vein with the small needle. She was thirteen, and she never missed now. She closed her eyes as she depressed the syringe.
Chemotherapy was supposed to lower your IQ, and I wondered what this new stuff did. I thought of her hand like a blooming island flower, brightest in its colors before death, and the shot went through to the sacred center. The noon bee in the garden. The beautiful terror of her treatment began to seem natural, normal, like all the little things each person does during the day to keep her world alive.
There was sorrow even in paradise.
Emily and I took a hike together in the afternoon. Three days in
Bermuda was like heaven to me, and seminary seemed like a half-remembered dream. I didn’t want to go back. Hannah was a tough kid, I thought, and I imagined her body ripening as a woman in remission. It was more than a fleeting image; it was my beautiful prayer before my God. A God of unspeakable love, and ecstasy.
I had met Emily at a party at Columbia University, with seminarians from General and Union Seminary mixing with the undergraduates from Columbia, Barnard, and Yale. Most people think of seminarians as dorks, but I’ve got some sweet moves—I’ve got game with the ladies. We connected immediately and talked quietly in a corner the entire party, sharing the occasional Dunhill cigarette. I didn’t even kiss her the first night, which is one of the sweetest moves of all. Emily was a theater major at Yale, and I enjoyed getting away from the seminary close and hanging out with her friends in New Haven. Being with Emily also kept me out of trouble at the seminary, and I loved reading on the train to Yale. Relationships were instantly serious at General Theological Seminary. It was like living a literary experience in a nineteenth century Victorian novel, so I tried to keep Emily away from the seminary and its instant gossip as much as possible. It was better to read Trollope, not to live out its perilous Victorian chapters of courtship.
On the hike, Emily was talking about an upcoming play that she was in, written by a fellow Yale student. Emily was intelligent and artistic in a different way than I was. She acted in front of crowds. I preached to congregations, but my real art came to me when I was alone. Writing and painting were my sacred hobbies.
Emily the actress had red hair and olive skin like her mother, but she was taller and had her father’s pale blue eyes. She was wearing khaki Bermuda shorts and a black bikini top. She had a great tan that she would take back to college. Emily looked fantastic, and I was once again struck by the spiritual and physical awareness that the divinity who made women was really showing off.
“I’m so glad you like my family. They’re crazy about you, especially Hannah. You probably know that, she has such a big heart. You can’t miss it. Everything with her illness scares my other friends. But you’ve been through this yourself. That means the world to her.”
“Your family is cool. Nobody hides anything.”
“Oh, we hide plenty. Just wait and see.”
“Is this the actress talking to me?” I asked and pulled her close to me.
Our bodies needed each other with the beauty, and the sorrow, all around us. Sorrow can awaken desire as well. We kissed, loosening all of the differences between us, playing her tongue with mine for a long time. Our bodies pressed together with a growing and wordless urgency. Remembering Hannah’s words, I opened my eyes to look at Emily as she explored my mouth and teeth. I felt her hips with my hands, exploring the front of them below her waist, the flat spot that she loved for me to touch, simply, gently, like a polishing a flat rock, or beautiful gem.
I moved slowly up her ribs, one by one, like Adam with his bride companion, and then to her full breasts. They felt smooth and strong, the twin blossoming secrets of life itself, out in the open. Her breasts were resilient under the black surface of her top. Her cheeks were flushed, and she pulled away, bringing me with her as she held my hand.
There was no one on the path between the dunes and the trees, and the palm trees beckoned us, swaying gently in the light, caressing wind. We weren’t the first, the trees told us, and we wouldn’t be the last, to unite male and female in paradise. We were made for this, nature and the her deity told us.
We found a shady spot, and I spread out the blanket from the picnic basket. We didn’t need the food her mother had packed. We kissed again. I unclasped her bikini top at the front and plunged downward with my kisses. I slowly unbuttoned her khaki shorts, sliding them off with her bikini bottoms together. Emily giggled as they got momentarily stuck on her sandals, which she kicked off. She returned the offering with my
West Point trunks, untying the drawstring slowly, sliding them off completely. I moved into her center as we stared into each other’s eyes, entering and inviting, gliding slowly together with the worlds we knew inside.
Duncan and I shared a bottle of red table wine from France in the early evening at the rented cottage near the old town of St. George. Janet was making fish stew and corn bread for dinner, and the sun was sinking as if it were the first day of creation’s golden experiment.
Emily thought her father was drinking too much because of Hannah. But he so loved the three women in his life, and Hannah was breaking his heart. All of our hearts were breaking, and we knew it without knowing how to name our common wound.
was a published poet as well as a professor. I’d take Duncan and his drinking any day. Better to feel too much. Duncan
We talked about what each of us was reading, and it felt good to be near him.
’s eyes had an animal quickness and a wordless intensity. I could tell he was thinking about his daughter. I saw her hand again as the island flower; with an immortal beauty in the center that could never die. I shuddered and poured more wine. Duncan
“It’s different every time you break your heart,”
said without looking at me. Duncan
“You wouldn’t want to get bored.”
We both lit a Camel from his pack, and we smoked quietly together. I could hear the lilting chirp of a distant bird. Duncan was a Buddhist, but he liked my connections between art and theology. In truth, he and I were kindred spirits, despite the names and labels of organized religion and orthodoxy. I could sometimes feel Duncan move far away, and I would stop talking and just be with him silently.
Emily and Hannah drove me to Kindley Field Airport at the end of the weekend. Time had flown by. Hannah sat in the front seat with us and sang funny songs that she made up as we drove along. Emily held my hand when she wasn’t too occupied with her driving, and occasionally she would feel my leg as we listened to her sister sing her wacky spontaneous words. Hannah was wearing the plaid hunting cap. She loved that cap, and Hannah said it still smelled like me.
We drove between the lining trees, and the limbs moved with their waving leaves, like an old friend saying goodbye forever. Some of the leaves let go in the wind and floated past our windshield. I wasn’t listening to Hannah anymore. I reached over and held her left hand, and I slowly turned it over. A plum colored bruise had risen near her wrist. Without speaking, I began to softly massage the bruised and tender center of her hand. Emily held my left hand tighter as she watched what was happening.
Hannah never stopped singing in her sweet girl’s voice. I wanted the moment to last, the time with the three of us gliding down the road together. We weren’t driving; we were flying to heaven. I could feel the sacred space between the two sisters where I sat. I knew Hannah’s image would never leave me, and I wouldn’t have to paint from the photographs I had anymore. I could see her inside of me, like a spiritual tattoo.
I wanted to be completely in the moment with Hannah and Emily, to be fully awake to the life of soul between us three, the third presence that is love in her ghostly essence. The Holy Spirit, the feminine side of God barely alive in Orthodox Christianity.
But the weekend was coming to its close, and I was headed back to
alone. Time was coming to a winged close again; just when the immortal outline of God could be glimpsed and traced by human hands in loving pattern. The sacred name of God in the stirring sand was again washed out to sea so that another could discover it as if for the very first time. New York City
A portrait of Hannah would take longer than three days to rise inside of me back in the city; it would take many months to paint her portrait. Her image would emerge from my hands in her absence, at rest forever and at peace, yet close enough to recognize her smell from another world.