“We don’t know if she’ll understand you, but she can hear you even though she’s sedated.”
I stood at my mother’s bedside last summer, watching as machines breathed for her. She was small, wasted by an infection that was worse than she had thought until it was almost too late. With my blue-gloved hand – required for the quarantine ward – I held her hand as she lay on the cusp of life and death, and I thought, “If only there were a wonderworker here, some holy person who understood about God and healing. I would ask them to pray, and she would get better.” I could almost see those saints on church walls come to life, waiting just outside the door to Mom’s hospital room.
I knew there was a flaw in my thinking. I knew that walls couldn’t keep out holiness, not even the double-sealed walls and doors of the negative pressure room where Mom lay. My sigh was muffled by the face mask I wore, but my words were clear. “I’ll be back, Mom. I have to go get something.”
That evening, I returned with an arrangement of fake flowers, a little icon of the Protection of the Holy Mother of God, and my sister, who brought a rosary and a little standing cross. Mom’s condition had deteriorated in the few hours I had been absent, but this time when I walked into her room, quarantine mask and gloves in place as usual, I knew what to do. Just a little beauty reminded me. Maybe I only have a little bit of faith, and maybe I’m only a little bit holy, but I know that God is with me.
Mom’s sedation was wearing off when we arrived, and I looked across the bed at my sister. “You know, I can almost hear Grandma and Nana talking over each other right now like they did before they died. They’re here praying for Mom, and they are saying different things at the same time, even though they agree with each other.” Mom started to wake up at the mention of her mother and grandmother.
“Mom!” we said in unnaturally loud voices amplified by the silence of the sealed room. “Mom, guess what? You’re back in communion with church.” My sister told Mom about how a priest had come and administered the rite of the anointing of the sick, and how part of the prayers included forgiveness of her sins and restoration. “Mom, after more than 40 years, you’re a good Catholic again.”
We chuckled, but we were happy for the grace that had come to her. Mom had suffered a lot over those years from the harsh words and actions of people who wanted to shame her for having me when she was an unwed teen. She had rarely gone to church because she felt she had nothing to wear.
I had known since I was a child that what she meant was that she needed mercy to cover her. Now it had.
She nodded her head and tried to wake up.
Then I remembered about God and mothers and how bad we need them when death is creeping around.
“Mom, I brought you an icon of the Holy Theotokos, the Blessed Virgin. She’s your mother, too. She never stopped loving you.” Mom opened her eyes and saw the little image of Mary.
Suddenly, Mom was lit from within. Though she was intubated and restrained, she tried to grab the icon to kiss it. Her face was filled with joy. We raised the icon to her mouth to kiss it, and tears flowed down her face. I sang “Ave Maria” through a quarantine mask that night, and my mother glowed and kissed the Mother of God until exhaustion overcame her.
That night, my sister and my brother-in-law and I talked about what we would do if Mom recovered and what we would do if she did not. Mom would need to live in a different place for her lungs to heal. She needed to be near the sea, if possible, and she would need someone to help her often. If she didn’t have those things, she probably wouldn’t recover once she left the hospital. The next morning, I woke up with a prayer in my heart. It wasn’t a wonderworker’s prayer but the kind that is said by people who only know a little bit of God. “Father, help. Give my mother a good choice. Give her the possibility of living.”
When I got to the hospital, the quarantine had been lifted. The illness that plagued her wasn’t the more contagious one that they had feared, though it was at least as serious in how it had affected her. I sat down in the chair near her, wondering if it was only my wishful thinking that made me see her as having turned back toward life. Was that one moment of blazing grace the beginning of recovery or simply a good ending?
My phone rang. It was my uncle, calling to say that he and his wife would take my mom in for six months so that she could recover. He lives a couple of blocks from the sea, and he’s retired and has taken her to her medical appointments.
When I flew home, I compared the shape of that experience with Mom to other times I had encountered a little bit of God. When my son was diagnosed, and I was told that he had almost no testable cognitive ability or communication ability, how I longed for a little bit of God! I remember how fierce that pebble of faith was then, when I demanded a mountain move in exchange for something as small as my love. And how swiftly God helped us then, too. And how gradually and faithfully and steadily my child has grown, until I found myself begging at night, “put your love in his heart” so often that the prayer got bright enough for me to see that God was already there. Almost like my mother’s reconciliation with God retold the story so that her glowing face showed us Who was with her all along.
I’m writing this now because I can take this shape of prayer and match it up to every story in my life. When I was a girl who was told I was not allowed to have the gifts of the Holy Spirit (teaching, knowledge, and so on) because they weren’t ladylike, I went home and decided that it was ok with me if I wasn’t allowed to talk about it, as long as I could have a little bit of God. When I was abused and broken and terrified, I went to the chapel at night and cried that even so, even if that was all I was, I would hold onto the little bit of God that I could see. I never read the Gospel except thinking of myself as the dog under the table. I never deserved any of the things they talked about in the talks about victory. But even though I spent most of my life believing it would embarrass God to be associated with me, I couldn’t stop treasuring every little bit of God I could find.
With a lot of help from my aunts and uncle, Mom is living on her own again now. With a lot of help from therapists and saints and a lot of hard work and training, my son has above normal cognitive function (though his communication challenges are still extensive). With a lot of work and patience and people trying to coax me out of hiding, I went on to get three unladylike university degrees in church history and theology. With even more work, and thousands of hours of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and the love of many people and the guidance of many elders, I’m halfway willing to hope that God isn’t embarrassed to be associated with me. But one way or another, I haven’t stopped that habit of picking up every shard of the shattered pieces of life where I can see God’s face reflected. I am not a saint on a mountain, but I am a witness to God’s love. I can do that. I can tell you a thousand million ways and more that I have seen that love poured out on me, the people around me, on and in you, too.
That’s because there’s no such thing as a little bit of God. God is all in all. Even though I’m not a wonderworker, God works the wonders. I can see a little at a time, and I see a little bit of God in every story I turn over in my hands, and in every day no matter how hard or happy, and I can see a little bit of God in you.