Beware of God
The crowd in the bookstore comforted
me somehow. Comforted or numbed; either way, it worked. I’d only
just started to be able to go places again and hadn’t been in a
bookstore in a long time. The experience, amazingly, was much the
same as before: browsers still stood in silence among the shelves
you could disappear behind, the shelves that could swallow you up;
staff still pushed trucks of new stock around, shelving discreetly
between customers. It was all the same. How could it be so, I wondered,
and yet how could it be otherwise? The soft music, the heady aroma
of coffee made me almost decide to sit and linger over a cup, relax
perhaps, when my eye caught the familiar face of the tall man at
the end of the aisle. After a mutual flicker of recognition, I realized
it was Bill Howard, my assistant. We’d seen each other, and now
we must chat for a moment, no way out of it. He smiled, briefly,
timorously, the tight, forced smile of a man who does not really
feel like smiling at all.
“How’ve you been?”
“I’m well. I’m well. We’ve missed you.”
The auburn haired, freckled woman some ways behind him was his wife,
I remembered, whom I’d met at Christmas parties and such several
times over the years. What was her name? I’d never think of it right
now. But she was with him, just as I’d feared, and she wheeled the
stroller up behind him.
“Marian, do you remember Janis? And this is our daughter, Kayla.”
Kayla looked to be a year old or so. Oblivious to her parents and
me, she squealed and wriggled, getting her chubby, sticky hands
all over a display of Robert Ludlum©
paperbacks. Then I found I couldn’t look at her anymore, and looked
back at her mother. But I could tell by the way Janis averted her
eyes, nearly winced when I looked at her, that the blurring and
the stinging heat of my approaching tears were no longer secret.
I looked away, too.
Somehow the conversation finished, I don’t remember how. It was
just meaningless obligatory chit-chat, all parties involved relieved
when it was over, particularly Kayla. I found the washroom and checked
myself in the mirror, surprised at how composed I looked. Mascara
not running, nose and eyes not red. Only a hard glitter to the eyes
that might give me away. That and maybe a certain long-standing,
habitual set of the jaw.
There’s got to be someone to blame, and I’m still firmly mired in
the blaming stage, so I blame Russ. Or maybe I should blame his
mother. Actually, they can share the blame: he’s to blame because
he’s the one who insisted on the whole church business in the first
place, and she’s to blame because she’s the one who guilted him
into it. Pair of hypocrites, the both of them. She’s about as Christian
as Attila the Hun, as far as I can see. And the only time Russ ever
thought about religion before that was at funerals. Even then, he
used to snarl about the stupidity of it all for days afterwards.
So you can imagine my surprise when he started making noises, one
Sunday morning, about us starting to go to church. Naturally, I
thought he was kidding, so I just played along.
“Okay. Which one? Why don’t we go to the Church of God over on forty-fifth?
Church of God, like there’s some other kind of church.”
“I meant St. Barnabas.”
“Sure, but why limit ourselves? We could hit them one week, the
Catholics the next --”
“Marian. I’m serious.”
I put my crossword puzzle down, looked at him over my reading glasses,
wondering for a brief, terrifying moment if he’d had some brush
with mortality. He had just been for a checkup a couple of weeks
earlier. Maybe they’d found something he hadn’t told me about yet.
Or maybe it was mid-life crisis, or andropause, whatever they were
calling it these days, that had my husband in its grip.
“There’s nothing wrong. It’s just that Mom’s getting on. You know
she hasn’t been so well lately.”
Russ’s mother had been dying since approximately the day I met her,
in 1971; there was always some immediate threat to her health at
hand. I do believe it was her very ill health that kept her going,
for I was sure she hadn’t much else to live for. Well, ill health
and haranguing Russ. “How exactly is our going to church going to
improve things for her?”
“It would just make her feel better, is all. She worries. Not about
us so much, more about Jennifer.”
Jennifer. Suddenly, the lightbulb came on. “It’s the sign, isn’t
“No. Well, actually it did get me to thinking about it a little,
A couple of years earlier, Jennifer had hung a sign on the outside
of her bedroom door, the kind you get in hardware stores with fluorescent
orange letters on a black background, that read, “NO TRESPASSING”.
Recently, she’d replaced it with one that said “BEWARE OF DOG”,
only she’d cut out the letters in the last word and reversed them.
I thought it was kind of funny, but I didn’t really think much about
it. As far as I knew, Russ’s mother hadn’t seen it, but apparently
it worried him.
“I don’t think it means our daughter has become a Satanist. She
just has a fondness for wordplay. Anyway, good luck getting her
out of bed anytime before noon on a Sunday. As for me, I see no
reason to spend my Sunday mornings in an institution that I have
listened to you sputter on disparagingly about for years, for the
sole purpose of making your mother happy.”
“I just thought, you know, she might not be around much longer,
and it would be such a small effort on our parts…”
He stroked his greying brown beard as he spoke, and I knew that
meant he was nervous. The poor dear. She’d really socked it to him.
I wanted to tell him, though I never could, that it wasn’t so much
us going to church that would make the old so-and-so happy, it would
be the simple act of submission to her will that would satisfy her.
“We could just tell her we’ve been going. To a different church,
of course, not St. Barnabas, otherwise she’d know.”
“We could not do that.”
“Why not? They don’t take attendance, do they?”
“If you’re going to be sarcastic, I don’t think there’s any point
in having this conversation.”
“Look, I’m sorry. But come on. The man who’s been rejecting organized
religion as superstitious nonsense as long as I’ve known him is
all of a sudden telling me he’s found God? I mean, the first thing
that came to my mind was that you must be joking.”
“I didn’t say I’d found God. I just said it would make my mother
happy in the last part of her life if we showed up at church now
and again. And it’s not a joke.”
Turns out the joke was on me. We were in St. Barnabas the next Sunday.
Just because Russ and I were going didn’t mean Jennifer would, though,
as I suspected. I thought she’d laugh, react more or less the way
I had when her father told her we were going to church. Russ was
annoyed by her complete lack of interest in the matter. I saw him
glaring, as he tried to argue with her, at her blue-black lawnmower-cut
hair, her piercings, her clothes, all topics of dispute between
them in the past. She shrugged and said she’d rather go and visit
Oma than go to church to make her happy, and suddenly the discussion
was over. Now there was an answer. How could this wise, calm creature
be a child of mine, I wondered as I watched her descend the basement
stairs to her bedroom.
“She spends an awful lot of time in her room,” Russ muttered.
“She does. I suppose you didn’t when you were a kid.”
“I don’t think I was in my room that much. Whenever she’s at home
she’s down there, listening to that God-awful music she’s into,
all about death and despair. The only times I ever see her are at
meals. And not even all the time then.”
“Maybe you think she should be up here digging the Grateful Dead
with us or something. At her age she’d rather be on the phone with
her friends than hanging with her parents. Most kids her age would
rather be doing anything else but hanging with their parents. I
know I was that way.”
Since I’ve been off work I’ve managed for the most part to avoid
people, people outside the family and close friends. I think particularly
of some of my co-workers, and I’m afraid they’ll ask questions.
Frankly, I’m in no shape to talk about it. Not that most decent
people would ask, I’m sure. But you never know, and I’m just not
willing to take that risk yet, even though I suppose they’ve probably
all heard it by now. Bill has, of course. I’m sure they all know.
Still, right now I can’t risk getting into a situation where I’d
have to go into it to any degree. Most days it’s hard enough to
talk to Russ or his mother about it; talking to people outside the
family, I break down. So the only thing I’ve arrived at is avoidance.
It’s not much of a coping strategy, but it’s all I’ve got.
We started attending services at St. Barnabas, as I said. Regular
church attendance hadn’t been part of my life since my early teens.
But I found the standing, the sitting, the kneeling, all at the
same prescribed times, the singing, even the words, were almost
identical in the Anglican services and the Masses of my girlhood.
To think people had fought and died over the differences, the ridiculous
Russ told me I didn’t have to come with him if I didn’t want to.
I would have loved to stay home with my tea and my slippers and
my paper, but I just couldn’t do it. It was bad enough listening
to him making excuses to his mother for Jennifer: she had a bad
cold, she had an essay to turn in the next day, she was studying
for finals. I didn’t have the heart to think of him trying to dream
up alibis for me, too. And he would have, he could never just tell
his mother that Jennifer and I weren’t there because we just weren’t
into the organized religion thing at all, and neither was he for
that matter. Much as I would have loved to hear him say it, much
as I would have liked to see her mouth purse up and her moony little
face turn red.
I went with him, but that was as far as I was willing to go. I was
not going to be a party to nagging Jennifer to come. He tried to
get me onside once, at dinner.
“Jennifer is seventeen,” I answered. “I think she’s old enough to
decide whether she wants to go to church or not, don’t you?”
He was touchy the rest of the evening. Maybe that wasn’t the answer
he wanted to hear, but it was the truth. People should get used
to listening to the truth, I thought, instead of pressuring other
people to say and do what they wanted them to. Because eventually
the truth will out, or at least you hope so. Because you get so
damn tired of listening to these little white lies designed to spare
people’s feelings, or whatever it is they’re supposed to accomplish.
After a while, though, Russ’s mom did stop asking why Jennifer wasn’t
there, like she figured it out, or finally decided it wasn’t worth
wasting any more of her nagging power on.
One Sunday a couple of months later, we returned from church for
what turned out to be the last time. We changed out of what had
become our church clothes, and I asked Russ to go downstairs to
ask Jennifer what she wanted for lunch. I stood peering into the
fridge, trying to decide whether to heat up last night’s lentil
soup or make sandwiches when he came bounding up the stairs. He
stood looking at me, not saying anything, breathing very hard from
the unaccustomed effort of running. He was looking at me, yet he
was looking at nothing, or at something far off, or at something
he still saw in his eyes that wouldn’t go away.
I was afraid to ask him what was wrong.
We had no idea. Well, looking back, it seems Russ did have an inkling.
But not me. I had no clue that our daughter was depressed. She’d
always been the serious type, quiet. And she did spend a lot of
time in her room, on phone. Didn’t all teenagers? How could something
like this strike your family completely unawares? In those first
few weeks after it happened, I kept saying, “If only we’d been home,
she never would have done it.” Not realizing, in my grief, how little
sense that made.
What remains now is the thing everyone thinks but no one articulates.
The elephant in the room, so obvious, taking up all the space and
crushing the furniture, but no one talks about it. No one has to.
I think it all the time, and I hate myself for thinking it, but
I can’t help thinking it: this is worse than death. Seeing her lying
in this bed, unresponsive, unseeing, caught in a snarl of tubing
and gauges, I think it’s not really Jennifer. The antiseptic smell,
the metallic smell of blood, so foreign at first, yet something
I now encounter every day, associate now with her. So strange.
I think that, and then sometimes I want to slap myself for thinking
it. Because this is Jennifer, this is Jennifer, something
inside me screams. The real Jennifer. Not the Jennifer I thought
I knew, not the Jennifer who was yakking on the phone about cute
boys or whatever it was I figured she was yakking about. I guess
the thing was I had no idea what she was talking about, what she
was thinking about, who she really was. But this is who she is now,
and I can no longer defend not seeing her clearly.
Now it’s all clear enough.