On the first of April, my older sister, not quite eighteen, had a seizure in the bathtub. My parents heard a crash in the bathroom and then the choking breath of my sister, who couldn’t respond to their words with any of her own. My father picked the lock with a bobby pin while my mother, beside him, shrieked, “Hurry, Charlie, hurry—oh, Jesus, please open this door, my daughter—Lord, please—”
My little sister stood in the doorway of our bedroom with her hand over her mouth. My brother and I came running from the kitchen just after my father got the door open. He was crouched on the bathroom floor, cradling my sister’s head and yelling at my mother, who was shaking in response to my sister’s shaking, and wailing.
“Get the phone,” he shouted.
My little sister held my mother’s shoulders while she dialled the phone number; my brother told the operator where to send the ambulance because my mother could not remember.
None of us knew it was epilepsy then. Later, after the doctor’s visits and hours of tests, when what had happened had been explained, we moved forward. But that morning, when there were no words for what was happening, the possibilities loomed cavernous. We stood together at the edge of the cliff, teetering, our mouths empty.
There was the thought of death. Of course there was that thought. Wordless fear rapidly unwinding to the end of its sentence, to the only possible point of punctuation. That fear can make itself understood in any language. I heard it, palpable and pounding, in my mother’s voice as she cried my sister’s name.
My first lesson on death was simple—there is heaven and there is hell and everyone must go to one or the other. I once asked my mother how she knew she was going to heaven. She said she just knew, that Jesus lived within her and she just knew. I was never sure. What if I hadn’t opened the door of my heart properly? What if I hadn’t closed it again after inviting Jesus in and he wandered out one day, following a scent on the air like a cat?
My church held a prayer every week for those who hadn’t yet been saved, a chance to ask Jesus into your heart. I participated in the prayer regularly, asking to be saved again and again. I never felt sure that I had done it correctly and I couldn’t bear to send my mother up to heaven alone, her believing that I would join her one day, me never showing up.
I was eight years old the first time I participated in this prayer. In careful, lopsided handwriting, I wrote in the front of a Bible that my church had given me especially for the occasion: “At Christian Life Assembly, I asked Jesus into my heart.” It was April; I was kneeling as if for bedtime prayer at a long bench padded with stained orange fabric, in a sanctuary built to house three thousand people.
At the time I attended it, Christian Life Assembly was a rapidly growing Pentecostal church across from the local airfield. It was just starting to use microphones and projector screens in its services. I remember the building with a bodily nausea, which for a long time I thought was a potent representation of my emotional experience there, but which I realize now is simply an associative, physical memory. Every Sunday, I read books from the church library on the car ride home, even though I was prone to motion sickness. An underlying queasiness will always inform my memories of that church.
I stopped attending church when I was twelve and so my vision of Pentecostalism remains a child’s vision, my recollections pooled in bright swatches of colour, and particular, vivid moments amongst a haze of half-memories. What is the rustle of wind in the night and what the devil?
My mother used to tell us that if the devil came into our room at night, if we saw him or felt him and were afraid, all we had to do was command, “In the name of Jesus, you’re not welcome here,” and he would leave. The devil could not stand to be recognized for who he was or to hear the name of Christ spoken. I shared a room with my younger sister and spent many midnights with my eyes wildly open and all my muscles clenched, begging the devil—the shadows in the room, the possibility of ghosts—to leave me alone. The Holy Spirit lived in the heart of every believer, and the devil too was in the body. Temptation meant he was in your head. If you thought of stealing, of lying, of cheating, of touching someone, the devil had a hold on you.
Some nights I stared for hours at my little sister’s sleeping body across the room, fearing that she would rise up and not be herself, that in the darkness an evil spirit would enter her and I would be faced with her red eyes and huge, unearthly grin.
The first time I heard someone speaking in tongues, I thought it was the voice of the devil come to life, and I expected the pastor to perform an immediate and shocking exorcism. I don’t remember when I learned that it was, instead, God speaking through a body.
The experience of glossolalia has always been at the core of my understanding of Christianity. When I was younger, I would have considered the two to be synonymous. When I was younger, I did not even know there was a separate word for that upswelling of formless sound. Gloss-o-la-li-a. I turned that over and over on my tongue when I first learned it, feeling instinctively how close the sound of it felt to the action, but also noticing the ways in which the word itself fell short. It’s too small, an ambitious attempt at packaging an unpackageable thing. Tongues spill over into everything they touch.
Glossolalia: how the sound spilling from an unseen corner of the church was like a snake uncoiling in the air—that hiss.
Sunday mornings were ecstatic. The choir wailed out their worship and we all raised our hands because God compelled us, because the air was heavy with him and we wanted to hold it. We swayed, singing, my mother with her eyes closed, murmuring between verses, “Thank you, Jesus.” I used to get dizzy in that huge sanctuary of bodies waving and shouting. There were times when the only way I could remain standing was by focusing hard on the seat in front of me and mouthing the words instead of singing, as I tried to get more air into my lungs without drawing any attention to myself.
From the balcony, I could see the pastor far below raising his hands as he prayed into the microphone, sweating under his collared shirt and tie. He shouted, “Amen,” and the congregation responded. Voices called, “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” “In the name of Jesus.”
I stood with my eyes closed and my hands clenched together in a fist. Instead of praying, I braced myself. First, one voice would cry out in tongues, then another and another, all making similar, otherworldly sounds that seemed forced from an unwilling speaker. The person speaking would often end in tears. I was never able to
tell from what corner of the sanctuary the voice originated, and I didn’t know what it was saying, or why. Because of this, I was terrified in the small moments between speakers—where would it come from next? From whom? And, worst of all, what if it happened to me?
My mother never spoke in tongues during a service. But I was constantly afraid that she would. I had heard her possessed by the Holy Spirit before, many times. When I or my siblings hurt ourselves badly or burned in an awful fever, she would come to us with a shaking voice, hold our foreheads, and repeat frantically over us a phrase that I came to associate with her fear. I don’t know what she said. I have the sound and panic of it in my head still, but it doesn’t fit into letters or words. She frightened me like that, seized by God’s glory.
For a long period in Christian history, there was a blurry line between epilepsy and demonic possession. In their most extreme states, both share a common symptom: the falling of the afflicted. The fact is that epileptic episodes can range from simple, sometimes unnoticeable staring spells to violent shaking of the whole body, but in popular culture epilepsy is associated so strongly with the image of the body being flung about by an unseen force that that tends to be what we mean when we say “seizure.” The Greek, “epilepsia,” translates as “seizure,” which in its root form means “to take hold of; grasp; to take possession of.”
Epilepsy has also been known, colloquially though never medically, as “the falling evil.” In the Middle Ages, this name was used for a wide variety of ailments, including demon possession. Then, little distinction was made between the symptoms of epilepsy and those of possession—and many of the same cures were prescribed for both. The Book of Luke tells the story of a boy who falls into a fit; “a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams, and it throws him into a convulsion with foaming at the mouth; and only with difficulty does it leave him, mauling him as it leaves.” The father of the boy begs Jesus to save his son and cast the demon out.
The demon in this story is also referred to as an “unclean spirit,” terminology that I remember from picture books I read as a child and never quite understood. I do now. It speaks to the fear of contamination that is always present when something—a physical ailment, a spiritual experience, desire or sexuality—is misunderstood. But by the grace of God, the demon could move into another susceptible body at any moment. Thanks to its symptomatic overlap with possession and the
understanding at the time of the relationship between body, brain, and spirit, epilepsy was considered infectious in the Middle Ages. Those who had been possessed and epileptics alike could be refused the Eucharist because of an early church belief that they would desecrate the common cup and thus pass their illness to the rest of the congregation. The evil amongst us.
And I wonder if there is some truth, in a way, to the panic about contagion. To watch my mother watch my sister shake through an episode was to witness some kind of spirit move from one to the other, contorting both bodies as it passed through. Each of my sister’s seizures has brought, for me, a double remembrance of glossolalia. The sounds she made—that choking noise in the throat—overlaid with my mother’s sobs and stammered prayers, the uncontrollable rise in her voice.
Every time there was a loud noise in the house, my mother gasped the beginning of my sister’s name and tensed so visibly she was like a picture. If I dropped the shampoo bottle in the shower, I prepared myself for my mother’s panicked knock at the bathroom door. This is how I remember instances of my mother speaking in tongues when I was little—bracing my body instinctively after I had hurt myself because in the next second she would hurtle toward me and her terror would come out of her mouth.
When I stopped going to church, it wasn’t because of one particular reason, just the collection of a hundred discomforts that I could no longer ignore. One Sunday I went, the next I didn’t. At the time, I explained it to my mother with vague answers about not really connecting with any of the other kids in my youth group, which, as someone who often felt like a social outsider, she understood and maybe even encouraged. But the years stretched on and I never went back. We yelled at each other. I shouted words she didn’t understand; she stuttered prayers back at me in a language I had chosen to stop speaking.
Will it ever be easy to let her imagine taking the long trip to heaven alone? That child’s desperate wish to accompany her into the cave of her fears still flares up in me from time to time, even though I know there is no one who can go there with her.
Here is another portrait of my mother: she is in the garden in her black rubber boots, pulling up weeds on her knees. She has dirt in her hair and her glasses are sliding down her long nose. The season doesn’t matter—it could be any month and
she would still be found in the garden, but let’s say it’s spring because in my mind the ground is wet from night rain and the air is cool enough that she has to wear a sweatshirt. She is alone in the garden, though I can see her from the window. The first crocuses are springing up along the yard’s perimeter. All the words to describe their colour are simply the names of other plants: heliotrope, lilac, goldenrod.
Who knows what she is thinking. I imagine she is humming a song she learned in church but I can’t really know unless I go out to the garden, take my place beside her, speak.
This past summer, my friend threw her head back as she laughed and caught the afternoon sunlight in her mouth. In the dying days of winter, another friend crawled into my bed like a child and asked how much I loved him.
So terribly much that the sudden fear seizes me: Lord, let me keep this love, grant me the second of sun in her mouth in the summer, the pause between his question and my answer in the winter, the garden smell of my living mother.
I’ll say it again in tongues if that’s what it takes.