Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - ESTLIN McPHEE

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.

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