Anointings were eleventh-hour efforts—what you asked for after you’d asked for everything else.
Image from Flickr via neilkrug
Seven months into her husband’s depression, Diane called the church secretary. She wanted the elders to come over and anoint Mitch with oil. He hadn’t put his pants on in a month. In the past week he hadn’t left the bed. When he spoke, it was about endings—the end of his career, the end of suffering. This morning, at 3:00 a.m., he’d woken her to ask if summer was over yet. It was early June. Diane was afraid he might kill himself.
She’d seen anointings performed twice before. The first time was at a Baptist summer camp when she was nine. During evening worship—held in a makeshift auditorium beneath a stained canvas tarp—a boy with braces on his legs was brought forward by his mother, his wheelchair leaving tracks in the sawdust. The camp’s pastor removed the braces, knelt in front of the chair, and rubbed oil all over the boy’s white calves as if he were applying sunscreen. The following summer the boy came back to camp still wearing the braces, though now he used crutches with metal cuffs around the wrists.
The second time was last year in church, during Sunday morning service. A woman with breast cancer—metastasized—knelt beside the altar while the elders crowded around her, their hands on her shoulders. Pastor Murray oiled a thumbprint on the woman’s forehead and prayed that God would strangle the tumors. A year later, the woman was cancer-free. She wore her hair gelled up into bleached spikes.
Anointings were eleventh-hour efforts—what you asked for after you’d asked for everything else. Had someone told her she’d be asking for one, Diane would have laughed. Three years ago Mitch’s orthopedic practice was bringing in more money than either of them had anticipated. He’d been working long hours, not only seeing patients in the office and doing hospital rotation, but also testifying as an expert witness in lawsuits. “These guys’ll try anything to get workmen’s comp,” he’d said. “One guy rolled himself into the office in a wheelchair. Two days later surveillance caught him pitching a tent at his son’s scout camp.”
Now Mitch was the one applying for permanent disability. Simple brain chemistry, the psychiatrist had said. Dopamine highs, serotonin lows. Mitch was—here the doctor had cleared his throat—bipolar. He’d pronounced it gently, as if the word itself might break in two. For one crazy moment Diane thought it meant Mitch needed glasses, the kind you wore if you were both near- and far-sighted.
At first she begged God to heal Mitch. Now she just wanted God to extend a measured grace—something long enough to get them from here to there.
What it meant, in practical terms, was that for three years Mitch had been addicted to Vicodin. He’d gotten hooked after his back surgery, started mixing it with Valium and prescribing to himself using other men’s names. Diane had seen the bottles on his desk—Glen Sanderson, Brian Gilbert, Gary Dennis—names of patients at the homeless shelter where they both volunteered through church. Crossroads, it was called: the logo was a cross casting a purple shadow onto a stick figure lying prostrate in the middle of a road. It was their family’s ministry. Every other Saturday they drove to the facility in downtown Tucson, where Mitch handed out medications, Diane scrambled eggs or flipped pancakes, and Ellie and Kyle passed out Ziploc baggies filled with miniature bottles of mouthwash, anti-bacterial hand gel, deodorant, plastic combs, dental floss, tracts. The homeless people loved to touch the children’s faces and hair. Diane always watched to make sure the touching was appropriate.
Then one day last November, when Mitch left early to pick up some prescriptions before work and she’d seen the kids onto the bus, the doorbell rang. Two men wearing Polo shirts and khakis held up badges. Diane led them into the living room and sat down on the couch; the men remained standing. One took out a recorder and placed it on the grand piano. “Mrs. Stewart, are you aware that your husband has been prescribing himself narcotics? Are you aware he’s been using other names to obtain the medications?”
She shook her head. “He took them once,” she said, “only for a few days. After his back surgery.” The men looked at each other. Diane lifted her chin. “He volunteers at Crossroads, downtown. The medications are for the patients.”
The DEA fined Mitch $25,000. The medical board sentenced him to a month-long inpatient detox program and three years’ attendance at NA meetings. They revoked his license to prescribe narcotics and set him up for psychiatric evaluation. “At least he didn’t have to go to prison,” the psychiatrist said to Diane.
Mitch withdrew from her, from the kids. He wandered around the house in his boxers. He watched the History Channel, sometimes all night long. Diane started sleeping in the guest room. She called the prayer hotline at church; she memorized scripture and took prayer walks; she went to the church and had elders pray with her. At first she begged God to heal Mitch. Now she just wanted God to extend a measured grace—something long enough to get them from here to there.
Diane wanted to believe the anointing would be that thing. But she doubted it would work. Her faith was waning. What if it was all a crock, made up to quiet fears of not existing? Near-death experiences, angelic visitations, visions—all just neurons firing, a highly evolved response system to keep the human race from going insane?
She’d made the choice to believe when she was a child living in Toledo. One winter night, when she was nine, she couldn’t sleep, sweaty and panicked by the thought that she might not believe in God. She finally sneaked out of the house and wrote in the snow with her finger, in the biggest letters she could make, “I LOVE GOD.” The snow sparkled orange under the streetlamp. He can see that, she thought. I love him. Now he knows.
Lately she was questioning everything. Maybe Hume was right, she thought. We should be no more afraid of ceasing to exist after we die than we’re afraid we didn’t exist before we were born.
Some days she longed to curl up naked against him; other days she dreaded even looking at him. He’d aged. He was thirty-eight but looked a decade older.
Ellie shuffled into the kitchen wearing a T-shirt Mitch had given her for her eighth birthday: a silkscreened kitten above the words Less Purr, More Grrr. “What’s for breakfast?”
“Pancakes,” Diane said. “From scratch.”
“Can you make them chocolate chip?”
“We don’t have any chocolate chips.”
“We never have anything anymore.” Ellie said. “Why can’t you go to the store? Or why can’t Daddy?” She sat down with her knees up, her arms crossed over her chest.
“Grandma’s coming the day after tomorrow.” Diane knew the singsongy voice in which she said this was overcompensation. “So I can go to the store then.” She poured one-and-a-half cups of milk into the flour mixture, cracked two eggs into the bowl, and tipped four tablespoons of canola oil over the side. She stirred with a fork, then poured three circles of the batter onto the griddle in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. She watched the face and ears bubble up and pop.
After breakfast Diane turned on Playhouse Disney. “Can I plug it in?” Kyle asked.
“Not that again,” Ellie said to him. Kyle was six and loved anything with a plug. At bedtime a few weeks earlier, he told Diane he’d decided what he wanted to be when he grew up: a plug man. “You know,” he said. “The guy who goes around to peoples’ houses and plugs stuff in for them.” She told Mitch about it later that night. Mitch rubbed the palms of his hands up and down along the recliner’s leather armrests. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “What was it he did?”
Diane turned off the cable and watched Kyle pull the plug, then reinsert it. “Big to big, little to little,” he said. “That’s what plug-mans know how to do.”
Diane took Mitch’s pills and a glass of juice into the bedroom. Some days she longed to curl up naked against him; other days she dreaded even looking at him. He’d aged. He was thirty-eight but looked a decade older.
Diane pulled back the curtains; Mitch stirred. She sat on the edge of the bed next to him. As usual, he held a pillow over his head. She’d hardly seen his face all week.
“I made pancakes.” She put her hand on his back. “Don’t you want to get up and put your pants on?”
Mitch turned over and lifted a corner of the pillow. Red lines ran in haphazard cross-stitch from his cheekbone down into stubble. He smelled musty. She handed him the glass of juice and he reached for it, his hand shaking.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Pastor Murray is coming today,” she said. “He’s bringing the elders. They want to anoint you with oil.” She pulled the pillow off his head.
“Almost nine.” A cicada rasped in the mesquite tree outside the window. “Pastor Murray is coming today,” she said. “He’s bringing the elders. They want to anoint you with oil.” She pulled the pillow off his head.
Mitch flung an arm over his eyes, then sat up on his elbows. “Do the kids still think it’s my back?”
Diane nodded. She walked to the closet and pulled a pair of khakis off a hanger, then folded the pants and placed them on the foot of the bed.
Mitch lay back down. “God, I want this to end.”
Diane pulled off her nightgown and stood in front of him, naked. Her breasts ached to be touched. “Then get out of bed and put your pants on,” she said.
“Come on in,” Diane said when the pastor and elders arrived. “Mitch is expecting you.” She thought they’d have a small phial, like a test tube—maybe something crystal—but Pastor Murray stepped in carrying a family-sized bottle of Wesson Oil. Diane was startled, not just by the oil (would something from Sam’s Club work?), but by the image of Florence Henderson that popped into her head, wearing padded mittens and frying up a mess of chicken.
The elders followed her to the bedroom. There were five of them, plus Pastor Murray.
“I’m not sure he’s awake,” Diane said.
“Don’t worry, I’ve seen this done for people in comas,” one of the elders said.
Mitch was lying in the same position, pillow over his head. Diane sat beside him. The elders gathered at the foot of the bed.
Mitch pulled the pillow away and looked down at the elders, then at Diane. His eyes were bloodshot.
Pastor Murray came around to stand beside Mitch. He was still holding the Wesson. “We’re here to pray for you, Mitch. If you’ll have us. Anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord. ‘And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well’— that’s James, chapter five.”
Mitch cleared his throat. “This is embarrassing,” he said.
“We’d like to lay hands on you, if that’s okay.” The elders were coming around to stand with Pastor Murray; one of them sat on the edge of the bed.
“Sure,” Mitch said. “But no funny business, guys.”
In seven months, it was the first time Diane had heard him make light of anything. She knew it was for the benefit of the elders. Why couldn’t he make the effort with her?
“I’ll leave you men to it,” she said.
“You’re welcome to stay,” Pastor Murray said.
“I need to check on the kids,” she said, heading toward the door.
“Lord, we lift this man up to you,” one of the elders began. “We acknowledge you as the Great Physician.”
Diane closed the door behind her.
“Nothing depends on your feelings.” He got into his car, then leaned out the window and took her hand. “You should go talk to him now. And remember: God holds us, even when we have no strength left to hold Him.”
When the anointing was over, Diane walked Pastor Murray out to his car. “Depression’s a murky thing,” he was saying. He opened the rear door and set the bottle of oil on the floor; she noticed that he was wearing his deceased wife’s wedding band pushed up onto his necktie like a napkin ring. “A lot of Christians think it’s a spiritual problem, with a spiritual fix. But it’s deeply connected with physical causes.”
“It feels spiritual,” Diane said. Sweat darkened the front of Pastor Murray’s shirt.
“There’s heredity, for one thing. Distressing circumstances. Various illnesses that weaken the mind’s ability to cope.”
“Don’t you think he seems worse? He’s not even getting out of bed.”
Pastor Murray put a hand on her shoulder. “Seasons of darkness are normal in the Christian life, too. Bunyan, Carlyle, Cowper—even Spurgeon suffered from depression. Because of his gout.”
“Looking back there were signs,” Diane said. “He was working too much, spending too much money. But I never thought he’d end up like this.”
“He hasn’t ended up.” Pastor Murray reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a bandana, and wiped the sweat off of his forehead.
“I don’t feel like praying anymore,” Diane said.
He folded the rag and put it back in his pocket. “Nothing depends on your feelings.” He got into his car, then leaned out the window and took her hand. “You should go talk to him now. And remember: God holds us, even when we have no strength left to hold Him.”
Diane went back inside. Ellie and Kyle were still watching Playhouse Disney in the family room. It was after eleven; they’d been watching since eight-thirty. She needed to get out of the house for a while. Their father was right down the hall. Let him be a father.
She walked to the end of the driveway, turned, and started up the gradual incline to the top of their street. It was at least a hundred degrees already. At the top of the street she had to sit down. She folded, pretzel-style, onto the steaming asphalt next to an armless Saguaro. She felt the sun on her shoulders and knew that freckled red patches were forming on either side of the straps of her tank top. There was something godless about the desert. General revelation didn’t apply here. The notion that even if you’d never heard of God you could intuit something of him through nature—it didn’t work in this wilderness of succulents. Only the Native Americans had learned how to bend the plants to human use, fashioning the ribs of dead saguaros into spears so they could reach up and slice off the fruits. Maybe that was the revelation of the desert: God helps those who help themselves. Well, hadn’t she done that?
She stood up, brushing off the back of her jeans. She would choose to believe the anointing had worked. That there would be some change. That she and Mitch would embrace and begin the path toward healing. God would never give her more than she could handle. It said that in the Bible. Nothing beyond what you can bear. She and Mitch were only being tested, refined like silver.
When she came back into the house, Diane didn’t know what to expect: Mitch sitting up, his body slick with oil? Or just getting out of the shower? Or standing in the bathroom, already showered, putting his khakis on?
But he was still under the covers. His head was under the pillow. It looked like he’d never moved.
She yanked the pillow off and looked for the oil. Mitch reached for the pillow on her side of the bed, but she pulled off the comforter and looked him up and down, the white boxers, wrinkled t-shirt, hairless skin on the back of an exposed arm pocked with acne. “Where’d they put it?”
Mitch’s eyes stayed closed; he didn’t move. Diane dragged her fingers through his hair, but felt no oily patches.
“Please look at me.” Mitch half-opened his eyes. “Where did they anoint you with the oil?”
“Not sure,” he said. “Forehead maybe?”
“Didn’t you feel it?”
“I took a Valium.”
It had all been confiscated: the DEA had gone through every drawer.
“I’ve been taking it for awhile,” he said.
“Where’d you get Valium?” she asked.
Mitch covered his face with his hands. “Ellie,” he said. “It’s not her fault—she has no idea what they are.”
The room tilted; Diane’s head prickled as if tiny shards of glass were lodged in her brain.
“Ellie.” Her voice had plunged an octave. “Show me where Daddy’s pills are.”
She found Ellie lying on her bed, reading a book. Ellie glanced up, then shrank back against her pillow.
Diane felt short of breath and placed a hand on the doorframe. “Ellie.” Her voice had plunged an octave. “Show me where Daddy’s pills are.”
Ellie’s eyes widened. Still holding the book, she got up and went to her dresser. She laid the book down, opened one of the drawers, and pulled out a small felt purse. Mitch had brought it home for her after one of his conferences. It was purple, with iridescent sequined flowers stitched across the front. Ellie took it to church every Sunday. Diane always looked inside to make sure Ellie had a dollar bill to put in the collection plate.
She opened the snap and rooted around: a lip gloss with no lid, loose change, a tiny notebook, three broken crayons.
“You have to open the zipper,” Ellie said. She got back on the bed.
Diane saw a tiny zipper on the outside of the purse, just underneath a large daisy. How had she never noticed it before? And they were there: a couple of dozen small round pills, scored across their middles. Most were blue; a few were yellow and white. They could have been Smarties, pastel-colored Skittles, Easter-themed M&Ms. “When did Daddy give you these?”
Ellie shrugged. “I don’t know.” She looked at Diane and frowned. “It’s just vitamins to help his back get better.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We were going to surprise you. When he got better.”
Diane bent down so they were eye-to-eye. “Ellie, it’s very important for you to tell me something. Did you ever eat any of these?”
“Daddy said promise not to.”
Diane stood up. “When do you give them to Daddy?”
“Just sometimes. When he’s watching TV.”
“What about today? When did you go to him?”
“When you were outside. Me and Kyle just wanted to see him.”
“Kyle was with you? Does Kyle know about the pills?”
“It was only me and Daddy’s secret.”
“How many pills did you give him, Ellie? When you went in?”
“Just a blue one.”
Diane sat on the bed next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. “Do you know why Daddy takes these?”
“Because he wants his back to get better. And you won’t let him take his medicine.”
“He takes them because he’s sick somewhere in his brain,” Diane said. “He’s not allowed to be a doctor anymore.”
Ellie got off the bed and backed away from her. “He just has a bad back. You even said so.” Her chin was shaking. “I don’t care if he’s a doctor. He’s still Daddy, and you won’t even let us see him. Don’t you want him to get better?”
All the forced smiles, the playdates and TV programs to keep them busy, the chipper half-truths. “I didn’t want to upset you and Kyle,” she said. “But you have to believe me.”
“I believe Daddy.” She turned and ran out the door.
Diane turned the purse over and let the pills fall into her palm. She selected a yellow tablet and placed it on her tongue. Its sweet coating turned slick in her mouth, but once the surface melted away it tasted like burnt chalk.
Diane turned the purse over and let the pills fall into her palm. She selected a yellow tablet and placed it on her tongue. Its sweet coating turned slick in her mouth, but once the surface melted away it tasted like burnt chalk. She spit it out into her hand.
As she walked toward their bedroom, she felt as if her body was stationary, the rooms and hallways sliding past. The door was open, the room filled with light, and she saw her husband and children, all on the bed together. Ellie was curled into the arc of Mitch’s chest and legs; his chin rested against the top of her head. Kyle lay on his side behind them, one small arm flung over Mitch’s waist. Mitch said something into Ellie’s ear and she laughed, not her girlish giggle but deeper. A woman’s laugh.
Diane felt something, like a hand, pressing on the top of her head, as if forcing her down to a posture of humility. She sank to her knees in the doorway.
Kyle sat up. “Mom,” he said. “Come here.”
Yes, she thought. That’s it. I need to get onto the bed. But something was pressing her lower, onto her face. She fought for a moment against her rising panic then let herself sink. She heard Kyle say something else but she couldn’t make it out. She tried to lift her head, but her face pressed into the carpet.
She would do anything to save them. There was nothing she could do to save herself.
“I love you,” she whispered, not to any one of them in particular, but to all of them: a triptych, a sacred tableau.
Jamie Quatro’s debut story collection, I Want To Show You More, is forthcoming in March 2013 from Grove/Atlantic. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, McSweeney’s, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and was the Borchardt Scholar at the 2011 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She holds graduate degrees from the College of William and Mary and the Bennington College Writing Seminars, and lives with her husband and children in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.