When my daughter Grace was eight years old, she began to complain of pain in her hip, although I couldn’t have told you which hip or when exactly she had started complaining, because I wasn’t really paying attention. It was March, and the winter of sick days and snow days simply would not end. I just wanted my children to go to school so I could work, so I could be away from them. One Monday morning when Grace said she didn’t want to go to gym because it hurt when she ran, I said, then we’re going to the doctor, as though going to the doctor was some sort of punishment. I rushed Grace and her little sister into to the car and I drove—too fast—down our ice-rutted road to town. I didn’t want to miss walk-in hours; I wanted them both at school by nine.
The doctor asked Grace questions as he bent and straightened her leg. After a brief examination, he sent us to the hospital for blood work and an x-ray. I put the girls back in the car and drove, now startled into worry, to the hospital. In the waiting area the girls were hungry, so I gave them each half of an old granola bar I had in my purse, and they were bored so they fought with each other. After a series of x-rays and three vials of blood we left the hospital. By now, Grace was really limping, so I left her by the entrance and drove around to get her.
In a few days, Grace was not able to walk at all. In a few days, we were in the lobby of another hospital, and then another. Grace rode on a gurney to a windowless room where a radiologist younger than my baby sister pushed a needle into her hip. There were x-rays and scans, vial after vial of blood. Her doctors—how terrifying, how suddenly serious, the plural of that word—could not offer a definite diagnosis. We split pills and cajoled Grace into swallowing them; we stirred gluey tablespoons of medicine into Coke and promised she could have her ears pierced if she drank it. She did not return to school for nearly a month, and on her first day back I pushed her down the hall to her classroom in a wheelchair.
I converted to Catholicism when I was twenty-four years old. I read the Bible, lit candles, learned to pray the rosary. I even had a vision of Jesus: he came to me wearing a soft flannel shirt. My conversion was fast and fiery; it was all blooms and no roots. I was like the blind man in Mark’s parable, who after being touched once by Jesus says he can see men, but they look like trees, walking. Which is to say I was touched once and became a believer, but could not see clearly the object of my belief, did not know how to live as a believing person. In Mark’s parable Jesus touches the blind man’s eyes again, restoring his sight completely. But I was touched only once.
And then I fell in love with a woman. I tried not to, but she was impossible to resist. So I left the Church and I married her. We had a daughter; we named her Grace. I joined a small country church and we baptized Grace there, and we baptized her younger sister three years later, baptized them both with water from the creek than ran below. My wife calls the church St. Rumi’s. I laugh when she says this, but her naming is apt. Our church is a poetic and ecumenical place. We read the Tao and Emerson; we worship nature and the bonds of human kindness. In one of the poems we hear most often, Rumi tells us that God’s joy lives in a plate of rice and fish, in a horse being saddled, until one day it cracks them open. It’s a beautiful poem, but in my early days at St. Rumi’s poems weren’t enough. I missed the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed. I believe in the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. That was my idea of God’s joy, cracking open the world.
We also read Goethe’s Wish. “I wish for you,” he writes, “faith enough to make real the things of God.” For years after I left the Catholic Church this was my prayer. I imagined Goethe meant faith enough to make real the hills and rivers, the climbing pea shoots, the hungry child. My plain New England church. I believed in the aggregation of such places and sights, hoping I could collect my own attic of holy moments, so many that I wouldn’t need the Catholic Church, wouldn’t need those five o’clock Masses, those candles, those saints’ days. Those tethers, now cut, which had once tied me to God. I gave up on the idea of being touched again, gave up on the possibility of visions, of voices.
But then Grace was in pain and my eyes were touched again, and the men did not look like trees. And I saw God everywhere. In the hospital waiting room I watched a father put a piece of pizza in front of his wheelchair-bound child and I saw the Eucharist. Grace floated in a gleaming steel hospital tub and fluttered her legs without pain, and I heard God say: Can you see the miracle of water? Can you see, once again, the bright curve of her future?
There was a synesthesia to those terrible and holy days. The doctors spoke in confident tones I heard as bright turquoise. At night, when Grace had finally fallen into a motionless narcotic sleep, I lay in bed next to her and I saw the gray of worry settle around us. A friend came over to comb Grace’s hopelessly tangled curls, and the room glowed the warm green of a summer forest. This is my bright and breathing world, God said. See what I see. See the things I have made; see all the ways in which I make them still.
And I did see, but not for long. Eventually Grace was diagnosed with reactive arthritis, a debilitating but temporary form of arthritis brought on by a virus. Her doctors expected a slow but full recovery, which was exactly what happened. We returned the wheelchair, put away the crutches. Hugged her doctors goodbye. Brought her bicycle out of the shed. In June, Grace went on her class field trip to Plymouth Plantation without me. “How was it?” I asked, breathless at the sight of her when she returned. “How did you do?” “I was slow,” she told me. “But everyone waited.” Soon enough though, the world began to rush her again. I rushed her. Scolded her for leaving her soccer cleats in the living room. They were only shoes; they were the plate of rice and fish, and I did not see God’s joy beneath their surface. I did not see the miracle of their muddy soles.
The power of my touch was fading, and I was relieved. I was on a cliff’s edge in the days of Grace’s illness, too close to the depths of anxiety and loss. And while God’s company was astonishing, I did not want to stay on that edge for a moment longer than I had to. I had never imaged that God’s touch would come so tangled up in terror. I had never imagined hating the hours in which I received miracles. My mistake was in thinking God’s touch was mine to beckon, its purpose mine to discern.
Now I am back in the blurry world of the mundane, of the hidden divinity. But something of my vision remains. It has been two years since Grace was sick, and when she runs across the yard she is the color of the sun.