A Word or Two About Jesus
By John Bryant - Memphis, Tennessee, USA - 27 August 2015
His friend met him at the park. They sat on the bench they wanted to sit on rather than the only one that was left. They sat on the bench that was next to the birds. They wiped little moments off their shirts and did not cross their legs. He lived in an apartment three flights up.
“I’m going to see my son today,” he said. “He is 65. He has begun to believe in Jesus.”
“Is he happy about it?” His friend peeled an orange he found in his pocket.
“I don’t think so.”
He waved his hand so the metal door would open and he could walk into the hospital. He’d left his cane at home so that it was clear he chose to be here. He took the elevator to the third floor when he pressed the button. He went to his son’s room but stood outside and held his breath so it was not known he’d come for him.
There was a nurse digging something into his son’s arm. A tube, he thought. Another tucked in his legs but set her face against the care and motion of her hands. He came to them. He hoped there wasn’t something on his shirt so they would trust him.
They nodded. They turned his son over roughly.
He sat in a chair with no arm rest so he crossed his legs and hung one big hand and the other on top of his knee. He watched his son spilled on his side, then saw his son curve his own body so it took the form of a pose, the shape of what was beautiful and predestined rather than what had to be wiped. The nurses gave themselves to him with their hands and with the time that was left before they could stand up and smoke outside, and the father saw them bent over, the pull and distortion of their bodies, and knew they were tired of what it meant and would mean to keep him breathing in sheets.
His son never ate. He refused.
The nurses left into the sound of other things in other rooms. He pulled the chair close to his son, held his breath so the quiet in the room was the quiet in him, and when he breathed out, the room was smaller and he could feel the walls on his neck.
They both, without even the motion of eyes, acknowledged the father was sitting in a chair and the son was lying in bed and that was what things were. He pulled a book from his pocket and let his son sleep. He was not working through it; he liked to read at the place the book fell open. Sleep opened his son’s mouth by a soft inch, and breath followed itself in and out of what was left of his body.
The father felt his son’s old, tired hand on his knee because he’d been asleep as well, and it meant they could go now.
The father found a pair of pants in the drawer and fished out the sock that was the same as the one in his hand. He pulled the pants over his son’s legs, one leg at a time, pulling hard when they caught on his knees or ankles. He took several breaks that did not embarrass him or his son. The father stood up so his body would become itself and thought of nothing, no idea, that would declare itself to him, then went down to the small brown shoes, half on, half off his son’s foot.
He looked at his son. His hair was not what should be. He took the hair into his hands and dressed him in the image of what could be loved and taken seriously.
The father had been there ten years ago, after an overdose, when his son had too much of drugs and everything in his arms, when nurses hooked him up to an IV and his son, his jaw open, eyes lolled to the side, told them what he knew about men and women and money and bars. And the father listened and the nurses listened but the father knew -- he saw the nurses and he knew -- that his son’s words said less about men and women and more about the insane way he looked, his lack of sleep, his nervous way. They hushed him a little. They didn’t know how rarely he spoke.
If he got tired of dressing his son he remembered there was nothing that the time they had left was supposed to mean. There was just a walk it would be nice to go on. And he waited until there was tenderness and something near elegance in the move of his arms and way he dressed him.
He signed his son out with the pen that was already in his pocket. His hand on the end of the wheelchair made it easier to believe they would get somewhere eventually.
He was their only son. He was smart, and the father always took a little bit of awe with him while the boy was growing up. He watched when he moved or ran or lifted branches or tried something new like catch a pass. He was a natural. The world balanced itself on him. Whatever new thing he did he would soon find himself, by miracle, doing it the only way it should be done. And the father looked on him as having been touched on the head and shoulders by something that was neither his nor his wife’s to give.
The son never spoke. The father never asked him what he was thinking, what all the silence was for. He did once, after a baseball game. His son had a glove in his hand, holding a popsicle in the wrapper and letting it melt. He asked him why he wasn’t happier. The son turned to him and it seemed like something in the room, and in his son, was lost by the asking.
His son left when he was old enough to leave. He would visit them, sit on the chair, eat slowly, and hardly eat, just letting the steam of the lasagna or macaroni gather around the new look on his face. He was quiet. But they knew when he was gone he was wild and quiet, ran with wild women, operated on himself, lit his body into a flame with all the pleasures of this world, came home and never gave the flame his words.
He came back to their little house on the highway every now and then. He came back thinner, with different clothes, his skin a new texture, his face tilting toward them at a new angle. It made the father suffer to see him so thin and confident. There was no money, no inheritance, for him. All there was to give them was the shape of their bodies -- the family's strong nose, shoulders, height, and weight. But the father saw -- putting meatloaf to his mouth once when his son was there and was pleasant with them but refused to eat -- the father saw how drugs, booze, wild living had burned these things away, and that there was now nothing that was his that was also his son's. They said nothing to him about it. They always opened the door when they saw him getting out of the car.
The father couldn’t understand it. The son came back year after year, backpack in the palm of his hand, holes in his jeans. He came back thinner and thinner and more graceful, like the world had found a way to balance perfectly on every choice. As his body wasted, and drew closer to itself, his son seemed to be more considerate and holy and artful with what was left. He knew more about how to dress and walk and hold his mother’s hand. He had a way of putting a cup on the table that would almost make the father cry. And when he came back, years and years at a time, it seemed he knew so much more about what he would never tell them. And the father would sit and look at his son, long after his wife had gone to bed and long after she’d died. And waited for his son to speak. The father felt, on one visit, with his son's legs shaking and face turning left and right, that if his son spoke, the world would correct itself. The father would nod in surprise and agreement and there would finally be a way the two them, working together, would never be wrong again.
The father sold his house and moved to a smaller place when his son was in intensive care. He ate oranges with his friend at the park and walked to the hospital to see his son, say nothing, and take him on walks. The father felt, after all these years, a respect for the quiet that had become their way with each other. It was a way of honoring what each had found in this world for himself.
There was a bump in the road once as they made their way out the hospital door. The son forgave him from his wheelchair by a gentle lifting of his hand. Studying his son's breath and his own, the father figured they should die around the same time. And since death was so close to both of them, there was nothing much to say about it.
“I’m going to church,” the son said. His head lolled to the side as if to talk to his shoulders.
The father looked over his son's creased pants, the regard that had been placed in his hair, and saw that he had given his son the dignity with which to say the ridiculous and to peer over the world with it.
“I’ll take you,” the father said. He made sure to push and listen. But he suffered. His son, by turning to Jesus, had broken the agreement that they would die without having much to say. And it hurt.
Next to the bank there was a wet plywood ramp up to a small Catholic church, and he used his knees to push his son to the top. His son helped a little with his hands. There was a service inside. There were many people. He wheeled his son to the edge of the last pew, and sat himself on the end.
The church sang a song in words he did not know. He thought of what it would mean if his son sang, what it would mean if he heard it. He looked and saw his son was singing. And the father listened for his voice, and tried to hold and know it from the rest. He caught the edge of it before it belonged to the congregation. It was weaker and more painful than what was right. His son lifted his head for his voice to be louder, struggling for something that was not art but a blind and final push. The father took a bit of awe with him, considering his son's illness and the size of his voice, considering that a man could have pleasure with his wife and make someone who could lose this much.
There was a sermon and words. His son drew into himself. He was outside of theology and politics and argument like an egg. But he understood the silence with which the bread and the wine was held up and given. The quiet that was everyone walking to the front -- a quiet kept like a swept floor.
The father rose and pushed his son to the front even before he felt his son pull on his sleeve. There was time to wait for what would happen. Two or three older women in front. Then them. The father saw the priest move, and the son held his hand up. And they found each other and held there like they both knew what silence was for. The priest held the cup to his son, and his son drank, fast and long. He shook the cup into his mouth until it was empty. And the priest got some more wine and brought it back and the son motioned to him with such gentle assurance that he brought it to his mouth and he drank more. There was bread, and the son held multiple wafers and chewed on them slow and long and fast. There was food and wine all over the careful way his father had dressed him.
His son had eaten. The nurses were happy on their return.
He stayed with his son, in the room. His big hand on his knee. Letting his breath let his body live. And did not leave when the nurses came to change the smell in his son’s pants. He saw them, how they wiped off Christ, so he could do it again.
He visited his son the week after, and as before they barely made their way to the church. His son was getting worse, only more slowly now that the bread and wine had come to him. He would hold up the cup and get wine everywhere, stains on stains. He would shake and drink and eat. And the father, knowing his son still would surely die, thought the bread and wine had turned an elegant death into a tacky, ugly, voiceless striving. While the son would smile.