what we talk about when we don’t talk about it at all
“There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter … Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God, and man in His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.”
-Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Mother Church (the First Church of Christ, Scientist)
Their Mother Church taught them their truth about D., and when I was old enough, my mother, churchless, told me about ours. I’ve withheld his name to protect the privacy of his family and memory, but he was the father of the man we moved in with when I was four. I guess you could call him my step-grandfather, though I never did. Per their family tradition, everyone was on a first name basis.
My mother was the one who had to tell me about D. because his family grew up not talking about it, in my presence or otherwise, and I grew up not understanding the silence. Years later, I only understand a little better how they chattered so brightly about the weather, as if his muscles hadn’t atrophied into something amorphous before our eyes.
The truth—not their truth, but mine—was that he had Parkinson’s disease. Normally, this is a diagnosis that comes with the familiar rhythm of dialing up the doctor’s office, giving three deep breaths, trying not to crinkle the paper table cover too loudly when you can’t stop shaking, sliding in and out of machines. My mom found out by scrolling through Google late at night until only one thing made sense.
They didn’t talk about it, but the Christian Science silence was about more than just the Parkinson’s. It was about anything to do with the body, and what it means to suffer the symptoms of living in skin, whose scaffolding is prone to occasional, sometimes chronic disrepair, whose membranes are permeable to the impurities of the microbial world. The silence was about what it was to recognize oneself as composed of soulless invisible cells, and at the mercy of their drifting agendas. It was silence about the tendency to bruise, to burn, to bleed, to catch a cold that no one would call such. They didn’t—they don’t—talk about it when things go wrong. When the machine of the body sputters or stops. But there’s nothing to go wrong with machinery that does not exist (except to believe that it does).
The date on his death certificate says Oct. 10, 2009. But to the family—for whom the silence also extended to the category of death—this was a formality fraught with contention, and one that their hard-clenched hands only relinquished as a matter of pragmatism over principle.
Parkinson’s is incurable, but it is treatable. For D., who accepted no treatment, it must have started the way it starts for everyone—with those trademark hand tremors. Over time, he keeled into a stoop so rigid it finally rendered him recumbent in the gray suede recliner where I met him for the first time, and every time thereafter.
The only care he consented to was that given by his delicate and devoted wife, P., with other family members brought into the ring only when she could no longer hold his weight on the stairs, in the bathroom. She had always been fond of collecting things—buttons, bits of wampum—and the longer she cared for D., the more crowded grew her roomfuls of relics hoarded from summers ten, twenty, forty years past.
Outwardly, like everyone else, she remained cheerful. I struggled to reconcile the images I held of my two step-grandparents: While I watched D. getting worse each year, I also watched P. chirping about the drafty sitting room, setting down trays of cookies she’d spent all morning making, bringing out little dishes of beads and baubles, acting as though her existence wasn’t altering right along with his. Acting as if the love of her life wasn’t losing in unacknowledged intervals the ability to hold his head up, speak, chew, and breathe. Dementia and delusions are common in advanced stages of the disease; I wonder, by the end of it, how much of him was left. I wonder, too, how to categorize the dignity they so silently insisted he maintained.
The silence stems back to the late nineteenth century when Mary Baker Eddy, after years of intransigent health problems, claimed to have harnessed the healing power of prayer over medicine. Eddy waxed revelatory on the subject in her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which became the cornerstone literature of the Mother Church and whose doctrinal essence is recited at the start of every service: “There is no life, truth, intelligence, or substance in matter….” Which is to say that that the body—already so flawed and messy in its pains and pleasures and weird freckles and stray hairs—is a trick of the light one must see to believe.
And so one chooses not see it. One prays for the spiritual clarity not to. And we can call this crazy, but we also live in an age saturated with more pills than prescriptions can cover, in a nation consistently dubbed the Most Medicated on Earth. I myself take a pill in the morning and a pill at night and maybe I wouldn’t need to if I allowed myself to live better, materially or spiritually or some adverb in between.
My mind keeps returning to this little girl I heard about, from Arizona. She was raised by Christian Science parents who withdrew her from school—they called it “a problem with her leg”—and then they didn’t talk about it and they didn’t talk about it and by the time the detective finally burst through her bedroom door months later, the tumor was already forty-one inches in diameter. He said she had tried to cover it with a pillow, ashamed. There was a lawsuit to get her treated—there’s often a lawsuit, especially when children are involved, and this is part of the reason why Christian Science is so insular and baffling to outsiders—but under the auspices of the first amendment, she died. Like D. did, and like so many others for generations before. Which is to say needlessly.
Which is all to say that I believe in talking about it, all of it—the dates on death certificates, and the diagnoses we cobble together, and the formalities that can help us project meaning onto this stage we all occupy. And I understand, distantly, why some latch so strongly and silently onto the notion that this world is an illusion to be prayed away, but I choose to latch onto the notion that it’s the most immediate realm we have access to understanding. I believe in talking about why our rooms upstairs might be filling up with hoarded, useless, intransigent memories, and in dialing the doctor’s office, and in machines out of which we slide into the hope of a certainty greater than this one.
But of course, we didn’t talk about it and still the ropes of drool dribbled down D.’s chin, and the more we didn’t talk about it the more I burned in shame for the repulsion I felt when forced to kiss the tissue-paper cheek of a man who had always been a vegetable to me, his body the wretched cornucopia at the head of the Thanksgiving dinner table, and we didn’t talk about it even as we watched P. move him into the wheelchair, her old doll hands shaking with all the love and determination in the pull, and his body folded over on her from a height difference that I thought must have been endearing on their wedding day, and I had to avert my eyes, I couldn’t even look, because it seemed somehow too intrusive to watch them perform that awkward and intimate dance, shuffling the two feet from one chair to the other.