When I was a little girl, I started to see a woman when I prayed.
My eyes were always closed when I saw her, though I wasn’t always kneeling. Sometimes I lay on my back, rigid, corpse-like. Sometimes I lay on my side, fetal and full of yearning.
My room smelled like humidity and wood the first time I saw her. I remember the frame of my waterbed, covered in my baby sister’s teeth marks. I remember reaching for it, to feel the rough grooves. I remember rocking there in the bed. The water was gentle. Like a cradle.
I had been praying.
(I often prayed, especially as a little girl.)
I didn’t mean to make her appear.
God to me was Father God. He was kind, attentive, but irrevocably male.
I spoke to him in formal tones, never wavering from the form of prayer taught to me in my primary classes.
(Sometimes, when I was full of that aching I never understood—sometimes I called him just Father. Sometimes I said “you,” instead of “thee” or “thou.”)
But it was a woman who appeared.
She kept appearing, even though I never asked her to.
(I don’t know if she would have appeared if I’d asked.)
She was a shadow.
A shape I saw on the back of my right—always my right—eye.
She was veiled, her face had no features.
But she was, unarguably, a woman.
I didn’t know if she was the Virgin Mary, or maybe Mother God. I didn’t know who she was.
I only know she made me feel peace.
When I was very pregnant with my first child, I desperately wanted a woman.
I didn’t know what to make of it—the desperation.
It was unformed. Primal. Overpowering.
I told myself it was something biological, something to do with child birth. Having a woman around would increase survival in my female ancestors. Which would explain it, I told myself. It would explain this overwhelming need.
I remember pacing in my tiny bathroom.
I was barefoot, the linoleum smooth against the soles of my feet.
I was too hot, too cold.
I washed my hands once, twice.
I pumped the soap, deliberately.
I washed every finger and then
I reached out to dry them on a towel hanging on the wall. I can still remember the rough feel of the terrycloth underneath my fingertips.
I could see the woman then—or rather an echo of her.
I cried out in the bathroom, holding my too-full belly in my hands.
I must have put on shoes, or gotten a coat.
It was February and everything was frozen.
All I knew was that… I… needed.
I didn’t know what.
I didn’t know who to call or how to get it.
I didn’t know how to pray to a Father God, not about this.
(Father God could never understand this kind of ache.)
It was dark as I drove.
I drove away.
My cell phone lost its signal as the lights of the city disappeared.
I was deep in the desert.
The ground was salt and dirt, nothing grew.
The shadows of the mountains were long in the moonlight. They reflected in the salt water pools. All I could see was shadow and mirror.
It was barren.
I wanted to stay until the aching let up, but I couldn’t.
My contractions got harder and faster and I was alone and smart enough to panic.
So I drove myself home, giving no explanation to my husband when I got there.
My children were still practically babies when I lost a quarter of my skin.
Most of it to infection, the rest to prevent a cancer from spreading.
Once, I was admitted to the burn ICU within minutes of my temperature spiking, just as the infection was entering my bloodstream.
It had been a woman who sent me there.
She was my nurse.
I’d gone for a checkup with my oncologist. I knew I wasn’t healing well. That my graft had failed. That a fetid stench was coming from my wound vac. My doctor had scheduled me for another surgery in a week.
They wheeled me into the office because I couldn’t walk.
My nurse had never met me. She was new to the office.
She said hello and then she looked at me.
I remember the way she looked at me.
She got quiet.
She took my temperature. It was normal.
She took my blood pressure. It was normal.
“Something is wrong,” she said. “Something is more wrong than they think.”
There was nothing to indicate she was right. No signs. Nothing that could be marked on a chart. She had instinct, alone.
But she made a phone call and I was taken to the burn unit for a consult.
Sepsis has a 50% mortality rate.
And I arrived in the unit minutes before I had any signs of it.
Once, I woke up from surgery screaming.
The (male) surgeon didn’t believe the chart, with its calculation of how much medication I would need, and so he changed it; he changed it and the nurse taking care of me couldn’t give me anything that wasn’t on the chart.
I remember I tried not to scream.
Or rather, I remember being outside myself, telling myself not to scream.
There wasn’t any control.
There was antiseptic, beeping. I could smell waste and cotton. I wanted to thrash my arms, my legs, but I couldn’t move. I could hardly open my eyes.
I remember hearing my doctor’s voice when she got there.
(She ran, they told me. She ran all the way from oncology when she heard my screams on the phone.)
“She is a cancer patient.” She was out of breath. Nearly yelling. “Not a burn patient. The calculation is different.”
I remember seeing her fuzzy form as she held up a syringe, as she put it into my IV.
Her hand on my face was cool.
“I’m so sorry,” she was saying. “This won’t happen again. Oh, honey. I am so sorry."
Once I almost died.
(More than once, but this time was different.)
I was unconscious, I knew I wasn’t breathing.
The air around me got cold.
There were stars and quiet and motion.
I moved through a wind.
There was a woman waiting for me.
She wasn’t beautiful. I’m not even sure she was human. But she was kind.
She took my hand.
“Kerry,” she said. “Your mother gave you so many gifts.”
I knew it was true.
(I did not know if she was my mother, or if she spoke for her.)
She touched my hair. “So do you know what to do?” she asked.
I did not know.
She smiled at me. “You dance,” she said.
There is a librarian at school who looks like a woman I kissed.
She has short hair—I can’t tell if it’s blonde or grey—and wears big, round glasses. She’s small, dwarfed by her computer. She hunches over it, the enormity of her computer screen, or maybe the weight of my memories, making her look fragile. Whenever she sees me she smiles, as if she knows me. (She doesn’t. I think.)
I wasn’t ready to be kissed by a woman.
I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know how to be ready for it. I didn’t know how to be ready for something I had spent so many years of my life fighting out of my consciousness.
I didn’t have time to imagine what it would feel like to have her reach out and put her hand on my neck.
It had been a habit, to shut thoughts like that down.
I could get as far as seeing a hand coming for my face, and I would slam the thought closed, like a book or a door.
All that would be left was a darkness, its edges red with shame.
She didn’t ask if she could kiss me, or if she did I can’t remember. It doesn’t really matter, though. I would have said she could.
Her voice shook. Her hands shook. She pulled the car off the road.
I knew she was going to do it and I could have stopped her, but I didn’t have the words—didn’t even understand how I wasn’t ready, or what it would take to be ready.
All I knew was that red-tinged darkness.
I hadn’t been able to let myself imagine a kiss, and part of me thought actually kissing was the only way around it.
But I wasn’t ready for it.
I wasn’t ready for the way it made the edges of red grow crimson. I didn’t know how to get past the closing book, the slamming door.
I was reaching in, reaching through, I should have known hands would get caught in the closing.
When the librarian smiles at me, I still feel the edges of that red shame.
I wonder if I should have said no. I think about what it means that she isn’t in my life anymore. (Can’t be in my life anymore.)
I want to pull the librarian aside—ask her to forgive me. Tell her I didn’t understand how not knowing myself well enough could so thoroughly hurt her.
But, of course, she is not the one I hurt.
And I wonder where is the line between guilt and shame.
Sometimes I dance in my kitchen.
I make myself something with vodka in it (I am outside the church now; I am allowed to drink vodka) and I dance in the kitchen.
I’d like to think I look wild. That my dancing is laughter in motion, spinning circles of what it means that my life matters, that I am alive.
I suspect it looks nothing like this.
I say “suspect,” but I know it doesn’t. My partner videotaped me dating once. My motions were clumsy, like an adolescent giraffe. The joy was evident, but that was its only beauty.
It doesn’t really matter.
I dance because I am alive.
I dance because she told me to.
I dance because it. is. the. point.
Father God still watches me.
I feel him, hovering on the edges of my mind. Or spirit. Is there a difference? I can’t tell.
I can’t pray to him.
To his credit, he seems to understand.
Go away, I want to tell him. Stop watching me.
He knows I cannot talk to him. Knows better than me why I can’t.
She watches me, too.
In the darkness, I kiss my partner. Her hands hold the edge of my face, her mouth against mine soft. She pulls me to her and I feel…
There aren’t words for what I feel.
There are only words for what I see.
I see her. In the shadows, behind my right eye. (Always my right eye.)
She is still veiled.
She is still faceless.
She is still love—the feeling, the being, the presence of it.
She still brings me peace.