When I was fourteen or so, my mother started having fits of dementia, brought on by Huntington's disease. The fits started with her moaning as though she were in great pain. None of us could figure out what was causing it. She was more or less healthy, aside from the obvious. The first time was at night. She started howling around two a.m. My older brother and I were home and both came running to find my father sitting on the edge of the bed holding her hand, perplexed. Eventually, she fell back asleep.
It was a haunting noise. Inhuman and suffering, it sounded like a damned soul in some Bosch painting. It lasted for a few weeks and then just as suddenly stopped. We couldn’t find anything wrong. Neither could the nurses who came to check on her. We decided it was a phase.
She had several phases. Early on, she ate onions with everything. Onions with peanut butter, onions in her ice cream, she would cut a whole onion up and eat it raw. During another phase she watched the local ABC affiliate on TV exclusively, which was broadcast from the same town where she’d gone to college. She would get out of bed, turn on the TV and stare. Once, the antenna went out, and we couldn’t get reception for a couple days. On these days she would rise, turn on the TV and stare at the static for a few moments, then turn it off and go back to bed. I once tried to change the channel, and looked up to find her charging me like an enraged bull, her walker swinging after me as she pushed me out of the way. This was more surprising than painful, and after she changed the channel back, she sat back down and proceeded to stare out the window.
The moaning phase was the most disturbing, though. I couldn’t stand it because there was no way to appease her. She howled until her voice gave out or she fell asleep. Whenever it started, I left. Sometimes she stood at the door, her moans echoing out over the hills. Coming home from school, I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at our house, dreading what I might find inside.
One Saturday, I left her standing at the door, until she finally gave up and went back to watching TV. I was walking down the hill from my house when I came upon my cousin.
My cousin, one of the ones I'd gone to the Baptist church with, had heard the call and was to become a preacher. In going to youth group, I’d always felt uncomfortable around him. I viewed him as my better, because of the call, and in general because he was older and his family was more well-off. But his apparent sincerity was embarrassing, like a religious hall monitor, or the kid left in charge of taking down names when the teacher steps out of class.
His mother rented out a trailer on a plot of land just down the hill from my father’s house, though it was vacant at the time. It was part of the family land, an area consisting of stock ponds, pasture for cattle, and steep ridges that I liked to walk.
He was coming out of the trailer, which they were remodeling for a new tenet, when I met him.
“How are you?” he asked. "Haven't seen you in church lately."
Maybe he saw it in my eyes, but obviously I wasn’t doing well. He reached into
his car and pulled out a Bible.
“You know," he said, "even if it seems like no one else does, Jesus loves you. You have to accept Jesus into your heart. That way, nothing can hurt you. Nothing is stronger than our savior.”
I was shocked that he would preach to me, but at the same time, he struck a chord. Maybe this was what that whole religion thing was about, I thought. I had been going to church all my life, but I hadn't really ever felt anything spiritual. In Sunday school, I was much more afraid of the preachers' wives than of hell. And in church proper, I was mostly just bored, and a lot of what the preacher said seemed not only dense, but insincere. More often than not, they talked about tithes and how we should give money. Everything else seemed to be an abstraction I couldn't get my head around. I didn't see how any of it applied to the real world. It had never touched me.
My cousin talked to me about the story of Job, and said that sometimes God tests us; sometimes we have to suffer, but it doesn't mean that He isn't there, watching out for us. My eyes began to tear. It made sense to me. I understood, suddenly, what I was supposed to have been feeling all those Sundays.
As my cousin talked, I felt something open up inside me like a cramping muscle suddenly loosening. All of the neglect, the frustration, the anger, the unfairness of my life flowed out of me.
“Will you accept Jesus into your heart?” he asked.
I could hear the water of the stock pond lapping against its banks behind us. A train passed on the far side of the pasture. It was like the whole world was listening.
“Yes,” I said, staring into his face.
“Will you accept Jesus into your heart?”
“Then be saved.”
I felt a warmth enter my body, replacing the void left by the exit of my anger, my
fear. A smile spread over my face and I no longer felt the tears on my cheeks. Everything was warm and safe. Everything was going to be all right.
He talked to me for fifteen minutes or so and then looked at his watch.
“I have to go. It was good talking to you, Cortney. You should come to worship with us tomorrow,” he said.
"I will," I said, as he got in his car.
What a good preacher he’ll be, I thought. I felt better than I could remember
feeling. Jesus. Jesus would help me. I started back up that steep hill.
I felt strangely content as I climbed. I almost looked forward to going back home, helping Mom until my father came home. This was how I was supposed to feel, at least, and I tried very hard to feel it. I knew that it would be well after dark before my father stumbled in drunk. Who knew when my brother and sister would show up. But Jesus would be there.
Mom was getting worse and worse. She’d been falling down for no reason lately, her muscle coordination less and less reliable. She hadn't left the house in months. She could hardly do for herself anymore. Lots of days, if it wasn’t for me cooking, she wouldn’t have anything to eat. Life was getting hard, and it was turning me bitter. I begrudged her the time I had to spend caring for her. I hated being left there, alone with her, and I felt guilty for my ill feelings towards her. And friends? Try bringing someone into the house who didn't have to be there. See what he would think of us. The last one lasted for a little over an hour before she chased him out, screaming. The whole situation was too big for me to make sense of. But now Jesus would be there. He would help.
With every step I felt stranger about the whole thing. When I stepped in the door, my mother saw me and started howling again. I tried to calm her down. I tried talking to her, asking what was wrong, but she only howled.
I checked the TV but it was on her favorite station. I made her a sandwich and offered it, but she pushed it away. I tried ignoring her, going into another room, but she followed me. As the minutes passed, I became more and more agitated. I started yelling at her.
"Shut up!" I yelled. "Shut up!"
She stopped for a moment, but only a moment.
I played music and screamed back at her.
"You won't beat me," I said. "I can overcome this." And she kept howling, following me around and howling until finally, back in the living room I pushed her away from me. She fell onto the couch and was shocked into silence.
I was appalled at myself for having pushed her, but at the same time, it had made her quiet. She tried to stand up and slipped awkwardly back down onto the couch.
There was a photo on the wall to her left from her and Dad's wedding. In it, she was smiling, sweet and pretty in an open and easy way. Her hair had been blond and long. I remembered all the old photos my sister and I used to go through in Mom's photo albums. Some of the styles were so dated they were almost funny. In some, she had big piles of hair shaped into beehives and waves. Others were more tasteful. She'd always been pretty. People acted like she was a movie star; something about her was too good to be here. Now on the couch, her hair was matted and dirty, greying and cut short for convenience.
I stepped towards her to help her up and she flinched. It shocked me and I went into the bathroom and locked the door to get away from her, and from the shame over what I'd done.
I remembered when I was a child that my aunt and cousins had invited me to birthday parties. They always gave the other kids presents so we wouldn’t feel left out, but they were always cheap things wrapped in nice paper with elaborate bows. I felt, then, hiding in the bathroom, as though I’d been given another elaborately wrapped gift, but when I unwrapped it, I discovered that there was nothing but box.
After a few minutes, my mother came to the bathroom door and banged against it with her walker. I kept quiet, hoping she would go away. I thought back on what my cousin had said earlier and knew that he had lied. Jesus wasn't there. There was no one in the house but me and her. If I was wrong, if Jesus was there, it didn't matter because it did me no good; all he was doing was watching. She’d believed all her life, and what had it got her? But she wasn't cursed; she was just a sick woman. Genetics had made her that way, not anything else. There was no devil, no savior, just a door that couldn't keep out the sound of her screaming.