I don’t know when I started praying. I suppose it must have been around the time that I started believing in God, but I don’t know when that happened, either.
Around age 13, I think. A couple years following my parents’ catastrophic near-misses with death (my dad’s suicide attempt and coma, my mother’s heart and kidney failure). Sometime after the night Mama shot up in bed while drowning in her own lungs and shouted: “I HAVEN’T BEEN GOOD TO GOD!” Which sorta kinda surprised her, given the fact that she didn’t actually believe in God at the time. Which prompted her to start questioning who This God Person was and exploring how she felt about same. Which prompted me and my sister Lucy to start exploring with her. Which meant that over time, following our separate paths at separate places, each of us converted to Catholicism.
I know. Weird.
I remember how it felt to not believe. I remember how it felt to lie in bed at night, pondering a life with no afterlife, talking to myself and to the darkness without believing that anyone might listen. But as my faith in a Something Else and Somewhere Else took hold within me, I kept on talking to the darkness.
Whatever system of belief we claim, whether God or reason or nothing, every single one of us comes from darkness. We rocket into the light through the spasms of childbirth, and we land on this spinning ball alone. If we’re lucky, we’re lifted and loved by our parents. They hear our cries of hunger and dismay. They hear our laughter, laughing with us. They intuit our needs and meet them with attentiveness and patience. They know us. And who among us doesn’t long to be known? As adults we still long to be known — to find that one person who gets us, hears us, sees our brokenness and doesn’t run away.
The urge to pray is nothing more or less than the urge to be known. To be heard and understood. To be accepted, not rejected, for who we are. If you proved to me today that there is no God, I wouldn’t stop praying. It wouldn’t make a difference. I would still speak to the darkness, because forming words and uttering them aloud or in silence helps me understand my role in this world and the ineffable gifts that surround me.
Praying for the people I love reminds me to love them — reminds me that I’m not the only one fumbling through this life. Whether it helps them, I have no idea. I prayed for my sister; she took her own life. I prayed for my husband; he took his own life. God often says no. Why? Again, I have noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo idea.
One evening in 1988, I was working a late-cops shift in the Canton bureau of the Watertown Daily Times, and I was exhausted. I’d been working 60+ hours a week for the last several months. And I was worried like hell about Lucy, who was struggling with suicidality and a complex array of psychological and neurological issues.
She was in Cambridge, Mass. I was in the North Country, a six-hour drive away. Not exactly next door.
She called that night, distraught. Weeping. Expressing self-loathing and fear. There was only so much I could say — I love you, Luce, you’ll get through this, Luce, you’re not shit, Luce — and nothing I could do. When she hung up I turned off the office lights, drew the curtains, locked the door and dropped to my knees. I cried and prayed and prayed and cried and prayed and prayed and prayed, talking into the darkness and asking God to let me know if I should quit my job and move to Cambridge. Then I cried and prayed some more. Please, God, please. Please tell me what to do. Please.
After about 10 minutes of this, I got up. Flicked on the lights. Opened the curtains and unlocked the door. And the phone rang again. It was Lucy, calmer now, telling me one of her roommates was moving out soon.
“You wanna move in with me, Ame?”
Yes, I said.
“Yes?!” she replied, startled.
I regard that phone call as a miracle. It was a miracle not because God cured Lucy of her ills — not because I rescued her — but because I spent the next three years living with my sister, loving her, laughing with her, crying with her, visiting her in the hospital and simply being with her. I moved out in 1991, the summer I got married. Less than a year later, she was gone from this world.
The 27th anniversary of her death was this past Friday. I reflected, as always, on her beauty and brilliance. Her goodness. Her goofball eccentricity and wit. And I recalled, as always, that phone call inviting me to Cambridge.
Was it a direct answer to my prayers? I don’t know. I think so. Would it be any less of a miracle if it weren’t? I prayed to God that night in 1988 because I loved Lucy. Because I feared for her life. Because I needed to tell Someone in the murk of that rough moment that I loved her and feared for her life. Because I wanted to be heard and understood in my own pain.
And so, answering the phone just a few minutes later, I listened to her voice and felt compelled — by God? by love? does it matter? — to say yes.
Yes. I said yes. Thank God, I said yes.