Prayer Mile

Posted on: October 8, 2015

When my mother died, she became my God. Whenever I prayed before, it was always to something or someone I couldn’t quite grasp. Sure, there were titles I’d been taught to use: Lord, Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit. Those names didn’t make the deity easier to picture or approach; they just kept him distant and vague, important and quick to shame. But my mom always talked about God the Father as the epitome of love, and she wanted everyone to know that he’s got so much love for everybody. What I didn’t realize until after she was gone was that if God was the epitome of love, then she was his embodiment. Nobody loved as much as that woman did. I don’t know who God the Father is, but I know my mom. So, when I pray, she’s the one I’m praying to.

There’s this tower at the plant as tall as Babel with a ladder all the way up. I have to sit up there about every week to monitor pressure gauges, make sure we’re not putting out too much yuck. The sun’s usually following me when I climb up and always beats me to the top. There’s a breeze, and the clouds look like cotton candy as day breaks. You probably didn’t know that a new morning has a smell, crisp and clean with hints of earth. I see why those people a long time ago tried to build their way to heaven, because seeing the world stretched out and the horizon wrap around will make you feel brave, like you can do anything. It’ll make you feel like you can get over your mom dying while you held her hand even though you know you never will.

My wife was going through some really terrible stuff a couple years back. Her boss asked her if she needed to take some time off. She said no. She said work was the place to be because if she stayed home, all she’d do is think about all the terrible things and she’d lose her mind. Now, I get what she meant. Having a job that makes you use your hands and your head all day is like a salve, soothing the wound that still exists underneath. The guys at the plant are well-meaning; they want to ask if I’m doing all right and give their condolences. I hate it when they do that because it makes me remember, ripping at me like a bandaid. But I smile and thank them, then get back to filling out an incident report with my head downturned so they can’t see me sniffling.

I signed up for overtime and told my wife it was mandatory. I knew she knew. There’s these huge pots full of molten metal that we’ve got to keep clean. It’s monotonous work, but it was just what I needed. I kept raking the debris out of what looks like the belly of hell, watching the heat purge the impurities. It makes me wonder if hell is just a stop before you get to heaven. Maybe you go there to get clean so God can welcome you. If such a place exists, I doubt my mom had to go, or if she did then it was for like two minutes because maybe she lied once.

There was a spill one day that messed up a flock of geese. They were washing themselves in the puddles like they always do, but it wasn’t water this time. The oil coated their feathers and stung their eyes. We got the right people to take care of them, but I couldn’t think straight. There was one goose lying on her side, breathing slow with her beak open a little. The black liquid coated her feathers, reminding me of the stuff they had to pump out of my mom’s lungs just to keep her going. The tube ran from her mouth into a canister on the wall above her hospital bed, and it would get full so quick. One of the animal rescue workers picked up the goose and told me she’d be all right once they cleaned her up. A doctor said the same thing once about my mom, so the doubt is thick in my chest.

The cancer looked like an oak tree stretching its branches across her lungs. They said it was progressing rapidly, and things weren’t looking good. There’s nothing more emasculating than waiting for someone you love to die. There were people from the church praying for a miracle in the waiting room, but I knew my mom was going to die days ago. I surrendered myself to the brute force of death’s grip on her, and let it embrace both of us as we sat on the sofa. I said everything I needed to say. I told her I loved her when she could still respond. I told her thank you. I told her that she’s the best, and my kids will know her. Seeing the MRI scans made me feel better that I got a chance to do what others don’t, what others probably resist.

It’s a hike from the plant back to the locker rooms. I call it the Prayer Mile. I start and end my days on it, telling my mom about her granddaughters and asking her how I can be a good husband. Sometimes I try to listen, and I don’t hear anything, but she was never one for words. Mom was a hugger. So, when twilight and dusk wrap around me each day, I think about the mornings when we’d snuggle on the couch before getting ready for school. I think about the way she held me on my wedding day, and threw herself on me when I told her we were going to have a baby. I think about that last squeeze of my hand before her spirit left her body, and her light left my life.

Mother in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Samuel Zeller

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