*Featured Artwork: “Pray” by Andrea Walls
The idea of a pilgrimage to a miniature chapel in the middle of the North Carolina mountains did intrigue me. I decided to go there and “put some energy” on my plight.
He was on all kinds of psychotic medication now, and you’d never know, looking at him hunched and trembling, emaciated, his hair thinned, that he was better than he was a year ago. Just two weeks after we put his mother in nursing care, his mind cracked, and years of cheating, of marriage-ending sex addiction, tumbled out. Therapy and conversation had brought us a little closer to knowing why he’d done the things he had. It was tied to his mother’s abuse and violence, to her simultaneous fawning and abandoning. And to his absent father. But often Will lacked memories or a clear explanatory narrative.
My circle of friends knew that my husband was sick, they just didn’t know that behind whatever mental and physical breakdown he was having was a story of frequent infidelity and childhood trauma. I myself hadn’t known about it until the breakdown had happened. I knew people who had been cheated on, and sometimes the first thing they wanted to do was tell the world about their partner’s sins, air their grievances, and gain sympathy. I was the opposite. I was silent and drowning in shame, as if I myself had done something to lower others’ opinion of my character. Will had tainted me, but I didn’t want to make my dirtiness more real by giving voice to it.
I knew I couldn’t dwell in misery from his betrayals indefinitely. Carrying secret knowledge around was like wearing fire, only no one knew I was burning. I dropped ten pounds from the heat of adrenalin and anxiety. I felt like my mouth was full of sand. I could only dig into the psychology of it and question his past so much.
I was working a couple of days a week at an antique mall near Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina—it was a converted grocery warehouse for Blue Dot Foods down by the Swannanoa River. All my co-workers and many of the dealers there knew Will. He’d drop by to visit me, hanging over the counter, bringing coffee, joking, moving a heavy table that happened to need repositioning just as he showed up. He was outgoing and helpful, and judging from the way everyone saw him interact with me, they thought I was a very lucky woman. Like all who knew him, and knew us as a couple, the idea that he was a womanizer never crossed their minds.
Now, not only was my weight loss noticeable, I’d been breaking into tears for no apparent reason. I’d get triggered by a song from the retro playlist we piped through the store. “I’m all out of love/I’m so lost without you” or some other cheesy 80s anthem would come on, and I’d have to rush through the booths of vintage jewelry, glassware, and tools to the restroom. I’d lock myself in a stall and sob.
Later, when I was composed and back behind the counter, a customer would ask me a question about a piece of furniture. “What can you tell me about that drop-leaf table back in Booth 41, what’s the history?”
Dozens of times I’d said with a grin, “I don’t know, but I can make up a story if you want me to.”
Now I was in a catatonic state, my mind a hundred miles away dwelling on Will’s transgressions. I did nothing but make up stories, review history, try out explanations, but I kept my mouth shut about him. I knew even the simplest confession would unleash an avalanche of lurid questions among the store women, and I did not want to get into the details and find my sordid soap opera aired.
But why, I knew they wondered, had Will fallen apart? Everyone assumed it had to do with his difficult mom. It did, but they thought it was all recent. They had followed our story of putting my mother-in-law into nursing care. She had persecuted us for years with unreasonable tantrums and accusations of hiding things or stealing.
“No wonder, the poor guy. The stress his mom put him through.” That was the reaction. “Is the medication he’s on helping?” the women at the store asked.
It was Fancy, one of my colleagues, who figured out there was another piece to Will’s mystery. She was known as Fancy because she always had impeccable hair and nails and loved to dress up, often in funky 70s dresses or a vintage 60s shirtwaist. She was kind-hearted, but she was also The Gossip Queen. Antique dealers are a nosy bunch in general; they love hearing the low-down about co-workers, fellow dealers, and customers.
One day it was just the two of us in the office behind the check-out counter. The mall was quiet. She opened the freezer of the little staff refrigerator. In the back was the bottle of vodka we knew the owner nipped on from time to time. She pulled it out, got two coffee mugs, and poured us both a shot. “Cathy,” she said, handing me one. “What’s wrong? Let me ask you something. Did Will cheat on you? Is that what’s going on?”
When I didn’t respond, she looked at me with a mixture of sympathy and glee. She felt sorry for me, but she was also proud of herself for figuring it out.
I didn’t want to lie about it, or deny it. “Yes,” I said. I looked at the vodka and smelled it, then remembered that vodka did not smell, that’s why the owner liked it. Also, it was only eleven in the morning. I never drank at work, and never before five.
“But it’s very complicated. I don’t want to talk about it. It’s all unfolding, the what and the why, and it’s extremely painful. I don’t know what I’m going to do about it yet. I might be able to come to terms with it, forgive him and stay married, but I might not. Right now he’s just sick, and I have to deal with that. So don’t question me about it please.”
“Well, I want to tell you about this place you should go,” she said. She moved aside a stack of cardboard milk cartons we used to pack items, and sat down at the break table. “Steve and I went there when he lost his job and the bank foreclosed on our house. We didn’t know what we were going to do either. It’s a little chapel up in Madison County, in the community of Trust. Which is coincidentally just past the community of Luck.” She laughed. “We just went there and sat and prayed. The chapel is dedicated to St. Jude, the quote, patron saint of hopeless cases and things despaired, unquote. And it’s a pretty drive up through the mountains. It’s a cute place– tiny tiny, like a playhouse church.”
Fancy was an Episcopalian, not a Catholic. And I was a Unitarian, so neither of us believed in the power of saints. But we believed in ju-ju. If some piece of pottery that had been in the store for years finally got a buyer, we’d say, “Well you know, I just cleaned that piece the day before yesterday and moved it up front. I figured if I put some energy on it, it would sell, and it did.” We had known this to happen countless times.
“Thanks,” I told her. “I’ll look it up.”
As an antiques dealer, the idea of an adorable reproduction chapel in the middle of the North Carolina mountains did intrigue me. So did the idea of putting some energy on my plight, of touching it again in a spirit of hopefulness, but also in a spirit of release.
“Sweetie,” she said, and put her arm around my shoulders. “You will get through this. You are not the first woman to wear that T-shirt.”
She said it like it was obviously a simple, single affair. I knew I might never be able to explain to anyone other than a psychiatrist the horrific extent of Will’s compulsions and sexual acting out. Fancy clicked her mug with mine; I tipped the cup and downed the vodka.
That night I looked online for information about St. Jude, and about the chapel. The apostle was a man who went around the Middle East in the first century A.D., curing people of leprosy by touching them with a cloth that had touched the face of his cousin. AKA Jesus Christ. The archaic Catholic language of the appeals to Saint Jude Thaddeus put me in the presence of millions of other sufferers, not only on the internet now, but going back through time: “St. Jude, pray for me who am so miserable…that I may receive the consolations and succor of heaven in all my necessities, tribulations and sufferings…”
As for the chapel itself, it had been built in 1991 by the family of a woman who had a remission of stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She survived a miraculous eight more years.
Let’s go here,” I said to Will. “Come and see. What do you think?” I called him from the bed where he always was these days, lying in the dark trying to rest, living from meal to meal, from one round of medication to another. We had always shared a bed, always kissed good night. He would spoon me, I would spoon him. But I had been sleeping in a single bed across the hall these days, like a nurse.
He stood looking over my shoulder at the computer screen. Not long ago he was a physical specimen, with beautiful biceps and a torso sculpted as a Greek statue. Now he had a constant agitation and the flesh on his thighs sagged like pictures of men in concentration camps. “Did you, growing up Catholic, ever pray to St. Jude, patron saint of the impossible?” I asked.
“I’ve heard of him, and there’s that hospital for kids that Danny Thomas started… What do I have to do?” His brow furrowed. Any task he had, anything at all, was just another source of anxiety.
“I will write my prayer to St. Jude and you can write yours, and we can leave them at the altar. It will be a healing ritual we can do. Look, here’s a template.”
“What do you think I should say,” Will asked me, waving the piece of paper I gave him. I knew he just didn’t want me to leave him. He would say pretty much anything to prevent it.
“I don’t want to tell you,” I said. “This is your work. All I know is that I have to forgive you and you have to forgive yourself, and we have to find a way to lay this down and not let it consume every moment. We’re at this impasse where you say you’ve told me everything and yet you can’t or won’t fully explain or relate it to your past. I have to decide if I want to put any more energy on to this. I’m ready to move forward.”
We went on a cloudy fall morning after the school and work traffic had settled.
I drove slowly, in pain. I wanted to connect to the red and gold trees, the crisp air, but I was living in some as-yet-unreadable border world. I was Will’s caregiver and his nutritionist, his researcher and therapist. But I was also still his wife, and a very wounded one at that. I longed for the man I thought I had, the one who would love and take care of me as well. This man, I now understood, was an illusion.
When we passed the Trust town sign, the St. Jude Chapel of Hope was right there, edged in gingerbread trim like something out of a German fairy tale, a companion to the witch’s cottage in Hansel and Gretel. It’s a child’s version of a church, with a classic steeple and a stone entry. It’s only 12 x 14 feet, no bigger than a living room, and sits alone in a mountain meadow with a pebble-lined creek tinkling behind it. It was startling, out of space and time.
Inside, I found the intimacy and sweetness both cozy and uncomfortable. A stained-glass window of St. Jude in his flowing robes took up almost the entire front wall. The altar is a yellow pine table, an unadorned platform for the laying out of grief and slivers of hope. It befits the geography of these mountains. It’s messy– a collage of nature and religion, regret and sorrow, and one in a million chances. The surface was covered with Bibles, crucifixes, dollar bills, cigarettes, an empty beer bottle, flowers, prayer flags, rings and earrings, newspaper clippings, handwritten scraps of paper, photographs of people from every stage and walk of life.
I didn’t start to weep until I stood before the altar with my own note, ready to add it to the offerings. “Help me to forgive him, for my own sake as well as his. Help me to accept whatever comes next, even though I don’t know what that is,” I’ve written. I didn’t kneel. I stood there reading it to myself, my lips moving, then placed the paper inside one of the Bibles and backed away.
Will looked at me. The more I cried, the more he was shutting down. I could see his mother in his features, her nose and eyes, but now some loss in his gaze was also there, something akin to the dementia in hers. “Your turn. Here’s your prayer,” I said, and handed him his paper.
He knelt on the altar bench and stayed there a while, maybe thinking something, maybe not, but in the pose I knew he’d struck many times as a child in the French-Catholic church in Massachusetts where his mother and his grandmother used to take him. I watched his back, gone knotted as an old man’s, and the bottoms of his Nikes. He was literally still shaking in his shoes as he clasped his hands. It was a function of his breakdown. When he got up, he still had his paper in his hand.
“You should leave it there,” I told him. “We’ve made this pilgrimage so you could do that.” He turned and placed his folded note on top of a Bible, obedient as a child. I tried to think if I still loved him.
Sadness and anger had adhered to love and could not be separated now. My tears came so hard I sank to the ground and curled up in a ball on the floor in front of the altar. I’d never cried so hard in my entire life. For the next few minutes, I was in some other realm, nothing but a tear-soaked heap of flesh and rags. Will moved from the prayer bench and sat to my right on the first pew, silently watching me. He had no words or tears, but he saw the pain I was in. He rubbed his fingers over his forehead, and over it again, as if trying to erase something he couldn’t reach.
We were the only ones in the chapel, but then I heard the door creak open behind me and I knew a man is standing there on the threshold. I didn’t turn and look, but somehow my mind captured him as a silhouette, some lean hiker from the Appalachian Trail, in the thirties or early forties, with a big backpack hanging from one shoulder. He was probably so excited to have found this out-of-the-way place, this miniature church in the Blue Ridge community of Trust. But now he wavered in the doorway wondering what the hell he’d stumbled in to. He saw me lying on my face, saw Will’s instability, his bewildered profile. He probably felt it more than he saw it, whatever trauma or brokenness Will and I were enacting, so in a matter of seconds he was gone.
His presence broke the spell though, so I stood up and wiped my face and went to sit with Will. I had to drive us home, so I needed a moment to recover. Will kept looking down, but he put out his hand to me, so I took it. All his feelings were still stuck, but in his way, through his illness, he was trying.
It’s not fixable, I could keep searching, looking for a better resolution to the tragedy the Universe had dumped in my lap. I could make up a story about a selfish, self-absorbed man, or about a neglected fatherless boy with a domineering mother who was all he had as a lifeline in the world. I could make up a story about a woman who never put herself first and who had settled for less than a full measure of happiness up until now. But I was not going to do any of that. We’d taken care of what we’d come here to do.
I stood up. Maybe it was all to the good, just releasing the truth. “Thanks, St. Jude,” I thought again. “I appreciate you holding my shit for me. Maybe I’ll be one of your lucky ones, but whatever happens, I’m glad you were here to take it out of my hands.”
It was time now to get on with things. The little chapel door was ahead of me, and a trail I’d never walked, and so I turned, and so I began.