Salvation by Laurel DiGangi

As hard as I tried, I was never very good at loving Jesus. When my second grade nun demanded we love Him “even more than our parents,”  I became overwhelmed with fear.  I had broken the First Commandment, and needed to confess my mortal sin to the priest: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I loved my mommy more than Jesus.”   The priest asked me to say three Hail Marys, but I was still doomed. To circumvent eternal damnation, my quest for forgiveness had to be genuine. I needed to love Jesus a little more, or my mother a little less.

This was challenging.  My mother was just too gosh-darn loveable.  Besides, Jesus may have walked on water, but His iconic image in every Catholic home was his near-naked body gruesomely nailed to a cross, a picture that lacked the warm, fuzzy appeal of Snoopy sleeping on top of his doghouse.  And even when Jesus posed for a nice portrait in his good robes, some gory, surreal element would ruin it, like his “sacred heart,” a bleeding, flaming valentine’s heart that hovered outside his chest, wrapped in thorns. My solution was to love the gentle, bloodless images of Baby Jesus, held lovingly in the arms of Mary—until Sister told us that it was sinful to even love Mary more than Jesus and I feared I had a forbidden love for Mary, who probably reminded me of my own mother.

Then on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and Jesus, Mary, and Mommy all had formidable contenders for my love. The prayer book beneath my pillow was replaced by a transistor radio, and my most revered holy object was no longer a crystal rosary but a pinback button my best friend claimed was tossed out of a helicopter by Paul McCartney.  In a few short years this precious object was joined by prom bids, dried corsages, and adolescent love letters. I was still obsessed with men too old and famous for me, but they were now joined by real flesh and blood, accessible boys, including my first serious boyfriend, R., who not-so-coincidentally happened to be a bass player in a rock and roll band.

Thus at age sixteen, my top ten Billboard Love Chart looked like this: 1. R. the Boyfriend; 2. Paul the Beatle; 3. Mom; 4. Jesus/ John the Beatle – an ironic tie, given the latter’s controversial 1966 remark about who was more popular; 5. Maternal Grandmother; 6. George my Brother; 7. George the Beatle; 8. George my Father: 9. Maternal Grandfather;10. Ringo

Unfortunately, my kid brother George didn’t hold steady at number six but bounced around and often fell off the chart completely. That’s because his list was topped by the drug toluene, the active ingredient in airplane glue. He started with leftover glue from our days of sticking together Rat Finks and monster model kits, then graduated to actual toluene after he and a friend stole cans of the stuff from a local warehouse.  He would rip cotton strips off my mother’s cleaning rags, soak them in “tolly,” shove them up his nose, and melt into an oblivious, catatonic state. I remember him sitting at the kitchen table in the middle of the night  (long after my father had drunkenly stumbled into bed) his head bobbing, his long, beautiful hair—dark blonde with natural, platinum streaks—hiding his face. The table was covered with used tolly rags and tissues—moist, nostril-sized clumps. Apropos of nothing, every few seconds, George barked out an angry, staccato “What?” My mother yelled at George, “go to bed” and “I told you not to do that stuff!” and anything else she could think of. Nothing mattered. George just sat there and muttered, “What? . . . What? . . . What?” He was thirteen.

Our cousin Jimmy, twelve years George’s senior, tried to help him. Jimmy wasn’t only our cousin, but also a family friend and electrician who often worked the same jobs as my father. George loved and trusted Jimmy, who told him, “Hey kid, you’ve got to stop doing that shit ‘cause its frying your brain.” Then he gave him a bag of weed and said, “Do this shit instead.”

Weed rose to the top of George’s love list. His life, my life, all our lives would have been so much happier if it stayed there. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be faithful to one drug. Instead he participated in pharmacological orgies that included weed, tolly, quaaludes, PCP, speed, and that old standby, alcohol. One day my father was called to pick him up from some party or street corner—I don’t remember. But what I won’t forget was Dad carrying George’s stiff, unconscious body into the house: legs sticking straight out from his torso as if rigor mortis had set in. So stiff that to fit through the front door, Dad had to carry him under one arm as if he were a heavy pile of lumber that he feared at any moment he would drop.

Understatement number one: George’s schoolwork suffered.  He didn’t just blow off classes; there were fights and suspensions.  Understatement number two: my parents were perplexed. Teen drug use was unknown to their generation, and treatment nonexistent. Understatement number three: our brother-sister relationship suffered. He resented me because I was a “good girl.” I resented George because no one cared I was a “good girl”; they spent all their energy worrying about him.  Plus he made whatever family problems we had even worse. Instead of ignoring my father when he was drunk—our mutual, tacit survival strategy—George would goad him on. Ironically, in comparison to George, my father’s drunken unpredictability was starting to seem predictable.

Then some shit hit the fan, even worse than his rigor mortis episode. It could have concerned his bottle-of-aspirin suicide attempt, a suspension, or drug arrest. Anyhow, this Big Brother from Big Brothers of America was coming to our home to resolve whatever specific shit instigated his referral. For the first time in months, I was hopeful. I imagined him not only curing George’s addictions, but also my father’s alcoholism.

When I first saw this “Big Brother,” I was shocked. He was a lot older than my Dad, and should’ve been called “Big Grandpa.” He ambled in the house silently, a lanky grey-haired man with a long haggard face, the stern countenance of the farmer in American Gothic.  There were no ice breakers, no pleasantries exchanged other than a mandatory, “Hello, I’m Mr. So-and-So from Big Brothers.” He sat down at our kitchen table, across from my father, who put on pants and a button-down flannel shirt for the occasion—his usual after-work attire was a T-shirt and long johns—while my mother nervously puttered around the kitchen, offering  Big Grandpa a variety of unwanted refreshments.

“He’s supposed to be home now,” Mom said. “I told him that the Big Brother was coming but that’s the problem, we can’t . . . you know . . . he doesn’t listen.”

Dad exhaled strongly through his loosely closed lips—his loud, trademark “blubber-sigh,” acknowledging my mother’s understatement.

“That’s okay,” Big Grandpa said. “It’s better for our first visit that I talk to the parents alone.”

If that was a hint, I ignored it.

Big Grandpa asked, “Is this his sister?” glaring at me in my tie-dyed T-shirt, paint-stained blue jeans and fake fur mukluks.  He did not see a young woman living in chaos, working her way through art school by typing dun letters for a collection department, whose father believed that paying for a daughter’s college tuition was pointless (as if her brother had a strong academic future).  Instead he saw a dirty hippie.

“She’s okay,” Mom said nervously. “She doesn’t use drugs or anything.”

At least that’s what she thought. Truth is, I was already nineteen and a secret stoner. Every Saturday night, after my boyfriend R.’s folk group played a couple sets at Ali’s Coffee House, we’d drive to his bandmate’s apartment  and share a joint or two while sitting cross-legged on the floor in an iconic stoner’s circle listening to the White Album.

            “Hmph,” he said.

And that pretty much sized up what I was thinking. Hmph. I was expecting a camp counselor, some twenties-something guy who looked like one of the Beach Boys who’d take George fishing and hiking, sort of a drug-free cousin Jimmy. Or maybe an aspiring therapist who would who delicately interview each of us about our family dynamic, then take George fishing and hiking. I was expecting a Savior.

“So,” he began, “How often does the family go to Mass together?”

“I take her as often as I can,” Mom said, “but George won’t go with me anymore.”

She lied. We rarely went to Mass any more, sometimes even blowing off  Easter and Christmas. As for me, Mass and Catholicism went out the door with my virginity. The only remnants left of my former faith were the religious paraphernalia—the prayer books, missals, rosaries, and scapulars housed in my special “holy drawer.” I also clung to my superstitions. Although I hadn’t been to Confession since high school, God forbid I do anything blasphemous, like take Communion with sins on my soul, or toss any of those prayer books in the trash to make room in my drawers for more bras and underpants.

Big Grandpa glared at my father. “I asked, how often does the family go to Mass together—that includes you.”

Dad  took a long sip of his Seven-Up, another concession to Big Grandpa’s visit, then said, “I don’t go to Mass.”

“You’re going to have to start,” Big Grandpa said. “Participation in the Holy Sacrament is an essential part of family life.

He had to be kidding.  Begrudgingly sitting in an uncomfortable pew listening to a priest perform his generic ritual couldn’t possibly save us. And if we had the wherewithal to prepare for Mass and leave together as a family, then Hallelujah!—we wouldn’t have needed church at all. Mom couldn’t get anywhere on time, an odd, undiagnosed meld of ADHD and OCD combined with a touch of vanity.  Whenever she tried getting dressed, she’d be suddenly distracted by the TV or some bit of unfinished housework. And when she did regain focus, no matter how late we were running, she’d never skip one step of her toilette and always try on three different blouses to decide which one made her look the least fat. What’s more, for George to go to Mass, he’d have to be sober, docile, obedient.  Was Big Grandpa planning to visit to our house early Sunday morning, drag my brother out of bed and throw him in the shower? Perhaps he’d even help my mother choose a figure flattering ensemble and make us all pancakes, too. He could be that TV sitcom maid-nanny-butler whose real job is live-in therapist.

Fortunately—or unfortunately, hard to say—my speculations were moot because my father finally finished his long trademark pause and responded to Big Grandpa: “Get the fuck out of my house.”

And that was that.

Now for another understatement: things got worse. The climax of chaos—at least while I was still living with my family—occurred about 10:15 p.m. on a school night. I was lying in bed watching The Honeymooners on my old, black and white TV. Our home was deceptively peaceful. George was out. Dad had fallen asleep at the kitchen table after his common practice of drinking a Manhattan in a beer mug. Mom was in her late night “zone,” free from distraction and able to focus on washing dishes and cleaning out the refrigerator. Even the kitchen television was on the same channel as mine—in our small home my personal metaphor for harmony. The Honeymooners itself was soporific; the show first aired when I was three; the episodes familiar bedtime stories that lulled me to sleep.

I was almost dozing when the doorbell rang. I wasn’t concerned. I thought maybe my mother’s best neighbor-friend, another night owl, was dropping off homemade cream puffs. I began to drift again off when I heard two male voices speaking in a low monotone and my mother (loudly, excitedly) telling them that she didn’t know where my brother was. Cops? Probably. I was so jaded—and tired—that I didn’t really care. Then I made out the words the words “search warrant.” That, plus the realization I had a joint in my purse, was a literal rude awakening.

This was the only joint George had ever given me and the first to reside in my handbag. Before this joint, I had taken tokes from other people’s joints, but my boyfriend and I were too spineless to actually buy our own stash. Nonetheless, as soon as I realized there were there were detectives in the house, that joint left my fringed leather handbag to find a new home inside the elastic waistband of my bikini underwear.

In retrospect, it could’ve stayed there, without incident, until the narcs left. But my paranoia was compelling me to flush that joint down the toilet, so I cracked open my bedroom door and made a quick turn into the bathroom. Unfortunately they saw me. As soon as I closed the bathroom door, before I could even open the toilet lid, a male voice said, “Who’s that?”

Then my Mom: “She’s okay. She doesn’t use drugs or anything.”

A millisecond later: “Open up. This is the police.”

I did as I was told. Before me stood two middle-aged white guys in dark suits. My life had suddenly switched channels from The Honeymooners to Dragnet, and I was its number one suspect. The men rushed past me to the toilet and stared, disappointed, into the still water. The joint was still safely inside my panties. My worse fear was that a female detective was waiting back at the station to strip search me. I stood in the hallway, affecting a doe-eyed look of innocence. Fortunately I’d gone to bed in a long Victorian nightgown instead of my old tie-dyed T-shirt, so I looked more like Peter Pan’s Wendy than a cast member of Hair.

Then one of the narcs asked my mother, “Is that her bedroom?”

Again my mother protested: “I told you! She doesn’t do drugs!” and as if on cue the narc shone an ultra-powerful flashlight into my dark room. Meanwhile, I was in full paranoia mode. What if George had creatively hidden some stash in my closet?  Or a roach had fallen from a hole in his pocket onto my carpet?—back then even roaches sent people to prison. Then my mother flipped on the overhead lights. Apparently she was trying to appear cooperative, although now they could clearly see my stack of Robert Crumb comics and the nude woman on my wall who was slowly turning into a pile of gourds—an image I seemed to have painted in some drug-induced state.  By now Dad had woken up, lit a cigarette, and ambled toward the scene. “You really should be searching my son’s room,” he said, but even his well-meaning efforts were ignored.

I prayed that George—the real suspect—would walk in the door, and the narcs would turn their attention to him. Instead, I witnessed another type of divine intervention. As one cop crawled under the bed (where there was nothing but house slippers and dust bunnies), the other opened the small right drawer of my tall dresser: my “holy drawer.” He gently handled my First Communion prayer book, my Confirmation missal, the holy cards, the rosaries, the scapulars, and several handkerchiefs edged with lace that my grandmother had hand-tatted,  before closing the drawer and officially announcing to his partner, “C’mon let’s go. She’s okay.”

Thank you, Jesus.

Shortly thereafter, the search moved to the attic, where, with the help of a ladder which my parents kindly provided, the narcs found this thing that looked like a tumbleweed, and was just as big. My mother supplied them with a garbage bag to contain it.  By now my brother had come home. “That’s just a bunch of fucking stems!” he yelled. “You can’t arrest me over a bag of stems.”

But they did.  And that’s pretty much all I remember. Two years later, after I was married and out of the house, George did something—whether this was when stole that girl’s purse in the Jack-in-the-Box parking lot, or a run of the mill drug bust, I don’t recall—but it landed him in Cook County prison for a month, where he slept with a sharpened toothbrush under his pillow to avoid a second rape. At the trial, he was given a choice: prison or rehab, and landed in Gateway House for a year. Rehab worked until he discovered a new love, heroin, and that rarely works for very long.

 

There’s more I need to say about George, but not now. Because this isn’t about George, it’s about Jesus. And Jesus never saved George. Oh, maybe in those final moments, if you believe that kind of stuff—and you think a 26-year-old kid slipping into unconsciousness knows he’s overdosing and has the wherewithal to make a sincere Act of Contrition (or accept Jesus into his heart, or whatever protocol you non-Catholics have). But I’m not talking about being saved from eternal damnation in death, because a loving God wouldn’t do that. I’m talking about being saved in life.

When that detective opened my dresser drawer, I was not saved by the gory, crucified Jesus, or the adorable baby Jesus. I was saved by an ironic Jesus—a God with a sense of humor, and a message: He was still rooting for me, for my life. He didn’t care how much, or how little, I loved him. He was completely happy tucked away in a drawer with my grandmother’s hankies. He’d be there if I needed Him.

Laurel DiGangi’s  creative nonfiction has been published in the Chicago Reader. Her fiction has been published in, among others, Denver Quarterly, Asylum, Cottonwood, and Atlanta Quarterly.