My best friend Bridget found religion when we were 24 and living in a rented house near Boston College, where we'd gone to school. Though she'd attended weekly masses in college, she'd considered herself vaguely Protestant; her church-going was as much habit as it was social.
Until that year, when Bridget suffered two major losses: Her grandfather died, and soon after her parents embarked on a bitter divorce.
She started getting up early on Saturdays to drive 40 minutes to Bible study, then to Mass on Sunday nights. And she started to pray. At every meal. It didn't matter where we were or what we were about to eat or with whom: dinner downtown, pizza in front of the TV.
As soon as the plates hit the table, all talk ceased. Bridget dropped her head and closed her eyes, blissfully unaware of the awkward pause she'd just created. Some nights I'd ask her a question, then found myself having to wait, dumbly, for the trance to pass, for her to lift her head like it was nothing. "What were you saying, T?"
I never got used to the prayers, nor did I ever ask her about her newfound faith. I knew it made her feel safe and steady during a difficult time. Who was I to question it? To ask her whether God would really love her less for diving right into her grilled cheese?
So I said nothing. Whoever was around learned to accommodate these episodes, the way you might a friend with Tourette's. The minute of discomfort would pass, after which the person you knew returned.
There's a reason they call themselves born-again Christians. She was in the midst of a spiritual do-over. Gone was the Bridget who gossiped, who talked about, or even had, sex (to the chagrin of her boyfriend). Her new piety irked me; though she refused to judge anyone, I felt judged. I told myself this was what she needed to do to bind up the pieces of a life that seemed to have wildly unraveled. But still, I resented it.
I'm No Stranger to Prayer
As a product of Catholic school, I attended what was, in essence, prayer boot camp. We prayed each morning, at church, before meals (and, with Sister Lois in the first grade, anytime an ambulance blew by). At the stroke of a bell or the hum of an organ, you simply assumed the position. Standing, sitting, on your knees. Prayer was a choreographed, memorized, sung, or mumbled reminder of what was important. Because we knew each prayer by heart, we didn't even think about it; the very act of praying rolled out of us unconsciously in a murmured wave.
Today, I'm a lapsed Catholic in every sense of the word. I look back on those early practices with nostalgia and some small measure of pride, the way I might at the pins on my Girl Scout sash. They were relics of a simpler age, when faith was as plain and dull as a loafer, something you didn't think much about so much as slip on and stumble around in.
But if my faith was an old shoe, Bridget's was a brilliant Technicolor dream coat that she never took off. The tide of her life was shifting, and each prayer seemed to signal it.
She found new friends at church -- a happy group that took weekend trips to the mountains in the winter, to the lake in the summer. She told me I should come; I never did. She broke up with the old boyfriend and grew serious with a man from the church group, Steve, who'd fallen hard for her.
Eventually, Bridget moved out. I joked that I'd lost my friend to Jesus. But I hadn't entirely. I visited her in her new place to eat slice-and-bake cookies, and when she married Steve, I stood up as a proud member of the bridal party. (Though I cringed when the priest told Bridget that it was her job to follow and Steve's to lead.) And then everyone bowed their heads to pray.
And Then I Got the News
Bridget called me from the hospital in May 2008, when she was 35. She and Steve had had a daughter and moved to Portland, Oregon. She was settling in and pregnant with her second. I had every intention of coming to visit soon.
She called to tell me about some tests she'd had done to assess the blood clots that had been forming inexplicably in her arms and legs, and other fluke issues that had popped up in recent months. They turned out not to be a fluke at all. She'd been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, she said, with a few weeks or months at best. When the doctors peered inside and saw what was happening, what in many ways had already happened, they simply closed her back up again.
When you hear bad news, especially the kind that only the writers of "Grey's Anatomy" could dream up (young, vibrant, God-fearing pregnant mother, stricken with terminal cancer), it changes the meter of your life. And from the day she was diagnosed, my every action, thought, gesture, effort was limned in an aura of heightened awareness -- the closest thing to divine I'd known. I don't know if holy is the right word, but I went from banging around my days as usual to stepping very carefully, afraid something might break.
In Catholic school, the concept of the Holy Spirit is the toughest to grasp. God is the father, Jesus is the son, but the third member of the Trinity is nebulous. While the other two have pretty big personalities, the Spirit is more a quality of presence, which is what I might have sensed shadowing me. No matter what I did those days, I had assumed the posture of prayer.
The Prayers Took Many Forms
Sometimes crying, sometimes running, sometimes lying in bed, staring into space. I didn't stop to pray as much as I was animated and infused by it. In some ways it seemed as though I was suspended just above my life, going through the motions the way you'd thumb a rosary, but peering at it through the lens of something greater.
I did wonder if my divine calling card might have been revoked when I'd failed to re-up my membership. But I prayed anyway -- without the Hail Mary or the Act of Contrition, as if being sorry, really sorry, for anything might help. A thousand Our Fathers weren't going to rearrange the cells of Bridget's body.
I didn't beg for Bridget to be magically healed (though I can't say I didn't wish it). But I talked in my mind to someone who might be God but looked and sounded like my late Uncle Bob, a priest who'd succumbed to prostate cancer a few years earlier. I offered up prayers like bags of coins scrounged from every corner of my house. Is this enough? Is this enough to keep her from suffering?
I saw Bridget once, the day she started chemo. I flew out with my mother, and we watched "American Idol" while Bridget devoured scrambled eggs that a friend had brought warm from her kitchen. She joked about being MVP of the maternity ward, and we knew she dreaded the pending move to the cancer floor.
At around 11:30, my mother started to doze off, and Bridget caught my eye. "T, your mom's tired," she whispered. I nodded. If she hadn't kicked me out, I'd never have left.
Faith Kept Her Strong
The doctors delivered a healthy baby girl, Chloe Faith, by C-section at 26 weeks. Bridget's mother tells me that, through that tumultuous time, what kept her daughter's fear at bay was her unwavering belief in a God who loved her. The faith kept her strong, but the prayer itself, that consistent and diligently worked thread, formed the deep stitch that bound her to it. She warned her family that when it looked as if things were getting worse, they should let her go. Which they did.
I still pray, though the prayer isn't as charged. Since prayer is basically a conversation, I hold conversations with Bridget in my head, and with my Uncle Bob, who remains for me God's proxy. I've come to realize that prayer isn't a rote activity or an ongoing negotiation. At its best, I believe, it can help coax us open to things that scare us, to sit with disappointment, fear, even boredom, knowing none of it lasts.
Of course, I can't help but feel some great, cosmic injustice was done, is done, whenever a young mother is taken from her family, and in Bridget's case, from a newborn whom she never got to hold. But the fact that those things happen is not what we're out to fix when we find ourselves wanting and needing to pray. And she's the one who taught me that -- that the whole point isn't to wish things away or shift scenarios in our favor, so much as it is to simply love when we can and accept what is.