My mother believes in miracles. Small ones, of course. Just enough change at the store or not running out of gas, for example. But big juicy ones, too. Cancer cures, cheating husbands repentant and returning home, family Bibles surviving a house fire. The one we are waiting on right now is somewhere in between. We are searching for her car keys, which she last saw somewhere in the kitchen or maybe her bedroom or perhaps by the front door.
“I had them right in my hands,” she insists plaintively while digging through her purse.
It is the day after Christmas and we are about to drive to Connecticut in the rain to see relatives in a car rented under my name. She doesn’t even need her car keys but we can’t leave without them. She pauses to pray with her eyes closed before searching the kitchen one last time. It’s there she lets out a yelp and emerges with her arms victorious above her head as though she has won an Olympic medal.
“He moved them!” she tells me between heavy breaths as I pull away from the curb. “The LORD moved the keys to the counter so I could find them!!”
It is eight hours to Connecticut from her suburban Maryland home and she spends it reminding me how Jesus found her keys. More than two-dozen relatives get the same story. Did I tell you the LORD found my keys?? she says, giving herself chills each time. What I don’t mention – what I can never mention – is what happened the night before. How what happened has convinced me there were never any miracles to begin with. And even if there were, there are no miracles left.
We were living in Manhattan when I first heard about people being raised from the dead. It was the mid-1980s and my parents toured Pentecostal churches with us three kids in tow — Rebecca, David and Jessica — all under the age of ten and wearing church clothes. Becca and me in dresses; Dave with a clip-on tie. I was the youngest and the only one without a Biblical name but I didn’t mind. I was taken with the Bible stories — Samson with his hair and honeycomb, Moses with his staff and sea. When an employee died at our small Christian school, I wondered why we couldn’t just call him back from the dead. I was only in preschool and eating celery and peanut butter when I posed the question — why he can’t come back to life. I was given some cagey explanation — not God’s will. It didn’t sit well with me and my questions loomed large through the funeral as we sang him to a grave.
I still can’t eat celery to this day without wanting to spit it back out.
My brother Dave and I had been to nine states by the time we were teenagers. New York and Maryland — where we grew up — but also most of New England along with Florida and even California once to see our uncle Steve. I can still see Steve singing at the piano like a redheaded John Lennon in a terry bathrobe. Or my mother wailing from her bedroom when Steve died shortly after our visit — his organs riddled with tumors. I’ll always remember this — how uncle Steve was at once there and then suddenly not. Like a holy miracle gone wrong.
Years later my brother Dave will tell me his dream is to travel to California or Florida. He wants to go to Disney World or Disneyland — he can’t decide which.
We both know he will never make it there.
Here are things I’m told will cure sickness: prayer, repentance, antibiotics, sunlight, saving sex for marriage. There’s only one cause for sickness, though, which is sin. Mostly your own but sometimes someone else’s that catches you in its snare. “Bad luck” is what most people call it but we don’t believe in luck. We believe in righteousness and atonement. Maybe you don’t pay for your sins but someone else will.
Someone always pays.
Three days before my mom and I leave for the Connecticut trip — the one where Jesus finds her keys — I drive to the Second Chance Saloon to meet a friend from high school. Sergio is hunched over his phone at a table away from the bank of televisions so we can hear each other. He looks the same — dark goatee, thick cool glasses. I haven’t seen him since 1998 when I was a junior in high school. He used to smoke politely outside of my parents’ house, Dave and I placing the butts in soup cans so our dad didn’t get annoyed.
“Wanna meet Todd?” he asks, checking his texts. Todd was Dave’s first friend from church youth group and how we know Sergio. Todd became our designated driver in high school — albeit, a reckless one whose license got revoked. He does a double-take when he sees me walk into his glossy bar downtown and pours us celebratory shots of Jameson — introducing me like we’re family to everyone there. When I join him on his cigarette break, he asks tentatively about Dave and I tell him I’ll see him for Christmas in two days. He blows smoke over his shoulder, thinking this over. Later, Todd hugs me twice in his driveway when Sergio drops him off at his apartment, each hug feeling like an apology.
“You’re doing that thing Dave used to do,” Sergio mentions in the car on our way back. I’m picking the skin around all my fingernails — an old childhood habit that leaves my fingers bloody and blistered. Dermatillomania. A behavior Dave and I learned from our dad when we were eye-height with his hands. I sit on my palms the rest of the way but there’s a light dusting of my skin in Sergio’s truck when I climb out of the front seat. Pieces of myself but pieces of Dave, too, I suppose. Pieces of all of us.
We’d lived in Maryland only a year or two when my dad decided to do choral arrangements for colonial music by William Billings. It’s music of the early Americans built for tight harmonies, horn sections, reeds and brass. Nothing like what I heard on the radio at the time — early 1990s, fifth grade. He had costumes made for the small choir — men in navy blue suits with tricorn hats; women in matching bodices and hoop skirts. I thought my mother was never as beautiful as she was wearing that dress, her dark hair pinned under a patch of lace. My favorite song of theirs was “Kittery,” a short version of the LORD’s prayer but fast and full of melodic turns.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done
Throughout this earthly frame…
Nearly thirty years later, I still can’t hear that song without crying.
It was spring of 1993 when a gregarious pastor named Guy Carey visited our church in Silver Spring, MD. He brought his wife, Betty, along with their nine children. The main sanctuary was where it happened first: Guy placed his hands on someone’s forehead only to have them fall to the floor, everyone gasping in awe. The same thing happened in the youth group meeting in a doublewide trailer out back. Teenagers falling over weeping or speaking in tongues — like they were setting an example for the rest of us. My friend Marielle and I tumbled to the floor quickly as though God had touched us, too.
Todd is who I remember most that week. Todd and Dave. They took to one of the new guys in youth group who’d only recently decided to become a Christian, announcing through tears on a microphone how grateful he was to be saved. Maybe I remember him specifically because I was embarrassed for him crying like that in front of everyone. Maybe I remember him because Todd and Dave clung to him like disciples in cheap denim. Maybe I remember him because he disappeared almost as quickly as he arrived — arrested on drug charges, I was told.
Todd and Marielle were always able to downplay everything we experienced as “a phase.” I was unsure. But not Dave. A certainty settled over him, heavy as a looming storm.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done
Throughout this earthly frame…
Sometimes I wish I could take that summer back — make it never happen. But even I know it wouldn’t change anything. Some things can’t be helped.
When your brother is a schizophrenic but you don’t know yet, here is what you do: pray, fast, stop watching HBO, try not to say “crap” or “sucks.” Wince when he listens to bands like Marilyn Manson or Nine Inch Nails. When your brother is schizophrenic but you don’t know yet because you’re barely out of high school yourself and think he’s just backsliding from your fundamentalist faith, here is what you hope for: He’ll wear his Looney Tunes shirts again instead of all black, he’ll rededicate his life to Christ, he’ll come back to life somehow even though he isn’t actually dead.
I wake up hungover on Christmas Eve after my night with Todd and Sergio. I vaguely remember everything — drinks, hugs, egg rolls after too much whiskey, eventually climbing the stairs of my mom’s house like the culprit of a crime. I smell the alcohol on me when I make breakfast and wonder if my mother can smell it on me, too. She asks about my night and if I’m still willing to give Dave a ride to Christmas dinner the next day. I answer in small doses and feel sick for hours. It’s after dark before I feel even close to OK to drive to the mall for some Christmas shopping.
I buy a burger and fries first, followed by inconsequential gifts for everyone: stuffed animals for my sister’s kids, a bathrobe for my mother, sweater for Dave. I let the fried food heal me as I sit outside watching the thinning crowd of shoppers. Carols play somewhere in the distance. “Joy to the World” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” I hate Christmas, I whisper to myself, eyes closed and heavy until the songs go silent.
We lived in Maryland when Dave started punching me. Just a handful of times to show who was stronger. I was eight; he was eleven — both of us the smallest in our classes. He knocked the wind out of me each time like a small explosion in my lungs. BOOM! He was probably mirroring the treatment he received in class. Or maybe he was just feeling out the corners of himself — seeing what would stick. All the bickering got to my mother, though, who dragged us to the living room one Saturday to “cast out” whatever haunted us.
“Spirit of STRIFE! Spirit of MALICE! Spirit of HATE!“ I remember her listing off with the fervor of a revival preacher, spit leaving her delicate mouth. Dave and I kept our heads bowed, stealing smug glimpses at each other.
I can’t explain it but from that day on, we were close friends. Sometimes I still dream about that moment but with slightly different details. In some versions we’re old or in our teens. In others we’re in another house or my college dorm. Every time it resurfaces, I awaken with the feeling our fates were tied and always will be.
Dave and I sang multiple duets together as kids — all orchestrated and arranged by our father, sometimes with a children’s choir backing us up. There’s a recording of us singing back in the late 1980s at a small church in Virginia. I remember it even without the recording because I kept missing the intro cue, a searing humiliation. I haven’t listened to the recording in awhile because it’s so painful. There we were — maybe about 7 and 10 years old — begging God, truly begging, to not punish us for our sins.
If there is a heaven, I want to bring this tape with me and tell God how hard we tried.
Here are some signs you might be a spiritually gifted prophet: visions, dreams, hearing voices, emphatic speech, threats of violence in the name of God, catatonic behavior while receiving a message from the LORD.
Here are some signs you might have schizophrenia: visions, delusions, hearing voices, disorganized speech, threats of violence in the name of God, catatonic behavior while experiencing a loss of motivation to survive.
I still have trouble telling the difference.
Dave is backlit and standing at the top of a stairwell when I pick him up for dinner on Christmas day, his dark hair falling past his shoulders and weight nearly doubled since my last visit. He doesn’t smile but says hello with the one note he has left in his voice to express happiness. A social worker named Doug gives him a small baggie of meds to take in a few hours while signing him out of his building.
“I really didn’t think I’d be out by Christmas,” Dave says to his reflection in the window as I drive, referring to how he’s just spent another three weeks on lockdown in the psych ward of a hospital for threatening to kill his roommate again. I only know bits of the story from my mother. How the police arrived. How the sheriff called Dave “incredibly accommodating” as he placed Dave in handcuffs. How he always goes without a fight — a knowing animal accepting its fate. His whole body looks heavy as he speaks like his limbs are taking on water. I keep checking to make sure he hasn’t somehow fallen through the floor of my car, through the slick cement of the highway, down to the depths of the earth.
There are ten of us around the table that day — me, my mother and two siblings, along with my sister’s in-laws. My parents’ marriage is over by then and my sister’s three young children fill the void. We all chew a brined ham on a neatly adorned table and try to think of things to say. I keep quiet when politics comes up — socialized medicine and government overreach mentioned like swear words. I want to ask who they think pays for Dave’s state-funded apartment or medical care but decide against it. It’s my sister’s brother-in-law, Jim, who brings up his recent literature class. How he’d never read Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath or Their Eyes Were Watching God until enrolling at the community college. “Doom and gloom books” my sister adds with an eye roll.
“I love those books,” I say, realizing I’ve said nothing the entire meal. Jim’s wife asks what I like specifically about Of Mice and Men and the scoff in her voice makes me grip my fork and knife a little too hard. At first, I praise the writing and characterization, the scenes and stakes. The bravery of bothering to spend time on a character like Lennie at all — a man useless in the eyes of a modern society. How heartbroken I am by his ultimate undoing.
“The value of caring for a life unfit for the masses?” I say, my thoughts circling back to Dave’s ruddy apartment, the baggie of meds, the rotation of cop cars. “I will always relate to that.”
I lived in Ithaca, New York, when I got the first bad news about Dave. I was a sophomore in college and studying in my small dorm room when the phone rang. There’d been an incident, my mother told me. My aunt and her three small children had been staying with my parents for a few days. The kids had taken turns knocking on Dave’s bedroom door each day trying to get him to come out and visit. He finally emerged only after all the guests had left and my parents were eating dinner — a loaded gun hanging loosely in his hand and a mandate from God, he said, to shoot everyone in the house. Years later he would tell me he struggled for days to just shoot himself instead. How desperate he was to bargain with God for a lesser sacrifice.
“But he didn’t shoot us,” my mother emphasized after saying he’d stay at a psychiatric ward for a little while, a mixture of panic and optimism in her voice. “I know he’ll be alright because he didn’t shoot us.”
This was all the evidence she needed to know that the Dave we knew would return to us. Even then, I think I knew he never would.
Dave and I used to ride the same bus to and from high school each day. I was a small, wide-eyed freshman while he was a tall, stoic senior with secret admirers. Dark hair, high cheekbones, good grades. He always found a seat for me first and draped a protective arm over my shoulders when I arrived. His face was different then — bright and unmarred by illness, his arm drifting in the air like a beacon guiding me to him.
Had I known then what was in store for us, I swear I never would’ve gotten us off that bus.
Here’s what it’s like visiting your brother in a psychiatric ward: verify visiting hours and confirm it’s not closed for a holiday or unspecified reason. Sign in and show valid ID. Place all your belongings in a metal locker. Wait for a nurse to escort you down another hallway. Pretend to laugh when she says you don’t look anything like your brother and how she thought maybe he had a girlfriend. Take a seat in the common area and notice how all the furniture is too heavy to lift towards the barred windows. Reverse the whole process again when you leave and rest your head against the steering wheel of your car in heavy sobs, hoping this isn’t the last time you see your brother alive.
Dave is in bad shape when I drive him back to his apartment after Christmas dinner. He loosely holds a lap full of gifts in the front seat of my car, mouth moving silently to himself.
“I want to die and go to heaven,” he says like a well-rehearsed mantra. “And I want to forget my life ever existed.”
He repeats this over and over under his breath as I ease onto the freeway. Soon the rain falls so heavy it feels like it could bury us alive and the lanes of traffic become ambiguous lines of hazards and brake lights. That’s when it crosses my mind. My hands go slick with sweat when I think about the upcoming bridge. How easy it would be to drive over the edge and into the Patapsco River. Let the water swallow us both and put us to rest like God intended. How it might be a mercy.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done
Throughout this earthly frame…
I am shaking and pale when I check Dave back in at his apartment. We are soaked in sweat and rainwater. Doug the social worker is replaced by a girl named Joanna who takes our picture — our shoulders and faces still damp. I see Dave waving at me from his stairwell as I pull away. His arm like the beacon it used to be.
My mother is listening to him on the phone when I walk back in her door. It’s Dave, she mouths in large pantomime giving me the thumbs up. He wants to pray with my pastor. Nearly twenty years of specialized psychiatric care and she still holds out hope for Dave to get well again. To somehow return.
“He’s not getting better, mom,” I tell her flatly, feeling an odd shifting pain in my side like I’ve stabbed us both. She covers her phone with her hand so Dave doesn’t hear what I’ve said and slowly retreats to her bedroom looking at me like I’m a poison.
Hours later I sit up with a stomach pain so intense that I start moaning. I ease my way down to the bathroom, afraid I’ll throw up on the pristine carpet. I strip down to nothing in the bathtub and crouch there awaiting some kind of punishment. A punishment that comes quickly and almost violently: my mother’s brined ham leaving my body in all directions like furniture thrown from every window. I gasp for air and clutch the edge of the tub, putting a cramp in my left hip.
Dying would be easier, I think to myself before passing out.
We still lived in Maryland when Dave asked if I’d get an apartment with him. I was a senior in high school and he’d dropped out of college unexpectedly, only to return home as someone unfamiliar to me. My dad blamed this change on Todd, who’d picked Dave up at his dorm only to get in a bad accident on the way home. The guilt fractured their friendship and I imagine still weighs on Todd to this day.
“This is how I know I’m losing my mind,” Dave said over the phone when I told him I couldn’t live with him. “Not even you will stay with me anymore.”
And then he hung up and I lived with that like a shot to the gut.
All I can focus on is the radio. First playing Christmas carols then a cluster of pop songs sounding indistinguishable from one another — all in quick succession as my mother attempts to select something to listen to on our drive to Connecticut. I don’t tell her anything about the night before. How I’d considered killing myself and her son on Christmas day. How the thought had flooded me with a deep sense of relief. How the relief turned into a toxin I vomited all over her tub. My face relaxes when she hits the classical station — safety in the harbor — but she keeps scrolling. Turning the volume down, I attempt light conversation. Something about a recipe from yesterday’s meal or our visit to my sister’s house. What were her thoughts on the gun collection on the porch?
“We have to defend ourselves,” my mother interjects, a sign I’ve hit a nerve. I take in a quick breath like a frozen animal hearing a sound in the woods.
“But Dave…” I choke, tail lights ahead of me blurring. I wipe my face as she lists buzzwords I’d heard around our Christmas meal the day before. Socialism, second amendment, medicare.
We drive the next few miles in silence, nothing but the low hum of Christian radio and windshield wipers. It’s then my mother changes the dial — her sign of a truce, perhaps. She lands on something that makes her turn the volume up.
“Can we listen to this??” she pleads and I agree easily, baffled.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
We crawl down the interstate listening to John Lennon sing for a while. When it ends, she tells me she hasn’t heard that song since it came out in 1971. How hearing it was like time travel. I consider this for a beat, the sun invisible behind a thick fog and the rain beating down. In 1978 Dave would be born and in 1981 I would be born, too. In 1980 John Lennon would be killed by a man almost certainly a paranoid schizophrenic. Twenty years later, Dave would have schizophrenia, too. He’d have the chance to kill us but he won’t take it. Maybe that will be some kind of miracle. Maybe not. I won’t be able to make sense of anything but I’ll try anyway.
All I can do is try.
Jessica Ripka is a writer and audio producer currently working in film in Los Angeles. A Tin House Fellow and Transom Story Workshop alum, she is currently working on a memoir.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Cam Miller
This story was a semi-finalist in the 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction, and is included in our special contest issue as one of the top, overall 10 stories.