Dashed Divinity from the series No Memory is Ever Alone © Catherine Panebianco
By Allison Light
When it came time for Georgeann to downsize, she moved to a house she referred to as The Chalet. Low ceilings trapped the late-spring Delta humidity so that each room felt like it was steeping in itself. The first decoration she installed was her Jesus statue, advertised as Life-Sized but honestly a little plus (like a haloed linebacker), paint chipped off the right eye and one of the fingers lost in the move. She put it in the middle of the living room. Georgeann inclined her brittle body toward the statue every morning and night, unwilling to sit but unable to kneel. Rasped out a few Lord’s Prayers then chatted about the grandkids. She liked to sip tea as she prayed and sometimes accidentally tilted the cup over, sloshing the Lipton onto the mantel. She’d make a joke about the second Flood, then apologize for it, quietly.
At eighty-two, she was healthy enough because her body just did mostly normal body things, except the wrong organs did the wrong things—her heart rumbled like her stomach, her lungs beat like her heart, her stomach swelled like her lungs. “It’s like there’s a Slip ’N Slide going up-n-down my trachea,” she said, pushing a cup of tea toward her son in the kitchen. “That’s what happens when you’re about to die.” Robby came to visit at least once a week, spruced up the garden, and checked the appliances and the like. He was tall and she was small in such a way that it was astounding, truly astounding to think that at one point he fit in her belly, really not all that long ago.
“Ma, you’re not about to die,” he said.
“Famous last words,” she said knowingly.
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“I think I want to take a trip.”
He took his tea bag out and popped it in her mug; she liked it strong. “And where would you go?”
“Oh, just around,” she said. “Use a coaster.” She pointed to a neat stack of them on the corner of the kitchen island, each depicting a different wild American bird species. He grabbed the Eastern Screech Owl from the top.
“You’re too old for something like that.”
“Either I’m about to die or I’m not—make up your mind.”
He centered his tea cup on the coaster, covering the owl’s two beacon eyes. “Okay. Where would this trip take you?”
She didn’t like that, how he rephrased it. The trip wasn’t taking her—she was taking the trip. These things seem not to matter to most people, but if one lets words get jumbled around enough, soon they’ll mean something else entirely. “I’d like to go to China.”
He scratched his head. “I’ll start digging, then.”
“I’m serious,” she said.
“What do you want to do in China?”
She took a sip. “I’d like to study Buddhism.”
He laughed. It started as a bark, like the neighbor’s untrained Shepherd, then tapered off.
“Don’t laugh at your mother.”
“What do you know about Buddhism?” he asked.
“Hardly nothing,” she said. “That’s why I’d like to study it. And then maybe Hinduism.”
Robby looked at her. She’d maintained the same shade of white-blond hair from her youth, and still wore her wedding ring after his father’s death, though it fit only her pinky now because of arthritis. His father’s ring hung from a gold chain around her neck. She carried most of her age in her shoulders, which caved in as if to protect her torso from the great unknown, but her legs were straight and strong and she walked laps through the shopping mall every day. Her wrist bones shone through the paper of her skin.
“China’s like Candy Land, Ma,” he said to her, more gently, in the tone he’d use with his kids when they wanted something that he and Vicky just couldn’t quite swing, making it seem like something they wouldn’t want anyway. “You can’t go off to China alone.”
“I wouldn’t be alone,” she said instantly. “Susan and Jilly from my Bible group want to come.”
Susan’s in a wheelchair; Jilly always thinks it’s Tuesday. Robby walked to the fridge and rapped his knuckles on the handwritten prayers taped to the doors. “Why does your Bible group wanna learn about Buddhism, Ma?”
Georgeann nudged past him, opened the fridge, and pulled out the leftovers from the pie she had made for her bridge club. She sawed away at a generous piece and slid it onto a plate. He went at it with the same spoon he had used to stir his tea. The truth was that she already knew something about Buddhism, because she had been reading about it for eight months, along with Hinduism, and Islam, and Judaism, and Bahá’í, and Shinto, and only glancingly Zoroastrianism (the library didn’t have a large-print book on that, so she was less clear on what it was all about). She had started reading about Buddhism because eight months ago she sat next to her husband, Harvey, in hospice care, and he said to her, “Georgie, what if we’re wrong, and the Buddhists have it all figured out?” and she had asked him where on earth he had gotten such a wild idea, but then he began to cough, and that was the last sentence he’d said that she could make heads or tails of.
She told this all to Robby and he barked again. “Ma.” He spoke around a bite of pie, chewing slowly. He remembered those bedside conversations being much more one-sided—Robby running down the list of grandchildren, plucking out accomplishments to share and troublemaking to complain about, while his father nodded and interjected at strange times, as if responding to a slightly different conversation playing in his head. Robby found it hard to stay long; Georgeann was the only one there when Harvey passed. “You said Dad’s last words were about loving me.”
She waved a hand. “Oh, he went on and on about you, but this was the last last thing.”
“And now you think he would’ve wanted you to try out Buddhism?”
“Of course not,” she said. “But I’ve realized there are a lot of things to worship out there, and I only know diddly-squat about one of them.”
The pie was gone, just red cherry streaks left in the ridges of the plate. Robby scraped at them. Metal screeched on porcelain. “Grandmam is frowning down at you.”
“Grandmam might be frowning up at me.”
Georgeann had actually already bought the tickets. She and Susan and Jilly were going to travel the world and make sure they weren’t wrong on the whole God-front. She had booked her flight on the iPad Robby and Vicky had gotten her, while sitting on the living room couch, where the Jesus statue could observe. That way, if what she was doing was really so wrong, God could use the statue to give her some sign—topple it over, make it blink, give it the stigmata, something. She had stared it down while her finger hovered over the buy button at least five minutes, and nothing, not the smallest flash of a sign in the whole house, not even flickering lights. Click. Thank you for flying.
Robby loaded groceries Georgeann didn’t need into the fridge and told her she should really recycle more, then left, driving away in his rocket ship of a minivan he and Vicky had bought after the fourth kid. Here’s the thing: Robby was her only child, her bouncing baby boy, after years and years and years of trying. And when she found out she was pregnant, everyone thanked the Lord, said that miracles do happen! But they didn’t know that by the time it happened, Georgeann and Harvey had stopped praying. They had started telling all their friends they were going to a different church. They walked past the Jesus statue every night without stopping for so much as a head nod. And that’s when Robby came along.
Since Harvey died, Georgeann had realized how little there is for one to do when no one depends on them. He had gotten sick so suddenly. One day he was bump-bump-bumping down the playground slide with the grandchildren, and then he was bedridden, and then he was gone. Georgeann was amazed that she could be married to someone for fifty-nine years, know every curse and creak of his body, and not feel it coming when it rebelled against him from the inside.
She let the last of the pie fall into the trash can—she wouldn’t eat it, and though Robby would surely be willing to when he stopped by next week, she didn’t trust it to keep that long. She went to her living room couch and picked up her iPad to add sights to their travel itinerary. She’d known Susan and Jilly their whole lives, both widows also, but Georgeann couldn’t be sure of their reasons for tagging along on this trip of hers, although she had her suspicions. Maybe their husbands had also coughed up deathbed confessions that took root in their guts and spread until they wrapped around their brains. Maybe they too were afraid of dying wrong.
She clicked on a link for a temple built in a.d. 68. She zoomed in on the face of a Buddha statue featured on the tourist site, then looked up at Jesus in front of her. What could these men have in common? Was there an eighty-two-year-old woman in China right now with Buddha in her living room and Jesus on her iPad? She went back and forth, staring at them. She waited for either to blink.