Two years ago on Father's Day, a big bearish man named Dwight, who does not actually have any children, spoke from the pulpit at my church about fatherhood. "I didn't learn about a father's love from my father," he said. "I learned about a Father's love from my wife, and our little gray cat."
The gray cat had died, but his wife, Anne, was sitting in the front row. You couldn't miss her: She had only one hand.
It was a year after she and Dwight first started coming to our church, right after Anne had gone through treatment for breast cancer, but I was still a little afraid of her. She was clearly brilliant, an activist, and a passionate Christian. I loved that she spoke from the heart about her own needs, and the world's children, and the Bush crusade, without rehearsing -- because you don't have to rehearse the truth. But she was too intense, and sometimes I wondered if perhaps she was a little cuckoo. Sometimes she sounded like a mad Old Testament prophet, beseeching us to tend to the starving people of the world, or to save the rain forests. (Remember the rain forests? Doesn't that seem a long time ago, those silly rain forests?) She gave thanks for the blessings of a happy marriage, a deep faith, a beautiful and cheap place to rent, in the woods. I mean, how nutty can you get?
She was so unabashed in her faithfulness and need that it made some people nervous. Maybe I'm more comfortable with a little bashed, as the world leaves you feeling so often. When she really got going, she made the rest of the old Baptists at our church seem staid and judicial. We'd be having a politely rousing service, until this emaciated, freckly, Cassandra-like figure, with sparse baby-bird blond hair, would rage toward Bush and his ilky ilk. She'd cry out about the suffering in the Third World, and the military-industrial complex. She waved her stump for emphasis, or testimony. She waved it when she sang. She was like your craziest aunt, the religious one, with funny eyes, who drinks.
Her pale skin was pink and raw in places, as if someone had tried to erase some of the freckles too roughly.
Even so, I tried to keep my distance and make her understand that she and I were church family, not friends, but she would not obey my will. She brought me Mary mementos and Jesusy things to carry with me when I traveled, and she called me sometimes to ask how Sam and I were. If the answer was not so good, we'd pray together on the phone. She prayed gently with me, and it was like she hit my reset button. But then she'd go too far -- twice she cornered me after services, badgering me to show up at KPFA, the great left-wing radio station in Berkeley, Calif., to pray outside its doors: for peace, for the poor, for the earth. She insisted that people would listen to me, because I was a writer. I had a voice and I needed to use it to get Jesus' children cared for. I'll rant, I told her, and I'll get arrested. But I am just not a pray-at-KPFA kind of girl.
Also, once when I was heading out on a book tour, she foisted a heavy-hooded handmade monk's robe at me, straight out of "The Name of the Rose," which she insisted I wear onstage, to declare my love for Christ, and to ward off evil. I hid it in a closet at home -- I have enough trouble wearing lipstick onstage, let alone a robe and cowl.
But little by little, I let her into my heart. She was so odd, but also courageous, and dear, kind and feisty, and very tender toward the children of our church school. I started sitting next to her during worship, sharing a hymnal or Bible, and calling her at home from time to time to ask how she was. One day over the phone, I finally asked her about the stump and she told me the story: Her mother had been a chemist for the military in WWII, helping develop chemical weapons, and even though several of her colleagues had given birth to children with defects, her mother couldn't cope with Anne's. She was disgusted by the stump, and always arranged Anne in family pictures so that it didn't show. Anne called it her paw.
Then, one Sunday last year during the Prayers of the People, Anne announced tearfully that her cancer had returned, and she'd been given only a few months to live. She and Dwight had decided against any more chemo, had decided to trust God's grace and love to see her through.
She grew weaker and more emaciated right before our eyes, but when she could make it to church, she clapped with more urgency -- with more need, more gratitude -- for God's constant presence and mercy.
She needed stronger pain medicine as the cancer progressed. Her prayers grew longer and stranger, but she was not afraid of much. She loved Jesus and Dwight and her friends and her cat. Her message was always the same: God still loved the world, all evidence to the contrary, and we must not give up on God. The light still shone in the darkness, and the darkness had not overcome it. Man: She was a true believer. I asked her to come talk to my kids in church school about her faith but she kept having to cancel because she was too weak and nauseated.
Then one Sunday she came to our one-room classroom, that has kids ranging in age from 5 years old to teens. She asked each of the kids their names, and then, if any of them had noticed anything unusual about her. There was a polite silence. The children shook their heads with puzzled looks, until one kid all but smote his forehead, and said, "Oh! You mean the hand!" She nodded.
She let them examine it, up close. She showed them the scar tissue where she'd had the surgery as a baby to remove tiny vestigial fingers. They studied it shyly, with the quality of fearless attention with which they might have examined a fossil, or a caterpillar.
She told them her story, of her mother's job as an Army chemist, of the family pictures where other people's bodies hid her hand. How she learned to pass, as normal, as whole, to do so many amazing things that it took the attention off her body. "I was a good student, a terrific pianist. And such a good girl. But I was very lonely. My mother found me disgusting. And no one wanted to hold my hand."
I asked, "But what do you lose when you try to pass, if it helps you achieve so much?"
"You lose everything," she said. "Because you can't be who you are."
The children couldn't take their eyes off her, the weightless body, the strange paw. "If I shared my mother's opinion, I got her. Otherwise I was all alone. Until one day, Jesus came into my great loss. Into that emptiness."
It happened when Anne was 6 or so. She was sitting in her bedroom on her rocking chair, when she suddenly noticed a baby's face in the scar tissue. She wrapped the end of her arm in a scarf, swaddling it, so only the features in the scar tissue showed. "It looked like a doll," she told the children. "Like a Cabbage Patch kid. And she was looking at me."
She invited the children to come close and see the baby. It was clear as could be, once you knew what to look for. "It was me," she said. "Both children were me. The 6-year old me, who was doing the mothering, and the baby was me. And I felt Jesus looking up at me, from inside the baby. And he was saying, 'I'm sorry it turned out this way, but you are whole in my eyes.' So I got me back, and I found in Jesus a real mother."
"And how are you now?" I asked.
"I have cancer, and I'm getting weak. Soon I'll be like a little child. I won't be able to walk, and I'll be totally dependent. But Dwight has promised to take care of me every step of the way. So I'm getting to have the earthly experience of being a small, cherished child.
"I feel like God wrote me an excuse to get out of life," she continued. "Because I didn't like being a one-handed person. There are many things I love to do that I can't do well. I love making furniture, but it's too hard. I know there are other one-handed people who would hold the nails in their mouths, and nail away, but I just can't do it. My lips would bruise. And this one hand is always exhausted, and banged up."
"But having this paw made me notice how much suffering there is in the world. It makes me ask, what's that suffering about? The suffering means nothing, is the answer. But the answer is also that I couldn't look away from it. I saw that God wanted me to help alleviate the suffering. And that has given me peace."
Anne came to church nine days before she died. She asked us to pray for Dwight and herself as her life ended. They were teary but calm.
Dwight called me a few days later. Anne was still alive, and she needed a favor. She had asked the funeral home to deliver the box in which her body would be carried away for cremation, so she could get comfortable with this last piece of her death, but in the meantime, it made her terribly afraid. She wanted the children of our church to come decorate it for her.
We asked the parents' permission, and when the kids came to church the next Sunday, we commissioned several dozen paintings. They painted angels, and bridges to heaven, with her cats waiting for her on the other side. The little ones made stick figures of Jesus, cats, hearts and Power Rangers; the older ones wrote messages beside their drawings, telling Anne not to be afraid. Then the next day some of us grown-ups from church drove to her house in the woods to paste the art onto her casket. She was still alive, but barely, in a child's nightie, sitting up in her bed in a room surrounded by trees, filled with sunlight. We would take turns sitting on the bed with her, singing, praying out loud. She was as stripped down to nothing as you can be while still breathing, like a plant, or a yogi, barely able to open her eyes, but she smiled a few times. Dwight came in and out crying, but mostly stayed on the porch, with the casket crew, pasting pictures on the box, filling the empty spaces with calendar art, until it turned from casket to altar.
We had a beautiful memorial service for her one Sunday afternoon. Our pastor Veronica was exhausted from the morning's service and pastoral visits, but she gave from the exhausted, used-up part of herself, and was visibly revived by the giving. That woman does believe, like Anne did, without wavering. You don't run into such faithfulness often, faith in the goodness of the world.
A woman named Ranola sang with the choir and then sat listening to the eulogy, getting ready to sing a solo of the last hymn, "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross." She is the exact physical opposite of Anne - she's black, and very respectable, and large. She has a great solidity, like Veronica does. They're planted: Tiny might fall apart in the face of such sadness, or fly away like a hummingbird. When Ranola opens her mouth to sing, she's a channel, raw and plain, not shaped, except by that which shapes. The Lord sings in her, and she opens her mouth and lets the Lord out. It's like her calling from the mountains.
Veronica said, right before Ranola sang, that faith is not about how we feel; it is about how we live. And Anne lived her own eulogy. There were vases of funeral flowers everywhere, gorgeous, purple-black, faded like daguerreotypes, flowers on their way somewhere else, passing from one substance to another. Ranola took a deep breath, as she sat waiting with her eyes closed, and an air of quiet intensity. You feel she could wait forever, and when the time is right, she will praise.