I’m eight years old, and my wallet is pregnant with purpose. I’ve acquired twenty-seven one dollar bills, most of them given to me by my aunt over several months. Some are from my parents for losing teeth, a few more from selling religious magazines. I’ve saved enough to buy my own clothes from Kmart. I buy myself a pair of red pants because red is my favorite color and a crisp, white, button-up shirt. I like buttoning my shirt to the very top. I feel like I’m being good and smart. Once I buy the clothes, I have a little bit left, and I can finally close my red and white striped Minnie Mouse wallet again.
I sit at the kitchen table in our Holiday Rambler – our family home – and pull every remaining wrinkled dollar bill out of my wallet. I like to keep things organized. I like making sure everything fits how it’s supposed to fit. But the money is not my favorite thing inside my wallet. My favorite thing is my “Blood Card.” That’s what we call it anyway. My blood card has my signature on it. Even if I’d signed my name with a dry pen, you’d still be able to make out my name if you tilted it just so, under the right kind of light because of how hard I pressed pen to paper to get the letters right. I don’t know yet that it isn’t about how hard you press. I haven’t discovered yet that it’s not about forcing, but guiding.
Every year we fill out a new blood card. Every year I make the same promise: I won’t take blood or any blood products, not even to save my life. If I were to take the blood, lots of terrible things could happen. It might save me in this flesh and blood life, but then Jehovah would remember how I betrayed him and wouldn’t resurrect me into Paradise earth. I would never see my family again. Plus, the elders tell us that we could end up with AIDS, or some other terrible illness, and that would be our punishment, really, for disobeying God’s commandment not to “drink blood.”
I like to imagine myself a brave second-grader who would wave away doctors and nurses if they tried to save me. When I’m around kids my own age who seem cruel and shallow to me, kids who smile too much and laugh too loud, I like to take out my blood card and stare at it. It makes me feel so important. It makes me feel like I have a bigger purpose. The other kids talk about what they want for Christmas, or they whisper bad words to each other, or they pull green boogers from their noses and make sure no one is looking before popping one into their mouths. There’s no way that they’re daydreaming about death like me. Not just any death, but a noble martyr’s death and resurrection.
By third grade I’ve read lots of stories in Watchtower and Awake! magazines about kids who refused blood transfusions and died, kids like me who believed Jehovah would resurrect them into Paradise earth. Their parents are always so proud of them. I know some people don’t understand, and sometimes there’s an episode on a popular television show about a Jehovah’s Witness girl or boy who gets taken away from his or her parents by the state and forced to have a blood transfusion against their will and their parent’s will. So when I pull out my card and think about getting hit by a car or getting cancer or something, I always hope that I’m conscious long enough to tell the doctors that it’s my choice, that I’d rather die than disobey My God.
I know they will think that being eight, or nine or even twelve, I’m not old enough to make that choice, so I practice giving a brave, inspired speech. Sometimes my speech is so courageous and heartfelt I make myself cry. I say, “Don’t be sad doctors and nurses, because when I die it will be just like going to sleep. Jehovah will remember me and He will bring me back to life and I’ll get to live forever! I’ll get to ride sharks in the ocean, and play with tigers. So don’t be sad, because I love Jehovah and I choose Him. Please let me do the right thing and obey my God. Please don’t make my body unclean. I choose Jehovah, and I choose eternal life.”
There are days when this is all I think about, my death, and my willingness to die for my beliefs. I like to picture my name and photograph in one of the Awake! magazines. I like imagining being resurrected and finding my parents and them showing me the article they managed to keep safe through the Apocalypse, through all the destruction and mayhem straight into Paradise earth.
But it never happens. I never get my chance. I don’t get hit by a bus or mauled by a rabid dog. I don’t even get leukemia. What happens is that I get older and less convinced of everything. I blame art. I blame poetry. I blame Anne Sexton and E.E. Cummings, Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. Because something happens when I’m exposed to their chaotic beauty: my brain and my heart open and expand, and when they do, everything gets confusing.
I start having my own visions of darkness wrapped in beauty. I’m fifteen. I write poetry and draw naked women. I write a poem about religion putting Jesus in a box, and when I show my mother my poems her smile falls, and I feel the whole world crack open on my head when she reads my poem and says, “I don’t like this.”
My heart hurts, thinking how Jehovah will destroy everyone who isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness, including the librarians I work with who are the first adults in my life to encourage independent thinking in me. Or, my art and English teachers who believe I have something buried inside me worthy of being brought to light, worthy of being shared with the world. I can’t look them in the eyes without the bridge between spirit and flesh collapsing, without seeing the flames of Armageddon reflected in their gaze.
I still work hard at being good and being lovable in the special way that one learns to be lovable to faithful Jehovah’s Witness parents. This means I sacrifice carefree summers to knock on strangers’ doors. This means I give up on the one thing I want more than anything, which is to attend art school. Instead, I get married to a Jehovah’s Witness boy. It isn’t that I don’t love the boy; I love him immensely. I love him the way I love art. I love him because he loves art, too, and draws for me and sends me letters filled with poetry. I love him because he’s taken the place of this other dream, the one I’m not allowed to pursue, and given me a home to place my desire. I still want to be good and be loved, and I know what I have to do and who I have to be in order to be loved by my family and my community.
But then a hiccup.
A hiccup in my goodness when I’m eighteen and married and living in a travel trailer on the Olympic Peninsula. I wound my goodness with an attempt on my life.
In the years before, I kept a knife between my mattresses. When I felt the gap between who I knew myself to be and who I needed to be to be loved and accepted widen, I took the blade across my skin. I watched my skin separate and little red buds blossom, and I felt tremendous relief. When things got so bad that even the cutting and the bloodletting didn’t comfort me, I would crawl inside my closet, and I would bang my head against the wall as hard as I could. I would think how I wanted to die, but just like everyone else, I didn’t really want to die. I wanted to be allowed to be me.
But since I don’t know how to make it okay to be me, I want the pain to end. I swallow handfuls of aspirin until they’re all gone. I curl up in the fetal position waiting for my teenage husband to come home. I stay like that until I get the urge to vomit and I run to the tiny bathroom and throw up blood. When my husband comes home from door-to-door preaching, I tell him, but he doesn’t understand the damage yet. I tell him to please read to me. The only book we own besides the Bible and all the Watchtower and Awake! magazines is The Pelican Brief by John Grisham. So he reads to me from The Pelican Brief until I have to get up and throw up more blood. He gets scared. He thinks maybe we should do something. Now.
On the drive to the emergency room, my frightened young husband says, Make sure to tell them this isn’t my fault. I wonder, what is “fault” in this case? My husband’s scared it’s because of what he said that morning. He said that he has a crush on another woman, a single mother in our congregation. We’ve been married for only six months. He says he doesn’t trust himself alone with her. Once, she had us over for dinner and fed me my first artichoke. Once, she said I should iron King Kong images onto the crotch of my husband’s underwear. Once, she could be heard smacking her unruly son in the back of the Kingdom Hall.
But my husband doesn’t realize that what he said was only a tiny pebble, albeit the last one, placed atop an already fragile column of doubt…
This would-be poet & almost-artist wife-of-his doesn’t want the mighty hand of God to smite the non-believers with His Holy War. She doesn’t want to live to see the destruction of diversity. This curious barely-a-woman wants to know what it’s like to kiss a girl, to celebrate her own birthday just once, to see inside of another church. But she is trapped inside a Holiday Rambler, much like the eight-year-old who once fantasized about dying a noble, martyr’s death. She doesn’t spend her days painting or writing or reading Dickinson or Whitman. She spends her days going door to door, warning strangers that the end is near, sitting inside the Kingdom Hall listening to sermons comparing free thinkers to Lucifer himself. She is like him, she thinks, and doesn’t understand what this life is for. If this life is only a waiting room for us to sit quietly, obediently waiting for Armageddon, then why? Why breathe? Why live? She knows what her faith says about suicides: there’s no resurrection for those who take their own lives. But the same faith also tells her that there is no hell, either. So if the aspirin and the blood are too much, she will sleep and never know the difference.
I wonder if the amount of blood I have vomited would have been enough to require a blood transfusion when I was eight. The nurse isn’t kind. She says how stupid it is that I did this. She says how painful it is to die this way. I don’t know what she finds more stupid: that I’d try to exit the world at age eighteen or that I tried to die with the help of aspirin. I drink charcoal. The charcoal absorbs the poison and aggressively forces it out of my body. I think of my signature. I think of pressing hard. I think of forcing it.
My brother, his wife, my mother and father, and my aunt visit me only a day after I’m released from the hospital. First thing in the morning, we board the ferry from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island to see the tulip fields. The whole time I’m queasy. The whole time I hold a plastic bag on my lap, prepared to vomit. The whole time I wonder what my family thinks of me and what they’re trying to show me when they take me to see the tulips.
I haven’t had a chance yet to tell them all that I know how to fix this: A child. A child is what I want, what I need to survive my life.
I had a revelation after being released from the hospital, an epiphany that I believe will lead me to wholeness and goodness. My heart is reddening and ripening, and a husband isn’t enough. I need a new creature to love until I can learn to love myself. I need a self to love in place of myself. I play this story in my head of me as a mother: If I have a daughter I will name her Hannah. I will fill her up with love. I will empty everything I am, everything I wish I could be, and everything I dream for life, and pour it into this girl. I will love her happy and I will love her brave. I’m going to become a mom and I’m going to love a baby so hard it won’t matter if the baby loves me back or not. To give over my heart, to watch my heart be eaten up by her little mouth, will be enough. A child will save me. Motherhood will change me. A baby will trample my wild heart and silence my dangerous thoughts.
I talk to my mom over the phone just days after the trip to the tulip fields. My mom tells me to get pregnant. I’m eighteen and I’ve just tried to kill myself with aspirin. My mother tells me it doesn’t matter that my young, frightened husband doesn’t want a child, that he isn’t ready for fatherhood at age eighteen. She tells me it’s not up to him. She says he will change his mind, after. She says, “Do it,” she says, “stop taking the pill, surprise him.”
I love the husband too much to surprise him like that. I do, however, tell him that if I can’t become a mother, now, right now, I will surely die. I tell him my life depends on it. Because of what I’ve done, with the taking of the aspirin, the throwing up of blood, the ER, he believes me. He sighs. He says “Okay.” The husband, my young boy-husband, agrees to make a baby with me.
Our son is born a month before we both turn twenty. We are both Geminis, the Twins, the duplicitous ones. Our son is born angry, a steamy volcano shaped like a baby. He doesn’t just cry, he screams, he fumes. He unhinges the world from its axis with every ascending decibel. But when he sleeps, he is only a baby, he’s only my sweet boy. I think about what his dreams might look like. I wonder if he remembers his life in the womb. I wonder how quickly that first home disappears from our minds.
Inside the Kingdom Hall, what others call church, my husband, my child and I get disapproving looks because our son is more than a flame of life, he’s a wildfire. He wants the world to know how very alive he is.
One Sunday afternoon, I go to the Kingdom Hall with my now two-year-old son. My son Isaac holds his book of Bible stories on his lap and chants the stories aloud, his chubby finger tracing the words as he pretends to read. He’s memorized several of his favorite stories word for word. When I get dirty looks, I carry him in my arms to the back of the Kingdom Hall, I stand there, letting him rest on my hip. He puts his head on my shoulder.
An elder approaches me. He says, “Your son is disturbing everyone around him. Sometimes lessons need to be felt, not just heard.” The elder stretches out his arms, an offer to take my son and to make him “feel” disapproval.
My son’s fire becomes my fire. I feel the flames rise from my guts to my throat, to my brows. I tell the elder to leave us be. I tell him to mind his own business, as if I’ve borrowed words and courage from the inferno in my son’s beautiful but raging eyes. Then I go back to my seat, grab my diaper bag and Bible, and I barely make it out of the Kingdom Hall without bursting into tears.
I dry tears of rage from my face as we walk through the door of our small, gray house. Inside, I help my son out of his black patent shoes, out of his necktie and button-up plaid shirt. I help him out of his little man trousers and pull off his suspenders. I push the golden brown strands of his hair back out of his face. He’s hungry and mad. I help him into some play clothes. I go to put away his Bible stories book. In all of his favorite stories – Cain and Abel, Joseph Sold By His Brothers, The Flood – there is plundering, and pain.
I think about how someday my son will be eight years old. I wonder if he will slide a folded card inside his wallet. I wonder if the card will hold a promise by way of his signature, a pact between an eight-year-old boy and a Wizard God. I wonder if my child will daydream of a grisly death or a substantial loss of blood, followed by a noble refusal of a life-saving procedure. Will my son say, I would die for You?
I think of this as I watch my son, a rosy-cheeked toddler, eat his peanut butter sandwich into the shape of a gun. This is when I know: I would slice a vein open and force my blood inside my child’s limp body if it would save him. I would spit in the face of the God I used to call Beloved. I would rip that death-promise to shreds and burn it. I would choose life. I would say, Fight, fight for your life. Drink the blood if you have to, but fight and live.
So I sit with my toddler and I picture him as an eight-year-old boy. I imagine his wallet: a Star Wars wallet, maybe, or Superman, or Batman. I picture it fat with trading cards, fat with pennies and quarters for cheap candy. I picture my son’s wallet stuffed with things fanciful, strange and wonderfully frivolous. What will be missing from his wallet is that “Blood Card.”
Carefully extracting myself from under the weight of an unconscious 19-year-old, I rolled to my side and pushed myself from the heap of dirty laundry on the bathroom floor. I wanted to pee, but I couldn’t with him there.
I wondered how long I’d been gone, not knowing if it was minutes or hours. No one had knocked to use the bathroom. If they had, I didn’t hear it. I wondered if I’d blacked out. My head was cloudy from second-hand cigarette smoke and bottles of Bartles & Jaymes. I adjusted my damp underwear which had been stretched to the side, smoothed my skirt, and wondered what to do. He didn’t hurt me, I’m okay, I told myself...