I have held God’s heart in my hands. In all honesty, it was a priest’s heart, a Father Rodriguez, but as I felt this heart oozing and beating beneath my hands, I was as close to God as I am ever going to get. Since then, I’ve told my friends I indeed held the almighty Creator’s heart in my hands. It’s more dramatic and infinitely more interesting than admitting I had my hands on the tired heart of a sixty four years old priest who nipped the communion wine a little too often and shamelessly indulged in the casseroles his parishioners prepared for him.
The night before his operation, and days after we had first met in the Emergency Room, I visited Father Rodriguez. He had complained of chest pains and arrested in Exam Room 2. We cracked his chest to revive his heart, and he was sent upstairs for bypass surgery. Normally, as an ER physician, I patch my patients up, and never see them again. Normally, I don’t think about them again. For some reason, this was different. Father Rodriguez lay shrunken and pale on the hospital bed, his paper dry skin creasing against the sheets. His hands shook as they fumbled over worn rosary beads, and I stood transfixed by the liver spots on the loose folds of his skin. His eyes rounded into crescent moons as he tried to focus on me studying his chart.
“Are you Catholic?” he asked, coughing as he tried to sit up.
I cleared my throat, leaning over his chest to listen to his heartbeat. “Half Gentile, Half Jew.”
“That’s good,” he said, patting my hand. “Are you married?”
This time, I shook my head, pressing my fingers against his upper abdomen, feeling the brittle cage of ribs. “Are you feeling any tenderness here?”
He shook his head. “That’s a shame. One of the most blessed of sacraments,” he whispered, struggling to stay awake.
Later that night, lying in the doctor’s lounge, I tried to remember the last time I read the Bible. I couldn’t. As a child, I enjoyed reading it, because I liked the way the pages felt so fragile and silky soft beneath my fingers. In college, I rolled weed with pages of the bible. Every time I knelt over a coffee table, carefully assembling a joint, my heart would pound with the fear of retribution, as if in that very moment, God would avert his attention from the other five billion souls on the planet, to watch me and my loser friends getting high.
The morning of his operation, Father Rodriguez wanted to join me in prayer.
“I’m not very religious,” I told him.
“That doesn’t matter,” he chided. “It’s never too late to start.”
I wasn’t looking to start, but I wanted my patient to drift off in good spirits, so I sat in the cold metal chair next to the priest’s bed, and took his hand in mine. His hand felt strangely warm, slightly moist and his slender fingers curled almost imperceptibly around mine. Thin. His hand was thin, and so fragile it began to tremble in my stronger grip. We began murmuring the Lord’s Prayer. At first, I couldn’t remember the words, but as I recalled the hours of sitting at mass, my knees sore against hard wooden pews, it all came back to me…. Forgive us our trespasses… lead us not into temptation… His voice wavered and faint arcs of tears appeared beneath his eyes, and although I hadn’t slept in more than a day, I somehow knew that this was a moment. I’ve heard about moments but I didn’t understand what one really was until that morning. My eyes closed, I imagined what a stranger might think, standing in the doorway of Father Rodriguez’s room watching the saved and the searching.
The night after holding God’s heart in my hands, I lay on my couch, with my head in my girlfriend Sarah’s lap. She’s a computer programmer and prefers to think in code rather than in actual words. We’ve been together for seven years, and she is growing impatient. She tells me about her day. I struggle to listen, because one of her magazines told me that what women really want is to be heard.
“Your scrubs stink,” she said.
I yawned. “Your feet stink, but you don’t hear me bitching about it.”
She snarled lightly and shoved my head off her lap, stomping into the bedroom. The door slammed and I closed my eyes, hoping for a quiet moment. A second later, I heard the door open.
“My feet do not stink.”
With my stethoscope still wrapped around my neck, I drifted asleep, dreaming of snakes and strangulation.
I often wonder how we come to certain places in our lives. That night, I wondered if Father Rodriguez felt a calling to the priesthood, or if he simply joined the order because there was nothing else he felt like doing. As a doctor, I’m supposed to feel some kind of calling, but I often tell my friends I practice medicine because I like the tangy smell and deep red color of blood. That’s morbid, they say. And I agree, but it’s true. There is something more, but it’s not something I can name.
My father was the only Jewish plumber in Grand Island, Nebraska. The day he bought his first truck, he stood in the driveway, carefully painting Joshua Gets Your Pipes As Clean As You Want ‘Em on the door, with bright blue paint. Back in Israel, he had been a civil engineer, but after coming to the States, he decided that he wanted to fix things without having to think so much, and settled on plumbing. On Saturday afternoons, he would take me with him to retrieve lost wedding rings down kitchen drains, fix leaky faucets, and unclog toilets. I often asked him why he did such dirty work, but rolling up his sleeves, he would stand to his full height and say, “I get to see the messy parts of peoples lives, the parts no one else gets to see.” Sometimes, I think that that’s why I became a doctor.
I’ve developed an irrational fear of my pager. Whenever I’m on the verge of falling into a deep sleep, the alarm clock blares into my ears, or I can feel my pager vibrating against my thigh. I can literally feel my nerve endings throb. It has gotten to the point where I grind my teeth in anticipation. My eyelids always feel heavy—my body can no longer remember what it means to remain alert. This can’t be safe for me, or my patients, but all doctors complain of fatigue. I am not special.
When I finally crawl into bed, Sarah is lying on my side, clutching a pillow to her chest, her feet wrapped in lotion soaked socks. I can’t help but smile as I strip out of my scrubs and slide next to her, carefully avoiding her feet. She moans softly and inches over to make room for me. As my body presses into hers, I kiss her forehead and say, “Your feet don’t really smell.” Her cheeks move upward slightly, but she continues to sleep. I envy her. I want to crawl into her body, make her skin mine. I want to know what such peaceful rest feels like.
The next morning, Father Rodriguez is the first person I look in on. A bit of color has returned to his face in small splashes of pink across sharp cheekbones. His eyes open slowly as I enter the room and he smiles, barely lifting his right hand from across his chest to wave at me. For the first time, I can see some light in his eyes.
“I’ve been listening to my heart beat,” he said. “It sounds louder than normal. Do you think something’s wrong?”
“It’s perfectly normal to have a heightened awareness of your body after bypass surgery.”
The Father moves his head to the left. “Perhaps God is trying to send me a message.”
I gently raise his hospital gown and remove the gauze dressing to inspect his stitches. The long scar from the bottom of his sternum to his navel stands in stark contrast with the bright white wrinkles of his lower abdomen. The scar is fresh and cruel. “I don’t think that’s possible, Father.”
He grabs my hand with surprising strength. “I hope you don’t really believe that.”
Forcing a smile, I lower his gown and leave.
I wasn’t raised with religion. With my father a Jew and my mother Catholic, it was easier for them to leave the disposition of my soul to fate. My father took me to a synagogue once, when I was nine, after he received a letter saying my grandfather had died, back in Israel. My father cried as he reached under his bed for the small wooden trunk where he kept his yarmulke. He held it in his hands, fingering the material, his shoulders shaking, but there was no sound, and when he looked at me, he looked so lonely, so sad. That Friday, we drove into Lincoln and went to temple, and the whole time, I remember not being able to understand anything that was being said. My father held my hand in his, and the only thing he said, whispering, the hairs of his moustache tickling my ear was, “Say goodbye to me in a temple, when I die.” I promised him I would, and when he died, I did.
Some nights, as I move from room to room, looking in on my patients, I feel claustrophobic. The reflection of fluorescence against the too clean floors gives me a headache, and that hospital smell makes me nauseous. I hear ringing and its all I can do to put one foot in front of the other. I’ll pace slowly up and down the long corridors trying to hide from the light, the smell, the sickness, but it all clings to me closer than my own sweat.
I have also held the head of Jesus in my hands, soft and fragile, almost slipping from my latex gloves. It was the newborn son of Mary and Joseph Mitnick, who were driving across the country when Mary began experiencing labor pains somewhere between Gretna and Ashland. Joseph sped through the nearest exit off I-80, and landed at St. Elizabeth’s, my hospital, where I was waiting with open arms and heavy eyes, ignoring the vibration of my pager against my thigh. It was a week after Father Rodriguez arrived in the emergency room. Afterwards, in the maternity ward, Mary lay asleep in her bed with Joseph by her side, cradling his son. The irony of the situation seemed apparent only to me. I shared this with Father Rodriguez, who was developing a low-grade infection around his scar.
“Perhaps it was less irony, and more a message,” he said, wincing softly as I looked under the wound dressing.
“What message might that be?”
“That its time for you to take more notice of the mysterious ways in which God works.”
I shook my head and smiled. “I only believe in that which I can taste, touch, or see.”
“Once I’m out of here, you should come see me at my church. I can help you.”
I smiled politely as I exited his room, wondering what exactly I needed help with.
When I told Sarah I held the baby Jesus in my hands, she was inexplicably touched.
“You interfaced with a miracle,” she said, without looking away from her computer monitor. “I mean really. What are the chances that you would deliver a baby for a couple named Mary and Joseph?”
“It would have been a real kick if it were Christmas Eve.”
“That’s how you treat everything,” she said, irritably.
“Where did that come from?”
I had no idea what she wanted me to say, but I realized that this was another moment I didn’t know how to treat properly. I couldn’t wrap my hands around the moment and hold onto it until the right thing to do came along. I wanted to crawl into bed, and sleep for a very long time. I was afraid that if I did that, Sarah wouldn’t be there when I awoke.
I stood behind her chair, gently rubbing her shoulders. “What are you working on?”
“Don’t change the subject,” Sarah grumbled.
I briefly recalled Father Rodriguez imparting upon me the importance of the sacrament of marriage. “Let’s get married.”
Sarah swiveled around. I expected to see her smiling, but she wasn’t. “Do you really think that’s an appropriate proposal?
“I didn’t realize there were rules for this sort of thing.”
She turned back around to face her computer. “That was the wrong answer, Isaac.”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here,” I said.
She didn’t answer, and although I wanted to stay and fix things, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I crawled into bed, still dressed and passed out. The next morning, the alarm woke me, but Sarah’s side of the bed was empty, the sheets still crisp and missing the imprint of her body, mocking me and my ineptitude. After throwing some water onto my face, I shuffled into the living room where I found her asleep at her desk, her face resting against the keyboard. After starting the coffee, I carried her to bed and knelt at her side, staring at her face, marked by small keyboard indentations. Again, I wanted to say something, but instead I kissed her forehead and got ready for work.
When I arrived at the hospital, I raced up the stairs to Father Rodriguez’s room. He was sitting up, reading his Bible, eating small spoonfuls of hospital oatmeal. Standing at the end of his bed, I tried to catch my breath, while pretending to study his newest lab results.
“It is so good to see you,” he said. “How am I doing?”
I briefly glanced as his chart. “You’re doing better than expected. You’ll be out of here in no time, once the infection clears.”
The priest nodded, almost imperceptibly. “Do you need to talk about something?”
I sat on the edge of his bed, careful to leave him enough room. “I’m having a problem with my girlfriend, Sarah.”
The old priest pushed his meal tray away and slowly closed his Bible. “Did you know that in the Bible, Isaac is the son of Abraham and Sarah, that he is almost sacrificed to the will of God?”
I shook my head.
The priest waved his hand, taking a sip of water. “That’s of little importance… just some biblical trivia.”
“And I’m the better for knowing it.”
“But I will tell you something about the biblical Isaac that you may find of some help to you. In the Bible, Isaac is a real contrast to his father. His life was so ordinary that it was spent within the circle of a few miles; he was so innocent that he let Jacob overreach him rather than disbelieve his word; so tender that his mother’s death marked his countenance for years; so patient and gentle that he was more concerned with making peace with his neighbors than satisfying his own self-interest; so obedient that he openly submitted to his father’s will; so firm in his reliance on God that his greatest concern through life was to honor the divine promise given to his race. He was a faithful and good but passive man.”
“I’m not sure what all that means.”
Father Rodriguez laughed hoarsely and coughed. “Often times, neither am I. But Isaac’s passivity is perhaps similar to yours.”
“I’d hardly consider myself passive.”
“Being passive isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it is not the ideal way to live your life.”
I wanted to cry for reasons beyond me, so I cleared my throat and rubbed my forehead.
Father Rodriguez squeezed my hand. “Just give it some thought.” He shifted his body a few inches and groaned under his breath. “And now, I think I need some rest.”
My pager went off, and a phantom pain attacked my upper thigh. Rubbing my leg, I rushed to the trauma room where I found a man clutching his eyes, thrashing about on the gurney. One of the nurses in the room quickly updated me on the patient—Elijah Walker, working in a chemical lab when he dropped something and acid splashed his eyes.
I placed one hand against the man’s shoulder, and tried to pry his hands away from his face.
“Sir, you have to calm down so I can have a look,” I said.
“I can’t see,” he screamed. “I can’t see.”
“I’m going to help but you need to calm down.”
Slowly, he lowered his hands, and I hissed under my breath as I looked at his eyes, swollen and a deep, angry red. I felt helpless staring at him. I wanted nothing more than to look away, to be struck by sudden blindness.
“How bad is it?” the man whimpered.
The desperation in his voice sent a shiver down my spine. In that moment, I wished I could heal this man’s eyes with spit and mud, but I couldn’t.
“We’re going to do our best,” I said, as I called for an ophthalmological consult. That’s what we do as doctors. We offer platitudes. We lie. We seek answers elsewhere.
Fifteen minutes later, the eye surgeon entered the exam room and after prescribing an initial treatment, left just as quickly. I carefully cleaned Elijah’s eyes with a saline solution, trying not to put too much pressure on the delicate blisters forming above and under his eyelids.
“What do you do for a living,” I asked.
“I develop food preservatives. I help to increase shelf life. Kind of hilarious, don’t you think?”
I chuckled softly, sliding across the exam room to grab a roll of gauze. “Irony has been smacking me in the face lately.”
Elijah grimaced. “I could say the same thing.”
I smiled, until I realized that he couldn’t see me. After wrapping a thick layer of gauze around his eyes, I patted his knee and stood. “We’re going to admit you, and tomorrow the surgeon will be able to better assess the situation, and determine what we can do to restore your sight. The blisters around your eyes will heal in a week or two.”
When my father and I returned from the synagogue where we mourned his father’s death, my mother was furious because she saw my father wearing his yarmulke. After sending me to my room, I could hear them arguing from the top of the stairs, where I hid in the darkness.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“I took Isaac to temple,” my father said.
“I don’t shove my religion down his throat. What gives you the right?”
“My father just died. I wanted Isaac to know.”
“I wanted him to know that there are times when it is good to be closer to God.”
“He never met his grandfather,” she said.
They were silent for a moment. “Maybe that’s why I took him,” my father finally said.
When I checked in on Elijah, he was sitting up in bed, but all I could focus on was the large mass of gauze covering his eyes. His head was facing the direction of the only window in the room.
“Who’s there?” he asked, looking towards the door, head cocked slightly to the right.
“It’s Dr. Katzen. I wanted to see how you’re doing.”
“I can’t see, doctor. Can I even cry, with my eyes like this?”
“Our initial tests indicate that there is no damage to your tear ducts.”
“Do you have any idea what it feels like to cry when no tears fall?”
We both fell silent, and I felt more inept than ever.
“What do you look like, Dr. Katzen?”
“Well… Dark brown hair, blue eyes, lots of wrinkles. Overall, you could say I’m tall, dark, and handsome.”
“So you look just like me?” Elijah joked.
“I’m not that good looking.”
“I know it sounds strange, but I wouldn’t mind just holding a Bible right about now.”
“Of course. Of course,” I said, pulling a plain black Bible from the drawer in the end table.
Elijah took it from my hands and clasped it to his chest, his knuckles turning white. After a few moments, his shoulders slumped. “I was expecting some sort of miracle.”
“Do you believe in that sort of thing?”
“I want to.”
“So do I,” I said, cracking my jaw. “Listen, I’ll be right back.”
I ran outside with a clean bedpan, and filled it with dirt from one of the flowerbeds decorating the hospital entrance, ignoring the stares from passersby. The ground was cool and dry, and I thought of my father sitting on the edge of his bed, crying silently, like Elijah, no tears falling. When the bedpan was full, I returned inside and found a wheelchair. I think my hands were shaking, but for once, I wasn’t tired. Before I realized it, I was standing in Father Rodriguez’s doorway.
“Come in, Isaac,” he said, when he finally noticed me standing there.
“Am I interrupting anything?”
“I’m not being released, am I?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Not just yet.
“Then no, you aren’t.”
“Father, I have a favor to ask.” I motioned to the wheelchair. “I need you to come with me.”
Father Rodriguez sat on the edge of his bed, sliding his feet into the thin hospital slippers and gingerly sat down in the wheelchair.
“Hold this,” I said, handing him the bedpan filled with dirt.
“What is this all about,” the old priest asked, sounding confused.
“I’m not sure I know myself.”
I wheeled Father Rodriguez to Elijah’s room, parked his chair on the right side of Elijah’s bed, and made quick introductions. Father Rodriguez looked down at the bedpan as if suddenly everything made sense.”
“Elijah, I’ve brought another patient of mine to see you. He’s a priest.”
Elijah raised his head, loosening his grip on the Bible. Father Rodriguez took one of Elijah’s hands in his and opened the Bible with his other hand.
“The Gospel According to John, Chapter Nine, Verses six and seven: When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, and said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam. He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.”
Standing on the left side of the bed, I began unwrapping the gauze from Elijah’s eyes. I remembered what my father said about seeing the messy parts of peoples’ lives. I poured some water from the pitcher on the nightstand into the bedpan. Gently, Father Rodriguez dipped two fingers into the mud, and spread a thin layer across Elijah’s eyes.
“Sometimes we need comfort more than healing,” Father Rodriguez said, looking at me.
“Thank you,” the blind man whispered.
After washing Elijah’s eyes and reapplying fresh gauze, I took the priest back to his room and settled him into his bed.
“Do you realize what you did just now?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said weakly.
“Not yet, you don’t,” Father Rodriguez decided.
At the end of my shift, I signed out and hurried home. I wanted Sarah. Our apartment was empty and echoed uncomfortably as I called out for her. There was a note on the refrigerator saying that she was working late, and disappointed, I threw myself onto the couch tapping my chest in rhythm with my heartbeat. When Sarah finally came home, she kicked my feet to wake me up.
“Thanks for carrying me to bed this morning,” she said, taking a seat next to me as she flipped through the mail.
“No problem.” Closing my eyes, I rested my head on her shoulder.
She placed her hand against my head pushing me away. “Don’t think that lets you off the hook so easily.”
I sighed, sitting up. “I know.”
Setting the mail down, she turned to face me. “What precisely is it that you know?”
“Not very much.”
She smiled and began massaging my head. I exhaled slowly, reached for one of her hands, held it in mine. I thought about what it would be like to hold her heart in my hands. I realized I already knew.
“I am a Godless man but I tried to find a miracle today for a man who really needed one.”
She arched an eyebrow. “And were you successful?”
I turned her hand over, kissing the palm, cool beneath my lips.
Roxane Gay is a professor, editor, and a prolific writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her work has been published extensively, including in decomP, Gargoyle, Artifice, and numerous anthologies. Her debut collection of stories, Ayiti, published by Artistically Declined Press last year, has been hailed for its power “to represent the Haitian diaspora experience.” An archive of her work can be found at www.roxanegay.com.