Magazine article The Antioch Review

The Faith Healer Father

Magazine article The Antioch Review

The Faith Healer Father

Article excerpt

I am waiting with my father behind the glass doors of the hospital, keeping out of the heat. A car pulls up, a white car with windows tinted dark-green, looking much like every other car in Scottsdale except that my brother is at the wheel. Although I can't see into the back seat, I know my mother is there, and I know her seatbelt is not fastened. She is God's Perfect Child, and she does not believe the rules of the material world apply to her--does not believe that the car will crash or that she could be propelled through the windshield.

My parents are Christian Scientists. The great disappointment of their life is that I left the fold of their faith--or more accurately was never quite in it. At a very early age, even if I was too young then to explain why, I somehow knew that Mary Baker Eddy's high-toned abstractions were not for me; once I was grown up, I concluded that to rely on a system of mental healing--in the age of modern medicine--was no more rational than relying on voodoo.

To the extent that Christian Science faith is basically a form of positive thinking, I am willing to grant that it can help you, for the same reason that the placebo effect works: it can bolster attitude and morale, and it can hasten recovery from ailments you will usually recover from in any event, like a sore throat or the flu. But it can't shrink a tumor. Since my father is being discharged from Scottsdale Memorial Hospital with Stage IV lung cancer, it would seem that whether he agrees or not, in this case Christian Science has met its match.

I slide behind his wheel chair and grip the handles.

"Ready to roll?"

"Rock and Roll!" he says, waving and trying for a rubbery grin, a plucky gesture under the circumstance although not very funny. Humor does not come naturally to him, or not what I would call humor--our ideas about what might be amusing, like most of our ideas, are at odds. His is Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, mine is Lenny Bruce and

Jonathan Winters. Absurdist humor. Which he dismisses as a bunch of hooey, since for him the world is never absurd: it is ruled by an inherent order, not obvious to the eye but available to the right mind, a truth that is spiritual and divinely sanctioned. As Mary Baker Eddy taught.

Eddy founded the religion she called Christian Science in the mid-nineteenth century, a time when medicine was primitive, faith-healing was popular, and ideas like Eddy's were not unusual. The surprise is that Christian Science survived into the modern era and even thrived--at least until the 1960s, when scandal-driven lawsuits led to steep losses in the church's membership and respectability. But my father--who ignores this recent history--has never wavered in his commitment to Christian Science, and has never questioned its most fundamental and stunning claim: that any physical problem can be solved by mental means.

I settle my father in the back seat and climb in beside my brother, and we are off. This is my father's last trip home, a trip that has been inevitable ever since he became so short of breath he allowed my mother--despite his condescending view of the medical profession--to take him to the hospital; ever since the ER staff ordered X-rays and saw so many white blobs on the black film they stopped counting; ever since the doctors persuaded my mother, despite her resistance, that it was time for her spacious, airy home to become a hospice.

This plan has not been discussed with my father, who believes he is going home to get better. That is his belief, and that is our script. We have our roles.

You don't have to die!

My father made this announcement at Christmas dinner one year, not long after he retired to Arizona. We had finished the turkey and dressing, the mashed potatoes with gravy, the green beans in butter, and we were taking a pause before the pies. He sat at the head of the table, satiated and beaming with pleasure. Like all Christian Scientists, he did not smoke or drink; he got no kick from champagne, but he loved to eat. …

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