Dear Lily June,
It was 4:00 in the morning, this morning, when I said my peace on our apartment balcony. I was having a cigarette (I know, I know), and the air was crisp–an autumn afternoon in the middle of summer dawn–as I looked up at the sky and raised my hands in the Y popularized by the Village People or any scene in any movie where any character has their moment of absolute redemption. In the rain. For examples, see Leonard Dicaprio as Romeo Montague from Romeo & Juliet, Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption, or Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond from V for Vendetta:
Of course I felt silly doing this in public–after all, I had not murdered anyone, been framed for murdering anyone, or accepted my own murder as the inevitable part of a corrupt political system that could break my body, but never my spirit —and it wasn’t even raining, but raising my arms in the dark made it moderately less embarrassing, and what can I say? I was moved with gratitude. I thought about your father, asleep in the bedroom after pulling a twenty-one hour shift on daddy duty just so I get my body caught up on a little much-needed shut-eye. I thought about you and your wriggling sweetness as you buried your face into a bottle only moments ago, then lay your precious head on my chest to get your body caught up on a little much-needed rest.
I thought about my therapy appointment on Monday and how the counselor had asked, almost immediately, about the tornado and how I hadn’t completely lost my head recounting details I frequently leave unsaid about the most terrifying moment I’ve ever encountered. And I was grateful–so grateful–to have survived. There have been many times in my life where I have prayed for the release of death. This morning, I prayed with my arms spread wide in blissful gratitude and peace for being left alive.
When I was a child, I believed God lived above us. The kindly father figure in the attic, he could hear everything that happened in my wayward home. The drinking. The violence. The fights that broke out between my parents. The way my father pushed hurtful words, seething, between the gaps in his teeth. The way my mother’s body echoed with a hollow thud when it was slapped and spun into our house’s walls. The way my older sister whispered for me to shush and would push me back into bed so she alone could press her ear to the door and listen, like hearing were a form of prayer.
I would lay in my bed and stare at the cracks in the ceiling. I would pray to those cracks, like God had his ear pressed down to the floor just above us, too, asking him to end this terror. I wasn’t as afraid of my father who was always yelling as I was of The Father who was always listening and who never came bursting–in a cloud of light, to the tune of harps–through the ceiling to put a stop to it all. I lost a lot of faith, waiting.
I wouldn’t have a moment of earnest communication to God again until almost decades later. I would be sitting in my apartment, disbelieving the newscasters who were saying I should already be in my “safe place.” I would be straining to hear the sirens all over town, wondering how in the world but for their echoes it could be so silent. The sky was a sickly shade of spring. The rain was barely even falling, and I can’t remember if I heard or saw any birds. Still, it didn’t look like a place that was about to be hit by a horrific storm. It didn’t feel like the site of a soon-to-be disaster.
And then all at once, it was. I remember my phone cut off with my husband, who was at work at the time, leaving me in the apartment alone save for our cat, Sandy. I remember I couldn’t get anyone else on the line but my dad, who, at that point, my relationship was still tenuous with, us only having ending radio silence a few months before. I remember him telling me to get in the bathtub and to pull the mattress from the bed over me so that I could be safe from debris. I dragged the mattress sideways as far as the hallway before it became too obviously too large and cumbersome to fit in our airplane-seat-sized bathroom.
Instead, I whipped the cushions from the couch, shoved the cat in the carrier in my lap, and lay down in the tub with those over-sized and stained pillows pulled up over me. My dad, by this time, was slowly whispering my name–Alyssa, Alyssa–as if I were already dead. It was so quiet for a while, I could hear my ragged exhale echo against the porcelain coffin. It was so quiet, I felt as if I were already buried alive. It was so quiet except for this incessant wet pounding sound, like a hammer slapping into pooling water, and it took me too long to understand what I was hearing in my own ears was my heartbeat. It was so quiet until it wasn’t.
It was interesting to me that in that moment, the man I had waited a lifetime to make peace with was the only one I could get over the phone. I held my cell to my ear whispering, “Dad, I can hear it. I can hear it.” The sound of a tornado is indescribably complex, like an orchestra playing so smoothly together you can barely make out one instrument over the next. There were nails being ripped from window shutters then pinging into the panes. There were trees being uprooted from the ground like they were light as flowers being picked, their trunks spun and shaken and then slammed down into parked cars so the windshields splattered on parking lot spaces like drops of paint. There was banging–so much banging–that I thought our door was opening over and over then being thrust shut again. There was ripping that sounded like walls being sucked from their frames, whole houses from their basements.
It was a cacophony, but a muffled one, as I was still slightly sheltered buried as I was under mounds of cushions. I whispered over and over to my father, “I can hear it,” and he just whispered back my name. I don’t know, maybe he wasn’t sober or maybe he couldn’t hear me or maybe he was, like me, just too afraid to imagine what was going to happen in the midst of this.
But an unearthly calm came upon me just knowing he was there and listening. And in my heart, not with my mouth, I prayed. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t afraid to die, in that moment, which is what I was sure was going to happen. I would be lifted into the wind like a hem from a knee, and it would be okay. I knew, somehow, I wouldn’t feel a thing. In my heart, I just kept repeating over and over “Thank you for my little life. Thank you, God, for letting me meet the love of my life, my husband, Ryan, and for our wedding not even a full year ago. Thank you for letting me mend fences with my father. Thank you for my mother, my sister. Thank you for letting me live as me.” Lily, I couldn’t have known you were coming, or I wouldn’t have been at such peace. But in that moment, I accepted that it was all over, and I was grateful for the time I’d been given–every joy had been a gift; every pain had been a lesson. I was ready to go. Then the connection on my cell phone died.
When I got back out of that tub, it was as like a ghost. I looked down at my arms as if I couldn’t believe the hair that still stood up on the ends of them was mine. I could not believe I had lived and would end up stumbling, because of this, through the next few years of my life.
But in the immediate, when I opened the door to our apartment–which was, to my disbelief still firmly on its hinges–I saw the devastation everywhere. So many trees had been lifted and dropped around our cul-de-sac, it was like a jungle of branches and trunks laying sideways on the ground just how they weren’t supposed to be. I didn’t know, in that moment, that your father was panicked to get back to me. He didn’t know if he would find his love or if he would find a body.
We both had to climb over and around trees when he got there not fifteen minutes after the storm had settled. We both held each other that minute, and again and again that evening, as we listened to our weather radio call out the names of the missing whose families were desperate to find surviving. Not even a year from our wedding, still, with the loss of electricity and nothing else for dinner to eat, we ate the top, once-frozen layer of our wedding cake that we’d been saving for our first anniversary, and the icing was still so cold and still so sweet.
I wish I could say, Lily, that the times in between that moment and this one I had today, at four in the morning, have been filled with nothing but beauty and gratitude and bliss. I will not lie to you, Little One–there have still been times when I have prayed for sweet release. But there have also been times when I have fervently begged for your little life or to end your suffering if so you were inside of me. There have been times so dark, I couldn’t hold a candle even in my own imagination with its flicker wavering and times so light, I couldn’t imagine a cloud anywhere ever again descending. I have thought of the words of my mother who was found of the Persian adage, “This, too, shall pass.” The dark moments shift into the dawn and vice versa until the earth goes around again.
It’s dizzying, this living, Lily, and your faith will waver if so you grow a relationship with God. I no longer believe, with a child’s faith, that he’s always there, on the ceiling, forever listening. But I do believe that there are moments when life can be filled–unshakeably–with passion and desire and good. You are your father’s and my proof of this sweetness. And I thank God–and you–for living. And I leave you with an e.e. cummings’ poem, which says, as poetry often does, more than words could ever say:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
- “Cima da Conegliano, God the Father” by Attributed to Cima da Conegliano – The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN, UK . Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cima_da_Conegliano,_God_the_Father.jpg#/media/File:Cima_da_Conegliano,_God_the_Father.jpg
- Leonardo Dicaprio as Romeo Montague – https://www.pinterest.com/pin/431430839276797211/
- Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond – http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/2006/v-for-vendetta-2005/55/
- Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne – http://popculturelibrarianwonder.com/category/music/
17 thoughts on “Praying to the Ceiling–In Which I Recount My Strange Relationship with God”
Wow. What beautiful writing. I’m floored, and subscribing.
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Thank you so much for your kind words, briamarillas.
This is very touching.
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Loved it… And he is always listening…. ★the father dat is never yelling…
Wow. Incredible… Gods grace and mercy… Bless you!!
O Alyssa! I don’t know when I’ve seen such beauty in a memoir before. You absolutely, positively MUST gather your writings into a book and get it published!!!!!!!!! You hear me?? You MUST. And you will win prizes galore! This is not idle praise. I do not fling my exclamation marks about cheaply! You have earned every one!!!
(Oh, and just btw, my late wise mother’s favourite expression was also “This too shall pass” – it got her over many terrible rough patches during her marriage to a rage-aholic.)(rage without the drinking part)(I did not know it was of Persian origin!!)(So our parents were similar, sort of. Which may explain the kinship I feel with you.)(I feel so strongly about you and your talent that – notice – I have even used “you” with you, and not my usual ubiquitous internet “u.” :-))
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Wonderful post, and dear old e.e.cummings is the icing on the cake! x
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I second Ellie P.! You should write a memoir! I drove through the wreckage of a tornado in a town I passed through often and cried because it was like the town just disappeared and was replaced by some sort of apocalyptic landscape. It was awful to imagine what people must have gone through, though I didn’t know anyone who had lived through it until reading your piece here. What a terrifying experience that must have been. I’m glad you made it out alive, though I know it was not unscathed. I can sense that it still effects you today.
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It will probably always affect me. I’ll never forget it, though hopefully I’ll learn from it in time.
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I’m am CRYING! I can’t even put into words how much I relate to the emotion, and by Gods grace no tornado. I wanted to understand and now I do. Thank you for your truth my love.
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