Guilt Treatment by Noah Bukowski (2017)

Aetna Creative Nonfiction Award Undergraduate Winner (2017)

The form said that every article of clothing we wore that day had to be white, even our undergarments. My dad wasn’t into this kind of thing, so he had normal clothes on and was going to drive around for most of the time we were there. My mom had been looking forward to it for months and had been wearing the appropriate white slacks and white blouse since sunrise. I was afraid of seeing too much, so whenever I talked to her, I stared at her heavy-set chin. Don’t look down. Everyone seems more vulnerable when they’re only wearing white, but it doesn’t magically make you see-through.

That day in early October of my sophomore year of high school, my parents took me to a Catholic miracle healer that was making his rounds on all of the daytime talk shows of a few years ago. His name was John of God, and he was said to have miraculously cured anything from cancer to Alzheimer’s. My dad started looking into it after a distant relative went to go see him, and after the process, her brain cancer went into remission. But he didn’t schedule the reservation for me to see John until after he saw the Oprah Winfrey special that showed actual footage of the man operating on somebody with lung cancer. I was born with complications resulting in a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy, which in my case affects my muscles and how I walk, talk, and exist in our very physical word. My parents had always been looking for some sort of cure for my incurable condition. They mean well, but I’m surprised I’ve yet to receive snake oil as a Christmas present.

I didn’t have any strong feelings for or against taking part in this ritual I knew none of the specifics of. My biggest concern at the time was figuring out how to destroy, in a way that looked like an accident, a laptop given to me by the high school that I had used at home to watch porn on. Unfortunately, my time was up and disability services wanted it back now. But from the few genuine questions I had about seeing John, my parents largely assumed I was against them. They made it seem like I was being immature for not believing that some weird Italian guy could repair the ruptured synapses in my brain. He wasn’t even going to be “working on me” as far as I knew.

My dad said, “I think you should at least give it a try. He probably won’t be able to fix everything, but maybe it could help with your walking or your right hand.” The absurdity of this reasoning didn’t fully hit me at that age. I also didn’t want to smother that flickering light of hope in my parents’ eyes that has remained stubbornly alight for my entire life.

Both sides of my family mesh together into one mass of thoroughly Americanized Polish people. The biggest cleave to occur between generations lies in the early nineties, when all of my cousins and I were born. Pushed towards the brightest of futures by immigrant parent guilt–the motivator that knows no reserve–all of us are now pursuing doctorates as a way of rectifying the sacrifices that have been made. With this, some of us have come to harshly deny our Roman Catholic roots. Our parents speak candidly of spirituality and we try to intellectualize its rhetoric to critique it like a seminar paper.

My older brother Brandon went to a Catholic school until eighth grade. When it was determined that there was enough going on for me upstairs, I was denied the chance to join Brandon in the pew each morning because the school was not required by the government to provide accommodations so that us cripples could be fully immersed in a religion that overly symbolizes our struggles. Public school afforded that the biggest cross I had to bear was my game-losing play on the kickball field in second grade. As we got older, our faith became inversely proportional; Brandon wanted a science program that was actually rational, and I started staying awake for more masses.

Before I could analyze the philosophical inconsistencies of the Old Testament, I enjoyed being a body in church. Robotically turning my head around to the parish, I’d see so many warm faces mouthing prayers directed towards me. Like a game, I’d pretend their words were having a visible effect on me, and like some macabre sci-fi creation I’d slowly straighten up and look back at them in wonder. You cured me! I could take as long as I’d want in the line for communion, purposefully making each step more labored and uneasy than the last, and the deacon would just beam at me. Everyone makes it at their own pace.

I came to hate faith because of the unnecessary weighty meaning it gave to all aspects of my life, starting with my survival. Everything had a reason for happening that I couldn’t rightly claim as my own volition. It was God’s will that I survived complications that kill or severely disable millions. No. I did that. My newborn body with only a heartbeat to call its own was able to endure and heal. People chalk these things up to God or miracles because they can’t conceive of a human of their own measure doing them unassisted. But it happens, and I think it’s healthier to err towards narcissism than placing faith in unexplainable outside sources.

However, it’s easy to forget that the mess I caused doesn’t end with me. My whole family is wrapped up in it, my mom the most tightly wound. October 10th is a day that is almost entirely a celebration of progress, but my parents can’t help but localize it back to 1995. Every birthday dinner conversation has this stilted patch when my mom’s eyes tear up when she looks at me all dressed up. My dad tries to save her and recounts his perspective on that day:

Concentrated panic. Terri and you unexpectedly on your shared deathbed. Brandon puts a racecar in my hand and I’m trying to figure out how I’d explain all of this and parent him on my own. Guilt. Terri’s mom is blaming me in between prayers. Who did you sleep with? You’ve killed my daughter and my new grandson.

This has the opposite effect and sends my mom into a meltdown of tears. She was out of it for days after the birth and so she remembers only the aftereffects. I’ve never asked her about specific times or events during the three-year period after I was born when my mom didn’t work. I can only see the difference in old pictures of her. There’s one of her and Brandon at Chuck-E-Cheese for his second birthday, almost exactly a year and a half before I was born. Brandon’s trying to flee from the man in the Chuck-E suit while my mom laughs and goes after them. She looks just like her sister who’s one year younger than her with a thin face and sharp eyes. The pictures at my first birthday party are very different. I’m planted securely in a high chair with a blank expression on my face as I cautiously eye the man in the rat suit. My mom leans in and smiles, but we both look equally deflated. I did that.

***

My mom and I arrive for our day with John. It’s nothing remotely close to one-on-one attention–there turned out to be a couple hundred people with us–but my parents told me there was always a possibility of being plucked out of the masses. We were getting corralled along with droves of other people into the entrance of this health and wellness center that seemed to be more of a hippie retreat. We all looked like a big cult. I had never seen so much whiteness before. We slowly churned forward like a hive mind, nullifying the sharp hues of the tribal artwork on the walls. White sneakers even.

I was finally able to get a good look at everyone else here to see John when we got onto the main grounds. There were some other people with disabilities, but the more disabled they were, the more loved ones they had around them. A man who looked catatonic had a whole group around him cheering and whooping, jackknifing through the slow moving crowd. “Colin’s Cure Convoy” on white t-shirts in black lettering. They even played it safe with plastic white crucifixes.

The two main groups of people that were there seemed to be old people and cancer patients. Both there to cling desperately to their lives, not willing to let go, even going so far as to get a TV spirit healer to push God’s hand away. I immediately felt like I had the wrong reasons for being there with them, especially the cancer patients. Here I was at the nubile age of fifteen–still thinking about trashing the laptop and alternative ways of watching porn without it–while a man beside me tenderly held his colostomy bag with as much dignity as one can. On the whole, their pale bald heads seemed to sprout out of their collared white shirts with no clear line dividing between the two. Others had fleshier heads with staples in U shapes that had dried blood on them, indicating excised brain tumors.

These people were probably here as a last resort. I imagined them getting the diagnosis, throwing out their alcohol cabinet, and drinking wheatgrass shots instead. At that point you’ll do whatever it takes. They had very hopeful looks in their eyes. You could tell they’d been waiting months for this. I took a deep breath and out of respect for those around me, I decided to take all of this more seriously. I still didn’t logistically get what John should be doing for me or for any of these people.

We were herded under this large white tent in an open field. There were fold-out chairs in rows that made me realize the scope of how many of us there actually were, easily over a thousand. There was some sort of itinerary, but I neglected to look at it, wanting to feel surprised by whatever inane activity they’d make us do. Once we were all seated, the main speaker from the venue organizing the event gave a few opening remarks. He seemed well versed in this perverse niche of emceeing; his voice soothed the crowd and we quickly began guided meditation or prayer, whatever floats your spiritual boat.

I had never meditated before. Pop culture had taught me to focus on my breathing, but I found it hard to do in the presence of so many people. My eyes opened and I looked over the faces of those around me, seeing a mixture of intense, screwed up faces, as well as some placid ones who were clearly in the process of finding their center. Whatever their countenance, they all seemed linked up to some grand unifying thought complex that I just couldn’t tap into. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mom also trying her best to no avail.

As suspicious I was of this whole situation, I can’t deny that I felt some latent presence under that tent. The air started brimming with a faint electricity. All of these decaying bodies from all across the world, unified together by a common goal. Silence.

***

They gave us a lunch of hummus and other dry, tasteless grain pastes spread on flatbread wafers. I can’t manage delicate finger foods or hefty sandwiches because my hand can spasm and crumble the whole damn thing to bits. My mom fed me so that none of it would fall on the white clothes that would very visibly bear stains. For twenty-one years we have had this unspoken acknowledgement of feeding. I used to be self-conscious about it in public, but eventually my love of the Chick-Fil-A Spicy Chicken Deluxe outweighed that. Now, when our errands are done for the day and we invariably end up at the best fast-food establishment to happen upon Wallingford, we eat and talk about what book she’s reading on the list that I made for her. She manages over fifty people and English is her second language, but she’s only a few books behind me. The first bite she gives me is still overambitious, and so I usually pull away with sauce in the corner of my mouth.

“Oops.” We laugh.

Our predicament seems to have supercharged my mother’s predisposition for caring. But it’s too souped-up and fueled by the wrong reasons. She’s never outright said it, but I can see that in my mother’s eyes I embody her greatest mistake that she had no part in making. Both of my parents have times when they either think longingly about how differently our lives would be if the complications had not occurred or theorize about how my life will be supposedly whole once I am cured. My dead grandmother’s voice still rings in their ears. It’s your fault. You did this to him. Rectify it. But my mother bears the brunt of this burden, since, technically speaking, it was her shitty uterus that did us both in. You almost kill your child, leaving him permanently disabled. How do you look him in the eye when you tie his shoes every day?

We all marched back to the main tent. We were arbitrarily separated into smaller groups and huddled together. The main portion of the day involved one group at a time being selected at random to go into the smaller chamber where John of God actually had resided all of this time. We would meditate in that room for about five minutes–his presence was supposed to strengthen our spiritual connection, and then we had to walk single file out of the chamber. He would be seated just before the exit. The idea was that if he felt something in your spirit, or had some higher indication that he could help you, he would make some sort of hand motion and you would be whisked away to some deeper examination room.

It was our turn. Our ragtag bunch went down the makeshift plywood boardwalk that lead to the chamber. One man was missing his arm up to three fourths of his bicep, his shirt sleeve proudly rolled up to the armpit. What would John do in this case, regrow most of a man’s limb if he felt he had good vibes? Would the new arm just sprout out of the stub, or would he grow it out in a piecemeal basis? One inch of bone, sinew, muscle, and skin for each three hundred dollar visit? These were the thoughts that I had while the others were appropriately mentally preparing themselves. We arrived in the dimly lit chamber that reeked of incense. I saw him way up at the front of the room, slumped over in a gilded chair. He was heavyset with a plain crew cut. His eyes were closed and they remained that way the entire time; I pictured them lazy and darting around in their sockets, like a wise blind man.

Throughout the day I had been trying to piece together the other peoples’ beliefs of this man and why I didn’t fall in with them. I would be forcibly reminded of our fundamental differences, their lust for life and my indifference, only to then be brought back by the allure of that electricity in the air, the uncommunicated communication between all of us and that man. When I walked by John, nothing happened. He didn’t even shift his posture. The same with my mom. I went through the rest of the day’s meditation exercises in a fugue state between utter disappointment and complete awe. I couldn’t figure it out. After we finished, my mom and I sat outside of an old mom and pop store way down the road.

We didn’t talk much. She called my dad to come get us and I heard them yelling at each other about directions as if none of the events of the day had happened. My mom was mostly concerned with what I got out of it–whether I felt different in any way or not–but she didn’t press like my dad did. I was irritated by her unwillingness to share her take on it. This wasn’t supposed to have just benefitted me. I thought about the symbiotic relationship we share. She had almost killed me, but I almost killed her too. I wanted to really ask about those three years after I had been born. Yes, I’ve heard all the stories about putting me in the earliest rehabilitation programs, which is likely what allowed me to be able to type this shit out instead of dictate it from a wheelchair. But what about her sleepless nights? The endless masses her mother bought so that people would pray for us. The guarantee that whatever my ability, I’d likely be dependent on her until the day she dies. Not knowing if I’d ever be able to walk, talk, or have the intellectual capacity to be stupid enough to watch porn on a school computer in the first place.

I wish my family could just shed the collective guilt we have for the circumstances that happened on October 10, 1995. We need a different yearly reminder to genuinely reflect. A time to say: We’re doing great things. We love each other. It was nobody’s fault.

But most importantly: a time to work through all of these silences that we have created for ourselves. To confront that electricity while still keeping it alive.

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.

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