by Vic Sizemore
My sister Alma, my brother Vaughn, and I have converged on mom and dad’s house to see if the danger is real. Might dad snap and stab mom with a kitchen knife?
The rain has let up, but the sky is dark and low. From where I sit in mom and dad’s living room, I am looking down Route 119 toward Coonskin Park, which is visible on the other side of the Elk River. The picture window is a gray slab splashed with the blacks and greens of wet trees along the mud-brown river. An occasional car hisses past on the wet road.
It smells like Christmas inside, though it is April. I stopped at Kroger on the way in and grabbed two rotisserie chickens—they are heavy on the sage and rosemary today—a pound of roasted red potatoes, and another pound of roasted Brussels sprouts. Mom cannot cook anymore, and dad was an old-school Baptist preacher, so cooking was never a part of his description—except for scrambled eggs now and then; when we visited, he used to yell out through the sleeping house that he was cooking eggs as if he were throwing a party.
For the past several years, my sister Alma and I have loaded up supplies and done the holiday cooking here, but even this is petering out. The kitchen is emptied of knives sharp enough to easily use for violence. The chicken is tender enough to tear off the bone with forks. That will have to do.
Two nights ago, dad called mom’s best friend in the middle of the night and asked her to come quickly—he couldn’t stop obsessing over the kitchen knives and he was afraid he was going to hurt mom. Understandably, she asked him how she could be sure he wouldn’t hurt her. He assured her he wouldn’t. In the end, Vaughn, who still lives within thirty minutes of them, drove over, met the friend in the driveway, and accompanied her inside.
One day later, here we all sit in mom and dad’s living room. We are circled as if for Christmas, only without the kids fidgeting to get through dad’s preacher shtick before opening gifts. I sit on a dining room chair in front of the fireplace. To my right, mom’s best friend leans back on a dining room chair with her ropy, athletic arms crossed. To the right of her, mom sits on a dining room chair as well. Then dad, in his blue-gray recliner, and then Vaughn and Alma, and my brother-in-law Mike, squeezed onto the couch below the picture window.
The oldest of us, Alma starts the conversation, and eventually tells dad we are at a loss as to what to do. Was he still obsessing over knives? Vaughn had taken the kitchen knives out of the house, but there are scissors, and letter openers—dad’s workbench down in the garage is covered with hazardous tools. If he is going to hurt mom with something sharp, confiscating the kitchen knives is not going to do much good. Alma asks him for a second time if he actually thought of doing something to mom with the knives, and if so, what.
Dad has his recliner folded closed and sits on edge leaning slightly forward, as if ready to jump up and flee. After a long pause, he says, “No.” “I just couldn’t stop thinking about the knives. I worried that I might start thinking about it.”
“So you weren’t actually tempted to hurt her?” Vaughn asked.
Dad nodded, his eyebrows pinched down like a boy in trouble. He was the center of attention, which was usual. All our lives he had been the center of attention, at church, or group meetings, reunions, family gatherings, pool parties. He was always speaking up, and the man stayed on message to the point of obsession, trying to steer the focus of every event or meeting to one single thing: you need Jesus, and if you already have him, don’t forget the rest of the world needs him too.
Just four months earlier we sat circled with children and spouses in this very room on these very chairs for dad’s Christmas routine. He tried to lead us in singing “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night,” and “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” his strong preacher voice carrying the melody, mom accompanying him in her clear alto. She enunciated all the correct lyrics—she could not remember her grandchildren, but Alzheimer’s had not yet started corrupting her hymn files.
No one else felt like singing, but the preacher pressed on—he’d had plenty of unresponsive congregations over the years. Plant the seed, and let the Lord take it from there, you can’t know what kind of soil your seeds are landing on. After the hymns, dad read the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2, all the way to verse 20 where the shepherds all return home, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”
In lieu of the usual mini sermon, he pulled out a piece of glossy paper snipped from a magazine, and read from it a prose poem-like thing about Jesus designed to convince us that every pursuit in the world, if not done to win people to Jesus, was bullshit. Remarkably, the poem managed to get all of our professions in—military, law, teaching, economics, writing—so that, but for the glossy magazine page from which he read, he could have penned it himself. I’d been lectured directly from the pulpit enough in my childhood and youth. I pursed my lips and waited through this part, aimed at me: “He never wrote a book, yet more books have been written about him than any other man in history…”
“He can’t turn off the preacher,” we used to say of our dad. That is what he was to us, the preacher, whether he was behind the pulpit or driving downtown to Shoney’s Big Boy after Sunday morning church. He spoke in Bible verses and aphorisms, his clear, strong preacher voice carrying to all in the vicinity.
As we packed up to leave his house after Christmas, he said, “Thanks for stopping in, folks,” as if we were just friendly acquaintances.
We could have easily said, “Goodbye, preacher,” with a smiling handshake. It would have felt more natural than filing past them like a receiving line, giving awkward hugs.
During this family meeting to figure out what to do about dad’s knife obsession, Mike has sat silently down at his tablet. Toward the end, he breaks in and says, “Everything I’m reading says that whatever the focus of the obsession is—knives are not uncommon—that’s not the real problem. Something else is causing the anxiety.”
We follow that, ask the preacher what he feels anxious about. Yes, mom has Alzheimer’s and is in decline; yes, they went to a support group which, instead of helping, gave dad a glimpse into what could be his future as she declined, and it scared the living shit out of him. Also, yes, mom can no longer run the household—plan meals, shop, cook, wash dishes, do laundry—which she had done as dutifully as any Baptist preacher’s wife ever has. Dad is retired and has plenty of time for these chores, yet the thought of learning all this woman’s work fills him with dread. Although he still travels all over to preach, church people have been bringing them meals three times a week.
He has not been able to preach recently, and this, we discover, is the real problem. Without a ministry, his life has no value. “I feel useless,” he says.
“Isn’t taking care of mom a ministry?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “I consider it a privilege to minister to your mother in this way.” As he says it, his brow stays knit into its deep wrinkles and his eyes do not meet anyone else’s.
In his book God, Guilt, and Death, Merold Westphal writes of the believer’s ambivalence toward God. Ambivalence begins with the awakening to the “ontological poverty of the believing soul.” In short, if there is an Ultimate Other, who is not contingent and upon whom all existence depends, then by comparison, I, the center of my own observable universe, am really worth nothing at all. My very existence is less than shit.
If this is true, then the only way I can give my existence meaning is to figure out how to tap into this Ultimate Other—I must find God. The realization is expressed in phrases such as this one from a Baptist invitational hymn I sang countless times:
Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way
Thou art the potter, I am the clay
Mold me and make me, after thy will
While I am waiting, yielded and still
In another stanza, worshipers tell God, “Hold o’er my being absolute sway.” From our earliest years in Sunday school we are taught to say, “He must increase, I must decrease,” a mantra that only brings our attitudes into plumb with the already-established reality of our nothingness before the Ultimate Other.
Add to this ontological poverty the notion that whatever measly existence we do have disgusts God, and you have dad’s religion. He grew up in a home marked by tragedy, bitterness, and booze. When he and his parents heard the hellfire-and-brimstone preaching at the Brethren church, they knew it to be true. They understood that, as Jonathan Edwards preached, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you … looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire...” In a novel, I once imagined an obsessed soul winner’s vision of the world as:
a meaty mass of human flesh sprang from the earth and rolled like a swollen creek down a mountain crevice—anguished faces, flapping arms and legs, twisting, churning torsos. Then, off a cliff as high as Hawk’s Nest, they hurtled for a brief instant into the sunlight, and then tumbled over themselves, screaming and crying, into the dark and craggy gorge below. Endless bodies continuously tumbling over the edge like a great rushing waterfall, their souls sprayed like spume out into misty air and disappeared into eternity—into eternal torment and flame.
Dad’s parents knew that they were indeed sinners in the hands of an angry God. Yet they were also eternal souls, of infinite value to God. In Mark 8:36, Jesus says, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” World here is the Greek cosmos. The implication is that one human soul, since it is eternal, is worth more than the entire cosmos, the whole space/time/matter creation, which is passing away and will end.
In another piece of fiction, I recounted a story I’d once heard in Sunday school about how long the unsaved would burn in hell:
A bird lives on the moon. Every one thousand years this bird comes down to earth and pecks one sand grain from a rock the size of the Empire State Building. It gets one tiny grain and flies with it back to the moon. One thousand years later, it comes and gets another grain. And so on plucking one grain every thousand years. After that bird has moved the whole, massive rock and rendered it a pile of sand on the moon, the time spent would still not be equal to one second of eternity.
If living human beings who die “without Christ” really do burn in excruciating torment for eternity, nothing could ever be as important as saving a single soul. Nothing.
My dad got a heavy dose of this message at ten years of age when his parents accepted Christ and his home transformed from booze and fighting to peace and Jesus. Seeing this, he surrendered to Jesus as well, and determined to share this good news far and wide. Preaching the gospel so that, like the Apostle Paul, he “might by all means save some,” became his entire life and identity. Out of high school at sixteen, he left home for the newly established Appalachian Bible Institute. That was in 1957 or 1958, and his jaw has been set on this mission ever since. It is not just his calling, but the very substance of his existence, nothing less than his bid for immortality—not as a measure of time, as trusting Jesus gives eternal life, but as a quality of being. His air-hollow, empty being was filled with the heft of God.
When my wife and I announced our wedding date a few years ago, dad was not sure he could make the ceremony. He had a preaching gig and he could not get out of it. It came as a surprise to the woman preaching the ceremony, but not to me. Close to fifty years earlier, dad had missed his own sister’s wedding for a preaching gig. Alma, Vaughn, and I have reminisced about how our childhood was absent dad-the-father and chock full of dad-the-preacher. He passed out tracts, started up conversations with the sole purpose of setting people up for the big ask: “If you were to die right now, do you know…?” Talking to mom’s friend on the phone—the one he had called in the midst of his breakdown—Alma mentioned that we didn’t remember him being around much. Plainspoken and brutally honest, mom’s friend said, “You don’t have to tell me. I was there while she was home and he was out saving the world.”
When he retired in 2006, we assumed he would have a rough transition into retirement. He had only ever been a preacher. Our worries were premature. He found ways to keep preaching. He went on at Appalachian Bible College as staff evangelist. He traveled all over West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, preaching the Word in season and out. He was ever more urgently seeking out preaching gigs. We changed our language about dad in retirement: it was not so much that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself—take up golf, or fly fishing—but that he wouldn’t know who he was. We predicted an existential meltdown for dad without his preaching.
Even during this intervention, brought on by his knife-obsessed meltdown, dad frets aloud that he has been forced by this episode to cancel one preaching engagement, and stresses that he might have to miss another one on Wednesday.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says.
“The first thing you need to do,” Alma says, “is start taking the antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication your doctor gave you.”
“I don’t like that stuff,” he tells her. “It makes me woozy and I can’t drive.” Mom cannot drive him. If he can’t drive, he can’t preach.
At last we get him to acknowledge that he simply has to take the medication, and that he must see a psychiatrist for an evaluation—not an easy thing to get out of him. He does not want to see anyone who disagrees with his theology. (How can they help him if they do not have spiritual insight, cannot see through to the eternal tragedy—comedy, I guess, if you consider the ending—that has shaped his entire life.)
“This is not about philosophy or theology,” Alma says. “They are medical doctors.”
After some discussion along these lines, he agrees to do it. From there, we make practical arrangements to keep mom safe and fed in the meantime. After that, we break up the meeting. Mom’s friend springs up and strides to the kitchen where she makes a plate of food for mom. Dad follows and makes himself a plate. I pick at a couple roasted Brussel’s sprouts halves. Garlicky and bright with lemon, they are delicious, and my stomach again cinches in hunger.
Mom sits in the dining room eating with her friend. Dad goes down the hallway and returns with his journal. Alma looks through it to get an idea of when the obsession started and how concerned we should be. She calls me over to look. On one page, along with some Fox News-fueled hand wringing about Obama and the moral decline of the country, are the words, “The fields are white unto harvest.”
At eighty, he is still crying out in prayer, “Here am I Lord. Send me.”
Hungarian-American writer Lawrence Dorr has a fine collection of stories called A Bearer of Divine Revelation. In the last story, “The Angel of His Presence,” an old religious man takes in his enemy, feeds him, cares for him, does not allow his own people to harm this man, their sworn enemy. The religious old man lives “in total abnegation of the self ... amidst the running tide of killings and hate, praying for the peace of God for all.” He does not just pray for peace for all; he lives it, loves his friends and enemies alike while war rages all around him. He ignores the tribalism and hatred because he sees through his immediate surroundings to a deeper, spiritual reality. He lives his life by this spiritual light. He is a holy fool.
The Russian term for this kind of holy fool is yourodivyje, literally “fool for Christ”—Katerina in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov calls Alyosha a holy fool; Prince Myshkin in The Idiot is a holy fool. Dorr’s example is the historical Nicholas of Pskov. Nicholas stood before Ivan the Terrible after the Czar had massacred thousands, destroyed homes and farms, and sacked monasteries. Nicholas castigated Ivan, who could have him killed with no more than a nod, to his face and then, for emphasis, slapped a bloody piece of raw meat into his bare hand.
In the short-lived HBO show Carnivale, near the end of the second and final season, Sampson, a midget who runs the carnival, talks to Ben Hawkins, a gifted kid—a holy fool—who is out to stop the evil Brother Justin. Ben is determined to carry out his mission although it is almost certain to kill him.
“What the hell is it with you people?” Sampson asks.
“What do you mean?” Ben says.
“You know what I mean,” Sampson says. “You, Jesus, John the Baptist, the whole bunch of you—all fired up to throw your lives away.”
It is only throwing your life away if what you believe turns out to be untrue. The holy fool lives by a different reality. I remember reading stories about holy fools who threw rocks at the homes of people they knew to be righteous and left the homes of evildoers alone. It makes no sense until you discover that they are seeing into a spiritual realm where demons roam. They skulk around the homes of the righteous because they are barred from entering; they are nowhere to be seen at the evil homes because the doors were flung open to them and they are inside.
Last year, dad and mom went and saw the movie Son of God, in an actual movie theater—something that was forbidden in our youth in Elkview; were they loosening up in their old age? Dad was very much moved by the movie, called me on the phone and went on and on about it.
What I had read about the movie was that movie Jesus was a sexy European man, with long brown hair and straight nose. The Satan character—cut from the movie, but clearly present in the miniseries The Bible that came before it, and from which some of the footage in Son of God was borrowed—had been made up to be a dead ringer for the despised and feared President of the United States. I found that fact alone disgusting, but I was also confident the movie was the worst kind of kitsch.
I listened silently, not wanting to ruin the experience for dad. He went on to talk of his health problems for a while, and eventually said, “Keep us in your prayers.”
“I’ll be thinking about you,” I said. Our two visions of the world no longer meet.
“You need to pray too,” dad commanded into the phone in his preacher voice.
I waited for the moment to pass so we could move on to other things.
“Are you on speaking terms with the Lord?” he asked.
“That’s not a conversation I’m going to have with you,” I said.
We waited through an embarrassed silence. We would have been using the same words to talk about vastly different realities—it would have been a pseudo-conversation at best.
Dad wrapped things up cordially but abruptly after this. I’m sure he was praying for my soul before he had even set down his phone. I was in danger of hell because I no longer believed essential truths about God and humanity, life and history.
Apparently, many people still believe what dad does, or at least say they do. According to a recent Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe God created the world in its present form sometime between six and ten thousand years ago; 76% of Americans believe the Bible is the actual holy words of God. Polls by both Gallup and the Pew Research Center show that four in ten Americans believe that all humanity has descended, with a sin nature, from a literal Adam and Eve who were created full-grown, Adam from dirt, Eve from Adam. Another poll by Life Way Research found that 61% of Americans believe in a literal burning hell, and 53% believe that salvation from that hell comes through Jesus Christ alone.
The real question might be why there aren’t more people like dad, obsessed with saving souls. If you truly believe that people are dying and going to hell—to eternal burning torment, don’t forget—and you believe they must accept Christ as their Lord and Savior to avoid that fate, and that Jesus has tasked you with trying to save them, you have two choices: disobey God’s command or win souls to Christ. What else could possibly be more important than winning souls?
After our family meeting about dad’s knife obsession, each one of us calls him within a few days to encourage him to see a psychiatrist as he promised he would. After a week, I call to see how things are going. The preacher admits that he has not called his doctor about seeing a psychiatrist yet, but promises he will.
Instead of seeing a psychiatrist, he sits in his own basement for informal counseling with one of his church deacons—a very nice guy, and, coincidentally, a retired butcher. When we are not satisfied with that, he lines up a few sessions with a licensed counselor—one with his degree from a Southern Baptist seminary. The counselor tells him he is fine.
A couple weeks later, Alma calls him. The anti-anxiety meds have alleviated his knife obsession, which is good since he is still there at the house with mom, who is herself doing better on new Alzheimer’s meds. Not what we wanted, but it will have to do.
Then, several days later, Alma calls. “Dad stopped taking his meds,” she tells me.
“Why?” I say. “I thought they were helping.”
“They made him woozy,” she said. “He couldn’t preach.”
She tells me he is, as we speak on the phone, driving up the Elk River with his guitar, which he uses to lead singing—ladies ready to accompany him on piano are dwindling—in the back seat. Even if no one repents and turns their life over to Christ—which is ever more unlikely since the churches he visits are peopled with oldsters who have been listening to gospel sermons about as long as dad has been preaching them—he is going to preach the gospel, woe unto him if he does not.
This holy fool will preach until the day he can preach no more. Maybe when he can preach no more he will snap, find something sharp, and harm mom. It is hard to imagine because he has been a gentle, nonviolent man his entire life. Maybe, the day he steps from behind that pulpit for the last time—a day that looms ever closer—the preacher will begin to empty out. Empty, he will wither. Withered, he will dry and crumble. Crumbled, he will blow away and scatter in the breeze. No longer connected by his purpose to the Ultimate Other, he will exist no more and be gone.
Vic Sizemore's writing is published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, PANK Magazine, Silk Road Review, Reed Magazine, Superstition Review, Ghost Town, Entropy, Eclectica, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel Eternity Rowboat are published or forthcoming in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Drunken Boat, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, Pithead Chapel, Letters and elsewhere. Sizemore's fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award and has been nominated for Best American Non-required Reading and two Pushcart Prizes. Visit him at his website.