Pray for Me, Bernadette
Ruth Z. Deming
My back had begun to ache something terrible. There was no reason for this to happen. And the pain wouldn’t stop. I would wake up in the morning and the pain would be waiting like the devil at the foot of the bed. The pain and I did a real slow cheek-to-cheek to get me out of bed, just tiptoeing through the pain the best I knew how.
It was on account of the bed that there was pain. If I could just figure out a way to sleep in it without truly lying down ... it was the lying down and the staying there all night that did it.
The bed had masterful significance. I’d try to make that bed work if only for the story that came with it - and the still-smooth feel of the fresh pine he made it with. For me, he made a bed. And now it was killing me.
That must, I figured, be the reason why my mother couldn’t part with things. They were the stories of her life. Her history. So I hung onto the bed and tried to save myself from buying a new one. The mattress was one of those big ones, a queen, with a blue background and fluffy red and white roses on it. It was so clean and purty you could have used it as a living room couch if you were a sharecropper.
I dragged it downstairs and outside, leaning it against the telephone pole for garbage day.
Next I go into the guest bedroom and lug the futon out of the room. I dragged it, by sheer will, across the carpet, taking small steps like an ancient Chinese woman with bound feet, so as not to strain my back. I dragged it through the door into my room, an empty room now without the massive bed. I pushed the futon against the wall where the old bed had been.
The futon was as old as the hills. It was covered with an elaborate pattern – burgundy, navy and gold stripes (I’m partial to stripes) – picked out from a swatchbook long ago. At one time, a very long time ago, the futon was the love thing of my life.
A person can love objects in an entirely different way, yet equally important and meaningful, as they can love each other and the sky. Why, if I told you I love the Marine Corps decal and have them in practically every room of my house and six of ‘em in my top drawer in case I run out, and one in the car for good luck, you’d think I was nuts. Just call me love-crazed, that’s all. Did you ever take a good look at a Marine decal? It shines. A mirror effect. If you don’t have a mirror, you can hold it in your hand and see the reflection of your blue blouse in there.
The decal, it’s all I have left of my dad. What else was I to do? I was a girl of thirty-four with two grandfatherless children and no husband. I went into the Hatboro recruiting office and saluted. “I’m the proud daughter of a U.S. Marine,” I said. “I’d like a decal for a souvenir.”
The man in the shiny Marine cap reached into his desk and pulled out a three-inch-high stack.
“Wow!” I said saluting. “I’m in! Off to Camp Lejeune I go.”
But the futon, alas, it lacked give. It was like sleeping on a slab of clay.
I bought one of those foam egg crates for the bedridden, put some blankets on top of that and even dragged my down comforter out of the closet, to sleep on top of it like The Princess and the Pea.
Next morning I awoke and my back pain had spread. I couldn’t walk. It felt like hot knitting needles up my leg and down my spine. I did a sort of roll out of bed. It took half a day to straighten up. I mumbled quietly, madly, under my breath, “I refuse to be a person who suffers from back pain.”
And yet, oddly, the thought of forking out money to buy a new mattress was nothing short of horrific. You see, I am what they call a cheapskate. I mean, a really really bad cheapskate. I mean so bad you wouldn’t believe how I hate to spend money. This is a very unattractive quality in both men and women alike.
I come from a family of cheapskates on my mother’s side. I follow dutifully in their footsteps. You find this quality in other people and detest it. But let me tell you something - when I spend money, my heart breaks. It plays a sad melody, the wind whistling through the bamboo.
I am a woman of great contradictions. I am a simple person, really, but all people have their quirks.
For instance, though I tell you I am a cheapskate, when I go to the ATM machine at the Wawa, I withdraw $300 at a time. I had the good fortune, only last week, when no one was looking, to scoop up a handful of bank receipts and take a cursory look at them. The man who had gone before me had $5.86 left in his bank account. Other people had three-digits plus change. The runner-up had something like $590. And I, of course, always come in first because I am the queen of the cheapskates. I had $1,280 left in my savings.
So when it came time to buying a new mattress, I just gave myself a good talking-to: “Look, Ruthie, you’re fifty-eight years old, you could drop dead tomorrow, you’ve got enough money in your savings and retirement account to last until you’re sixty-four, your friend Judy Diego would let you move in if you’re penniless, if she’s still alive, so start parting with your money now, joyfully.”
From here on in, I was to spend money like there’s no tomorrow. I’m to be cautious, certainly. I’m to continue my cheapskate ways. But now, this time, I will spend money joyfully.
So out into the world I went. I loaded up on my favorite things: at once I bought four rolls of name-brand Scotch tape, a box of four highlighters of different fluorescent colors, a fifth address book, ten pair of look-alike black socks from the Sox Lady in Furlong, scissors for every room in the house, boxes of Bic pens, Elmer’s Carpenter’s Glue, a Merck Manual, and a swiveling Replogle. I bought a new couch for napping for $25 from Impact Thrift, and a curio cabinet for my clay sculptures.
If you’re gonna live
, I said to myself, you’re gonna live right
Then I went to a large department store to buy a mattress. I took into account all the names of department stores I could think of – Strawbridge, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Sears, Boscov’s – and I said to myself, Where do you go if you want to buy a good mattress?
I closed my eyes and thought a moment.
The first name that came to mind is where I went. On the way over, I started doubting myself. “Shut up!” I yelled. “Don’t give me no lip!”
I couldn’t find the mattress department. It was as if they discontinued it. Did you know, for example, that furniture departments and rug departments have been discontinued in many of our fine department stores? Things like this happen for no reason at all. One day the rug department is there, the rugs swinging merrily on those special rug-hanging racks that are sooo heavy to push, and the next day the copper pots ‘n pans are hanging from the ceiling.
I told Pastor Ron when we were sitting in his living room during our book discussion group and he was promoting Christ, I said, “Look, Ron, I’m a Jew. To me, the whole world is a manifestation of God.” Everyone at the book club loved me. They’d never been breath to breath with a Jew before and thought me exotic because I was a freethinker and a manic-depressive besides.
They were doing their best to follow my line of thinking about everything being a manifestation of God, but wow they had so many constraints.
“It’s like this,” I said to Pastor Ron. “I have this little-bitty window way high up in my office. (I talk with my hands big-time and was gesturing the shape of the window.) All I see are the backyard trees. The branches. It’s kind of like a monk’s cell. Just this little swatch of branches of the backyard trees. Sometimes I look up and there’s a squirrel dusting off its tail or Mr. or Mrs. Cardinal standing proud before me on the branch.”
I nodded. “Manifestations of God.”
He looked at me in wonder while I was expounding. Well, let’s put it this way. It was a look of “corrected wonder.”
Once, he’d been a boy of eight standing under the starry skies in Oklahoma looking up at them stars. So far far away. He wondered who he was and where he fit in. A boy of eight. What the heck was going on on the surface of all them stars? He wondered if it was true like the science books said that the sun was hotter than anything he could ever imagine, hotter even than mama’s griddle when she cooked the corn fritters, so hot in fact he’d burn to a crisp if he ever got near.
I imagine he couldn’t stand for one single moment the feel of being a boy of eight standing alone under the stars. It must have been a feeling that was intolerable. He accepted Christ on the spot on account of that feeling. In other words, Pastor Ron is a man who doesn’t take gladly to mystery. He can’t tolerate a little mystery in his life. Makes ‘im squirm.
But certainly, even with his Jesus Christ ways, Pastor Ron ought to have understood when I said everything is a manifestation of God, oughtn’t he’ve? I didn’t go so far as to tell him mattresses are a manifestation of God - that would have been a powerful waste of time. But, I tell you, the woman in the mattress department where I finally ended up, she was a woman of God. I’ll bet she knew with every fiber of her being that mattresses were a manifestation of God.
The mattress woman took one look at me and knew me through and through. Her name badge said LuAnn. He face was impassive. She moved like a shade. I could tell she was on psychiatric medication and had made peace with it. I watched her slow motion movement and marveled at her sureness.
“I have a bad back, LuAnn, and want the best mattress for the lowest price you can give me.” I was holding my lower back as we spoke.
I asked, “Can we sit down here and talk about the mattress? My back is killing me.”
We both sat down on the edge of a big bed with its innards revealed showing the different layers of comfort underneath. She knew everything in the world about mattresses but I wasn’t in the mood to listen.
I was frightened about how much a new mattress would cost. Three hundred dollars? Five hundred? A th-thousand?
I was trembling with fear. Except then I remembered: You have enough money to live on, in the style you’re accustomed to, for four and a half more years. Think of it as unending rain. Jump rope underneath it. Let your feet walk through the wet grass and the rain splash like a bath on your face. Feel the good feel of rain on your face.
She spoke quietly. “My mother used to have back pain,” she said, looking at me. I didn’t say a word but kept it in my mind as she was telling me about the mattress sales. I stopped her because I didn’t think my mind could absorb any more information about mattresses. I asked the only question that mattered.
“How did your mother get better?”
“We prayed over it,” she said softly.
I thought a moment. And looked around.
“Will you pray for me?” I asked.
She looked at me. A faraway look. I’d written a six-page poem one time about Bernadette of Lourdes, a poem lost, of course, among the rubble. God was I in love with that Bernadette girl. I did massive research on her at the Hatboro Library.
She, the mattress lady, LuAnn, could have been Bernadette of Lourdes with the water come pouring out. It was a terrific poem. I could find it if I needed to. I passed it one day not long ago, written on the old Apple computer paper with the holes on both sides.
She looked down shyly. “I don’t know if you’d want me to pray with you,” she said. “I’m studying to be a Jehovah’s Witness. Some people think that’s a cult and that we don’t believe in the true God.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. “It’s all about being in the presence of God and it doesn’t matter how you get there.”
We bowed our heads. She closed her eyes and I closed mine. I let myself sink into the depth of the prayer. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I just closed my eyes and followed her words and tried to enter them, inhabit them, suck them into myself, and thought, “She is doing a wonderful job praying for me.”
After that, we went over and picked out a mattress. My back was still hurting. I said I have to get a drink of water because I’m having a powerful experience and that makes me thirsty.
She walked me over to the water fountain. The water came shooting out higher than you’d expect, falling onto the floor. I took my water bottle out of my purse, filled it up three times and three times downed the water. She watched me as I drank it down. I am nothing if not thirsty. I even drink water in the middle of the night. That’s what lithium does to you.
It felt fantastic to drink it and to have someone watch me drinking. I was very relaxed as if I were putting on a show: “Ruthie drinks the water down.”
We went over to the cash register to pay for the mattress. It was half price. It was cheap. A hundred and fifty dollars with one of those good names attached to it, Serta or BeautyRest. It wasn’t a Stearns and Foster. She told me those were too expensive and not what they were cracked up to be.
I paid with my credit card and watched her closely as she entered my order into the computer. She did it effortlessly. I wondered if it had been hard for her to learn to push all the right buttons.
She told me the men would deliver it on Saturday and remove my futon.
She gave me a long snake of a receipt which I stuffed into my purse. We nodded our goodbyes.
As I started to leave, she said softly, “I’m a schizophrenic.”
“Really!” I whispered, and touched her arm. “Let’s talk.”
We went back over to the mattress and sat back down. I told her I had manic-depression and she felt really sorry for me. I told her not to worry, it wasn’t so bad any more. And she told me about her voices. That she took Zyprexa and they’d mostly stopped. She said it wasn’t until she joined the Witnesses and learned that no human being is perfect and that only God is perfect that she knew it was okay to hear voices.
It was the one thing that made her feel she wasn’t a bad person.
And I looked at this woman. I never asked her a single question. She just talked to me.
And she gave me peace, that schizophrenic woman - she gave me peace. She and that mattress she sold me. White and patterned like a snowflake.