Reaching out for Jesus
When I was a little girl, I frequently waited for my mother in the office reception area when she had a doctor’s appointment. Over several years, from about 4 to 7 years old, I accompanied her through two pregnancies and recoveries. It was a different time then and no one thought twice about leaving me to chat with other patients and pour over the limited reading material. I always paged through the stack of Highlights magazines and then settled in with my favorite option, a large children’s Bible with soft colors and fuzzy-edged illustrations. The pictures were frightening and confusing and fascinating: Abraham lifting a knife over a child Isaac, Jezebel being thrown to vicious dogs, or Jesus helping people in bloody rags. Interspersed among the Bible stories were contemporary Christian stories. Most of these were boring imitations of the Dick and Jane stories from school, except for one. This became the picture, and then story, I turned to on every visit.
I remember the picture vividly. A little boy is lying in bed, bandages on his head, his arm crooked up with hand dangling and a glowing figure of Jesus hovering next to him. The gist of the story was that this boy had been hit by a car and is put in a hospital room with another boy he knows. His friend tells him how Jesus comes through to every room, every night and takes sick, dying children to heaven. The only catch seems to be that the child has to reach out to him. The protagonist is too weak to hold his arm out, so the friend props his arm up with pillows. The next day, the boy is dead, but the picture assures us that Jesus found him and understood.
I was not a Mormon child at this time. My mother brought me to an occasional Catholic Mass but I would be ten before this Bible would be replaced by Primary. Without religious grounding, this story haunted me. It evoked so many questions. Where were this kid’s parents? How did he not know about Jesus? Did I know about Jesus? What if someone died without their arm reaching? And how does a person know to reach if they are asleep? And on and on. I have since read accounts of other children scarred by this story who covered their arms up at night so they would not die, but of course I was the kid who propped mine up just in case. I imagine my parents, coming in night after night, taking away the stack of pillows and laying my arm on my chest, unsuspecting that they were putting my soul at risk. I would wake up in the morning both relieved and vaguely disappointed not to see Jesus beckoning.
So why, forty plus years later, when I forgotten the names of my cousins, all of algebra, and what I had for dinner last night, do I remember this image and story? Why do I pull it out and wonder about it now and how has the meaning evolved? I have always assumed memory was like a file cabinet, we pull out the same “document” over and over and it stays the same each time. Research now suggests that memory is much more mutable; imagination and experience weave together and each time we pull out that file we change it, filtering through our immediate context and unconsciously layering and blending the past and the present. Memory is much more unstable and yet more deliberate than we presumed. This memory seems more than just nostalgic.
When my family did convert to Mormonism, my waiting room religion was replaced with an index of new books, heroes, narratives, ideas, a whole view of the universe. I read and discussed everything I could get my hand on. Tucked away in the Mission Field, with an academic-minded father and full access to the Ward library of Deseret books, I lived in a Yeshiva school of questions and answers. There was always an answer to be found: in a scripture, a General Authority talk, an historical account from the early church. I gathered answers for many years, and could give an explanation or draw one of my father’s “back of the envelope” diagrams to fit most of life’s big conundrums. Then adulthood happened and well, things got more complicated than a flow chart of the three kingdoms could resolve.
It is not surprising then, at a time when I need a machete to make a path through my spiritual journey, when I have tossed aside most of my tidy, encyclopedic answers, that the mystery of the propped arm and glowing Jesus would drift back with odd comfort. My 6-year-old self wondered what else could be out there. About the intersection of magic and belief, and how practical things could make huge a difference in ways we may not understand. It was an absurd story, gruesome really, and not one I shared with my own children. But for me, it also represented a moment when I did not have any preconceived notions, when I was open to possibilities of the divine from any source, even a kitschy, waiting room Bible. I smile at the old story and draft a revised version, taking away the pillows and determining how to reach out in a healthy way, not propped up, not weak, moving forward and out of the hospital, very much alive.