Rezo para Obtener Favores (I Pray for Blessings)
I dabbed holy oil onto my index finger from the small brown vial then rubbed it on my husband Perry’s forehead. He looked at me with his eyebrows arched, curious. Smiling back at him, I recited the prayer on the back of the laminated card in my broken Spanish:
“Dios, infinitamente santo y glorificado enmedio de tus santos, Tu que inspiraste al santo monje y ermitano Charbel para que viviese y muriese en perfecta union con Jesus Cristo, dandole la fuerza para renunciar al mundo y hacer triunfar desde su ermita, el heroismo de sus virtudes monasticas: pobreza, obediencia y santidad.”
God, infinitely holy and glorified among your saints, You who inspired the holy monk and recluse Charbel to live and die in perfect union with Jesus Christ, giving him the strength to renounce the world and to triumph from his seclusion, and rewarded him with sainthood for his monastic virtues of poverty, and obedience.
The holy oil and prayer were gifts from my neighbor, Nancy, who had just returned from a visit to Mexico City. Her host, Tomas, was a descendant of the family of Saint Charbel, a Lebanese monk known for his healing miracles.
“I told him about Perry’s heart attack and brain injury,” said Nancy. “Every time we visited a church, we lit a candle and said a prayer for him. On our last night in Mexico City, Tomas gave me this holy oil and said to rub it on Perry’s forehead, then say the prayer.”
I took the vial and studied the laminated card with the picture of Saint Charbel, his weathered face, white beard, and the black angelic cowl. On the other side was the prayer printed in Spanish.
“I don’t know if you even believe in this,” said Nancy. “But maybe you can try it?”
Manny and Nancy lived across the street from us and had been my most constant source of support since Perry’s heart attack and brain injury the year before. They were always on hand to offer dinner, fix a leaky faucet, or share a glass of cognac. Nancy was accepting of alternative healers and psychics, but she knew I was strongly grounded in western medicine and skeptical of new age and unconventional remedies.
“Of course I will try it,” I assured her. How could I refuse a gift that was given with love and sincerity?
Saint Charbel lived a monastic life with a Maronite order in Lebanon. He took a vow of poverty and obedience then devoted himself to manual labor and piety to God. He spent twenty-three years in silence, living as a hermit. He died in 1898 at the age of seventy and, after his burial, a series of miracles occurred. A great light emanated from his grave. When his body was exhumed four months later, it was intact and oozed a blood-like moisture. No one could explain why his body had not deteriorated. A nun with severe intestinal problems prayed at his grave site and was cured. Almost a hundred years later, in 1996, oak leaves blessed by Saint Charbel healed a woman who had lost the ability to walk. Could this vial of holy oil blessed by Saint Charbel perform miracles on Perry also?
Although I didn’t believe in miracles, what did I have to lose? I had reached the end of the road with western medicine. After the heart attack that left his brain deprived of oxygen, Perry woke from a ten-day coma then moved through a succession of hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Now, nearly a year later, he had regained his ability to walk, although his balance was still shaky. His feeding tube was removed and he could eat on his own but someone had to prepare his food. The opening at the base of his throat where the tracheotomy tube had been inserted was now healed. He could talk but he mostly whispered single words. He was alive and conscious but a long way from being fully recovered and able to resume his former life as an attorney.
After six months of hospitalization, his discharge date from the rehabilitation center approached. The prospect of bringing a brain-damaged husband home terrified me. How could I possibly replicate the amount of activity he received at the rehabilitation center? How would I deal with his agitation and who could I call with questions? At the rehabilitation center, an army of support was available twenty-four hours a day. A caretaker was positioned outside his room in case he awakened in the middle of night. He had daily physical, speech, and occupational therapy. From seven in the morning until dinner at five in the afternoon, his activities were neatly blocked out in one-hour chunks, his progress faithfully recorded in his journal by a caretaker.
The rehabilitation center persuaded our insurance company to set up in-home and community care after his discharge. A case manager helped me patch together a schedule of activities. The physical therapist visited twice a week to take him on outings to the park or the mall to improve his walking and balancing. An occupational therapist worked with him on cooking and handwriting skills. A speech therapist helped him use his voice and relearn computer skills. I hired a full-time caregiver to stay with him during the day while I worked. Another caregiver came on Saturday and Sunday mornings to help with his morning routine.
His transition home proved to be easier to handle than I had first imagined. He slept peacefully through the night and we didn’t need a caregiver twenty-four hours a day. His dreaded bouts with agitation never materialized. His schedule was full, synchronized, and functioning. It seemed too good to be true, this cadre of support working in harmony.
And it was. After three months, I got a call from the case manager. “I have some bad news,” she said. “Your health insurance is not authorizing any more therapy.”
“What?” I asked. “After three months?”
“Apparently, they think Perry has plateaued, so no further treatment is necessary.”
My stomach sank as the safety net around me unraveled. “Don’t they know anything about brain injury?” I said. “Don’t they know that it takes at least a year or longer to see any progress? Don’t they know that progress is slow?”
“I know, I know,” said the case manager. “We see this all the time. Insurance companies just don’t understand brain injury rehabilitation. I have a call into your doctor to see what we can do.”
Our family doctor was helpless to change the course of events. “How much improvement can you expect?” the insurance company asked her. She couldn’t answer.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I will keep fighting to get therapy reinstated.”
It was a single phrase written by the speech therapist on his progress report that signaled the end of insurance coverage. The words “…a leveling off trend has been established in most treatment modalities” was all the justification the insurance company needed to halt further therapy sessions. “The caregiver can continue all therapy duties after receiving training from the therapists,” wrote the insurance company. They were allowing another two weeks of sessions with the physical, occupational, and speech therapists so they could train the caregiver to deliver the needed services. I read those words with dismay. Each of the therapists possessed a master’s degree in their area of competence and at least ten years of experience. I tallied their years of education and training. How was our caregiver going to absorb eighteen years of college and thirty years of experience in two weeks?
The reality of Perry’s condition was there in black and white, neatly typed in the discharge summaries from the rehabilitation center. Each phrase cleaved deeply into my heart. Each phrase delivered a cold, stark piece of reality.
“He has poor initiation with notable poverty of content,” read the discharge summary. I remembered the speech therapist at the rehabilitation center explaining to me, “He doesn’t initiate speech and when he does speak, it’s always in response to your question, usually just one word or two. He doesn’t respond to his environment or what is happening to him.”
The neuropsychologist wrote, “He will continue to experience difficulty with confusion and orientation, difficulty with concentration, poor memory and recall for recent experiences, fatigue, and irritability.” I didn’t believe what they wrote and couldn’t accept it. How could I read these words and continue to hope for improvement? To admit that he “will experience permanent impairment in functional ability” was to admit defeat. What choice did I have but to rub holy oil onto his temple and forehead and pray?
* * *
“Te imploramos nos concedas la gracia de amarte y servirte siguiendo su ejemplo.
Dios todopoderoso, Tu que has manifestado el poder de la intersection de San Charbel a traves de sus numerosos milagros y favores, concedenos la gracia (…) que te imploramos por su intercession. Amen”
We implore you to grant us the grace to love you and serve you following his example. God almighty, You who have manifested the power of intervention in Saint Charbel through his numerous miracles and blessings, grant us the grace for (…); we implore you to intercede on his behalf. Amen.
* * *
I wondered if Perry could hear the desperation in my voice as I recited the prayer, could sense the force of my touch willing him to get better as I dabbed his forehead with holy oil. I wanted to believe in the power of prayer, even though I had never been religious before in my life. I wanted to believe that the strength of my love would heal him, that I would be able to reach into the damaged neurons and synapses in his brain and repair them with my touch.
Was I not pious enough? Did I need to undergo some type of penance in order for him to get better? Saint Charbel spent the last twenty-three years of his life in solitude, leading a life of purity, obedience, and self-deprivation. Did I need to devote more of my life to Perry’s healing? In addition to working full time, I spent every spare moment on the phone or on the Internet, searching for brain injury programs, medical research, rehabilitation classes, day-care programs to fill his days. I continued paying for occupational and physical therapy on my own. On weekends, I threw ourselves into a whirlwind of activity. In addition to our household chores, we took hikes at Will Rogers Park, strolled along the jetty in Marina del Rey, or browsed in shopping malls. I felt the weight of responsibility for his healing, for keeping his brain firing and stimulated. I was now his case manager without the cadre of support from the medical community. Each night, I anointed Perry with the holy oil and faithfully recited the prayer. I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I had to believe he would continue to improve.
* * *
Each day, each week, it seemed as if he woke up a little bit more, as if he was improving. Or was I just seeing the intensity of my desire for him to get better? Still, it seemed, he woke a little more alert each morning, a little more clear-eyed.
His long periods of staring off into space, drooling, oblivious to his surroundings, faded. He looked at us straight in the eye when we asked him questions and his normal voice returned, rather than whispering. When he first got home from the rehabilitation center, he would stare uncomprehendingly when we asked what he wanted for dinner. We scribbled questions on an erasable whiteboard, “Do you want pasta or chicken for dinner?” and drew in boxes for “yes” and “no” for his response. He would take the marker in his hand and limply check the box. But now he answered us right away.
Perry’s face lit up with a brilliant smile, full of delight and surprise whenever he caught a glimpse of me. Instead of seeing a man with severe cognitive deficits, I saw the man I loved pre-brain injury who used to call me several times a day just to hear my voice, the man who arranged a private car for me when I visited New York alone on a business trip, the man who, for my birthday, searched used bookstores in the entire city of Los Angeles to find the next mystery book in the Swedish series I was reading. His brown eyes sparkled when he laughed at our jokes. He thumb-wrestled with the boys and played punching games with Manny. On walks, he clutched my hand tightly, switching hands around his back when we changed sides so he didn’t have to let go of me.
* * *
One Saturday afternoon, I scanned the newspaper for events. “Don’t let him sit around and watch TV all day,” the therapists at the rehabilitation center admonished me. “That’s the worst thing to do for brain injury patients. He needs structured activities; he needs stimulation.” A movie on a big screen, I thought. That should fill up the afternoon. We could walk around the mall after the movie. I dragged Perry into the car. He was sleepy when I pulled into the parking structure; his eyes were closed, his head leaning forward. When I walked to the passenger side to help him out of the car, he refused to move.
“Come on, Perry; the movie is starting,” I said.
He shook his head side to side and didn’t move, his eyes still closed.
“Don’t you want to see a movie?” I asked.
He shook his head again, no.
“Come on, get out of the car.”
I pulled on his hands, tried to swivel his legs outside of the car. He pulled his legs back in, resolute.
“No,” he said, opening his eyes and looking at me, defiant. “I don’t want to see a movie.”
I couldn’t wedge his 160 pounds out of the front seat of the car. Frustrated, I gave up and drove home. I threw the keys on the kitchen table, angry that a simple task could reduce me to tears. How was I going to get him to improve if he wouldn’t cooperate? The weight of responsibility for his healing, for keeping him stimulated, felt insurmountable.
I steered Perry into the backyard and parked him in a lounge chair in the shade, then surveyed our landscaping. Our garden was in desperate need of weeding. The year before, we had put in new plants, envisioning an oasis of greenery in our postage-stamp size of a backyard. Now, a year later, the new shrubs and fruit trees were beginning to fill in. The camellias were blooming; the plum tree was flowering. The side yard between the garage and our neighbor’s fence was lined with bamboo on one side, and deep pink cannas on the other. Gray flagstone pavers created a path to the back of the garage, surrounded by mossy baby’s tears. But now weeds sprouted among the patches of bare dirt, throughout the baby’s tears in between the pavers. I squatted down to pull out the sprouting crabgrass weeds. I could feel my anger and frustration dissipating as a cool breeze rustled through the bamboo plants. I inhaled the smell of the rich, brown earth. I had forgotten how peaceful and comforting a simple task like weeding could be. Before Perry’s brain injury, I loved to garden, loved the smell of the earth and the sense of accomplishment I felt when I saw our well-tended plants. I forgot about movies and malls and brain injury as I pulled weeds, one by one.
When I stood up again, the bed of baby’s tears looked pristine again. Drake, our beagle, sniffed the ground near me. A lone bird chirped in the distance and I could hear the faint tinkle of chimes from our neighbor’s backyard. Perry dozed in the lounge chair, head tilted forward.
What was so wrong about having unstructured moments like this? His refusal to get out of the car was an improvement. He showed initiation in telling me what he didn’t want to do. He conveyed his own desires and was aware of his environment. Did I really need to fill our weekends with frenzied activity? In my quest for his activities, his healing, I had not stopped long enough to consider how my life had changed. Did his healing necessitate a life of self-deprivation for me? I had lost my sense of freedom, my own free will. Now, each movement, each task required thought about who was going to take care of Perry. There were no quick errands to the store or browsing in bookstores without bringing him with me or finding someone to watch him. What, then, was to become of my life? How was I going to find meaning and fulfillment? What good was I to him if I didn’t take care of myself and my own healing process?
* * *
A year after I began dabbing the holy oil and reciting the prayer, I was having lunch with Manny. “You seem to be at peace with this. I notice a new sense of serenity and calmness about you,” he said.
“Really?” I didn’t feel any different. My sorrow was always there, lurking in the background.
“Yes, I notice a difference in you. You seem more accepting of all this.”
I suppose I was more accepting of Perry’s condition. Each day, each month, I saw small improvements as more of his essence returned. In the clinician’s eyes, he would never be whole again but he was complete enough for me. I didn’t spend my weekends rushing from one activity to the next and I didn’t worry about keeping his brain constantly stimulated. We spent hours on the couch watching TV if we wanted or read magazines in the backyard. I wasn’t paralyzed by sadness anymore; I didn’t wallow in sorrow; and I wasn’t in a constant state of anger. I had learned to carve out time for moments of solitude, for writing and reflection.
“You know, the person that gave Nancy the holy oil said it may or may not have a direct effect on the person with the brain damage,” Manny continued. “He said maybe the miracle will be on those who surround him.”
It wasn’t until I received the English translation to the prayer that I realized the (…) in the prayer meant I was supposed to recite Perry’s name. In all those months of faithfully reciting the prayer in my broken Spanish, I never inserted anyone’s name.