Church was of course not the place to have an argument about pharmaceuticals. Courtney had apparently decided not to fight going, and had come downstairs with Landon fully dressed herself in something church-appropriate. Borrowed, I assumed.
Remo had been upstairs, too, and once we got Landon fed, we packed everyone into cars, by which I mean Claire went with Remo and everyone else came with me.
This was of course the English-speaking mass this time. I actually kind of preferred the Spanish mass because my mind tended to wander anyway and it seemed more majestic and magical, while the English language one was kind of boring, but you know, it’s over with in under an hour anyway.
It was while singing a hymn I realized it was the first musical thing I’d done since last Sunday’s mass. What a weird feeling.
Landon was fidgety and squirmy and Janine kept whispering to him. At one point he said “Nooooo,” quite loudly and she shushed him sharply. Claire and everyone around us kept their eyes on the priest and pretended he wasn’t being disruptive. When people started going to take communion, though, Janine took him outside. The rest of us got in line for the wafer. Each aisle had a different line leading to a different priest.
I was doing my usual thing of trying to figure out whether/how to stick out my tongue as I inched toward the front of the line. The organ was quite loud and I wondered if the priests had considered wearing ear plugs. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but church organs don’t have any form of PA. They’re just really fucking loud. And of course a cathedral is all stone so it carries. Back in Bach’s day I wondered what the largest cathedral was and how the organ sounded?
Claire was in front of me and I wondered whether I could tell how what style of tongue placement she used without craning my neck to look. The priest handling our line was the same guy who had given the Spanish mass the first time we’d gone to that church. He had slicked back black hair, thinning and graying at the front, and a beak-like nose. The woman in front of her had just crossed herself and turned to go. Claire took that last step forward and crumpled to the ground. I managed to grab her on the way down and keep her from hitting her head.
The beaky priest handed his stuff to an altar boy and knelt down, his vestments draping partway over her and me as he touched her cheek with the back of his hand, I guess checking to see if she was feverish? Her eyelids fluttered but did not open. “Does she do this often?” he asked me.
“Um, she’s not well,” I said. Everyone in the front few rows was trying to look and see what was happening, while the organ kept playing. He smelled like incense.
“Let’s move her to the rectory if we can,” he said. Remo was there, too, but I was not sure the three of us could really coordinate carrying her limp body. The priest touched her on the forehead with his fingers.
Her eyes sprang open and she clutched him by his vestments. “Father!”
“Ma’am, are you all right?”
He clasped her hands inside his. “Right this moment?”
“Um, well…Hopefully not.” She blushed and batted her eyelashes and let him help her stand. He helped her all the way backstage, I mean, to a kind of prep room, with me and Remo trailing behind.
There was a side table with a pitcher of water, an electric kettle, tea bags, and styrofoam cups. I poured her a cup of water while Remo got her into a chair and bent over her.
While Remo tried to get her to drink some water, the priest introduced himself to me and asked what her deal was. “Well, Father Francis,” I said, after introducing myself as her son, “she’s got terminal cancer. Well, I mean, she’s undergoing treatment and will have surgery, but it’s a long shot.”
“I see.” He looked compassionate and concerned, which I suppose was appropriate for a priest. “Is she interested in having the congregation pray for her?”
“You’ll have to ask her that.” We moved a little closer to her and Remo. “I mean, I know she doesn’t look ill now, her hair still looks great, but she’s having chemo and it’s supposed to get rougher from here.”
“Yes, my own mother died of cancer,” he said. “I know how hard it can be. Ma’am? Are you feeling a bit better now?”
“Oh, much,” she said, putting a hand against her sternum. “Would… would that be possible? For the congregation to pray for me?”
“Of course. People always want to feel they are doing something positive in the face of tragedy. How else can we hope for miracles?” He took her hand in his. “Tell me about yourself.”
They got deep into a conversation then with Claire telling him her story of her diagnosis and subsequent divorce from the evangelical dirtbag. Having heard that part before, I went to find the rest of the family and tell them she was okay. I found them outside looking worried, and brought them back to meet Father Francis.
I don’t even know how it all turned into an argument. With that many of us, it was a kind of melee, where Court was mad at the priest for being a priest and at Claire for everything that happened before, Claire was mad at her for not playing nice-nice in front of the priest, Janine was mad at Claire for making a scene in front of the whole congregation, Landon was mad at Janine for some childhood reason… You get the picture. Remo, who wasn’t mad at anyone right at that moment, ended up making an appointment for Claire to come back and talk with the priest more later in the week, and eventually he herded us all outside like the big sheepdog that he is.
The arguing continued right on through lunch at Denny’s–that same Denny’s.
“I still can’t believe you did that,” Janine said. “You expect me to believe you fainted right at the moment you got near the one good-looking priest?”
“Oh, Jan, don’t be ridiculous. I am so done with preachers,” Claire said with a huff. “You seriously think I wanted to fall over like a fool in front of everyone?”
“Mom, come on,” Court put in. “Your vanity is legendary, but so is your knack for drama.”
“If you’re trying to appeal to my vanity, dear, you’re doing a very poor job of it,” she replied. “And honestly, even if I had done it on purpose, which I didn’t, you would think this would be the one time in my life you could humor me.”
“We’ve run out of humor,” Janine said. “Death kinda puts a damper on any sense of humor we had.”
I was surprised to hear Claire praise me instead of criticize me. “How can it be that your brother is the only one who understands? He’s the only one trying to make things easier instead of harder on me.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” both Courtney and Janine wanted to know.
“Like for example, what a sweet thing to say to Father Francis!” She made a primping motion with her hand on her hair. “Keeping my hair and looks despite chemo.” She seemed quite pleased.
“Like the priest cares whether you’re wearing a wig or not,” Janine sighed and shook her head.
I’ll confess. Until then it hadn’t occurred to me that Claire’s hair was (already) a wig.
Court rolled her eyes. I think she had sussed out that I had just missed it rather than that I had said it to the priest just to play into Claire’s obsessive keeping up of appearances, but she didn’t rat me out. Instead she said, “Enjoy your time in the sun, golden boy.”
She didn’t speak to me the whole way back to the motel.