(Editor’s note: This award-winning essay by Emily Summerhays (along with a lot more great writing) will appear in the October issue of Sunstone. Subscribe here. Photographs are by Martyna Adela and Faruk Ulay.)
Sometimes I pray with my eyes wide open. And sometimes with one of those eyes on the television, just for good measure. Not because I’m particularly absorbed in that Downy commercial but because I don’t want God to think he has my full attention. Childish, I know.
When I was a child, I prayed as a child, with my eyes screwed tightly shut, arms folded firmly against my body, speaking in slow, taut tones, as if I could command divine attention through a sheer critical mass of rigidity. I carefully balanced the ratio of blessings asked to blessings thanked for. I spoke of moisture instead of rain. I used all of my thee’s and thou’s correctly, and, approximating the sonorous tones of my elders, asked to be both nourished and strengthened.
At least, that’s how I prayed in front of people. It was, of course, all just for show—something I’d picked up in church. Something to trot out at mealtimes and in Sunday School. Because that’s what reverence looked like in sacrament meeting and sounded like in Primary, and I suppose I thought that’s what reverence must feel like—at least, to other people. But to me, outside of church and in my own world, reverence was something completely different.
In those days, I was the embodiment of having a prayer in one’s heart. Though loquacious on the surface, I was not much given to giving up my true thoughts. But the song of the righteous flowed freely through my limbs and through my mind and sometimes flew right out of my mouth when no one was around to hear it. I walked around in constant conversation with myself and with my Creator. We had long, rambling talks that had neither beginning nor end. Each new day took up where the previous had left off, often in the middle of the thought that had drifted away with me into sleep. In those days, reverence felt like whispering secrets to your sister in the dark. It felt like walking barefoot, hand in hand, over cool, shaded grass. In those days, reverence felt like friendship. And freedom. It felt like safety. And love. And not much at all like “reverence.”
In those days, prayer was not an “ask and ye shall receive” sort of thing. It wasn’t a method for getting what I needed, or even really for showing gratitude or respect. Not to me. Prayer, in those days, was simply a way of connecting. To what, I doubt I ever paused to articulate, any more than I ever really paused to articulate any of those heavenly exchanges—I only know that it worked. I felt connected, and the connection was comfortable, so easy. In those days, I could slip into slumber knowing I was loved and watched over, that I was important, and that everything would be all right in the end. I never asked for much, not in those days. Perhaps I did not ask then because I did not then need.
Until one day when I was about eight years old, playing on my first soccer team, and my jersey went missing just before game-time. Mom was jingling the car keys at me in frustration as I frantically searched my floor, my closet, my drawers, but came up empty. As I rifled through my belongings, I tossed a hasty, heartfelt prayer heavenward: Heavenly Father, please please please help me find my jersey, Mom’s gonna kill me.
And then, my first Impression. Just like everyone talks about in testimony meeting. Against all logical inclination, I searched my pajama drawer (which, just like everyone talks about in testimony meeting, I had already thoroughly—or so I thought—searched). There, at the bottom, beneath a nightshirt I despised so much I never wore it, lay my jersey. And there, just like everyone talks about in testimony meeting, sprouted a little testimony.
From that time forward, I became obsessed with the doctrinal ins and outs of prayer. With a waxy, day-glo orange highlighter, I marked every scriptural passage I could find that referred to asking and receiving, knocking and being opened unto. I began to wonder what faith that moves mountains might feel like and if that faith dwelt inside me. But I also discovered that it was imperative not to “ask amiss,” and I puzzled over what that might mean. In the years that followed the Day I Lost and Found My Jersey, I became a miniature expert on prayer and felt that I harbored some of the mysteries of God safely in my heart, along with that comfy old reverence and encapsulated by that easy, foundational friendship.
But as certainly as my house was built upon the Rock, the rains did come down, and the floods did come up.
Mom had always been my hero, of course, in the way that all mothers are heroes to their children. She had golden hair and golden ideals and golden achievements. She ran marathons and kept a spotless house. She made family dinners and had a scientific career. She raised four children: honor students, all-state athletes, missionaries, “nice kids” (made even more amazing by the fact that I was in my early teens). She baked brownies. She saved lives. She made countless school projects out of salt-dough and Popsicle sticks. Everyone on our street envied her perfect flowerbeds. She had faith in herself and in hard work and Providence, and she was always there to lean on.
And then, she wasn’t.
But it began slowly. At first, there was an occasional hitch in her step. Later, a frequent furrow in her brow. Soon, she was walking around with a hand jammed into her side, as though trying to hold the pain to one spot. My prayers began to grow worried.
As the disease worsened, my faith became more necessary and, therefore, more fervent. I was determined to ask in faith, nothing wavering, for the answers I needed. And what I needed was to know how to help her. I wasn’t asking for big-time miracles. I wasn’t expecting a healing. The bulk of my faith was fixed on the doctors. The ones who would fix her. There was no need to pull out the big guns. I sought instead to find ways to ease her pain. I gave her a journal to help her occupy her mind while she was physically incapacitated. She never wrote in it. To make sure she stayed out of the sun, I took over much of the gardening. But her love of mucking about in the dirt was so strong it made her foolish, and many were the days that I found her, near-fainted, in the yard, with muddy knees. Every night I prayed, with increasing urgency, as something inside me began to tremble.
I was about eighteen the night my mother and I went into the kitchen for a glass of milk. She collapsed in front of me–just went down on the linoleum, neither folding nor crumpling gracefully like they do in the movies. I don’t remember hearing her hit the floor, just the sound of spilled milk dripping steadily from the countertop. I dropped to my knees and screamed for my father.
Later that night, I dropped to my knees again and screamed silently for my Father in Heaven. That’s it, I explained to him. This is all we can take. This is rock bottom. You have to help us, please. Please. I don’t know what to do. Make her better. Make me better. Make something better.
But it wasn’t rock bottom—not by a long shot—it only got worse. My mother could hardly bear the weight of her own shrinking frame. Disease had left her body weak, her skin paper-thin and dark with bruising. The holes in her thoughts and sentences grew as the medication slowly leached her memory away. She could not stand at a counter long enough to cook. She could not sit long enough to go to the movies. She could not run, she could not work, she could not drive, and perhaps worst of all, she could not go out in the sun.
Every morning I left the house in fear, and every evening I returned directly to my mother’s bedroom, just to make sure she was all right.
All was never right, but there were often golden moments. I spent hours on her bed, reading her my school papers, telling her about the things I did with my friends, making plans with her for the garden. Some days I would come home to find her in a nightgown the color of Crayola sunshine, dancing to Bon Jovi. Some days she’d ask me to take her out for a chocolate-chocolate donut. Those moments were precious gifts. But I wanted more than just a few minutes of happiness.
In classic type-A fashion, I determined that all of this was some sort of divine test and that I was failing it. I reevaluated the way I prayed and decided I must be doing something wrong. I revisited all those scriptures I’d discovered in my early fervor, and decided that I was somehow “asking amiss”:
Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss. (2 Nephi 4:35)
Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. (James 4:3)
I knew I wasn’t asking to satisfy any lusts for personal gain. I didn’t think I was asking anything for myself, really. So maybe it was my attitude. Something fundamentally wrong with my approach. Perhaps my hitherto informal prayer habits weren’t, after all, what an omnipotent God wanted from me. So I resurrected rigid “reverence” and humble formality. I tried to pray as formulaically and worshipfully and as kneeling-by-the-bed-ly as possible, just like the pictures in the Ensign, as if those prayers could be somehow more potent. Any port in a storm.
To avoid being too much of a drain on the divine storehouse of blessings, I saved up my requests for the very most important things and never asked anything for myself. Not for help on my finals, not for comfort in other trials (and there were many other hardships, physical and financial, with which my family, like all others, had to contend). I directed all my faith toward this one problem, determined somehow to solve it. Nevertheless, my prayers fell crumpled into my lap, one by one, time after time. Each request returned to sender.
Having at length concluded that my faith wasn’t apparently good enough to move mountains, I reasoned that it must be that I had (or maybe my mother had) something else to learn. I squared my shoulders. If life was to be a test, I was going to “pass.” As the years went by, I offered up to the Lord all the things I had learned about life and love and family and faith and compassion and hope and dignity and sorrow and patience and suffering and on and on and on, as if at last, the”right” answer would click open the lock that had kept my mom in pain, and finally set my family free.
I was tired, spirit-sore, weary, and wary, and at the bottom of it all, I had a hard time believing in the weight of my prayers. Deep down, I thought the fault was mine. I felt like a pathetic annoyance, as though my heartfelt, faith-drenched pleas sounded like so many “are we there, yets?” to my Father in Heaven. I began to feel as if God’s reception of my prayers must be something along the lines of, “What, you again? This again?”
Never one to want to put others out, I stopped asking.
Who can sway the mind of God? Not me, apparently.
I had no real belief in the efforts of others, either. In fact, when others offered to pray for my mother, I would smile and nod and wish they’d just pick up the phone and call her instead. It would have taken about as much time, yet meant so much more to her. Especially since I had, by then, finished school and left home. Had, in fact, escaped, after a fashion, into the relative freedom of my own emerging life. Leaving her that much more lonely in her bed, in her garden, and in her pain. My escape was imperfect, however, burdened as I still was with daily reminders of my spiritual impotence and with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. It was my faith, after all, that had failed.
The day the prayers finally ran dry was one that, ironically, had nothing much to do with my mother. I was twenty-five years old, staring into a computer screen, watching in real time as my baby brother’s last hopes finally came crashing to earth. As I watched in queasy silence, I could almost hear milk dripping steadily onto the kitchen floor.
He and I had spent our earliest years at each other’s throats, our teen years as bosom buddies, and all of those years, both good and bad, playing catch in the backyard. The rhythmic sound of a baseball slapping into leather very often took on an angry cast, but mostly it was like the ticking of some great cosmic clock, measuring out our growing strength and strengthening bond. At first, I barely put up with his ineptitude. He was too young, too little, and far too annoying. We usually did more fighting than throwing, more hitting than catching. But necessity bound us together, and eventually love for the game taught us love for each other. When the house became too silent, we’d grab our mitts and head outside. When Mom’s struggle became oppressive, we’d find a ball and hit the grass. When we couldn’t talk, we’d throw. We became each other’s haven. The oasis in the desert. The calm in the eye of the storm.
It soon became apparent, not just to me but to everyone who saw him move, that my brother was a Natural. Chock-full of God-given talent. But riddled with physical limitations. When he had his first knee surgeries, at age thirteen, I brought him jelly beans and helped him oil his new glove. In later years, I stood in the place of my mother, who all too often couldn’t stand: I drove him to physical therapy, picked him up from practice, and watched his orthopedic surgeon drain syringe after syringe full of bloody fluid from his legs. In spite of it all, though, joy radiated from him when he took the field. Troubles at home melted into the background when I watched him go up to bat, and seeing him run the bases was testimony enough of miracles.
In time, his life became like a story from the Children’s Friend. He was scouted by the majors. He was offered big-time scholarships. He was flown around the country to investigate his prospects. And yet, he was humble. A gentle giant. No one was more kind, more generous. No one was more dedicated, more single in purpose. No one worked as hard or sacrificed so much. And then he sacrificed it all. He laid all that—his past and his future, the only thing he’d ever wanted or truly loved—on the altar of faith. He told them all, “No,” and went on a mission.
Like Abraham, he was ultimately spared the usual outcome of that particular sacrifice. Stanford University held a place for him and welcomed him to the team, two years older, two years wearier, and two years out of shape. But he blew out his knee in the second week. More surgeries, more miseries; more prayers, more pain.
I could see it all unfolding. I fought fate on two fronts now.
When he made a miraculous recovery after an entire year of intensive physical therapy and was drafted by the Mariners, I began to think that, though God had closed the door on my mom, perhaps he’d opened up wide the windows of heaven to pour out my brother’s blessings. It would almost have been worth it.
But again, he sacrificed. He did the sensible thing, turned down the major leagues, and finished his degree. He was stronger than he’d been in years, faster and surer on his legs, hitting harder and striding longer. The majors would come around again next year.
All that God-given talent.
Well. They say the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.
Draft day came and went, the wonders of modern technology allowing me to watch from 3,000 miles away as his dreams—and mine, and my mother’s—finally hit the floor. The career-ending back injury was still some months away, but that day had truly been the end. In more ways than one.
That day, I dared to pray for him. All that day. I threw the last drops of my faith down, like a gauntlet, before my God, and relived in that one afternoon a microcosm of the previous ten years, moving from tentative to urgent to despairing to, ultimately, broken.
That day, I withdrew my broken heart and instead gave God a not-very-contrite finger.
But even that, I think now, was a kind of prayer.
For months, sick to my stomach on anger and hurt, I told myself I didn’t believe. I walked around with my emotional fists balled up, holding my spirit in tight. For months, I ignored God, knowing all the while that one cannot “ignore” something, someone, whom one doesn’t believe exists. I ignored that, too. Childish, I know.
When I was a child, I’d prayed as a child, in innocence, in earnestness, in thoughts, letters, songs, wishes, and yes, even curses. I’d understood as a child, and thought as a child, but now I am a woman grown, and it is time to put away childish things.
A few months ago, a friend told me she had been praying for me. As has become my habit, I smiled and nodded and had no idea what to say. “Thank you?” seemed inadequate even while protestations that I didn’t really believe in prayer bubbled up under the gratitude.
I knew why she?’d been praying. I’ve been sick.
As with my mother, it had begun slowly, with unexplainable aches and pains. I walked a bit too slowly, too stiffly, too carefully. The smudges under my eyes grew more pronounced. My doctors told me what they told my mother all those years ago, and whenever I think of her now, I can see the specter of my possible future. I think of spilt milk and muddy knees. I think of nightgowns in the afternoon and pills, morning, noon, and night. I think of my brother and me slipping out the back door to try to play like normal kids. I think of our trying to escape the dual prisons of our silent house and our mother’s frail body. But there’s no escaping it now. For any of us.
I knew why my friend had been praying: because she loved me and because she was scared. In its purest form, prayer is simply an act of love; the first and last bastion of the impotent, the worried, the scared. And while I couldn’t quite share it, I also couldn’t deride her faith. I couldn’t even shrug it off with the usual vacant smile and distracted nod. Instead, I loved her right back. In that moment, as she gazed at me with unfeigned compassion in her eyes and declared her faith with a complete lack of self-consciousness, I saw myself as I once had been—as I’m not sure I can ever be again—and those spiritual fists I’d clenched up so very tightly began to ease. The anger and hurt and fear began to drain away, replaced by the faintest glow of gratitude, and from the ruins of my childhood prayers, something new began to emerge: not quite faith, but a tiny hope; not quite a prayer, but the barest wish for one.
Over subsequent months, that first wish grew and multiplied. My husband had a crucial presentation to make. A ward member got a frightening diagnosis. A neighbor family struggled financially. Through it all, I wished that I could pray. A friend watched her father slowly die. Another lost a brother to an accident. Still another endured a dangerous pregnancy. I wished with all my heart that I could give them the words, I’ll pray for you. I wished to the point of tears that I could do it, but I couldn’t, quite. Not then. Not yet. I just . . . couldn’t.
But still, that wish was there. Someday I might again be able to pray for something that really matters; but for now, I practice over pancakes and lasagna. Mealtimes and sacrament meeting, Sunday School and bedtime.
Sometimes, now, I pray—with my eyes wide open. And sometimes, yes, one of those eyes is trained on the television. I guess you could say that I’m spiritually skittish. But sometimes, now, out of the corner of my eye, I can almost see myself clearly again. I can almost see that girl who talks to God, liberally, and upbraideth not.
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