I was about nine or ten years old when the faith-healers came to visit my grandfather. On a weekday. I remember that because, every day after school, I’d walk the streets of the tiny rural town where our family had lived since the mid 19th century to his house, where I’d stay until my mother got off from work. The healers entered the house with hushed voices, as if someone were sick or dying. I was watching cartoons on the television, but they invited me to join them at the table. “You know all too well the price of your grandfather’s blindness,” the man said to me, a small pity-filled smile on his lips. I nodded in agreement because it seemed the correct response.
The faith healers were one of a few young couples in our church who were trying to give evangelical Christianity a 1980’s hipness: guitar strumming praise teams, Christian rock concerts, and hand-raising zeal. The man had thinning permed hair, and I remember thinking he looked like a strange cross between Richard Simmons and Luke from General Hospital. The woman was unremarkably pretty, thin with dark brown hair. She was quiet through all of this. They had a young daughter, and thinking back now, they had to be very young themselves.
They had asked my grandfather if they could interview him for the church newsletter and pray for him. I don’t think they mentioned anything about their thinking they could work miracles.
A few Sundays before in church, the man stood in front of the congregation and told a story of how their daughter had been sick for two days, and they hadn’t known what to do for her, so they prayed over her bed, laid hands on her feverish skin, and according to the man, the little girl vomited up a green, stinking mess, and afterwards was made well.
Most parents know this situation well. Not the praying and laying on of hands, but a child puking and then suddenly feeling better. But this man saw it as something more, and he stood there at the pulpit, tears in his eyes, and said that the devil had made his little girl sick, and that the Lord cast out that evil spirit and made her well. I still remember clear as day my mom saying under her breath, “That ain’t no demon. Ain’t nothing but the terrible twos.”
But they were convinced that maybe they could do the same for my grandfather. That since their healing touch worked so well with their daughter, maybe, just maybe, they could restore sight to the blind.
The first question they asked my grandfather was about how he’d become blind, and how he’d learned to live with it so well. For the first twenty-six years of his life, he was like anyone else: graduated from high school in 1941, then went to the Army and fought in Europe. But it wasn’t the war that took his sight, though he’d seen combat in France and Germany, winning a bronze star along the way.
His blindness came a few years after he’d returned from overseas and had married and had my father. A tumor developed on his brain, and the doctors were able to remove it with surgery and spare his life, but in order to do so, they had to take the part of his brain that gave him sight. The last image Phillip had of my father was that of a two-year-old boy, toddling around the house.
After he had recovered from the surgery, he left his family in southern Illinois for a year to attend a school for the blind in Chicago, and there he learned how to get around rooms, buildings, streets; how to read and write Braille; how to live in the dark.
And he did it well. He walked around our small town without a cane. And even when he was older and his balance wasn’t always the best, he carried a black cane, because he said that without a white cane, many people didn’t even know he was blind, which sounds absurd, but anyone who knew my grandfather found it easy to forget, mostly because of his wood shop.
Everyday he would walk from the house to the old garage and work much of the day building furniture (even now, I have several pieces sitting in my house). The only special tools he used were squares and rulers with Braille numbers; everything else was straight from Sears. He even ran a table saw.
As a little kid, I would sit in the floor of the shop, the sweet smell of sawdust and fresh cut lumber in the air, playing with pieces of scrap that he kept in a pile in the corner. We would be talking and then Grandpa’d say, ‘Hold your ears’, and flip the switch to the saw, then he would push the wood carefully toward the spinning blade with his fingers, never once coming close to injury. I didn’t even consider this as something extraordinary. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to mess with the table saw because I might cut off my fingers, but I never once thought it odd that a blind man should be concerned.
The young faith-healer took furious notes in a spiral bound notebook, much like the ones I used in school. When he felt he had enough history, he asked my grandfather for his testimony. In our church, this was a regular part of worship service, usually on Wednesday nights. People would simply stand up and tell the story of how they been saved. In a small town like ours, there were never many new people moving in, and the congregation was pretty much the same as it had always been, so you learned people’s testimonies fairly quickly, and there was a uniqueness and beauty to the way each person told theirs. There was a rhythm and rhetoric that each individual brought with their oratory. But sitting there at my grandfather’s kitchen table, I realized that I’d never heard him give his. He was a quiet man in church services. There were plenty of others who couldn’t wait for their turn to take the stage, but when he spoke, it was usually striking and profound.
All the churches in our area loved to put on Christmas Plays and Passion Plays, and great effort was put into their productions: I once saw a man carry a life size wooden cross while wearing a crown of thorns made from Bradford Pear branches, the thorns actually drawing blood from his forehead; earlier in the play, he’d been whipped with a cat-of-nine-tails that had been soaked in fake blood so that with every stroke, his back became more and more covered in gore.
The Christmas Plays were much less violent, usually involving children as shepherds and angels, and wise men dressed in bathrobes and towel-turbans, looking more like they’d just had a shower.
In one of these Christmas plays, my Grandpa Phillip played Simeon. That year someone in the church had had a baby in the fall, so there was a real infant to play the Christ child, and I can still picture my grandfather taking the baby from its mother’s arms and holding in front of his dim eyes, saying “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, a light to lighten all people.” And in that moment, you believed it. When you were with my grandfather, it was easy to have faith.
So now, for the first and only time, I heard him tell the story of how he’d come to that faith. Of course he’d been raised in church like most people in that time and place, but his young life wasn’t particularly righteous. The story Philip told of his conversion is a sort of Paul on the road to Damascus in reverse. It was in the mid 60's and he’d been blind for fifteen years at that point. By this time, his marriage had deteriorated and it was known by most that they were only staying together for their kids. They had a daughter eight years younger than my father, and gossip questioned whether she was even my grandfather’s, though I never heard anyone in my family speak of it. My dad had just graduated high school and gone into the service, destined for Vietnam.
During this time, Philip went to a church revival that was being held in the West Frankfort Illinois high school gym. He never said anything about the sermon, just that being in the hot gym, sitting in hard wooden folding chairs with the whisper of the women’s fans as they waved them back and forth, had been a comfort. All that human energy bound up in one place with the talk of faith and hope hovering over their heads. Then while the congregation was singing, he looked up, and as he told it, the darkness over his eyes washed away, and for about ten seconds, he could see the roof of that gym--the hanging lights, protected by wire screens; the iron girders criss-crossed under the curved roof; the giant black furnace, quiet and cold on that July night, suspended over center court--then the edges of vision blurred and darkened, closing in to a single point until there was nothing.
Not long after, he and my dad’s mother divorced. Maybe it was his failed marriage that drove him back to the church, the need for something to give meaning to what seemed a life gone wrong. Maybe he felt his blindness was a sort of punishment for backsliding. I never remember him saying as much, but things change over time; things once believed fall away, replaced by new interpretations. With each year, my grandfather continued to accept his life without sight, and by the time I knew him, any anger or bitterness that may have been there was no longer a burden to him. Saved by the grace of God, he would say.
Who knows what my memory of this day would have been if it would have stopped there. If this young couple would have thanked my grandfather for his time and taken their notebook and went to type up their article to be mimeographed and passed out at the church. Instead, the young healer pulled out a little glass bottle of oil (I’m not sure what kind it was; olive oil wasn’t common in rural southern Illinois back before everyone started dropping dead from heart attacks, so for all I know it could have been Wesson) and he dipped his finger, and said, “Phillip, I’m going to pray over you now,” and he rubbed the oil over my grandfather’s eyelids. Then he and his wife began to pray, standing on each side of the chair grandpa sat in, invoking the power of God to reach down and restore his sight, saying that miracles were real and not something of long ago, that scripture taught that the disciples of Jesus Christ were given his power to heal the sick and cast out demons through the Holy Spirit, and so now they commanded, “Reach down with your mighty hand, oh Lord, and touch the eyes of Phillip.”
And I prayed too. At first I simply watched and thought how strange it all looked, these grown people with their eyes crunched tight, touching the bald head of my grandpa above his patient face. But then I thought, wouldn’t it be great if he really could see again. He could come to my baseball games and see my dad all grown up and watch television instead of just listening. And then I thought, what if the only reason it won’t work is because I’m sitting here watching instead of praying. And so I prayed. I shut my eyes and I prayed at earnestly as I could. God, I said, if anyone deserves a miracle, it’s him.
I don’t know how long it was before they gave up. When I finally opened my eyes and saw them still there with faces strained with belief, I was embarrassed. Embarrassed for them and their snake oil religion, and embarrassed of myself for actually buying into it.
They did finally give up, and awkwardly shook hands with my grandfather and told him they’d continue to pray, that God works in mysterious ways, etcetera, and then they left. I sat waiting for my Grandpa to say something. I wondered if he was disappointed. I wondered if he had the same feelings I did, had been skeptical, then hopeful, then ashamed. I don’t know. He never spoke of it again. We just sat there in the quiet of his house, the clock ticking in the other room, and then he stood and put on his ball cap and went out to his wood shop, and I went back to my cartoons, as if we’d just been visited by people selling insurance or energy efficient windows.
James Alan Gill has published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry most recently in Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, Midwestern Gothic, Night Train, and Atticus Review, and has work forthcoming in the anthology Being: What Makes A Man. He is the Dispatches editor at The Common and currently lives in Eugene, OR.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The biggest surprise was how difficult it was to capture my grandfather. He was such an amazing and unique man, I found myself continually reworking the narrative in order to include as much detail as I could about him without sacrificing the forward movement of the story. I’m still not sure I succeeded.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: My mentor, Kent Haruf (who just recently passed away), wrote this to me once in a letter, and I continually go back to it to remind myself what is at stake when writing, that it isn’t a contest or a ladder of success to be climbed, but instead about something that transcends those things. He said, “It seems to me too that somehow someway you have to trust that if you will write at your deepest most personal level, most idiosyncratic level, at your most engaged level, writing what you yourself truly feel without regard to what anyone else says or has written before, believing in the truth and value of your own experience and feelings, then you have a chance—a chance—of writing something lasting.”
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I have been inspired by so many writers, and continue to be inspired by new writers all the time. But the three that I’ve had the privilege to study with closely and to know as friends, the ones I would consider mentors, are the novelist Kent Haruf, the poet Rodney Jones, and the novelist Whitney Otto.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: This continually changes. I’ve written well in both public and private spaces. Lately, I’ve taken great enjoyment writing rough drafts on my 1950’s portable Underwood typewriter. When I first started writing, in elementary and high school, and then on into undergrad, I wrote on a typewriter not out of nostalgia but due to financial limitation: I longed for a computer. After years of writing on desktops and laptops, I’ve again found the visceral joy of pounding on keys and getting words on the page without concern for spelling or format or visual polish. Going back to correct or rewrite isn’t convenient, so one can only go forward, filling up the page with words and more words. Revision is done by hand, then the entire page typewritten again, then revised again, then typewritten once more before being put into the computer. It forces me to be deliberate and present in my process.