When I was a little girl, I was convinced that if my belief was strong enough and my motives were pure, I would be able to walk right off the end of the pier and not sink. I’d step off the garage roof and fly. I’d sail off the rope swing over the river at Scott’s Ravine and be suspended in the hand of God. If I were a truly good person, without one inkling of doubt, I’d be able to heal Billy Wilkins, my fifth-grade classmate at Lake Shore Elementary.
Billy was swimming in the river one Saturday in mid-May before the sea nettles had drifted in from the bay, when his uncle ran over him with a powerboat. It was actually a wooden rowboat with a 25-horsepower outboard. Billy was in a coma and going to die so his desperate parents called their priest who strode into the ICU and commanded, “Billy! Wake up!” and Billy did, just like that.
Billy returned to Ms. Tydings’ class many weeks later. A tender pink scar on his forehead disappeared into his hairline, and he now spoke with great effort. His left arm dangled uselessly, as if pinned to his shoulder. It seemed to have shrunk. He dragged his left foot slightly sideways, like an injured bird that could not stop trying to fly. My heart broke every time I looked at him across the classroom, every time he stood to make his way to his locker or lunch. A tall boy, he sat slightly sprawled along the bulletin board wall, beneath pictures of smiling Presidents; I sat by the windows gazing out at the blacktop and the basketball hoops. A few weeks later, school let out for the summer.
One Sunday after church, my father called up the stairs to my room where I was changing to navy shorts, a white tee shirt and sneakers, to tell me I had a visitor. We lived out in the country with few houses around, and I hadn’t heard the crunch of car tires in the lane, so I was shocked to discover Billy shuffling in place on our concrete porch. He smiled without looking at me from beneath the silky hank of blond hair that perpetually hung in his eyes. The pink petunias my mother had planted in a large square bed next to the porch watched us in silence. Beyond him, wild plum bushes shouldered the woodpile as I stepped out to greet him. Sweaty, purposeful, and immensely pleased with his accomplishment, Billy had limped over two miles down Eagle Hill Road by himself.
I didn’t know what he wanted or why he had come. I was both afraid of and drawn to his damage. I was both flattered and ashamed to have been singled out.
We sat cross-legged on the spikey dry grass of my midsummer front yard and watched bees bob on white clover blossoms while I thought of ways to say I had to go inside, and Billy haltingly constructed one thought at a time. I glanced at his skinny left arm and imagined it growing healthy and healed at my touch. I imagined laying my palms over his crippled leg and Billy shouting with joy as he stood straight and strong.
The instinct to heal was innate and intense. It had been present all my life, this impulse to place my hands on the injured. The woman in the broken wheelchair at the Glen Burnie bus station, the drunk, crumpled to the sidewalk on a Baltimore street corner. But I was an anxious ten-year old. I worried about failing. I worried about succeeding and becoming full of myself. I worried about wasps trapped inside my bedroom window screens, math quizzes and leprosy.
I worried about having to marry Billy just to be polite.
After Billy’s visit I had a dream. I wanted to tell someone. I’ll tell you.
I was watching the sun set over the pasture behind our house, a blaze of rose, orange and gold. Suddenly the hand of God descended right through the clouds. I don’t know what else it could have been or how else to describe it. It just stayed there, poised over the neighboring lane and the bordering locust trees, the burden of their sweet blossoms, hanging low over the wide- plank fence. In my dream I witnessed this remarkable event from my bedroom window, sitting on my circus animal bedspread with the ball fringe.
God’s hand was huge, and it just stayed there without explanation–there was nothing to prove, no test to pass.
Looking back, I think that if it had been turned palm down, it would have been a blessing, a benediction over the whole bright-broken world. But it was extended palm up, which seemed to imply an invitation of some kind—not just for me, but for everyone. A possibility, a mystery, suspended over the world like a held breath.
Maybe love is an instinct to heal others in all of us. Maybe the longing we carry is to make each other whole.
To know that if we step off the edge of our fear of failure, we’ll fly.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.