I am the only preacher’s kid in the psych ward.
Eleven years old, and my parents have admitted me into a mental hospital and I am curled up on the bed in my green gown counting my ribs, feeling the wind in my chest, my stomach growling like the night Mum snuck into my bed to hold me, because I wouldn’t let her during the day, and that’s when she’d stifled a scream because her daughter was all bone.
Someone is muttering down the hall, and I curl tighter, staring at the blank wall.
No one likes a fat preacher’s kid.
I’d stopped eating at nine years old.
It wouldn’t be the first time my parents would stick me in a hospital and tell me to eat. The next time I’d be 13 and dying. Sixty pounds and dying. This time I am eighty pounds and still too much alive.
But religion feels dead, stuck up there on a cross in the church where my Dad preaches, Sunday after Sunday, me sitting there in my thick leotards planning quietly what to eat for the next week, and then Dad shakes people’s hands for hours and everyone wears that same Cheshire cat smile which peels off the moment the cars peel out of the parking lot.
But sometimes I can still see Him.
And lying there on those white sheets staring at the white walls of the psychiatric ward I can still smell him.
He smells like the rain on the red roads of Africa.
I’d met God as a little girl in the Congo and Nigeria, standing behind a wire fence staring at my neighbors with the night skin and the real kind of smiles, the kind which leap like exclamation marks.
And these people sang while they hung up their bright colored fabrics on the line and they washed their dishes in buckets of soapy water out in the sun, the same kind of buckets my brother and I would bathe in, watching the lizards scurry under the house.
There was dancing, there were women’s hips swaying even as they cooked their supper over a fire and there were no steeples or cars peeling out of parking lots.
There was just a red dirt road and a lot of hard working people.
I lie there on that white bed missing Him.
My Mum comes to the door with a brown paper bag, pulls out a mug which says “I Love you Beary, Beary Much,” and hands it to me.
I look at her, this woman who’s stuck me in a psych ward and then left to spend the day with the family at a theme park, and I scream, “I don’t want your presents!”
She shakes her head. “It’s not from me—it’s from your brother,” and I hear him shuffling outside the door.
I walk to the door in my green gown and he is standing there with his hands in his pockets, my little brother. Girls and boys wandering the halls, all with mental illnesses like me, and I look at this boy who’d sat in the bucket in the hot African sun with me, and I say, “I’m so sorry Keith. I love it, I’m so sorry.”
He looks down.
His hands are in his pockets and I meet God there in the mental hospital.
I find God in my brother and his bear mug.
He walks away.
I walk back to bed.
Crawl back into the sheets.
The mug in my hands, and me, counting my ribs.