Amen, Amen, Amen : Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying (Among Other Things)
Until the age of ten, Abby Sher was a happy child in a fun-loving, musical family. But when her father and favorite aunt pass away, Abby fills the void of her loss with rituals: kissing her father's picture over and over each night, washing her hands, counting her steps, and collecting sharp objects that she thinks could harm innocent pedestrians. Then she begins to pray. At first she repeats the few phrases she remem-bers from synagogue, but by the time she is in high school, Abby is spending hours locked in her closet, urgently reciting a series of incantations and pleas. If she doesn't, she is sure someone else will die, too. The patterns from which she cannot deviate become her shelter and her obsession.
In college Abby is diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and while she accepts this as an explanation for the counting and kissing and collecting, she resists labeling her fiercest obsession, certain that her prayers and her relationship with G-d are not an illness but the cure. She also discovers a new passion: performing comedy. She is never happier than when she dons a wig and makes people laugh. Offstage, however, she remains unable to confront the fears that drive her. She descends into darker compulsions, starving and cutting herself, measuring every calorie and incision. It is only when her earliest, deepest fear is realized that Abby is forced to examine and redefine the terms of her faith and her future.
Amen, Amen, Amen is an elegy honoring a mother, father, and beloved aunt who filled a child with music and their own blend of neuroticism. It is an adventure, full of fast cars, unsolved crimes, and close calls. It is part detective story, part love story, about Abby's hunt for answers and someone to guide her to them. It is a young woman's radiant and heartbreaking account of struggling to recognize the bounds and boundlessness of obsession and devotion.
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October 18, 2009
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Excerpt from Amen, Amen, Amen by Abby Sher
Sunday night was usually the best night of the week in my house. Our neighbors, Estherann and Arthur, came over for vodka tonics and crackers and to talk politics. Estherann was always knitting fuzzy sweaters and scarves and she let me sit by her feet and dig through her canvas bag of yarns. Then Mom pulled out the Chinese take-out menu and we each got to choose a dish to order.
"You know what that means, kiddo," Dad would say with a wink my way. I was his special helper.
As soon as Dad and I climbed into the station wagon, he would turn on Woody's Children, Woody Guthrie's radio show where he sang folk songs with a team of banjos and little kids whom I imagined living on a prairie and frolicking through enchanted forests. Dad usually had one palm on the steering wheel and with the other he'd tap out Woody's rhythmic rhapsodies on my thigh. We'd sing "This Land Is Your Land" and "If I Had a Hammer" and scores of songs about love and dandelion wine, rolling into new melodies as effortlessly as the hills themselves. Sometimes Dad went extra slow and switched the headlights to bright so we could search for raccoons. There was never anybody out except for us. In the car, on the road, in the whole world.
It was two months after Aunt Simone died and the cicadas had finally gone; the first snow of the season had just fallen, but it was too clumpy and uneven to warrant a school closing the next day. The grass poked through in little hairy patches and the air was the sharpest kind of cold in my nostrils. The station wagon took a long time to warm up and the vents could muster only small splutters of lukewarm mist that smelled burnt. There was no time to look for raccoons on the way to the restaurant. The food'll get cold, Dad explained. He also didn't sing along with Woody, so I decided I shouldn't either.
When we got to the China Lion parking lot, Dad gave me a fold of money that I squeezed in my fist. I walked past the two stone lions guarding the tall wooden doors, my back stiff and straight, and told the lady at the desk who looked like a China doll our last name. She knew me because this was my job every week. She put the greasy brown paper bag in my hands and made me promise to walk carefully to the car so nothing tipped.
"That's some hot chopsticks. You okay?" Dad said when I got back to the car.
"No prob, slob," I said, nodding proudly.
We were quiet as snow again the whole way home. I held the bag on my lap and opened just one corner so I could sniff the moo goo gai pan dripping into the vegetable lo mein and then into the General Tso's, seeping into a salty puddle on the bottom. My thighs got red and tight from the heat, but I didn't budge an inch. Not even when we got home and Dad turned off the engine and we just sat there in the driveway. The Japanese maple tree that Dad had planted was sighing and swaying above us and the car was ticking and farting out leftover exhaust and I wasn't sure why we were still in the car while Mom and Betsy were inside waiting for the food. I snuck a peek over at Dad but he was looking out at the snow so I looked there too.
Then he said, "Hey kiddo, you know what? You go on ahead. I'll meet you inside."
"Food's getting cold. I'll be right there."
I didn't want to go, but it felt as though he was waiting for me to leave, setting his face toward the windshield so I couldn't even guess what his eyes were saying. By the time I slid out and walked to his side of the car, he was standing next to it with the door open, letting out a long, heavy breath.
"I'll wait for you if..."
"Just go!" he said, and there was something coarse and ragged in his voice that I'd never heard before, icier even than the night sky.
I started up the walk, hugging the bag close. I could hear the wax paper from the egg rolls crinkling and my corduroys rubbing together. I could hear everything. Especially something rumbling behind me. A horrible noise somewhere between a groan and a growl. When I turned around my father was crouched on the lawn. I ducked among the hedges so he couldn't see me and through the tangle of frozen branches I watched his body roll forward, the muscles in the back of his neck clenched together. He vomited into the snow. It made a small, steaming hole in the ground. He stayed there on his hands and knees, staring into it, this place where his insides had gone. I stayed staring too. At the moon falling on his head just where his crown of hair curled up at the ends. At his shoulders rising up like looming hilltops under his jacket and his jaw drooping open like a dog's. At how small he was all of a sudden.
Then he leaned back on his heels, took a scoop of fresh snow, and covered the hole so it looked like this moment had never happened.
I crept into the house through the side door and delivered my leaky parcel to Mom, then went to wash my hands. When I got to the dinner table, Dad was already there, licking his lips.
"Mmm, I'm hungry," he said, and gave me a quick smile. I didn't look at him for the rest of the meal.
After I'd helped with the dishes, when I was supposed to be getting ready for bed, I slinked into my parents' room. It was completely dark except for the light from the street, and the blue spotted wallpaper looked like a sky turned inside out. I went to the window to find the hole my father had covered up. It was under the snow somewhere, I knew it, and I had to find it and see if it had grown bigger or deeper. I needed to know where it led. I had this queasy feeling it could be tunneling down all the way through the ground like sour molten lava. Only, when I got to the window, I couldn't see anything on the ground except white. In school they had made us cut out paper snowflakes and then write about how each one was unique and delicate. That was a lie. This snow was not delicate at all. It was monotonous and hard and it made the entire universe slowly sink into its unyielding hush. And I knew something ugly and sinister was lurking just below it.
"What are you doing?" Betsy was standing in the doorway in only her underwear and bra. She had a line of cream bleach on her upper lip.
"Nothing. What are you doing?"
"Nothing. You shouldn't be in Mom and Dad's room, you know."
"You shouldn't either." I wanted to sound tough, but my voice came out thin and whiny.
"I'm just getting the nail scissors. What are you doing?"
"At what?" said Betsy, putting her hand on her hip.
"Never mind," I snarled as I stomped past her. I wasn't about to tell her that I was looking for a pile of hidden puke.
"Freak," I heard her grumble as she closed her bedroom door.
I checked every night from different windows in the house. The snow turned gray and splotchy and then it broke into warped continents across the lawn, but there was still no sign of the hole. Not even a speck. I tried to measure where the car was parked and where Dad's knees could've sunk in the ground, but any mark he had made was gone. I didn't even know what I was looking for after a while; I just knew I had to look for it. It was as if the dirty snow had swallowed this fermenting secret and every time I stepped over it, or worse, on top of it, I was driving it farther into the earth's core. I hated that I was the only one who knew it was there and that I had become its sentinel, watching to see where it would surface. One night when Mom was tucking me into bed, I tried to tell her that I had seen something that maybe I shouldn't have. Just in case Dad hadn't told her; I didn't want him to get in trouble.
"I think I might've seen Dad maybe get sick."
"What do you mean, sick?"
"I think maybe throw-up sick. Maybe."
"I don't think so, sweetie. But even if he did, you know sometimes his gas gets bad. Don't worry. I'll make sure he eats more Tums."
Then it snowed again and this time it fell in thick, imposing flakes. I knew I'd never find the hole after that, no matter how hard I looked, but I couldn't stop. I also decided that for the rest of the winter I would enter the house only through the side door and I would step on the stone wall to get there. I didn't trust the frozen front lawn at all.
Inside our house wasn't much better. The radio was still on continually, but it had subsided to a muted chatter and I knew without asking that we were not to raise our voices above it. Dad began staying home from work a lot and going to doctors' appointments. Mom said that something was going on with his kidneys, a genetic disease. The doctors were working on it, but in the meantime, we had to leave all the cranberry juice for him and not make too much noise.
Often when I came home from school, Dad was already in his drippy dungarees and cream-colored fisherman's sweater, shuffling around the living room in his moccasin slippers with his hands in his back pockets as if he was holding his kidneys into his sagging frame. Sometimes he was asleep in the big armchair, his head listing backward, the skin of his neck collecting limply like a plucked chicken's.
I'd clear my throat and he would jolt forward to declare groggily, "Well, hello there, madam!" scrambling to rearrange his face into a genteel grin as if he hadn't been asleep and I was a Southern belle sidling up for lemonade.
"Hi, Dad. What are you doing here?" I'd ask. I didn't intend to sound mean, but I didn't like it when he was home before me. I'd think about all those other dads coming up the hill from the train with their blue suits and briefcases and get impatient with him for being so droopy and pale.
"Oh, you know," he'd say.
I didn't know. I didn't know anything. I never learned the whole story. I didn't know how that hole had dragged us all down into its evil silence. I didn't know why Dad's sweater had grown so long and loose that he was lost in it and I was too scared to ask where he had gone. I didn't know when the diagnosis had changed because first Mom would say it was a fever and then Dad would say it's nothing and then Betsy and I were in the bathroom one night and in between spits of toothpaste she whispered, "It's really bad. Like, this is serious."
"Serious how?" I asked with an annoyed shrug.
"Shut up. You don't know that." I turned on both faucets as far as they would go, hoping to drive her away in a puff of steam.
I don't know how much my parents shared with either of my siblings. I don't know what they knew themselves. I just knew it was my obligation to trust them when they said it was a nothing fever. Each night as I gripped the windowsill and bore my eyes into the matted ground, I was convincing myself it was something out there that was rotten and not right here -- this close and this real.
Dad had dealt with bouts of pain caused by his polycystic kidneys, but never like this. Now there were overnights at various hospitals where they tested my father for all kinds of diseases and pumped him with antibiotics. When Mom brought us to visit, he pulled his arm quickly under the covers so I couldn't see the IV needle pricking his cloudy skin. I hated when he did this, especially when I caught him in the act, the small tubing snapping lightly on the starched sheets, dribbling some radioactive-looking elixir into his veins. I wanted to tell him he wasn't being sneaky enough; I could see he was trying to hide something, I just couldn't figure out what it meant.
"The doctors are working hard on it," Mom kept saying as she kissed me good night. "They're really good, too."
Months later when the ground thawed and the first crocuses shot up, my father took off his grimy sweater and he'd shrunken in half. Still, nobody said anything. I decided I wasn't talking either. At my sixth-grade graduation, even though it was almost ninety degrees out on the playground, Dad showed up in his blue corduroys and winter oxford, his Nikon hanging around his neck, pulling him toward the blacktop. He kept asking me to gather my friends together for more pictures but I politely explained that we were very busy signing yearbooks and making summer plans and then I ran away from him and hung out by the bleachers for the rest of the afternoon.
That night, even with my bedroom door barricaded shut, I couldn't tell my diary the real reason I took off. I was too hot and twisted up inside. I was mad at Dad for being so rickety looking, huddled over in a sorry crescent, like he was making a game plan but there was no team beside him. I was mad at Mom for her outdated haircut and flimsy-looking smile. And I was mad most of all at the doctors for being fine and good and working so hard.
My father's decline was swift, though of course I'll never know how much he suffered. I don't remember much about that summer, except that the cicadas swooped in again in their screeching gales and Dad's hospital refrigerator was only big enough to hold cans of vanilla drink that he said tasted like glue.
I still hold on to the slivers of sunlight that we shared.
My mom rented a cabin in Massachusetts with a dock that bobbed absently while we dipped our feet in the lake. When I looked down at our legs in the water, I thought Dad had seaweed climbing up his until I realized those were his veins. The lake was cool and still and looked like a big bowl of muddy soup to me, but Dad said it was the best lake he'd ever seen and I said, "Me too," because I just wanted us to be the same.
The glass cups of orange sherbet that he ate meditatively, longingly, his lips slick and stained as he smiled with humble relief.
The strings hanging like cobwebs from the bottom of his dungaree shorts.
I remember Betsy coming home from summer camp prattling incessantly about her new boyfriend, showing me his clumsy sonnets of adoration and saying that one day they would run away together and it would be better that way because things at home were only going to get worse.
I remember Jon coming home from his summer job teaching tennis and retreating to his room without a word. I only knew he was there because I could smell the salami sandwiches he loved to microwave or hear him socking tennis balls against the wall.
I remember the night Mom made sure Betsy and Jon were both out of the house. She cooked my favorite meal -- crispy chicken, peas, and onion rye bread, which tasted extra delicious and salty until Dad said that he had something to tell me. The doctors had decided it wasn't the kidney thing after all, it was actually cancer and they're working on it but they're not sure what kind or where it all is and it could be spreading through his lymph nodes but there isn't really any way to treat it because his kidneys can't process chemo and whatever they tell him he promises to tell me and he'll make me a deal that if he gets impatient or crabby just know that he still loves me and it's just that he's not feeling well and if I have any questions or I feel worried I can always ask him and he will promise to tell me everything except we don't know everything yet but he's still my dad and he always will be and does that sound fair?
I wagged my head loosely, which passed for a yes. Then we ate for a little while longer until Mom asked why I hadn't touched my peas. She said she thought they were the kind I liked.
"C'mon, Ab. Just a couple," she coaxed.
"Leave her alone, Joan. She's got a lot to digest right now."
"I know, but she needs her greens."
Usually I liked when they were both talking about me and not my siblings, but not that night.
"Hey, Ab, you want to be excused early?" asked Dad.
I nodded to that too. Dad gave me a big smile and a wink as if we were business partners and I'd just made a smart decision.
Then I went up to my room and lay on my bed and squeezed my hands into fists in my pockets so I couldn't be tempted into touching the wallpaper. I just stared at it with my cruelest glare instead. Those flowers and polka dots had known about this all along. They had their own secret language they spoke with the squiggles and stripes and they recognized when someone was going to explode and someone was going to get cancer and they had been laughing at me this whole time while I thought it was the kidney thing. The flowers had hideously wide toothy smiles and the curlicues were bouncing up and down, soaring gleefully off some invisible trampoline, and I hated them all. They were phony and babyish and liars. As I was scowling, even though I didn't want to or mean to, my hands came unleashed. I traced vigorously, stormily, plowing through the pastel brush, trying to make it all better somehow.
The rest of the summer was trips to the hospital and then to the pool. Mom worked half-days and went straight to visit Dad. Sometimes she stayed the night with him while Betsy, Jon, and I ordered Chinese takeout. But it wasn't Sunday night so it tasted off and all the fortune cookies had messages I'd heard before.
One day in early August, Mom told me that instead of going to the pool, she was taking me to work with her and then we were going on a date to Pizza Hut. We each ordered personal pan pizzas and the all-you-can-eat salad bar buffet, which included croutons and black olives, so I was particularly pleased. Mom tucked my hair behind my ears and said, "Remember Dad promised to tell you what was going on, even if it was bad?"
Twenty-two minutes and eleven seconds.
I had one eye on my watch to time our pan pizzas because if they didn't come out in exactly a half hour, the whole meal would be free.
"Well...so...things are not so good."
Twenty-three minutes and three seconds. I couldn't let the waitress see me timing her because I wanted it to be a surprise.
"So...yeah. It's not so good and the doctors want Daddy to stay in the hospital but he has decided to come home and we'll make the New Room like his bedroom with a special bed and a nurse." The New Room, where we watched TV and played board games, wasn't really new -- we had been calling it that since Mr. Finneman built it for us nine years earlier.
Twenty-four. It wasn't even that busy in the Hut. This waitress was really cutting it close.
"Did you hear me?"
"Yeah, sure. That's good, right?"
"Well, good that Dad'll be home again. But...it'll be different. First of all, there won't be much TV watching going on."
That wasn't big news, since we didn't watch that much TV to begin with, but Mom was acting very serious, so I scrunched my eyebrows to let her know I was hearing every word she said.
Twenty-five and forty-four seconds. I smiled into my napkin. I loved the number four and took two in a row as a very auspicious sign.
"So, I just thought I'd tell you. And also, I thought maybe it'd be fun if Betsy and you went to visit the Massachusetts cousins for a week or so. That way, Dad can get settled back at home, and you two can get a few days at the beach."
Twenty-seven...and fifteen seconds. This meal was definitely going to be free.
"Does that sound good? Hey, Chicken? C'mon, sit up straight."
"Sure. Sure." Should I stand up and yell Time's up! I wondered, or should I just let them --
"And here we are. Sorry for the delay, there. We have one personal pan with green peppers and onions, and one with extra cheese and black olives."
The waitress's name tag said Kiki. She had silky hair and a pert ski-jump nose, which only made me feel more gangly and defeated. Twenty-eight minutes and forty-three seconds. I wanted to tell her that she almost didn't make it.
"Be careful not to touch the pan 'cause it's super hot!" Kiki sang as she galloped away. Mom folded her napkin into her collar because she didn't want to get her plum work suit dirty.
"Do you have any questions for me, Chicken?" she asked. Everyone was always asking if there were more questions but I felt like she hadn't given me any information except that we were rearranging the house and I was going on a forced vacation and meanwhile I'd lost the free pizza race.
"Nope!" I declared loudly, shoving a slice into my mouth. It was delicious and crowded with olives, but I felt gypped. Big-time. I knew my mother was still talking but I couldn't hear what she was saying because I was trying to chew in time to the second hand of my watch. Its rhythm was logical, predictable, much more definitive and comforting than the open-ended question-sentences Mom was spewing.
Two days later, Betsy and I packed up our duffels and boarded a train to stay with the Massachusetts cousins, who were on Mom's side of the family. Any other time, I would have liked hanging out with my cousins, but all they wanted to do now was talk about boys with Betsy. I pretended to be absorbed in the biography of Anne Frank that I was supposed to read for school. But from behind the jacket cover, I glowered at them bitterly, thinking, You'll be sorry when my dad dies and I'm the most important, even more important than boys.
The one place I found calm was underwater, where the world was nothing more than a muffled blur. I felt the deep cradling me, protecting me from my cousins and my anger and all the questions that led to more questions. Betsy was a great swimmer and I loved it when we held contests to see how long we could hold our breath and pick up treasures from the mushy bottom. I lasted to nineteen and got sand dollars, mussel shells, snails, and the entire backside of a hermit crab. At night we laid the ocean's floor on the wooden porch railing so it could dry out in the sun. My cousin Eddie boiled up big pots of clams and afterward we dumped out jigsaw puzzles on the floor so we could look for the corner pieces first like Dad taught us. There were no cicadas up here, only a night so clinging and close it lay on top of us like tar. With no patterns to track in the walls, I often tossed and turned, and one night I even wet the bed. When I told Mom about it she said it was okay, there was a lot going on, and I should try enjoying the beach.
So I plugged my nose and plunged under the horizon, trying to blot out everything on land, everything in the sky, everything unknown.