I was a boy of fifteen, escaping my suburban neighborhood on foot and braving a highway to reach a neglected steel bridge that stretched over the Schuylkill River just outside Philadelphia. The twilight bled over the riveted beams, concealing the rusted green-painted angles. I walked over the water, pulling a plaque out of my pants where I’d hidden it, convinced I was finally far enough away to not be caught. I looked at this gift from my parents in the haze beneath a bug-shrouded spotlight. There was a silver medallion with a profile of Jesus and the host in relief. Below was a gold plate commemorating my First Holy Communion and bearing my delicately scratched name: Robert Francis Allen, Jr. Night was complete and upon me; I could no longer see where the bridge met the land on either side.
Three years prior, I had walked upstairs to the second floor of my home, responding to an odd moan I’d barely heard over the jabber of the television. I found my older sister in the corner where she had fallen, shivering violently. I repeatedly begged her to tell me what was wrong, screaming louder each time. Frothing spit ran down her chin; her eyelids were fluttering over her white eyes.
My mother barreled up the stairs, cussing. She ordered me to call my father at work, and I did, hardly able to explain the scene to him through my hysterics. My mother held my sister, furiously demanding that she tell her what had happened. My sister’s shaking subsided, but she was oblivious to the mayhem around her.
My father arrived, first calming my mother and me and then flying into a rage at our fatuity. My sister regained consciousness enough to mumble a few words. My parents aided her out to their car, bound for the emergency room, and I was left alone for the first time, ever. I was the youngest of three children; my oldest sister was away on a class trip. I pleaded with God to return things to the way they had been before. With Easter close at hand, I remembered the sacrifice that marked the season, thinking that this suffering would end and give way to peace everlasting. By tomorrow, my sister would be dancing in front of the television again, imitating Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu. I didn’t know that my sister had epilepsy.
I would witness my sister’s affliction take hold of her again and again; the same scene followed each time. The anxiety that gripped my family was only punctuated by the seizures themselves. The house had to be silent. To my mother’s brittle nerves, every puff of air was my sister’s writhing body falling on the floor. Even laughter was discouraged by the rage it would provoke in my mother.
Each seizure showed that the adjusted medication level was still not yet correct, which led to my sister taking debilitating amounts of phenytoin and phenobarbital, thanks to “those damned doctors.” The tension drove my father from the house, who exaggerated the urgency of work. My eldest sister, graduated from high school and with a car (though not college-bound), was with her boyfriend whenever possible. My mother and I were imprisoned in the house with my bedridden sister, who was practically comatose from the drugs weighing down her blood.
My exhausted mother would leave me to mind my sister so she could “get away.” While on duty, I would coax myself into sleep, blessedly aloof. Prior to this crisis, my family and I had been becoming lapsed Catholics (my father was Lutheran). Now my mother pleaded with me to go with her to church because she “needed to pray.” I did, hoping God would notice. I proved myself to be “so responsible.” I was asked to dispense medication to a patient four years my senior (in later years, teaching my sister to drive and to write well enough to fake her way through school fell to me as well). God saw the symbiosis between my mother and me: the seizures stopped, meaning the medication was finally balanced.
During the three years after the first seizure, the medication was carefully reduced and life grudgingly returned to my sister, if not to our home. That summer, our family vacationed in Cape Cod. I was thrilled by Provincetown and whale- and people-watching safely from behind my father’s protective arm. Walking alone on the beach one night, I met a French-Canadian girl in a “Shit Happens” T-shirt and a punk hairstyle more outrageous than mine, cut in direct defiance of her parents. She told me about Montreal and about how typical she was there. While kissing her, I thought that someday I could live elsewhere, possibly in Provincetown or even in another country. Our family returned home, happy. We were sitting in the family room gazing into the television and eating pizza when a can of soda fell hissing across the floor from my sister’s shaking hand. My heart sank, as well as my dreams of an unburdened future. When the bedlam ended, my mother yelled at me: “Get off your ass and do something!”
“There is no God!” burst from my mouth.
I ran to my room. I looked at my circus wallpaper, chosen for me when I could hardly speak. I fiercely took down the First Communion plaque just before my father barged in. He restrained me with an embrace when I tried to push past him. He told me that I didn’t mean what I said to my mother. I promised to apologize after I took a walk.
From the bridge, I hurled the plaque into the dark above the water, grunting like an animal until the sound in my throat broke free: “I hate you!”
The echo was brief. I awaited a reply, even the splash from below, but heard nothing. Walking home, I thought of the aura epileptics experience before a seizure that allegedly provides an insight they will not recall afterward.
Twenty-three years ago I began my rebellion against religion on that bridge, trembling. I know now, having since traveled, read widely, and studied biology, that the echo of my voice that I heard that night was the reply I awaited—my aura. I was a child then and should never have needed to assert myself against my family’s unreasonable behavior, which only multiplied our distress, but I accept responsibility for my own subjugation, thereby casting it off. My sister’s epilepsy has been controlled for many years now (though its consequences linger), and I’m able to recall my “aura”; its insight has shown me that enduring illness is not a battle against the specter of God, the suffering person, each other, the doctors, or even the insentient disease itself. As our neurons go about firing and misfiring, any failure to address reality forces us to wander the landscape of despair alone, abandoning and even opposing our allies in family and in science. Such a departure is akin to taking the illness upon ourselves when we belong among the living, where comfort is needed and from whence cures emerge.