Watermelon in Jerusalem
By Cicily Bennion
Published in issue 23.2 of The Windhover (for sale here), this piece won second place in the David O. McKay essay contest in 2019.
In 1962, my grandpa lost all his crops to a July hailstorm. It was Friday the 13th. Acres of barley, beans, corn, and beets looked like they had never been planted. My grandmother wrote that hail stones the size of golf balls piled up on the lawn and ran down the lane. That fall, my mom, ten years old, went back to school and, at her parents’ bidding, asked her teacher if she and her sisters, Heather and Julie, might be excused for part of the afternoon to help in the cafeteria every day. Without anything to harvest, her parents had no other way to pay for their lunches. So, my mother was allowed to work for her food, and her daily task was to empty the cafeteria’s industrial dishwasher and sort the silverware into neat piles of spoons, knives, and forks. She did this when the cycle had just finished, before the silverware had time to cool. I imagine her small figure sorting as quickly as she could manage, her hand recoiling as she placed each blistering piece.
Today, my mother works in the kitchen with hands that do not feel the heat. She stirs boiling pots of water with short-handled spoons. With nothing but a worn rag to shield the flesh of her palms, she pulls a fresh pan of rolls from the oven, tips them onto a cooling rack, and with her bare hands, flips the rolls—each one steaming and soft—right side up again. The water she washes her hands with would scald me.
The point is, my mother is tough. When she looks at me, she worries that I am too delicate, too frail—that I sunburn too easily and sleep for too long. By her estimation, I am too ill too often. When I was a child, I would come down with the flu and remain bedridden for two weeks. I would catch a cold and still be coughing a month later. Even now, I get headaches that last for days rather than hours, a persistent, muddy fog that sits on half my head.
I was five years old when I had my first migraine. My mother and I were at a cabin in the Big Horn Mountains—we were there so that she could clean the cabinets and windows and everything else before the owners moved their furniture in. I brought a bag of toys. My mom brought the food and clothes we would need for the two days it would take to clean the cabin. After lunch on our first day, the smell of varnish started to get to me. My head and limbs felt heavy and flimsy. I stopped playing with the dolls I’d brought, instead sitting and staring at nothing for long stretches. My head was aching, pounding, throbbing. None of those words seem strong enough. My mother gave me some Tylenol and told me to take a walk outside; she hoped the fresh mountain air might help. As I walked along a wooded path, the evergreen trees spun and twisted around me. I sat on a rock and tried to take deep breaths, but I couldn’t make my breathing anything but shallow. I went back to the cabin and laid on the floor in the basement where it was darker and cooler. I could hear my mother vacuuming upstairs. That night, we slept side by side on sleeping bags in a carpeted, empty bedroom. In the morning, there was no way to stop the sun from streaming in through the windows, so I tried to shield my eyes as I threw up in the toilet. My mother wiped my tears and helped me brush my teeth before she went back to work and I lay down again.
* * *
When I search through the Bible for examples of weakness, I find that weakness mostly exists as an idea, a typology. Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul says to “comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (1 Thessalonians 5:12). But where are these frail people of the Bible? I’m not searching for those who are morally frail or metaphorically weak. I’m looking instead for the people who are steeped in mortality, clumsy and failing. It’s true that we’re given several examples of the ailing and diseased, but we meet them just in time to see them healed. Where are the others—the ones who weren’t healed? And what about those who have no great ailment to be healed of but are, nonetheless, tired and hungry? They are the ones who didn’t hear the Sermon on the Mount because as they followed Christ up the mountain, they fell behind, heaving and gasping for breath. They are the ones who most needed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and they are the ones who didn’t get it because by the time Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitude because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat,” they’d already turned back and left the group days before (Matthew 15:32).
* * *
In 1967, my grandpa was forty-two and his daughter, my aunt Heather, was sixteen. It was December, and my grandpa and his brother and their kids were out branding cattle. It must have been cold—Wyoming winters are always bitterly cold; the ground freezes beneath your feet; the dirt below the frost becomes hard and unforgiving. Each step you take crunches and cracks. My grandpa and his family worked together to herd the cattle into the corral and send them through the chute where a hot iron was placed against each animal’s flesh. I can’t help but imagine the smell, how the scent of burning of hide and meat must have crowded out the more mild odor of manure.
In the middle of all this, Heather noticed my grandpa leaning up against the fence, clutching his chest. When she went to ask if he was okay, he couldn’t speak, could only shake his head no. They didn’t know it yet, but he was having a heart attack. Heather went to get the pickup, and my grandpa climbed inside. When I imagine their drive to the hospital, I like to think there must have been something peaceful about it. I picture my grandpa, stoic in the passenger seat and I think that he must have done what I always do when I drive down country roads, which is to stare down each field as I pass it, to watch as one row’s end leaves my sight and another enters.
The reality though, was something different. My grandpa leaned the seat back so he could lie down as Heather drove through fifteen miles of country roads. Today, my aunt Heather estimates that the drive to the hospital must have taken them twenty minutes; she had to stop for gas along the way. Periodically, she shouted brief, encouraging words to her father over the roar of the engine. “Just hold on, Daddy,” she would say. All he could muster for a response was a nod of the head, a feeble, “Okay.” Grandpa, laboring for air, rolled down his window to let in a crisp, winter breeze. Heather reached over and undid the straps of his overalls, hoping this would ease the burden of his breathing.
* * *
David is not the weakness I’m searching for in the Bible, but in some ways, he comes close. It seems to me that there are two of him: David the shepherd boy who killed Goliath, and David the king and captain of Israel. Of course, the David who killed Goliath had all the weakness of a boy; there are few things more fragile than a child. But this fragility isn’t disability—after all, healthy children are only weak compared to the strong adults they will grow into. And David grew to be the most powerful man in his kingdom. As a child, he was physically weak but morally strong. As a man, he was a king who had lost many of his former virtues.
Still, when reading David’s psalms, it’s clear that he knows despair. He writes, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint… My strength is dried up… Thou hast brought me into the dust of death” (Psalms 22:14-15). What strikes me about these words, what I admire most in David’s rendering of weakness, is that he knows to depict infirmity as a brittle, parched state: dusty death, evaporating strength. Affliction brings its own sort of thirst, and David knew this.
I remain unconvinced that the man David grew into was weak in any way that I can truly connect with—the might of his kingdom disqualifies him—but there are days when I’ll let his psalms speak for me.
* * *
In 1993, when my mother was pregnant with me, the weight of my fetal frame put pressure on her hips and she began to limp. After I was born, the pain did not go away and the limp became more and more pronounced. She had hip dysplasia, meaning that the socket and ball of her hip were misaligned. Like David, her bones were out of joint. The easiest way to spot my mother in a crowd was to look for the short, tottering woman. At the grocery store, she would push the cart while also using it for support, her arms crossed atop the bar, her chest and head leaning forward so she could shift her weight from her legs to the cart. At home, she would make piles of items that needed to be put away upstairs and leave them on the bottom step until she gathered the strength to heave herself up the flight. She did this despite her neurotic neatness, despite her disdain for piles.
I was eleven years old before my mom gave up on the 3200mg of ibuprofen she was taking every day and got her hip replaced. She went to a doctor 500 miles away who specialized in hips. He said hers was one of the worst he’d ever seen. “Why did you live with this for eleven years?” he asked. He prescribed pain pills to help her manage during recovery, but she felt so much better after surgery than she had before that she didn’t bother to take them.
* * *
At the pool of Bethesda, there was “a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water” (John 5:3). Growing up, I was familiar with Carl Bloch’s rendering of the story. At the center of the painting is the man about to be healed, the man John tells us had suffered with his infirmity for thirty-eight years (John 5:5). How many of those years had he spent there at the edge of the pool, waiting for the angel to trouble the water? How many times had he seen others healed before him just as the water was troubled?
“Jesus…saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?” (John 5:6).
I’m not sure how to understand this question. Is Christ inquiring about the man’s willingness and faith to be made whole or is he asking for a prediction, the same way we might ask if it’s going to rain?
“The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me” (John 5:7).
In the painting, the man’s arms are raised, and I imagine that he is in the middle of saying this, gesticulating wildly as he expresses his frustration. To his left stands Christ, clothed in white, listening patiently. Christ is about to tell the man to take up his bed and walk, to forget waiting on troubled water and be healed. But to the right of the man is another one of the great multitude of impotent folk. He looks straight at us, and his gaze is an affront to the distance we expect between the painting and viewer. He clutches his bandaged leg and he seems to know already that nobody and nothing is coming to heal him. But still he waits.
* * *
I have asked to be healed before. Lying alone in my cool, dark bedroom, I have begged for a miracle, for the pain to stop. Days and then weeks passed like that until I drove myself to a hospital. I put my head in my hands and felt myself rupture as I told the nurse that it’s been two weeks, two weeks of nonstop aching, shooting pain—my head feels as if it is in a vise. Is there nothing they can do? I’m not sleeping. I’m not eating. So, they tried; they hooked me up to an IV to rehydrate me and pump me full of meds. When that didn’t make a difference, they sent me home again with a prescription to fill. I’d sleep better there, anyways. “Is there anyone you can call?” they asked. “You really shouldn’t be driving.”
* * *
One more thing about Carl Bloch: in that painting, lying there on the ground between the man and Christ is a watermelon. A mysterious, perplexing, but unmistakable watermelon. It looks so real that I think if I were given the chance, I could cut it open and reveal its ripe center, take a bite and spit the seeds from my mouth.
Watermelons are a West African crop; there were no watermelons in Jerusalem during Christ’s time. But when I look at this painting, I wish that there had been.
* * *
I only went to the hospital that time because my mom insisted on it. Even from hundreds of miles away, she could see how sick I was. In my calls home, I must have sounded desperate. I was living off of toast and soup. I was losing weight. I was failing all my courses.
“What did the doctor give you?”
“Tylenol with codeine.”
“Do you think that’s enough?”
“I don’t know. Probably. Maybe.”
“Well, how’s your head?”
A few days later, a care package came in the mail from my mom. In it were the pills her doctor had prescribed after her hip surgery, the ones she had not taken.
* * *
In 1967, nobody would have guessed that my grandpa would live another fifty years after that first heart attack. Nor would they have guessed that his daughter, Julie, would not. She was there, branding cattle with the rest of them that day. Fourteen years old, she was the youngest of the girls, but she’d always been the most sporty, throwing herself right into the action. Photos of Julie from that time show a girl with brown hair that has been lightened by the sun. She wore it in a short, neat bob with a heavy fringe bang. Her glasses have thick frames and her arms are tanned and toned. She must have watched as Heather loaded their father into the truck and drove off towards town. She must have wondered whether she’d see him again.
But in the end, it was my grandpa who buried Julie, her funeral coming just a few months after his eighty-eighth birthday. In the last few weeks of her life, Julie lived with her parents again, taking up residence in the easy chair in the living room where she could stare out the back window at the garden and clothesline. By then, she was a grown woman with grown children and cancer. She was no longer tanned or toned. Instead, the disease left her body sallow and bloated.
* * *
I think sometimes of the woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years—I think of how depleted she must have been: cracked lips, brittle hair, limbs like chalk. We’re told, too, that she was financially depleted, that she’d spent everything she had on physicians “and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse” (Mark 5:26).
As far as I can tell, hers is the only story we have of someone who was cured on their own terms. In other stories, it is Christ who gives the command to be healed, but this woman stole His line, saying to herself, “I shall be whole” (Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:28). And then she reached out, touched the hem of His garment and was cured.
I don’t know how to explain that. Christ says it’s her faith that made her whole, but I think of all the people who have faith and are never healed and I wonder what part of the equation I’m missing.
* * *
After Julie died, my grandpa wanted to know why his heart kept beating when hers had not. Whenever he spoke of Julie, he always ended by saying that parents shouldn’t have to bury their children. His grief demanded an answer to an impossible question: if someone had to be healed, couldn’t it have been her?
* * *
I have made a home out of weakness. The walls of my frailty are familiar, maybe even comforting to me. If I squint just right, it’s not so bad to be ill. The world slows down, sleep comes easier. Exhaustion feels like a heavy blanket. If I cede to it, it will comfort me before it suffocates me. I’ve learned to appreciate the way the world grows fuzzy when I am tired, the way everything and everyone is softer at the edges. When I am well, my mind thinks faster, it darts from one subject to another, from one task to another, leaving in its wake half-finished thoughts, half-finished tasks. When I am ill, my mind slows and I can rest in its lull.
Today, I am Paul: “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh… For this thing I besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from me. And He said unto me, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I take pleasure in my infirmities… for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Of course, I am thinking and writing this on a day when I feel well. It’s been months since I’ve been bedridden with a migraine or anything else. I can only take pleasure in my infirmities when I think of them in the abstract. Memories are soft and thin, so they allow for that kind of manipulation. The only time I really know my pain and weakness is when I am in the throes of it, when it is full-bodied in me. In these moments, I would never say that I have made a home of weakness, but weakness is where I am.
* * *
My grandmother is ninety years old, and she still insists on planting a garden each year. Last fall was her first harvest without my grandpa there. He was ninety-one before his heart finally failed him. By that time, he was a stroke victim.
After his stroke, my grandpa could read, but he did not comprehend what he read. And he could speak, but we could not understand him. The words he wanted to say were not the ones that came out. This is called aphasia. This loss would be devastating to anyone, but it seemed especially cruel that language should be taken from my grandpa. In his years of retirement, he spent his days mostly reading and thinking. Whenever I went to see him, there was a new tome beside his easy chair, always some sort dense biography. He kept notebooks full of every new word he’d learned, words like apogee, lissome, and apotheosis. Before the stroke, he was a careful speaker, the type of person who took a long pause before responding, and then what came out was brilliant, well-phrased, and often witty. But after his stroke, my grandpa spent his days on homework assigned by a speech pathologist, homework that looked like the sort of thing I’d completed in the first grade—he circled pictures on worksheets and pieced together oversized puzzles. His old favorite movies made no sense anymore. Friends and family sent letters he couldn’t read. The books he loved might as well have been written in French. Inside, he was a man fully aware of his suffering. Aphasia doesn’t impact a person’s intelligence; it only removes that person’s language and puts in its place an insurmountable wall.
At my apartment, just a few weeks after the stroke, he picked up a card and read aloud in a halting voice, “I love you to the moon and back.” I smiled and cheered, excited to see him reading. This seemed like progress, but he looked back at me and shrugged.
“I…” he looked at the paper. He was wearing overalls. He always wore overalls. “Doesn’t…” he continued. “Not a sound.” He shrugged again.
When I went to visit my grandparents at their home, I found him sitting at the kitchen table looking at photos of his grandchildren, pointing to our faces and trying to relearn our names. I sat next to him and held his hand while he wept for the place in his mind where my name once was.
“A person in the place,” he shook his head. “A hose of a deal.”
“He cries a lot these days,” my grandma said. “It’s okay, Burchell.” She patted his hand and then turned to me, “Here, come help me in the garden. You can get some of those little weeds that I can’t reach.”
* * *
I’m not searching for weakness in the Bible because I want the company; I’m surrounded by weakness all the time. And besides that, it brings me no comfort to know that other people suffer or have suffered. But I could use someone like me in the canon, someone who won’t be healed, who will not overcome, at least not now, not anytime soon. Only someone like that can teach me how to live knowing that the pain will come again, that all the lights will burn and my head will surge.
Story after story, the Bible talks of relief. Job loses everything and then it is returned to him twofold (Job 42:10). For his slow tongue, Moses is given Aaron to speak on his behalf (Exodus 4:10-14). The widow of Zaraphath feeds Elijah with the last of her oil and flour and the Lord replenishes her stores (1 Kings 17:16). It would seem that Adam and Eve are the only ones who are never relieved, living with multiplied sorrow on cursed ground all their days (Genesis 3:16-17). Theirs is the curse we still live with in this fragile, mortal state. Even when relief comes, we’re only trading one form of sorrow for another; if my migraines were healed, I would be given another thing to endure. None of us will lead unafflicted lives. We’re told that Christ will be our salvation, but when the days are long, the promise of heaven seems far off. The best we can hope for in this life are moments of respite; we barter with God, trading in one trial for another.
* * *
In the garden one day with my grandma, I found a watermelon. It was late summer, time to pick a fruit like that, but this one was so small. She and my grandpa had already plucked and eaten the others, the ones that looked like prizewinners.
“Should we pick this one?” I asked.
“I guess it can’t hurt,” she said. The season was over.
The melon fell from the vine when I tugged on it. It was small enough for me to cradle in one palm. Back in the house, we cut into it and found that its inside was crisp and ruby pink. There was just enough for the two of us, and we ate it down to the rind, until the sweet turned bitter.