Sanctuary

Finding home and happiness where I least expected

Sanctuary

“Do you need help?” Kent called. I stood in the basement of our home—St. Anne’s Catholic Church, built in 1910—loading  wood into a heavy canvas bag hanging from one shoulder. I was eight months pregnant and could no longer see my feet, but in the basement on a chilly morning in New Mexico I watched my labored breath rise visibly in the air.

“I’ve got it!” I shouted up through the floor. Kent, my fiancé, was about to serve one of his delicious dinners. I wanted to be helpful and capable in my last trimester of pregnancy, even if putting on shoes had begun to feel like competing in an Olympic event.

I lumbered up the stairs and dropped the bag in front of the fireplace, as Kent was lighting the candles on the table in the sanctuary, our primary living space. “Central heating can’t happen soon enough,” I said. “No way we’ll have time for this with a newborn, and the smoke is bad for her little lungs.” I was growing weary of stacking and carrying wood, not to mention that it was almost unbearably cold once you stepped away from the small radius of intense heat made by the fire.

Kent laughed and crossed the room to start the kindling, a task I never learned to do without filling the room with smoke. I also never quite mastered chopping wood, so I was given the secondary job of wadding up newspaper around the logs after the fire had started. A frontierswoman I was not, but I’d grown to love the church.

The child of a pastor, I’d grown up in open, sacred spaces: Some of my first memories are of being carried down the church aisle in my father’s arms, the smell of coffee and donuts after Sunday service, and afternoons after school spent running through the empty church hallways while my dad finished a counseling session with a parishioner in his office. This little church in the desert, from the moment I set foot in it when Kent and I were first dating, felt like home. I loved the long windows that let in light and the shadows of trees moving in the wind, the windswept vistas visible from the back porch, and the strong feeling that the place was haunted by friendly ghosts—or at the very least infused with stories held in the hearts of many people. It was also more than 100 years old, so the plumbing was always a bit wonky, electricity was unreliable, and the battle against rat nests was constant. Weeds grew as tall as trees if not fastidiously attended to. It was a crucible, and as such, beautiful and difficult.

St. Anne’s Church, although never consecrated, was a parish community that served the Northern New Mexico towns of Cerrillos, Madrid, and the surrounding rural areas into the mid-1950s. Kent bought the church in 1996 after he left Los Angeles and moved to New Mexico to write a book. Eventually he moved to Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), an eclectic town of 150 or so writers, veterans, hippies, artists, and iconoclasts on the Turquoise Trail between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In Madrid you can find a life-size bronze sculpture of a cowboy, have a portrait made of your guardian angel after an intuitive reading, buy a turquoise necklace, eat organic chocolate gelato infused with chile, and have a drink at the Mine Shaft Tavern with its long wooden bar and local musicians performing on the small stage.

Over 16 years, Kent, who worked as a carpenter in his early 20s before starting his writing career, transformed the church into the ultimate bachelor pad. He built adobe walls to surround the property, stone stairs leading up to all the doors, a guesthouse with a sleeping loft, and a sauna with a bench cut precisely to his height. Before he bought the leather couch and a set of comfortable chairs, he worked as a freelance journalist and drafted chapters of a novel on a deck chair in front of the fireplace, covered with a heavy wool blanket and armed with a bottle of whiskey; or in the claw foot tub off the one-room kitchen where he built a skylight and a separate tile shower. He soon covered the walls with an eclectic collection of art: paintings, images, and tokens from his travels in Latin America; a full-length textile image of Mao; and photographs of his parents and friends. Kent was famous for long and elaborate dinner parties. With a full wine cellar (formerly used to store communion wine), crystal wine goblets, and highball glasses in abundance, as well as a well-stocked bar, he made the best cocktails outside of Santa Fe. My mom has two sips of one of his mezcal margaritas and has trouble standing up. The altar originally served as the bedroom, and during those early years it was outfitted with standing candles, decorative crosses, and animal skins. It was a little bit man cave, a little bit lord of the manor. I thought it was great, living in a church, but I wondered how other women who weren’t as familiar with sacred spaces might have reacted.

“Did any of your girlfriends think it was kind of weird, sleeping on an altar?” I asked him on our first date.

“Hey, baby,” he said, and winked. “Ever slept on an altar?” I laughed.

“You’re kidding me. Did that really work?”

“Every single time.”

At that time Kent had just listed the church with a realtor. He had lived in the church for almost 20 years as a bachelor, he said, and it was ready to move on, although he didn’t know to what.

“It will take the perfect buyer,” he said. I remember thinking, or the perfect woman, and hoping it would be me. I was surprised by this thought, and tried to tuck it away.

In 2009, Kent built a main bedroom off the sanctuary/living room, and it was there, on one sweltering morning in July 2013, almost a year after we’d met, that I presented him with a positive pregnancy test. I was a few days shy of 39; he had just turned 59. We were stunned, thrilled, excited, and nervous. We had already been on a whirlwind journey to arrive at this place as partners and now, soon-to-be-parents.

“We have to baby-proof this place,” he said, as our resident birds flew in and out of their nest above the recently built deck.

“And we need a new kitchen,” I said. Kent was an excellent cook who pulled together a delicious meal from whatever he happened to find in the refrigerator or cabinets. He made a five-course Thanksgiving feast for 12 in a one-room kitchen with an ancient stove, no counter space, and a bowl of hot water serving as a dishwasher. I would be rendered helpless with bottles and baby food in such a space. I might have been almost 40, but I still thought cereal for dinner was perfectly acceptable.

We sat together on the bed, full of wonder, awe, and terror, a mix of emotions we’d known intimately during the previous six months. I’d been pregnant before, but this time it was different. Now I knew what it was like to be a mother, and I also knew what it was like to lose a child.

I met Kent in the summer of 2012, just before my son Ronan entered his last six months of life. Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease at 9  months old, and without drastic medical interventions that his father and I chose not to pursue, the average life span is three years. My marriage to Ronan’s father ended shortly after the diagnosis, and I was not sure what my future would hold. Would I find love? Would I have another baby? Would I survive the loss of Ronan to this cruel disease that slowly destroyed his brain? Although I had been experiencing what my therapist called “anticipatory grief” for a year and a half, I also knew that the finality of Ronan’s loss would be a different beast entirely.

After only a few dates—dinner, a movie, a Jimmy Cliff concert, long walks and talks—I felt so much joy and experienced so much good conversation and ease, all the things I’d been missing and worried I’d never feel again. Kent loved Ronan and was interested in his care; rather than ignore him, as some of the men I’d briefly dated had done, he talked to him like a person, touched him, and asked to hold him. He wasn’t ashamed to take Ronan out on our dinner dates, even when people stared at him and asked questions about why he didn’t move and if he could see (he could do neither). Kent wasn’t afraid of my grief: my mood swings, my crying jags, my nightmares. Not only was Kent becoming a great boyfriend, I knew he would be a great father as well. People talk about soul mates, about fate, and although I don’t believe in the second notion, as it seems too closely aligned with the phrase “things happen for a reason,” I was beginning to believe in the first. I felt at home in his presence, and especially in the church, which was like an extension of him: cozy and sophisticated.

The first time I drove south on Highway 14 to St. Anne’s in Madrid, shortly after our third date, a song came on the radio: “Home,” by Phillip Phillips. It was a warm September day with just a hint of chill in the air. The sun was bright and direct, and the red and gold leaves of the trees in Cerrillos shimmered with the promise of change, a new season. The mountains were darkened by shadow on one side, washed in light on the other. A storm was starting in the west, the clouds thick and dark, but the sky in front of me was blue and flawless. I felt a loosening of the great fear of what was to come. This man, in this place, was my home. My son was going to die, but I was going to live on. I was sure of it.

MemorialChurch

Ronan died in February 2013, and we held his memorial at the church on the first day of March, just before I moved in. The night before, a full moon in a clear sky had lit up every building, rock, stick, and cactus in town. We stood outside and saw everything illuminated in the darkness.

The next day was sunny but still cold enough to build a fire. Friends and family traveled from all over the country, and the world. We cleared out the furniture and set up a table full of pictures of Ronan and some items from his “magic shelf”: vials of healing dirt I’d collected in nearby Chimayo, homemade rosaries and prayer cards, postcards from Swedish castles and Swiss churches, a small Ganesh from India. We ate cheesecake, avocado, and applesauce—Ronan’s favorite foods—and people told their favorite stories about him. Three singers, who had come a few weeks before to my house and held a private a cappella concert for Ronan, climbed the stairs to the choir loft and sang a song written just for him, set to the lines from a Pablo Neruda poem, “I love the handful of the earth you are,” and building in the few sounds they had heard him make, a series of sighs and coos.

Although it sounds strange, I felt elated on that day. Ronan’s great suffering was over, and he had died with as much dignity as anybody is able to do. As my friend Rachel said as soon as she walked through the door, “You did it. You saw him to the end.” The great grief would come later, but for now, everyone was honoring and celebrating my son. His life, although brief, had mattered, and mattered still.

The next few months brought many ups and downs, including one early ultrasound in which the doctor declared the pregnancy a “no-go.” I called Kent, who was on assignment in South Dakota, and we said we’d try again. Two weeks later we heard the heartbeat—fast and steady—echoing through the ultrasound machine, filling the room. It was, in fact, a “go.”

Fast forward to March 2014: I stood in the main room of the church, painting the trim on the new windows. In addition to improving the drafty church with new insulation, we had installed  central heating and cooling as well as a home gym. A few months later we broke ground on a state-of-the-art kitchen that we designed together.

I’d felt off-center for most of that day in March: There had been an out-of- season snow, wet flakes falling as fast as raindrops and disappearing into the ground. Kent stood on a ladder painting the top of the window. It was two days until Charlotte’s due date. The wind picked up and then died down; the world felt unsettled, right at the collision of winter and spring.

“I just wish my water would break so I’d know what to do,” I said, and at that very moment and to my great surprise, it did, as if I had willed it so. Charlotte was born five hours later—two days early—and we came home to a heated church with half-painted windows that kept in the heat, forced air flowing out of the new air vents.

Over the next few months Charlotte lounged in her swinging rocker as we picked out Mexican tile for the kitchen backsplash, rolled out blueprints for the new space, researched appliances, hired people to jackhammer the solid rock in order to expand the back wall, called about permits, hired contractors, and looked at cabinet samples and paint color swatches. Soon Charlotte was power-crawling, then walking, then running across the sanctuary floor, babbling to herself and squealing. She helped Kent tile the stairs, bringing over a little wooden toolbox and pulling out a hammer. Every milestone she reached felt like a miracle. When Ronan’s hospice nurse came to Charlotte’s first birthday party I felt the full power of how my life had changed. “She’s so beautiful,” she said. The last time she’d said those words was after Ronan had died and we were carefully washing his body before it was taken away.

A year into a happy marriage and parenting a healthy child, I still have trouble trusting in love and new beginnings. And I’m still afraid, as we all are, all the time, because we know it to be true: Everything can be lost. I miss Ronan. I have dreams in which he is still alive and I wake up terrified, knowing it is long past the point when he should be living, and yet I feel excited to see him one more time before I’m hit with a new wave of grief, realizing it’s just a dream. I will never see him again. I still have dreams in which I can’t find Kent, or when I do he doesn’t know me; dreams in which Charlotte is diagnosed with Tay-Sachs and I wake up gutted and hollow, despairing.

But more often, I think of the first time I walked into the church on that hot September day during the early days of our courtship and Kent showed me around and kissed me. And I think about the first time we walked through the door with Charlotte, with her red hair and her father’s face.

Emily Rapp Black, MFA ’04, is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.

Photos from top:

Illustration by Eduardo Recife.

The former St. Anne’s Church in Madrid, New Mexico; Courtesy Emily Rapp Black.

 

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