I found a copy of Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, a collection of his short stories, tucked in one of the many Little Free Libraries on the routes I walk around Seattle. I remembered reading this collection in college. Lately, my mind has been cluttered, from media, from opinions, from myself. I hoped the simple language, devoid of elitism, might be a healing balm to the noise.
Curled up with the book one evening, I listened to the sounds of my husband opening drawers and stirring pots in the kitchen. My soon to be 7-year-old, came over for a snuggle. He grasped the book from my hands as he curled into my lap. I had just started the first story Feathers, in which a man goes to dinner at a co-worker’s home. The co-worker has a pet peacock which his wife lets inside the house. My son read to me in his little voice sounding not unlike a Peanuts character. I stroked his hair as he rubbed his foot against mine.
I had once listened to a recording of Carver reading one of his stories not long before he died of lung cancer. His voice thick with air as each word caught in his chest before finally emerging out his mouth. It was a painful listen. My son laughed as he read of the absurdity of letting a peacock into your house. I laughed along at the absurdity of this bright, clean, youthful voice reading about ingratitude and the disintegration of a marriage.
After the dinner dishes were dried and the boys placed in their beds, I settled down for another story. I was in college when I last read A Small, Good Thing, before the husband, dinners at the family table, the two sons placed in their beds.
In A Small, Good Thing a mother orders a birthday cake for her son, Scotty. On the way to school, Scotty is hit by a car and passes out when he gets home. The mother and father take turns beside his hospital bed between returning to their home to shower, try to eat or sleep. The telephone rings each time they are home, a man saying, “Your Scotty, I got him ready for you.” or “Did you forget about Scotty?” Confused they rush back to the hospital to check on their son. They are told Scotty is stable, until he opens his eyes, looks at them and breathes his last breath.
Knowing the story, but now reading as a mother, I held my breath as I read the through the parent’s grief as they make arrangements for their son’s body. Eventually they return home, to the telephone ringing again, the man on the other end saying “Your Scotty, I got him ready for you. Did you forget about him?”
In the middle of the night, the mother remembers-- the cake, it is the baker calling. The parents drive to the bakery ready to unleash all their anger, their grief, the grief I would feel if I lost my son, the grief I imagine I would hurl at my husband, at myself, at my God.
They find the baker, working in the middle of the night. He recognizes the mother, he is brisk and annoyed. She tells him her son is dead and “just as suddenly as it had welled in her, the anger dwindled”. The baker too softens, clears a space for them at his table and asks for their forgiveness. In response the parents take off their coats to stay. The baker sets out coffee and “warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny.” He tells the parents “eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”
The next day, on the way to drop off the children for school, I take side streets as the main roads are congested with urban growth, with construction. I weave in and out of the same roads I take each morning when I see a crude sign, made with plywood and spray paint, leaned against a parked car. It reads, “Hit a kid at 25 miles an hour they'll die”.
The sign has not been there before. I slam on the brakes to bring my car to a crawl, as my eyes fill with tears, I choke on the lump in my throat. My sons yelp from the back.
“Was it a squirrel?” they ask. I am grateful they did not see the sign.
“Yes, a squirrel.” I say. Why would I see this sign the morning after reading the story?
When I last read A Small, Good Thing in college, not yet a mother, I did not know the persistent fear that lurks under motherhood. The fear that something will happen to your child, something you can’t control or save them from.
When I last read this story, I was not yet a Catholic. I did not yet know the healing power of a small morsel of food. The baker’s gift, like the Eurcharist, a small, good thing with the power to heal. Now, each Sunday, I line up to receive that crumb of bread, to quiet the noise within me. All the clutter in my mind falls away. I eat in community before God, knowing with this small bite, the scales fall from our eyes as we taste and see that the Lord is good. I am full, of silence, and of gratitude.