“God is an ASSHOLE,” she spits out at me, her eyes daring me to disagree.
“Totally,” I respond, without missing a beat.
Her gaze softens momentarily but immediately grows hard again. “I know you’re only saying these things because it’s your job to say them,” she says as she turns away from me and pulls out her phone. Scrolling through her photos, she tells me where each was taken, though she has not invited me to see the images on the screen. After several minutes, she turns back to me and shows me a photo of a young boy with messy hair and a grin on his face, holding a lollipop. “This was just yesterday!” she howls. “How could this—how THE FUCK could this happen?!”
I shake my head, my stomach churning. I am mostly silent as I sit in this dimly-lit corner of the Emergency Department, leaning forward looking at pictures on a stranger’s phone. I am mostly silent because I don’t know what to say or how to help. The beeping of medical machines and the hum of nurse conversations come from beyond the curtain that surrounds this space, but the activity and motion of the ER seem far off. In this room, everything is heavy, held down by the nauseating paralysis of powerlessness and shock.
Outside the curtain, people are being treated, cured, saved. On this side of the curtain, there is no treating or curing, no possibility of being saved. The curtain separates the hopeful from those whose hope is gone. The woman I am sitting with is a grandmother, a dark-skinned Italian-American from Brooklyn with cropped black hair and a gravelly voice. The picture she has shown me is of her two-year-old grandson. This is the boy who lies motionless on the bed between us.
She raises her hand and hits herself on the cheek—one side, then the other. I am horrified, and I wonder if my horror shows on my face. Should I physically stop her? Should I jump up and insert myself between her hand and her cheek? Or should I allow a grieving grandmother to grieve in the best way she knows how? My indecision keeps me in my chair. I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing. “I need to wake up!” she screams, her hysteria briefly shattering the stillness of the room. “I just need someone to wake me up from this because oh GOD it cannot be real!”
The boy’s wavy black hair is tousled, with some strands matted to his face. The top buttons of his flannel shirt are open, left that way when there was still hope, when the medical machines were beeping around him instead of far away from him, when the nurses were swarming frantically around his bed instead of walking quickly by it, shielded by a curtain. I squint to look at his face, studying the small details of eyelashes and tiny baby teeth, and try to hold in my mind the smiling boy I saw in the picture on the phone. How could this happen? He looks as though he could wake up any moment and smile again.
The boy’s mother, a tiny wisp of a woman still bundled in winter layers, is pacing through the ER, yelling beyond the curtain, rushing into the room every few minutes, begging anyone she sees to try to revive him again. Just once more. She puts her hands on his chest and starts frantic compressions. The grandmother begs her to stop. I try to approach her. “Stay away from me,” she growls and bolts away.
Feeling entirely useless, but having been begged by the nursing staff to do something—anything—I sit in the room with whoever is there at the time: grandmother, mother, uncle, nursing staff, police. They cycle through, alternately talking and sighing and staring, then leaving. I stay. The child on the bed looks like a life-size porcelain doll. He is two, but must be a young two-year-old, I think to myself. He still has so much baby in him.
I gaze at his face and remember my son being that small. The instinct to protect him ruled my life. It was an unquestioned, overpowering instinct. You are a parent, and you are there to protect your child. To be anything less than ferociously vigilant is unthinkable when your child is two. You are the mighty wall that keeps all of the world’s ailments at bay: No strangers. No scary movies. No missing naptime. No profanity. No mean teachers. Your child is born perfect, and you will shield him with your own body if that is what is required to keep him safe.
Yet this child is dead. Seeing him lie as though frozen, suspended, makes me want to scream at the void of this room, into the echo-less valleys of these New York City streets. I want to find a scream inside me that is loud enough to shake the foundations of this despair; I want to scream loud enough to wake the boy who lies trapped in death. I want to shatter these windowless hospital walls and blow apart all of its useless attempts at miracles. If you cannot save a child from an allergy attack walking home from the subway, I think, then what good are you to anyone? I want to scream loud enough to make this hospital be what it promises to be; a place of healing, a place of life.
“Look, I used to be very religious,” the grandmother suddenly says to me, jolting me back into the room. Her voice teeters on the edge between rigid control and outright hysteria.
Why is she telling me this? I think to myself as I nod my head. I feel disoriented. Her grandson is dead, why is she talking about how she used to be religious?
And then it dawns on me: she is telling me this because I am a chaplain, and she thinks that it matters to me. I am a chaplain, and she thinks that I am more concerned with God’s reputation than with her grief.
Who cares about God when a little boy is lying dead in front of you? If I were her, I would be angry at me too.
Praise for White Knuckle Love
“White Knuckle Love is the book that countless spiritually traumatized people have been waiting for. April Stace shares an authentic narrative about finding God’s presence in unlikely places—from a New York City subway to the dance floor of a lesbian bar—in order to remind readers to trust their holy intuitions and stay awake to the Divine. This book is part field guide, part operator’s manual, and wholly needed in this moment.”
—Jonathan Merritt, contributing writer to The Atlantic and author of Learning to Speak God from Scratch
“This story is full of all the things that ring true in great stories: struggle, joy, longing, honesty, faith, doubt, connection. This is the kind of faith writing we need more of.”
—Shauna Niequist, New York Times best-selling author of Present Over Perfect
“April’s writing does the impossible—she is able to write in a way that feels intensely personal and yet transcendent at the same time. She is an absolute truth teller, but where other authors tend to wield truth as a gateway to pain, April uses the truth to reveal the beauty of this world and God.”
—Hillary Raining, author of Joy in Confession and Faith With a Twist
“You read some books to solve a problem or answer a question. You read some books to make you laugh or stave off boredom. But there are a very few remarkable books that help you feel more alive, that help you feel the bottomless depth of your heart, that make you feel like crying and you can’t tell if it’s for sadness or joy. This is one of those books. Don’t miss it.”
—Brian D. McLaren, author of Faith After Doubt
“Stace’s story and the life-altering stories of everyone she meets gently remind that life is never without the company of being held and holding on, that suffering, heartache, solidarity, self-love, uncertainty, exposure, risk, and wonder are companions burrowing into one another, living in the same place, in the same bodies—feeling as hopeful or as harrowing as a grip.”
—Oluwatomisin Oredein, Assistant Professor, Brite Divinity School
“Using language that cuts to the bone, White Knuckle Love takes us into the hospital room, the church board room, the streets of New York City, and into Stace’s own vivid experience of a God who cannot be fully known, named, or tamed. There have always been religious leaders who are givers of answers—Stace shows how to be a keeper of beautiful, dangerous questions.”
—Ken Evers-Hood, author of The Irrational David
About the Author
April Stace is on the faculty at The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church. She is the author of Secular Music, Sacred Space. She is a professor, pastor, musician, writer, and parent. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion and Culture from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. She’s worked as a hospital chaplain, as a pastor in large and small churches, and as a professor in undergraduate and graduate level institutions. She also spent years working as a professional harpist.