PRAY LIKE THIS

By John Thomas Tuft

It was the summer of 1974, the one before my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. Instead of my usual summer job of being cheap labor, a friend had persuaded me to be a volunteer counselor at my favorite spot, a camp in the Laurel Highlands. My nickname back then was Jack. So there I was in the parking lot watching an old school bus painted green pull in, with ‘Mayview State Hospital’ painted on the side. One by one the campers descended the stairs, a motley band of brain damaged or mentally challenged adults, some in protective headgear because of the violent seizures they experience.  One of them, a rotund balding 34 year old named Petey, took me by the hand as I led my 4 disciples to the cabin to settle in. “Are yow goin’ be my fwiend, Jack? I hope so.”

Lord, teach us how to pray.

Life in a state hospital is not conducive to a lot of exercise, so the amount of hiking in the beautiful mountains was very limited.  All four of my 22 to 38 year old charges loved to be in the swimming pool. Petey always hung close to me, splashing around in circles or jumping up and down with sheer joy. And besides eating, their favorite activity was sitting around in the cabin talking.  “Jack, Jack, I have my own job,” Petey proclaimed one night.  He beamed as he proudly explained, “I take the bus all on my own. I take 68A to the sheltered workshop. I get my own pay, Jack.” He pulls out a worn wallet and shows me a few bills.  “What do you do?” I asked. Big smile in the middle of his disconcerting 5 o’clock shadow.  “I put the nusts on the bolss. Miss Clara says I’m very good at it. And then I take the bus home, all by myself cause I know the right one…to the hospital.”

Lord, tell us, how ought we to pray?

It is our turn to lead the evening vespers. The night before the guys had been telling me how if they misbehaved or acted out at the hospital, you’d get the “Big Shot.” Apparently, it’s a large syringe full of sedatives. Nobody ever wanted to get the Big Shot. I wonder about this as we gather in the outdoor chapel. Under the trees, we watch an approaching storm conquer each distant ridge, one by one, chasing the last rays of a rose and gold sunset. We sing a version of Michael Row the Boat Ashore.  It is time to pray.  Petey steps to the front as the distant thunder rolls across the hills.  He throws back his head, spreads his arms wide open to the gathered souls. The first drops of rain splatter his face. Eyes wide open, he shouts at the top of his lungs, “YYYEEESSS!  C’mon!”

Lord, what should we say when we pray?

It is our last night together.  “Jack, I want to show you somethin’.” Petey slides over to my bunk.  He takes out his wallet, gingerly extracts a picture, hands it to me. “Jack, this is my girlfwiend.  Emily.  She lives at Mayview, too.” He gives me a sideways look, smiles.  “I luv her, Jack. Isn’t she pretty?” “Yes, Petey, very pretty. Does she like you?”  Emphatic nod of the head. “My mom says I can get out of Mayview and live like a man real soon.”  He touches my arm.  “I’m goin to mawwy her, Jack. Me and Emily. We’re goin to be… real people.”

Lord, what’s the right way to pray?

The summer is drawing to a close.  I’m back home as  classes begin soon, when one day the phone rings.  “Jack?  This is Clara from Mayview.  Petey keeps insisting that I call you.”  I look at the phone. What?!  “He’s very upset.  Can you come?”  It was a summer job, right?! “Please, Jack. He needs you.” So I go. Knees knocking, heart in my throat, they don’t teach this in college.  There he is, in restraints on a bed in a green, grungy room. An attendant hovers nearby.  I sit on the edge of the bed.  Petey turns his glassy eyes to me. “O, Jack.  Jack! They gave me the Big Shot!”  I touch his cheek. “Why Petey?”  He starts to cry. “My Mom says I have to stay here.  That she’s gettin’ too old to have me awound. I got mad. Now, I can’t marry Emily.  Jack! O,Jack…” He strains against the straps. Through his sobs he chokes out, “Jack, take this.” I look at the attendant, who gives a nonchalant shrug. I pry a balled up piece of shiny stiff paper from Petey’s fist.                                         

Later I’m sitting in the car. I can’t tell if I’m crying or not. Slowly, like awakening from a dream, I realize it is rain splattering the windshield.  I slowly open the gift.  It is the picture of Emily. He squeezed so hard it has some of Petey’s blood on it.  My heart breaks. It is empty.  Somehow I know there will be more where this comes from. There’s always more.  “No.  No. No. No! I just want to be real people, too.  Please. I’m rowing, but the shore seems so far away. C’mon.”

Pray like this.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.