The Substance of Things Hoped For
by Steven Earl Hobbs
Let’s say it’s 1998. It’s south Florida, it’s late. You hear the phone ring. You slip out of your bedroom.
Pa storms into the hallway, flicks on the light. “Get dressed,” he says.
Ma appears in her purple robe. “Go,” she says.
You throw on jeans and a white T-shirt and fly down the stairs. In the car, Pa starts talking about blood. Blood in the urine. Blood in the bed.
“He’s not gonna ride in no ambulance,” Pa says.
“Never,” you say.
Out the window, the dark houses disappear. You are seventeen.
At the apartment, Grandpa is sitting on the floor by the door. So pale, like he’s wearing zinc sunblock. Aunt Esther stands in the background. Face red. Eyes red.
“Hurry,” Grandma says.
You go to grab Grandpa’s arms. But he holds up a hand. Tells you to wait. He plucks a black comb from his breast pocket. Shakes as he rakes it once through his straw hair.
“Ready,” he says.
You pull him up. Carry his heaving frame into the hallway, smell the rubbing alcohol and Tinactin. You know this smell well. It’s the family cure-all. Slice open your hand on sheet metal? Well, dump some alcohol and Tinactin on it. Pray and be a man.
You get him to the elevator and into the parking garage. Get him in the backseat of the car. Say it will be OK.
He coughs up something heavy. “Please,” he says.
You tell Grandma and Esther to follow, and off you go. Pa doesn’t say a word, just drives.
In the back, Grandpa groans in tongues.
At the hospital, you guide Grandpa to a bathroom. Lead him into a stall. Step out and shut the door.
“I’ll be right here,” you say.
You lean against the sink, try not to listen to the gasps. The urinal is cracked on the side. The fluorescent light is lime green. There is supposed to be surf in the morning. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good book. The toilet flushes.
“Ohhhh Lord Jesus please,” Grandpa moans. On his knees.
An endless night of tests and tears. Doctors darting around like archangels. Doctors saying dialysis. Doctors saying it could just be temporary. Pa saying OK, OK. Esther saying Uh-huh, uh-huh. Grandpa saying No way. A devout Pentecostal Christian, he trusts doctors as much as he does black people. He’s not gonna listen. He’s gonna do what he wants. Like always.
So he buries a bullet in every protest. Orders the family to haul him back to his own bed and call upon the true Physician to heal him.
Every evening the family gathers. Lays hands on his body and prays desperate prayers for his healing. Sometimes someone anoints him with oil. Sometimes someone covers him with a prayer blanket.
Always, prayers go unanswered.
His condition deteriorates.
Some mumble about taking him back to the hospital.
Others swat down that suggestion as giving a foothold to the devil.
At night, Esther sleeps on a quilt on the floor at the foot of the bed. Helps him to the bathroom. Blots his brow. Whispers lies. “It’ll be OK, Daddy.”
You never volunteer to pray. You don’t want to make things worse. And didn’t you have another wet dream last night? And didn’t a ripped Brad Pitt make another appearance and sit on your bed and grip your thigh? And didn’t you smoke a shit-ton of weed with your fellow surf rats under the pier? God doesn’t take calls from someone like you. So you stand in the background and do your best to buoy the battle-tested prayer warriors. An amen here, a hallelujah there.
But then Grandma points at you. “Pray for him,” she says.
Everyone amens the command and steps back. Ma and Pa exhale supplications.
You approach the bed. You are afraid.
“Yes, Jesus,” Grandpa mutters. “Yes, sweet merciful Jesus.”
The lace curtains flutter. You shiver. Lay one hand on his stomach. The other on his head. He seizes the sheets.
Nothing to do now but take a deep breath, shut your eyes, and leap into the void.
“In the name of Jesus,” you say, “and by His blood. Heal Grandpa’s body.”
Hear his sobs as you pray. Hear the family murmuring in tongues. “Shanda fulla sanda. Shanda fulla seenda. Sheeth, sheeth. Fayeth, fayeth, fayeth,” they intone.
“Lord, it says in Your Word … ”
“Feelah sayeth sheeth shanda mahah. Shanda leela fayeth neelah fanda.”
“Whatever we ask in the name of Jesus … ”
You keep praying.
You can’t stop. The words just keep pouring out.
Finally, you say, “Amen.”
Open your eyes. Step back. Grandpa is mouthing prayers. His body still. Arms at his sides. Your T-shirt is soaked.
The family is wiping away tears.
“Thank you, Jesus,” they say. “Thank you, sweet Jesus.”
On the other side of the bed, Esther’s arms are crossed tight. Her blue eyes tense and narrowed as if she is seeing you, her favorite nephew, for the first time.
In the hallway, the family gathers.
Grandma pulls a tissue from somewhere inside her blouse. Dabs her eyes. “That,” she says, “was some prayer. My, my, my.”
You see Esther peeking through the cracked door of her bedroom down the hall. Darkness behind her. Her eyes meet yours and she shuts the door.
“You’re gonna be a great preacher one day,” Grandma says. “Jesus is callin’ you.”
She has said this to you so often growing up that you never really think too much about it. But that night, for the first time, you wonder if it might be true.
You step outside with your folks. No one speaks. Everything feels unsettled. Like the way things feel when a hurricane spins just off the coast. It’s as if something is sucking away the oxygen.
“One day,” Ma says on the way home.
Pa clears his throat.
And you talk to God.
The next day after school Ma says that Grandpa has asked to see you.
“You better go.” She reaches out her hand but draws it back. “Go.”
You get in the old ’85 Honda Civic and drive.
You park in the visitor’s spot facing the green intracoastal. Get out. The air is heavy. The sky white. A Jet Ski zooms past. A pelican perches on the sea wall.
Make your way to the elevator, press the button, and float up to the fifteenth floor.
The door is cracked. A strip of light cuts across the hallway. Step over it and enter.
“In here,” Grandpa says.
You are surprised to find him propped up in his armchair in the living room. Not in bed. He tells you to sit down next to him.
Dusty sunlight drifts through the sliding glass door at the end of the room. No one else is home.
He takes your hand, locks his eyes onto yours. “When you prayed for me last night I felt a heat run through my body. Never felt nothin’ like it.” He pauses. “It was the Lord.”
He lets go of your hand but doesn’t drop his gaze.
You try to calm your breathing.
“I was scared,” he says. “That old devil was kickin’ my butt and I was about to go to those stupid doctors. But after you laid hands on me and prayed that prayer, I believe I been healed. And God told me to ask you. Just you.” He leans forward. “Should I do dialysis or should I trust that God healed me?”
“Tell me. What should I do? Call those doctors or trust in the Lord?”
Years later, you will struggle to come to terms with the fact that you told your dying grandfather that, yes, God had definitely healed him and that he should not call those stupid doctors but instead only trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s as if, like your prayer the night before, the words just come out on their own. They hang in the air.
Then: “Yes, yes, yes. Thank you, son,” he says and grips your knee. “Thank you Lord Jesus. Shanda feela sheenda, fayeth sheenda fayeth. Hallelujah, hallelujah.”
A few tears slide down his cheek. They puddle in your eyes, too.
“This is a miracle,” he says. “Just like the miracle, that prayer of faith, that saved our Esther all those years ago. This is our portion. You understand? Our family has again found favor in the eyes of God.”
His face is so close to yours.
Then softly, “God is calling you, boy. When God speaks you gotta do what He says no matter what. Remember Abraham and Isaac? Remember Noah?”
He leans back and shuts his eyes.
“I knew when your momma had you in her belly you were special. I laid hands on you and prayed and the Lord spoke to me. Said He would raise you up. Said you’d bring glory to the family.” He opens his eyes. “And here you are. Oh we serve a good God. Never forget that.”
You step out into the hallway and make your way to the elevator. Stop. Take a breath. Take another one. A prayer of faith like yours had healed Esther of an incurable issue of blood when she was only five years old. The same age as you when the angel of light appeared in your room and said fear not for you have been chosen for a purpose. “Jesus,” you pray, “what should I do?” You recall the countless Bible verses you’ve memorized that tell of God giving you anything you want if you only ask Him in faith, in the name of Jesus. Faith, Scripture says, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. This is the bedrock of your religion.
You step into the elevator. Press the button. Whisper, “In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus.”
You get in the car and drive home.
You hear the phone ring. You slip out of your bedroom.
No one storms into the hallway. No one flicks on the light. There is no need to hurry this time.
Published on May 7, 2020