On the plaster above the desk my mother had tacked up a calendar print of Berninis famous sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila. The figure of St. Teresa lies limp, as if in a faint, her lips parted in ecstasy, her eyes unfocused, lids half closed. On either side of her, a voyeuristic chorus peers down from the prie-dieux. With a faint smile and a body more muscular than befits his youthful face, a boy angel stands over the saintly, voluptuous sister. The fingertips of his left hand lift the edge of the cloth covering her bosom. In his right hand he holds an arrow as delicately as a violinist holds a bow.
Why this picture? Why St. Teresa, Mother?
As a little boy of four, I took myself away to this windowless room to study the image. Courage alone could not get me past that heavy door, but my sense that she was there, my obsession to know the nun who was my mother, gave me strength. I sat next to the autoclave which rumbled and hissed like a waking dragon, as if the hammering of my heart had roused the beast. Gradually, as I sat at my mothers desk, a peace would come over me, a sense of communion with her.
I learned later that no one had dared remove her cardigan from where it sat draped on the chair. It was a sacred object. But for a four-yearold, everything is sacred and ordinary. I pulled that Cuticura-scented garment around my shoulders. I rimmed the dried-out inkpot with my nail, tracing a path her fingers had taken. Gazing up at the calendar print just as she must have while sitting there in that windowless room, I was transfixed by that image. Years later, I learned that St. Teresas recurrent vision of the angel was called the transverberation, which the dictionary said was the soul inflamed by the love of God, and the heart pierced by divine love; the metaphors of her faith were also the metaphors of medicine. At four years of age, I didnt need words like transverberation to feel reverence for that image. Without photographs of her to go by, I couldnt help but imagine that the woman in the picture was my mother, threatened and about to be ravished by the spear-wielding boy-angel. When are you coming, Mama? I would ask, my small voice echoing off the cold tile. When are you coming?
I would whisper my answer: By God! That was all I had to go by: Dr. Ghoshs declaration the time Id first wandered in there and hed come looking for me and had stared at the picture of St. Teresa over my shoulders; he lifted me in his strong arms and said in that voice of his that was every bit a match for the autoclave: She is CUM-MING, by God!
Forty-six and four years have passed since my birth, and miraculously I have the opportunity to return to that room. I find I am too large for that chair now, and the cardigan sits atop my shoulders like the lace amice of a priest. But chair, cardigan, and calendar print of transverberation are still there. I, Marion Stone, have changed, but little else has. Being in that unaltered room propels a thumbing back through time and memory. The unfading print of Berninis statue of St. Teresa (now framed and under glass to preserve what my mother tacked up) seems to demand this. I am forced to render some order to the events of my life, to say it began here, and then because of this, that happened, and this is how the end connects to the beginning, and so here I am.
We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot. I grew up and I found my purpose and it was to become a physician. My intent wasnt to save the world as much as to heal myself.
Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but subconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound.
Excerpted from Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese Copyright © 2009 by Abraham Verghese. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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