Mindy and Coll. Artwork by Norm Magnusson.

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The Hand of Margaret Clitherow

In my mid-forties, about the time my skin regimen stopped working, I found myself walking around with a secret. It was a pretty big secret. Everything about me—our family, my life—looked good from the outside. I was married to a nice guy. We had two great kids in elementary school, a decent house in the suburbs, a growing small business, and I was writing a novel on the side. Lovely, all of it. Except. On the inside—the inside of our house and my life—things were bad. My marriage was failing. To this day, I don’t have a good elevator pitch about what went wrong.

I can tell you that in the last year of our marriage, my husband campaigned for a dog. When the wonderful and precious Ripken joined our family, my husband did not enjoy him as he thought he might, and so he refused to care for him. In this way, Ripken and I were in the same situation.

Still, in my pretty house with my pretty life, there was part of me that was frozen and unable to decide what to do. So he didn’t like the dog. Was that a reason for divorce? So he gave me an ugly puffer coat for Christmas and a tablecloth in a paper bag for my birthday. Was that important? Pack of gum for Mother’s Day. Still . . .

How do you know? How do you come to that moment, when you raise your hand and say, “I’m done?” One of my wiser friends said, “When the moment comes, and there will be one, you’ll know.”

I am not a person who looks for signs from the divine, but I do pay attention to the details. (And yes, I knew comparing myself to the family dog was not a good sign.) However, for me to truly know, to make this awful decision—I needed more. It turns out, as odd as this sounds, that I got my answer and my nerve from three things: a sixteenth-century saint, a trip to England, and a bad case of food poisoning.

First the saint. My friend Megan Matchinske was working on a commentary on Margaret Clitherow. I read her article and became obsessed with this woman. Born in 1556, Margaret Clitherow was the daughter of the mayor of York, England, and a butcher’s wife with four children. She was also a heretic—a Catholic during a period in England when this was illegal. She was very active in her faith. She held mass secretly in her home, and she had special hiding places where she harbored visiting clergy. Eventually, she got caught with a priest in her wall, a very serious offense, and she was imprisoned. Here is the interesting part—apparently, in prison, she flourished. Her husband was required to provide her food and other things to keep her comfortable. I imagined this man having to cook for the first time, to deal with the kids. And here is Margaret, imprisoned with a group of like-minded folks. They taught her to read and write. I imagined her as having a certain measure of freedom for the first time in her life.

This tells you where I was in my life—prison sounded pretty nice to me. I did identify with Margaret Clitherow in some way, but initially, I didn’t see how her story related to mine. I tried writing about her—bad poetry, a short story, but nothing would come.

About this same time, my husband and I decided to a family vacation to the UK—a sort of geographical cure. And we tried, just as we’d been trying in couples therapy. I’m not sure that my husband realized exactly what was at stake, but I can remember him rushing us around frantically—Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, jumping onto a bus, down into the Tube, this garden, that pub—as if the activity alone would keep us afloat.

The whole time, I was miserable (Don’t you wish you could’ve been with us?). I had this interior monologue going. We’d take a family picture—and I’d think, is this the last family picture we’ll have? I was watching my husband’s every move. Would he hold my hand? Would he say something, do something/anything that finally let me know—we’re good, or, we’re done.

Finally, we took a train north of London to York—home of my ancestors and also, home of Margaret Clitherow. I was desperate now, and I got it in my head that there was something about this woman that would help me find the answers I was seeking. My family, accustomed to my writerly pilgrimages, indulged my request to see the Margaret Clitherow points of interest. We walked down the street where she lived and we were even able to go into her house. There wasn’t much there: a small rowhouse on a small street, a tiny shrine inside. I felt a bit let down, but a pamphlet in the house told me that there was one other place to go—on the edge of York is a small convent with a church where I could see Margaret Clitherow’s hand. I knew then, I had to see the hand.

Margaret Clitherow’s story does not end with her imprisonment. She was martyred in 1587. She was pressed to death. They laid her on a board, put a door on top of her, and then began adding rocks to that door. One rock after another—no single rock enough to harm her, but cumulatively, after a few days, they did their work. She was suffocated under their weight. For all the suffering of this century, we can barely fathom this kind of execution. Each of us fears this kind of slow death—psychic or physical.

After Margaret Clitherow died, one of the faithful took her hand and that mummified hand is now enshrined in the Bar Convent church. I sent my husband and kids off to run on the ramparts of York and I went to the Bar Convent. It’s a modest place really, and you can tell that the nuns who run the place are a little uncomfortable with the whole hand business. In order to see the hand, there’s a donation involved, and you have to be accompanied by a nun. So, my nun and I walk into the sanctuary, and we stop in front of a little miniature wooden church hanging on the wall. It’s padlocked in front. The nun takes out the key and then she turns to look at me. “Really?” she says, “Are you certain?”

In that moment, I start to feel totally creepy and ghoulish. What did I think I was going to find in that box? I chicken out.

“Just as well,” the nun says, “Not much to see anyway.”

We came back home, unenlightened and uncured by geography. I decided to try a last-ditch date night. We got a sitter and headed out to our hometown jazz festival. Odetta was headlining, so I thought she might breathe some life back into us. It wasn’t a bad night. We drank some beers and ate a big plate of jambalaya. We stood in the crowd up front, and the music was great, but my husband was always a foot behind me, and we never quite touched. We were just two more people in the crowd.

The next day, I woke up before dawn and realized I was sick—I mean, I-will-never-eat-jambalaya-again sick. I eventually went back to sleep, and when I woke up again, it was late morning. I called downstairs to let people know I was alive, but the house was empty—my husband and kids off to baseball practice or something. They were gone a long time, I think, and for most of that day, I emptied out whatever was left in my body and then drifted in and out of sleep.

Finally, late in the afternoon, I awoke to hear voices, so I got up and headed downstairs. It was bizarre. I thought for a moment I was dreaming—there was a full-blown cocktail party going on in my living room. While I was sleeping, and for that matter, possibly lying dead in my bed of food poisoning, my husband had bought an entire spread of appetizers and booze, invited a dozen friends, who were now sipping margaritas. With salt rims. Salt rims—how had he even done that? And there was my husband, sitting in the middle of the party, eating guacamole and drinking a beer.

“Great,” he said when he saw me, “You’re up. Feeling better?” A few of my girlfriends looked embarrassed and a little confused.

“Not really,” I said. I combed my fingers through my gross hair. “Are there soft drinks?”

“No,” he said. “We’re headed to dinner. Do you want to come?”

I sat down across from him for a minute and leaned in a bit. I said, “Can you go get me some ginger ale and chicken broth and maybe saltines?”

He looked at me then, really seriously, looked into my eyes, and said to the crowd, “Anybody got a pen?” One of my confused friends dug one out of her purse and handed it to him. He held his hand up. “Got to write it down,” he said, “or I’ll forget all about it.”

The room got quiet. We sat there while he wrote my grocery list on his hand. My husband was a big guy, and he had a really big hand. It wasn’t some tiny shriveled brown thing. There was plenty of room on his palm for my grocery list. But of course, I knew right then—that was the moment. He could write down all the things that I needed, but he would never bring them to me.