Amen Sure Thing
by Mindela Ruby
I forgot to request an exemption for jury duty this week.
Some enthusiasts feel cut off at the knees when they don’t get empaneled on a trial. I’m not among them. Nor do I align with my lawyer friend who texted me disqualifying answers to the Prospective Juror questions—“Provided you have the gall,” he wrote, “to make racist comments in court.” No way.
Jury service in some cases can be time well spent. My spouse once got elected foreman in an armed robbery case. He has told the story in my earshot a dozen times to entertain our friends. The lead witness, the plaintiff, testified that the defendant walked into his liquor store one night at 8:45, wearing a yellow sweatshirt and red bandana. The defendant rushed the counter, wielding a knife, and robbed the store owner of $73 in cash. Witness Two, the defendant’s brother, got up and swore that at 8:58 the same night, his brother, who was sweating and twitchy and wearing a yellow sweatshirt and red bandana, flung himself into his apartment. He threw $73 in cash on the table and then a big knife while exclaiming, “I just held up the liquor store around the corner.” The defense attorney attempted to spin the case as a sham, an example of “sibling rivalry.” The jury, led by a sterling foreman, unanimously reached a guilty verdict.
One of my graduate school professors was a juror on a complicated murder charge. Afterward, she took a year’s hiatus from university teaching to write a book about the proceedings’ profound philosophical implications. So, you see, a day in court may offer soul-searching litigation or humorous crime testimony. What squelches my keenness for the enterprise is the 8 AM arrival. Being forced to rise at an appalling hour messes with the delicate circadian balance that allows an insomniac like me to sleep at night. These days I’m already wrung-out beyond toleration. Therefore, on the off-chance of wrangling an excusal at this advanced date, I log onto the AgileJury website.
Today’s juror instructions are posted on a landing page with a red banner at the top. LOCATION CHANGE, it announces. Instead of the Oakland courthouse, the reporting place has switched to Dublin. Getting way out there demands a one-hour train commute followed by a bus ride of several blocks. In my car, a ninety-minute rush hour creep would be likely. This Thursday could require the same dastardly 4:30 AM wake-up.
On the Excusal page, I input my badge number and type my medical excuse:
To the right of the “reason” space is a file upload field for documentation. The only information in my possession that confirms I have a meningioma is an email from my primary care physician that summarizes the MRI result. I Copy, Paste, and Save the evidence from my medical provider’s email, then navigate back to the judicial page to click-load the new file.
A message box pops up: “Upload unsuccessful.”
The second effort—new document, upload—proves equally futile. Code embedded in the HMO’s email program must be corrupting or blocking data sharing.
Dang glitch. How much better it is to staple a well-composed hardship letter to the tear-off section of the summons, like we did in the old days. But epistolary communication, especially if it involves any nuance, takes time to process. No one has the time to read letters anymore. I file the digital appeal without my corroborating attachment.
Nursing a mug of tea,I recall the few occasions when I slogged to court at the appointed hour, pussyfooted through security protocol, sat tight in greige staging areas, twiddled thumbs, stared askance at weirdos, only to be informed, hours later, that my juror pool was dismissed. Other years, I called the jury line for reporting instructions the night before and heard the recording declaring my duty “fulfilled for twelve months.” It’s not like I’ve routinely shirked my obligation as a citizen.
If my digital request for a discharge isn’t processed in a timely way, in two days I could be tasked to trek to the hinterlands of my sprawling county at the crack of dawn for in-person jury assembly. Or, the court could reassign me a new report date, one that’s less convenient than this early August week. What if I’m a juror no-show? Will I be fined?
Panicking at my desk, I snatch the postcard summons. On the backside a line at the bottom reads “For assistance by phone.” I call the number. A mechanized voice cites a one-minute wait. What a fairy tale. Government agencies never answer phones that quick. But in less than a minute, before I’ve conjured a plea to utter, a live woman is on the line asking how she can help.
What a feel—not waiting on hold in bureaucratic purgatory.
“Yes, hi, um, I completed an online request for a medical excuse,” I explain, “but an upload fail message popped up. Twice.”
“What is your badge number?” she efficiently asks.
I tell her.
“What is your medical excuse?”
A not surprising pause greets me. For weeks I’ve described my hidden olive-sized growth with friends and have been met with pregnant pauses. Many adults don’t like hearing about frightful maladies. Like small children, they shut down emotionally. But with news of my cranial abnormality circulating, I’ve decided to tell everyone rather than having to keep track of who knows and who doesn’t.
“Oh, Lord,” the phone-clerk sighs. “Are you comfortable with me asking whether your tumor—is benign?”
Her forthrightness catches me off-guard. But why not answer? I appreciate the curiosity. “The doctors think so, because the growth is calcified. No guarantees, obviously.”
“When did you find out about it?”
I love her perfect questions. “May 29. I’d had a headache for a month and went to my doctor thinking it was a sinus infection. I’m still accommodating myself to the scan results,” I overshare.
“I hear that. Please don’t think this is prying. I’m interested because I know something of what you’re going through. My son had a brain tumor when he was twenty-one. He’s thirty-two now.”
I think of my own son with a pang. “My younger boy is thirty-two also. I’m so sorry.”
“He’s fine now, thanks to God. That misfortune with his brain came out of the blue. Julius, that’s my son’s name, dropped down in broad daylight, bam. He had one of those, uh, it was a…” She pauses, the word on the tip of her tongue.
“Seizure?” Obsessive research has rendered me an amateur brain tumor expert, with terminology at the ready.
“Mm-hmm. The worst kind. That can kill a person.”
“A grand mal seizure?”
“Correct, and woo, it was terrifying. I didn’t have a clue what was happening.”
“Of course,” I say.
The seizure possibility petrifies me, the irrefutable indication that my brain is compromised by a spreading intruder I can’t see. A friend of a friend confided to me about her first grand mal episode. She woke up in a hospital to learn she had to have brain surgery to remove a meningioma the size of a lemon.
“Did your son have any symptoms before his seizure?” I ask the clerk.
“No, Ma’am. No warning signs.” She spills the whole of her son’s story. 911 call. Ambulance. Her ragged nerves. The happy turn: his operation went as well as could be expected.
“I tell you,” she goes on, “God watched over my child. Without Him, who knows what might have happened? It was God guiding the hand of my son’s surgeon. That doctor did a wonderful job. Julius has had no lasting problem with his brain.”
“Fantastic,” I say. My acquaintance had her lemon-sized growth surgically excised without a hitch as well. Two years later, though, she developed permanent epilepsy. “Your son had the best possible outcome.”
“That’s right, and, um…Mindela?” The court clerk has checked my juror record to get my name, incorrectly stressing the second syllable instead of the first, but pronunciation’s of no consequence in this moment.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I would like to know if you by any chance lead a Christian life?”
When asked this question under other circumstances, usually by Jehovah’s Witnesses at my front door, I disclose my atheism. Sometimes I act flip about it. Conversation with avid followers of religions unsettles me. Steering clear of holy topics seems best.
Yet this telephone call requires more finesse than my habitual no interest rejoinder. This woman has the power to make me take a train and a bus to Dublin the day after tomorrow.
More to the point, she has shared with me one of the most important stories of her life. We are bonding over tumors. She has reached out through the phone wire.
“Not much, sorry” I say.
“That’s all right. It’s not uncommon. But let me tell you. In my job, I talk to a lot of sick people. They call in seeking a jury excuse. You would not believe the afflictions I hear about. I tell all of them, Put your faith in God to get better.”
“Where was your son’s surgery?” I ask, to lead the conversation away from preachiness.
“Redwood City. They have a fine facility over there.”
“That’s the hospital where I’d have surgery if and when I need it. Right now, the doctors on my team are calling this a watch and wait situation. They’re brushing aside my headaches and dizziness.” I gulp and add, “The neurologist prescribed another MRI in a year to measure for tumor growth. All I can do is hold tight ‘til then. Unless, of course, I have a seizure.”
“You stay positive, Mindela.”
“I’m trying.” Brain tumor statistics are in my favor. Ninety percent of the sort I have hang out trouble-free inside heads, invisible except via a scan. Still, a year is a long time. Ten percent is not zero.
“Let God help you. He will be there for you.”
Who’d have ever expected an administrative call to end up here? Not me. But she intentionally started shepherding me to Christianity, and, considering my lack of faith, it’s crazy how grateful her solicitude makes me. By contrast, my HMO seems to have deducted from some terrible cost benefit analysis that patients need only to be told Don’t worry. We are shunted into a risk pool of subscribers who must wait and see, with skimpy consolation.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to say a prayer for you. Will you let me do that? It will bring you ease.”
“I don’t mind,” I say.
“Dear God,” she starts, assuming a beseeching timbre. “I ask you to take care of this woman in need. She is hurting. She is scared. She feels alone. Show her she isn’t alone. God, I ask you to reach down and touch the tumor in her head. Make that tumor stop growing. It’s in your power to block this thing from hurting Mindela.” I hear her rapid breath.
Actually, it’s me who’s gasping. Because, I discover, I’m weeping. Unbelievable. This call is touching a nerve. I don’t want the court worker to hear me lose control.
“Mindela, I want you to pray for ministration. Oh, and by the way, in case I didn’t say this before, your jury service is excused. You don’t need to report. But you should make time every day to remember that God is the healer who watches over us. What you can do for strength is believe. Tell me you can do that.”
I produce not so much of a yes as a choke. We are two women united in hardship. She must detect how moved I am. It’s not just joy at getting out of jury duty.
“That’s good,” she says. “I know from my son’s experience that the mightiness of God is all we need. My son is alive. He’s finding his way, figuring his life out, but the important point is he’s healthy. Health is the greatest gift, a blessing directly from God. Think about the comfort He furnishes. If the Lord is with us, we have no fear. That’s the truth.” She inhales deeply.
“Amen,” I say, hearing in her pause a conclusion. We have glorified God for over seven minutes on this call.
“Amen sure thing,” she says. “God is good. He protects us from whatever threatens to tear us down. Many things wait to harm us. Find your way to God, you’ll be alright.”
The call concluding, I’m aghast to be succumbing to shudders. My body feels like crumbling stone. I have been brave and stolid about this tumor business most of the time. This telephone encounter is wreaking barriers. It feels simultaneously right and wrong. “Of all the people to take my call,” I say, “it was you.”
“That’s God, too,” says this human who understands the weakness bodies are prey to. Who knows my anxiety, knows my hope.
“I want you to call me back later,” she says, “and let me know how you’re doing. Promise to do that? This is more than a job for me. I’m here for a reason. I’ll want to know God is guarding your brain, like he did for my child.”
From the box on my desk I extract a tissue and blot tears. I don’t dare blow my nose and sound maudlin. Much as I appreciate her generous sentiments, I don’t envision calling back with updates and professions of new-found faith. My doubt is too ingrained.
I might need a medical excuse next year, however. “Do I call this same number to reach you?” I say. What condition, I wonder, will my brain be in next year?
“This same number. Ask for Kirby. I’m always here.”
“Thank you for being so compassionate. I should let you get back to work, though. Other callers might need your help.”
“When I’m doing God’s work, the court is secondary. But all right then. Take care of yourself. And trust God. I have seen him do wonders and lift up those who ask him to.”
“I will think of this call for a long time, Kirby,” I say. “Bye-bye, now.”
Even disconnected, phone put down, listening to crows cawing outside, I cannot stanch the tears. Am I crying for the stranger’s act of kindness? Because my children don’t know how to let me be scared? Because something’s missing in my life?
Cranial tumors that grow fast hijack brains. My MRI noted the “slight mass effect” already impinging on my cortex. My healthcare providers see no cause for angst in that. They say the bulging pressure in my forehead, ice pick stabs behind my eyes, tingles down my scalp, spears of current shooting through my skull are phenomena to ignore, variants of migraine headaches. But no migraine website corroborates this analysis or explains what feels like disarray in the invisible strategic center of my being.
I pick up the Jury Summons postcard and safekeep it in my desk drawer. Lacking a higher power as my rock, I am forced to face my brain’s fate without a hallelujah. When I say amen, the word is a pleasantry, not a ratification of God’s will. My lot is the peril of atheism. I used to think of my stance on faith as an enormous strength, but that certainty has all of a sudden started fading.
Leftover sobs break from my chest. For me, for now, no spiritual solace lies ahead. Cold silence is more like it. To have to weather. To have to bear. I almost wish it weren’t so.
Mindela Ruby has published a novel, Mosh It Up, and prose and poetry in Coachella Review, Rivet: the Journal of Writing That Risks, Marathon Literary Review and other magazines as well as the anthology Unmasked. Her work has been Pushcart Prize and Sundress Best-of-the-Net nominated. She completed a doctorate at University of California and teaches at a community college and Lifelong Learning program. She’s a member of the California Arts Council and reader at the Baltic Writing Residency.