Jan/Feb 2020 Nonfiction


by Jessica Ripka

Borrowed image

A month before my 35th birthday, a doctor finds abnormal white cells on my cervix.

"Could be something. Could be nothing," she says, typing into a computer with a shrug.

This is not how I expect a doctor to explain pre-cancerous cells, but there are no hard and fast rules. I book an appointment for the following Monday to remove whatever she can with delicate tools and a vinegar solution. They send me home with info on what happens if she can't get it all out. In the meantime I begin to picture my world unspooling. This is how it all ends, I think to myself on the drive back in to work, rattled and feeling like I've been caught. This was my fate all along.

I tell my best friend Jourdan, who does not like the news at all. I tell my boyfriend Matt, who doesn't like the news, either, but for additional reasons. After three years together, we are tossing around the idea of having kids. We've resolved to not marry, but the jury's out when it comes to a child. At 35 years old, though, the jury needs to reconvene or risk a delay deciding for us.

Assuming, of course, it hasn't already been decided.


I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord is a verse I have to memorize in grade school along with all of Psalm 23. It's a verse I hear often from the plexiglass pulpit of my childhood church. I am eight, and it's the newest church building I've ever been in, with fresh carpet, gleaming faux gold chandeliers, and large silk floral arrangements still smelling of plastic. The pastor reminds me of Mr. Rogers—lean, warm and methodical, emphasizing a different word each time he repeats a passage.

A verse I never hear aloud is about a man named Onan who "spills his semen on the ground" to keep from impregnating his brother's widow. I discover it in the small white Bible my parents give me for Christmas along with a chart on how to read the entire book in a year. Unlike my last gifted Bible, it contains no pictures—only a few glossy maps of the Middle East—so I cover any blank spaces with stickers of hearts, clouds, and crosses. Even with the chart, I lose steam early and can't finish the whole thing. I am in fifth grade when I give it yet another attempt and I come across the story, my eyes going wide. I know what semen is. I'm surprised the Bible knows, too. Either way, the punishment is severe.

What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death.

The Mr. Rogers pastor never preaches on it at evening revival meetings, and it's never mentioned in Sunday School. I wonder if anyone else has read it, but I never ask.

I often debate with myself where the plan ends and the punishment begins. If someone is punished by God for something they've done, is the wrong they've done still part of God's plan?


This is a song we sing in chapel when I begin preschool:

Father Abraham had many sons
Had many sons, had Father Abraham
I am one of them and so are you (so are you!)
So let's just praise the Lord

We sing it in our starched green uniforms and patent leather shoes. You move a limb after each verse—first arms, then legs, and finally the head—until the room dissolves into dizzy laughter and we have to catch our breath and adjust our tights. I love the song. It feels fun.

The story of Abraham is simple: God promises to give him children as numerous as the stars in the sky, but Abraham's wife, Sarah, can't get pregnant. Decades go by to test their faith. Abraham is 100 years old and Sarah is 90 when their son, Isaac, is finally born—a reward for their faithfulness. I accept the story in one easy swallow. Perhaps my grandparents could have another baby, too, if God allowed it. My mother's parents are in their 70s and live in a farmhouse in Connecticut we visit each summer. They attend a small steepled church up a dirt road where we sing songs without moving our bodies or closing our eyes.

I am at that farmhouse one summer when my older brother, Dave, wakes me up in the middle of the night and lifts me up towards the windowsill. Our sister, Becca—the oldest—waits for us and wraps a nurturing arm around my small shoulders. We are all under the age of ten and sharing a large stiff bed in the upstairs bedroom. The sky is drenched in light from thousands—maybe millions—of stars flung out across the dark. It blankets the trees, the garden, every blade of grass, as well as our faces and intertwined arms—huddled close together and gleaming. Our mouths hang open, breathless in the stiff midnight heat.

Abraham lives to be 175 years old—long enough to have more children who have more children and so on. Long enough for my siblings and I to stare from a window—guessing how many children we'll have ourselves one day. Long enough to pass the test.


There's a game I love to try while going to bed or waiting for the school bus: guess the ways God can make your future children suffer if you're not careful. I do this in the shower or while I'm on the toilet, and my sister complains with a heavy knock that I'm taking too long. I guess as many things as possible. Maybe they'll be deaf or diseased or missing limbs. Maybe they'll be stillborn or blind. I devote hours to this when I start the third grade. My thinking is if I can guess a tragedy before it happens, I'll be better prepared. Better yet, maybe God will be less inclined to inflict something I've already guessed.

"How did she know?" I picture God saying, shaking his head—changing his mind.

I can't prove its accuracy, but it feels like time well spent.


It's hard for me to remember the first pregnant woman I encounter growing up. They all seem to be at church. There is Sherri, the associate pastor's wife, who leads announcements on Sunday mornings wearing denim smock dresses and floral turtlenecks. She makes both the pregnancy and her faith seem like something exciting. Sometimes in my room when everyone is downstairs watching TV, I tuck shirts under my Sunday school dress to mimic Sherri's belly. I'm only in third grade but nod approvingly at my future self.

There is also Heather with leggings and bangle earrings who occasionally shows up to high school youth group only to sulk in the corner. I'm not even in middle school yet, but I hear she's had a baby who was put up for adoption because she isn't married. This is something only whispered about. How embarrassing for everyone to know you had sex, I think to myself in horror. But she has perfectly curled bangs and I envy her for it.

I don't meet Chloe until after she is pregnant, but she and her husband, Don, bring their newborn to our apartment during our last summer living in Manhattan. I turn eight the year he's born and feel very old. He is their first—a son—and they name him Israel. Chloe gives birth at home alone with only Don because they don't believe in hospitals or doctors. Everyone marvels at this—like it's what God intended. A few years later—when Israel is only three—I sit next to him while we eat lunch after church. Chloe takes him home early when he complains of a stomachache. Leukemia coursing through his blood, he is gone within a week.

"Just tragic." My sixth grade reading teacher shudders when I explain why I have to miss school for the funeral. I nod but avoid making eye contact. I want to explain what we hear at church—about the Lord giving and taking, blessing and cursing, knowing the plan. These are the rules, I want to say.

You can't break the rules.


Barrenness is a common punishment in the Bible—both figurative and literal.

She despised him in her heart... [so she] had no children to the day of her death.

"However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands... the fruit of your womb will be cursed."

I internalize this early when I skip my daily scripture reading or watch a movie with my siblings on HBO while our parents are out. I am convinced shortly before puberty that I am cursed and will never have children.


All six of my aunts try to get pregnant over the course of more than a decade, but only two succeed. The first one—Audrey—announces the news when I am in middle school. She and her husband attend what my mom calls a "spirit filled" church in Brooklyn, which means people wave their hands and speak in tongues. I'm unsurprised when Audrey gets pregnant first like a prize. It's proof of God rewarding his most faithful. My other aunt—Mary—struggles for years but finally frames a picture of herself smiling from the operating table after the C-section for her son. Her hair is in a blue puffy cap and tears are in her eyes, but she still looks beautiful. She passes the photo around during Thanksgiving when I am 12, telling us all how much she loved being pregnant.

"I'd do it again and again," she says, getting emotional.

Mary practices yoga, which I'm told opens you up to dark spirits and possibly even demon possession. My mom tells me this as a cautionary tale and explains how Mary used to have a beautiful soprano voice and performed in regional opera until she contracted a mysterious illness. Her voice still sounds like sandpaper to this day.

A few years later, Mary gets pregnant again—with twins this time—but is rushed to the hospital with an ectopic pregnancy that takes the life of her twins and nearly her own. Within a few years, she files for divorce after her husband, my dad's brother, is diagnosed with cancer. It is a massive undoing—and I see it as such—but I treat them as pariahs. I am just out of high school and living in Texas at a Christian mission organization where each day is a challenge to live more and more radically for Jesus. When my sister calls me with the news, she mentions how interesting it is that our non-Christian relatives are having the most trouble in life. This isn't an entirely accurate statement, but I want it to be so I don't dispute it. Instead I find a Bible verse to support her case.

"For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones," I underline in yellow highlighter. "Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish."


Nothing terrifies me more as a child than the 12th chapter of Exodus where God sends an angel of death to kill any unprotected firstborn. The church nursery lets us watch and re-watch the animated depiction of the story in a Hanna Barbera series called The Greatest Adventure Stories From The Bible. It shows the angel as dark smoke creeping over a desert city at midnight—the sound of weeping in the background.

"At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt," the passage explains, "And there was loud wailing... for there was not a house without someone dead."


My brother Dave graduates from high school in 1996 when I am fifteen. He decides to take a year off before college, and I'm glad. By then we are so close that I sleep on the floor beneath his loft bed so we can fall asleep listening to the soundtracks of movies we've seen recently. Pulp Fiction. Braveheart. The Long Kiss Goodnight. He joins Columbia House and stores each new CD in plastic swivel towers he buys at the mall. We play Radiohead's OK Computer loud on our friend Todd's car stereo while driving out to the Patuxent River to camp and swim throughout the following summer.

"This is what you'll get," Dave sings along to "Karma Police," waving his arms wide like he's conducting the band itself as Todd's highbeams lead us deep into the woods. "This is what you'll get when you mess with us."

It's our last good summer together.

It is October of 1997 when Dave drops out of college and shuts himself in his bedroom. He ventures out late at night like a ghost dressed in black wandering our cul-de-sac. For his 20th birthday I slip a copy of the Wither, Blister, Burn & Peel album by the industrial rock band Stabbing Westward. It's wrapped in party paper and stays wedged under the door for days.

On a good day he takes me to see The Matrix at what was once our favorite movie theatre. He's so detached and disoriented that he laughs when he nearly crashes the car into a median. I don't have vocabulary for what's happening, so I resort to scripture for an answer and stumble on a Bible verse about a king who falls out of favor with God.

"Now the spirit of the Lord had departed from king Saul," it reads, burning through my gut, "and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him."

How can God save a person if He sends an evil spirit to torment them? And what—if anything—can change God's mind?


The day after I graduate from college, Dave ambles down the stairs to my parents' basement to watch me sort my things. I can only pack two suitcases to bring with me on my move to Los Angeles. Everything else will be sent away to Goodwill. A whole life—clothes, furniture, stuffed animals—banished forever.

"You can't give this away," he says, lifting a small blue case of matchbox cars and holding them to his chest. They were his originally back in the '80s, but I'd won them in a bet when I was nine. His shoulders go soft and he adds, "I wanna give 'em to my kids."

Dave has grown to be tall with long dark hair to match his eyes. I think he looks like Jesus—protective and gentle—although wildly unpredictable. He's in his second year of treatment at a psychiatric hospital on the shore of Cambridge, MD, after setting a gun on my parents' dining room table and announcing God wants him to kill everyone in the house. He doesn't kill anyone, and we feel blessed and in the clear. We say he's getting better even when we know he's not.

There is a knot in my gut when I think about Dave or any of us having kids, but it's not something I can articulate. I simply watch him saunter back upstairs, case in hand, and try hard to picture us close again—with nieces and nephews playing on the banister or in the backyard. Something about it feels like a risk I'm unwilling to take. Who will inherit all this stuff? is the last thing I think to myself, walking upstairs and cutting the light.

It's a premature thought. Later that night the basement floods and I bale out water with a trashcan until I give up and let the water claim every last thing.


At Easter we remember Jesus's crucifixion on a cross for our sins. He is 33 years old when he is hung from a wooden cross. We are told he is perfect. Never lusted or cursed or stole. Never had sex or fathered an illegitimate child. I'm sure he never masturbated—which is something I discover after a fifth grade slumber party only by accident after straddling the edge of a mattress as a joke. I don't know what it is but I seek it out whenever I'm alone all through middle and high school. I am 18 at the Texas mission organization when a woman reprimands us during the low hum of a prayer meeting.

"If we could only see the demons we entertain when we indulge sexual sin in all its forms..." her voice trails off, and she waves her arms as the praise band reaches a plaintive crescendo, eyes closed and fluttering. I write her quote down because I feel she is speaking directly to me. She doesn't have to finish her sentence—I know what's on the other side of a threat from God.

Christ's perfection seems admirable to me unless I consider the cruelty of it. I try not to acknowledge that the point of his whole existence is deprivation and death. Sacrifice is a word I use a lot instead, but it never quite fits.

Is it still considered a life if you can't participate in anything that makes you feel alive?


My sister, Becca, marries when she is 32 and I am 27. It is their first kiss at the altar—one of sweat and salt and clumsiness. They have saved themselves for each other and want us all to celebrate with them. Dave is checked out of another psychiatric ward for the day to attend but is drugged to the point of near sedation. His eyes are only half open in all the pictures. Neither of us feel like celebrating.

A year later Becca delivers her first child—a son, Caleb.

"We're training him to hear the voice of the Lord," she tells me when Caleb learns to walk.

I want to ask what voice they're training him to listen to. Is it the voice of love and forgiveness—like the Mr. Rogers childhood pastor? Or is it the voice Dave hears—the one who wants to kill us all? Which one is actually God anyway?

Who can even say for sure?


I'm 30 when I start sleeping with a married man I've met through friends at work.

"You're not going to get pregnant, are you?" he jokes, just as we move into the bedroom of his apartment for the first time. It's a gleaming modern but empty space he uses only for work. His wife and children live in a home hundreds of miles away. My sense of restraint is hundreds of miles away, too.

"Of course not," I say to keep things moving forward, but I have no idea what I'm talking about. I've never been pregnant before because I've never had sex before. I know all the information but haven't actually applied it. We use no protection at all, and it's only after he's fallen asleep when I realize I'm ovulating.

I buy a Plan B pill the next day from the closest Walgreens. It's more expensive than I anticipate—over $50—and I wonder if I should buy a pack of condoms, too. Is this what people do? I silently ask myself, like I'm learning the hand motions to a dance. My mom always pulled me out of sex ed class—stressing abstinence and waiting for marriage. If he's married—but not to me—does that still count as waiting for marriage?

I can't pick a type of condom to buy and leave with only the Plan B but return to the very same Walgreens to buy another pill when we have sex again a few weeks later and I am still unprepared. The same pharmacist is behind the counter—a young dark haired man who doesn't make eye contact. Does he remember me? Does he think I'm being careless? Is he cheating on his wife, too? At what point do you transition from possessing a secret to the secret possessing you?

I keep my head down as I walk to my car when I think of a quote from an Anne Lamott book: "We aren't punished for our sins but by them."


Aside from Jesus, no Biblical character is more beloved than King David. The King David who kills Goliath and plays the lyre. The King David who loves God so passionately, he dances in the streets in his underwear. The King David who is so human and flawed, he fathers a child with Bathsheba—a neighboring married woman—and orchestrates her husband's death so her pregnancy seems less suspicious. The child is born ill, and King David fasts and prays for God to spare the child's life. After seven days, the child dies. No amount of remorse or repenting can prevent it. Maybe this is the key to passing the test. You have to actually feel bad when you screw up.

I don't feel bad for sleeping with a married man. I don't even feel like I'm screwing up. But I do feel like I will pay.


I meet my boyfriend, Matt, after I end things with the married man. We fall headlong into hikes and phone calls and Christmas at his parents' homes. His step-father is gloating on my first visit about Matt's accomplishments in our shared city, Los Angeles, and his good genes.

"And no mental illness, you'll be happy to know," his stepfather says unprovoked, patting his mouth with a cloth napkin and feeling something that looks close to pride. As though I've found the ideal gene pool with which to merge. As though Matt has found the same.

Matt's first to speak—rubbing my shoulders to keep them from shaking. Jessica's brother is schizophrenic, he says. Or maybe he says something else—I can't remember now. I remember the look on Matt's stepfather's face. I can always recognize it.

It's the face of knowing when something is doomed.


Jesus is most well-known for curing the sick—including the demon possessed.

"My name is Legion—because we are many," a deranged man replies to Jesus from a cemetery, referring to the number of spirits haunting him.

Jesus sends the spirits into a herd of over 2,000 pigs that fling themselves down an embankment and drown. Not one survives.

I often wonder if this is the average number of evil spirits, or if there might be more. Is 2,000 the number Dave has, and do any spill over to me? To my children? Is there a way to know for sure before we all drown?


My test results come back negative. The ones that screened tiny pieces of my cervix for cancer. By now I am a few months away from turning 37—two years of test results and muffled panic. I press my palms into my face to push back the heavy wave of emotion.

"Just wait 'til you have kids," my doctor teases to lighten the mood or perhaps to make me feel like I still have a shot at it. "All the testing makes you crazy."

There is cement in my stomach when she says this. A wave of something dark beyond explanation. The angel of death has passed over me for the moment—rendering me safe.

But has it really? Does it sit and wait to claim my children? How long will it take? Maybe two years? Maybe twenty? How much of the blame would I share?

I say nothing in response. No nervous laugh. No whispered prayer of thanks or penance. Instead I wait for her to leave and reach for my clothes. Underwear. Pants. Shirt. Shoes. Clouds gather outside in slow-moving shadows, but I just keep reaching. Reaching for anything I can touch and feel to be true.


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