My six-year-old son, Tad, is obsessed with the Shroud of Turin. He’s convinced it’s the very cloth that wrapped Jesus Christ in the tomb, and that the faint image of a crucified man on the linen was produced by the Resurrection. Even after I tell him, gently, that carbon dating reveals it to be from medieval times, he is unfazed. “The carbon dating is wrong, Mommy.” I don’t know where he gets his unswerving faith. I am an atheist.
Tad has a life-threatening blood disorder. Treatments have been going well, but he thinks he is going to die. This scares me because they say cancer patients always know, deep down—even the kids. He wants to see the Shroud of Turin before he dies.
“Sweetheart. Even if we could afford to fly all the way to Italy, it would be no use. They almost never display it.” Though I don’t share his disappointment, the look on his face makes my chest hurt a bit.
I get why people are fascinated. That image of the crucified man on it, and scientists’ inability to explain how the image got there or to generate one that shares its properties, does make me wonder how and why the artifact came to be. But I find it so morbid. Tad doesn’t seem repulsed by the injuries depicted on the image—puncture wounds from a crown of thorns, hundreds of scourge marks from a Roman flagellum, nail wounds in the wrists and feet, a laceration from a spear in the man’s side. He’s been reading for a couple of years now, at an ever-advancing level that’s almost nerve-wracking, and he’s probably read every substantial article available online about the Shroud of Turin, including an article by a doctor who did a postmortem analysis of the suffering detailed on the cloth. The brutality saddens him, but he’s not scared, whereas I find what people can inflict on one another terrifying.
“Maybe we can find a replica somewhere,” I say, feeling something yield inside me.
“What’s a replica?”
“A very close copy—so close it looks just like the real thing.”
A copy that close would have to be about fourteen feet long and three and a half feet wide. Unfolded, it would have the front of the man’s image along half of its length and the back of him along the other half, with the crown of the head at the center of the cloth, as if the cloth had been folded over the man lengthwise before the image was captured on the linen.
Tad tilts his head and thinks for a moment, then says, “I want to see a replica.”
Tad’s care team approved a plan for us to go on a road trip this summer. There are several places we could go to see a life-size copy of the Shroud: Virginia, Alabama, Georgia. Tennessee, New Mexico, Colorado, California.
“These places are pretty far away,” I say. We are in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I’m already thinking, I am not getting on a plane to see a fake of a fake.
Tad comes over and puts his cheek on my shoulder as I scour the search results for a place closer to us. I kiss the top of his head, then put my cheek on it. I had typed in “Shroud of Turin” and “replica.” I erase “replica” and type “display.” Nothing. I try “exhibit.” Tad abruptly lifts his head when the search results appear.
“How about that,” he says, pointing to the screen.
Shroud of Turin exhibit opens at the Museum of the Bible reads the teaser. Washington, DC—only two and a half hours away by car. The exhibit closes at the end of the month. It’s times like these that I’m grateful I have summers off. Just a couple of days later, we’re on the road.
We pass the time playing “I Spy” and singing. Through dairy country we sing “The Arky Arky Song” at the top of our lungs with the windows open, catching a whiff of manure every now and then as we wend our way through never-ending green. The cows ignore us.
Near Havre de Grace, we stop at my mom’s house for a late breakfast, mostly because she would never forgive me if we didn’t. She comes out wiping her hands on her apron when we pull in. I unbuckle Tad, and he jumps out of the car and runs to his lola. She lifts him up off the ground in a big hug, all the while chattering in fast Tagalog about how he’s grown. I don’t see it; in fact, I’ve often wondered if the chemo has stunted his growth or might in the future. Worry is useless, but I just can’t shake it.
“Tingnan mo nga naman! Ang laki na ng baby natin! Ano ba ang kinakain mo, ha? Hindi na kita kaya!”
Tad is laughing. “Lola. I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I’m saying you got so big. I can barely lift you!”
She plants her nostrils into his cheek and inhales—a sign of affection I’ve come to think of as the “Filipina aunties’ kiss”—then puts him down and turns to me. “O. Ano, Fe? Kumusta ka na?”
“I’m fine, Ma. We’re both doing great.” Before she can criticize or prophesy doom, I preempt:
“His doctor thinks this little trip to DC will be great for him.”
“You’re going to that Bible museum?”
I brace myself, thinking she might say something prejudiced against Protestants. My mother goes to Mass every Sunday and on all Holy Days of Obligation, says the rosary at least once a day, and occasionally joins peaceful protests outside Planned Parenthood. A few times a week she texts me a Catholic meme to remind me, “God loves you this much,” “A prayer a day keeps evil away,” or the inevitable Virgin Mary image with, “Sometimes we just need our mom.” She makes no remarks against the Bible museum, however, and instead turns to my son and says, “Halika, Tadeo. Let’s eat.”
As soon as we enter her house, we are greeted by the richly-clad statuette of the baby Jesus, the Santo Niño, on her mantle and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on her kitchen wall. On the table below it: garlic rice, scrambled eggs, several links of sweet longganisa just out of the frying pan, little bowls of vinegar laced with grated garlic, coarse salt, and pepper, bibingka topped with salted duck egg and coconut, and a tray of her homemade ensaymadas, Tad’s favorite—soft golden buns topped with sugar and grated cheese.
I almost comment on how much food there is, but I stop myself. One time when I said something similar, she took it as a criticism or a complaint, and thought I was accusing her of being wasteful. “You should be grateful,” was her retort. Instead, I say, “This is amazing, Ma. Thanks so much!”
Tad waits politely for all of us to have food on our plates before digging in. I watch as he uses his fork to pack a bit of longganisa and some rice into a spoon, the Filipino way, and takes his first mouthful. I try to memorize the utter happiness on his face with this first bite and the way he’s nodding his head at my mom with appreciation. I’ve been doing this a lot lately—trying to use my mind like a camera to record as many shots of him as I can.
My mother beams watching him eat. “You know, Tad,” she says, “this image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is miraculous too, like the Shroud.”
Tad’s eyes widen. “Really?”
“According to legend,” I say, regretting it immediately when I feel the annoyance emanating from my mother’s side of the table. Undeterred, she tells him the story of Juan Diego, how the Virgin Mary appeared to him and spoke to him in 1531, and how this image of her appeared on his cloak inexplicably. Tad is delighted. They’d enjoyed Bible stories and saint stories together since his toddlerhood when he would sit on her lap and listen while she read to him from a colorful children’s Bible.
I’d grown up with these stories too, of course. I’d loved them at the time. Mary was comforting and safe, my secret mom, the one who never scolded me, and who I knew would’ve snuck me a treat once in a while when no one was looking, if she could have. I was jealous of the girls who’d gotten to see apparitions of her—Saint Bernadette in France, and Jacinta and Lucia at Fatima. By the time I reached high school, she felt much farther away. All her perfection and queenliness had nothing to do with me.
After breakfast, my mother washes dishes by hand, and I dry them with a dish towel. Tad has gone to the living room to play with the Tinker Toys my mother keeps for him.
“I got him a subscription to those comic books about saints. Remember how much he enjoyed the one about Saint Francis?”
“That’s so thoughtful, Ma. Thank you.”
“Do you still say bedtime prayers with him?”
“I sit with him while he says them. You know my faith isn’t what it used to be.”
“Sayang,” my mother says. A word that means what a pity, or what a waste.
“But I’m a big believer in letting him be himself.” I pause, wondering if my words will once again hit my mother like an accusation.
“Any update from his doctors?” she asks.
“Things are looking good. He’s responding well to the chemo.” I press my lips together, refusing to think or talk about my worst fears.
“I’ve been praying to his patron saint. Saint Jude Thaddeus. The expert at even the most hopeless cases.” She hands me the last dish.
I nod at my mother, not really knowing what to say. I want to say, “Don’t bother; no one’s listening.” Instead, I let my gaze wander—soap suds, window, counter, her. A flicker of concern on her face makes me imagine that she wants to reach out and squeeze my arm, or give me a side hug. Instead, she says, “Fe. You’ll let me know if you need anything?”
“Yeah, Ma. Of course.”
Our drive the rest of the way to DC is quieter. We spend most of it listening to The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. The museum isn’t crowded when we arrive. We go through security, then take the elevators to the fifth floor and see the entrance to the Shroud exhibit on our left. Tad looks up at me and grins, barely able to contain his excitement.
We open the door and step into a dimly lit gallery. Tad inhales audibly when we see it. On the far wall, displayed horizontally, hangs a replica of the Shroud of Turin so accurate it might as well be the Shroud itself. Tad heads straight for the bench just in front of it and sits, foregoing all the supplementary displays lining the exhibit hall. I lean on a pillar next to the bench.
The image of the crucified man on the cloth is just visible in sepia tones, the front of his chest, arms, and legs clearest, the startling whip marks on his back almost painful to look at. Near the center of the cloth, the crucified man’s face is faint but distinguishable, eyes closed, unreal in its tranquility. I am shocked by the sudden tears in my eyes and the ache in my throat. I feel as if I’ve come across the lifeless body of someone I once knew. I may have come to reject many beliefs about Jesus, but I’m still so sorry he went through all this pain. I lean against the pillar and look first at the cloth, then at my son. He is transfixed, his eyes wide and serious, his lips parted slightly.
In front of the bench, a man wheels a woman in a wheelchair slowly across the fourteen-foot length of the Shroud; then they move off to tour the rest of the hall. A mother holds her little daughter’s hand, points at something on the cloth, appears to explain something to her, and similarly moves on. More visitors come and go. Two young men gesture toward the Shroud and toward various parts of their own bodies in rapt discussion of the faint image they are examining up close, almost with their noses to the protective glass. The atmosphere is hushed, as if we are inside a cathedral. Through it all, Tad sits very still, staring at the image on the cloth. I try to burn every detail of this moment into my memory; it’s a habit now. He’s so motionless that I begin to worry he’s having an absence seizure.
But he isn’t. As if sensing my concern, he looks over toward me and gives me a smile, then waves at me to come over. I join him on the bench.
“Pretty cool, huh, Bud?” I say.
“It’s the best thing ever,” he replies.
Eventually, we do walk around to view the other parts of the exhibit. Tad knows all about the medieval whereabouts of the Shroud, the Hungarian manuscript illustration that shows burn holes arranged in an L shape on the cloth due to fire damage, the photograph by Secondo Pia that proved the Shroud image to be a photographic negative, the findings of the scientists who had studied the Shroud in 1978. A woman with a ponytail sets her backpack down to read one of the placards and overhears Tad explaining the contents of the placard to me without even having to read it. When he moves on to the next item, she says to me discreetly, “He’s so smart!”
I smile back at her. “You have no idea. I can’t keep up. He thinks this thing is real. I don’t quite know how to handle that.”
I’m immediately embarrassed. Why did I blurt out such a personal, and tactless, revelation? For all I know, this woman might be a believer too.
She doesn’t seem bothered by what I said. “Does it matter?” she asks. “It’s a poem. A visual one.” I’m still processing this idea, and her question about whether the Shroud’s authenticity matters, when she gives a little wave and moves on. Does it matter? she’d asked. I’m a science teacher. Truth matters deeply to me. I feel unmoored when it eludes me, or when I can’t comprehend it. Of course it matters.
Toward the end of the walk-around, there is a partitioned area where people can fill out answers to questions on cards and hang them on a kind of bulletin board.
“Can I make a card, Mommy?” Tad asks.
“Of course,” I say. “I’ll make one too.”
I glance at the cards already hanging. Each person has answered one of three questions: What is the biggest unanswered question about the Shroud of Turin? What does the image on the Shroud mean to you? or How do you balance faith and science? Many of the cards are filled with devoted words of people who clearly believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that this artifact is genuine. “It’s Jesus for sure!” reads one, with hearts and flowers decorating the edges. “God’s love is for everyone!” declares another. Had I been this sure about incomprehensible things as a young girl, when I’d prayed the rosary every day—before I learned for myself that God’s love isn’t for everyone, because in fact God is not listening, is not even there? How can people look at the brutality on that Shroud and feel they’re looking at God’s will? If such a God exists, I don’t want anything to do with him.
I choose the card with the faith-versus-science question on it and write, Evidence is important. We should always strive for the truth. I glance at the card Tad is writing, painstakingly, in large, unevenly sized letters, in answer to the question of what the image of the Shroud means. If we die it’s okay. We’ll be okay. I’m behind him, so he can’t see the distress on my face. I totally disagree. It’s not okay. Not at all, not where he’s concerned. But I let him hang the card, anyway.
“Shall we go?” I ask.
“Can we sit with him one more time?” Tad asks. I wrap my arms around him as we sit on the bench together.
It’s late when we get back home. That night, Tad spikes a fever. The dread in my chest is reflexive. No no no moans a voice in my head as I read the thermometer. I pack bags for the hospital, trying to remember what I’d forgotten the last time. My toothbrush and a sweatshirt for the cold interior. The person taking calls at the hematologist’s answering service is patient with my flustered questions. Dawn is breaking as we head in.
Tad whimpers a bit as they insert an IV and draw his blood for what feels like the thousandth time in the last year, but I remind him how brave he is. I try to distract him with another topic that fascinates him—the Manila galleons. He loves the ships’ names.
“Name a ship that got captured by the British.”
“The Santísima Trinidad.”
“How about one that got wrecked off the West Coast?”
“The Santo Cristo—ow!—the Santo Cristo de Burgos. Or the San Francisco Xavier.”
“What’s your favorite name for a galleon?”
I chuckle, and he tries to join me but is clearly experiencing pain.
“All done, Buddy,” says the pediatric resident as she tapes the IV into place. “You did so great.”
The next few days all feel like the same day being repeated over and over. Morning blood draw, rounds, board games, movies, boredom, trips to the playroom, watching Tad sleep and remembering how tiny his toes were when he was a baby, and how soft his hair. I still can’t help checking his chest to make sure he’s breathing while he sleeps. I still feel as if my heart is about to burst every time I look at this face.
On the third day, he takes a turn for the worse. He’s a little delirious with the fever, and he keeps asking me for a replica.
“Honey, I can’t get a replica of that. You saw how big it was.”
“A small one, Mommy. Can I have a small one?”
“No, sweetheart. I wouldn’t know where to find something like that.”
One of the residents, Dr. Schwartz, overhears this conversation during his night on call. He gestures to talk to me in the corridor outside the room.
“What’s he asking for?”
I sigh, not wanting to explain. “Have you heard of the Shroud of Turin?”
Dr. Schwartz shakes his head, and I explain briefly what it is.
“Just before we came here, we were in DC at an exhibit where they had a life-size replica of it. He really loves that thing. I’ll never understand why. I’m not religious at all. My Filipino mom still says the rosary every day, but I left all that behind ages ago.”
While Tad is sleeping, for once not squirming helplessly in his bed with heat and restlessness, I call my mother to tell her Tad’s been admitted to the hospital again. She can’t say I told you so about our trip to DC because she had never said anything against it. All she says is, “I wish you had told me sooner. You want me to come?” I really want to say yes. I want to cry to her and hear her say that things will be all right. Instead, I tell her there’s not much to be done for the moment except wait. “I’ll pray to St. Jude,” she says. In that moment, I finally see her offer for what it is.
“Pray hard,” I say.
The next evening, though a different resident is on duty for the night, Dr. Schwartz finds me in the corridor. “I have something for you. For Tad, I mean. But I wanted to check with you first to see if it’s okay.” He pulls a piece of linen out of a plastic bag, about the size of a dish towel, and unfolds it, revealing a small Shroud image, a replica in miniature.
“How did you get this?”
“Internet search and a really cool printer.”
I thank him profusely and go back inside Tad’s room. He’s sleeping fitfully. He rolls onto his side. Some of his hair is sticking to his forehead, which is moist with tiny beads of sweat. Without thinking, I dab at it with the little Shroud replica, then place the replica between his arms like a hug pillow. For what feels like hours, I toss around in the recliner, unable to sleep, but I drift off eventually.
When I wake up the next morning, Tad is not in his bed. The miniature Shroud is there with his sheet and blanket. I throw off my own linens and practically jump off the recliner. He’s not in the bathroom either. Frantic, I run into the corridor toward the workstation, where people appear maddeningly calm, as if nothing is wrong.
“Excuse me,” I say, not knowing to whom I’m even speaking, still unable to be the Demanding Hospital Mom even though I am almost sick with panic. Everyone is busy. No one looks up.
“Hi, Mommy!” says Tad’s voice from the hallway behind me. He’s standing there in his pajamas, beaming. Dr. Schwartz is kneeling next to him, stethoscope to his chest.
“Somebody’s feeling better,” says Dr. Schwartz.
I sweep Tad up into my arms and hug him.
“You had me worried there for a second!” I say.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” Tad says, because duh, Mommy, obviously.
He’s too heavy for me to carry for long, but I hold him anyway and stare intently at his face, his adorable face. “You hungry?” I ask.
“I want waffles!”
Dr. Schwartz winks at us and nods.
“Let’s see about some breakfast, then, little man.”
We go back to his room and throw open the curtains. The sky is pink. Morning rounds will start soon. I stare at my son as he peruses the hospital menu, circling his favorite foods. I try to notice every detail of him, inscribe this image of him in my mind—the way he’s holding the pencil, the look of concentration on his face, the tiny freckles on his round cheeks—because I think I’ve never loved him more than I do at this very moment, and already the moment is slipping away, already it is gone, but the love is there, will always be there, just under the surface, where I hold my breath.