THE BOOK OF WIZZY
Eighteen-year-old Brittany Bingham is working as a housekeeper for posh condominiums in Park City when she discovers a body in a hot tub. Dead. Brittany’s parents are serving an LDS mission in Southern California. Whom should she call?
Why, her aunt Helen Snow, of course.
But Helen has her own problems. She’s still mourning the loss of a daughter with Down syndrome who died fifteen years ago at age three. Though Wizzy’s sweet, angelic spirit visits her every day, no one understands that she’s the source of Helen's inspiration, just as no one can know Helen’s celestial marriage is on the rocks. Should Helen accept her bishop’s call to be Relief Society president and tune out everything else, even Wizzy? Or should she respond to Brittany and learn how handsome Dave Jaramillo died?
Are yams appropriate in a compassionate-service casserole?
Who will kidnap the dog Horehound?
And forget about the sins of tea and coffee. Who drank the kombucha?
Credit: Pat Bagley
Helen Snow sat outside the bishop’s office across from the regulation-issue Heinrich Hofmann print of Jesus hanging on the regulation-issue green-tint wall. Bishop Irvine, who was perhaps all of forty—ten years her junior—and who looked and behaved as if he were even younger, had ordered her to attend him at nine AM this wintry Saturday morning, and she had arrived early. The storm had blown the choking inversion out of the Salt Lake Valley, and Helen would have preferred to be out walking Jinx, the dog. Yet here she was.
Helen couldn’t meet the Jesus eyes. The same picture, supposed to be glowing with compassion, had hung over a different bishop, backing him up, when Helen and her husband Mark had gone for counseling all those years ago. Helen remembered the bundle of their newborn daughter Elizabeth in her arms; they had spoken over the little one.
“We cannot always understand the ways of God,” Helen remembered that bishop saying, “but it is quite clear there can only be two reasons for this. When a child dies before its parents, or when it is born with such a handicap as yours has, either it has done something wrong in the Pre-Existence or the parents have sinned. You need to search your souls and repent for what you have done. And I would counsel putting your daughter in some sort of facility for the rest of her days so you can concentrate on giving your boys a normal life.”
He had been alluding to Elizabeth’s Down syndrome.
Helen remembered her arms closing on that bundle in the bishop’s office as if she would crush the tiny frame with her desire to protect Elizabeth—her Lizzy, or, as the child’s older twin brothers soon christened her—Wizzy. All the while Helen had had to smile bravely back at the authority and the mass print of Jesus.
Mark hadn’t touched her in the eighteen years since. As if the love that had created Wizzy were the sin. Helen knew her husband was hurting, in a terrible way: hurting that his priesthood had not been strong enough to bless that pregnancy with perfection, hurting that he was not a man worthy of a better wife and child. She had tried to salve that hurt, putting on the faithful front, being the obedient wife, reaching out to him, even suggesting more counseling—not in the bishop’s office. With someone who had actual training.
But Mark saw counseling as further proof of weakness, only for people whose faith wasn’t strong enough. He had focused instead, as the bishop had advised, on the boys, especially on the strong, healthy bodies born of male sports. He was an excellent father—for the boys.
Divorce had been out of the question. No matter how painful the distance between herself and Mark became, Helen was glad that his sense of faith forbade a public, open split. Dissolution of their temple marriage would bar Helen from the Celestial Kingdom for all eternity. And the Celestial Kingdom is where Wizzy was.
Later, three years after Wizzy’s birth, the same glowing, mass-produced Jesus had looked down on Helen in the chapel foyer as she had fled from the tiny casket smothered in the yellow roses that Wizzy had liked best. Fled from the funeral sermon where another, different bishop had said, “Such children are the blessed of God. Their proper minds restored, they have gone directly to the Celestial Kingdom where they wait for their parents. Their parents, if they live righteous lives, will be granted the privilege of raising these blessed spirits in the next life. If not, these little souls will be given to others, more righteous, to raise.”
That’s when Helen’s sobs, even on those massive doses of drugs the M.D./bishop had prescribed, had become so violent that she’d lurched to her feet, crashing into the casket on its wheeled base and fleeing the scene.
The sermon’s words had followed her up the aisle: “Those who weep uncontrollably at the loss of a loved one are those who do not have a proper understanding of God’s plan, as I’ve just outlined it for you. O ye of little faith.”
In the foyer had been that same Jesus, who was supposed to be Compassion incarnate. Helen had gone farther into the bowels of the ward house where the smell of funeral potatoes and ham nearly made her vomit, vomit up all those damned worthless mood enhancers. No one had come after her to preach more forbearance, thank God. They all acted as if her lack of faith might rub off on them, just as that antibacterial-immune bug in the hospital had rubbed off on Wizzy during a well-baby visit.
In that darkened corner of the building, away from the Hoffmann Christ, there had been a print of Mary by some artist whose name Helen still didn’t know. Mormons weren’t comfortable calling this woman “Virgin”. You’d have to explain to your virgins what “virgin” meant, as if you had to be ashamed of it. You couldn’t call her “Mother of God” either. Just plain Mary. But Mary, at least, understood what it was to be a mother. She knew what it was to have a child die. And nobody was accusing her of being less than perfect.
Helen knew this was heretical thinking. Worse, it was probably Catholic. But that had been the last time she had “amen”ed “in the Name of Jesus Christ”.
The only way she had been able to face the Hoffmann Christ since had been to set Wizzy’s squinty, “deformed” eyes in that face. Those eyes had only looked up at her, never down on her, with perfect acceptance and love.
In all the fifteen years since Wizzy’s death, the only church calling Helen had held was as Primary pianist. For all fifteen years. Some busybodies, meaning only the best, had suggested that being with the little kids wasn’t good for Helen’s healing. She felt just the opposite. At the piano, she could close her eyes and remember how Wizzy had loved to lean against the spinet at home while Helen played.
And yet, Helen had to admit she was ready for something, some change, some purpose in her life now that her sons were on their missions, her sister Karen on a mission, her niece Brittany moved into her own accommodation. Over the years, Helen’s sense of the constant presence of her lost child had transformed her grief into a sort of trust that she had never found the words for, nor heard described by others. That trust had been making her, in recent months, feel poised to tackle something big, else risk heavenly condemnation for having buried her talents. What her talents were, however, she wasn’t quite sure. Could a demanding calling possibly be the answer?
The Bishop had said, over the phone, that he had prayed over the task of finding a replacement Relief Society president, implying that, unlikely as it seemed, she was the answer to his prayers. Was this right, to accept a calling as Relief Society president? Today? To plunge in way up over her head?
“If it is right, I shall cause that your bosom shall burn,” said The Doctrine and Covenants. The old joke about this verse crossed Helen’s mind—that it referred to Sister Jones’s chili and not to the promptings of the Holy Ghost.
Helen’s bosom was not burning. Her stomach was churning with dread. Was this the nudging from the Holy Ghost? How did one tell? Especially—and here was the problem—when the divine whisperings she heard were in opposition to authority, the authority of her husband and of the bishop?
Was it a mistake in the theology that insisted an all-seeing God was compassionately guiding the lives of his children? Helen had seen all too often that what the deluded called the Holy Ghost had led them to polygamy, to abuse, to purchase the snowmobile that led to bankruptcy, to shooting rampages. These were the “inspirations” that manifested themselves; everything else manifested as blind obedience.
In most Mormons’ books, obedience trumped personal revelation every time.
Helen didn’t speak in church. She never stood to bear her testimony. Pianists didn’t have to deal in words.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So begins the Gospel of John.
But Wizzy had never learned words. The whole three years of the child’s existence on earth, Helen had found music the best way to communicate with her daughter. The music they shared -- piano music, church hymns, songs sung and songs on the radio -- had seemed more primal, less open to misinterpretation, to exploitation, than words. Like breathing.
And for the past fifteen years, providing the incidental music in Primary, Helen could play what she liked. As long as she shoved tempo and harmony in Bach’s direction, she could play her favorites, Wizzy’s favorites: African-American spirituals like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “A Man of Constant Sorrow”. She always gave “O My Father” four verses instead of the three it had been reduced to in her lifetime to avoid the verse that said, “Truth eternal tells me I’ve a Mother there.”
Church leaders had been content to leave her at that for many years … just grateful, she supposed, that she wasn’t more trouble. But now, as the Scripture said, “There arose up a new king in Egypt, which knew not Joseph.”
Shouldn’t that be “who”? The Bible was “The word of God” only as far as it was translated correctly. Wasn’t that the rub? Translated - or edited … or censored.