For the 18 years I had known my mother, she adhered to a comfortably predictable regime of traveling to the same two Midwestern cities during the same weeks every year, drinking a single Amstel Light every evening, and eating the same baked chicken at the same restaurant every time we went out. When she told me that she planned to embark on an impromptu, three-week-long religious excursion to Abadiãnia—a one-landline town in rural Brazil, as I later learned from Wikipedia—I even applauded the particularly exotic choice of location for the joke.
I stopped laughing when, the day after Christmas, a gray taxi honked twice in front of my house with my mom in the back seat. Absent mindedly sure that I knew everything about her, I hadn’t so much as asked with whom she was undertaking this pilgrimage, let alone inquired into why she was going to Abadiãnia, of all places.
And only a few days after her return, I had compiled two mental lists of details. The details my mother volunteered about her stay in Abadiãnia comprised List One: Thousands of people from all over the world regularly converged on the town; these “pilgrims” all wore white; and, strangest of all, many of the people she mentioned were inexplicably sick or injured.
The changes in my mother since her return comprised List Two: She was unfazed by the evidence of 40 kids drinking alcohol in her house; she happily slept until 10, later than she ever slept before; she invited my dad over to make pancakes and did not mention the divorce.
Despite her newfound vigor and calmness, she seemed to physically slow down as days passed, to the point that when we both returned to Columbia at the end of break, she couldn’t reach the top of one flight of stairs without needing to pause to lean heavily on the wall.
I went to school for a week, and on Thursday my mom and I met to go to Community Food & Juice for dinner. As soon as we were seated, I opened the floodgates.
“Did you get sick in Brazil, or something?”
“No, just recovering from the exertion.”
“The exertion of what, exactly?”
“John of God! He’s a Spiritual Medium. I went to see him to try to get help for your sister.” This made sense. The Northampton Medical Center had only just released my sister from a brief incarceration following her most recent suicide attempt—even they had no idea how to help her, so, sure, John of God was as good a step as any.
“Did it work? And, wait—why are you so shaky?”
She was intently studying the menu even though she’d never ordered anything other than the baked chicken.
“Look, this is very serious. I didn’t want to scare you kids, so I haven’t told anyone, but I want to tell you.”
“Yes, OK, good. What’s going on?”
“While I was in Brazil... I had heart surgery. John of God did it. He did two surgeries on me, and one on Catherine. But it’s OK, I’m fine now!”
“Are you kidding?” The waitress came for our orders; my mom got gazpacho and a steak.
“No. I’m at an absolute loss with Catherine. What else haven’t we tried? So I planned this trip, and then I realized that I needed help, too. I have—or, well, had—a mitral valve prolapse. It’s extremely common, and doesn’t usually cause anyone any problems. John of God knew why I was there before I ever spoke to him, and he fixed it. The first surgery was visible, and the second one was invisible. It was very relaxing, utterly life-changing. I was awake for all of it, of course, just in a trance.”
“Is he a doctor?”
“Well, no. In fact, as far as I know, he didn’t go to school at all.”
“What about Catherine?”
“That’s the thing—he can do a surgery from a thousand miles away!”
“Catherine is depressed, she’s anorexic, she’s lonely. What kind of surgery could he possibly do for that?”
“You’ll have to Google him. I’m too tired to explain it all properly, but I want you to know all about him. Plus—and I don’t want this to scare you—John of God asked for you specifically… by name. I hadn’t even mentioned you, he just knew. I just put everyone’s name, including yours, in the Triangle, and he picked you out.”
“Why is that?”
Our food arrived, and she was momentarily immersed in examining her steak.
“Dr. Baskind found a heart murmur, and, long story short, you have it, too. A mitral valve prolapse, but yours is ‘flail’ and ‘asymmetrical.’ You’ll have to Google that, too. Remind me—what classes are you taking this semester?”
That night, I compiled a list of bookmarked links that filled in some of the missing elements of my mother’s story. Joāo Teixeira de Faria, known to the people in his home town of Abadiãnia, Brazil, as Joāo de Deus (John of God) or Medium Joāo, has never taken a science class, can barely read after only two years of school, and has never so much as watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Yet, weeks prior, Medium Joāo performed a mitral valve replacement surgery on my fully-conscious mother. According to the American cardiologist with whom she had followed up, John of God had not, in fact, done any damage to her at all. According to the countless articles about him, John of God had never killed anyone, had never lost one single patient under the knife—in this case a paring knife from his kitchen set, which he maneuvered with ungloved and unsterilized hands.
By searching “John of God, visible surgery,” I found enough to keep me up through the night—things like Joāo slicing cataracts off the eyes of an upright and fully conscious blonde woman with a knife that looked vaguely Ikea. I felt nauseated and fascinated and nauseated in a horrible cycle of remembering and forgetting and remembering that Joāo had done this to my mother.
By four in the morning, I had moved on to the invisible surgeries. According to the usual sources, Joāo could, in fact, perform surgery without touching the patient—these operations, known as “invisible surgeries,” had been shown to produce the same effects and side-effects as the “visible” surgeries that they mimicked.
I couldn’t get through to my mom for the entirety of the next day. On Saturday, when she finally answered, finally ready—even desperate—to hear it, I pushed for stories. We both cried as I hurriedly tried to recount everything I had learned about John of God, pausing every few sentences to remind her that she had to be careful, that she really shouldn’t be working, and as she interrupted every few sentences to tell me she loved me and apologize for not telling me about the EKG.
When we hung up two hours later, I had six missed calls from Catherine. My prolapsed heart dropped into my stomach. I immediately called her back, terrified that I had crucially screwed up by ignoring her, but she answered with an uncannily familiar tone.
“Hi, OK, so get this. Today, I was walking down the street, and something just flicked on. Like, this sort of sadness had been lifted. Not even sadness in that moment, the kind of sadness that was just the wallpaper of my life. I felt, I don’t know… I felt, suddenly, OK.”