Pain came to me one day, the familiar monthly pain, except it made its bed at the floor of my pelvis and stayed, like an uninvited houseguest, for twelve years.
Twelve years I bled. For a long time I fought the pain, seeking out one contemptuous man after another whose poking, instruments, tonics and pronunciations were powerless except to slowly drain my purse as pain had drained my life. My houseguest’s hostage, I could not ransom myself but bought instead sneers, invasive examinations, more pain, and an unending cascade of blame.
Pain had taken my money and banished me from the temple; it had marked me for pity, disgust, fear, and now much of my life was a void; so this is how it happens. Pain itself sidles into the void. Sick women are not believed; “but I believe you,” croons pain. Sick women lose friends, “but I know you best,” the constant companion says. So the memory of health fades into the distance and the promise of a future recedes even farther; and the more sick women are told we have imagined or caused our own suffering, the more we wonder if somehow we did want to suffer all along, and we cannot remember whether it is mad to pull our pain tight around us or mad to hope for escape, so we do both.
When the traveling preacher came, I brought my pain along to see him, see if he would defy the empire or the Pharisees or both; or if his words would teach us to see anew; or if he was a ghost or an angel, so many rumors about him were there. They said he spoke in stories only little children could understand. They said he radiated holiness even though he did not keep the Sabbath. They said—but I did not tell my pain this—he could heal.
I waited at the back of the crowd for the boat to arrive, unwilling to endure more looks of disgust than I had to. I strained to see the tall and striking, luminous and authoritative man I expected would alight. And there he was! He bounded out of the boat—then stepped to the side to wait for someone else to emerge. “Simon Peter,” someone near me explained to a companion. Several more men followed before the same person murmured, “and there’s Rabbi Jesus.”
He was not tall but average height, almost compact. To see him alone on the street he would have appeared like any other tradesman from Nazareth. But there was a kindness in his face, just beginning to line with laughter and sun, that made you watch him, made you keep him in your view—just in case, absurdly, he suddenly wanted to talk to you. He climbed slowly out of the boat, halting at odd intervals to let the man behind him catch up. I couldn’t hear, but I could tell he was listening intently to his companion. Jesus finally put his hand on the man’s shoulder and spoke a few words—prayers?— before gesturing to the crowd, gently clapping his shoulder, and turning toward us, just as a murmur went up.
The sound followed Jairus, the synagogue leader most of us feared, traveling at such an uncharacteristically undignified tear I looked twice before I could believe it was him. I pushed in closer as the crowd parted and Jairus fell on his knees in the sand.
“Thank the Lord you’ve returned,” he cried. “My littlest daughter is dying.” I sucked in a stabbing breath; Miriam was one of those children who brightened every place she went. Surely her light couldn’t just go out. Jesus’ brow furrowed, too, catching his own breath, standing up straighter as if on alert.
“Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed,” Jairus begged. “Please let her live”—a sob choked back anything else he had to say. Jesus reached down to help Jairus off his knees. “Let’s go,” he said, and began striding off the way Jairus had come, Jairus now fumbling in the sand to catch up. Jesus still looked kind, but grave—and now his body spoke of purpose and power. Disconcerting as it was to see Jairus at his wits’ end, tear-stained and sandy in front of the entire town, I had no doubt as Jesus made his way through the crowd that he would save Miriam. Captivated by the fierce compassion crackling in his eyes, I felt myself moving toward him without quite knowing what I was doing. I knew in my muscles more than I consciously thought: if he could save Miriam, surely he could save me.
His strides were quick, but mine were desperate, even in the jostling crowd. I wouldn’t hinder him from reaching Miriam, some rational part thought; I would just touch his clothes. I pushed on, my eyes forever locked on Jesus. Was he getting farther away? I struggled even more insistently, mumbling something like “sorry” at all the villagers whose dirty looks meant nothing to me anymore, pain sending out blinding blares of protest to match the irritated cries of my neighbors, and in one last push I stretched out my hand and felt the brush of Jesus’ cloak streaming out behind him.
And there, in the crush of the excited mob, I was suddenly arrested by utter silence. Stillness. I looked slowly down at my body to see if I was still there, unsure how I would know without the constant high whine of my suddenly-departed pain. I knew the bleeding had stopped, and for a second I was enveloped in a silent void—a vacuum left where the pain had been—until a moment later a tide of peace washed in over my skin.
I looked up again; Jesus, several feet away, had stopped, turning around to ask, “Who touched my clothes?”
A couple of his disciples exchanged looks. “You see the people crowding against you,” one of them said. “Fifty different people touched your clothes!” But Jesus didn’t move. I didn’t, either. I was unclean, and I’d touched the rabbi, and he knew—somehow he knew.
People near Jesus started to ask the same question—”Who touched the rabbi?”—as he continued scanning the crowd. Jairus was actually pulling on Jesus’ clothes, half-crazed by his own pain and unused to being made to wait for anything at all. If I didn’t come forward, the people would grow more restless, and Miriam was losing time. I stepped toward Jesus once more, eyes again locked on his face, and his eyes locked back on mine just before I knelt in the dirt in front of him. The crowd hushed.
“I touched you,” I said to the dirt. Here before this kind and powerful man, all the shame of the last twelve years constricted my throat and pressed my shoulders down toward my knees. “Twelve years I suffered, but now I suffer no more. Your cloak has healed me.”
Would the rabbi make an example of me for stealing his power? Would he rescind my healing and tell me I must repent of the wickedness that had caused my illness? Would he demand payment? I would have gladly offered anything, but I had nothing, nothing left to give. “Daughter,” Jesus said, so firmly and gently I raised my head to look into his smiling eyes, “your faith has healed you.” Such joy I saw in his face, and as he spoke of my faith, was there admiration in his voice? “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” I would treasure those words, his warm presence, all my days.
Now some of Jairus’s friends appeared. “Your daughter is dead,” they said to him gently, “Let the teacher go on with his travels.” A wild look came into Jairus’s eyes as he turned from them to Jesus with incomprehension. Jesus put a hand on his shoulder: “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
And I, for one, believed.