“This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing”
By Hamilton Cain
Crown Publishers, $25; 272 pages
By Gina Webb / For the AJC
In 2003, Hamilton and Ellen Cain’s 2-month-old son, Owen, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a potentially deadly genetic disease. For the next seven months, the Cains would haunt the pediatric ICU of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan as their baby fought for his life and doctors offered little hope.
After a period of “weeping in the shower each morning, ” Ellen rallied, organizing their days around Owen’s care and the many doctors’ visits and medical challenges they faced.
But her husband felt useless, lost, depressed.
He sat for hours staring out the window, “stunned into a stasis, estranged from everything.”
Until he remembered that at times like this, he used to pray.
Before he fled his devout Baptist upbringing in Chattanooga, prayer infused the days of Cain’s childhood, a simpler time when it came to belief and hope.
“God lived in the cathedral of our hearts, ” he recalls. His family and fellow congregants weathered the worst through the willingness to believe: “We prayed and the Lord would heed.”
Now, when he visits a neighborhood church to pray for his son’s life, he feels like “the heretic who’d somehow escaped the stake, circling back decades later to sift through the bonfire’s ashes, searching for what, exactly?”
“This Boy’s Faith” is the answer to that question, the author’s re-evaluation of a way of life that once promised protection from harm and offered redemption on a daily basis. It’s also a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a world where every aspect of life, from family vacations to school, from civil rights to the discovery of sex, was connected to the church and filtered through its teachings.
The doorway to Cain’s past is a phone call to his mother asking for her help during the darkest days of his child’s hospitalization. Her response returns him to a time when he was the wonder boy everyone said would one day “be running the entire Southeast Baptist Convention.”
He was also the boy whose own sister labeled him a nerd and cringed when he quoted Scripture and tried to convert their friends, as well as the one who allegedly “came to Jesus” at age 7, jumping on the neighbor’s trampoline, with only the neighbor’s dog as his witness.
It wasn’t easy sidestepping eternal hellfire and Cain, a fervent believer, was only following his parents’ leads.
Lanny and Cholly Cain’s fears of the coming End Time exploded during the apocalyptic events in their hometown during the 1970s and ’80s: the 1972 Jersey Pike oil tank fires; the kidnapping of a child from J.C. Penney (where Cain’s father worked); the flooding in 1973; an airplane hijacking; and the abduction and slaying of Cain’s dentist, Dr. Robert Elliott, in 1974.
As Cain recreates the events of those years, he summons the fears and terrors that once held his imagination hostage as he superimposed Bible stories and myths onto his everyday life.
He resurrects a mother who, as self-absorbed as she is self-righteous, spends most of his childhood trampling on his self-esteem.
He questions whether his ambition to out-Jesus Jesus was fueled by the desire for his mother’s approval or a slavish compulsion to follow the Baptist script to the letter.
For each memory, new revelations take the place of the dire biblical predictions Cain once memorized so faithfully: A hidden photo that once terrified him now becomes a lesson in how a father protects his children.
After a bruising loss in the State Bible Drill, he watches a childhood friend complete her majorette routine despite a spectacular error, casting his own failure in a new light.
In a particularly memorable chapter, Cain cringes at the brownie points he once hoped to rack up during an outreach program to a local nursing home.
There, the plight of an elderly Holocaust survivor barely touched him — until years later, when he catches a ghostly glimpse of her in the darkened lobby of an Upper West Side office building.
A few of these resounding, poetic finishes tend to obscure rather than clarify Cain’s meaning, yet his prose can be so evocative that the occasional overwriting is forgivable.
“Aged 13, I was sitting in the passenger seat in our butter-colored Pontiac, parked outside the Red Food Store on Ringgold Road in Chattanooga. It was twilight. I was still sweaty and cleated from soccer practice. My mother had just strapped herself behind the steering wheel, her hair teased to a halo of Streisand-like curls. She’d flipped on the radio for the six o’clock news. A skinny, pimpled bag boy ferried paper sacks onto the rear floorboard. A violet light played across the dashboard …”
And what of Owen? In the book’s epilogue, Cain’s son, now 8 years old, still hooked to a feeding tube and a ventilator that does his breathing for him, has “grown lean and long, hair rumpled like a mop.”
His therapist has miraculously helped him find a way to communicate with his family, as well as a pen pal to whom he writes each day.
While Owen painstakingly forms words — “I want to visit Florida when I am old and go to the beach”— his father, once lost, is finally found.