The miracles are not what make us whole. We make ourselves.
I used to pray I would be cured so I could walk like everyone else. So I wouldn’t have to spend another couple of months in the hospital having my body opened, shifted, and stitched shut again. So I wouldn’t have to burden my family with all the things I couldn’t do that came so easily to everyone else. I grew up somewhat on the outside of a religious upbringing. I went to church in the summers with my grandparents out of obligation. When you’re a kid you don’t get a say in whether or not you go.
Consequently, my relationship with organized religion is a bit checkered at best. I want to believe in the good parts; that there’s something up there watching over us and guiding us along into a fulfilling life. But there are so many who seem to attend church for the appearance and apparent superiority complex of it. I started to distance myself from the way it was presented to me. I asked my questions and quietly accepted a higher being into my heart in a Barnes and Noble parking lot. And for what it’s worth my grandfather, a Methodist preacher, allowed me to ask those questions. He also sought to give me genuine answers.
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Whatever my issues with the trappings of organized religion, I grew up with him allowing teenage me to be critical of the people who were supposed to be shining examples of Christianity; the people who gossiped about those who were absent—or simply out of earshot. It’s probably one of the reasons I maintain such belief as I have. It’s patchwork and personal. It exists built on everything I have learned and wanted in the life that I have. But it started with feeling so far outside that I prayed to be made in the image of everyone around me who could climb and walk and stand without thinking. When that didn’t happen, well…
I didn’t give up, but I did feel let down. For a great portion of my younger years, while people around me were either not paying me any mind at all or were openly staring, I was quietly hoping to wake up with a body that wouldn’t betray me at the slightest moment. That wouldn’t make people leave at the idea that I might need to hold onto them to navigate a world they mostly took for granted. How many buildings a day do you enter by way of a pull door? All of those are shut to me if I’m alone unless the consumerism gods have deemed it worthy of an automatic door button.
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I wanted to be as independent as everyone else so my family wouldn’t worry about how I would survive in the world when I got older. But here the world is shoving me into the space of being perpetually dependent for the simplest tasks. I often worried—occasionally do even still—that I am a burden on them. And here the world is forcing it to be true in a million microaggressive ways.
While I held this internal battle with myself, people on the street would sometimes see me walking alone or with someone, in a wheelchair or with crutches, and pause their lives to tell me how amazing it was that I was doing what I was doing. Never mind that what I was doing was usually buying groceries or going to the mall. That I was living my life was an inspiration. They would even pause to pray with me, physical contact and all. Now, if you have a disability for long enough, or were born with it as I was, you get used to this kind of thing. You brush it off or accept it gracefully. While being called inspirational for buying food grates a bit, I’ve never begrudged people the desire to pray with or for me. Unless, of course, they pray for my healing.
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Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass ripped me into the tiniest possible pieces. It brought out anxieties about religion, death, and healing from things generally thought unrecoverable. I did not immediately connect as strongly with Leeza (Annarah Cymone) as I expected to. I knew I would. But it worked under the surface for so long that I simply didn’t feel it happening. Somewhere between Ali’s (Rahul Aburri) journey to find his own answers about God and hating Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) sat Leeza’s place in my mind and heart.
She is, even before the miracle that allows her a chance at a more “normal” life, a perfectly ordinary individual. One of the church altar boys harbors a crush on her. The church even has a ramp to allow her access. No one says anything or stares at her in a dismissive or disgusted way. She’s accepted, and her wheelchair’s motor allows her freedom to go where she pleases. They probably pray for her, but that is to be expected. Her presence there tilts us toward the belief that she probably finds her own internal comfort in the church.
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With all these things in the forefront of her character, Father Paul’s (Hamish Linklater) insistence that she walks to him to receive the Sacrament is mildly offensive even to viewers who know from the trailer that she will be able to do it. She isn’t merely injured, after all. A hunting accident at the hands of the town drunkard rendered her paralyzed. Father Paul, despite the disgruntled church crowd, continues to demand Leeza approach him without her chair. He even goes so far as to ascend the stairs to his podium. And…she does it. It’s a miracle. The miracle she and her family and the entire town have been praying for since her accident. According to the town doctor, it is the not-impossible-but-exceedingly-rare made real.
This is not the moment that stuck most with me. Though it is Midnight Mass‘ first moment of revealing, truly, exactly what’s at stake here. Miraculous cures in media are nothing new, after all. They are, more often than not, the endgame to all heartwarming tales wherein a disabled character plays any significant part. But Flanagan does not deal in warming your heart. He aims to break it in just such a way so that you come away from his work having learned something about people and situations you might otherwise dismiss or at most treat with shallow and patronizing kindness.
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From my own experience, whether you realize it or not, Midnight Mass’ Leeza is one of those people. Her arc, too, is one of the subtlest and strongest out there. After all, it allows space for disabled people who wish for a cure as I used to and those who don’t get to see themselves in media. It also allows for the confrontation I had in my head about my own situation to play out on screen.
The thing about my disability—Cerebral Palsy, for those who have not encountered me yet or for the curious—is that no one did this to me. It happened at birth. I have never known any other way of being than what I am. If we wanted to get metaphysical about it I suppose you could say God did it while making me in her own image. Since that’s the kind of story I was raised on—that God made humanity in her image—that is who I talked to about it. Leeza has the luxury of being able to confront her attacker, such as he is, face to face. She can rail and scream and tell him everything she wishes had happened to him. And she can forgive him. There is no person on Earth I can do the same with.
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So I had all these conversations in the darkness of bedtime with my walls and ceilings and pillows. Years of my life that everyone else spent having the usual social childhood and teenage experiences were, for me were couched between hospital stays and surgeries and homeschooling. I don’t think, now, it rendered me any more socially unusual than your average introvert. But it gave me ideas about my body and my worth that made me shut myself off from the rest of the world. I accepted treatment from others that I never would today.
It made me sad and angry and scared in ways it is impossible to articulate to someone who has not had the experience or lived intimately with it. None of these feelings ever fully go away. Instead, you learn to force the world to adapt to you rather than adapting to the world’s demands.
Sometimes there is nothing to do; you just get wet because you can’t carry an umbrella and crutches at the same time. Sometimes you lash out at people who intentionally or otherwise seek to hurt you because they can. And sometimes you taste the bitterness of false positivity when a stranger on the street approaches you. You feel the sting of wandering eyes as they watch you pass. Sometimes you feel like you’re slowing everyone down when you venture out on a hike. Or you feel like you can’t go on one with someone new because trying to teach them the ways you need to handle the terrain feels like too much work that will push them away.
Ultimately, you forgive.
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You forgive yourself for every night spent wishing you were in a different body. You forgive whatever it is that put you on this Earth in the one you were given. Then you forgive every misguided stranger praying for the very thing you longed for years. Like Leeza confronting Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) post-miracle, you remain impassioned and angry and upset about the circumstances. But you forgive. What they do with the forgiveness you hand them is no longer your concern, and some things are harder to forgive than others. It might take years. Perhaps it will never fully happen. All of that is okay, too; everyone’s journey with themselves is different and there is no necessarily right way for it.
But seeing Leeza stand there, raging at the man who broke her irrevocably, pouring out every feeling she’s ever held in and leaving him in the wreckage of her words, shook me to my core. My own journey to acceptance and forgiveness of myself was much quieter. But the way it is for her at that moment is how it felt. Loud and breakable and angry and sad yet so fulfilling that it empties you out. There’s nothing left to say. There is only a new life to fill it with.
This is not the end of Leeza’s story, though. Far from it, in fact. She is given time to live the moments of her life she felt were robbed from her. She sneaks out late at night to be with her crush and takes a boat to the middle of the lake to have a moment alone with him. And they just, like, sping around in happy little circles. And then the miracles are washed away.
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Everyone in the town who took the blood of the Angel—the vehicle for all these healing miracles—realizes the cost. Father Paul, who thought he was doing something good by choosing the Chosen Ones himself, realizes the error of his ways while Bev Keane rails for exclusivity. Father Paul comes to understand what it truly means to love and protect your fellow man; Bev Keane wants nothing more than to exclude anyone she deems less worthy even as she hides from the violence that is a consequence. She is a coward who will pray for you to your face and pray for your death to herself.
When they burn in the light of the morning while the kids who manage to escape float away on a boat to another unknown land, it isn’t Bev or Father Paul who gets the last word. It isn’t Ali, who chose God in a moment of fervor and chose family when it mattered most.
Leeza gets the last word of the entire show: “I can’t feel my legs”.
The miracle of walking is gone, but the miracle of surviving persists. And she survives Midnight Mass, at the moment, with someone who loved her while she was privately facing her own battles. Who, probably, paid a lot of attention to how she navigated the world around her. A kid, sure, but someone who knows how to help her. Someone who, should they survive to make it to land themselves, would listen to her needs and allow her space to be herself. Who never asked her to be more even if she was wishing for it.
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I sat, a blubbering mess, at the end of Midnight Mass not just because the disabled character was given an arc so subtly powerful that it snuck up even on me, but because it was so nuanced it gave us all a space. If you wanted to be healed and happy, you got to see it happen. If you wanted a journey of acceptance of self, you got that.
My CP is an integral and inseparable part of who I am. I have learned to live alongside it rather than in spite of it (though I often live to spite others and, usually, the world). If you were to offer me a miracle cure for it, I’m no longer sure I would take it. The life I wanted at 14 and the life I have at 27 are wildly different experiences. I would have jumped at a cure back then if it meant relief from the ideas I had ingrained in me about myself and how the world felt about me; if it meant the chance to have the experiences I watched everyone else have.
But the experiences that I’ve had are just as important and fulfilling, no matter how different they seem. The people I have in my life are the ones who will bend to aid me when I need it without a second thought. Anyone who can’t handle the pressure of those requests is free to dissolve into ash in the sunlight.
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Leeza resonates with just the audience she was meant to. I am not the first disabled person to write about her story, and I hope I will not be the last. That she was put to screen at all in a story largely concerned with perfection and belief could have been disastrous in the wrong hands. Midnight Mass is a poignant tapestry of individual and collective pain and healing, and the first place I’ve ever seen the full scope of my own internal journey.
The perspective I have been given because of how I came into this world is invaluable. Though it took me years and any number of relocations to see it, and though no cycle of healing is linear, it matters. Leeza matters. Who I was before, while I mourned the things I didn’t have, and who I am now that I have made my own tools, they matter. The miracles are not what make us whole. We make ourselves.