Friday, December 24, 2010

O Holy Night

When Joseph disappeared inside the inn, Mary slid off the little donkey.  Her legs trembled violently.  She leaned against the beast for a few moments to keep from falling.  She straightened and reached behind her to push her fingers into her lower back.  Oh, how she ached from the journey to Bethlehem!  Had it only been three days?  It seemed more like three months, or three years. 

She looked at the stars and wondered when Joseph would return.  Joseph.   She thought back to the myriad conversations they had shared on the road.  A warmth spread through her.  He was such a good man.  The Lord had chosen well.

She stood by the donkey's head, reins in her left hand, a scruff of mane in her right.

"Rest, Hannah," she told the creature.  "We can rest now.  I think.  I hope."

Joseph came through the doorway, a man behind him.  Mary brightened.  A bed, she thought.  And a meal.  And women, in case . . .

Joseph did not return her smile.  Mary's brow furrowed.

"This is my wife, Mary," he told the innkeeper.

"Shalom," the older man said.

Mary nodded slightly.  "Shalom, sir."

Joseph put his hand in the small of Mary's back and whispered into her ear.

"There are no rooms to be had, beloved.  Here, or in all of Bethlehem.  The census has brought--"

Mary covered her mouth, but not before a sob escaped.

Joseph placed his other hand on Mary's swollen belly.  "I'm so sorry, my love."

Mary brushed her tears away and lifted her chin.  "I'll be fine," she said.  "The Lord will provide."

The innkeeper led them on a path behind the inn.  In the moonlight Mary saw a bit of pasture with a low stone wall around it.  Beyond it, the terrain became hilly and rocky.

"How much farther, sir?" Mary said.

The man pointed.  Mary's sharp intake of breath was loud in the silent night.

"A cave?"

"It's roomy inside," the man said.  "I'll put more hay down for you.  We use it as a stable.  See?  I built a wall with a door across the opening."

The innkeeper held up the lantern.  Inside, cattle and sheep responded.

"The heat from the animals will warm you." 

He handed the light to Joseph.  "Put it on the ledge by the opening."

Joseph took the lamp in one hand and shook the man's hand with his other. 

"Thank you, sir.   This is far better than bedding down alongside the road."

The man produced a loaf of bread and a wineskin from a sack Mary had not seen.

"It's not much, but my wife--"

Mary's eyes watered.  She sniffed.  "How kind of her.  Please thank her on my behalf."

The man glanced at Mary's stomach.  "Your time?" he said.  "Is it--"

Mary rested her hands on either side of the bulge.  "Soon," Mary said.  "Very soon."

The insistent opening of the place between her legs left Mary breathless.  She longed to tell Joseph to stop the endless stroking of her hair, but she didn't want to hurt his feelings.  He was such a kind man.  A good man.  He would make a wonderful husband.  And father.

She thought of these things when she wasn't delirious with birth pain.  He didn't divorce me, she thought.  Praise be to the Most High God for that.  Everyone had told him to.  Oh, she hadn't heard their words, but she didn't need to.  Their actions, their eyes, their avoidance of her and her family, said everything.

She spoke over her shoulder.  "Thank you again."

Joseph rested his hands on her hips.  "For what, love?"

Mary felt her insides quicken with the endearment.  She put her hands over his.

"For convincing Mother and Father not to pronounce me dead to them."

"The angel should have spoken with them also."

The white hot heat in her loins returned.  Mary panted, like Elizabeth had told her to.  She swatted at the imaginary creature in front of her.  It breathed her air so she couldn't.  Joseph paced left and right.  She pointed to her pack.  Joseph eyed her shaking finger.

Her intake of breath sounded ragged.  "Inside," she said.  "Olive branch."

He rooted through the bag.  Took out a piece of wood as thick as his thumb.  He held it out. 


She nodded. He placed it in her hand.  She put it in her mouth.  Bit down hard, like Elizabeth had advised.  She squeezed her eyes shut.  A moan rose from a  place deep within her.  Tears soaked her cheeks.  Out in the night, someone, some thing, hissed, "You will fail."

At the beginning of the third watch, the splitting inside her waned.  She was able to catch her breath.  She leaned back against the cave wall.  Turned her cheek to the cool stone.  As chilly as the Bethlehem night was, she felt as if she were on fire.  She wiped the sweat mist from her brow into her thick, almost black hair.

"Water.  Please."

Joseph held the wineskin to her lips.  Let a few drops trickle out.  Her eyes begged for more.

Joseph shook his head.  "My mother said you should just have a little.  Too much might make you sick."

Mary's eyes widened.  "You asked your mother?" 

She looked down between her legs.  "About this?"

"I knew it was possible we'd be alone," Joseph said.  "When the baby came.  With no women to help you.  I had to know what to do."

Mary touched her chest.  Such a wise man.  A very good man.

The pains became more frequent.  Joseph counted between them--100, 75, 60.

Mary sobbed.  "Joseph, my husband.  Please pray for me.  For our son."

She cried out in the night, a keening announcement of despair.  Somewhere in Bethlehem, a lone dog answered.

Mary's head turned side to side.  "Pray I don't die here in this place."

"Oh, Sovereign Lord," Joseph said.  "Instill in my young wife's heart your truth.  That weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning."

In that moment, the pain seemed to recede, and Mary slept.

When Mary opened her eyes, she saw Joseph with the babe in his arms.  She shook her head and rubbed her eyes.  

"When?  How?"

Joseph didn't hear her.  He'd removed his headcovering and used it to wrap the boy.  Mary's eyes stung as she watched Joseph walk with the child.  He bounced the infant gently as he moved about the cave.  She heard his murmured prayers and words of love.

Mary whimpered and held out her arms.  "Here," she said.  "Let me."

Joseph looked over at her and smiled tenderly.  He knelt beside her and carefully placed the babe in her arms.  She buried her face in the boy.  Breathed his smell.  Her smell.  She gently laid him on her lap.  She unwrapped him, but kept her chest near his so he would not be chilled.  She examined him thoroughly.  She touched him here and there.  Counted his fingers, his toes.  She turned to Joseph.

"He looks like any baby.  Any boy.  No different."

Joseph smiled and nodded.  He didn't take his eyes off the child.  Mary ran her fingers through the baby's damp, dark hair. 

"I thought he would be handsome, maybe even glorious, like Moses when he came down from the mountain of God, but he has no beauty or majesty to identify him, nothing in his appearance to tell people who he is."

"Remember, my love," Joseph said.  "Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart."

Mary pressed her middle finger into the center of the baby's chest.

"You, dear one, are not flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.  You are like another Adam.  You, are made by God alone."

Mary rested a hand on her now soft belly.

"I am--  I was, but a temporary home for you these past months.  Me, no other woman.  My body held you, nurtured you.  I pushed and moaned and brought you forth."

She held the baby up as if to offer him back to his heavenly father.  "Lord God over all, here is your son, your one and only son, a holy and living sacrifice."

When she opened her eyes,  she saw Joseph at the cave's entrance.

"Mary, darling.  You must come."

Mary shook her head.  "Why?  What is it?"

Joseph pointed out into the inky night.  "There is a marvelous light," he said. "Behind this hill.  Here, I will take you."

He waited while Mary wrapped the child in linen strips, then she swaddled him again in Joseph's headcovering.  Joseph lifted Mary with the babe in her arms and carried them out into the night.  Mary nestled her head against Joseph's shoulder.  His arms are strong, she thought.  And his profile too.  Under different circumstances, he would have been a king.  Of the house of David.

Outside the cave, Mary squinted at the sky.  A star shone in the east, bright as the sun it seemed.  She tried to stare into the center of it, but her eyes burned, and she had to look away.  She went to cover the baby's eyes, but somehow he had no problem gazing into the center of the glory in the sky.  In fact, she thought she saw the corners of his mouth turn up.

Joseph laid an arm across Mary's shoulders.  "Listen," he said.

It sounded as if there was a chorus of hundreds upon thousands.   Their voices seemed to come out of the brightness.  How had she not heard it before?

"Who sings?" Mary said.  "Is it angels?"

Joseph shook his head and spoke near her ear.  "I have no idea.  All of creation maybe?  It is that loud."

Joseph carried Mary and the babe back inside the cave.

"Joseph," Mary said.  "Put more hay in the manger please."

"Why?" he said, as he complied. 

Mary laid the bundled boy on top of the soft, golden straw.  She knelt beside him. 

"Shalom, my baby," she said.  "Shalom, my son.  Born of my body and my pain.  In your lifetime, you will be loved, even worshipped.  And one day you will save all men.  "

She held her hand over her mouth and whispered so only she could hear. 

"Between the two--the being loved and the saving--you will be hated.  Despised.  The very ones you came to rescue will kill you."

She picked up the baby and pressed him to her heart.  "But not yet," she said into his ear.  "For now, you are mine."

She reached out her hand for Joseph's.  "Mine and my husband's.  Jesus, this is your abba, your daddy, Joseph.  He will be your father here on earth.  He's a kind man, a good man."

Friday, December 17, 2010

Do You See What I See?

Every night was the same.  Mary slept until some time between the second and third watch.  She'd wake, then lie wide-eyed until dawn.  It had been this way ever since the great and terrible day of the angel.  After his visitation, Mary found it hard to close her eyes, to even blink.  Every time she did, she saw not her life, but her son's death, pass before her vision.

How many times each night did she question her divine appointment?  She'd move her lips but make no sound.

"Oh, Sovereign Lord, why?  Why did you choose me?  Holy Father, I don't think I shall be able to bear it.  Please, won't you take this lot from me?"  

Almost always, she felt her hair stir as a slight breeze sighed through the room where she lay.  One night she thought she heard the wind speak.  "I am."  She'd turned onto her stomach, to be face down. 

"Forgive me, my Lord.  Your will is perfect.  And good.  Let it be done to me according to what you have said."

"You're a prophet, Mary," Elizabeth had said.  "A prophetess.  But don't tell the men.  They'll laugh at you.  Or yell.  Scorn your youth.  And your gender."

"A prophet?  I don't think so," Mary'd said.  "Didn't Joel, the son of Pethuel, write of our people having visions?  I don't speak for the Lord.  He shows me things."

This was after Elizabeth had made a fuss over Mary's arrival.   Elizabeth had washed her feet herself, instead of calling a servant to do it.  All the while she murmured things like, "How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?"

Mary shook her head.  "Elizabeth, stop," she said.  "I'm just a girl.  Your cousin.  The one you see every year at Passover in Jerusalem.  Now, tell me what it is like to feel your son move inside you."

Elizabeth took Mary's hands and placed them on either side of the tautness beneath her breasts.  She glanced down.  Smiled.

"Can you believe I have a bust like this?  At my age?  Zechariah--"

She stopped when she saw Mary blush.  She bowed her head and spoke to her belly. 

"Son?  Is my cousin, Mary, a prophetess?"

Mary watched her right hand move.  "He kicked me!"

She knelt and rested her cheek on Elizabeth's swell.  "Baby boy, is the child I carry the Son of the Most High God?"

Mary sat back on her heels and rubbed her face.  "That hurt!" 

She gulped.  Her eyes filled with tears.  Elizabeth took her hands and pulled her to standing.  She held Mary close and patted her back.  Mary thought she could feel faint and gentle movements from inside Elizabeth's belly, as if the baby wanted to communicate to her with his tiny hands.

"Shalom, cousin.  Shalom," Elizabeth said.  "Peace be with you.  Remember what the angel said?  You are highly favored among women.  Does that not please you?"

Mary pulled away.  Used her sleeve to dry her face.

"It does, cousin.  It does.  I am most grateful that my thoughts and deeds please our Lord.  But--"

Elizabeth shook her head.  "But what?  What could possibly dampen your joy?"

Mary twisted her hands.  "The angel--  He said God would give my son the throne of David."

Elizabeth drew her breath in.  "But that is good.  David was a great man."

Mary walked to the window and looked out.  "King David was a man of war." 

She sighed and turned her face toward Elizabeth.  "Also, King David did not have the Romans to contend with.  And . . ."

Elizabeth crossed the room and stood behind Mary.  She removed Mary's head covering and laid it over her arm.  She took  her hair down and combed it with her fingers.  She knew how to soothe the young woman.  She whispered into the long, dark waves.

"And what?"

Mary's inhale sounded frayed to Elizabeth.  "And ever since the angel came, I see things.  When I close my eyes."

Elizabeth rested her hands on Mary's shoulders.

"You see things.  It is as I said.  You have the gift."

Mary turned to face Elizabeth, her face contorted.  "No gift this, Elizabeth.  I see death.  Suffering."

Elizabeth put her hand over her heart.  "Of our people?  God's chosen remnant?"

Mary lowered her head.  Tears fell from her chin to her garment.

"No," she said.  "Of my son.  My baby boy, but grown.  And no one, no not one, acts on his behalf."

Elizabeth winced.  "How do you bear it, dear one?"

Mary turned back to the window and looked out into the distance.

"Promises," she said.  "The promises of our Lord.  "'Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.'  That comforts.  Sometimes."

Behind her, Elizabeth shook her head.  "You are so young, and yet, a stronger woman than I." 

The older woman slipped between Mary and the window.  She took the young woman's hands in her own.   Rested them on her girth again.

"Tell me what you see."

Mary pulled back.  Shook her head.  Elizabeth nodded slowly, her eyes narrow.  Mary closed hers.  Saw.  Shuddered.  Opened her eyes.  To stop the vision.

Elizabeth's voice was low, almost a growl.  "Tell me."

"No."  The word was a gasp.  A plea.

Elizabeth cupped Mary's chin.  Lifted it so their eyes met.

"I want to know."

"You don't."

"I need to, Mary."

Mary shook her head.  "You don't know what you're asking, cousin."

"Tell me," Elizabeth said.  "So I can pray."

"You can't pray away his destiny."

Elizabeth tilted her head.  "Can't I?"

Mary's mouth fell open.  Her eyes widened.

"No.   You can't.  Pray for his strength.  And yours.  And Zechariah's."

Elizabeth's eyes shown with tears.  She ran two fingers down the side of Mary's face. 

"I see now," she said.  "Why He chose you.  Now, tell me."

Mary squeezed her eyes shut.  Sobs wracked her small frame, but she spoke what she saw.

"I see a king.  And a young woman.  She's very beautiful.  Lovely in form.  She dances for him. He's smiling.  And then--  Soldiers.  The king sent them.  For your son."  

Mary twitched as her flesh crawled.  She swallowed.  "For his . . . head."

Mary opened her eyes when she heard Elizabeth moan.   There she was.  On the floor.  In a crumple. 

Friday, December 10, 2010


We weren't even in the humongous box store five minutes when I felt a tug on my hoodie sleeve.  I smiled down at my five-year-old son.


"Mom?  The clues for the Easter basket scavenger hunt.  They were made on a computer."

I raised an eyebrow.  "And?"

"I don't think the Easter Bunny has a computer," he said.  "Mom, are you the Easter Bunny?  I mean--  You and Dad?"

I pulled him over into the bra and undie department.  Squatted beside him.  Put a hand down for balance.  I looked at the ceiling.  To lie or not to lie. 

"You know how we taught you kids to always tell the truth, no matter what?"

He nodded.

I sighed.  "You're right.  We are.  The Easter Bunny."

He grinned and put both thumbs up.  "Yes!  I knew it!"

I stood and started walking again.  We turned the corner by the shoes.  He let go of my hand.  Here it comes.  I turned to face him with my hands out, palms up.


He looked at me, one eye squinty.  "So, does that mean--  Are you Santa too?"

I puffed air, and it lifted my bangs.  "Yep."

He tapped his mouth with a pointer finger.  "And the Tooth Fairy?"

I straightened his jean jacket collar and shook my head.  "Dang, you're smart."

We strolled up an automotive aisle.  I read windshield wiper packages.  He sniffed air fresheners.

"Hey," I said.  When he looked over at me, I pretended to zip my lip from left to right.

"Don't tell your big sisters."

He grinned.  "I won't, Mom.  I promise.  They'll figure it out some day.  When they're as smart as me."

Maybe they would.  Maybe I'd have to tell 'em.  To spare them embarrassment in middle school.  Actually, I was pretty certain the oldest one knew.  Surely she did.  For crying out loud, she was almost 12.  How old was I?  When I stopped believing?  Or should I say, when I stopped acting like I believed.

That one Christmas, I about gave my mom a conniption fit.  I was probably 13.  Maybe 14.  Whatever the age is when you enjoy tormenting  your mom.

At 8:30 on Christmas morning, I'd tiptoed out into the living room.  No presents.  Nada.  Nothing.  My upper lip twitched.  Are you kidding me?

I crept back to my room.  Flopped on my bed.  Proceeded to have a hissy fit.  A fake one, but still . . .

Mom pushed open my bedroom door.  She came over and stood by my bed.  Zipped her maroon velour robe.  Reached a tentative hand toward me. 

"Honey?  What's wrong?"

I looked up at her.  Those prickly rollers all over your head.  And the old lady robe.  They're what's wrong. 

I sat up and sniffled.  Wiped my nose on my jammy sleeve.  I squished my face up for extra effect.

I fake hiccupped before I answered.  "Santa didn't come," I said.  "I must've been really, really bad this year.  The boys too."

Mom's jaw dropped.  Her eyes bulged. 

"Um . . . That's not it.  I mean--  Go back to bed.  Who knows?  Maybe a reindeer got sick."

She picked up a Girl's Life magazine off the floor.  Pushed it at me.

"Here.  Why don't you read for awhile?"

She backed out of the room and shut the door.

An hour later, she was back.

"Guess what?" Mom said.  "He came.  And he left this.  Beside the fireplace."

She held out a piece of paper. 

                           Dear Ward family:
                           Sorry I was late.  I deliver alphabetically--first by country,
                           then by state.  United States and West Virginia are at the


                           P.S.  You all were very good this year.  Keep up the good

I smiled at the paper then up at Mom.  "Yay!"

"What are we going to do?"  I said to my husband.  I unfolded my tissue to find a dry spot.  "I called every store around.  There's no Baby Go Bye Bye within a 50-mile radius.  Should I drive to Pittsburgh?"

My husband snorted.  "No.  So she doesn't get Baby Go Gaga for Christmas this year.  She'll get over it."

I gasped.  "Are you nuts?  She's only three.  This'll damage her for life.  I mean, if you can't depend on Santa, who can  you depend on?"

My husband rolled his eyes.  "Oh, please.  Will you stop with the drama?"

I wiped my nose on my tattered tissue.  "I'm serious.  My goal is to parent in such a way that our kids won't need counseling."

My husband snickered.  "Let me know how that works out."

I huffed.  "What?  It can happen.  Your family's normal.  None of them ever needed shrunk."

He pointed to his chest.  "My family's special."

I snapped my fingers.  "Oh!  Oh!  I know what to do!" 

I stood and walked around the kitchen, opening drawers as I went. 

"I'll do what my mom did!"

My husband drummed his fingers on the counter and chuckled.

"This should be good."

I rooted through the mess in the drawer under the toaster oven.  "Here we go."

I got out a pad of paper and a red magic marker.  I sat at the kitchen table and wrote in block letters, instead of my usual fancy script.

                           Dear Josy:

                            I regret to inform you that your Baby Go Bye Bye doll fell
                            out of my sleigh over Alaska.  I hope the Playschool kitchen
                            you originally asked for will suffice.


                           P.S.  In the future, please make sure you get any and all
                                   toy requests to me on or before November 15.  After
                                   that, I cannot guarantee any changes to your wish list,
                                   especially those made on Christmas Eve.

                           P.P.S.  You were very good this year.  Keep up the good 

My husband read over my shoulder.  "The language is a little grown up, don't you think?"

I picked up the red marker and added another line.

                      P.P.P. S.  If  you don't understand any of this, ask your 
                                            daddy.  He actually IS Santa.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Forever Changed

On the steering wheel, my husband’s knuckles shown white.  I leaned forward to watch the pink of dawn illuminate the Cincinnati skyline.

He glanced over at me.  “Can I speed?”

I winced and nodded.  “I reckon this is the only time you can.”

He snickered as he ran a red light.  I stared out the window and murmured.  He kept his hands on the steering wheel and his eyes on the road, but leaned his body toward me.

“What’d you say?”

I spoke louder.  “Nothing’s ever gonna be the same, is it?”

My husband shook his head as he pulled up to the emergency room entrance of Christ Hospital.

“Nope,” he said.  “Today everything changes.”

The beautiful, willowy brunette nurse perched on the side of my hospital bed.  She picked up my hand and turned it over.  Traced the lines on my palm with a burgundy fingernail as she spoke.

“Did no one give you an enema?”

My eyes bugged out.  “No, ma’am,” I said.  Kinda glad about that.

She huffed.  “I swear.  So many nurses think it’s old-fashioned, but I don’t want my ladies pushing out poop with their babies.  It’s not sanitary.”

I heard a gagging noise.  I peeked in my husband’s direction.  He squinted at the ceiling and cleared his throat.

When Dr. Lum arrived, the first thing I noticed was the peace signs on his socks.  He'd rolled up his scrub pants so they'd show.  He patted my cheek before he sat down at the foot of the bed.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.  “Had to finish recording a Pink Floyd concert.”

He stood up suddenly and struck an air guitar pose.

“We don’t need no ed-u-ca-tion.”

He sat back down and smiled between my knees.

“You feeling okay, missy?

I felt fine.  I’d had my epidural.  Tall pretty nurse made sure of that as soon as I hit four centimeters dilated.  I didn’t look at the needle, but my husband did.  I gulped when I saw his eyes bulge.  I leaned over the bedside table and did snifftas like our Lamaze teacher had taught us.  Sniff in with the nose. Ta out through the mouth.

“Husbands,” she'd said.  “You can use this technique too.  Like, when you’re in line at the grocery store, and you have to go to the bathroom.  Number two.”

I liked my epidural.  A lot.  Too much really.  I never got the urge to push.

Dr. Lum held up stainless steel tongs.

“These are forceps,” he said.  “We can use these to get baby out.”

I squeaked.  “Fine!  I’ll push.”

I couldn’t feel pain, but I could feel pressure.  I was fully aware when the baby slicky slid out of me.

“It’s a . . . . girl!” Dr. Lum said.  Nancy’ll take her over and clean her up.  Bring her back in a jiffy.”

I reached down to touch my belly—empty now—after almost a year.  I pressed my fingers in ‘til it felt like I hit the back of me.  My tummy seemed like a pouch of Cool-Whip, all wooshy and gooshy.

“I need you to push one more time,” Dr. Lum said.  “To deliver the placenta.”

I wrinkled my nose.  “Ew!”

I pushed half-heartedly. Surely an empty membrane sack didn’t require the effort a seven pound baby did.

Dr. Lum held up what looked like a large man ‘o war jellyfish. 

“What’s your baby’s name?”

“Josephine Joy,” my husband said.

Dr. Lum pounced the placenta from side to side.  First left, then right.

“This is the house that Josy built, Josy built, Josy built.  This is the house that Josy built—“

He paused to look at his watch, “On December 7, 1991 at 12:34 p.m. on a Saturday.”

I tilted my head and squinted.  Thought him a bit odd but didn’t say so out loud.

He peered at the giant Jell-O jiggler.  “If we were in—can’t remember which country—we’d cook this puppy and eat it for dinner.”

My stomach lurched, and I put my hand in front of my mouth, just in case. 

The lovely labor and delivery nurse finally brought us our baby girl.  Her face, the baby’s, was alarmingly scarlet.  Dark, silky hair wisped out from under her white-with-a-pink-pom-pom beanie cap.  The nurse cooed as she tucked the warm flannel package into my arms.

“Isn’t she gorgeous?”

I looked down at her.  How long had it been since I’d held a baby?  Was it my niece?  Six years ago?  I stroked my daughter’s velvety cheek with my pinky. 

“She kinda looks like a Conehead,” I said.  “You know.  Like on Saturday Night Live?”

Nancy the nurse snapped her fingers.  Pointed at the baby.  Her tiny, round face was turned to me.  She seemed even redder than before.  Her chin was like an ocean wave, coming at me, then retreating, over and over.

I looked up at Nancy.  “What do I do?  What’s she want?”

Nancy cocked her head.  “You really don’t know?  Did you never babysit?”

I shook my head.  “No,” I said.  “I had a paper route.”

She grimaced.  “Oh, my.”

She put one hand on my shoulder, the other under the baby bundle.

How do I say this, honey?  Nothing’s ever going to be the same for you.  Ever again.”



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