Wednesday, December 19, 2007

As Love Would Have It

A modern-day Christmas story...

It was raining that night when she got the call from the hospital. She had fallen asleep on the couch listening to the radio. She didn’t know what time it was; she didn’t care. She just did as she was told—come and identify the body. Her son’s body.

As she rode on the subway she remembered the night he was born. It was a long difficult birth, and she had been alone through most of it. An old woman from next door had heard her cry out and came over and stayed until he was washed and clothed and asleep on her breast. He was beautiful, as all babies are. His eyes were warm and brown. He had her smile and his father’s high forehead. And he was big—over nine pounds. His body was perfect then. Now it was dead and cold, its beauty warped by some violent act. She stared out the black window looking for his face, trying to remember its features. Instead she saw her own reflection but the smile was not there, would not come again for a long time, and so she could not see him even in her own face.

It was hard raising the boy on her own. He had colic the first three months, soothed only by the rocking motions of her body as she carried him in a sling made of tattered red cloth. In the wee hours of the morning she would nurse him in the sling as she glided about the small living room that was also their bedroom.

Then there was the problem of money. She wrote stories for small magazines but they didn’t always pay enough. Her parents had disowned her when they found out she was pregnant. The father had run off before she had even missed her period. As Love would have it, she had started attending a storefront church nearby when her son had started to kick. The people opened their arms like a warm quilt and welcomed her in. They dropped by with food and clothing, things they had trouble getting themselves. She cleaned apartments and babysat children. She did whatever she could to keep the life within her.

And by some miracle her son grew healthy and strong. He wrestled his way out of the colic into a colorful streak of a toddler. Oh what a lovely boy, they all said at church. He would get restless through the service but someone would always seek him out and pull him onto their lap or give him crayons and paper. Now the smile rested weakly on her face but faded as she came back to the clacking of the train and the jostling motion that rocked her toward sleep but jarred her all the same.

She remembered another time she felt her heart rising in her throat, when she lost him in a department store. At Christmas they would always go to one of the big stores and look at all the displays. The boy loved to go from one beautiful display to another, looking for that one that meant Christmas to him. When he was little, the boy would sit on Santa’s lap, asking what Santa wanted for Christmas, for the boy knew not to hope for much. The year he was 12 he wandered off, not telling his mother first. She searched frantically for him, for her baby son almost a man, enlisting a police officer, the floor manager, and a sympathetic sales clerk.

She found him out in front of the store with a Salvation Army volunteer. The volunteer was enjoying a hot cup of coffee while her son was ringing the bell, smiling from ear to ear as people put money in the red bucket. It was hard to be mad at him then but she put on her mom face and said as sternly as she could, “Don’t you ever run off like that again!” His reply stunned her: “Oh, Momma, it’s gonna get a lot harder to love me.” She thought he was talking about being a teenager and all that comes with those tumultuous years. She had no idea. As she stepped off the train and walked toward the hospital, his words stabbed at her chest.

The past ten years or so he had been homeless. Every now and then he’d show up at her apartment for a meal or to wash his clothes. But he would never take any money from her. He said he was checking up on her to see how she was doing. Truly it was a gift to her so she could see him and make sure he was okay. Now she wished she had locked him in the apartment, made him stay with her, taken care of him, done anything to keep him alive as she had done when he was little.

She passed through the automatic doors of the emergency room and the antiseptic smell washed over her, as if to make her into someone else. She took the elevator to the basement and followed the signs to the morgue. A young woman greeted her and gestured for her to come to the table. The lab nurse pulled back the sheet and revealed her son lying on cold metal. Yes, it had gotten a lot harder to love him, but she still felt the same way she did as when she first saw his face. She kissed his brow, brushed back the hair from his face, and caressed his cheek.

“How did it happen?” she asked.

“The police report says he came upon a couple of punks arguing over a woman’s purse they had just taken,” the lab nurse replied. “Your son tried to break up the fight, but then one of them pulled a knife and stabbed him and the other thief.”

“Is he also…?” she choked.

“No, he’s gonna be okay,” she answered. She paused. “I’m sorry about your son. Would you like to be alone with him for a few minutes?”

“Yes, thank you,” his mother whispered.

She held his face in her hands as she wept over him, her tears falling on his cheeks, his lips, his eyes. She wiped them with her sleeve, cleaning the blood and dirt off his face. As she gently pulled his head to her breast, a mighty roar welled up within her and gushed out of her like liquid fire. The lab nurse did not come rushing back. She was not the first mother to lose her son nor the last. She carefully laid down his head on the table and took one last look before she pulled the sheet over his head.

As she stepped out into the cold and damp, she saw that it was almost dawn. The rain had stopped and the sun was just beginning to rise over the receding clouds. She looked up at the street lamps, saw the banners, colored lights, wreaths, and realized what day it was.


There was only one place to go. She got on the subway and headed back to her neighborhood, to the storefront church where there would be a free dinner and children and old friends. There she would see her son, running through peoples’ legs, reading comics with friends, serving a hot meal, warming frozen hands over the steam of good food, singing, praying, smiling, alive again in those who loved him. She ran to meet him, the life quickening inside her.

May the Christ be revealed in you this holiday season.
Peace be with you in the New Year.

(c) Cynthia E. Robinson