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First Edition Web V1.0 2016
How different life would be if the angel Gabriel just showed up in your bedroom every time something new and unsettling was about to happen.
Harry O'Connor, 82 years-old, had been a home owner all his life, but now he was looking around at his new apartment. New to him, that is. This particular senior's apartment had been built in the 70's. The 70's had been good to Harry. That was about the time he had made the final mortgage payment on the house. But time had caused a general decline in both him and in this apartment building. His family had started noticing how he rarely mowed the lawn anymore. The neighbours were complaining, they said. It brought down property values. Harry could remember the time when he cared about property values, so he dutifully allowed one of his grandsons to mow the grass while his daughter, Maggie, cleaned up the house sufficiently to start showing it to potential buyers.
He sat down in the chair that had once been by the window that looked out on his backyard. Now it was by a third-story window that looked down on a parking lot and a shabby communal garden. It was that announcement that the neighbours were complaining that had changed everything. Not exactly on par with the Annunciation, but life-changing nonetheless.
His daughter had felt guilty about it, he knew. She had stayed after her sons, Sean and Patrick, had moved in all the heavy furniture. She had put away everything in the kitchen while Harry had put his books on the shelves in the living room. There wasn't enough room for all of them in this new space and some of them would have to remain in boxes until one of the boys could come and put a few more shelves up in the bedroom. With concern, she had assured him that he would make new friends in the senior's apartment. They both knew it wasn't true. There were walls in senior's apartments. Unless Harry planned to sit all day in the recreation room, he wouldn't meet anyone. He had seen the recreation room. It consisted of one bookshelf in the corner with a lot of books that looked like they had been donated from someone's basement after a flood. The rest of it was just folding chairs and stacking tables that could be used if someone wanted to host a large family gathering that wouldn't fit in their small apartment.
"I have my books," he had assured her. Unlike the books in the recreation room, Harry's books were well cared for and were the result of a lifetime of loving acquisition.
"You can't be friends with a book," his daughter had protested. But he knew it had eased her conscience.
"We read to know we're not alone," he had quoted to her.
She had sighed but at least she had left feeling less guilty. Why Maggie should feel guilty that he was getting old, he didn't know. After all, she was getting old, too. She had no need to feel guilty. She shared a small apartment with one of her sons. The house had been sold during the divorce. Perhaps she felt guilty for all of that.
Maggie had left him with a fresh pot of tea and his favourite mug. He leaned forward and reached for a book. It happened to be a volume of St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica.
Harry picked up his mug and started reading. He took a sip of tea. Funny to think that all of this theology had started one day with a simple announcement to Mary.
You only needed one friend. Maggie O'Connor had two. She had her younger son, Patrick, and her daughter-in-law, Eileen.
There were other people in her life, of course. There were the grandchildren. But they were too young to really have a good chat with. There was her older son, Sean, but he always seemed preoccupied. Whenever she talked to him, he just wanted to know the bottom line. For instance, when his grandfather was being moved into the new apartment, he just wanted to know if it would cost him anything and what time he should be there to help with the move. He didn't want to ramble over the details of it with a pot of tea like Patrick and Eileen would. Patrick would ramble over things almost to a fault, but Maggie found it easy to forgive him for it. It was what she needed. The fact that he had no serious career plans and seemed content living with her might have been a point of concern to his father, but his father was now living in Florida with some woman who Maggie suspected was more sexually adventurous than her. That was based on the fact that she was young. Young enough to be with Patrick, actually. She had heard that they had had a child together. A child young enough to be his grandson.
Michael had been the love of her life. They had gotten older. She had put on weight and started to get comfortable with her new self. Michael hadn't. He had always been good about keeping himself fit. He liked to jog and he liked to play squash. No one around her was judging her but Maggie knew that if she had made a little more effort, Michael might have stayed. But at the same time, Micheal had changed in his forties. He had become angry. At times, Maggie wondered whether she'd have to call in a priest to help her. Maggie suspected it was a mid-life crisis. In their final year together, he had been constantly frustrated with her, with life, with the boys.
She sighed. These were things to let go of. She might still have to take the occasional bitter thought to the confessional, but for the most part, she was putting it behind her. But at times, she just needed one person to understand. She didn't like to talk to Patrick about his father. It was better that he not bear the burden of his parent's failed relationship.
Maggie glanced at her watch. Her three older grandsons would be at school and the youngest would probably be down for his nap. She picked up her phone and hit the speed dial for her daughter-in-law's number.
It was a very bad way to start life. In a refugee camp.
Amira could hear the goings-on in the tent beside her's. The young mother had cried out in pain but the time of birth had come and gone and now there was a new life in the camp.
Amira shook her head. Would the child be registered? Would the child have citizenship? She and her daughter still had citizenship in Iraq. Did it even matter anymore now that they were in Jordan? Would they ever go back?
Iman had had a good start in life. There had been a lull in the fighting and at the time, some even thought that the post-Saddam Hussein government was starting to find its way and really do some good for the torn country. It had been a false optimism but Amira had rejoiced in it at the time. Iman had been born in a hospital where there was air-conditioning and nurses and a kind doctor who had smiled benevolently that new life was being born in the ancient city of Baghdad. Here in the camp, there was no air-conditioning, a bevy of UN nurses immunizing children and a weary doctor supervising it all and keeping a wary eye out for outbreaks of anything that might do them all in. Cholera. Malaria. Jaundice. As if life wasn't low enough. It could get lower it would seem.
At least the divorce had taken place back in Baghdad, not here. That would have been one more aggravation and Amira didn’t know how many aggravations it took to add up to unbearable.
Jafar had divorced her when he had decided to be a Muslim. If she were honest, even back in Baghdad, life would have fallen apart. Jafar had been Christian in name only, the result of a far more liberal Iraq when some people crossed faith lines to get married. Jafar's father had been a Muslim who had married a Christian woman. Jafar had told her he was a Christian when they had gotten married. Well, naturally. They had even gotten married in a church.
His decision to be Muslim coincided with a time in history when certain Muslims in Iraq had vowed to drive all Christians out of Iraq. It certainly wasn't the days of Saddam when Sunnis, Shiis and Christians had all co-existed. Saddam wouldn't have had it any other way. Not that he was unique. Back in the days of the monarchy, King Faisal had kept the peace between all the factions in Iraq. And in those days, there had even been Jews in Iraq.
Jafar had let her have the apartment. He was moving up, to marry a Muslim woman he had met through his father's family. The last Amira heard, they were now living in Damascus. Not that that was a picnic.
The resurgent civil war between Shiites and Sunnis had made life in Baghdad impossible for Amira and Iman. Christians often got caught in between, but in this case, everyone had been caught in between and most of the people in the neighourhood had fled. They had long since lost the blessings of civilization, anyway. The water that came out of the taps had been murky. People relied on generators instead of electricity. But there had been the hope of things getting back to normal. Somehow, one could hope. Here, hope seemed based on finding a way out of the camp to a new life. To Amira, right now, that was too big a hurdle to overcome.
In the tent beside her, Amira heard the baby crying and then, the soothing sounds of its mother as she held her child. Amira thought about Mary giving birth in a cave that stabled animals. That had not been an easy start, either. The Holy Family didn't have much at that time. And shortly after, they, too, would be refugees in Egypt. There was something hopeful about that. After all, like Amira, they had had nothing.
But when Mary had held her baby boy in her arms, she had held Everything.
Nothing ever went right when it came to babies. Maggie watched with sympathy as the young couple struggled to keep their baby from crying during the Baptism. She didn't know the couple very well but Maggie had been invited as one of the ladies who would help with the coffee and the sandwiches and the pastries afterwards. She was glad to have a chance to get out and be useful. And to feel a sense of dignity.
Just coming into the Church gave her a sense of dignity. It hadn't been easy, the last few years. After Michael had left, she had had to return to the workforce. Before Michael and the boys, she had worked in a series of offices doing clerical work. But times had changed and Maggie no longer knew the workings of a modern office. So she had ended up in the bakery at Walmart.
Not that she was a snob. Before the divorce, she had regularly shopped at Walmart and not looked down on anyone who worked there. It was just that there was a sense of just getting by now. Michael had been a successful accountant. She didn't know if he still practiced in Florida. He was impossible to contact now that he had left Canada. He had sent a postcard from a beachside condo with an address in the corner and then for awhile, there had been alimony cheques. But they had stopped a few months ago and when Maggie had used the address to enquire about her alimony, she had received it back with “No such resident” scrawled on top of her neat handwriting. She had sent a text message to his phone only to receive a message that the number was no longer active. Michael no longer wanted to be found.
But all this faded when she entered the serene, calm Church interior. It's dignity and beauty and strength became her dignity and beauty and strength.
She was no longer watching the couple at the front. She had fallen into a terrible habit of looking at young couples with children and wondering if they would end up like her and Michael. So instead, these days, she was trying to concentrate on things that were good and pure and lovely and of good report, as the Bible put it.
Yes, what was wonderful about the Church was that it gave everyone dignity who entered it. Rich and poor, well-dressed and shabby, were all welcome and equal in the eyes of God. In fact, Father Carmichael doing the Baptism often liked to point out that being poor almost automatically meant full citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus loved the poor so much. Well, that was good, because Maggie now counted herself among the poor. At least by Canadian standards.
She would have liked to have given the young couple at the front a gift. When she and Michael had started out, there had been many people in the parish who had given unexpected gifts at various stages of their life. But her purse currently had exactly $5.37 and that had to get her through to the next paycheque. What had Peter said when the beggar had asked him for a gift. "I don't have any silver or gold, but what I have I'll give to you." Yes, that was it. Anyone could come into a church and pray. Maggie sent up a prayer for the young couple, not only that they would get through this Baptism, but that they would have a long and happy marriage together.
Eileen had four children. Then there was Everything Else. Everything Else was the small things. Like Mary's needlework, for example. Did Mary, Mother of God, do needlework? No one will ever know, thought Eileen, while she vacuumed the tiny living room that always needed tidying due to the density of population in the small house. Mary did a lot of small things that no one would ever hear about because she was mainly known for being Mary, mother of Jesus.
But that didn't mean she kept her eye on him every minute of the day. Losing him when he was twelve years old is proof of that. Eileen could relate. Her twelve-year-old had once walked out of the church because he had gotten bored because his mother was taking too long chatting and drinking coffee after Mass. Wait, that was the opposite of what had happened to Mary. She had found Jesus in the temple. Eileen had found her son in the parking lot after a frantic search through the rooms of the basement and after sending in one of the men to check the mens' room for her. But she could imagine the cause of losing Jesus was the same. Mary was having a little bit of adult time. Every mom needed a little adult time.
But that, like most of her life, was forgotten. Eileen imagined Mary like most women of her day (and this day, for that matter). Mary was busy. But no one would ever hear about her fresh bread, her herb garden, her beautiful embroidery or whatever else it was that she filled her days with because they were all just Everything Else compared to being the Mother of God.
Joseph felt more like he had received the baptism of John the Baptist than of Jesus Christ.
It had been quick and then he had had to keep going. It had happened in the Church that had offered him, and about three hundred other people, refuge on that first night when people were fleeing Baghdad by the thousands. The long journey had ended here in this refugee camp. The baptism had seemed like a dream, but at the time, it had been very real. In the courtyard of the church, Joesph had had a dream about a man in white who had beckoned him to follow him.
In the morning, he had found a priest and told him about the dream.
"That was Isa," the man had explained.
Joseph knew about Isa. He was in the Koran. He was a prophet. A good man. But in the Christian faith, he was also the Son of God. Joseph explained to the priest that he knew about Isa, but he also knew that Allah had no son.
The priest nodded, familiar with the faith of Joseph. He said that perhaps he would have another dream.
And that night, Joseph did, but in this dream, Isa was with a beautiful women who had her arm around Isa. He recognized her as Maryam, mother of Isa, a most blessed woman and the only woman mentioned by name in the Holy Qu-ran. Then Joseph had heard a voice like thunder, say,
"This is my beloved son. I am well-pleased with him." And he know that Allah had spoken and did indeed have a son.
The priest had baptized him the next day. He had given him a Rosary and a small New Testament. Joseph had wanted to stay longer, but the priest had advised him to get to a safe place, one where Muslims who converted to Christianity could freely live out their new faith. Joseph wasn't sure he was there yet.
Amira sneezed and wiped it on her sleeve. She remembered her home in Baghdad, a comfortable apartment with its tasteful mix of Western-style furniture and Eastern accents. In better days, she had had tissue boxes everywhere. Not only would you sneeze into a tissue, you would go straight to the bathroom and wash your hands.
Amira couldn't remember the last time she had washed her hands. Here in the refugee camp in the desert of Jordan, water was precious, brought in by truck, stored in large blue containers. It could be drank lukewarm, but most of the refugees in the camp preferred to boil it into tea, one of the few comforts in life left to them. God forbid the tea ever run out. Amira didn't like to think of such things. If Jesus could provide wine for the wedding, hopefully he would provide tea for the camp.
Amira glanced down at the ground where a stray cat had done his business. In the past, just the sight of it would have sent her scurrying for a shovel to relocate it and a shower afterwards in case she had been contaminated in any way. Here, the lines for the showers could take half a day and Amira was ashamed to admit it, but it had been a week since she had bothered. She wondered about the UN workers, how they managed to stay healthy amidst all of this. Unwashed hands. Unwashed bodies. At first, she had felt sick all the time here. She had attributed it to the depression and despair of having to flee her home, but now she wondered if it wasn't just the germs from unwashed hands.
The stray cat wandered past her tent but didn't pause to be petted. Amira had had a cat back in Baghdad, but had been forced to leave it behind. She hoped he was doing well. They had released him in a field just outside of the city. This one looked like he had once belonged to someone in the camp. Maybe the person had moved on to a new life in Amman.
In Amira's clean apartment the cat litter had always been changed as soon as her cat had used it. Here, the whole camp smelled like a sewer. Amira sighed. Perhaps she would take a shower today. At least she had a few outfits now, thanks to the generosity of the Jordanians who donated their old clothing to the refugees. Many of the new refugees arrived with nothing.
Amira stood. She had a small bar of soap and a towel in the tent.
The line would be long but she would bring her Rosary. And after her shower, she would make a cup of tea.
The world stirs us up with issues that we can't do anything about or that we can do something about if we pour ourselves into it, but future generations will overturn. Was 9-11 a government conspiracy? Nothing you could do about it if it were, but there were people on YouTube who wanted to get you all stirred about it.
Harry, a former high school history teacher and frequent traveller, had seen a lot and now he saw most of the world through the iPad his grandson had bought him for his 80th birthday. The same iPad that had YouTube videos that warned you that your every click meant someone was tracking your every online move. Harry had nothing to feel guilty about. He just wondered what he was expected to do with the information. The person telling him about the Big Brother was certainly outraged by it. But he wasn't taking down his YouTube channel, Harry noticed.
It was always one thing or another and everyone seemed to want to change the world by informing everyone else how they should do it. Get rid of government and it will all be OK. Make yourself self-sufficient and it will all be some kind of utopia. There were so many different plans for the salvation of mankind. And it was always about numbers. Saving a certain percentage. Making changes in increments. In the end, though, you could never really change the whole world or even a small percentage of it.
But Jesus did it quite differently when he had been on earth. He wanted to change the world, too, but he seemed to be the only one Harry had encountered in history who cared about the individual. Jesus could come right in and make a change in the heart that would take for all of eternity. And Harry had met people who were a bit of Jesus here on earth. The folks who had time for the things that mattered. And what mattered was usually what was right in front of you.
Today, what was right in front of him was one of his grandsons, Patrick. Patrick was visiting out of a sense of charity, but Harry didn't mind being a charity case. At least the boy was trying. He was in his twenties, still at home with Harry's daughter who had suffered a recent divorce. Harry knew his daughter appreciated having a man in the house. Good Catholic that she was, she wasn't going to remarry.
His grandson was talking about Christmas. He was seriously considering buying his mom a gaming console so that they could play together. Harry thought that was a splendid idea. Why shouldn't his forty-six year-old daughter learn to have a little fun? She had always been a serious child. But then again, in that paradoxical way of his, G.K. Chesterton had drawn a connection between being serious and being happy. Maybe Harry's daughter was already happy. But it wouldn't do her any harm to have a little fun with her son.
"Are you thinking of an X-Box One or a PS4?" he asked. Harry had seen people get almost violent on YouTube over whether to buy an X-box One or a PS4.
His grandson was impressed.
"I've got a PS4, so I'd get her one of those," he said. "I'm thinking a couple of Sherlock Holmes games for us to play."
"She always liked those stories."
"We watch the old Basil Rathbone movies on DVD," said his grandson. "She bought them awhile back on Amazon."
Harry had watched those same movies with his daughter, back in the days when people used to watch television. He was glad to hear that his daughter had bought the DVDs. He liked Sherlock Holmes. He was a bit like Jesus. Celibate. Forgot to eat sometimes. People felt safe when they were in his care even if things got a little scary before the story was over.
His grandson stayed long enough to have a cup of coffee, a couple of chocolate digestive biscuits and talk a bit about the canning his mother was doing. They had taken a day trip to an orchard and bought some late autumn apples. Now Harry's daughter was saucing them. That seemed to be her way since the divorce, little economies. They had done an enormous garden in the summer and Harry had heard all about their spinach, kale, swiss chard, romaine lettuce, bok choy, and other greens. The last Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and her family had had to survive on foraged greens right after they had lost their throne. Thankfully, his daughter's situation was less severe.
The boy pulled out his phone to check the time, saying he had to be back for dinner. Potato pancakes and apple sauce, he added.
"Do you have iRosary on that phone?" he asked.
"IRosary?" His grandson sounded surprised. Harry knew his daughter had a decent rosary. He had given it to her for her confirmation. But he didn't know if her son had one.
Harry reached for the phone and quickly navigated. He didn't have one himself but it wasn't much different from an iPad. He opened the app store and quickly found what he was looking for.
"$2.99," he said. "I'll pay if you want it."
"Thanks, Grandpa," he said, taking back the phone and Harry was glad to see him start the download. "But you don't have to."
"I'd like to," said his grandfather, reaching for his wallet on the end table. "I bought a Rosary for your mother once. I should have bought one for you." He pulled out three dollars and handed them to the boy who took them, mostly for what they represented. It was a gift.
When the app was installed, the boy looked it over carefully. His thumb rapidly moved through the virtual beads, checking out how it worked. Like most people of his age, he lived on his phone and the presence of this app was of more significance, Harry knew, than handing him an actual Rosary that would have ended up being stored in a box in his shirt drawer.
"This makes it easy," said his grandson. "I'll definitely use it. Thanks Grandpa." He put the phone back in his pocket and stood.
"Tell your mother I said hi," said Harry, remaining seated. He had a bad hip.
Patrick left after promising that he'd bring a jar of applesauce next time he visited.
They said when you gave $100, it could give a family a tent, blankets, vaccinations, clean water, and food. Harry was writing another monthly cheque to the United Nations Refugee Agency. He normally gave to Catholic charities, but there was no doubt these days that there were a lot of Catholics fleeing ISIS and the like.
The Refugee Agency gave an encouraging report of how much a $100 could do, but Harry didn't expect it to save the world. If it saved one person, he would consider the money well spent. He sealed up the envelope and planned to mail it when he went for a walk later. There was talk of a postal strike. But that would be later this week. This cheque should make it in time to do some good before all those postal workers settled down to work out their issues. Harry didn't begrudge the labour unions for their commitment to a higher quality of life for their employees. As a teacher, he had been a union member and the union continued to send him monthly pension checks. Which was why he could afford to be generous.
Harry stood and looked out the window. The trees surrounding the parking lot were swaying in the breeze. A lot of older people were complaining about this cooler weather. They dreaded the cold of the coming autumn and winter. Harry loved it. It made him feel alive. He hated to think about the conditions of the refugees, living in the heat, with no relief. He knew his cheque would do nothing to alleviate their suffering as far as the late summer heat went. He hoped they had a lot of faith. How many of them would be able to start over? How many of them would just sit and live their lives waiting for death to come? It wasn't unlike some of the folks in his apartment building. They seemed to just be sitting waiting for death. Harry didn't like that idea. Not because he had a lot of living left to do, but because he believed that death was something you prepared for, not something you ignored or passively accepted. Death was the only certainty and yet, who really faced that fact head on and did everything they could to be ready for it when it came? He guessed that even the refugees would want to concentrate more on picking up the pieces of their current life then on resolutely facing the fact that death comes to all men whether they lived in a refugee camp with nothing or whether they lived here in Canada with everything.
Like his namesake, Joseph had never experienced the Eucharist. He had read about it in his little Arabic New Testament. He knew it was something Catholics did, but there were no other Christians in this camp, as far as he knew. It was a predominantly Muslim camp. He hoped to somehow get to Amman where he could be with other Catholics.
That was his one plan in life. Get to Amman and experience the Eucharist. The younger men dreamed of starting over in Amman, but Joseph knew that he would have a hard time finding a job when there were so many others desperately seeking work.
Joseph had been a teacher in Baghdad. His wife had died ten years earlier giving birth to their first child. There had been complications. The day Karin went into labour, the fighting was too intense to take her to a hospital. The midwife had arrived but had been unable to help. Karin had had a condition that had gone undiagnosed during her pregnancy due to the fact that she had received no prenatal care. It was called placenta previa, the midwife told him afterwards. The placenta had come out first, cutting off the baby's oxygen supply. When the dead baby had been delivered, Karin's body didn’t know it and she had continued to bleed. It had been terrifying.
He blamed himself. They had waited too long to have children. She had been a school teacher, too, and even in the upheavals of Iraq in recent years, they had both worked. Joseph had wanted to save enough money to leave Iraq. His wife had been of the philosophy that you stayed where you were and for better or for worse, had children and raised a family. It seemed morbidly fitting to Joseph that Karin and their baby lay buried back in Baghdad, while Joseph had left Baghdad. Maybe if Karin had been willing to leave Baghdad and have her baby somewhere else, she'd still be alive. Or maybe if Joseph had been willing to forgo his plans of leaving Baghdad, they would have had a baby sooner and in a hospital where they could have saved her life.
He had told the priest all of this, a sort of confession. The priest had nodded. He had understood the terror of watching your loved one bleed to death in front of your eyes. "The life is in the blood," he had said. "Our Blessed Mother understands. She watched her son on the cross."
So that was all that was left to him. Joseph fingered the Rosary. To experience the body and blood of Isa.
It still filled her with horror to think about. She could almost feel her back bend over with the weight of it. Her own Gethsemane. Except that she had not born the sins of the world on her shoulders, like Jesus. Instead, she had born her own sins. Didn't it say somewhere in the New Testament, do not be deceived; God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows, that shall he reap?
Well, Celia had sown a wind and reaped a whirlwind. Celia had married in haste and repented in leisure. The cliches didn't begin to explain it to the world. As if Celia even wanted to explain all her private sufferings and humiliations to the world.
What's the sin in marriage? Plenty if you do it for all the wrong reasons and with the wrong person. In retrospect, it was all right there in front of her. Michael had never hidden himself from her. It wasn't as if he had charmed and entrapped her. No, she had walked right into the relationship, eyes wide open, sinning left and right during their courtship, thinking she was all sophisticated and grown up for doing what the rest of the world was doing. At least, what the rest of the world was doing on television. In retrospect, she wished she'd just trusted her Bible. And her mother.
But no. The world had a secret and that secret was sex and Celia wanted to be in on it. What a disappointment it had been.
She could have turned and ran the first time it had happened. The whole thing had been so uninspiring. Where was the rolling around in the sheets in some kind of fleshly ecstasy, looking happy, yes, very happy? If the world's message was overwhelming, Celia’s experience was underwhelming.
And here she was now, biting her fingernail, looking out the window of this women's shelter in Tampa, Florida, her son, Nathan, playing with a Tonka truck in the corner of the yellow playroom while she wondered what to do next. Michael had moved on. Maybe California. Maybe back home to Ontario. He had cleaned out the bank account and bought an RV. Celia doubted she'd see him again and that she'd ever see a child support check. This was the part that was overwhelming.
They told you here at the shelter to take it all one day at a time. But there was no doubt that the objective of the shelter was to get people back on their feet. Celia felt like she was past being in control. Other people were making decisions for her. They said here that this shelter was about empowerment, but at the same time, Celia felt her dreams slipping away. Nathan would most likely grow up with other people taking care of him while his mother went back to work. When she had gotten pregnant, she had never seen this coming. Michael had seemed to offer security, a security she had traded for her freedom.
Because the truth was, Celia hadn't been free since the day she fallen into Michael's bed in that hotel room. How eagerly she had thrown away her celibacy, and in retrospect, her freedom.
She had exchanged it for what she thought was the fairytale: the one where the woman was the princess and the man was the prince and he slayed fire-breathing dragons to save her. What Celia had ignored was that the prince might also be the fire-breathing dragon.
She bit her nail and then looked down. She would have to stop it. In fact, soon she'd have to consider getting a manicure for her ragged nails and then she'd have to start thinking about a resume and after that, job interviews. That's how they did it here. Cleaned you up a bit and got you started again.
There had been a time when Sean had prayed the Rosary. As a child, he had done it with enthusiasm. It seemed so . . . grown-up. There were two things grown-ups did, Sean had thought at the time, pray the Rosary and drink coffee. He remembered his first coffee at Tim Hortons. He had been twelve. Up until then he had always had a chocolate milk with his doughnut, but that day his mother had asked him if he wanted a coffee.
He had hesitated slightly and then said, yes.
It had made a man of him, drinking that coffee. He wasn't sure if his mother realized that. But he had liked the feeling of being grown-up and after that, he always strove to be grown up.
Of course, his father had been absent from that significant incident in his life. His father, the chartered accountant, who they never saw during tax season and only saw slightly more during the rest of the year. Turns out he was more than just a workaholic. He was also unfaithful. Some woman named Celia. Sean had never bothered to get it straight whether she was a client or a fellow accountant. He didn't really care.
Yeah, it had hurt. And in a bizarre way, he had found himself becoming like his father. Not the infidelity part, but the working part. Always working, never seeming to get anywhere. Maybe that's why he had done something really stupid and invested in the stock market. Medium risk. Low risk seemed pointless, more like a glorified bank account. High risk was, well, high risk. And now he had lost most of it. Stupid computer software stocks. The stock broker had said it was a company that would either go up or down, but so far, it had been looking like up.
He felt like his flesh was being torn off of him. After all, he had worked hard for that money. That's what money was all about. You traded your life, your time, for money. That's how money was measured. You weren't just buying a product, you were buying people's lives. A person in a sweatshop in China takes half an hour to make a shirt. Her life is valued cheap and she gets a few cents for that half hour. Same for all the labour all along the way: the people who box the shirt, work the ship that transports the shirt, drive the truck that brings the shirt to the retail outlet in Ontario. You're paying for the time that the people who work at that store give of their lives. And you're paying for what it cost to build the store in the first place, all the labourers who gave a portion of their lives. Time was more than money, it was life.
Eileen would never know what he had lost. The money had been in a retirement account, not their regular account. Besides, Eileen didn't seem to care how much they had in their bank account and never asked about money. But Sean had already made plans in his mind with that money. A summer cottage up north. A cruise. Maybe a trip to Rome. It was still hard to absorb that he no longer had the money. After all, it was just numbers in a bank account, numbers on a computer screen when he did his online banking. He had never held the money in his hands. Maybe if he had, he wouldn't have been so quick to invest it. Maybe if he had looked at it and thought about how it wasn't money he was holding, it was time. All the hours spent doing other people's taxes so that they could do something else with their time. He had a feeling that whatever they had done with their time, it was better spent than what he had done with his.
Maggie had grown up on Irish legends and stories of the saints. Celtic warriors and Celtic mystics. It would have seemed like an incongruous combination except that wasn't King David of Israel both? No wonder his Psalms were still read.
Maggie was reading through one of them now. Sometimes it seemed as if it was David who had first worn the crown of thorns, he had had so many troubles. And yet, he was legendary, known as a man of God.
Was that what a crown of thorns was for each follower of Christ? Prick after prick until finally your whole head was a crown of thorns? There was a strange, frightening Celtic kind of beauty to that thought.
Forgiving Michael had felt like a prick. She had wanted to hold It against him for the rest of her earthly life. "It" was every perceived injustice against her. Until she had confessed it to Father Carmichael and he had gently said, "Maggie, I've never known a marriage to fail simply because of one person." That remark had opened a metaphorical locked closet door in Maggie's mind as memory after memory came spilling out. Had she ever done anything nice for Michael?
Yes, perhaps in small ways she had. But in self-serving ways. Doing the sort of things that made you feel good about yourself. Making him coffee and waffles for breakfast, for example, when it was her that had bought the new waffle maker and liked a strong cup of coffee in the morning. Michael liked his oatmeal and his tea in the morning. The list of her selfish acts of love went on for so long that Maggie literally got tired thinking of them. Father Carmichael had been right. Michael looked like the bad guy to everyone, but in the end, it was how God saw it that mattered.
Was indifference a sin? She took it to Father Carmichael who asked her to elaborate. Indifference to Michael's happiness. That had gotten her some Hail Marys to pray as penance. It came as a revelation to Maggie that although to the outside world she had been a hard-working mother of two and loving wife to Michael, that every single one of those days of her marriage she had woken up and planned her day around what would make her happy. Once the boys were off to school, she would brew a coffee, make herself a decent breakfast and watch the late morning shows on the telly. In the afternoon, there was the house to maintain and keep tidy, but that had just been an overly attentiveness to her own personal comfort and had often meant a trip to Walmart or Bed&Bath to buy more throw pillows or a new shower curtain and matching towels, just to make for a change. The Bible talked about welcoming the homelessness into your home or in entertaining angels unaware. All Maggie had ever done was welcome other women in the neighbourhood over for tea and taken pride in her ability to keep her house looking (hopefully) better than theirs.
The more she thought about it, the less reasons she had to be mad at Michael. And the more she thought about it, the more she knew one of those thorns in the crown of Jesus had been for her own sins.
Joseph had felt the heavy weight of his own cross. It was as if he could feel the weight of the sins of the whole camp on his back because none of them were believers. That also meant he had had no one to talk to about his new faith.
Until he had met Amira.
He had met her when they were standing in line for the weekly food distribution. He had observed the crucifix around her neck and had shyly confessed that he, too, was a follower of Isa. They had started talking and it turned out that they had lived in the same neighbourhood back in Baghdad, two streets from one another. Of course, they had never met. In a city, two streets from one another was like living in two different villages in the countryside.
Amira had a daughter. A beautiful teenage girl. It made him think about the child he had lost at birth. What he wouldn't have given for a child here in the camp, someone to talk with and share life with. Someone who made the experience meaningful just by his or her existence. He had tried to express this idea to Amira over coffee back at his tent and she had rebuffed it. He was the one with the light cross. He was unattached. He didn't have to worry about the safety of his child or her future. He was the one who had it easy. And to make matters worse, was her daughter to marry a Muslim?
"But you've followed Isa all your life," he had protested. "You know what it is like to be in a community with other Christians . . ."
"What is that to me now?" she had said, with her almost violent melancholy. "This is my community now. This is where my daughter will live her life."
"Not necessarily," said Joseph, still thinking of his plans to go to Amman. Perhaps Amira and her daughter could come with him. There were other Christians there. He tentatively mentioned to her that someday, perhaps, they could leave the camp and go to Amman.
Amira didn't look hopeful. Instead, her face spoke despair.
"And my daughter will do what in Amman? Become a prostitute to eat? That is my biggest fear. At least here, they distribute food to us. It is my cross to bear that I have a daughter in such times." "Your fears are not your cross," said Joseph. His theology was still a bit shaky, but already, he had encountered several passages where Isa had instructed his followers to not be afraid.
For a moment, Amira had looked hopeful as she processed this idea.
"My fears are not my cross," she had repeated. "My fears are not my cross."
And then they had silently drunk their coffee.
Despite meeting Amira, Joseph was feeling sorry for himself. The camp offered no future. No future whatsoever. It was just about survival. Some people were even talking about moving to Zaatari, another larger refugee camp that was actually turning into a small city. It was all due to commerce. Zaatari was in the north and thus was mostly filled with Syrians. They had started establishing coffee shops and bakeries and grocers and stores like the ones they had left behind. Joseph envied their commitment to civilization. Like the refugee camps of Palestine, many of their tents had already been replaced with sturdier constructions. They would always remember Syria, but they would make the most of their current situation and recreate Syria right where they were. By comparison, Joseph felt like John the Baptist living in the wilderness.
His dream of going to Amman was still just a dream.
His only pleasure in life was brewing himself some coffee over a little camp stove. The camp stove had been purchased with what had been left of a lifetime's savings. The original owner was moving on. Her son had found a job in Irbid and had sent her the bus fare to join him. The camp stove had been sold because she was planning on buying a new outfit the minute the bus arrived in Irbid. She wanted to feel human again, she said.
Joseph wondered if John the Baptist felt human with his camel hair clothing. He looked down at his own shirt that had once been white but was now more of a dusty grey. His pants had been purchased at a men's store on Rashid Street, before the war had become an everyday event. He had liked them then. Thank God he had bought quality in those days or they wouldn't have made it this long.
What had John the Baptist lived for? Joseph thought about that. He had lived to tell the world about Isa, Jesus. Despite the heat, Joseph felt himself go cold down to his toes. If he followed John the Baptist's example, he would be dead in his tent by morning. Was that what God wanted him to do?
And in that moment, Joseph realized something that exhilarated him. He was middle-aged. He was hot and uncomfortable. He had lost everything that had ever mattered to him. And yet he still wanted to live!
And he also knew at that moment that if his life were to have any purpose at all, he would have to tell people about Jesus.
Celia watched the scenery out of the window of the bus. Nathan was asleep on the seat beside her. He had fussed a bit at first and Celia had wondered if the 18-hour drive would be made miserable for her by other passengers glaring at her.
Eighteen hours of driving, no stops except for gas, she might as well be going to Australia. But she was going home. Home was where her family was. It was also where Michael's family was. The nuns at the shelter had pointed out to her that Nathan had a family, Michael's family.
They had promised to pray that Michael's sons would enjoy meeting their half-brother. Celia didn't expect to be welcomed with open arms by Michael's first wife, Maggie, but maybe she would open her heart up to Nathan.
Celia pulled out her little New Testament that the nuns at the shelter had given her. Along with it was a Rosary. Celia didn't really know what to do with it, but she liked it.
One of her favourite stories in the gospels was of Jesus clearing out the temple with a whip. She could imagine the sheep scurrying, the doves flying and the money tumbling. He had seemed heroic, strong. When she had first heard the story in Sunday School, her teacher had explained, "Jesus loved you so much that he wanted you to have a place to pray. You see, at that time, there were different places for different people to pray. The Jewish men prayed in one place. The Jewish women prayed in another. The area that Jesus cleared out was the Court of the Gentiles. That was the rest of the world. That was for us."
Celia liked the idea that Jesus wanted her to have a place to pray. Now that she had Nathan, she also liked another temple story, the one where Mary and Joseph had brought Jesus up to the temple as a baby. There was a man named Simeon and a woman named Anna . . .
Beside her, Nathan moved in his seat. It was dark outside. Celia quickly turned off her overhead light so that he would keep sleeping. She continued to think of the baby Jesus visiting the temple for the first time. Mary, Joseph and Jesus must have passed through the busy Court of the Gentiles with its animal pens and money changers. But baby Jesus had been too young to do anything about it.
Celia looked back down at Nathan. Her thoughts were all stirred. She had her own child, helplessly dependent on her, but God only knew what potential he had in him. Mary and Joseph had brought Jesus to the temple as a baby, but then they had turned around and gone home and raised him for the next thirty years. Something about that touched her. It made her believe in the possibilities. That was something one of the nuns had said to her right before she had left, "Believe in the possibilities, Celia. Life doesn't always work out the way we want it to, but it does work out."
Celia turned some pages in the New Testament. There were a lot of good stories in the Bible, but right now, her favourite one was the resurrection. New life. New hope.
Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. Everyone knew that. Eileen looked from her seat at the kitchen table into the living room at her eight-year-old son, Kieran, and wondered if she could give him up for the sins of the world. No, she probably couldn't. And that was why she was Eileen of Sutton and not Mary of Nazareth.
But it was more than that, Mary hadn't just given up Jesus as the perfect sacrifice, she had raised him as the perfect sacrifice. At the moment, that seemed a little more daunting. It wasn't just that Kieran and his siblings liked to go through life with chocolate on their faces and holes in their pants. Those were minor matters. They seemed so bound and determined, well, to kill one another. The four boys were almost homicidal in their play with one another. Only, Sean Jr., still in a stroller, could be depended on not to cause bodily harm to anyone, although he could shriek her deaf whenever he lost, or threw, a toy to the ground.
Eileen thought about Mary, faithfully raising a child who would grow up to be perfect. How many times had Eileen opted for an afternoon of television for them all rather than, say, reading the Gospels to her sons? But, of course, Mary would not have had the scrolls of the law just sitting around in her first-century home and it would have been Joseph who would have taken him to synagogue. Yes, Mary had Joseph. That was a plus. Eileen had Sean. Enough said.
Eileen lingered over her coffee, knowing that once she finished it, the day would start. She had been finding it harder and harder to get out of bed in the mornings. There was just something about the morning routine that was not inspiring her anymore. She remembered when she had gotten out of bed, eager to start the day. No, that wasn't true. The only time when she had gotten out of bed eager to start the day in the past was at college, where each day seemed to bring new opportunities.
Now each morning was the same. Feed the cats. Change the litter. Feed the boys while the coffee brewed. Send the boys into the living room to play or watch public television while she had the kitchen to herself to brood and drink her coffee. She didn't even read the paper anymore. She remembered in the past when she had read the paper with her coffee. That was before the children. Now it was just depressing to know what was going on in the world. Better to pray the Rosary and think about the mysteries. For example, the wedding at Cana. Eileen would have liked to have been at the wedding at Cana. Someone else would have done the cooking. Three meals a day for the last thirteen years, that made . . . Eileen didn't even want to think of how many meals she had made since getting married and having children. Her last pregnancy had been difficult and she had spent two weeks of it in the hospital. There, her roommate had complained about the food. Eileen had said, "As long as I don't have to cook it, I’m fine with it."
It was more than that, though. It was the fact that Jesus could so effortlessly make good wine. Not ordinary wine. But good wine. It took so much more effort to make a good meal: the kind with meat, potatoes and a vegetable. Or lasagna. The kind of meals that took an afternoon to make. Eileen had done those kinds of meals at first. But then she had found that her boys didn't even appreciate them. They wanted hotdogs or Kraft Dinner.
Then she had wanted to start making salads for dinner. Sean would come home to a plate of greens and say, "What's this?" She would sweetly say, "Just watching my weight." She thought he would appreciate that. But he seemed to prefer the idea of a hot meal to a slim wife.
Yes, food was a big issue in a house. And food was a big issue at weddings. Eileen's mind was still on the wedding at Cana. So much work would have gone into it. And then to have the wine run out . . . Mary had noticed and sent her son in. And in the end, things had turned out better than planned. They had ended up with better wine than they had started with. Eileen liked the lesson that things could work out better with Jesus. She didn't particularly like weddings, though. Months and months of preparing for one day and in the end, there was no connection between the wedding and the marriage itself. She and Sean had had a big wedding. And now they were so distant with one another. Maggie and Michael, Sean's parents, had had a small wedding and now it wasn't just psychological distance between them, but a distance of 2,000 kilometers.
Maggie always said you had to look on the bright side of things. For example, Sean might be a workaholic, but he was a good provider. His father had been the same.
It had been good for Eileen to hear the family stories. It helped to think of Sean as a young boy. After all, with four sons, she was good at loving young boys. If she thought of Sean that way, she could be more loving. The hard part was when she wanted him to live up to her expectations as a husband.
But Maggie had said that after her marriage fell apart, she had realized that she had gone into the marriage wanting a good husband, but not thinking about how to be a good wife. Knowing that had helped her come to terms with the death of her marriage. Otherwise, she would have just spent the rest of her life angry at Michael.
Eileen looked down at her coffee. Maybe if Jesus were invited to every wedding like he had been invited to the one at Cana, marriages would be happier. She had to confess, she had been like Maggie. She had thought Sean should be the one to make her happy and hadn't given much thought as to whether she could make him happy. She had to admit, though, it felt better to do something nice for Sean than to be annoyed with him.
Dinner would be a good place to start.
Mug in hand, she stood and went over to the freezer. There were some sausages. In the fridge were some potatoes. Fried up with onions, it could make a good Irish meal, the kind his mother used to make him. Sean would like that.
Eileen took the last swallow of her coffee, now almost cold. Only a minute or so to herself remained. Was she too selfish? Probably. She had been too selfish all her life and Father Carmichael often heard the specifics in confession. Father Carmichael was a good man, though, very understanding. Maybe today Eileen would get out the LEGO and build something with the boys. That was something she had loved as a child and something the boys still liked to do.
"I have no problem with the New Evangelization," Eileen was saying to Maggie over tea in Maggie's living room. "I just have no place to apply it in my life. I mean, you have Walmart . . ."
"They don't exactly want their employees handing out Rosaries at Walmart," said Maggie smiling. "I'm in the same boat as you, really. I'm in the bakery now. I spend very little time with other people. There is one girl who talks to me. She asked me about my crucifix. I told her I'm Catholic and that I believe Jesus died for my sins."
"Well, at least that's something," sighed Eileen. "I have encounters with people when our shopping carts collide at Walmart. But I don't think that's the time to tell them to make God their priority." Maggie smiled again.
"You have more opportunities than I do," she said. "You have four children and you see them everyday."
Eileen almost said, it's not the same. But that wasn't really true. Maggie was right. Her children were people, too. There were ministries devoted to winning children to Christ. She had encountered them when one of her neighbours had pleaded with her to send her children to the Bible summer camp they were having at their church.
"They'll have a chance to hear the gospel and to receive Christ into their hearts," her neighbor had explained.
Eileen had tried to explain right back that her children were baptized and not only did they have Christ in their hearts, they participated in taking in his body and blood every time they went to Mass. But somehow, her neighbor seemed to think a Catholic baptism wasn't good enough. The proper way was to say a prayer asking Jesus into your heart, preferably at this Bible summer camp at her church.
"But my children are already saved," she said to Maggie.
"But they need continual teaching," Maggie said. "They need to be encouraged to do good. And then they could be the ones to grow up to be the evangelists. Personally, I'm rooting for Kieran to be a priest." She looked over at her grandson who had fallen asleep in his playpen.
"I never thought about that," said Eileen, also looking over at Kieran. She had four sons. Wouldn't it be great if one of them went into the priesthood? God knew they always needed more priests.
"Jesus knows you can't run out and save the world," Maggie said.
Eileen agreed. Some days she found it hard to even get out of bed and get dressed. Her boys, on the other hand, had enough energy to save a continent, should it come to that. She thought about Mary. As far as they knew, Mary hadn't done any preaching. But she had raised one extraordinary child. Suddenly, this day that had seemed so small and insignificant was filled with extraordinary possibilities.
The doorbell rang.
Maggie stood and went to the door. Eileen leaned forward to see who it was. A young woman with a small child on her hip. The look on her face was like the proverbial deer caught in headlights. She looked like she wanted to cry.
"Can I help you?" Maggie asked. The girl was unfamiliar to her. Maybe she was from the parish . . .
The young woman just continued to stare.
Eileen stood and joined Maggie.
"I’m Celia," she blurted out. "This is Nathan."
Celia. It took Maggie a moment to realize who she was looking at. Celia. She had never actually met the girl. Anger flared up. Eileen still didn't know who she was and was just standing, waiting for more information.
And then as quickly as the anger rose, it dissipated. Celia. Celia who had loved Michael and it would seem, lost him, too. Her heart softened to the girl. The girl looked terrified.
"I’m Maggie," she said. "Won’t you come in?" She stepped back to wave her inside. "We were just having tea."
Amira wished God would assume her into heaven right now. She fingered the beads and kept praying, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . ." She thought of Mary, safe in heaven, away from the troubles of the world. "Blessed are though among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus." No, that wasn't true and Amira knew it. The Mother of God had never ceased from caring for the concerns of the world and for her Son's people. Her mind momentarily drifted to, "Pray for us who have recourse to thee." What pleadings did Mary hear? What troubles were lifted to her for prayer?
Amira looked around. There were plenty of troubles here. She finished the Hail Mary and her fingers moved to the next bead. She knew she was supposed to be meditating on the Assumption of Mary to heaven, but these days it was just easier to meditate on her own problems. She kept an eye on her daughter, sitting on an overturned bucket and scribbling away in a notebook some kind-hearted person from the West had funded. Writing was supposed to be good for the children. It gave them an outlet for their emotions. Or so they said. Was it that easy? Hand a child a notebook and let them process through what it was like to lose a homeland?
The truth was, it wasn't her homeland that Amira missed. It was her home. And although they had not been as prosperous, as say, Saddam Hussein and his family had been, they had been comfortable. They had had air-conditioning in Baghdad, something they didn't have here in the Jordanian desert.
Nonetheless, she was grateful to the Jordanians for letting them be here and letting their desert be turned into a village of white tents supplied by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Her mind drifted again, this time to the Queen of Jordan. Queen Rania had come out here a few times. She was both beautiful and gracious. She seemed to care. She was the same age as Amira, but whereas Amira felt tired and old, the Queen seemed fresh and young. You could see the lines near her eyes when you were close, but from afar, she was stunning, even in a simple white shirt and a pair of slacks.
Amira glanced back at her daughter. She seemed to really like her notebook. Back in Baghdad, she would have had a laptop computer and an internet connection.
Of course, back in Baghdad, Amira would have been looking over her daughter's shoulder to make sure that everything she was viewing was appropriate.
Amira shook her head at the thought. It was because the world was filled with so much ungodliness that some saints left the world and its distractions in order to devote themselves to prayer.
Amira felt a flicker of hope, a sense of purpose. She thought about the Desert Fathers, held in such high esteem in air-conditioned churches all around the world. They would have loved this place with its heat, barren landscape and scant pleasures. Here in the desert, there was nothing but prayer.
Maggie was staring idly out the window of her apartment.
Her efforts at the New Evangelization today had been . . . interesting. Obviously, sharing her faith at work was frowned on by her superiors. But Maggie always made a point of wearing a piece of Catholic jewelry in addition to her usual crucifix. Today it had been a bracelet with a Miraculous Medal medallion that Michael had bought her for her birthday. For some reason, the Miraculous Medal medallion had been the one devotion that had stuck with Michael. He wore one around his neck, although, as a chartered accountant, no one saw it under his dress shirt.
Maggie hoped that the blessed Mother was praying for Michael and that Michael would seek out a confessional before the final judgment.
Maggie looked down at the bracelet. It had certainly started an interesting conversation. The woman who had commented on it was a fellow worker, although not in the bakery. They had met in the employees' room on their respective breaks. She was an older woman, like Maggie. Unlike the younger woman who had asked Maggie about her crucifix and listened with interest about her being Catholic, this woman was using the medal as a way to witness to Maggie. It seemed strange how many Christians seemed to want to witness to other Christians. Maggie wished they would take their zeal to some part of the world that had never heard the name of Jesus.
This woman, whose name was Camille and who was obviously a Protestant, had tried to convince Maggie that Mary was just another Jewish peasant woman. Maggie had immediately defended Mary by saying she was much more than that, she was the Queen of Heaven. The woman had said that worshipping the Queen of Heaven was a sin. Wasn't there some passage in the Old Testament about making cakes for the Queen of Heaven and how evil that was? Maggie had read her Old Testament. She was pretty certain that worshipping the Canaanite goddess, Ishtar, was quite different from honouring the mother of Jesus and had said so. Maggie had then leaned forward and pointed out that Mary was not an ordinary Jewish woman. She was a descendant of King David's family, as was Joseph. Had the Jews not been exiled by the Babylonians, Joseph and Mary would have been the king and queen of Israel when Jesus was born. After all, wasn't Jesus the final king of Israel, the fulfillment of the promise to David that one of his descendants would always sit on the throne?
Had she been a queen here on earth, people would have come and bowed down in front of her, Maggie had pointed out. "But since that didn't happen here, she is honoured in heaven."
The woman had been silent. Maggie wasn't sure she had been pleased with the answer. In fact, Maggie was currently feeling guilty for her answer. Perhaps it had been too forceful. Perhaps she should have simply tried to be the woman's friend. No, that wouldn't have worked. The woman wasn't looking for friendship. She was trying to win Maggie over to her version of the faith. She wasn't reaching out in friendship, she was trying to save Maggie from a false understanding of Mary. What she didn't expect was to be shown that she was the one with the false understanding of Mary.
Maggie could only wish that everyone would give Mary the veneration she deserved. After all, she had raised the last king of the Jews, a task certainly worthy of a Queen.
Maggie continued staring out the window, still feeling a sense of failure. And then it occurred to her what she needed to do. She reached for her Rosary on the end table. She would pray. And she would make it her intention that not only would Camille at work understand Mary better, but so would all people who didn't know Mary.
Maggie's lips went through the familiar prayers until she reached the first Hail Mary.
"Mary intercede now for Camille at work, for a deeper understanding of you and for a greater love and devotion to you. Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women . . ."