copyright © Christine Keegan 2011
It was true, the storms were arriving. Gray clouds blanketed every stretch of sky you could see, and the sleet began mid morning, then turned quickly to a driving snow that made driving almost dangerous. Maggie had worked in the morning, and Warren and Bud both had Christmas Eve off, so they were all at home by the time the afternoon rolled around and the snow was really coming down in earnest. It seemed to cheer everyone up, almost making them giddy in a way that rarely happened in their patched together little family.
Maggie had turned on some holiday music, and they sat around half smiling at each other, offering tidbits of conversation while munching pizza Hanna had picked up on the way home from the salon. “Should I make some hot chocolate? Maybe see if there is a Christmas Movie on tonight?” She asked, not quite sure if there would be takers but feeling like she might even be up for it herself. Everyone either nodded or offered to do something and before she knew it, they were laughing over how many scoops made an “adult” hot chocolate, remembering how Hanna used to always try to lessen the kids sugar intake by making something a little more like glorified cocoa water than hot chocolate. As they settled into the living room, Warren with remote in hand, Terry walked in with a big smile on his face.
“Are we… ready to… read?” he asked, his voice halting as he worked to get the words out, and all of them louder than was necessary for their close proximity. A little spittle of drool flowed down his stubbly chin. Warren blinked up at him, “read, Terry?” and suddenly Hanna remembered one of the few small things Mary Ellen had asked her to make sure to do. One was to set a chair in the shower for Terry to use while washing, the other was to take him to his co op if possible, and the third was to do what he had always done with his mother since a little boy, and then with Mary Ellen and Bruce the last couple years, and that was reading the Christmas story straight from the book of Luke.
The IV drip gave out a rhythmic beep next to Eliza’s bed. It was the only sound in the hospital room where Mary Ellen sat beside her mother in law, gazing at the sleeping woman and out the window, where a steady snowfall blurred the images of streetlights and Christmas Eve traffic, giving them a soft glow of twinkling lights that seemed to Mary Ellen, almost beautiful from where she sat.
Bruce had gone to his sister’s to shower and grab some coffee. He was planning to return around lunch time and said he would pick up something for Mary Ellen to eat.
So far, the morning had been slow and quiet, giving Mary Ellen a lot of time to think. Her mind strayed from all the things she had left undone, or in others hands while they were away, and settled on her children scattered and wandering each in their own way. Their lives weighed on her always, and she felt like the years of hope and prayers on their behalf had grown in her like a lifelong period of gestation, one which she felt should be nearly to the point of a delivery- a giving birth of all that waiting and patience she had borne.
At midmorning, just after the ten o’clock rounds, Eliza woke up. She smiled at Mary Ellen, her eyes moist and breathing shallow. Their hands rested, entwined together on the bed, Mary Ellen’s wrapped around Eliza’s cool, limp fingers in an almost prayerful posture.
“I’m so glad you came,” Eliza spoke softly; her voice had grown weaker in the past 24 hours. The doctors did not think she had too much time left. “My heart is so full of joy when I see you, and I am so thankful for you and Bruce.” Mary Ellen could tell Eliza wanted to say things, even though it labored her, and so she remained quiet to give the woman space for her words.
“I have known you since you were a little girl, and I see you now, a woman who lives to serve and carry the burdens of others. I know you hurt and that you want to see God do something great. I want to tell you that I have seen him work a wonderful thing in your life.” Here she paused for several moments. Eliza’s eyes filled and spilled over, and Mary Ellen felt the surge of emotion well up from deep inside. She wanted a miracle. This was her year. But perhaps she had gripped so fiercely to the present and future that she had forgotten to remember the past, and the scope of all the wonder was woven through her life.
Eliza smiled through her tears, and began again. “I have come to the end of my journey. You know the many things I too have waited for in my life. You have your own waiting to do, and while you do it, don’t lose heart. There is a blessing that comes to she who looks to the hand of her master, and waits upon it for whatever he gives. You have a lot to bear, but like the mother whose name you share, you are highly blessed among women. I hope you can know and believe that. I love you my daughter.”
Later, Mary Ellen sat again in the silent room, with Eliza sleeping and Bruce snoring in a vinyl chair at her side. The sky outside had cleared. Snow covered the sidewalks and rooftops outside, blanketing every surface for a few night hours with its heaven like cleansing. She could see stars blinking in the dark sky, and she felt as though she were nearly being lifted to its heights, as she thought on the words Eliza had spoken over her.
Was this how that young, virgin woman had felt so many centuries ago, bearing the weight of the salvation of the world in her womb, knowing it would both pierce and wash over her life with a wonder she could not fathom. And she had believed. She had waited; for nine months, for thirty-three years, and then until her death when she would have finally seen the face of her Lord in the face of her Son. And she had said, what Mary Ellen knew she too must whisper now with all her heart, leaving it and the timing of miracles all to Him, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be unto me according to your word.”
The words of Luke filled the small family room as Maggie read according to Terry’s instructions and a soft light from the fake fireplace flickered from the center of a faux brick hearth. The snow outside had stopped, and Hanna slipped quietly from her chair near the entryway, slipping out the door to look up at the sky, it’s clearing revealing a blanket of bright stars that couldn’t help but make you feel small and grand all at the same time.
She couldn’t shake the feeling of tingling had settled over her. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to cry or scream, hug someone or be alone in her room. This place under the stars, with the snow sparkling like a sea of diamonds at her feet, stretching out across the lawns and down the still untouched streets, seemed somehow the most appropriate. She looked up and wanted to spread her arms out and be transported high into the heavens, like one of those angels in the story just now.
It had struck her like a moment of clarity never before, all of them sitting there listening as Maggie’s voice wandered over the room with a story that was centuries old, yet had always seemed rote and too familiar, but somehow removed to Hanna, that the people in those pages were not very much different than those listening to their story just now. Those shepherds, not the smartest or wealthiest or most sought after in society, were the ones to whom the very servants of the Heavenly King had come to speak to. They were given a place at the manger, when the powerful and wise and learned had all been denied.
And Jesus, the baby who the angel had told Mary would be called the Son of the Most High, and holy… holy, something she had always felt was a word spoken in condescension, in rebuke, and in guilt—as something she couldn’t attain, that Jesus came to a poor little couple, in a dirty little feeding trough. He was holy, but he didn’t care if the place or people he came to were wrecked right through with dirt. He seemed drawn to it, as though he wanted to give them his holiness and not just rub their grime in their faces. She thought of all the dirt in her own life, the weight of worries and failures and mistakes she was always carrying around, and she wanted more than ever to be like one of those shepherds, invited to the manger, spoken to by angels, filled with joy and running through the streets to tell of it.