Sally pointed to the stucco wall, where a bit of paint had chipped off.
“Do you see the little boy with the kite, Big Mama?” she asked.
“No, I don’t. But I used to see things like that.”
My sister Jesse has had four children. One of them died and the youngest is yet to be born. Had I looked ahead into this, selfishly, and seen myself not following her, as I’ve always done, and having marriage and motherhood too, with all its joys and sorrows, I would’ve winced. But this reminds me of what Mark Twain said about having a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened, for being an aunt has been a complete delight to me, unstained by even my own selfishness. Not unstained by sorrow, though, which is a kind of stain that well prepares the fabric of our hearts for the seams of the shape we must take if we are to go on in the Image of God. The sorrow comes when the children know sin and death and parting. When they hear harsh words and see angry looks, when we have to help them see those things even already in themselves. When they learn that people we love, those we miss every day and those we never met, died. And slowly, when they learn that death will come to them as well.
My paternal grandfather died when I was nine, after a long illness. I called him Papa Cigar, because he was always working on a Dutch Master, whose box gave me the mistaken impression that the pilgrims smoked. He had been an MP in the army and then a civilian policeman. He told me, while sitting on his lap, that people were easy to kill. This may seem a disturbing fact to share with a kid, but I remember feeling merely surprised, which is perhaps why he told me.
I spoke to a man the other day who was reasoning that children conceived in violence shouldn’t live. He put up his hand to silence my response, turned to my male friend and said, “I mean, if your wife was raped, would you want that kid?” This man wasn’t confused about when life begins and he didn’t have some misplaced compassion. He wasn’t full of protective love toward women carrying children, or little women being carried. He was glad people were easy to kill, just $395 and a couple hours in his week. He had done this many times, and he didn’t understand why we cared so much. But the truth is, I care too little. I have walked passed open doors in squalid nursing homes because I was afraid. I have driven past those buildings entirely, when I could’ve not been as busy as I was.
Last week, I lay in a hammock swing under the full moon beside the Port Royal sound. The young people were gone and the old were asleep. The tide was coming in. I always feel very safe in this place. They say the island has a ghost and sane people have seen it. Only at night, for it looks like a light. Just a light. Why do they call it a ghost I asked. Because it’s inexplicable they said, and gives you chills. Sounds like poetry, doesn’t it? Sounds like a whole lot of good things. Sounds like one broken hearted person interceding in the darkest place imaginable. Sounds like the man who loved us when we were his enemies, which is perhaps why it doesn’t make me afraid.
When my niece Sally was born, she was a strange little thing. She held her head up in the first few days and looked around. She had the oddest unbabylike combination of nose, ears and expression. She was unusually skinny, though strong and healthy, just fine according to the doctors, but many suggested she wasn’t getting enough to eat, which became a continual anxiety for her first time mama. I wondered if people would ever let Sally be different from the Gerber baby. When she was four months old, we introduced her to a few of my dear old lady friends. We were beside a pool together, a group of women all very much exposed, Sally’s fresh skin and new swimsuit beside the wrinkled and papery blue-veined skin, torn and bandaged, of the ladies in swimsuits worn thin. They were too old to buy new ones. It was unlikely they would swim again. We had grown so protective of Sally by this time, but I remember the utter relief and tear-filled joy of Jesse, when Mrs. Georgia held her high and laughed with absolute love for this little elf like girl. And Mrs. Ruby leaned in confidently with her finger in the air, as if to say she heard from on high, “Now that is a marvelous baby.” Sally loves to tell this story, and also of how the very dark skinned old lady from the nursing home held her sister Adah, and proclaimed, “Now ain’t she a doll out the box!” She loves these stories because she knows they make us happy. She doesn’t know all the careless things people could say, or that many fragile babies like herself are cast aside and never lifted high and prophesied over by the Rubys and Georgias of the world. I wish she never had to learn these things.
Mrs Ruby saw, like Sally’s kite in the stucco, what other’s failed to see and this from lack of light, a light which must rise from salvation of the heart and mind and especially the imagination. To lift a lanky spider-like girl to the sun and call her marvelous, to believe, against all propaganda, that the son conceived of your great hurt is a gift, to defend his life with even more force than with which yours was attacked, to raise that man in the astounding beauty of redemption and the surpassing glory of adoption, to visit those who need to be cleaned and changed, and realize that there is no one to do it but yourself, God helping you, to hear the call toward your neighbor, behold your son, behold your mother, or to wait at the foot of their cross, helpless to do anything but stay.… all this requires exposure and the burning out of our days, until worn out skin sits laughing in worn out suits. To walk as children of light requires all, our lives and many deaths, and more than that, a man, a man of sorrows.
It’s as chilling as a bright spot on a dark island, but the good news is this: you can keep your $395.