Hope to Come.
5 December, 2011 § Leave a comment
*All names herein changed to protect the privacy of others
I was reflecting over the weekend about Advent and the interruption of a world’s day to day turnings. About Emmanuel, God not just for us but with us, and about this idea of expectancy — hope on the cusp of realization.
Then I sat in the middle of my 93-year old neighbor’s poorly lit kitchen floor, watching Mother Henry’s arthritic hands shake and smooth, over and over in restless patterns, the crumpled and unwashed fabric of her midnight-blue housedress. A giant knob shone purple and black on her forehead in stark contrast to the wispy spirals of her cotton-white hair, the twists and braids springing every which way. Sounds of rain on the street outside mixed with the fuzzy sounds of a radio upstairs and yet, while some small part of my mind noted these details, every nerve in my body was completely attuned to the story being recounted.
The night before, Mother Henry shared with a heightened edge of emotion behind her typical age-induced rasp, several men forced their crack-dazed and violent way into the apartment. It is no secret to anyone that the longtime figure of nurturing motherhood and charismatic faith in our community always leaves her door open without a key or a bolt to secure it shut. In a matter of moments, the men — acquaintances of her dope-dealing grandson — had torn out every single door knob in the small place, thrown furniture across rooms and turned personal belongings upside down in their desperate ransacking. “They forced me down on the kitchen floor,” my elderly neighbor recalled in all too vivid terms, “pinning my arms behind me like this (related with accompanying motion) and repeating over and over, Where’s the money? Where’s the money?” She paused and then, for the first time in the past 20 minutes of relaying the evening’s horror, tears began gathering in the corners of her eyes. I barely noticed as my own cheeks became wet in tandem with her wrinkled ones.
“I wasn’t afraid for me, no, I knew if the Lord said my time was up, the only harm they could do was to my body. I knew that those evil men could nothing to my soul — but my babies, oh, my babies!” Mother Henry gestured to her two great-granddaughters, both under the age of 4, who were nestled against me and my housemate. From their wide eyes, silent mouths and restless fingers, it was clear they were reliving the fear and drama along with their inimitable caretaker. “Stefani woke up in the middle of them dragging me by my hair across the kitchen floor,” Mother Henry continued, “and, oh, she started to screaming. Maw-maw? Maw-maw! What’s goin’ on? What’s wrong? Don’t hurt my maw-maw! Those men, they let me go long enough to pick her up and throw her little body into the room next over. You don’t make one more sound, they threatened her, or else we gonna kill you maw-maw ‘fore we kill you. Quiet that hollering, now, you hear? And she did just that. She didn’t say another word until help arrived. And me, I said, I just said, You can do what you want to me but don’t do nothing to my babies.”
I cradled Stefani on my shoulder, pressing her against my own erratic heartbeat as if I could transfer this immeasurable love and sorrow welling up inside as a tangible offering of assurance to the tiny, wide-eyed toddler. “I bet you were real scared, huh, sweetie?” Stefani nodded in silent agreement and then began whispering her account of the night into my ear while Mother Henry went on to talk about the missing grandson who finally showed up and fought the intruders off before taking the neighborhood’s matriarch to Ben Taub. The sense of unreality I was feeling was only heightened by the 3-year old’s complex vocabulary and easy communication skills. Still in hushed tones, she told me about the height of the men, the whimpering sounds their pet chihuahua made, the sound of the door as it was being broken in and even about the “a’bulance” that came to pick her Maw-Maw up and take her to the “hos’tal.”
What do you say in the face of such unexpected courage in both the very young and the very old? Where do you look for that sense of hope and redemption in the midst of such tangible wrongdoing? I tell you the truth when I say I did not know how to respond. I was struck dumb with emotion: outrage, shock, grief, relief, thanksgiving… all of these and more.
“Stefani,” I finally whispered back once the stream of her words flying into my ear started to slow down before stopping altogether, “Those men were evil and what they did to you and Maw-Maw was wrong — but you were so brave and I’m so proud of you. You know that, right?” She nodded. I swallowed. She swallowed. And then we sat in hand-fast silence on the kitchen floor.
Forgive us, Father, for we know (not) what we do.