I read this story rather than preach a sermon on the First Sunday of Lent, 2009. The image of Jesus at the pinnacle of the Temple with the devil, tempting him to jump, had been on my mind for a few days. I wanted to approach that particular temptation from a fresh perspective. I wrote this on Saturday, February 28.
Mrs. Sanders watched as the pretty little girl, all of three years old, marched across the hospital waiting room and hit the Mexican boy squarely on the back of his head. The boy, no bigger than the girl, turned with a face full of outrage and wonder. He looked at the girl, and then looked up at Mrs. Sanders, as if she, somehow, was responsible. Then he let out a scream of admirable pitch and considerable force.
Mrs. Sanders instinctively moved to cover her ears, but then lowered her hands. She did not want to appear impolite. But Good God how she hated these waiting rooms. The families were so randomly thrown together; there was never enough room to ignore one another like decent human beings; and always there were the unruly children, more often than not speaking incomprehensible languages, and everyone worrying themselves sick over matters beyond their control.
She looked away from the boy, unable to bear witness to the chaos any further. She had her own problems.
She had been shopping at the Safeway when the call came in on her cell phone. It was Mildred, at the church. Why is Mildred calling, she wondered; she hardly knew the woman, though they were friendly enough, exchanging pleasantries at coffee hour every Sunday.
And then, before another word was spoken, she knew.
Mildred said, “I know how close you are to Christine”
Christine was as close to a daughter as Mrs. Sanders ever had. They had met at church, after Christine had left her drug-dealing creep of a husband and gone into rehab. She was a lovely girl who knew, way before her time, what it was like to lose everything and start over. Of course, she wasn’t perfect; she had relapsed once or twice; but she had held on to the same job now for three years and was twenty-three months clean and sober. They looked after one another’s cats; and every Sunday after the 8 o’clock service they went out for breakfast.
Over the cell phone, Mildred was trying to get the words out. “Some kind of accident on 101,” she said.
“Where is she?”
“I thought you would want to know ...”
“Where IS SHE?!” Mrs. Sanders shouted into the phone.
As she drove to the hospital she had a one-word prayer: “NO.” As in, Oh no you don’t, oh no you don’t, don’t you even dare, not on my watch, not this time, no sir-ee. No! No no NO!
The stupid elevator was too slow. She took the stairs and when she got to the ICU they wouldn’t even let her in. “Only immediate family, I’m sorry,” said the nurse, with what sounded like fake concern.
“She doesn’t have any family,” said Mrs. Sanders, in a desperate lie.
“Well, the rules are very strict,” the nurse said.
“But I’m her best friend!”
So Mrs. Sanders entered the waiting room and began her wait.
After a little while the priest came by, clutching his red leather book and looking harried. He kissed Mrs. Sanders on the cheek and told her to pray and then hurried into the ICU. He was in there a pretty long time. When he came back he held her hands in his. It looked like he might have been crying.
“They don’t know a lot,” he said. “She doesn’t look good. Time will tell. All we can do is pray.”
Around midnight, one of the nurses brought Mrs. Sanders a hospital blanket and a pillow. They had given up telling her to go home and get some rest. The room was empty now; the horrid fluorescents were turned off. An ordinary lamp on the other side of the room gave out a weak yellow glow.
She dozed for a time.
For some reason that she would never be able to explain, she wasn’t surprised when she opened her eyes and saw the visitor, seated across from her. He was studying her face.
There was no doubt in her mind who he was. Her grandmother had talked about visions and things beyond explaining that she never had reason to doubt.
He looked just as she had imagined: an intelligent brow, large eyes, a kind face. His hair wasn’t really all that long.
“Gloria,” he said. “I’ve always loved that name.”
Mrs. Sanders sat up. “What’s happened to Christine?” she said.
The visitor didn’t speak.
“Please! Tell me.”
He seemed to be waiting for something.
Mrs. Sanders met his gaze. In the silence, a heat rose up in her. “You have to save her,” she said. Still, he did not answer. She was trembling now. “She’s young,” she said. “You can save her!”
Finally, the visitor spoke. “You love her so much.”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“And you want her to be the exception,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“You want a miracle. You want a suspension of the laws of physics and chemistry. You want the laws of nature to be put on hold. Everyone and everything else lives and dies by these laws; but you want Christine to be the Exception.”
“Yes,” she said.
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” he said, gently.
Mrs. Sanders glared at him; she bunched her hands into fists. She thought she might hit him.
Finally, he said, “Let me show you something.”
Suddenly there was a brilliant, hot light; they were outdoors; the heat was nearly overwhelming. They were high up in the air; she saw thousands of buildings below them; they could see for miles in every direction. Mrs. Sanders thought they were flying but then she felt something hard under her feet and realized they were standing on top of a tower, looking down.
Someone else was with them, standing next to the visitor. He was short and thin and smelled bad. His head was bald and he looked miserable, like a soldier losing a battle. He was talking to the visitor; he had a high, raspy voice.
He said, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. After all, Scripture says that the angels will bear you up."
The visitor replied, “Do you mean, the laws of gravity would not apply to me?”
“Yes, that’s right” said the little man, eagerly. “You would be the Exception.”
The visitor considered the ugly little man for a moment. Then a smile crept over his face.
“Little man, did you think I came into this world to escape gravity? Did you think I came so that I might be rescued from this earth?” The strangest, most intense expression came over his face – Mrs. Sanders couldn’t tell if he was about to laugh or cry. He bent down; for the longest time nobody spoke, but she could feel it: something indescribable was happening.
Finally the visitor let out a long sigh; he picked up a stone he stood, then tossed the stone. All of them watched the elegant arc of its fall. Mrs. Sanders remembered a geometry class, when the teacher effortlessly drew a perfect curve across the chalkboard.
“Look, what beauty,” he said. “You don’t get the beauty without it falling.”
In the ICU, Christine lay beneath a tangle of tubes and cords.
She was motionless, but for the steady rise and fall of her chest. The ventilator and its tape covered most of her face.
The priest had been there earlier. He had whispered prayers into her ear, and sung some psalms, and anointed her with some oil. She had fallen asleep in the middle of it all, a psalm dancing around inside her.
When she woke, the priest was gone. She didn’t know how much time had passed. It felt like night.
She closed her eyes, and the psalm came back to her. She saw herself, with long dark hair and a white dress, dancing, swirling, laughing and singing in a strange language.
Before she opened her eyes, she felt the visitor come into the room. She did not show any fear.
She recognized him by his perfect teeth. She had always imagined he would have teeth like this, straight and gleaming white.
His breath was close. It smelled like honey.
You know who I am, he said.
You know what time it is, he said.
She shut her eyes, looking for the dancing woman... and instead, found herself in a desert; all around was a vast wasteland of rock and sun. She was sitting under a canopy of palm branches. It was perfectly quiet. She felt very still, as if she had been meditating.
He was there.
He was wearing something loose-fitting, made out of linen. His hair was dark and shiny, and not all that long. He smiled at her.
George Clooney would envy those teeth, she thought.
I gave him those teeth, he said.
And then she was gone.
At the cemetery, with the sun pouring down, Christine’s remains were lowered into the ground. Mrs. Sanders waited while the people walked away. She stood alone at the edge of the grave for a while. Then she tossed her rose into the dark earth. She watched the curve of its arc as it fell, and gave thanks.