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Arlett’s Christmas Repairman

        I can tell you this much, there isn’t no one coulda been more shocked than me to have Jesus show up at their front door on Christmas Eve.

       I mean, it ain’t like I’ve ever been some church-goin kinda gal or anything.  I always believed in God though, don’t get me wrong. There is just way too much proof, to my way of thinkin, to ever doubt that.  I mean, think about it; somebody wrote a whole big long book about Him clear back in a time when people probably couldn’t even read. But even if they could, well frankly, a lot of the book is downright boring, especially that who begat who stuff back there in the beginning. We’re not talking about a bestseller here, like something by that Danielle Steel woman. No, the book is just way too complicated to not be a true story.  And as far as Jesus goes, I seen pictures of him that were painted hundreds of years ago by famous old guys, so I always knew he hadta be real.

            I believe in miracles too. Not the kind on that “Touched By An Angel” TV program, since I don’t think angels go around announcing the good they’re doing and glowing all over the place like lightbulbs. I’m pretty sure it’s in their contract somewhere that they have to keep a low profile.

            No, I believe in the kinda miracles where people pray for some sick little kid with a brain tumor the size of a honeydew melon and the next thing you know, the little kid is on TV sittin on his mama’s lap, grinnin like someone just gave him the deed to Disneyland. And the doctors are telling the TV guy, “Well, we’re certain there is a scientific explanation for the tumor disappearing…” and lookin like fools.

            And I believe in those kinda miracles like they have on the 700 Club sometimes, where some poor schmuck who’s been shooting everything into his arm from heroin to cough syrup, hits rock bottom one day, falls on his knees asking for God to come help him and, TA-DA, God does it! The guy gets up off his knees with a big old grin, quits drugging, with none of that miserable withdrawal stuff, and goes off to become a minister to poor folks in the ghetto. Those are the kinda miracles I’m talkin about here.

            But nothing I ever saw on TV coulda prepared me for Jesus comin over to my house.

            Naturally, the first thing I did after it was all over, was to call my best friend, Nola Jean, and tell her to meet me at the Pagoda Chinese Restaurant bar so I could tell her all about it.

            “Nola Jean, I got something to tell you that’ll knock you on your butt!” I said on the phone. “You just ain’t gonna believe it in a million years!”

            Nola Jean said she hadn’t heard any exciting news since her next door neighbor, Ruth Bromley told her about catching her husband, Bert, out in the tool shed with that horse-faced piece of wrong-side-of-the-tracks trash, Inez Townsend. (Those are Ruth Bromley’s words there, not mine. I don’t gossip no more since Jesus saw fit to bless me with His presence and all; it’s the least I can do.)

            “You’d have to go some to knock me on my butt, cause you know I heard it all,” Nola Jean told me. “”But I’ll be there with bells on, you betcha.”

            When I got to the restaurant, Nola was already on her usual barstool, which is right next to my usual barstool, and she was in the process of fishing the cherry outa the bottom of her Stinger. She was concentratin on it like a scientist lookin at a two-headed spider through a microscope, so she didn’t see me come in.

            Bald Bill did though, and he gave me a cheery wave and a, “Happy New Year, Arlett! Did you have a nice Christmas?”  Bald Bill is Nola Jean’s and my favorite bartender. He don’t care how often we come in, unlike some of them. He’s always pretty polite and he don’t ever ask us to leave unless we fall off our stools or start a fight or run out of money or something. He looks a little like Mr. Clean, only short.

            “Hey Bill. You have no idea!” I said, plunking myself down and reaching for the Screwdriver that he had already set down for me. I used to drink Martinis’ but that was before I came up with my theory.  See, I got to worryin awhile back about what they call, “excessive alcohol consumption.” Now of course, I don’t drink no excessive amount, only a couple-three times a week, and I never drink anything at home but beer or wine, so I really don’t have much to worry about, but I did figure out that if Vitamin C is so good for people, adding it to alcohol should pretty much cut out any harmful effects. And orange juice tastes just dandy mixed in with Vodka. I thought I’d invented a new drink the first time I ordered it but Bald Bill told me it was called a Screwdriver. Kinda weird name but what the hey, long as it’s good for me.

            Nola Jean grinned, waving the cherry at me before popping it into her mouth; it was the same color as her favorite lipstick, Forbidden Fuchsia. She smacked her lips and then leaned over to plant a big kiss on my cheek like always. And like always I grabbed my cocktail napkin with the naughty jokes on it and scrubbed the lipstick off. I gave her a one-armed hug while I was picking up my drink. 

            “So, what’s the big news? You pregnant?”  Nola Jean chortled.  Bald Bill laughed out loud.

            “Nope, more amazing than that!” I said.

            Nola Jean grinned. “More amazing than you bein pregnant at 72? This I gotta hear!”

            I set my drink back down, reached over and grabbed Nola Jean’s hand so’s that I’d have her full attention.  And then I cleared my throat and said real quiet and serious-like, “Jesus came over to my house on Christmas Eve!”

            Nola Jean looked at me. She blinked. Finally, she took a big long slurp on her straw and laughed. “Course He did. Elvis and the Easter Bunny couldn’t make it and He didn’t want you to be disappointed.”

            “Honest to God, Nola Jean, it’s true! Jesus was at my house. Really!”

            “Jesus came over to Arlett’s house on Christmas Eve. Honest to God!” Nola Jean announced loudly to nobody in particular.

            An old Chinese man in a booth by the window looked over at us and shook his head. Bald Bill stopped drying a glass and raised an eyebrow.

            “Never mind that,” I sighed, reaching for my drink again, but then setting it back down. “The important thing here is that He did. He coulda chose anybody, but He didn’t. He chose me!”  Just remembering Jesus standing there on my front porch, all lit up by the Christmas lights hanging out there, made my backbone thrill up and down like a rollercoaster ride.

            Nola Jean, chompin on a handful of peanuts said, “Arlett, you are just so full of shit.”   Ignoring her, I went on with my story.

            “He was in disguise of course, but I knew Him right off. Even in the lawn service uniform and all, I seen it was Him.”

            Nola Jean snorted and said, “Hi there, the name’s Jesus; I was in the neighborhood and–“  She reached for her purse and pulled out her compact to check on her lipstick, which was mostly gone between gumming up three glasses and my cheek, so she spread on another coat before snickering, “Thought I’d stop by and see if you needed anything. Was that it?”

            Sometimes Nola Jean can get pretty annoying, especially when she’s been drinking, which is most of the time, and it’s just lucky for her that I’m a good enough friend to overlook her snide little remarks instead of maybe calling her a fat, blowsy old cow, like some other people might do.

            I picked up a menu, shoved one in front of her and said, “Order something.”

            She laughed, waved the menu at Bald Bill and when he came over, ordered a number one: chicken chop suey, egg foo yung and fried rice.  “I’m ready for a fresh drink too, Bill,” she added.

            I went with my usual, number three: pork chow Mein, sweet and sour spareribs and white rice.  Bald Bill pointed at my drink. “You want me to bring another one when the food comes?”  I looked over and saw that my drink was still full so I shook my head.

            “Now here’s what happened,” I said in a very pointed fashion. “In case you’re interested in the biggest thing that ever happened to me.” Nola Jean must have noticed I was getting peeved so she made a big show of putting her Stinger down, folding her arms over those big balloon busties of hers, and looking at me like was about to give her the scientific formula for becoming invisible. She nodded, which I took to mean I should continue.

            “I was waiting for the lawn service guy to come because one of my sprinklers broke that morning and was spraying water all over the sidewalk in front of my house. I mean, Christmas eve or not, my sprinkler was shootin water out like Old Faithful.  My water bill was gonna send me to the poorhouse. In the meantime, I was in the bathroom plucking out those little hairs that keep croppin up like some kinda damn chin-weeds or something. You know, them nasty, black wire-brush ones? Well, there I was doing that when the doorbell rang, so I fluffed up my hair, cause you never know who might be at your door, and went to see who it was.”

            Here, I stopped for a minute, picked up my Vitamin-C Special, as I call them, before going on. “Who’s there,” I said in a real deep voice so’s that if it was a mugger out there, he’d think I was my husband, if I had one, just like you taught me, Nola Jean.”

            “Damn tootin, I did,” Nola Jean said with a loud belch. “And you’re just damn lucky to have a best friend like me to save your ass,” she added, poking me in the chest none too gently with her index finger. Her voice was starting to get that loud and slushy sound it gets when she’s had one too many Stingers and no chop suey. Bill looked over and shook his head, so I took aholt of that finger of hers and planted it firmly back down on the bar.

           “Shush up that mouth of yours Nola Jean!” I told her, setting my drink back down so hard some of it sloshed over onto the bar. “I can hear you just fine without you drillin a hole in my chest and yellin in my ear.”  Now, where was I?”

            “You was telling me that Jesus Christ came over to fix your sprinkler system,” she cackled, slapping her hand on the bar, tickled as all get out with herself. 

            I ignored her. “Who’s there?” I said again, to get her back to the story. “And a man says, “Fernandez Yard Service—you called us?” Which I did.  So I look out the little peek-hole and sure enough, there’s a man in a yard-guy uniform out there. It says, “Fernandez Yard Service” right there on his hat. “Okay, just a minute,” I say, and unlock the two deadbolts and the chain lock so’s I can open the door.”

            Nola Jean butted in, “You should get yourself one a’them big-ass barkin dog recordings, Arlett.  Now, that’s the kinda stuff rapers are scared off by—big-ass dogs!”

            I ignored her and continued.  “So, there I am unlocking the door. I open it up and Oh my gosh, it’s Him! Jesus! I recognized Him by the pictures I seen of him all my life. Even before He took His hat off, I knowed it was Him.  I took three steps back, my eyes all buggy, I’m sure, and said, “C—come in! I mean, please,” I added. Then, soon as He come in the door, He did take that hat off and all that long, brown hair come fallin down on his collar and…well, there He was, in all His glory!”

            Nola Jean made a loud, very unladylike raspberry sound with her lips; I ignored her again and said, “He looked just like His pictures: beard, mustache, big, sad eyes.”  Just remembering those eyes made me shiver on my barstool.  I reached for my drink, but then stopped and hugged myself instead.  “But just in case you’re thinking anybody could look like that, there’s another way I knew that it was Him, the Lord.”

            Taking a big sip of her drink, Nola Jean gestured with her straw, which I took to mean, “go on,” so I did.

            “He was wearin a name tag!”

            Nola Jean choked on her Stinger. “What?”

            “Honest to God,” I said. “I mean, He was. He really was! It was right there on his chest. One o’them mono-grammed things; it said, “JESUS”, sure as I’m sittin here.

            “Your lawn guy’s name badge said JESUS?” Nola Jean, said. “Well, I’ll be damned!”

            “You will be if you don’t watch that mouth on you,” I said sternly. “Now I’m tellin  you that it was Jesus, nametag and all.”

            Bald Bill showed up right about then with our food. He picked up Nola Jean’s empty glass. “Ready?” he asked.  She grinned real big and leaned over, dropping them big bazongas of her onto the bar, batted her eyelashes up at him and said, “You betcha, honey.” She gets pretty friendly sometimes after four drinks or so. Personally though, I don’t think Bald Bill would sleep with Nola Jean even if he wasn’t married. She’s just too big for him, that’s all there is to it. She’s smoosh him like a piss-ant. Not to mention the fact that she’s thirty years older than him.

            Bill just smiled and looked at my drink, which for some reason was still full. The ice cubes was all melted though. “Something wrong with your drink, Arlett?” he asked.             Surprised, I shook my head. “No, I don’t think so. I guess I never even tried it. Musta been too busy talkin.” 

            He picked it up and said, “No problem, I’ll get you a fresh one.”

            See, I told you he’s a nice guy.

            Nola Jean poured half a bottle of soy sauce over everything on her plate, then proceeded to scarf it all down like somebody who hasn’t had nothing to eat in six months. But to be fair, Nola Jean’s a big girl. She don’t eat like a bird because she’s got a lot of space to fill, and that ain’t me mean-talkin here, it’s just the truth. Now me, I do eat like a bird, a hummingbird, Nola Jean says. It peeves her no end that I’m skinny and she’s well, fat.

            Bald Bill set a new Screwdriver down in front of me and I picked up my fork, ready to go on with the story. “Now, where was I?” I said. “Oh yeah. Okay, so I gotta tell ya, I’m pretty well flabbergasted at having the Lord right there in my living room.  I say, ‘Jesus!’ And then, cause it seemed like the right thing to do, I grab onto the chair next to me and use it to sort of ease myself down onto one knee.”

            Nola Jean’s eyes got all big. “And then what happened” 

            Over in my side-vision, I noticed Bald Bill edging  closer. His eyebrow was at full mast.

            “Jesus just looks at me for a second, then He smiles and reaches for my hand and pulls me back up onto my feet. ‘No, Signora!’ he says and pointing to his nametag, he says something that sounds like ‘Hey Zeus’. Well, I have no idea what that means, so I just sort of stand there, feeling all overwhelmed and happy.”

            Bald Bill was smiling big by then and shaking his head. I know he’s one of those church-going people and he probably reads the bible and stuff, so maybe he was familiar with Jesus’ language.

            Nola Jean was tuned in by then, but she was shakin her head too, like she was just not buyin anything I was sellin.  “Okay, so then what?” she said.

            “So, like I said, I’m standing there all speechless, bein in the same room with Jesus and all, and He’s standing there smiling and looking expectant, and I’m just wondering what I have in the kitchen to fix for Him, when he says, ‘I am here to fix your sprinkler.’ 

            Well, I’m just shocked. To think the Lord Himself would come all the way to earth, to my house, just to fix my sprinkler! And I gotta say, I’m a little surprised to hear that he’s got an accent just like Mr. Fernandez and the rest of his crew.

            ‘I will have this done for you as quickly as possible,’ He says then. ‘If you will just show me where your water shut-off valve is…’

            “All of a sudden, I find myself remembering all the rotten things I’ve done in my life, stuff I know must have been written down in God’s book somewhere and I’m overwhelmed with shame. ‘Jesus, I say’, ‘I don’t deserve to have you fix my sprinkler.’”

            I pick up my drink and bring it up to my mouth, but all of a sudden I realize that I’m not very thirsty so I set it back down.

            “Aw, Arlett. You been a good person,” Nola Jean said, “You always buy Girl Scout cookies when they come around.”

            Bald Bill reached over and patted my hand. “She’s right, Arlett. Nobody’s perfect. So, what happened next?”

            “Well, that’s when the real miracle happened,” I said, going on with the story. “Jesus just stood there, not saying anything, just looking at me with those eyes of His. And then, just when I was feeling like I was gonna bust into tears or something, He looks over at my fireplace, where I put my Nativity Scene every year.  ‘May I, Signora?’ He asks, and I take that to mean He wants to get a closer look. So I say, ‘Of course!’  He walks over and stands there looking at it, not saying anything, so I go over and stand next to him.  After a minute, He picks the baby Jesus up, looks at it, and then smiles before putting it back down.  I’m kind of shifting from foot to foot, still feeling really unworthy and all when He turns to me and says, ‘I must go fix the sprinkler now, Signora, okay?’  I swallow kind of hard and say, ‘Okay’.  I take him to the garage and show Him the water valve. He nods at me and says, ‘I will have this repaired quickly.’ He shuts off the water and asks me to open the garage door so He don’t have to come back into the house, which I do.  ‘It is cold outside’, He says, ‘You stay in where it is warm. I will come tell you when I have finished.’”

            Nola Jean shrugged. “I don’t get it, what’s so miraculous about that? So he fixed your sprinkler…”

            Bald Bill shushed her and said, “Go on, Arlett.

            “I close the garage door after Him,” I said. “And then I go back into the house to wait. I sit down at the kitchen table and think about my life and about how I shoulda paid a little more attention to God. I’m just dumbfounded that Jesus would take the time to come visit me, let alone do repairs around my house.  Well, I sit there thinking for a long time until I guess maybe I fall asleep because all of a sudden, there’s a knock at the door. I go and open it and there He is, hat in hand again. ‘It is finished, Signora,’ he says. I take a deep breath, grab His hand and say, “Thank you, Jesus.”  He stands there smiling at me, His eyes all warm and soft and says, “You’re welcome, Arlett. Thank you!”  

            Well, my mouth falls open. “You’re thanking me?” I say.  And then I realize…His accent is gone, and He just called me by my name. Before I can say a word, He reaches out His other hand and puts it on my shoulder. I feel a big rush of, something…joy, I guess. He looks over at my Nativity Scene again, turns back to me with a little smile and says, ‘Thank you for remembering my birthday.’”

            “What?  No way!!!” Nola Jean’s eyes looked like they was ready to pop out of her head. “What happened then?”

            I got that funny joy feeling again, remembering. “Then, I think I closed my eyes for a minute because when I opened ‘em, He was gone.”

            Nola Jean harrumphed, “You’re crazy, Arlett. I think you dreamed the whole thing.”

            Bald Bill leaned over the counter and said, “Maybe. But maybe not…” He picked up my second untouched Screwdriver. “So, what do you think…would you like a coke, Arlett?”         

            I thought about it for a minute and then smiled real big. “Yeah, Bill. I believe I would.”

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A Christmas Story ~ By Tina Wagner Mattern

 So…I know you want to hear the whole sordid story, about how I ended up drunker than a skunk on Santa’s lap three weeks before Christmas. And about how that fiasco turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me—right?

Okay, here it is:  The first rotten thing that happened was that Roger, the only great-looking guy I ever dated, dumped me the day before Thanksgiving.  Aside from the fact that I was so happy to finally have a boyfriend that my family and friends didn’t make fun of, I was actually in love with him, sort of.  He had some nice qualities, like award winning teeth; my friends called him Mr. Ultrabright, and some other good traits that I just can’t think of right this minute. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t the nicest guy I ever went out with….There were a few little things he did and said that were a bit hard to deal with. Like, I had to ride in his back seat when he came to pick me up; of course, he did say that that was only because he had a fantasy about being a taxi driver and definitely not because he didn’t want people to think I was his date. And then there was the weight thing…but I have to say that I would never have lost those twelve pounds if it hadn’t been for his subtle hints: pointing at my dessert and then pointing to my hips, etc.

I wouldn’t have gotten my nose fixed either, which has been a huge improvement on the balance of my facial features. Even my mother had to admit that.  The implants have given me a much better self-image too; nobody can call me Titless Toni anymore. Thanks to Roger, I’ve got a pair of jugs that are so big, if I stand on my head, I’ll suffocate.

But in spite of all that, I really did pretty much love him; we had some great times together on the weekends when he wasn’t busy. And so, when he told me over dinner (which I bought—again) that he thought we should see other people (meaning HE should see other people and I should go back to dating homely guys), it hurt. I was very depressed.  Thanksgiving dinner sucked.  When I showed up without Roger, my father just shook his head, my brother said, “Roger finally got himself some glasses, huh?” And my mother said, “I TOLD you, you should have gotten the D implants!” It’s good to have a family sensitive to your pain.

And then I got laid off.  I should have seen it coming but I didn’t.  I got into work, hung up my jacket, got my tools out and Mr. Albermarle called me into the inner sanctum, as he likes to call it. I always hate going in there…the organ music is SO depressing—and the smell of lilies and roses is just overwhelming.  I suppose I should be used to it by now; it goes with mortuary  territory and I’ve been here a year, but some things just bug you, you know? So anyway, the boss says, “Come in, Antonia. Sit down.” Never a good sign when he wants me to sit because sitting means not working and Mr. Albermarle’s tenet is, the only reason not to be doing something constructive, is if you’re dead.

I sighed and sat down on the little casket-shaped ottoman across from his desk, figuring that he was going to ask me to assist him in the inner-sanctum again, as he has for months now.

His theory is that once I spend some time helping him embalm a few folks, I’ll fall in love with the work. Never mind that I get faint when my manicurist trims my cuticles, and even watching someone blow their nose makes me gag.

I’ve finally gotten to where I can do the dearly departed’s hair without throwing up but that’s only because the folks look pretty normal by the time they make it to my service. Most of them look like peaceful, happy, if a bit surprised, life-sized dolls. I can deal with that. And the money’s good, especially considering that I only have to do the front of their hair.

But Mr. Albermarle cleared his throat and ruined the end of an already lousy week.  “I think you need to take some time off, Antonia.”

I blinked up at him, “Huh?”

“You maybe need to rest up so you can get over this little funk you’ve been in for the last few weeks.”

“Funk?” The almost-love of my life has left me and he calls it a funk? “I’m fine,” I sniffled, digging in my pocket for a tissue. “Couldn’t be better.”

“Mrs. Dearborn’s daughter said her mother looked like a poodle on crack when you got done with her. And she’s not the only one; Carlos Ramirez almost had a stroke when he saw the cornrows in his father’s hair.”

“Mrs. Dearborn’s daughter is a controlling, anal-retentive shrew,” I muttered. “Her mother probably kicked the bucket just to get away from her. And Mr. Ramirez needed a lift…he looked so….so….DEAD!”

Mr. Albermarle sighed. “Now see, that’s what I’m talking about. This isn’t the Antonia I know. You’re a nice person; you just need some time off.”

“But…”

“No buts, you’re on official leave of absence as of right now. Come back when you get it all worked out.”

Damn!  Things couldn’t get worse.

And then they did.

My cat, Mrs. Haberschnaber, left me. Two years of tender loving care in spite of hairballs the size of ground squirrels, a growing weight problem, two-inch deep trenches clawed in my sofa cushions and her insistence on sleeping draped across my forehead, and then when I need some compassionate, nurturing care…she’s off like a dirty shirt.

What the hell? Am I reaping Karma for some rotten deed in a previous life or what?

Anyway, these undeserved plagues are what led me, at two o’clock in the afternoon, on the first Tuesday in December, to drink six bottles of beer, four of those little airline bottles of tequila and half a pint of peppermint schnapps, which I poured over a quart of Ben & Jerry’s pistachio ice cream.

The next thing I remember is deciding to take a walk to clear my head, which by then was feeling like someone had inserted a balloon up my nose into my brain and then inflated it with helium. I ended up at the strip mall a half mile from my house, where a sign in the window of the Big Lots store announced, SANTA’S HERE!”

“Santa!” I burbled, overcome suddenly with nostalgia over a memory of some classic Christmas movie with a little girl who didn’t believe in Santa and then ended up writing him a letter and getting a new house, or a dad or a nose job or whatever. “Yay! Good old Santa’s here to save the day! Just what I need! If anybody’ll listen to my problems without getting all judgmental, it’s Santa!”

Three o’clock in the afternoon was apparently not this store’s peak shopping hour. Aside from a bored-looking clerk talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone, I seemed to be the only shopper in the building.

I staggered past the canned food aisle, bounced off the pots and pans aisle a couple of times and sat down rather abruptly in the candy aisle (I did NOT fall) but eventually made it to the back of the store where I finally found Santa Claus. He was all by himself in an overstuffed recliner next to a sign that said, Half Off All Furniture, self-consciously practicing his Ho, Ho, Ho’s. I have to say, he was trying very hard to look professional; sitting up all straight and serious in his chair, beard & mustache neatly arranged, hat at just the right angle, and all this despite the fact that there wasn’t one kid around to appreciate how ready he was to dazzle and delight them. Truthfully though, he was never going to win any awards for being the perfect St. Nick…he was too young and kind of deflated looking, like someone had let all the air out of him. It was obvious he was wearing a pretty hefty pillow under his red velvet suit.  But what the hell, old and fat or young and skinny, he was Santa and I needed him, so I walked over to the “Line Up Here” sign, picked it back up after crashing into it and waited expectantly for Himself to invite me onto his lap. Santa, however, just sat there staring at me, looking rather confused.

“Hi Santa!” I called, waving shyly at him. I mean, it’d been years since I’d been to see Jolly Old St. Nick, —the whole scene was still a little intimidating.

Santa cocked his head in obvious bewilderment and cleared his throat before saying, “Uh…hello? Can I help you?”

            Just the question I was hoping for! I staggered over and threw myself onto his lap, wrapped my arms around his neck and burst into tears.

            “Hey!” Santa’s lap lurched, nearly launching me onto the floor but I held on and just cried harder.

            To the poor guy’s credit, once he realized I wasn’t going to be easily dislodged, and I was after all sobbing all over his red-velvet shoulder in obvious misery, his human compassion kicked in, he put his arm around me and patted my shoulder. “It’s okay. It’ll be okay…really.”

            “No it won’t!” I bawled, and proceeded to tell him the whole sordid story of my horrible month, getting dumped, the forced leave of absence, my cat abandoning me, my cold-hearted family…all of it in pitiful detail. When I got to the part about the boob job, I put my hands under them, lifted them up high for his observance and cried, “Look at the size of these, for God’s sake! Do you know how much these suckers weigh?”

All the while, young Mr. Claus listened very intently, and even at some point began to gently rock me as he murmured, “Okay…Okay.”  When I finally ran down to only a few occasional hiccupping sobs, he dug a handful of Kleenex out of his pocket and handed it to me.

            “Thank you,” I sniffled.

            “No problem.” And then with a sweet attempt at lightening the situation, he said, “So, young lady…what can Santa bring you for Christmas?”

            I shrugged and shook my head, “A new boyfriend? A breast reduction? Crap, I don’t know!”

            Santa squeezed my hand. “Well, if my opinion counts for anything, I think anybody who’d walk out on you is a stupid jerk”

            “You do?”

            “Yeah. And I’m Santa. I know when someone’s a stupid jerk. I have a list!”

            “Santa?” Suddenly a tiny voice cut into our little tableau. We both looked up to see a kid of about 6 standing over by the “Line Up Here” sign. She looked stunned and more than a little worried to see a twenty-something, red-nosed, tear-streaked woman sniffling in Santa Claus’s lap. I jumped up, shocked sober, wiped at my cheeks and pasted on a smile.

            “Thank you, Santa! I’ll tell my little girl that you’ll be leaving her lots of presents on Christmas Eve.”

            “Ho-Ho-Ho! You do that, little lady! Tell her I know she’s been a good girl!”

            The kid looked relieved but still a little wary.

            “I’d better get going,” I whispered. “Thanks for putting up with a drunken crazy woman.”

            “No problem. Really,” he whispered back. And then, glancing over at the little girl who was still watching carefully, he said loudly, “Watch for me on Christmas Eve! Now, who’s next?”

                        *                                              *                                              *

            Things have a way of working themselves out, don’t they? I mean, especially during the Christmas season, it seems like. Anyway, by the week before Christmas, Mr. Albermarle called and told me that the Ramirez’s cousins, whose aunt died last week, wanted me to come and put cornrows in her hair. They thought I did a nice job on their uncle. Can you believe it?  And my fat, runaway cat, Mrs. Haberschnaber? Turns out she wasn’t fat, she was pregnant! She showed up on my doorstep last Tuesday with three baby kitties.

            I even came to terms with my family, pretty much. I decided to just accept them as they were because they were never going to change. So my life was looking up by Christmas Eve. Not to say that I wasn’t feeling sad and lonely, sitting in front of my tree by myself, drinking a non-alcoholic glass of eggnog and listening to Christmas music on the radio.

I was just thinking about turning the lights out and heading upstairs to an early bed when the doorbell rang. Now who….? I looked at the clock over the mantle—it was 9:30. Too late for UPS or FEDEX, I thought. So who else would be here at this hour?

I crept over to the front door and peeked through security peep-hole.  Santa Claus was standing on my front porch!  As if he knew I was peering out at him, he grinned and held up a card for me to see. I looked at it and blinked…it looked like a driver’s license. He held it up closer–my mouth dropped open. It was my driver’s license! I opened the door and Santa held it out to me.

Taking it from him in wonderment, I said, “Where—?”

            “It must have fallen out of your purse when you came to see me at Big Lots,” he said, smiling.

            “I didn’t even miss it!” I said. “But you brought it all the way over here for me on Christmas Eve? That’s….that’s…so NICE!”

He shrugged and said, “Hey…I told you to watch for me on Christmas Eve!  Then, reaching up, he pulled off the fake beard and slid the red cap from his head, revealing a fresh-faced, nice looking but in no way stunningly handsome guy with light-brown hair and laughing green eyes. Holding out his hand to me, he said, “Hi! My name’s Dave.”

            I shook it and said, “Hi! My name’s Toni. Nice to meet you.”

            “So…” he said, looking over my shoulder at the Christmas tree twinkling in the living room, “Got any plans for New Years?”

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When A Tornado Touches Down

I have experienced many different kinds of loneliness in my life:

At the age of seven I found myself alone on an airplane, traveling across the United States, to be adopted by strangers. The story ended happily, as one of the greatest blessings of my life, but I remember the loneliness of that time as if it were a heartbeat ago.

I have known the loss of a beloved cousin, a dear friend, to a premature death.

When I was seventeen, I thought I would die of a broken heart because the boy I loved stood me up for the Junior Prom.

There have been countless Christmas’s, New Year’s Eves, Valentine’s Days and birthdays spent alone, lonely and depressed because the men I loved had moved on.

And I’ve known the kind of heartbreaking loneliness that is caused by the betrayal of close friends.

But I know now that there is no loneliness that compares with how you feel when you’ve been told you have cancer.

No matter how many people gather around you and hold you and cry and tell you they are there for you—your parents, your husband or wife, your own children, best friends, it doesn’t really matter. In the final scope of things, you are alone. They don’t have cancer. . .you do. And not one of them can save you.

* * *

My husband had been pacing for well over an hour, picking up his keys, laying them down, gathering his briefcase and name badge, only to place them back on the table. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay home? I feel like I should be here when you call the surgeon.”

I walked over and laid my head against his chest and he put his arms around me, hugging me close.

“No,” I told him, “I’m not even going to call him until at least two o’clock. I want to make sure my biopsy results are in.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Like I swallowed a Big-Gulp of nitroglycerine, so don’t squeeze.” I whispered.

“So, you’re going to call me as soon as you talk to him, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, kissing my husband’s worried face. Now go to work. I’ve got to go make sure the kids are up.”

He retrieved his things and I walked with him to the door. We kissed and he left after a last anxious look.

I headed upstairs to wake our fifteen year old, Aaron and twelve year old, Summer. When they left for school, instead of calling out my usual, “Bye, guys, have a good day,” I hugged them both, one at a time and said, “I love you.” Aaron, a little surprised, grunted and mumbled “Uh…yeah, okay—me too,” which is how he usually responds to any emotional outbursts. Summer hugged me back, patting me reassuringly.

“I love you too, Mom. It’s going to be fine. Really. I’ll see you after school.”

As the door closed behind them, I stood there staring at it, wondering how I was going to get through the next seven hours without having a nervous breakdown. Seven hours might as well be seven days or seven years; it was all relative . . . an eternity.

Around eleven o’clock, the telephone rang. My heart did a double back flip. Was it my doctor, calling to tell me the news was good; calling to say, “I told you the silly lump was nothing?” Or was it him calling to say the news was bad? I reached for the phone. Picked it up. Held it shakily to my ear. “Hello?”

“Is this Tina Mattern?”

“Yes.” My heart did three forward rolls and a summersault.

“Hi there! This is Brad with AT&T. How are you today?” “

Barely resisting the urge to throw the phone across the room, I snarled, “You don’t want to know!” and slammed the receiver down. I glared at it. “Ring again with anybody but my surgeon and I’m flushing you down the toilet.”

The rest of the morning and early afternoon were taken up with pacing, staring out the window and sending telepathic messages to the doctor; “Put down the scalpel or whatever it is you’re doing. Go call Tina.” It seemed his psychic network was busy; he didn’t call. The telephone, apparently well intimidated, didn’t ring once.

Finally, at two o’clock, I picked up the phone, ready to dial the doctor’s office. I took a deep breath. Took another. Then a couple more, until I realized I was very close to hyperventilating, so I put the phone back down and waited until my breathing was calm. Centering myself, I cleared my throat and picked the phone up once again. I dialed the surgeon’s number. On the fourth ring one of those nasally women’s voices answered, asking to which doctor’s office I would like to be connected. When I told her, she informed me that his receptionist, Mercy, was out of the office temporarily.

“Call back in a half-hour,” she said.

I groaned, sending the thought out to the receptionist: Lady, you need to pee or eat lunch or whatever it is you’re doing, on your own time. Right now you’re supposed to be answering the phone.

I sat down on the sofa, gathered Sam Hill, my twenty-one pound cat onto my lap. After a few minutes though, his deep chest rumbling purr began to grate on my jangled nerves so I set him down on the sofa and got up to go into the kitchen where I could pace back and forth in front of the oven clock.       Twenty more minutes crawled by like dying slugs. I dialed the phone again.

“Dr. Blank’s office, please,” I said firmly.

Another nasally voice put me on hold for three very long seconds, then returned and said, “The receptionist was just here, but she stepped out of the office again for a minute. Could you call right back?”

What the HELL is wrong with this woman’s bladder! Picturing her in a broom closet with a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel, I hung up and set the stove clock timer for ten minutes, figuring whatever she was doing, she should be able to wrap it up by then.

I watched the numbers count down to zero. This time, when I dialed, I finally got through. I asked to speak to my doctor.

“He’s not in,” the receptionist said, sounding slightly annoyed, as though I was being a self-absorbed, selfish jerk to expect the poor man to be in his office at two forty-five in the afternoon.

“What?” This wasn’t what I was expecting. Just yesterday, when I came out of surgery, he had patted my shoulder in his comforting way and said, “Call me tomorrow and I’ll have your results.”

“I…what?” I repeated, taken aback, not having prepared myself for the possibility that he might have stepped out of the office. “When will he be back in?”

The woman sighed. “He’s out of the office for the rest of the day. Was there something I could help you with?”
She was there in my mind’s eye, drumming her short no-nonsense nails on the desk as my mind struggled painfully with the unexpected realization that I was going to have to wait another day at least to find out what my surgery had turned up.

“But. . .he said to call him today. He said he’d tell me my biopsy results.” My hand was gripping the phone so hard my fingers were going numb. “He’s my doctor. I need him,” I whispered.

“Wait,” she said, putting me on hold.

Let her be sending him a message to call me, I prayed, knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat or even take another steady breath into my body until I knew what I was facing—good or bad. In a moment, she was back.

“Let’s see,” she said. “Did your biopsy results come in. . .?” She was silent for a few seconds; I could hear her shuffling through papers.
I was prepared for her to say, “No, they didn’t come in yet.” I was prepared for her to say, “You will have to call the doctor again tomorrow.” I was heartsick about it, but I was prepared. Nothing could have prepared me for what the receptionist did say:

“Yes, it appears you do have a small cancer” she announced brusquely. “A one centimeter tumor.”

My heart stopped. What? WHAT? My legs gave out and I dropped onto a kitchen chair. Something was wrong. There wasn’t enough air in the room. My mind wasn’t working right. . . I shook my head, trying to clear away the sudden darkness.

The woman’s indifferent voice was in my ear, blithely laying out treatment possibilities; words coming at me like bullets through the telephone, firing into my brain with deadly accuracy; Mastectomy. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Words that stunned and terrified me every bit as much as the one she uttered first. Cancer.

Wait! No… WAIT! My mind scrambled to understand what she had just said. This can’t be right! You’re not my doctor. . . I have to wait and call tomorrow.

The room began to shimmer and distort. I laid the telephone on the table and put my head down between my knees. The voice was still coming through the receiver. I put my hands over my ears.

I have CANCER.

Inside my chest, a tornado touched down.

Why can’t I breathe?

I sat back up, gasping.

“Ex-cuse me! Are you there?”

I stared at the phone where it lay on the table like an armed grenade.

Cancer.

“Hell-o-o-o. . .?”

I watched my hand reach out and pick it up.

“We’d better make an appointment for you to talk to the doctor,” Mercy was saying, all business. “Let’s see…okay, he can see you tomorrow at three-thirty. Okay for you?”

I felt my head nod.

“Okay?” she repeated, impatiently.

I heard myself mumble something inarticulate, which she took to be an affirmative.

“See you then,” she said.

I sat holding the telephone until a dial tone pierced the silence.

What is that sound?

Oh.

I placed it back on the cradle.

A strange coldness moved up through my legs, through my stomach, through my chest, to my face. I was frozen, unable to move.
I stayed that way for what seemed like hours, but in reality was probably only ten minutes, staring out into nothingness. Finally though, the thaw began; I started to shake.I shook for a long time. Shook as though there was an earthquake in my soul. Until I heard someone calling my name.

“Tina…? Honey? Did you talk to the doctor?” The telephone was somehow back in my hand; my head filling with the sound of my husband’s worried voice.

“Freddie? You come home now. Okay?” I whispered.

As I put the phone down, the thaw reached my throat, my mind, and then my eyes; I was able finally, to cry. I cried the way I hadn’t done since I was a child, deep gut-wrenching sobs, my arms wrapped tightly around myself because I felt like I would fly into a million pieces if someone didn’t hold me together.

But there was no one there; it would take my husband at least a half-hour to drive home; the kids weren’t due from school for almost an hour. Mercy’s voice echoed in my head, over and over, “Yes, it appears you do have a small cancer.”

Looking back, I realize now that I probably never even heard the word small; size is meaningless when it comes to cancer. My mind heard the “C” word, period, which equaled death, or at the very least, losing my breast and/or months of suffering through poisonous drugs that would probably make me wish I would die.

So I cried and I rocked and I waited for Freddie to come through the front door.

A half-hour can be a very long time. A half-hour can be a lifetime.

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A Feather From Heaven

By Tina Wagner Mattern

After I got the call from my sister in Florida that our mother was in intensive care, I was on a plane within the week. I knew she was very ill—double pneumonia, congestive heart failure and anemia due to internal bleeding somewhere—but Mom had battled most of these health issues before and had triumphed. Nearly 81, she was our family’s indomitable Energizer bunny. So when the pulmonologist broke the news that our mother was not going to live, my brother, sister and I were stunned and heartbroken.

I looked down at my vibrant, funny, bossy, inexpressibly lovable mom and wondered: how can anyone so alive be terminally ill? There she was, hooked up to beeping machines and wearing a CPAP with the highest saturation rate of oxygen available, but unlike the other patients in ICU, she was her usual silly self, making faces, teasing the nurses, joking and laughing. Even after the doctor had explained the dire prognosis to her, her irrepressible attitude didn’t falter. “You know,” she told us, “I would’ve thought that hearing I was going to die would make me a basket-case, but strange as it seems, I’m really at peace about this.” We, her children, of course, were not. “Don’t cry,” she said, wiping our tears. I know where I’m going after all. Heaven’s going to be wonderful.” We did our best, but heaven seemed so far away.

Throughout her days in the hospital, Mom had a positive spirit that became infectious; she entertained and inspired family, friends, neighbors and loved members of her church; each visitor was treated to her off-the-wall sense of humor and uplifting faith. As long as her pain was kept under control, she was the sassy, often hilarious life of the party. Visiting hour rules in the intensive care unit limited callers to two at a time, but there were rarely less than 6 in Mom’s room. The wonderful attendant staff, captivated by this high-spirited, anything-but-ordinary patient, smiled and looked the other way.
One afternoon, Janet, Mom’s best friend and long-time comrade-in-shenanigans, came for her daily visit. This time she brought her twelve-year-old granddaughter, Kimberly, with her. Janet and Mom tossed insults and droll comments back and forth as Kimberly and I alternately laughed and rolled our eyes. After a few minutes of this though, Janet grew serious and handed Mom an envelope. “Here, I brought you something,” she said. “Open it and read the note.”

Mom smiled, drawing out the folded sheet of paper, and began to read out loud a lovely little poem about angels. “Oh, that’s sweet,” she said, when she finished.

“Now, look in the envelope,” Janet instructed. Pulling it open, Mom peeked inside and chuckled. “It’s a feather!” She held the tiny white plume up for us to see. “Must have been a small angel, huh?”

Kimberly and I laughed.

Janet, smiling through suddenly teary eyes, leaned forward and grabbed Mom’s hand. “Listen, you—this feather is important. When you get to heaven, I want you to send it to me to let me know you got there.”
Mom laughed. “You don’t want much, do you? Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
During the week to come, our family and Mom’s dearest friends stayed close by her side, treasuring every second; cherishing every wisecrack, every laugh, every tender, reassuring hug. Each of us imprinting on our hearts the moments spent with her.

Much too soon, however, the day came when I had to return to Portland. Saying goodbye was agonizing. How could I leave knowing I wouldn’t see her again? Mom though, with her unshakable faith, hugged me and whispered, “I love you. This isn’t goodbye, sweetheart, it’s see you later.” My last memory of my mother is of her grinning her irresistible grin and blowing me kisses through her oxygen mask.

Early the following Monday morning, I got the call: surrounded by her children, grandchildren and dearest sister and brother, Mom had slipped gently from their arms into God’s.

On Tuesday afternoon, my phone rang; it was Janet. We had been checking in with one another throughout the weeks leading up to Mom’s death, so I assumed she was calling to see how I was doing. Instead, her voice brimmed with excitement. “I have something to tell you,” she said. Intrigued by her unexpected tone, I asked,”

What’s up?”

“My granddaughter, Kimberly, stayed with me last night,” she said. “We finished watching a movie and were just sitting there on the sofa, when I looked over and saw Kimberly’s arm go up in the air. ‘What on earth are you doing?’ I asked her. She turned to me and held out her hand, ‘Grandma, look!’”
Janet’s voice dropped to an awed whisper. “It was a little white feather, Tina. Right out of thin air!”
My arms broke out in goosebumps and a delighted smile spread across my face as I pictured my mother entering Heaven, pointing to the nearest angel’s wings and saying, “Hey, I need to borrow one of those feathers!”

“Oh Janet,” I said with a lump in my throat, “She made it! I never doubted that she would, but what a sweet miracle you’ve been given—we’ve all been given. Thank you, Lord.”

Janet sniffled back, “Amen Tina, Amen.”

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Gotta Love Me

By Tina Wagner Mattern

         

          When our cat, Brodie, was born, his mother, Ginger, developed a breast infection, so he and his siblings had to be nurtured and hand-fed by their human grandmother, my good friend Ellen.  She tended them devotedly; hers was the first face the kittens saw in the morning and the last one at night. In their minds, Ellen was their mother, and since she was human, they must be too.      Consequently, Brodie had no idea he was a cat—as far as he was concerned, he was a vertically challenged kid in an orange fur suit.

          From the first day that Brodie came to live with us, we could see that he, like his surrogate mom, was a people-person. His philosophy was clear: Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet. He was crazy about everybody. And he was absolutely certain that everyone felt the same way about him. Whenever the doorbell rang, Brodie would jump up and bolt for the door, radiating “Someone’s here to visit me!” excitement. Salesmen, visiting friends or family, all were welcomed with hyper-drive-purring, head-butting enthusiasm.

          One afternoon, we had a repairman in our home to fix our refrigerator. Brodie was ecstatic to meet him and followed him like a puppy to the kitchen. I was busying myself around the house with laundry and dusting, etc., when I heard a deep male laugh coming from behind the fridge. I peeked around the corner to find the man down on his hands and knees working…with Brodie perched on his shoulder, supervising.

          “Good grief”, I groaned, “Brodie, get down!” The man laughed again and said, “Nah, it’s okay. He’s just helping.” Brodie gave me a smug look and made himself useful by giving the nice man a shoulder massage.

          Throughout all the years Brodie was with us, our furry little goodwill ambassador took great pride in his charismatic charm. Even those folks who were “not cat people” somehow changed their minds when confronted with Brodie’s sweet, seductive attention. He reigned undefeated until the day our beautiful friend, Terra, came to stay with us for a month.

          Terra loves animals—all animals—cats included. But she is very allergic to the fur of felines: one touch and she breaks out in hives, her sinuses go nuts and she’s just generally miserable. So it’s understandable that she would avoid like the plague being in close proximity to a cat.

          Brodie took one look at Terra when she walked in the door, and fell head- over-paws in love. Our dear friend apparently exuded some mysterious human-catnip essence that Brodie found absolutely irresistible. Food, toys, even coveted kitty treats were suddenly unimportant; getting close to Terra became his prime directive.

          With no doubt as to his reception, Brodie waited until his beloved sat down on the sofa and then launched himself into her lap. Placing his paws on her chest, he turned on his purr-box full-throttle and stared meaningfully into her eyes. This gambit had always guaranteed quality petting in the past. Terra giggled, all the while trying to push Brodie away without actually touching him with her hands.

          “Brodie!” I cried, “Get down!”  When he completely ignored me, I retrieved him and sat him down beside me.  “You can’t bother Terra,” I explained. “She’s allergic to you.”  Apparently, Brodie wasn’t buying it; as soon as our attention was diverted by conversation, he was right back in her lap again. Variations of this scene continued to be played throughout the next month. He pursued her as single-mindedly as a starving ant at a Martha Stewart picnic.

          One evening, after Terra headed upstairs to get ready for bed, I heard her laugh out loud. “Tina—you’ve got to see this!” she called. I ran up the stairs and found her in the bathroom, where Brodie, wearing an expression of triumph, was on his back in her sink. The message was clear: If you want me out of here, you gotta pick me up!  Terra kept the bathroom door closed from then on.

          Well, there’s more than one way to skin a mouse. Our determined little furball was not to be defeated so easily. A few evenings later, after Terra was settled for the night, I was once again summoned by a squeal and giggle. Brodie had flown into the room, pounced onto the bed, and begun massaging her back.

          “Guess you’re going to have to keep the bedroom door closed too,” I groaned and picked Brodie up and brought him with me downstairs. “Now listen,” I told him in no uncertain terms, “You have to leave Terra alone! She’s ALLERGIC!”  Brodie sulked for the rest of the evening, but somewhere in his creative little head, a new plan was already hatching.

          It took several days to work out the logistics, but once Brodie figured his new strategy was foolproof, he settled down to wait patiently for the perfect time. It didn’t take long.

          My husband, Fred, Terra and I had watched a movie and were pleasantly surprised that throughout the evening, Brodie hadn’t even attempted any of his usual ploys for his sweetheart’s attention. In fact, he seemed to have mysteriously disappeared.

           “Maybe he’s finally losing interest,” I said, hopefully.

          Terra just smiled, “He’s so sweet, poor little guy. Well, I’m off to bed”. 

          Upstairs, (as Terra described the following scene to us later) she got her pajamas on, washed her face and brushed her teeth, all the while keeping an eye out for her little stalker. But Brodie was still nowhere to be seen. “Goodnight!” she called out, and, taking one last look around for her furry shadow, opened her bedroom door and went in, closing it behind her.  Once in bed, she sighed contentedly, turned off the light and settled herself for a good night’s sleep. She was just dozing off when…Foomph! An 8 pound kid in an orange fur suit, landed squarely on her chest, purring jubilantly. His strategy had worked! Hiding under the bed for two hours had paid off! Surely his sweetheart would finally see that they were meant to be together! 

          We could hear Terra’s laughter…and wheezing, all the way downstairs. Her amended nightly routine from then on, included checking for furry little monsters under the bed.

 

          Brodie was one of the dearest members of our family for many years. He was unfailingly sweet, clever, and irresistible. We have countless memories of him to treasure, but none as unforgettable as the time our boy set out to win (and he did, of course) our friend, Terra’s heart.

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Off The Hook

“You’re my best friend” Marcie told me, lifting the red book in her hands. “I’m worried about you. You have got to quit smoking!”  She held the self-help book out to me and said, “This book really helped my husband quit. Maybe it’ll work for you too.”

          I sighed. My husband and children had been nagging me for years, my conscience told me daily what a disappointment I must be to God, now my dearest friend was stepping up to plague me as well. The problem with my trying to quit was twofold: First, I had been smoking since I was 15. Over the years I had tried numerous times before—aversion therapy, hypnosis and many attempts at going cold turkey, but the cravings were so intense and my willpower so weak, I would be miserable and only last a week or two before giving in. Second, I had struggled with chronic depression for many years and each attempt to quit smoking would trigger an episode, exacerbating feelings of hopelessness and despair.

          “Thanks, Marce,” I said, taking the book with what I hoped would pass for a grateful smile. “I’m kind of busy lately but I’ll get to it as soon as I can.” After she left, I took the book and set it dutifully on the coffee table where it sat, radiating guilt vibes. “Leave me alone,” I muttered. “I’m happy smoking. I don’t want to quit.” 

          But I wasn’t happy smoking, and I did want to quit. I hated knowing I was addicted to something as stupid as lighting a cylinder of toxic leaves and sucking smoke down into my lungs. And I knew I was playing Russian roulette with cancer. But when a craving crept in, none of that seemed to matter.

          I covered the book with a magazine, grabbed my cigarettes and went outside.

          Months passed. I shuffled the book from one end of the coffee table to the other, studiously ignoring the bright red cover’s title, “Hooked But Not Helpless”. Each time Marcie asked if I’d read the book, I’d mutter, “Soon.”

          One day, in the midst of a devastating bout of depression—sadness and despair so deep that rising from bed in the morning seemed like a mountain too high to climb—I felt strangely compelled to pick it up.  In resignation, I started to read. At least I’ll be able to give it back to Marcie, I thought, and get it off my coffee table.

          Hours later, I finished the book. Its premise for overcoming smoking addiction had been simple but innovative, teaching the reader how to change thinking patterns about smoking, and including good strategies for dealing with feelings of deprivation. Sitting back, I found myself experiencing an unfamiliar feeling…hope.

          On the heels of that feeling came an unquestionable knowing: God wanted me to quit.  I put my head in my hands and groaned.

          “No way, God!”  The very idea made me mad. “I can’t do it. You know I can’t!”

          But the knowing persisted. And it wouldn’t leave me alone. Finally, I threw the book down on the table and, I’m embarrassed to say, issued a very irreverent ultimatum: “Apparently you want me to quit smoking, even though you know I’m drowning in depression down here. Well, I think it’s completely unfair of you to even suggest it, but here’s the deal: I’ll try—but I’m telling you this—if I do, You have to do it all. I mean every bit of it. If I have one craving, I’m giving in and smoking.” 

          God, His usual, enigmatic self, didn’t say a word.

          I got up, put my pack of cigarettes into a drawer and resigned myself to the misery of deprivation.

          The rest of the day passed. The family came home and we ate dinner, watched TV and went to bed.  Morning came and we all arose and went about our routines. My husband went off to work, the kids left for school and I busied myself with cleaning, laundry and my usual chores. Throughout the day, I kept having the strange feeling that I was forgetting something. I’d stop what I was doing, think, scratch my head, then when nothing came to mind, shrug and go about my work.  It took about two days of this before I realized…I wasn’t smoking! Not only wasn’t I smoking, I had totally forgotten about it! Shocked and wary, I searched my mind for any craving for the cigarettes that had been ruling my life for so long…nothing. I had absolutely no interest in smoking.

          God, in His kindness and mercy, had heard my disrespectful, downright rude prayer…and had answered. “Yes,” He said, “I accept your deal. You try, I’ll do the rest.”

          That was twenty years ago. I have never had a craving, have never missed smoking, and have never been tempted by being around someone who does. It is as if I had never smoked.  Not a day goes by that I’m not awestruck at the magnitude of this miracle, and filled with gratitude—I’m off the hook! Thirty-five years of bondage, broken in a moment by an irreverent, even faithless prayer. And I understand now that our Father listens to and answers His children’s supplications no matter what emotional state we are in when we call out.  

          So the next time you feel like you’re all alone in the world and God’s too busy or disinterested to listen to little you and your problems, He isn’t. Pray anyway. What do you have to lose?  

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A 49 Year Conversation

Submitted this to Chicken Soup’s upcoming “From Lemons To Lemonade” book  -  Now I wait….

 

It was the summer of 1964. I was fourteen years old and all was right with the world. Not only was I ready to start my freshman year in high school, but wonder of wonders, I had achieved coolness: I had a boyfriend! Life couldn’t get much better, I thought. September was only a few months away, and in the meantime I was basking in the glory of being someone’s “main squeeze”.

And then my parents, whose work caused them to travel extensively, pulled the rug out from under me: “Surprise! You’re going to Europe with us for a month. We’re leaving the first week in September.”

“What?” I squeaked. “I have school, remember?”

“No problem,” they replied. “You can study on the trip and the education you’ll get from visiting all the places we’ll go is worth missing school for.”

I was aghast. “No way! I have a boyfriend, remember? And this is my freshman year. I can’t miss the first month of school!”

“The arrangements are made; we’re going and that’s that,” my mother said while wearing that “don’t argue with me” expression I knew so well.   But being my mother’s daughter, I too could be implacable, and the dispute escalated until finally I shouted, “I’d rather go to boarding school than to Europe with you!

Before my parents’ “Oh really?” had faded from my ears, I had been registered at, and delivered to, an all-girl Catholic boarding school across town from where we lived.

Well, I thought, once the initial shock wore off, at least I’ll still be in Portland. My boyfriend can come see me, and take me out.

Unfortunately, this hopeful plan was defeated once I was informed that freshman were not allowed out on dates. I could have supervised male visitors, once a week, but that was it. Well, I can see him when I go home for the weekends, I thought. But then I realized my parents would be in Europe until October! It became clear that my stubbornness had gotten me into much more than I had bargained for.

The months that followed brought every frustration imaginable. Although I had fond memories of many of the nuns I was taught by since grade school, these nuns, perhaps due to my bitter attitude, seemed mostly cold and militant. My schoolwork, which had always been marked by A’s, dropped to C’s and D’s, because I sullenly refused to put forth any effort. This, I soon learned, would not hurt anyone but me; those who did poorly in school were grounded to campus. Any infractions of the rules resulted in the cancellation of weekends at home. And weekends spent at school meant being assigned work duties such as sweeping, mopping, and cleaning bathrooms. “I’m in prison!” I would moan to my boyfriend, when he occasionally got through on the always busy dorm floor telephone.

As for the other boarders, many of the girls were from wealthy families and quickly formed unapproachable, elite cliques. Some of the others were noticeably troubled, obviously sent off to keep them out of mischief. Of course there were some nice girls too, but I was so unhappy, I just didn’t try to make friends with them. I wanted to go home. My parents, however, wisely felt that I would learn a valuable lesson by reaping the consequences of what I’d sown.

The only consolation I had was that my parents had arranged for me to have a private room. The girls in the dorm had very little privacy, just curtains between them. But despite this costly perk, I was depressed and miserable.

And then one day, Marcie appeared at my door. “Hi!”

I’d seen her around; she was hard to miss—beautiful, always smiling and radiating kindness. I’d noticed that she, like me, wasn’t being sought after by any of the school’s exclusive groups. But it didn’t seem to bother her. She went about being friendly to everyone in general anyway.

“Hi,” I returned.

“You’re so lucky to have a private room. Can I come in?”

Her smile was infectious; I smiled back and nodded.

She made herself comfortable on my bed and we started to talk. We talked about our families, our boyfriends, and our dreams. We compared makeup, clothing, views on popular TV programs and observances of the other girls. That conversation became one of too many to count. In no time we were joined at the hip, both at school and when taking turns going home on weekends (when I wasn’t grounded) to one anothers houses.

The school year flew by, and all too soon, came to an end. I would be going back to my home on the other side of town, but Marcie’s parents had moved to California. Marcie would be living in Riverside. We were inconsolable, but we vowed to always stay close through letters and phone calls.

Somehow, though, through time and circumstances, we lost touch.

The years passed. One day I was shopping downtown, turned a corner and literally ran into my old friend.

“Marcie!” I cried.

She grabbed me in a joyous hug, “Tina! Hi! We just moved back!”

“Tell me where you’re living!” “Are you dating anyone?” “I love your hair!” In one instant, the conversation we suspended all those years ago at school began right where we left off.

Over the seasons to follow, our friendship deepened; we became roommates; became ex-roommates; laughed and cried together; disapproved of one anothers choices in men; fell in love with a variety of animals, she with dogs, and me with cats; stood with each other at our weddings and mourned together the loss of our parents

Today, we still talk about everything going on in our lives. And we often speak about our year at boarding school, “I hated it”, I’ll say. “Oh come on, it wasn’t that bad,” she’ll reply. We talk about the good food and the friends we remember. We talk about our long-gone boyfriends from back then, and we talk about the serendipity of our meeting. Our conversation inevitably brings laughter, just as it always did—a conversation that has lasted for 49 years.

 

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