Madonna and Child

Christmas Eve 1996

I ease him into his “Baby’s First Christmas” outfit. He is 3 months old and starting to sleep at night. This coincides with me thinking that I may survive this tiny earthquake and all it’s aftershocks with sanity intact. I will be going back to work soon, but first I have promises to keep. I add the finishing touch, a tiny hat, which for now he is leaving on his head. We are ready. I step out into the cold.

My firstborn was born in September. I was a home health nurse at the time. I cared for mostly elderly residents in what was once a nice part of town, with small but neat homes that you could own if you had a job at the Paper Mill or the Coal Mine. A piece of the American Dream slid into the darkness of drugs and crime, leaving my patients to cling to what they had built as it crumbled around them.

The day I found out I was pregnant it was because of a visit to one of these patients. He was cooking chitlins (my non-southern readers may have to look this one up) and the house was full of the stench of it. I kept having to go hang my head out the back door and gulp fresh air to make it through my visit due to my nausea. I left from there and immediately took a test and that is when I knew I would be creating a new being. What I didn’t know was that I would soon be a new being too.

My patients, many of them so lonely and isolated, took great interest in my pregnancy, weighing in on whether it was a boy or a girl, and how big it would be. Many shared stories of their own long ago babies. All made me promise to bring the baby to see them.

Even my most notoriously difficult patient took a grudging interest. Carrie was, as we say in the South, a “mess”, and not always in the good way. She was alone in the world and barely able to manage in her tiny section 8 apartment even with our help. Help she frequently didn’t cooperate with or even appreciate. She could cuss you so a fly wouldn’t light on you just for trying your job, and if you ever came and her pistol was on the table that meant she didn’t want a bath that day. Still, I liked her and tried my best to win her over with mixed results.

She spent the months of my pregnancy making dire predictions about the baby’s chances with me as a mother inserted into her usual grousing. But occasionally while I was taking her blood pressure or checking her blood sugar, her gnarled hand would slip over to touch my belly, and a small smile would steal across her face. Once he kicked for her and she announced that I would have to bring the baby to see her, because she just loved babies.

And so it was that on Christmas Eve 1996 we went visiting. My son passed through many hands that day and endured it all patiently, his eyes never leaving my face, trusting. I left Carrie for last and prayed that it would be one of her good days. She looked at him for a long moment and then asked to hold him. I hesitated for just a second, as she was weak and unsteady, but only for a moment.

I carefully settled him in her arms and stood back. She rocked him and spoke to him much nicer than she’d ever spoken to me, in a gentle tone I’d never heard from her before.

“I just LOVE babies!” she exclaimed. Then she looked up at me with a radiant smile, her face beatific. And so it came to pass that on the night before Christmas there they were, she and my son, an unlikely Madonna and Child. And for just a moment the dinginess and sadness and darkness of the tiny room was pushed back by the light into a circle of all the love and joy in the world.

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