I’ve had a simple goal since I wrote last Wednesday: read a novel.
There are times when a small act of defiance reverberates in larger ways; reading a novel from beginning to end for the first time in a couple of years felt like a profound gesture for me. As we headed into Boston yesterday, I knew I was going to have some waiting time, so I decided to read something other than the outdated copies of People and Sports Illustrated that I was sure would be in the waiting area (they were). The nest task was choosing a book. Since the number of books in our house rivals the number of CDs and I have any number of unread novels calling out to me, the choice took a little time. What caught my eye of the book I picked was the title: The Miracle. What sold me on my choice was the author: John L’Heureux, whose novel The Shrine at Altimara is one of the most tragic and most beautifully told stories I know. I opened the book to the flyleaf where I always write my name, when I bought the book, and where we were living at the time. My inscription said: Milton Brasher-Cunningham, October 2003, Green Harbor.
L’Heureux’s inscription read: “Choose life.” Deuteronomy 30:19.
The story, set in the 1970s, centers around Paul LeBlanc, a Catholic priest in South Boston who loved being a priest and loved testing the limits. His rebel steak gets him moved from Boston to a small parish on the New Hampshire coast where he works with Father Moriarty, who is in the final stages of ALS. Rose, their housekeeper, has a daughter called Mandy, who is a drug user and a troubled child. Mandy overdoses and, by the time LeBlanc, Rose, and the paramedics get to her, she is dead. Rose asks everyone to leave the room and begins to pray; Mandy wakes up and asks for an aspirin.
Paul LeBlanc knows he has seen a miracle and doesn’t know what to do with it. He does the best he can by ending his homily about Lazarus with the statement: ”On the last day we will be asked the only question that matters. . . . ‘Whom have you loved back to life?’ ”
A few days later, Mandy is killed in a motorcycle accident, which rips the scab off the crisis of faith and identity that was at the root of LeBlanc’s restlessness to begin with. But, for me as the reader, was strengthened by the circumstances, not invalidated. I looked at some reviews online to see how others read the story and found this from Bruce Bawer:
The truth that he has stumbled upon — and that the author plainly wishes to underscore — is that human love can restore, renew, revive. If Rose is magical, it is simply because she is human, and because she loves.
To be sure, as L’Heureux reminds us on nearly every page, people are imperfect, lacking in willpower, infirm in their beliefs, their lives cluttered and unfocused, their character traits largely impervious to change. (”Why can’t I be humble?” Moriarty asks. ”Why can’t pigs fly?”) Yet love can work through them to effect wonders. The human soul is the seedbed of the miraculous; it is primarily through one another that we mortal millions encounter the divine. (New York Times, October 27, 2002)
I have a miracle story of my own. My parents went to Africa as missionaries in 1957. To get from Texas to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia meant first getting to New York to catch a ship and then sail for thirty-one days around the Cape of Good Hope to Beira, Mozambique. I turned one on the voyage. A couple of months before we left, I came down with double pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. When the doctors said it was safe for me to travel, we drove to Oklahoma City to see my grandmother. While we were there, a man who was a pharmacist told my mother he had some medicines to send to one of our mission hospitals and asked if she would carry it, since mailing it was not reliable. She took the package, which was an irritation for the rest of the journey.
On board the ship my parents met the Emmanuels, who were from Bulawayo. Dr. Emmanuel convinced my parents to drive on to Bulawayo (we had our car with us) after we docked rather than spend the night in Beira. They knew the way, so we followed them on our first journey in Africa. We settled into our house and the next morning I had a relapse of the pneumonia. My parents called the Emmanuels – the only people we knew – and told them what had happened. Dr. Emmanuel showed up at the house with a colleague who was a respiratory specialist and he confirmed what my folks already knew. Then he said, “I’m afraid your baby is going to die. He needs pediatric acromyacin and there is none in this country. If we send to Johannesburg, it will take five days to get here. He cannot last that long. I’m sorry.”
In their shock, my father said, “We have a box of medicine we have been carrying for the bush hospital. Let’s open it and just see.”
The only thing in the box was pediatric acromyacin.
I didn’t remember the story; it was told to me over and over. I’m grateful it was and I don’t always know what to do with it. I don’t feel a need to explain it anymore than I want to theologize about it. I’m truly thankful I got to live longer than a year and I think part of the reason I internalized that love was earned and I was not always worthy of it is because I didn’t know how a miracle baby was supposed to grow up. The story is wonderful, but it is not the best story in my life. I think that’s why LeBlanc’s question – who have you loved back to life? – resonated so deeply. I have been loved back to life over and over again. LeBlanc and the others spoke to me because I got to see how they lived after the miracle and after the tragedy; both were defining moments for all of them, which they lived out in their daily routines.
I finished the book this morning – a small miracle in its own way. As I finished, Gracie, climbed up on my arm and slapped my cheek, which is Schnauzer for, “It’s time to kiss.” I put the book down and picked her up and she licked my face with abandon. I am alive because of a miracle; I stay alive because I am loved.
I am really, really loved.