Joanna waved from the café window. Henry was striding confidently over the winter sidewalk. He was thinking about how well he was moving for a tall fellow in his 80s. Optimistic thoughts like these had become an oddity for him. Henry had just raised is arm to wave back when he slipped. Everyone knows how this kind of slipping feels. Unanticipated. Your legs go out from under you.
The only question is what part of your body will hit the concrete first. In Henry’s case it wasn’t just the concrete that was the problem. He had walked that sidewalk often enough to know there was a green newspaper bin sitting right beside the light pole. ‘I survived the Russians,’ Henry thought, ‘and now I’m going to have my skull split by the Metro News.’ That thought in mid-air—‘skull split by the Metro News’—flashed in mental neon.
Before his 80-year old skin met the green steel a hand reached up to Henry and braced him. The hand reached up—not down. Henry’s feet found purchase on the snow smooshed up over the curb. He was caught there like a tree having fallen partway and hung up on another trunk. The hand steadied his hip and then gently pushed him back to vertical. Henry’s vision panned from sky to power lines to the street and then down to the operator of the hand.
‘It’s better if you can fall up.’
The hand-operator had a voice.
‘At my age, I’m happy with falling anywhere but down.
‘Up is best.’
He was youngish and looked like a tree-planter wearing extra layers. That is, he looked like he lived in a tent in the bush and made his living slapping seedlings into soil’s mouths pried open. He sat on doubled-over cardboard and leaned against the newspaper bin. He held a cup up to Henry.
‘Take some. Go buy yourself some Scotch.’
‘I’m not sure Scotch is what I need.’
The tree-planter smiled. ‘I’m joking. Buy yourself a coffee.’ He reached in and took out two coins, silver with gold centers. He handed them to Henry. ‘Buy one for that woman at the door too. She’s worried about you.’
Joanna had moved from the window to the door. Her coat was still at the table. She was less than half Henry’s age but she could never had made it to him in time to stop his fall. She yelled, ‘Henry, are you okay? Come inside. It’s cold.’
Why any Canadian outside of, say, Point Pelee or Vancouver ever has to tell another that it’s cold is a mystery. Do fish ever tell each other, ‘Sure is wet today’? Or does an American ever have inform his neighbour: ‘This is America. See, I’ve got all these flags on my lawn.’ Some things are obvious. The cold is obvious. There must be more to this shared word than information.
Joanna walked across the parking spaces and grabbed Henry’s arm. ‘Come inside. It’s cold.’ She turned her shoulders to the tree-planter. ‘Thank you so much. You saved him.’
Then, coffees on the small café table between them, Joanna and Henry watched the cars on Bank Street. A woman with two children made her way up the sidewalk. She had to tug the kids. They kept stopping and staring at the snow. When a snowplow came by they all stood and watched. The blade slung slush up from the street. Orange lights bounced off storefront glass.
Joanna broke the silence, ‘I remember the first winter my family spent in Canada. It was the first time I saw snow. I thought it would always be white and fluffy.’
‘I can still picture you,’ said Henry. ‘Your coat was a little big. It was pink. I took you and your mom to get groceries and you kept stopping to kick the frozen slush. Your mom hated the cold.’
Joanna remembered it too: ‘We wouldn’t have eaten anything other than the rice we had in our kitchen if it wasn’t for you. I remember my mom wasn’t really comfortable with you taking us for groceries at first. I had to convince her that you would be like a new grandparent.’
‘I still like the idea of being your grandpa, Joanna. It helps explain why I feel so proud of you. You’ve done so well. You’re as much a Canadian as I am. I don’t even understand the research your lab does.’
They talked like this for several minutes. Their minds flipping pages of a shared photo album, lives that began separated by oceans, now glued together by twenty years of mundane connections and a few celebrations. It was Joanna who brought the conversation back to the present.
‘Henry, you said you wanted to talk about something. You said it would be a tough conversation.’
Henry paused. He stared at his hands.
Joanna smiled, ‘Do you need help with your phone again? I still laugh when I think about how worried you were that time you thought you bought a house through iTunes.’
Henry half-smiled and let out a long exhale. ‘No, it’s not that. And it’s not that big of a deal really. It’s just that I wanted to tell you in person. We’ve done so much together I felt I should. It’s not really a big deal but it feels important. I guess because I’m being honest with myself. Joanna, I’m not going to celebrate Christmas this year. I’ll give some gifts. I’ll sing some songs. But I don’t really believe the story. I’m not in it for God in a diaper.’
Joanna leaned forward, elbow on the table hand in her dark hair. She knew the last year had been difficult for Henry. His daughter Lisa had died. Henry was with her every day for seven weeks. He had held her hand and they reminisced. Then she was gone. Later that year a friend of his had died too.
Those were the rocks in his year. The mortar was him watching the news. Joanna had taken a meal to his apartment in September. She found him in front of the TV. She watched him. He sat almost motionless. Battle scenes, protest marches, overloaded boats, presidential debates, crime-scene tape, bullet riddled transport trucks all flashed across his glasses. He stared in silence.
Henry went on. ‘I’ve seen a lot in my life but I’ve never seen God in a diaper. I don’t think I really thought about it before a couple of weeks ago. Now that I have, I’ve decided I don’t believe it. I’m 80 and I’ve finally lost my spiritual naiveté. Before this year I didn’t realize how silly the story is that God was a baby, a human-divine hybrid. Born to a virgin no less. You’re a scientist, Joanna, you know the story is preposterous.
The other day I was thinking about how much I missed Lisa. She was the one who decorated my apartment. I got the tree and pulled the boxes out of the closet, but she always decorated for me. Anyway, I just looked up one morning, I realized it was Dec. 14 and I had no decorations. Right then it occurred to me that God wasn’t with me. If God could send a host of angels, he could have spared one to sit with me and Lisa. I figure if I’m going to go along with the God-in-a-diaper thing, I should just as well put Jesus in the sleigh with Santa. Or maybe Jesus could take Rudolph’s place at the head of the team. Harness his majesty up. What’s the difference?’
Orange lights flashed through the windows again. The medieval scrape of the plow blade gave Joanna time to think. She was stalling. Then it was her turn to be rescued by the tree-planter.
She and Henry watched as he got up from his beside the newspaper box. He slide his cardboard between it and the light pole. He wind-milled his arms and then swung his legs. He turned and headed toward the café door, brushing the snow from his coat and pants as he walked. Henry and Joanna watched him come through the first set of doors and take off his toque and gloves. He leaned into the second door, pausing a bit under the blast of heat from the ceiling vent.
It occurred to Joanna that entering or leaving is like going through an airlock. There’s a space between, when you’re neither in nor out. She turned to Henry, ‘Stay in the airlock.’ That was all she could say because the tree-planter was headed to their table.
‘So, did you buy her that glass of wine?’ He was looking at Henry. ‘The crushed grape is goodness from goodness.’
‘I believe your original suggestion was Scotch.’ This was Henry talking. ‘But I can’t take your money.’ He held the two coins out, his palm turned down. ‘Here, let me put this back in your cup. You need it more than I do.’ Joanna could see that he had palmed a few more coins from his own pocket.
‘With all due-respect sir,’ said the tree-planter, ‘I’m not sure you know what I need. Maybe I’m Jesus Christ or the angel Gabriel or . . . .’
‘Or Joseph or Santa Claus,’ said Henry, ‘I’m sorry, I was trying to be helpful.’
‘No worries,’ said the tree-planter. He started to turn toward the line at the counter, then pivoted back. ‘Just don’t assume you know everything about everyone. It makes you immune to mystery. Maybe I’m undercover.’
He finally moved off and joined the line. Joanna was just about to share her airlock revelation when from half-way across the café the tree-planter add, ‘You know, it was a miracle I caught you earlier. You were almost brained by the Metro News. ‘Killed mostly by Advertising’—that’s what they would have put on your tombstone.’
The conversations at the other tables stopped.
Henry had to respond, ‘Thanks for helping me. I wouldn’t call it a miracle though. You deserve the credit. I don’t believe in miracles. I made it official two weeks ago. No God in a diaper for me.’ Henry glanced around the room. Then he stared down at what was left of his coffee.
Tree-planter-miracle-worker guy wouldn’t let it rest. ‘I read once that saying there always has to be a scientific explanation is like insisting that you lost your keys under the street light because that’s the only place you can see in the dark.’
A hipster near the counter pulled a little notebook from his pocket and scribbled something down.
Joanna beckoned Henry back into private conversation. Upturned faced tilted back down toward laptop screens. Joanna and Henry talked for more than an hour. She shared her airlock metaphor. ‘In the airlock you can be in and out; you don’t have to choose what to order or which way to walk. You can just be.’ Henry shared more memories of his late daughter.
Joanna said that she had never really connected with Lisa.
Henry explained, ‘It was because she wanted to give me grandchildren. My friendship with you was me stepping out of the airlock. She never could.’
The orange lights of another plow flashed, brighter now since it was dark. Their conversation turned back to the Christmas story. Joanna was feeling rushed. She had committed to subbing on a friend’s indoor soccer team later that evening. ‘You’re in-between things, Henry,’ she said, ‘maybe you’re trying to make adjustments for a new time when you don’t really know what it will be like. Maybe you should just wait. Watch the other side before you take off too many layers. See if it’s really what you expect. The grape’s already crushed. Maybe it will become something new.’
In her mind Joanna remained across from Henry all evening. Finally, back in her apartment she sat at her kitchen island and typed an e-mail.
Henry, after I left you earlier I remembered something else from my first winter in Canada. Do you remember how the two of us connected that year over the Christmas story? It was something familiar to me when so many other things were new. To me the story of Mary and Joseph was like mine. They had to leave their homeland. I remember how comforting it was to find myself in every crèche. Not really, of course, but you know what I mean.
To me the Christmas story has never been about a choice between science and faith. I hope you’re not offended by this, but I think we focus on that so we can dismiss it like a cartoon. Henry, my being a scientist doesn’t have any bearing on what I think about miracles. Science tells me how a material system behaves when there are no other inputs. It doesn’t say anything about an external disruption.
I don’t think of Mary giving birth to Jesus as a grand statement about God’s power, but a way of expressing God’s love. God being God means that the miracle isn’t the issue. To me the real issue is what kind of a God. That’s what ‘God-in-diaper’, as you put it, does for me. The story could be that God shows up in a motorcade accompanied by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and fireworks.
If that was the story, and if God still claimed to be loving, well then I would look at my family’s history and say I’m done with the Bethlehem story too. But that’s not how it is.
Anyway, thanks for reading. My eyelids are getting heavy and I need to work tomorrow. Hopefully I made some sense.
-your granddaughter, Joanna
P.S. I don’t think that guy was an angel. He was from B.C. There’s a big difference.
Henry read the e-mail the next morning. He turned off the TV and thought to himself, ‘The airlock is better without the news.’
*I shared a version of this story at OMC on Christmas Sunday. Nobody was in the mood for a sermon.