[Here is my gift to you in it's entirety. I believe there was something special about writing and reading it one piece at a time; it accentuated the waiting. But a story's a story and if the whole thing doesn't work, then the pieces are just, well, pieces. I've put a new title on it, but I'm still open to suggestions. If there were a dedication page here, I'd dedicate this story to a special lady - her name is Meredith, she's my wife.]
Meggie absolutely hated Christmas carols and Silent Night was at the top of her list. She felt it mocked her. She had gone completely deaf at age six; she was now thirteen. She loved the sights of the holidays, but the sounds were a gift that had been returned. Now every night for Meggie was silent. Maybe it was easier if you'd never heard anything at all, if you'd been deaf from birth. As it was, Meggie had heard her father's whistle, the honk of geese, the sizzle of bacon, and Joni Mitchell sing Both Sides Now. Now that was gone, all gone. She used to pray with the faith of a child that God would please give back what he had taken. But she never heard any reply. This last year had been especially hard on her faith; she felt as if her heart might be dying. She desperately needed the nourishment of memory to live beyond this winter.
Her father had been completely taken with Rachel Ward's performance in The Thorn Birds, so much so that he prevailed in naming the third of his four daughters. He had written words on parchment paper and framed them for her seventh birthday. They hung above her bed, silently. There's a story... a legend, about a bird that sings just once in its life. From the moment it leaves its nest, it searches for a thorn tree... and never rests until it's found one. And then it sings... more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. And singing, it impales itself on the longest, sharpest thorn. But, as it dies, it rises above its own agony, to outsing the lark and the nightingale. The thorn bird pays its life for just one song, but the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles.
Meggie had endured three surgeries in three years with no audible results. And last year, in what her father now referred to as the grand mistake, her wealthy aunt arranged an audience with a faith healer in Tulsa. The evangelist had taken her ears in his hands as if he might pull them off. He placed his forehead on her nose and with eyes tightly shut began to shake as if suddenly chilled. She smelled fear on his skin, but never heard a word. On the drive home, her mother turned and signed we'll keep trying. They stopped at a diner called The Purple Cow and had cheeseburgers and chocolate milkshakes. When her mother and sisters went to the bathroom, her father signed Meg, I'm so very sorry. I should have stopped it.
In early October, Rev. Paul O'Neill began making plans for the upcoming Advent season. He called and asked Meggie's father and mother to read the scriptures on the third Sunday of Advent - Gaudete Sunday. I'd like to have your family beside you when you read. And would Meggie be willing to light the candle for that day? Ask her to think it over and let me know. At dinner that night her father shared Rev. Paul's request. Her sisters became giddy simply at the prospect of being in front of a captive audience. They were strikingly beautiful girls. But Meggie felt something flicker deep within her, something almost hopeful. For as long as she could remember, her family had never been asked to visually participate in the Advent season. Why now, now in what felt like what might be her last winter?
As she fell asleep that night, Meggie could see the wreath of Advent: three candles of royal purple, strikingly beautiful. And then the one of rose pink, the candle she'd been asked to light. She suddenly remembered the subtitled lines from her father's favorite movie: Meggie's dress was rose. "Ashes of Roses", it was called. And in it, she was the most beautiful thing any of us had ever seen. With what faith she had left, Meggie determined to tell Rev. Paul yes. She might not hear on Gaudete Sunday, but she might half-hear; the fire and the rose might be one.
Rev. Paul was delighted that Meggie would participate. He signed For some reason, you're supposed to light that candle. Rev. Paul had taught at the school for the deaf and blind for several years before going to seminary and had made it his custom to sign throughout each church service - the songs, sermon, announcements, the whole thing. Meggie knew that some, her mother being one, considered this just a tad showy. Meggie, however, regularly needed something just a tad showy to remind her God still cared. It might be a wicked generation that asks for a sign, but she was not a generation, she was one. Rev. Paul was a tender man, a stark contrast to the grand mistake from Tulsa.
And then, with two flips of the calendar, it was December. The fall semester usually went fast, with Halloween and Thanksgiving happening before you knew it. But this time, Meggie thought it passed especially quick, driven almost. She could not shake the feeling that her life was about to dramatically change. The gloom of what might be her last winter was coupled with Rev. Paul's for some reason. This tension had been enough to fuel childlike prayers once more: I've heard both sides now. Please let me go back.
Meggie knocked quietly, she only guessed, on her parent's bedroom door. Four hands quickly signaled come in, honey. She stood at the foot of their bed as her fingers made their plea: All I want for Christmas this year is a rose-colored dress, like the one Meggie wears in your movie, Dad. But could I please have it before Christmas, so I could wear it the day I light the Advent candle? Meggie usually knew when tears were coming, but these surprised her. Her fingers stopped their pleading and wiped her cheeks. As she refocused on her audience of two, she saw their tears as well. Deep does call unto deep. Her father motioned to his side of the bed. He took his third daughter's hands in his and nodded his head up and down, the universal sign for yes.
Advent's first Sunday was awkward, as it always was. Jessie Sanders, a single physician in her 30s, had been asked to light the first candle. Although a veteran at speaking before the congregation, she bumbled the psalm - How Lord, O long - and then took her seat, forgetting to light the candle at all. Rev. Paul gently walked to where Dr. Sanders was seated, extended his arm, and escorted her back to the wreath. Her face was as royally purple as the candle, but she completed her task. Somebody has to go first, to get the waiting started.
Not a day had passed in seven years that John Randall didn't grieve Meggie's loss. He loved all his daughters equally, but he loved Meggie differently. He alone had named her, called her into this world. The other girls' names were decided on the day they were born, but Meggie's had been determined not long after Susan discovered she was pregnant. As his wife groaned the other girls, she heard her husband say she's coming, she's coming. But when their third daughter spilled into his hands, John Randall proclaimed Meggie's here.
The doctor had said sensorineural hearing loss; it's probably permanent. Those same six words had been confirmed by second and third opinions. The cause was tagged viral, but John Randall had seen bewildered eyes in each of the consulted faces. He pressed the last one, a specialist, to finally generalize: Mr. Randall, I really don't know why this happened. After all the tests and surgeries, he had finally heard an honest voice. Meggie had lost her hearing for some reason, no one knew why.
He had prayed with the faith of a child for years: Please let Meggie hear again. Take mine if you need to. But he never heard any reply. This last year had been especially hard on his faith; he had grown cold toward God. It was not anger he felt, but abandonment. John Randall wondered if his family, especially Meggie, could feel his chill. He had agreed to participate in Advent solely to pull a little wool over the eyes of those who might have sensed a father's doubt. He told Rev. Paul as much and was surprised at his pastoral response: John, doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. I'm not asking you to believe; I just need you to read.
After Rev. Paul's invitation, it seemed as if her two older sisters entirely forgot the third Sunday of Advent. Almost overnight, they had quickly readjusted their sights on school, friends, and boys, in ascending order of importance. Her younger sister, Lori, had talked of it a few times, at Meggie's prompting; however, you really couldn't expect more than that from a eight year old. Meggie was trying her best to keep a stillness within, a waiting. She did not wish to be swept up into the rush of sisterly or seasonal things. But she could feel the pull. So did her mother.
Her mother had written the word on a 3x5: entrainment - "the phenomenon of two rhythmic beings gradually altering their movements until they're moving together in the same rhythm." Meggie, we have a tendency to align ourselves with those around us, we all do. If you want something different, you'll have to fight for it. As Meggie read her mother's fingers, she noticed the pronounced veins of the hands.
Susan Randall could be described in many words, but the one used most often was strong. She turned most heads, but not because of her looks. Beauty was there, no doubt about it, but more than that, it was simply her presence. After hearing the words it's probably permanent, she had determined within herself that she would not let Meggie be an object of pity, nor would she be a mother of such. She was not hard on Meggie, but she was fair.
Little did Meggie, or anyone for that matter, know that of all the words Susan Randall would use to describe herself, strong was not one of them. Meggie's hearing loss had literally crushed her. Regardless of what the doctors iterated, Susan believed she could have done something, something to protect her third daughter from the silence. But what that was, she could not say. It was not long after Meggie's diagnosis that Susan began her early morning runs. Of the ladies in her 10k age division, Susan Randall had kept the best time for years. One morning, early, as she was lacing up her shoes, John rolled over and asked what do you think about when you run? She walked to the door, turned and said John, I wrestle with demons out there. And like God's mercies, they are new each morning.
Susan went along with the whole Thorn Birds, Ashes of Rose dress scenario. She had never been as dramatic as John, but there were moments she wished she was; it was one of the things she loved about her man. She had never noticed the resale shop next door to The Runner's High. As she walked in, the older woman was adjusting a dress on the mannequin to the right of the register. Susan Randall knew how to breathe, she was a runner. Yet in this moment, as she approached the dress, her lungs felt frozen. The woman sensed her presence: Simply beautiful, isn't it? A color you don't see often. I've held it in the back for months, but for some reason, I brought it out this morning. Susan's early morning run had been particularly difficult, it was like she was fighting for something held to be released. She was suddenly aware of her tears, as was the older woman. I have a lovely gift box, okay? Susan breathlessly nodded up and down, the universal sign for yes.
He skipped back to the porch as a light December rain slowly fell. Meggie's father sat on the steps and opened the envelope containing the photocopied scriptures he was to read Sunday. A neon post-it note adorned the first page: John, I just need you to read them. Thanks. He removed the note and read the first lines from Isaiah the prophet -
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion - to give them a garland instead of ashes.
John Randall had a gift for remembering first lines. Upon seeing Isaiah's, he immediately recalled those from the best-selling book his wealthy sister had sent him: It's not about you. As he looked again at the verses, it seemed like Isaiah might not completely agree, like something was about him -
The spirit...is upon me..the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me...
He then remembered that first line from the best-selling book he'd sent his sister in return: Life is difficult. Isaiah's words seemed to agree: brokenhearted...captives...prisoners... mourn...ashes. The prophet's last word stuck like a bone in the throat - ashes. Meggie's father suddenly had difficulty catching his breath. He had been focusing on the rub of first lines when the gift was in the last word.
The straight-down rain began to blow slant, mingling with his tears to wet the photocopied pages of God's words.
He looked up as the school bus slowed to a stop. John Randall could see his first three daughters walking in frames of windowed glass toward the door. The driver leaned forward to set his captives free. His oldest, Hannah and Jill, milked the three steps down for all their worth, turning and talking and waving and laughing. They never looked up to see their father; entrainment. Hannah's umbrella allowed them a few more turns and waves outside the bus. Meggie, however, had fixed her eyes on him from the moment the bus stilled. She hit the pavement skipping, smiling, covering her head with a book. He stood to greet her, thinking within himself: Meggie's here.
Rev. Paul O'Neill was thankful for the brief shift of hue in Advent. The purple candles were symbolic of penitence, emphasizing our unworthiness before God. He believed this stress was needed and preached as such. However, he also believed that self-hatred was the alpha monkey on most backs; that deep down, far below the way people presented themselves, shame reigned supreme. With so many jobs and homes being lost lately, the purple candles just seemed to rub the red-nosed reindeer's question hard: why am I such a misfit? He was always afraid that purple muffled the thing most true about us all; that we couldn't hear the light for the flame.
Advent's third Sunday burned from the rose-colored candle; the day sometimes referred to as Gaudete, from the Latin for rejoice. Joy. Happiness. Mirth. Now that was more like it.
The ministerial alliance in town had adopted a year long emphasis: What if life is not about happiness, but holiness? The query had been emblazoned on everything from youth group t-shirts to banners stretched across church parking lot entrances and although each rendering ended with a question mark, the words left little room for discussion. Thankfully, for Rev. Paul O'Neill, the year in year-long-emphasis was almost over. He had conscientiously objected the pressure of his peers; he thought the whole thing just a hair shy of stupid. If God truly is Our Father, who art in heaven, then what father does not desire happiness in the hearts of his children? Joy on their faces? Laughter in his ears?
Most of his peers thought him arrogant and unorthodox, a man of contention. If they only knew how faithfully he prayed for them and their families, that they would find the pearl of great worth: the smile of God.
He had spent much of the week engulfed in pastoral care among the people. Monday held Christmas-and-Easter-only-Charlene's hip replacement, but somebody needed to sit with her nervous husband Bill. Tuesday was Dan's mother's triple bypass, complete with fifteen relatives at the hospital, two of which would receive Oscars for best dramatic performance in a waiting room. Wednesday's predawn hours saw old Mr. Gordon slip beneath the surface of time; his graveside service Thursday afternoon reminded Rev. Paul of that Eleanor Rigby line - nobody came. Friday was supposed to be his day off, but he had to get the oil changed in his Volkswagen and Jimmy was working that day at the Jiffy Lube and Jimmy spent most days depressed and Jimmy could talk the horns off a goat and well, it is what it is.
Although it appeared he had given most of himself away during the week, he hadn't. There were still secret spaces in Paul O'Neill's heart and mind that he kept open, reserved for things held dear. Meggie Randall's family had occupied one of those spaces all week long. He had prayed for them as he prayed for his peers; that they - John, Susan, Hannah, Jill and Lori - would find the smile of God. The week began with Meggie held in such a place, but as the days passed, she began spilling over into all the other spaces. Meggie Randall became the embodiment of his prayers for the people, all of them; that those with ears would hear and be happy.
He spent Saturday evening among good friends, eating homemade Italian food and watching Talladega Nights. Rev. Paul heard Ricky Bobby pray: Dear Lord Baby Jesus, I want to thank you for this wonderful meal, my two beautiful sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, and my Red-Hot Smokin' Wife, Carley. He laughed so hard he cried. It seemed a gift after quite a week.
Meggie had considered a grand prayer the night before Gaudete Sunday. But she changed her mind; if her tears had not been bottled by now, a last minute gush was just not Meggie Randall's way. She was afraid she wouldn't be able to sleep, that her thoughts would keep her from rest. But sleep she did, as if held by a dream. Meggie dreamed she was the legendary bird who flew and flew, searching for the thorn tree. Soaring through clouds, she saw them below: her parents, her sisters, Rev. O'Neill, other familiar faces. They were gathered, huddled, signing for her to come down. She resisted the descent, for she saw no thorn tree, only their faces. But their pleas proved too much for her; she had been flying, searching for so long. She tucked her wings and fell. As the dream released her, she heard the voice, clearly, softly: sing.
She found herself sitting straight up in bed, short of breath. The room was silent calm, the clock read 6:19. But the word tolled in her broken ears like a bell: sing.
Her father was speechless, as were her sisters. Meggie had tried the dress on for her mother and they had made a few adjustments to the sleeves. But no one else had seen the union of fabric and girl. Until now.
There are those who downplay clothes, viewing them primarily as protection from the cold and covering for that which is private. And then there are those who know that clothing can also adorn; such is what the dress from the resale shop did for Meggie Randall. Finally, Hannah's fingers broke the silence: you're beautiful, Meg. And for some reason, Meggie believed her.
The first two Sundays of Advent had garnered a good crowd; today was no different. From the moment she entered the church, she'd had the distinct sensation of falling, so much so that she took her father's hand. John Randall was surprised, but gladly accepted the gift. As the Randalls found their seats, Meggie found Rev. O'Neill's eyes; he winked. Meggie felt a slight blush; for a brief moment, her face matched her dress. She knew what she had to do.
And then it was time. The Randall family rose and single-filed up the aisle to the front of the sanctuary. This year, Rev. O'Neill had arranged the Advent wreath on the communion table; a circle of green garland nestled above the etching this do in remembrance of me. Meggie's family reached the table and Rev. O'Neill handed John Randall the reading Bible. He usually stood beside those he'd asked to read the scriptures, signing, as was his custom. Today however, for some reason, Paul O'Neill took a front row seat.
John Randall straightened his glasses and briefly became the voice of the prophet Isaiah: he has sent me to bring good news... The Bible then passed to Susan, who read from Thessalonians: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances...
In a rather unorthodox move, Rev. O'Neill had asked Lori to read the Gospel, words usually reserved for the pastor's voice. John Randall gathered up his youngest daughter in his arms so she might be seen and heard. As Lori began, Meggie lit the third candle: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. Then Meggie saw what only close observation could reveal; she saw the thorns.
Rev. O'Neill had subtly woven the Easter-crown-of-thorns into the Christmas wreath. The thorns were the confirmation Meggie needed, the prick of the voice from her dream: sing.
As the rose-colored candle slowly burned to life, Meggie Randall closed her eyes and smiled. She had found her thorn tree and she knew what she must do. With the voice of a child with broken ears, Meggie began singing:
Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
It was as if the whole world stilled to listen.
Meggie opened her eyes, assured that she had paid her life for the song and passed over into some facet of eternity. But the thorn bird hadn't died. She was still sandwiched between her parents, in their church, on the third Sunday of Advent. The congregation sitting before her was slack-jawed with wonder. Rev. O'Neill, front and center, was grinning from ear to ear.
There are moments in our lives dictated by an ethic of necessity: not that we should do something, but that we must. Such was this moment for Meggie, but also for the woman who gave her life. Susan Randall realized she must live up to the word most people described her by: strong. She stroked Meggie's hair to get her attention and then she signed: I'll sing with you, Meg. And sing they did:
Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As ev'ry fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way
But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away
I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all
As Meggie and Susan sang, John Randall stood spellbound. He then remembered the lines from The Thorn Birds, lines that explained what the legend meant: That the best is only bought at the cost of great pain. He suddenly realized the scriptural words were not the focus of Gaudete Sunday; they were merely the means to the music, the backroads to a place known as joy.
Rev. Paul O'Neill rose from his front row seat and made his way to stand beside the Randall family. He spoke and signed, as was his custom: My good friends, Meggie Randall has introduced a new hymn into our Advent season. Frankly, I believe she's made a wonderful choice. I invite you to stand with us and sing. You may not know the words, but I bet you know the song. And at least in one church on earth, on Gaudete Sunday, Isaiah and Paul had to share the stage with Joni Mitchell. The voices were nothing short of glorious:
Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say "I love you" right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way
But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day.
And then it was silent. Rev. O'Neill signed amen and the moment came to a close. The Randall family and the congregation found their seats. Paul O'Neill scrapped his planned message; sometimes, you know what you must do. He spoke instead from the hip about the truth of last lines: Well something's lost, but something's gained in living every day. God in his heaven smiled. For at least a day, the flame and the rose were one.
This would not be Meggie Randall's last winter; she would live to see seventy more. She would never forget the rose-colored waiting season of her thirteenth year. She had witnessed a birth, they all had; the difference between hearing and listening. And like God's grace, it was enough. No, it was more than sufficient; it was beautiful.