Friday, December 22, 2006

nativity 06

“Attention, shoppers! We bring you good tidings of great joy! A baby has just been born, in the bathroom at the front of the store. If you’d like to purchase a gift for this new family, our infant supplies are in aisles 17 and 18. There is a 10% discount on diapers, if you buy a case. Thank you for shopping at Wal-Mart.”

At first, I didn’t believe the announcement. In fact, I thought it a bit crass, and disrespectful. I heard others around me dismissing it, too—“blatant manipulation” one person said, while others just laughed it off.

But I couldn’t let it go. Something inside me told me it was real—and furthermore, that this child was somehow special. Once I was checked out (I did *not* buy a case of diapers), I took a detour past the bathrooms where the birth had supposedly taken place. There was a small pile of diaper boxes, and some toys and clothes and formula, on the bench outside. The store’s security guard was standing watch over the whole process, and he said I could go on in—nobody was inside except the new family. He said he’d watch my cart.

I make it a point never to go into store bathrooms. The ugly walls, the feeble attempt to cheer it up with a dying flower, the grime that remained no matter how often an employee signed their initials on the “clean up” sheet on the door…it’s just too depressing. This bathroom was no better, but somehow, it didn’t feel as bad as I expected. The mother was lying on the floor, holding her sleeping baby, amid a nest of new fleece blankets. A man (the father?) was offering her a drink from a cup with the store’s logo on it.

I excused myself for interrupting them, but they insisted it was okay. A few people had already come and gone, and each had been quite kind, they reported. Her name was Mary, the man’s name was Joe. They were still searching for a name for their new boy. They hadn’t expected him quite so soon.

They were on their way back to New Orleans, they said (it seemed they were eager to explain why they weren’t in a hospital). They’d lost their house in the hurricane, and had lived for the past year with her cousin, Elizabeth, in Pennsylvania. Now FEMA finally had their check ready, to replace their house and belongings, but they had to pick it up in person, in New Orleans. They didn’t have enough money to pay for hotel rooms, so they’d been living in their van for the trip south. When Mary began her labor, Joe had gotten off at the very first exit, and she’d insisted on coming into the store for the delivery.

As they finished their story, three young men came bursting into the bathroom. They were quite excited, and kept exclaiming how special this baby was, and how honored they were to attend his birth. Mary finally got them to calm down, and they explained they’d received text messages on their cellphones, explaining that an uncommon birth was happening beneath the giant smiley face at this exit. None of the three knew who had sent the text message, but they were all elated to have trusted their instincts and gone in search of the babe. One of them bragged that he was the first to arrive, because he’d been so resourceful, and asked a police officer about the smiley face.

At this, Joe became quite agitated. He demanded to know how much the man had said. Had he mentioned the baby? The man said no, he didn’t want to seem too weird; he’d told the police woman that he was searching for his girlfriend, that she’d given him that landmark. Joe relaxed, and explained that he and Mary had been rousted from a roadside rest the night before. They had been trying to get a few hours of sleep, but a highway patrolman had forced them to leave. There was a four-hour maximum for parking at the rest stop. When Joe had protested, and explained about the baby, it had just made things worse. The patrolman had accused them of being Mexicans, trying to deliver a baby in the United States so their “brat” (he’d used other terms, that Joe would not repeat) would get the benefits of citizenship. They could not prove their citizenship—their papers had been lost in the flood—so the cop had threatened to arrest them, and call the INS. Mary talked him out of it, but they were still wary of the police.

The young men were strangely moved to tears by this story, and they vowed to go back out into the parking lot, and tell any police that did show up that it was a hoax. They encouraged Mary and Joe to get the baby into the van as soon as possible, and escape.

As they left, each man knelt down beside Mary, and handed her a gift, to help raise the child. The first gave her a small collection of gold coins, each worth several hundred dollars, which they could easily trade. The second gave her his Blackberry, and explained that he would continue paying for its internet and telephone service for the next 18 years. The child would have the world at his fingertips. The last man offered a plastic folder, which he said contained a paid-up health insurance policy, with a prescription benefit. Mary began to cry at this gift, and Joe fell to his knees, to embrace the man.

A few moments later, I enlisted the help of the security guard, to carry the gifts out to their van. Then I returned to carry the baby, as Joe helped Mary make her way out. She got herself situated, in their makeshift bed in the back, and I handed the baby in to her. Her face was shining with gratitude and hope, as she thanked me for all I’d done. When I protested that I’d done very little, she replied, “So many people have helped us today. So many have said that our baby is special. We will raise him to know that ALL people are special; and we’ll dedicate our lives to helping others, just as we have been helped today. If you want to do something more, please go out and help others. Please pass this gift of love along.”

And so I do. And so I tell you, now. If you want to honor this miraculous birth, and this family’s miraculous message, do something good in their name. Treat the next person you meet as if she or he was a miracle, and the next, and the next. You are a miracle. We are all miracles. Let’s treat each other as if we recognize that truth.

So may we be.

(thanks to Erik Walker Wikstrom, whose challenge prompted this story)


At 3:54 PM, Blogger Errantfrogs said...

I can't believe you had me going until the three men arrived part.


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