In the neighborhood where I grew up, there were Friday evening band concerts underneath the cherry trees down the hill. Half a block away was the library, where sweet Bethany sat behind the desk in the children's room, listening patiently without blinking her wide, blue eyes. There was the park with its swings and see saws, the sumac trees, the little stream with frogs. In our yard was an enormous maple tree, spreading and gracious, with a tire swing and a perfect circle of dirt where we played marbles.
And there was the house across the street, where David, with his evil panther face, threw his wife through the window. Someone called the police, again, and his wife was furious. Any official record of disorder would make it harder for her to get foster children into her home. Those children were her living. Their apartment was large and empty, the cleanest and emptiest and coldest space I had ever seen, the wooden floors scrubbed colorless, the curtains transparent with washing, the light bulbs bare.The staircase wall was lined with framed photos of children I had never seen, dozens of children who had passsed through that cold, glaring house.
David and his wife had their own children. Patrick, about ten, was evil like his father. His face was already twisted into lines of permanent rage, like a samurai mask, and he took his beatings and turned them around on any smaller child who got in his way. Anna, eight, was pale and silent and colorless like her mother, with staring eyes and a voice that barely dared.
In another house around the block was Mikey, who was gentle. At twelve, his voice was still piping and chirping, and he always wanted to play with us. One day I biked around the corner, not knowing whose house this was, with the sagging porch and the cans of cigarette butts. I heard a man growl, "You put your hand on the rail" and then the piping voice pleaded, "No, Daddy, no!" And then I heard screaming. Punishment for who knows what infraction of the rules, in that sagging house with the cans of ashes. I kept on biking and went home to read comic books under our maple tree.
Now it is thirty years later. Many of those sagging houses are gone altogether, torn down by the city. The giant maple is gone, too, because it kept casting heavy branches down whenever there was wind. It was just too heavy.
Now I wake up in the middle of the night. It's a good night because at least I have been asleep. My hips hurt, my baby is kicking me, and I feel sorry for myself because I can't sleep. In a few hours the alarm will go off, and I'll plunge into trivia again. I'll get up and do a mediocre job again, giving my heart and mind to all the wrong things, grazing over the things that need me, things like my children. They'll be up in a few hours, needing me. They are not my living, but they are my life.
I think of the maple tree that is gone. There is a stump left. Maybe it will bud again, but I don't see how.
Advent is just beginning. Change is possible, I must believe. Yesterday, I passed along a quote by Josef Cardinal Ratzinger: "It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope." I try to think of the babe of Bethlehem, the child in the night. I pray for God to pluck me out of the trivia, turn me around again to face the things that need my atttention. Help me, I beg the Father, to take up the task of Advent. The memories that awaken are silent Anna, raging Pat, chirping Mikey, his poor hand on the rail, begging his father, "No, Daddy, no!"
These children I remember aren't children anymore. They are adults like me, nearly forty, probably grandparents. How are they with their own children? Their houses aren't even there any more. The tree has been cut down. It was too heavy, and it had to come down.
I'm thinking of that little baby, born in a bad neighborhood, born in a dark corner of the universe. His mother wondered, his gentle foster father was glad, the angels rejoiced, but the little baby cried and cried for His brothers and sisters. At least there is someone who will cry for them. The stump may bud again. But at very least, there is someone who will cry for them.