The woman stole my heart away and I remember how strange, strange that was. It was her sorrow that drew me to understand Christmas even though it was not then the season. I have no escape from thinking of her no matter the time of year. Let me tell you of that day in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It was hot and I met her in the “Jardim das Fontes” a slum where sewage rose to sting my nose. Forgive my imagination; it may fashion a bit of fiction out of that time I spent with her. In any case this is how I remember that hour. You might guess that I’ve seen poverty in Brazil but that does not lessen the power of this poor woman over me.
We stood side by the side at a dirty bed with my friends around, down on the third level of a shack that seemed to have been thrown at the red dirt of the hill and stuck there. The woman was so thin her every bone declared sad years of hunger and the four children born to her during her twenty-one years.
She shrugged towards the full-sized bed and the baby, and then whispered her misery of why she had gathered us together. “She’s past a year now and she whimpers all the time unless it happens as you’ve done—picked her up. Then she screams.”
The woman glanced accusingly at me.
Dark desperation filled the room as she said, “Encephalitis at just a few months old. That thing in her throat is what the doctors did to her. She breathes with it but she might better be dead. She’s blind from the attack on her brain.”
One of the group by the bed stifled a sob. She saw as we all did that the baby was fat and we knew why. Her bottle had nothing but starch and water. We heard the gurgling in her throat and when questioned the woman said, “The pump the clinic gave me doesn’t work. Nothing I can do. We leave her alone except to change a diaper or give a bottle. Touch her and she screams.”
Lord Almighty, how my constricted throat stifled my own sadness from breaking out in verbal self defense. To me she said, “When you picked up my baby, she screamed. That’s the way it is. Always. So we leave her alone.”
Her voice trailed off in another “Alone.” I wondered if she was speaking not just for her baby but for herself and three other hungry children. Unkept hair moved with her bowed head as she looked at us by the bed. She bound us tight with sunken eyes. She was silent but her look preached that it was not right what was happening to her. The whole world was in the wrong.
Her low voice, her suffering body and her eyes spoke the truth. And the truth I had always prized as important, but it now became a traitor for in her weak hands it pummeled my every sense. Then Emilia, who had brought us and a load of food to this home, asked me to pray. How could I pray?
I began, “O merciful Father in Heaven” but tears and sobs strangled my throat so that I was dumb. Pity rose up like a monster to take control so that Emilia picked up my prayer and continued
But the woman did not cry. Perhaps she had no tears left but for me something strange happened. It was as if the room was sprinkled with flashing shards of glass. There was another presence there. If we believe that God is everywhere, then surely, surely He was with us down in that bedroom. Something special was happening.
I wondered if this suffering woman was the same peasant woman Mary who had given birth in Bethlehem. Then it was a baby born in a stable and that followed up with suffering for most of the mother’s life. Was this baby wheezing its life away to an early death somehow similar to that of Jesus? Did both this human and the divine family share the same suffering as the whole world? And does our God and His angels not come to walk with us along the road of pain?
I have only weak answers to the suffering in this world. But that experience in the “Jardim das Fontes” did something to me. A woman whose name I do not know tampered with my heart. I sensed the presence of the Eternal One for He was there for her, for us. Is not the Christ there for all the suffering, the hungry, the jobless, the addicted and those who weep? This poor woman tampered with my heart so that I could see into the spirit dimension. Angels came down to us just the same as during Mary’s birth pain in a stinking stable. There angel wings touched Mary’s cheek. And it happened in that home in that slum. Yes, it did.
We join with that woman in that home in her pain to celebrate the presence of the Christ. When He is present a bit of heaven comes down to earth. The Christ with His angels at times comes to us all, no matter where we live. It was true in that shack. Surely it is true in the whole world. Not one of us is ever alone.