Preparing for my Christmas Eve sermon this year, it is the wonder of our embodiment that I keep returning to. I imagine what it was like for Mary, kissing her son for the first time, what it must have felt like when her lips touched the petal softness of his cheek. I still remember in the first weeks after Maria came to be our daughter how there wasn’t enough time in the day to marvel at the feel of her skin, her hand with those long, graceful fingers slipping into mine, how tightly she held me when I carried her. It’s all about the body, the gift of embodiment.
I can’t help also thinking about my mom’s last weeks. How the skin, bruised and mottled, hung off her arms, how gnarled and bony her hands looked, how deeply appreciative she was when I began to give her back rubs. I winced each time I saw how the cancer had so deformed her spinal column and felt so grateful that at least I could do this small thing. I’d hold her hand gently as much as I could, each time thanking God for having been given one more time to do so and each time trying not to cling to it as if that might allow me to keep her. After she died, and we had cleaned her and laid her out, waiting for the hearse to arrive to pick her up, I looked down and her face was purely, beautifully still Ann. Mother, daughter, friend, lover, wife, orchid expert. Still there and already so absent. It is all about the body, the gift of embodiment.
I walk a lot these nights, in the quiet and gentle night of Southeast Florida, with breezes usually blowing, late enough to be still and quiet for most of the way. I feel like I am preparing, walking my way toward Gloucester and the silent retreat I will make right after New Year’s. I’m going to FedEx my bag to the retreat center so that I can travel relatively unencumbered. I’ll get into Boston in the middle of the morning and I don’t have to be at Eastern Point until 4 or 5. In that in-between time, in that thin space, I am going on a small pilgrimage. That day it will be seven months since my mom’s death and I will be in a city that redefined embodiment for me in profound ways.
In 1961, when I was 18 months old, I was diagnosed with a dislocated hip. The story of what followed is long and tedious, but it revolves around numerous surgeries and stays at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. William T. Green was a world-famous pediatric orthopedic surgeon who called me “Mystic Rosa” and would tell me, a small and scared baby girl, that if he could, he’d buy me emeralds for my ears (most baby girls get their ears pierced at birth in Colombia, and all my baby pictures show me with little pearl earrings. That seemed to amuse Dr. Green immensely). He made it possible for me to walk, performed a minor miracle after a doctor in Colombia got sloppy with my post-op care and caused the bone in my femur to start dying. He was also the person who had to tell my mom, not yet thirty, that while he thought he’d salvaged my hip, I would need to be in a hip-spike cast, chest to toe, for at least 4 years and he could not guarantee that I would ever walk.
Before that reconstructive surgery, I had pins in my thigh bone, that were screwed tighter every day to force the bone to grow. In the sixties and seventies, parents at the hospital were considered a nuisance so my mother had to leave at 6 every day. I don’t remember the pain, though I understand it was intense. I do remember the fear and desolation every day, when my mom got ready to leave.
I also remember the ritual that made such an unbearable moment of daily abandonment bearable. My mom would get me on a stretcher and we’d go down to the garden of the hospital. The garden was surrounded on all sides by the buildings of the hospital, and it was quite large, at least to a child’s eyes. All along the pathway around it, there were sculptures of animals, a bunny, a squirrel, a fox, a deer and a frog in fountain. One of the sculptures was a little boy, whom we named Hans, after my brother. Each evening, my mother would wheel me past them all and together we would say, “hasta mañana” to each one, saying good night to Hans last. When I was at Children’s in 1968 for my last stay, we went back to that routine and I have never forgotten those walks, the grace and beauty, the way my mom tried to give me what comfort she could, allowing me to feast my eyes on the garden, even when she couldn’t hold me close because of the cast.
So on January 5th, in the dead of winter, I am going to go back and visit that garden. I am debating whether or not to ask to be allowed to go back up to the Orthopedic surgery unit. My memories of that particular space are still scary—I was there when iron lungs were still in use; the little girl next to me the last time I was there , Amy Schultz, was in one. I was terrified of the sounds it made and the isolation it represented. But I will get to walk through that garden, not get wheeled around it on a stretcher. I am walking not in orthopedic shoes, like the ones I despised all the years when I was growing up, but in regular people shoes. I won’t be limping. My hip replacement surgery took care of that. Last night when I walked at a fast clip for over an hour and a half, I marveled at the strength of my legs and the absence of pain.
I am going to that garden to say another thank you to my mom, to Dr. Green, to Miss Cornell who did my physiotherapy in 1968, while her husband fought in Vietnam. I am making that pilgrimage deeply mindful that in this season, the Church insists to itself and to people like me, that redemption is incarnate; redemption extends not just to mind and spirit but to flesh and bone and body as well. I’m going back to that garden to thank God for the body I was given and the body I have now.