Karen had just about had enough.
She was pretty patient, or so she thought. She had never raised her voice in public that she could remember. She had hardly ever raised her voice even with her kids when they were at home, even with her husband when he was alive.
Even with Robert. The thought of her husband, gone now for three years, just increased the pressure inside her. Intense loneliness now churned around alongside annoyed frustration inside her chest, trying to burst out from her insides. She was pretty patient, but her patience was about done.
She clenched her jaw to keep it in, balling up her hands into fists to keep it all together, while the teenage girl in front of her nattered away to her friend behind the counter at the food court KFC. It had been a very long day of shopping, Karen was absolutely starving, and she still had hours of baking and cleaning ahead of her. It was December 23, the day before the day before. Her kids and grandkids were coming the next day, and she was desperately trying to pull Christmas together for their arrival.
“You’ve got to come tonight!” the girl in front of her was saying, her red-streaked black hair bobbing with each word as she appealed to her friend. “I can’t believe you won’t come! You’d rather sit around freezing for a measly twenty bucks than hang out with us!”
“But it’s twenty bucks a night for two weeks!” the girl at the till responded with a pained expression. “You know how much I need that money.”
Karen was done with this. She leaned around the bobbing-haired girl in front of her to face the other girl at the till. “Excuse me,” she squeezed, her jaw still tight and her knuckles white around her brightly coloured shopping bags. “Some of us would like to order some food.” The words exploded from her mouth with a force that surprised even her.
The girl in front of Karen gave one of those glances to her friend behind the till, one of those “Isn’t this just like one of them” sorts of looks complete with rolling eyes, threw a “Text me when you’re done” at her friend, and trudged off.
“Sorry about that,” the girl at the till said softly, casting her eyes down slightly, her cheeks flushed against her unruly blonde hair.
The unexpected apology sparked the heat of shame to rise up around Karen’s neck, constricting her throat and strangling her words. She suppressed the feeling, though, quickly placing her order with what she thought was an appropriate sense of noble indignation.
But when she finally sat down at the one seat left in the entire food court, she found she was no longer hungry. The crowds swirled around her, a teeming mass of puffed out parkas, the crying of tired kids mixing crudely with the canned Elvis carols over the mall speakers. Suddenly she was angry: angry at the mall, angry at the girl at the till, angry at herself, at the crowds, at the children, at Elvis. She shoved her chicken sandwich back in the bag for later, grabbed her shopping bags, and began pushing her way through the crowds for the door.
The crisp December air hit her like cool, minted breath. She stopped just outside the door, pausing to breathe, to get her composure before making the three-block walk to the parking lot. A busker at the corner belted out “Jingle Bell Rock.” People shuffled by in hurried procession. The street decorations sparkled in the lights of the cars. The orange glow of the city covered the holiday scene, framing it for a Thomas Kincade painting.
She smelled him before she saw him, the pungent odor of tobacco with a bite of whisky shattering the air’s freshness. It was a grizzled old man, one of the city’s homeless, now standing in front of her, blocking her way.
“Spare some change for some cigarettes, ma’am?” His matted, grey beard was streaked with yellow around his lips. His greasy hair was plastered to his forehead, squeezed out from under an old Jets toque. Underneath his brand-new parka—undoubtedly a gift from some charity or another—his army fatigues reached down to his shoes, a tattered pair of Reeboks.
“At least you’re honest about what you’re going to buy,” Karen muttered dryly, then caught another whiff of the whisky. A thought entered her mind—the chicken sandwich still in her bag—but she pushed it away with an inward spasm of possessiveness and only a small twinge of guilt.
“Here,” she shoved a loonie into the man’s grimy, outstretched hand, then brushed by him to enter the flow of pedestrian traffic on the busy sidewalk.
“Merry Christmas!” the man called out from behind her. Karen glanced back. The man’s smile irked her, welling up those feelings of anger she had felt in the food court. She ignored him, turning back to weave through the throngs of shoppers.
It’s Christmas, she thought to herself. Just get through it, then get over it.
She reached the corner just as the light changed. Halfway across the street, she felt a push from behind. It was a young indigenous woman clutching a bundled baby to her side, clearly in a hurry to get somewhere. Words of reproof were just on Karen’s lips when the pair hip-checked her and she slipped on a patch of ice. She fell hard to the pavement, her bags flying in all directions. Her chicken sandwich spun out, out into the passing traffic, until it was caught by the wheel of a city bus and flattened.
Karen sat there, stunned, on the frozen, snow-pebbled asphalt, people scurrying by to beat the light. The thought came to her instantly, like a dart thrown deep into her heart: This is my life. This about sums it up: all alone, knocked down, bruised, the world passing me by, my life scattered around me, probably broken beyond repair.
She was too shocked to notice the woman picking up her bags, tut-tutting about the rudeness of “those people.” She didn’t feel the woman’s husband reach down and lift Karen up by her arm, then escort her to the other side of the street. When the couple asked if she would be okay, she nodded mutely, her insides frozen, her brain on pause. The man and woman gave each other a glance, assuring themselves that she was indeed fine, before disappearing into the crowds. Karen stood still for a full minute longer, then picked up her bags and began to walk who knows where, anywhere at all, her body pulled along like a marionette.
Karen never could remember how she ended up there. Maybe it was the sweet scent of spiced apple cider wafting into the street that drew her in. Maybe it was the braying of the donkey echoing among the downtown buildings that piqued her curiosity. Maybe it was God. But, however it happened, she found herself standing in a small churchyard, beside a small stone church.
It was a live nativity scene, being played out at the far end of the yard. A few pilgrims were scattered here and there. A father crouched with his young children, pointing out the characters in the scene. An elderly couple sat on a hay bale, humming to the tinny Christmas carols playing from the single speaker in the corner. A young woman stood in the far shadows, intently observing the sacred tableau.
Karen was handed a cup of steaming apple cider by an eager church volunteer. She mumbled thanks as she set down her bags and pulled the cup to her face, drinking in its warm smell.
Silently, she gazed at the nativity scene. It was brightly lit by two floodlights on either side, casting long shadows on the fence behind. A small space heater buzzed and rattled at the front of the scene, right by the manger, doing little more than marking the separation between spectator and spectacle. Beyond the space heater the scene was set off with hay scattered unevenly over the close-packed snow. The donkey stamped restlessly, steam puffing from its nostrils with every breath of the cool night air.
And there were the key characters in the scene. Joseph, standing tall and proud, surveying his little family. Mary, sitting on a small stool, gazing contentedly at the manger. And the Baby Jesus. The Baby Jesus, bundled up in cloths and lying in the manger, a bit of fur fuzzing around his head, a lock of dark hair nudging out.
Karen started: Was that a live baby in the manger? It couldn’t be, could it, in this cold? She had to see for herself. Suddenly this urge was more important than any other need, any other desire she had ever had: to see this Baby Jesus, live, in the flesh.
Karen tossed her empty cup in the trash, then walked forward, snow scrunching with every step. She reached the clattering heater and stopped, leaning forward to peer inside the manger.
Just then Mary looked up at her, and Karen’s heart leapt into her throat. It was the KFC girl from the mall food court, her stringy blonde hair falling out from the light blue cloth wrapped around her head, her eyes filled with an awkward embarrassment. Karen looked at Joseph and saw with a dizzying sense of surreality that it was the grizzled, homeless man, sour with the smell of whisky and tobacco. He winked at her, and her eyes dropped instantly to the baby in the manger. Somehow, she already knew what she would find: Baby Jesus was Anishinaabe. In the periphery Karen saw the shadows move, the young woman watching the scene, the baby’s mother.
Karen felt her insides collapse, as if from an immense weight pressing down on her from above. Her lungs ached with each breath; each heartbeat felt a throbbing agony, like pushing molasses through her veins. The burden was too great. She dropped to the ground, ignoring the cold of the dirt-packed snow under her knees, ignoring the people around her, ignoring everyone, everything, but Baby Jesus, lying in the manger in front of her.
Karen wept. Softly at first, her hands covering her face, the faint whisper of sadness sighing from her lips, trickling down her cheeks. Then bursting out of her in a torrent, deep sobs wracking her body, tears streaming, soaking her scarf. She wept for shame at what she had thought of these people earlier, these holy icons of divine love: a girl, a man, a mother and her baby. She wept for grief at the loss of her husband, a cavernous wound she had never fully explored, never fully healed. She wept for love, a love that washed over her inexplicably, unconditionally, cleansing her shame and sanctifying her grief. And she wept for joy at the new life taking root in her heart, a life lived beyond herself, beyond her doubts and her fears.
And weeping at the feet of the Baby Jesus—weeping, she worshiped.
– MWP 2010; rev. 2017 (Christmas)