Wisdom from Afar: God comes to humankind in ways that God's own
When I read the note, I went perfectly blank. I thought about what it said for every moment of the afternoon, even though I finished the mid-semester meetings without anyone suspecting a thing. I went about my work as if I hadn't read what I had. I kept it all in. I told myself that I'd call her immediately when I got home.
My daughter is pregnant—my daughter the lawyer, my daughter the lawyer who is not married.
She's been seeing a guy. His name is Mark—I knew that much. But what's a mother to think?—your daughter's pregnant, but she's seeing a guy. How many guys have you seen in the last year, Ms. Hot Shot Public Defender? If you're only seeing this guy, why should I believe that the guy you're seeing now is the guy who made you "with child," dearie? That's what I would have liked to say, but I know there are times when it's better not to say what you'd like to. I've been her mother for twenty-seven years.
"Of course, I wouldn't consider abortion," the note said. That was meant to buttress my estimation of her firm moral character.
I don't know the guy, have never met him, and I'd just suffered through the first Christmas of my life without my daughter—she'd gone to spend it with him and his family in Philadelphia. And my daughter is pregnant. Brittany—summa cum laude from college, honors at law school, assistant editor of the Law Review—and she's pregnant, like some dimwit sixteen-year-old. She's pregnant—my daughter, Britt. She and some faceless guy making hay between the sheets somewhere. My baby is pregnant. I've a right to be angry and upset and emotional. And she told me on e-mail—didn't drive home, even though that would have taken her six hours at most. Didn't even call. I'm her mother, and she sends me an e-mail telling me she's pregnant. An e-mail.
So once I got home, I called her right away. No one answered at her apartment, so I called her office and I got her secretary. Think of that, my daughter—her high school athletic sweater is still nicely folded in a drawer upstairs, ready for wear—has her own fifty-year-old secretary. I don't know this woman really, and I've always thought she resented me. It's in her perfectly formal tone. Whenever I call Britt, I get her, of course, very official. Her name is Ms. Phillips. She's my age, and the moment I laid eyes on her she made me jealous, wearing better clothes to work than I have in my closet, and looking altogether too much like I think I should. She's my pregnant daughter's secretary, and she sees Britt every day.
"Your daughter's not in presently, Mrs. McCain. I can take a message—"
I let the silence drag on far too long.
"Was there something I could help you with? I'm sure she wants to speak to you."
I wasn't about to tell her simply to have Britt call me when she got back, as if I wanted a recipe. I let the silence linger.
"Are you okay, Mrs. McCain?"
"No," I said. "No, I'm not okay, if you must know."
"Listen," she said, "your daughter is in a meeting with a client. She's at the detention center, and I'm sure it won't be long before she returns. I can page her—"
"No, don't do that," I said. The thought of me, a distraught, half-suicidal mother, breaking up some monosyllabic conversation with a hardened criminal was painful.
And then, suddenly, "Mrs. McCain," this secretary said, "I can guess the substance of your call. I know about everything."
My first reaction was insane jealousy. Ms. Phillips was the mother Britt herself had always wanted. The woman not only dresses better than I do, she's slimmer and smarter, and she makes a whole lot more money. Not only that, but this woman has known about the whole mess for weeks already. She's been coaching my daughter, advising her, loving her, while her mother was up in Wisconsin feeling sorry for herself because her daughter wouldn't be home for Christmas. Ms. Phillips knew everything, I figured, and I hated her.
"Mrs. McCain," she said, "you'll love Mark."
"I suppose that's the boy she's seeing," I said, even though I knew his name.
"He's going to be your son-in-law," she said. "You'll love him." Then a silence. "I'd love him," she said. "Mrs. McCain, if my daughter came home with someone like Mark, I swear I'd try to get something down in writing right then and there."
"I've never even met him," I said.
"I was only roughly aware of their going out—"
"I know," she said.
I couldn't help it. I blasted away. "Why did she e-mail me?" I said. "Why did she e-mail her mother, for pity's sake? Why didn't she at least call? Ms. Phillips, will you explain that to me since you know the whole story anyway?—why didn't she at least call?"
I heard my own heavy breathing up through the receiver. Maybe I shouldn't have said everything I did. Maybe I shouldn't have shouted.
"Mrs. McCain," she said, "do you know about Epiphany?"
"Epiphany?" I said.
"You're a Christian, I know that—and so is your daughter. Mrs. McCain, remember that. Your daughter is a believer, always a believer."
So now my daughter's secretary wanted to be my spiritual advisor. "Ms. Phillips," I said, "thank you for those words of encouragement, but I get an e-mail announcing a completely unplanned pregnancy from a daughter who's 'seeing someone'—can you blame me?"
"Ms. McCain," she said. "I was talking about Epiphany. The wise men. The season of the year." I could just see her perfect lips perfectly tightened as she paged through perfectly rational thoughts. "I'm sorry for intruding here," she said, "but I've been through all of this myself. I'm a veteran. Lord God Almighty, I'm a war-torn veteran."
That stopped me. "You know about Epiphany, Mrs. McCain? Your daughter is Christian, a fine Christian, and this is Epiphany, the season of Epiphany."
I was standing at the patio door, my coat was still on. I looked outside at the snow—cold, January snow. There were three juncos, each in a perfect tuxedo, at my nearly empty bird feeder, a feeder I hadn't filled for too long.
"Mrs. McCain," she said, "please don't be offended, but let me tell you what happened—"
"Please, do," I said.
"I mean, what happened to me. Will you give me a minute?" she said.
I hadn't even called Ben. The e-mail came to me at school, but I didn't want to talk to my husband until I'd talked to Britt, voice to voice, not cursor to cursor. "Go on," I said.
"I was thinking of you in church yesterday, and the message—it was on Epiphany, on the wise men, on what they saw—the star, you know. I couldn't help thinking the whole thing was something you had to hear."
"I don't even know him—this Mark," I said. "So tell me—this great guy, is he a believer?" Once more, there was a pause.
"The wise men weren't believers either," she said. "That's why I was thinking of you, because I know your daughter. In a way, my knowing her means I know you. And I know she was afraid of telling you—"
"She's a lawyer," I said. "She's a grown woman and a lawyer and a Christian—"
"And she's scared," Ms. Phillips said. "She's your daughter."
"Well, why doesn't she act like it?" I said.
"She is," Ms. Phillips said. "But she's a child, too, you know, and Mark—well, he isn't a believer. He wasn't brought up in the faith—not at all. But I was saying, the wise men weren't believers either. That's what the preacher said—yesterday, in church. The wise men came to Jesus not because they knew he was Lord—that isn't it at all. They came because of what they saw in the sky, the star—that's what he said," she told me.
"And Mark?" I said.
"And Mark, who's really a great kid—he's seen your daughter."
"Tell me about it," I snapped.
"I'm serious, Mrs. McCain. What he knows of Christ is your daughter—that's all. At this point in his life, not a thing more."
"What are you saying?" I said.
"When he said that—when the preacher said that about the wise men, that all they knew of Christ was what they saw—"
There was a pause. I didn't know what she was after, but I'd begun to like her, so I gave her the silence. At the other end of the phone, I could hear her steady breaths.
"I'm a mother," she said, "and I know what you're feeling—believe me. So I'm sitting in church yesterday, and the preacher is talking about Epiphany, about how the wise men who weren't even Jews saw something extraordinary in the very tasks of their lives—that's what brought them." She stopped. "You see, he works here too, Mark does, at this office. I don't know if you knew that, but I know him well, and I know that he's seen something of Christ in your daughter."
"Excuse me," I said, "Britt is pregnant. I think I'm old enough to understand what he sees in my daughter—"
"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," she said.
I was angry. "We're talking about my daughter," I said.
"And I see her every day," she said. "I watch your daughter with her colleagues, with friends, and with clients only Christ could love. She's okay, Mrs. McCain. She'll be just fine, believe me."
"But what about him? You're saying he's not even a believer—"
"He believes in her, Mrs. McCain—and right now, he's got nothing more to go on than Britt. What does he know about Christ?—all he knows is your daughter. She's his star."
"You make this sound like a Disney movie," I said.
"Mrs. McCain, I was thinking about you in church yesterday. I really was—I've been there, believe me. But when the preacher said that, when he said the wise men came to Jesus not because of a sudden chorus of angels, not because of some big Hollywood production, but because of what they knew, what they studied, what they always studied—the skies and a star that seemed so bright and unique—then I prayed you'd begin to see it the way I did just then. It's all a rush, I know, but don't despair."
Those birds, those lively juncos—they can be something of joy in the worst of winters.
"Ms. Phillips, I teach literature," I said. "To me, an epiphany is a startling and vivid understanding of the truth. It happens in stories—"
"And it happens in life," she said. "We're in it now—Epiphany. And the preacher said it's such a joy to know that our Lord is great enough to bring his adopted children home by means that are entirely his own—the shepherds by angels, the wise men by a sky they looked at every night—"
"My daughter is pregnant," I told her.
"So you're going to be a grandma," she told me. "And Mark's a peach."
"But he's not a believer," I said.
"But he's a got a star to guide him."
"Convince me," I said.
And then she said, "Trust me."
For a long time, nothing was spoken. In the silence, both of us acknowledged that neither of us wanted to hang up. But I didn't know what to say. I looked out the patio doors. January snow can be beautiful because there's been no thaw to soil it.
"Ms. Phillips," I said, "you're there every day. You know it all. I envy you."
"Mrs. McCain," she said, "Then it's even. I've envied you for a long, long time." Those juncos jumped and pranced on the feeder. I remembered the bag in the closet.
"You tell her I called," I said.
"I think she wanted to be out of the office," she told me.
"You mean, you had this all planned?"
"We're both mothers of adult children, Mrs. McCain. We both know there's very little that happens in life that's ever planned."
"Thanks," I said.
"Maybe if I sent you the tape, you know—of the sermon," she said.
"Mark is a wise man and my daughter is the star," I said. "That's what you're saying." And then I laughed. "She's not going to make a very good one— pregnant women don't make good stars, you think?"
"Mrs. McCain," she said, "I know your daughter."
What could I say but thanks?
When it was over, I made a mental note to send my daughter's secretary a card, something small and plain, something tasteful. I made a note to tell her thanks from the bottom of my heart and from the fear still there in my soul. And I told myself to sign it, "Ann."
Epiphany. God comes to humankind in ways that are his own to bring his adopted children home—all of them. Even my daughter. Even me. That's what I was thinking as I went out into the snow to feed the tuxedo-birds.
Then I waited for Britt to call.