As Christmas approaches and my children learn their songs for the Christmas pageant, I’ve been thinking a lot about the first pageant my daughter was in. It was her first Christmas. She was seven months old. We were still very much coming to terms with her diagnosis. I don’t remember everything about that Christmas, I don’t even remember whose house we celebrated at. I know I had a lot of fears and worries. Like, a lot. It’s not that they’ve gone away, like a switch flipped and now it’s all golden and lovely. But we’re past a lot of things.
There are people who stick out in my mind as helping us get to where we are now. Like little stepping stones across the pond. One of these was our priest. An aging, white-haired male, everything that says traditional, gave us the nudge that set us on the path. He came over to meet our baby. He didn’t say all those stupid things about God sent you an angel or God wanted her to have the best parents. He didn’t say much really. Just held our darling and listened to our worries. And before he left he said all he could figure about life was that it was about love.
“That’s it?” I thought, hoping for some nugget that would make this easier.
It would make this, and everything, easier, but it was more like a seed than a nugget. It grew and grew.
And a few months after that visit, as the air turned chilly, he asked our baby girl with Down syndrome to be the baby Jesus. And I can’t even type that, four years later, without crying. (Damn it, I’m in a coffee shop too.) I’m not a very good God-follower. What I hear on Sunday seems to slide off my duck wings by Tuesday afternoon. And we don’t even go to that church anymore, but I never said thank you. So Father Stephen, thank you.
And, in honor of children’s Christmas pageants practicing across the nation, this is my Christmas pageant memory:
I look through her dresser drawers, pawing through the stacks of sleepers. Why did I wait so long?
“Do you have the camera?” I call to my husband
He can’t hear me. He can never hear me. If we lived together in a yurt he couldn’t hear me. I get the camera.
“Where’s the extra battery?”
My two year old stares at me from the doorway. He’s in red socks. How did I put him in blood red socks?
I haven’t talked to him about what’s going to happen – how in an hour I’ll drop him off with the director, a man whose name my son doesn’t remember, to walk with kids he can’t tell apart. But he’s two, almost three– eons older than my baby daughter – so I think he can handle it. He’s going to have to be able to handle this new life of ours.
My husband rushes down the stairs, he goes in the bathroom, leans in closer to the mirror and smoothes his hair with his hand.
“Does this look okay?” I say holding up an ivory sleeper with gold on the collar. We don’t own any more regal sleepers.
The church parking lot is already half-full an hour before the performance. Families with eager video cameras. My husband carries our daughter, asleep in the car seat. I’m glad she’s asleep because on the Excel spreadsheet I did of her sleep cycles the optimal time for her to nap is an hour before our cue.
I walk my son to the Sunday school room. He’s still in pull-ups. He can’t say all his words yet. He has impossibly huge blue eyes that look at me when I kiss him goodbye. He’s holding his stuffed lamb, not clutching, just holding, because he’s a shepherd, and shepherds take care of lambs, they don’t cling to them, and he seems to know this.
My husband and I sit down. The plan is for us to sit in the first pew, on the aisle. I will hold Margaret and wait for her cue. The priest approached me a few Sundays ago asking if she could play the baby Jesus. I couldn’t ask what I really wanted to ask – what would people think? So I asked an easier question. “Even though she’s a girl?” And the white-haired male priest said, “I like to think what made Jesus a neat guy was more than his gender.”
And maybe, more than his chromosomes.
The grandparents file in, my husband’s parents, my mother. They don’t go to this church and I wave to them so they can find us. My father isn’t there, but I think of him a lot in December because he was always happy on Christmas. My daughter’s godmothers are there. All the friends who came to my daughter’s baby shower, before we knew.
The hundred year old organ starts and the shepherds come down the aisle. My son, the one I’ve been counting on to behave, is scared to go down the aisle. My husband slips to the back and becomes the newest shepherd. As they find their places at the altar, he scrunches his six foot body among the pint sized boys, with my son cuddling against his plaid shirt, and I’m in love.
“God doesn’t make mistakes,” that’s what one of my friends said. “He knew she needed the best mommy.” I hate that shit people say. Like the angel comments. So help me I’m going to lose it if someone makes an angel comment.
And here come the angels, the little girls dressed in white, with gold garlands in their hair. Then poor Mary and Joseph, tired and poor, their sad donkey collapses at the base of the altar. Everyone laughs, which delights him. He has autism, or Asperger’s, or something, which I only really think about right now, as he’s flopped on his belly smiling.
Mary and Joseph take their place in the nativity scene. There’s a shortage of boys so they’re both girls. The girl who plays Joseph is maybe in the fifth grade, with long brown hair and a stern nose. She looks ready to defend her family, peacefully. The girl who plays Mary, I’ve never seen her before the practices, and I never end up seeing her again, after tonight. She sits serene as a queen, a queen who wants social justice for all. Her face is patient and kind, and she has a calm like I can only hope for one day.
I stand up and I hug Margaret to me, and I walk up the steps, and the people watching – there’s a, not a gasp, but like a gasp, like a loud murmur, not because it’s Margaret, but because they didn’t know Jesus was going to be a real baby this year, and they didn’t know where the baby was going to come from. They didn’t know the baby Jesus was right there, waiting in the first pew, one of them.
I look at Mary, like I have to look at her one last time to make sure I can trust her with my baby. She smiles like the Mona Lisa and holds out her arms. I set Margaret in her arms and she turns and looks out at the congregation. Her smile, too, is understated.
I can’t remember the rest of the play. My entire family was out there in it – sheep, shepherds, Saviours.
I remember this. After the pageant was Communion. I’d had my bread and wine and was sitting again with Margaret, closest to the aisle. The rest of the church was filing past, waiting for their turn at the altar. And Margaret wanted to stand up, her feet pushed into my thighs. I held on to her, and as people passed, she raised her hand to them, open palm, just out in front of them, like the tiniest little Pope. And people saw her, and they paused, each one, in front of her, like she was a station of the cross. My hipster friend Jacob said quietly, “I think she just blessed me.” And they all had this look on their faces. Some were almost teary-eyed. Like they were seeing something they’d always wanted to see and didn’t think they would. Something they had deep inside them, but they’d never seen in on the outside. And Margaret just kept blessing them all, and I held her up, and I thought, something is happening. It’s hard to explain. And it was all so new to me. Back then, it was so new.
Merry Christmas all you babies out there having your first holiday (or other holiday, sorry I’m not trying to be Christmas-centric) – girl babies, boy babies, babies who are super cute and were born with a diagnosis of a Down syndrome. Swaddle you all and bring you gifts. We celebrate you. It’s all about love.