The Rule of Incarnation
I recognize her immediately. I am certain that she has recognized me. We make brief eye contact and keep walking, in opposite directions. I am following my rule – a rule she can’t possibly know, of course – that when I run into people I know only from court, people whose deepest secrets and most painful wounds have been laid open in front of strangers, I do not speak first. I wait for them. Wait for them to decide if they want to admit, even in the vaguest possible way, that they know me. I am in Walmart and it is the week before Christmas and I have checked my attitude at the door. I will not take loud breaths while waiting for the family of six blocking the entire aisle to choose among the cheaply scented candles. I will not turn my buggy on two wheels to maneuver around the gray-haired couple hunched over the crock pot display. I will not say too loudly, “Excuse me,” as I reach over the shoulder of the oblivious phone-fixated teenager standing in front of the strawberries. I’ve have tracked and backtracked across the entire store when I see her again. This time she stops. “You’re Miss Bradley, aren’t you?” I nod. “I thought that was you.” “I recognized you, too,” I say and proceed to explain the rule. “I wanted to let you decide if you wanted to say anything.” She nods. “You remember my boys, right?” Of course, I remember her boys. Distracted, rudderless, fatherless boys who showed up on my court calendar – one or the other or sometimes both – for increasingly serious offenses over a period of about 3 years. Tall and blond, like their mother, with bony shoulders curved into permanent question marks. Charged with felony-level offenses, they regularly shuffled into court in leg irons and handcuffs. She, their mother, was always there. Every single time. “They’re both in prison now,” she offers. “You want to see pictures?” She pulls out her phone: one photo of a skinny young man in prison garb holding a mop, one of a face covered in jailhouse tattoos, including two horns at the top of his forehead. She explains that the tattooed son is currently charged with murdering another inmate. “But he’s got a good lawyer,” she says. We bid each other adieus of some sort and walk away in opposite directions, me toward a house filled with festive food and bright lights and four generations of family, her toward a lonely, slow waiting for the next visitation day. The boys are, she has reminded me, still her babies and she loves them “no matter what they done.” I push my buggy toward the self-checkout. I pay for my toothpaste and cheese and two kinds of chips. I move through the next few days – holidays, holy days – joyfully and gratefully but always with her and her boys hovering in my peripheral vision. They will not be denied a place in my Christmas. They are the reminder that if the incarnation means anything, if God really is with us, if he came to smelly shepherds and frightened teenagers and old men who believed in magic, then he also came to all the heartbroken mothers and imprisoned sons, to all those who loiter around the edges and huddle in the dark. They are the reminder that, even with all my pious attitude-checking and pretentious rule-following, he came to me. Let heaven and nature sing!