Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ondine

Ondine Sharp sat towards the back of the church and always on the left side, perhaps because this is where she sat as a child alongside her mother and sister, albeit long ago in another church and in another state.  Her father hadn’t believed in church and went fishing instead.  Most Sundays, she wished she could have gone with her father.

Recently, she wondered why she kept coming to COW.  She came more out of habit than anything. Maybe she’d be better off fishing instead, except she’d have to drive at least 50 miles to go anywhere worthwhile.  Her father had only to drive 10 miles.

Coming to church meant something when she was with Kim but since their breakup six months ago, Ondine felt unmoored and aimless.  Everything was just sort of blah: her job, friendships, church, most of all dating.  Kim had been the one.  She still was.  Nothing had changed in Ondine’s heart; but it had in Kim’s.  Now Kim was on the East Coast and already in another relationship.

Most days, Ondine found herself replaying the breakup and wondering if she could have done anything differently.   To make matters worse, Ondine hadn’t seen her two boys, Perry and Patrick, in almost two years. Their father, who was a prick (sorry God, but he is), did everything he could to prevent Ondine from seeing them.  He’d taken a job in Idaho, more to spite her than for the job itself, and neither one of them could afford getting to the other.

If anything had crushed her spirit and a large part of her faith, it was the loss of her boys.  Their father said she was unfit and while the L-word was rarely used, the essence of it hovered over the entire proceeding.  Instead, it was pointed out that she wasn’t in a steady relationship, her previous girlfriend had dwindled her savings to almost nothing, she had trouble holding down a job, lived in a mobile home in a poor neighborhood and struggled to keep the refrigerator stocked.  It didn’t matter that she loved her boys more than life itself….  

Her mind was in what her dad called the “insanity ward” again; the one you let yourself into and then find no doors to exit by, the one where you tie yourself up in a straightjacket of what ifs, if onlys and maybes; the one where you keep thinking and doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Lost inside herself, Ondine hadn’t noticed a pair of bright eyes peering at her over the top of the pew in front of her.  They opened wide and then narrowed again, as if trying to cast a spell on Ondine. Perhaps it was just the child’s movement that finally caught Ondine’s attention but the spell worked; she came out of her dark place and found herself staring at a boy of perhaps 18 months to two years.  He had a wild mop of curly hair, an impish grin and eyes that sparkled like firecrackers.  He clearly sensed that she was paying attention to him because he started to bounce up and down, smiling all the more.

On either side of him were two men.  They had slipped in the pew without Ondine noticing but, given her state of mind, that wasn’t surprising.  One of them turned to the child and gently shushed him, then looked back and smiled at Ondine.  He whispered to her, “He likes you.”

A shiver ran through her. She hadn’t heard words of appreciation, of any sort, in a long while and their impact was immediate, like water to a parched plant.  She smiled and, in response, the child grinned irrepressibly.  Suddenly, he threw his arms wide apart, an insistent look on his face.  Clearly, he wanted Ondine to hold him.  She shook her head from side to side, knowing this wasn’t possible.  She tried to evade his look, so as not to encourage him, and found herself looking up at the stained glass window of Jesus.  There he was, arms outstretched, just like this boy, beckoning us.  How much she yearned to be in his embrace, despite her failings.  She knew that faith connected her to Christ, and hers had been lacking.  But sometimes, in order to have faith in something – such as touch, affirmation, forgiveness, and love – you need it in the real world first.

She looked back at the boy, his arms still stretched wide.  He was right there, yet she felt a deep chasm between them.  His embrace simply wasn’t hers to have.  

The despair inside her was too much; she felt she had no choice but to leave but as she was gathering her things, the man who had spoken to her took hold of the boy and lifted him over the pew to her.  “He really, really likes you.  He’ll be impossible if you don’t hold him, at least for a little bit.”

She took hold of either side of him and sat him on her lap.  He sat there quietly for a moment, then started rolling his head from side to side as if intentionally trying to make her laugh, which she did, intermixed with a few tears.  He made motion for wanting to stand up, so she picked him up and rested his feet on her legs.  He reached out his hands to her face and pulled his face to hers.  It was a near-kiss but a kiss all the same.  Then he suddenly seemed restless and tired, so he nudged his head to her shoulder.  She rocked him and patted his back till he fell asleep.

When service was over, the boy’s fathers introduced themselves.

“I’m Brad,” said the older and taller of the two, the one who had spoken to her.

“I’m Michael,” said the other.

“And that’s Peter,” said Brad pointing to the sleeping boy.

Ondine nodded quietly and seemed to struggle to speak.  At last she introduced herself.  “I’m Ondine.”

Brad and Michael looked at each other and then back at Ondine. “Peter is typically very clingy with us and rarely lets others hold him,” said Brad.  “I don’t know why he took to you so immediately, but he did.  That says a lot about you, I think.”

“I don’t know,” demurred Ondine.  “I’m nothing special, I can tell you that.  But holding him has been very healing, and I’m grateful that you trusted me with him.

“Of course,” said Brad.  “If Peter felt comfortable with you, how could we not?” Michael nodded in agreement.

“We’re heading to brunch.  Will you join us?” asked Brad, carefully peeling Peter from Ondine’s shoulder and placing him on his own.

Ondine hesitated.  “I have some errands I have to take care of,” she said.  It was a half-truth; she did have errands to run but another reason caused her to deflect their invitation. “Will you be back next week?  Can we do it then?”

“Absolutely,” said Brad.  But she could see he was a bit disappointed.

She gently kissed Peter on the cheek and then, before she betrayed a rush of tears, backed away saying “Thank you so much for sharing him with me.  You don’t know how much it’s meant.”  Her last glimpse of Brad and Michael suggested they did.

In her car, she leaned against the steering wheel and sobbed mightily.  Through the sobbing, she made up her mind with a sudden absoluteness. She was going to get her act together.  She’d go back to school and then get a better job.  She’d be the best she could be at it.  She’d save her money and visit her boys often.  Maybe, in time, they’d come to live with her.

And she’d do it not only for Perry and Patrick, but also for Peter, not only the Peter whom she had just held in church but her Peter – her first child, stillborn, whom she held just once, briefly, of whose memory she could – would – never let go.

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