At Least One Way to Put It

When my sister was born, she made herself known. Screamed so loud, they moved her to a room far from all the other babies. But two years later, when I came along, it was different. I did not make a sound. In fact, I was so quiet, from what I understood, my mother was pretty sure I must be dead.

As a child, death was never too far from my mind. Long and hard would I gaze upon roadkill, awaiting a twitch. In fifth grade, a guest speaker came to frighten us about drugs. He included a statistic on teen mortality. Said you could expect at least one of us would not live past eighteen. I concluded it would be Brenda, a girl who had dandruff. In the days after, I watched, amazed, as she continued to eat lunch, and perform other ordinary tasks, as if the long black shadow didn’t hover so close. You might call it a preoccupation, these thoughts. Or a hobby, but not the kind you enjoy. Through the years, teachers would ask what I spent class daydreaming about, but how to tell them, “We are all soon to die.”

So, the story of how I was born made me wonder. What if no one had noticed that I was alive? What if I’d ended up tossed in the garbage, or whatever happened to babies in cases like that? On the other hand, what if my mother had been right all along? What if all who loved me were only pretending that I was alive, so as not to hurt my feelings, when the unavoidable truth was that I was actually dead? It might account for how my fingers and toes in the winter sometimes wouldn’t warm up.

The thought of being born dead stayed there, hung in my firmament, a very long time, with facts like “my people are stout” and “I have a large head.” Things neither good nor bad, only true. Until some time, as an adult, when I mentioned the story of my birth in my mother’s hearing. “Dead?” she said. “No! C’mon! I said I thought you were deaf.”

What if it the story you live by got handed down wrong? Or at least incomplete? Take Jesus, for instance. Go into any church around Christmas. Their Nativity Pageant has the wise men on stage, hanging out with the shepherds. It’s fine pageant, true. But what they are doing is not in the gospels. Luke has the shepherds. The wise men? In Matthew. Mark skips any birth story to pick up with the baptism of the full-grown Jesus. And John tells it the way a man on the bus mutters about the government and somebody named Sharon. Some will point out that no one took notes at the birth of a no-name in backwater Nazareth, that any version at all was only tacked on much later, to fill in the blanks. What we’re left with is less like a story than a bag of bright Legos, dumped out on the rug.

So, go ahead, mash them all together. Shave down the edges. Make one seamless whole. Many put on a pageant. Who can blame them? We need something to go by when the night is so dark. But the truth, it still whistles around and through us, not to be bottled up. Not in one single story, nor in any one body. Christ comes in fragments, in disjointed gospels. Like broken glass on the pavement that only hints at the whole. And what is true about us might be somewhat the same. “I am large,” said Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes.” And even that wasn’t the whole of it.

So, look, I don’t deny that each breath draws us closer to our last. We are bound for the grave. From dust we have come, and to dust we’ll return. But that’s only one story, only one way to tell it. Others alongside it tell of far greater glory. Of how the eternal turned out to be here, all along. How the flesh, squeezable, lovable though it may be, could not be all we are. Amazing stories. Ones, if you heard them, you just would not believe.

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