I know this is a Christmas hymn, but bear with me. It’s a hymn that’s been on my mind all day, for reasons I’ll explain. Listen:
“I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I…”
What’s that supposed to mean? Am I a poor ornery person? Are you and I both? I didn’t used to think I was. I didn’t used to know what it was to wander under the sky, either, before I came here. I came to the Ohio Valley ten years ago, to attend its famous and much-lauded Catholic university. It was here that I met my husband. We didn’t intend to stay; we intended to finish our degrees and get careers somewhere where there were careers to be had. We’d leave this strange town, where the locals were so grubby and disagreeable, and never return to any part of Appalachia or its foothills. We had our whole lives planned out. It was going to be wonderful.
And then I got sick. And then I got sicker. And then we discovered that chronic illness very quickly shows you the sad underbelly of Catholicism, as the most outwardly devout and pious people said I made them feel “guilty and burdened” and stopped helping us. And suddenly my husband had to drop out of school to care for me, because there was no one else. And then he found his career options were nil, with most of an MA, no car and increasingly bad credit because we couldn’t pay the bills. And then I got pregnant unexpectedly, and then we had a baby, and I stabilized but still I wasn’t very well, and still there was no work, and there was nothing to do but pray for a miracle. But the miracle didn’t come. And then we got the first shutoff notice to pay our water bill, and found that this town has emergency help for gas and electric but not water. So we used the rent money to pay the water bill. And then, two months later, another shutoff notice came for a sum we couldn’t pay, but this time we couldn’t get further behind on the rent either. If we missed another month we’d be evicted, and if we got the water shut off we’d be evicted, and either way we’d be homeless.
And then I found out what it was to wander under the sky. I was and still am chronically ill, but it was one of my very good days between flare-ups. My husband and I calculated; we’d both noticed that when an unemployed man goes downtown to the agencies and begs for help, he’s met with anger, but when a woman with a child goes they are kinder to them. So I went downtown with my daughter, to wander from agency to agency to get the bill paid, and my husband stayed home to pray for a miracle. I packed a few pieces of cheese for my daughter’s and my lunch, but I forgot my water bottle. I didn’t think it would matter; it was cool when I set out. But it got hot and humid toward the afternoon, that stifling sunny heat that always means it’s going to storm later in the Ohio Valley. And so I wandered, sweating more and more, nibbling the pieces of cheese as we needed them. And I walked to every agency I could think of, getting rejection notices. And finally I presented my rejection notices at the Department of Job and Family Services. And the social worker at the Department of Job and Family Services said that, since I had a child, they could give a one-time payment toward the past due on our water bill– all that we owed to prevent shutoff except fifty-one dollars and change. They were legally prevented from paying more than that. They could give us the other payment as soon as we ponied up fifty-one dollars and change, “not a penny more, not a penny less.”
I didn’t have fifty-one dollars and change. I had twenty-three dollars, which was supposed to pay for groceries until the EBT refilled next week on the fifth. Water would do no good if we starved, and anyway a half a payment was worthless to them. I wandered out under the sky again, wondering where I was going to get fifty-one dollars and change. Every possibility imaginable crossed my mind, from prostitution to suicide to my old childhood fantasies of finding a portal to Narnia. Finally, I started making my way to the very last agency I hadn’t tried. It was several blocks away. It closed at four-thirty, and I knew by now that most of the agencies that close at four-thirty stop taking cases at four or four fifteen. The water department also closed at four-thirty. It was ten minutes til four. We were going to be shut off the next morning.
I tried to run, but my daughter didn’t want to run. She was exhausted, as was I. It was so hot and humid I felt like steam was sticking to my skin; I was so thirsty I wanted to die. I’m sure my daughter was equally uncomfortable. We both cried bitter tears, but my daughter also refused to walk. She stood rooted to the pavement, having a tantrum. I picked her up and carried her two blocks; then I put her down because my arms were throbbing with pain. I told her that we had to walk just half a block more. Just half a block more, down this alley and through the parking lot and into an air conditioned agency to hear our fate. My daughter would not move.
And I yelled at her. I swore. I shouldn’t have, and I’ll be sorry til the day I die. But I had been wandering under the sky for hours, and I was sick with thirst, and I screamed at my daughter.
A shiny expensive car that was driving by just then rolled down the window. I saw a well-dressed old woman in sunglasses, and a fancy Rosary dangling from the rear-view mirror. For a moment, I fantasized that she was going to offer me something to drink.
“I’ll take your baby, Ma’am,” she said in a mocking tone.
I just stared.
“Since you don’t want her?” she said.
I made a rude gesture. I shouldn’t have, and I’m sorry, but I did.
The old lady started berating me, telling me I had issues, screaming at me for not wanting my child, a fountain of verbal abuse when I was in agony for a fountain of water.
I fumbled in my purse and brandished my pepper spray at the window. “Keep driving,” I said.
She rolled up her window, but she did not keep driving. She watched me disdainfully as I stumbled across the parking lot, carrying the toddler with me. Inside, I sobbed too hysterically to say what had happened, at first; I sobbed that I used to be a human being, I knew they didn’t believe me but I used to be a human being, I went to the university and everything, I used to have value and now I was a monster that Catholics hated. Finally I stammered that we’d be homeless if we couldn’t pay the water company fifty-one dollars and change. The social workers paid the fifty-one dollars and change, they gave Rose and me cups of cold water to drink, and they let us stay in the air conditioning until I stopped sobbing. I pray they’re rewarded a thousandfold in Heaven.
“If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing, a star in the sky or a bird on the wing, or all of God’s angels in Heaven to sing, He surely could have had it, cause He was the king.” But Jesus didn’t want that. Jesus wanted to wander under the sky with me when I couldn’t feel Him there. So often, I don’t let Him. We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of that horrible day at the end of this month, and I still shudder at the memory. I still can barely stand to go to Mass in the congregation here in the Ohio Valley; I almost always sit in the foyer with my daughter so I won’t accidentally meet the rich woman with the fancy Rosary. I fear that part of me still wouldn’t be able to see Christ in her any more than she could see Christ in me. We’re poor ornery people, she and I.
(Image courtesy of Pixabay)