Christians are supposed to boast of our weakness.
I am glad of that, because I am weak, and feel that I’m getting weaker.
Christmas Eve was uneventful. I watched Christmas cartoons by myself because Rose is too grown-up for them now, and then we went to Midnight Mass. It was Rose’s first Midnight Mass, and my first since well before she was born. That was exciting. The bishop presided, standing at the altar between ridiculous white-light-festooned artificial pines, singing loudly enough to break the microphone as the Bishop of Steubenville does. It all felt so joyful and playful and real.
I drove us there and back in the clear cold dark, meandering up and down side streets to look at Christmas lights, and it was a lovely drive. There was a Mylar balloon, striped red and white like a peppermint candy, bouncing around in the trunk of the car, a surprise for Rosie, and that made the trip home seem like a secret mission.
At home, Rosie set up a Rube Goldberg invention she’d been planning: a string tied to the bottom of an upside-down gift bag, looped over a screw in the top of the dining room doorway, with the other end of the string tied to a Christmas cookie on a plate. It was meant to drop the bag on Santa when he went to eat his cookie. Rose has known for several years that Santa is just a myth, so the whole setup for the trap was a joke to see what I’d do. And I was excited to play along with the joke. I’d hatched a plot with Michael to sneak out to the car’s hiding place and bring the balloon inside to play a prank after she was asleep.
None of us got very much sleep though.
As Rosie and I finally went to lie down, the menacing neighbor who has been harassing us for six years woke up.
It has been several weeks since we last heard from her. She’s slowing down, due to the cancer I suppose. But she was determined to have one last meltdown for the year. It was two o’clock on Christmas morning and she decided to go for a walk. She paced compulsively up and down under my window, in the four-foot patch of grass that separates our houses, talking to herself in that guttural voice that projects like an opera singer’s. Rosie, lying in the big double bed next to me, couldn’t sleep for the noise. She asked if she could watch videos downstairs and have some more cookies before going to bed, and I said yes.
I sat in bed, listening.
The neighbor ranted that we were criminals and she was going to expose us once and for all. She ranted that I was a c-word who didn’t protect my daughter. She claimed to have watched through the window as Rose jumped on the bed with a “big flowered blanket,” which she hasn’t: Rose’s blanket has dinosaurs on it, and the windows on the neighbor’s side of the property are all carefully covered in blinds. We’ve even stapled plastic over some of them so we can open the blinds a crack for light without her being a peeping tom with her camera again. The neighbor claimed that letting a child jump on the bed with a big flowered blanket was child neglect and I would go to prison for it when she exposed me. She said I would also go to prison because Michael is really Rose’s and my pimp, and she was going to expose me for that. She was going to ruin us. She claimed that we are in her house with her at night, following her from room to room and not letting her rest.
I had promised myself I would never respond to the monster again, but I did. I panicked. I yelled at the window that I could hear her and was writing down every single word she said on social media so I’d have other witnesses.
It didn’t help, of course. She just went and got her German shepherd on the rusty noisy chain, and began pacing up and down under the window with the dog jingling in tow– some kind of Satanic parody of Santa’s sleigh bells in the dark of a silent Christmas night. Her mantra changed as well. Over and over she growled, “Gonna get back at Mary. Don’t talk back to Mary, get back at Mary. Don’t talk back at Mary, get back at Mary.”
I knew I was in for it now. Another round of vandalism was coming my way.
I thought of all the times we begged the police for help, and they told us “you don’t have to like her but you have to get along” and ordered us to de-escalate, and how we eventually gave up.
We all went to bed at about four in the morning, when she did.
At some point just before dawn, Michael snuck out and got the balloon.
It was well after noon when we woke up and celebrated Christmas morning. The cookie had disappeared from the string and the chair where the plate was left was tipped over, but the bag was still hovering around the ceiling because Michael had stuffed the balloon in it. Rosie laughed and rolled her eyes at our prank. She played with the balloon. She opened the presents, her camping tent and her markers, her practice bow and arrow and her real grown-up fishing pole.
I played at being happy with my heart in my throat.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder can understand when I say that I spent Christmas going through the motions like a character in a stage play. Outwardly I played with Rosie and colored with her markers; I chatted with Michael. I baked and cooked and put away leftovers. We bounced the balloon around. She showed me the truly awful episodes of Wild Kratts that she likes instead of Christmas cartoons now. And inwardly I was in a feral panic, flashing back to every single horrifying thing the neighbor has done to keep me on my toes: the dog droppings and the torn apart vegetable patch. The cord on the Christmas lights cut. The calls to Social Services and the surprise inspection. The threats. The screaming and yelling and assaulting as we mowed the lawn. The police showing up for a supposed domestic violence call when we were upstairs in our pajamas. The sound of the camera clicking and beeping through the living room window at night.
The next day was Holy Family Sunday. The anxiety squeezed my organs as I played and smiled and batted that silly balloon. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat, and went to the late afternoon Sunday Mass fasting.
It was so crowded at Mass, I was afraid for our safety due to the Omicron variant. I went outside to listen to the liturgy in fresh air through the closed door, and that’s when I had my panic attack.
It all came bubbling out of me in a deluge of real tears and raggedy breathing, shaking as the sobs rattled through me as if I, myself, were a COVID victim.
I stared at the bas relief of the virgin Mary appearing to Saint Dominic, on the doors of the parish church. I glared at her. “I will never forgive you for abandoning me in Steubenville. Never as long as I live.”
I tried to look away from her, but she was everywhere: in the luminous plastic Nativity scene at the house across the street, in the shrine where I’d left my heart-shaped rock on Mothers’ Day. There was nowhere I could stand with my back properly turned to my mother.
I addressed the luminous Nativity as I rattled out another sob, “Do something, damn it.”
Some time later, a lady wandered out of the church, soothing a fussing baby that she wore in a sling. She had a black mantilla on and a long flowing skirt.
I tried not to catch her eye, but she noticed. Mothers always notice.
“Mary, right?” She asked.
“I live in your neighborhood. I recognized you. Are you okay?”
I wiped my soggy face with my disposable mask. “I’m okay. I… I just had a panic attack. It’s the crowd. Sometimes crowding gives me panic attacks. So I decided to pray outside.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the lady, bouncing her baby. “Let me know if there’s something I can do to ground you.”
There wasn’t, except that being talked to was grounding.
We stood together outside in the quiet dark, and watched Mass through the window.
The priest stood at the altar in his white and gold vestments, between those silly white-light-festooned artificial trees. He raised the Host above his head for all to see.
I gazed at the Presence, and the Presence gazed at me.
Sometimes that’s all there is.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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