Damn those television cameras.
They had to be surveying the crowd right where I was standing in St. Peter’s Square minutes after the Pope died, catch me chomping down on that half-melted Snickers bar I’d carried in my backpack all the way from Philadelphia via Prague, and broadcast it to the world.
Not a ladylike nibble, either.
“You were really chomping down,” Ellen Jameson said later, barely able to contain her glee at catching me doing something outrageous. She’s really something, always on the lookout for someone to have lipstick on her teeth or an unzipped fly. No whisper and nudge for her, either. She waits until the room is full and points. Brays.
She’s still talking about it, and it’s eleven years later. I know you’ve heard about it and don’t understand because you’re only ten, but when the right time comes, I want you to know the background information.
Did anybody pay any attention to the fact that I was pregnant and hadn’t eaten all day since that airline breakfast at dawn of a tiny box of cereal and a soggy sweet roll? I was feeling faint with hunger and all my emotion, hoping against hope I’d get there before he went.
Otherwise, why bother?
Nobody could get any points for saying, “I was in St. Peter’s Square after the Pope died.” The point was to be there when it happened. That’s when it counts. Plus his spirit would have been gone without any hope of my receiving a sign.
What was I doing there? I’d already been to Princess Di’s lonely little island looking for her sign to me, and I was using the Pope as a backup. To give it a totally practical spin, I needed help in deciding whether to abort you or not. Sorry, but that’s the way I was in those days.
I’d definitely felt a glow on the island, and I hoped my little blob (that was you) would leap at the moment of John’s passing, like a corpse that bleeds in the presence of its murderer. Then I would know the Big One up in the sky was saying hang in there, and I should go ahead and have you.
IMHO, I think it was a lot more courteous to eat something than to faint and cast the responsibility for taking care of me on those people who were there because they wanted to meditate on death and the life to come.
But it’s followed me. In Spain or Singapore or maybe on a cruise, having a drink in a bar, someone often looks at me and says, “You know, you look really familiar.” He keeps looking at me throughout the evening, trying to remember, you know, the way they do, lifting their glass to you in a funny way every time you catch them looking.
Then, when I’m sitting at my ease, happy and sophisticated with a group of new friends at a table nibbling snacks, knowing you’re sound asleep in our room, he slams his hand down on the table and says, “Got it! You’re the girl who chomped down on the Snickers bar when the Pope died.”
Everyone recoils and gasps in horror.
That’s what I’ll be remembered for, not for racing to the centers of spiritual power on earth before I made an important decision. But I guess that will help you to know why I made the decision I did.
I thought about having you frozen, then later, after I’d done everything I wanted to do, having them thaw you or whatever they do, get someone to be pregnant with you, and find a nice Portuguese girl to travel with me and babysit.
It was in the news. Spain had tens of thousands like you might have been. A joy of embryos, you might say, like a flock of birds. Leftovers from fertilization procedures when another embryo got chosen.
They were trying to get the leftovers adopted, or they would be contributed to research on Alzheimer’s, the ones nobody chose to incubate, grow and love. Talk about blackmail! But as someone famous once said, and I learned when I was in about tenth grade, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Or lie there frozen and wait. I’ve always been a stickler for accuracy. It’s been my downfall sometimes.
Anyway, the deep freeze wasn’t the path I chose, and that’s how you’re here.
I look at you sleeping, like now, and think, when would be the best time to tell you? Maybe someday just before your happy white wedding at twenty-three, maybe then I’ll tell you, when there’s all that happiness to neutralize the sadness, when we have the famous talk in your frilly girl’s bedroom the night before you get married, after I talk about a lot of nice things and my hopes for your future and how to deal with men, in a casual, conversational tone, I’ll say, “Did I ever tell you that you were almost an abortion?”
I have to hope you’ll feel you’re special, someone chosen, that but for the grace of God, as carried out by John Paul II and Princess Diana, the alternative was for you to be a stem cell, loved by nobody but a scientist in a white coat.
Who knows? Maybe that would have been a better life than the one you’ve had. I know I’m a mess, totally disoriented, unable to locate myself in space and time, with no meaningful occupation. Maybe I should have donated you to someone who was unable to conceive.
Then I could have waited around and watched you grow up, been the old lady in layers of clothing who fed the pigeons in the park where you played and after my death was discovered to have left you my entire fortune. You would never have known who I was, but you would forevermore have remembered me in your prayers and given money to some church for flowers on All Souls Day.
But I chose a different path, and I thought about you all the time. Picked out a name for you even before I knew if you’d ever bear it. They don’t let you name abortions. But I decided on your name right there in St. Peter’s Square before I was even sure.
See, I bet you all the cardinals probably have their Pope name picked out before the old Pope dies, but when they aren’t picked, they never let on. Hug it to themselves. Maybe sign it secretly when they write little love notes to their mothers in heaven. Your son, Pope Walter. Pope Jennifer. Pope Brittany. Pope Uncumber.
I decided that even if I had the abortion, I’d arrange to have you frozen. I’d tell them to be sure to freeze you under your name, not some bunch of numbers like Specimen 2XY 1000. Freeze you under your name, Milagros. “Spanish for miracle,” I’d tell them. I decided that would be a good name for a poor little death row embryo.
A fuzzy photograph of someone is still a photograph. Indeed, for some purposes, a blurred photo may suit us best, just give us a general idea but not all the details that are sort of irrelevant to loving someone, like an old, old lady who treasures the last picture of her dead husband, who died at eighty-two, a faded Polaroid but showing his flyaway dandelion white hair and the way he always stood there stiff for a photo.
That was my sonogram of you when you were just a blob. I carried you over my heart all the way to England and Rome. People might have thought I was looking at a map, but I was looking at you, age eight weeks. I thought, if I die and they lay me out, I’ll have your picture with me, and when they find it, they’ll shiver, go out for a drink with friends after work to be in the warm bright space of a bar that you never have to deserve, be nicer to their children when they go home that night, be patient with their partners when they dance too long with someone else on New Year’s Eve, always carry money so they have some for the homeless.
There’d been all this Pope stuff in the paper, all sorts of interesting information you’d never learn about any other time, like imo pectore, which means in the heart, the words they use when a pope makes a secret cardinal because public notice might bring the person danger, as in a persecuted country.
I hadn’t told anyone about you except your father. You’d been only imo pectore, so far, my daughter imo pectore, which wouldn’t even have been such a bad name if we’d both been Central American. “This is my dear daughter, Imo Pectore,” I would say, but in an English-speaking world, you’d just have been marked as a third-worlder so I never considered it seriously.
I was thinking you could stay in your frozen container while I worked out my problems, got a degree, got married. Then someday I’d make an extra nice dinner, have wine, candles, and when my husband came home from his job as a doctor who made trips all over the world operating on desperate, abandoned poor people, I’d tell him. I’d say, “I’ve got this cold little daughter waiting. Can we bring her in where it’s warm?”
Anyway, I didn’t tell you how I felt at that moment of eating the Snickers bar. I felt as if I were going to faint from tiredness and hunger. Yes, it would have been nice to have some cream-cheese-peanut butter-carrot-and-celery spread on whole grain bread, but that was what I had in the middle of a couple of thousand people.
So I ate that, and it tasted heavenly. Caramel and nougat, chocolate and nuts. Washed it down with a lukewarm bottle of Perrier that I also had in my backpack.
As I was eating and drinking, the Pope’s spirit passed, and a gasp went through the crowd when that warm moist wind blew over us, and everybody knew. “Take, eat,” I heard a voice saying, “And drink this, all of you.”
I couldn’t believe it. That was just exactly what I was doing at that very minute. That was the second sign!
Everybody hung around for a while, like not wanting the party to end, but then when everybody finally started to leave, and the women with brooms were on the edges of the crowd starting to sweep up the trash, I left, and I was walking past La Chasse du Pape Cafe, and there he was, your father, sitting there in a white hat and an ice-cream-white suit looking exactly like Leon Redbone on the cover of his Best Of album, drinking a macchiato and waiting for us, hoping we’d walk that way.
When we’d parted, two weeks before on the terrace of the Anglo-Scandinavian Hotel in Prague, it had been with the understanding I’d take the wad of money he gave me and terminate you, and yet here he was waiting for us because he’d had a feeling we’d walk that way.
I just stood and looked at him a minute, and he smiled kind of apologetically, like Hugh Grant does when he gets caught, and took off his dark glasses. Then he did that Princess Di thing he always does without knowing, bent his head but looked up at me through his eyelashes, like a shy little kid.
Well, ziiiiinnnnnnng, that’s it, I thought, and right then I made up my mind. It didn’t hurt that the air was full of bells slowly and mournfully telling us the old man was gone. They were an okay couple, Princess Di and John Paul, and I felt they’d both been there for me. And for your dad. And you.
That’s why you’re with me now, just another Euro-trash girl of divorced parents, dragged from shabby middle-European capitals half Rococo and half Communist Renaissance to Italian Riviera beaches with just me and Josefina to look after you. But you’re here, and so am I, together.
You’re the result of two saints hovering around over you making sure you lived to tell your tale, which I’m going to write down pretty soon now to make sure you know it in case I overdose or the plane crashes before you get to be twenty-three, and we have that evening together in your frilly girl’s room the night before your wedding.
We’re here together, and someday I’ll tell you why every year on the day the Pope died, we find someplace to sit outside with a lot of people around, eat a couple of imported Snickers bars, and share a bottle of lukewarm Perrier.
As a memorial of that moment, I thought maybe I should name you some feminine version of John Paul like Jeannette Pauline (yecccch), but I loved you too much to do something like that. Diana’s a wonderful name, but I wanted something special. In the end, I thought Milagros, the name I’d given you when you were just a sonogram, would be a good choice.
The bells were ringing for John Paul, but it was also a Princess Diana moment, and you were their first miracle.