Today is my oldest daughter’s birthday. Her coming into my life was nothing short of a miracle. Here’s the story. It happened in 1973 when I was married to my first husband Donny.
Donny was shot six days after we were married. It was an accident; the gun wasn’t supposed to be loaded. We never really found out how it happened. There were too many people with too much to drink and too many guns and the sheriff never told us the results of the ballistics test. We were with a group of friends at a hunting cabin in the piney woods of East Texas for the weekend. We came to hunt armadillos and squirrels. We had returned from the woods with just enough squirrels for dinner. Donny and some others were outside cleaning guns.
When Stewart came running to the cabin to tell me Donny was shot, I thought he was teasing and I laughed.
I went outside to see what was going on and they all stood there around the picnic table that was covered with beer cans, bullets and .22s.
No one was laughing.
When I saw Donny standing there with a shocked look on his face and one hand covering the hole near his stomach where the bullet entered his body,
I stopped laughing too.
It was in the car on the way to the hospital that Donny began slipping. First his body slipped off the back seat until his knees rested on the floorboard. Then little by little, he continued to slip until all that remained on the back seat was his head and one hand. The other hand still covered with the bullet hole. There was no blood; the hole was no bigger than a pencil eraser. I thought why couldn’t we just put a band aid on that go home? How bad could it be? But then he began slipping to someplace where he could no longer hear me. He kept trying but he couldn’t focus his eyes on me anymore. I started yelling at him to come back, but he couldn’t hear me and when he tried to speak, his words were so faint, I couldn’t hear them. He would tell me later how he could feel himself slipping away and how he tried so hard not to. He told me how important it was for him to be here when our baby was born. All he could think of was how much he wanted this baby.
When the doctor met us at the hospital, he said it was a miracle Donny was still alive. Smaller bullets usually do more damage than larger ones, he explained. This one ricocheted around in his body back and forth and up and down and back and forth leaving a trail of holes until it came to stop in his leg, just after severing the artery there. He kept saying it must be a miracle because in his experience, gunshot wounds like this usually killed within twenty minutes. Surgery took hours but it was successful. Another miracle, the doctor said.
Donny’s mother joined us at the hospital. She came charging in with a determined air and began the work of pleading the blood, chasing demons and calling for miracles. This was my first real encounter with her. For the past two and a half years that Donny and I had been together, she refused to speak to me or come into our home. She blamed me because he never called home, blamed me because he didn’t live the way she wanted, but mostly she blamed me because he wasn’t interested in being the preacher she raised him to be. Somehow, I felt sure she blamed me for his having been shot.
Every time the doctor brought good news, she cried miracle,
when the blood tests were good she cried miracle,
when the morphine took away the pain, she cried miracle.
I didn’t know what to make of her carrying on like that, but the idea of miracles intrigued me.
I’d never thought much about them before I wasn’t sure what they were,
but if we had been afforded a miracle, wouldn’t it have been better spent before the bullet entered his body?
His healing continued at home. Home was a small town on the north shore of Lake Travis, just outside of Austin. Days spent easily enough – fishing, swimming or just sun-bathing while Donny’s body healed and mine grew a baby. Evenings were usually spent at Gilley’s Tap, the neighborhood bar. It was a small, dark place and although it had a juke box and a pool table, people seldom danced or played pool. Most of the people who lived in this town of three hundred were veterans of various wars and their families living on small, fixed incomes. Many were inclined to spend their incomes and their evenings at Gilleys.
On weekends, we drove to Austin to a large beer garden called the Armadillo World Headquarters. The Armadillo regularly hosted local talent, names like Willie and Waylon and Asleep at the Wheel. Occasionally, bigger names played. We went one night to hear Merle Haggard. After the first few songs, he was so drunk he couldn’t remember the words anymore. He would stumble over the words and then stumble off the front of the stage. Someone picked him up, propped him up, and put the guitar back in his hands and he would try again. He never made it past a few bars before he started stumbling all over again.
As we made our way to the car, I saw someone standing in the dark just beyond the lights of the dance floor. Actually, she was leaning against the wall, sliding closer and closer to the ground. She would catch herself and pull herself up again, but she couldn’t stay up long. I asked to see the baby she held. She turned slowly towards me and even more slowly focused her eyes on me. Then with slurred speech, she began to tell me about her daughter, Sugar Magnolia. She told me there were a few complications with her birth and how they kept Sugar Magnolia in the hospital for a long time unable to send her home until she weighed five pounds. But they released her two weeks ago and just look at her now!
Isn’t she a miracle? Didn’t she look just great?
Even in the darkness it was easy to Sugar Magnolia didn’t look just great.
I asked her how she got her to sleep through all the noise, although at that moment Merle Haggard lay on the floor and it was quiet. She told me she was used to it; they were here every night. I wished her well and wondered if she had someone to pick her up, prop her up and put Sugar Magnolia back in her arms should the walls no longer support her. And I wondered would this baby seem as ill-placed in my life as Sugar Magnolia seemed in hers?
I never once considered the options the doctor offered. He asked if I was married and I said no, then he asked about the tracks on my arm and I said I’d quit. Then he suggested I consider options. He would make all the arrangements. He never mentioned complications and I didn’t ask. The months before that visit had been such a blur; so many nights I couldn’t remember.
I vaguely remembered the day my brother-in-law tried to persuade me to stop with the drugs and the drinking saying it was important that I quit.
What he couldn’t convince me of was – why?
I was just having fun and if I couldn’t remember most nights, did that really matter?
I wasn’t hurting anyone, was I?
I couldn’t come up with a reason to quit and he couldn’t give me one.
I felt he was right though and I almost wished he could give me a reason.
I clearly remember another night Donny came into the kitchen where Mike and I were. Mike had everything ready for me; all I had to do was give him my arm. Donny threatened me that night, saying if I did that one more time, he would leave me. He said I had promised I would quit but I couldn’t remember making a promise like that. It scared me when he said he would leave because I believed he would. Until then, I thought he was the most important thing in my life but now I knew, even he wasn’t reason enough for me to quit. Listening to the doctor though I knew I would quit; I finally had a reason. And so I didn’t consider options, but I didn’t consider complications either.
Quitting was easy enough once I had a reason but now I bored easily with evenings at Gilley’s. Talk was always the same – war stories I now knew by heart and the wives complaining about their husbands and swapping cute baby stories. No one ever danced and no one ever played pool. I was so restless and I spent more and more time alone thinking about Sugar Magnolia and this baby and miracles.
No one I asked seemed to know much about miracles.
I asked the veterans if they ever saw miracles. They looked at me strangely and then looked at each other.
Then they shook their heads no and returned to their familiar.
I asked my friends what they thought about miracles.
Linda told me I had too much time on my hands but once this baby was born, I’d be too busy to think about miracles.
Sue laughed and said it would be a miracle if she ever had more than twenty dollars a week for groceries.
Bobby said miracles don’t happen, at least not anymore.
I decided to see Barbara. Barbara was my age, 18 and lived with her husband Grant and their three kids in a small apartment in Houston. She was the most interesting person I knew. She always talked of possibilities and what ifs and read to me from Edgar Cayce and Santayana. Barbara would know about miracles. I left a note on the kitchen table for Donny and drove the 200 miles to see her. Her apartment was cluttered with Grant’s mechanic tools, laundry in various stages of progress and toys. We spent Saturday folding laundry and diapers and questioning miracles while Grant and the kids watched cartoons.
We decided that perhaps not all miracles were the large kind like the parting of the sea or turning water into wine or an empty tomb.
Maybe some miracles were smaller.
Perhaps as Santayana wrote, miracles were so called because they excite wonder.
Maybe some miracles were those unexpected, unplanned, undeserved interruptions to our lives that cause us to pause,
if only for a moment,
and look a little further,
listen a little more intently,
question just a little deeper
perhaps even cause us to change directions.
Maybe some miracles were so small as to be almost imperceptible if we forgot to look.
And maybe we were afforded miracles more often than we were even aware.
Our daughter was born during Monday Night Football. The Bills were playing and the game went into double overtime. Labor went into double overtime also and when she was born I went into shock. I shook so hard I couldn’t hold her. I faintly heard the doctor say, “she’s healthy, perfectly healthy”. Donny brought her over and laid her down low where I could see her. What a beautiful baby she was, what a beautiful woman she is now.
I remembered when Donny was slipping away and needed something to hang on to.
She was there.
And when I was slipping away and needed a reason not to, she came along and became my reason.
And I knew, that if there are such things as miracles,
one might look something like this.