Paul Belz Writings
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A personal essay by Paul H. Belz
It’s Samson’s hair; it’s Cinderella’s slipper; it’s Tinkerbell’s pixie dust; it’s Superman’s cape.
Maria dutifully strides the mall for an hour and a half four days a week, cheerfully greeting regular walkers with English broken enough that most are discouraged from joining her. She forgoes diction lessons, glibly rationalizing that she’s too old to master a new language. In reality she fears that somehow the bedrock of her Korean heritage will be cracked if she disrespectfully abandons the speech of her ancestors.
Though she physically radiates dynamism, the Korean immigrant either looks wistfully back at age seventy or sees it looming on the near horizon.
Three days a week she’s front-and-center in the mall’s vigorous hour-long aerobics workout, which concludes with an extra half an hour of yoga. She’s an avid tennis player, advertising that passion with bracelets and necklaces. But it’s what she always carries in her right hand that gets credit for her happiness, her successes, her strength, and an occasional miracle.
It’s Maria’s rosary.
Nestled in that right hand, it has become as indispensable to her as the hand itself. She’s a plucky lady, and the only one she defers to is the Virgin Mary, in whose honor Catholics pray the rosary.
Years ago as a young married woman whose husband was beginning a career as a breast-cancer surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Maria was early in her third pregnancy. Her first two childbirths had been uneventful but she sensed something wrong this time.
Batteries of tests led doctors to the conclusion that everything was normal. When she disagreed with them and persisted in her pursuit of an acceptable diagnosis, her embarrassed young husband got feedback from his new colleagues: “Your wife is a pest.” But instead of dispensing empathy for her husband, Maria fired her Hopkins obstetrician. The child was delivered at another hospital by Caesarean-section, required because of the baby’s positioning.
A zealous Roman Catholic, Maria frequently attends mass at a Baltimore area Korean church which uses her native tongue for its services. This passion for religion isn’t shared by her husband and three children, who are patronizing at best, and hostile at worst concerning what they perceive to be an obsession.
Her children, all skilled professionals in their thirties, are unmarried and worship at the temple of American materialism. As a world-class surgeon her husband provides a comfortable living standard, which allows Maria the freedom to pursue her exercise passions, especially tennis.
As a youth her Caesarean-born only son enjoyed driving stock cars as a hobby until the day his vehicle flipped over on a track, resulting in paralysis from the waist down. He railed at his mother, “Why did your precious God and Virgin Mary allow such a thing to happen to the son of such a loyal servant as you?” It hurt her to the core.
Rosary in hand, she traveled to Lourdes, France and returned with a supply of holy water which she and a priest liberally applied to her son’s body. Once again, her husband’s colleagues were incredulous at her actions. Doctors said it was too soon to be certain how much healing would occur but their consensus judgment was that Maria’s son wouldn’t walk again.
She never wavered in her faith in miracles through the Blessed Virgin’s intercession and continued rubbing the holy water on her son’s paralyzed body. As dramatic improvement commenced, the boy pleaded with his mother to re-stock her holy water. When his recovery left him with no vestiges of paralysis, her still-doubting husband opined that such unexplained reversals do happen in medicine and that the human body is a complex organism which is far from being fully understood by medical science.
Her son remains thankful for the holy water but is unwilling to embrace his mother’s faith. He has discontinued his dismissive, condescending attitude toward her zealousness, however, and actually comes to her defense when others treat her as he once did.
Maria reciprocates the medical community’s skepticism about her religious faith with her own dubiousness about their science. A close mallwalking friend lost a two-year struggle with cancer that was exacerbated along the way by three catastrophic medical accidents during routine procedures. Each mistake nearly killed him. That friend was also a surgeon who sometimes lunched with the hospital CEO.
One summer night, Maria’s husband rushed her to this hospital, which was the nearest to their home. In great pain she disrobed to prepare for a hospital gown as a doctor instructed her to place the rosary in her purse: “Our medical staff will provide any miracles you might need Maria.” Naked, she tenaciously clutched the sacred artifact, delivered a barbed retort invoking her deceased friend’s name, then related his story to the doctor and cynically concluded, “The miracle I’m praying for is that your staff doesn’t also kill me.”
After a nurse attempted to draw blood and was unsuccessful with Maria’s left arm, she reached for the right arm and the rosary almost became an accessory to a violent act. A week-long tennis tournament Maria was participating in was underway and she determined that her serving arm was going to escape that hospital unscathed. The nurse eventually drew blood, but not from that rosary-clutching, tennis-serving right arm.
As a young woman she regularly enjoyed tennis with her husband but as they aged and their competitiveness made the exercise disagreeable, he switched to playing golf with friends and she turned to tennis doubles, annually winning a large trophy which she never fails to proudly exhibit at the mall aerobics class. One senses in her the common struggle of full-time mothers to reinvent themselves and meaningfully fill the huge void created when child-rearing ends—a task compounded when the spouse is a surgeon whose daily trophies are cancer survivors. His self-esteem doesn’t require putting them on exhibit.
During the World Trade Center’s attack by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001, Maria had an adult child in all three devastated locations: Manhattan, Washington D.C., and southwestern Pennsylvania. Within hours a worried Maria was reassured of their safety through the miracle of cellular telephone communication.
Science and business, she confesses, do provide their own brand of miracles but when it comes to times of profound personal need, the only well-spring of miracles in Maria’s mind nestles warmly in her right hand—through church services, exercise, shopping, the symphony, and restaurant outings—its ebony beads and platinum crucifix well-polished by never-ending, skillful, and loving handling.
It’s Maria’s rosary.
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