One cold December morning some years back, my husband, Mark, and I were driving to the airport, headed to the West Coast to speak at a medical convention. As we voiced our anticipation of warm weather and the excitement of the big city, Mark dashed into a convenience mart to purchase some last-minute items. He returned with a small brown package in his hand and a shivering elderly lady at his side.
What a contrast they were – Mark in a gray wool pinstriped suit and the stranger clothed in a green polyester coat with two missing buttons and a stain on the front. Her half-frozen toes peeked out from timeworn sandals.
As the determined lady struggled into the back seat of the car, she flashed a tender smile my way. “My name’s Kathleen,” she announced boldly. “I understand you folks are headed down Kentucky way.”
Her husband, it turned out, was a patient at a nearby nursing home, and was not expected to survive through the Christmas holidays. The two had married late in life, never had any children, and when their small monthly allotment dwindled, Kathleen often hitched a ride to the nursing home. Like so many Appalachian women of her generation, Kathleen was fiercely independent – a survivor. She usually stayed at the nursing home all day, for even though her husband was in a hopeless coma, the facility was warm, the food was great, and there was a piano in the day room where she could while away the hours and her cares at the keyboard.
As we approached the small, brick convalescent center, I remembered the calling cards in my briefcase. I handed my ivory linen card to Kathleen. “Don’t hesitate to call us if we can ever give you a lift to the nursing home,” I said. Kathleen smiled, thanked us for the ride, then confronted the unyielding wind, her thin coat blowing wildly.
When we returned home after our trip, baking, buying gifts and an endless array of holiday errands consumed our days. Kathleen called a couple of times to chat, but it wasn’t until Christmas that our paths actually crossed again.
“Did you take Kathleen anything for Christmas?” Mark asked late Christmas night. How could I have forgotten?
We scurried about the house gathering some remnants of Christmas for Kathleen. As we approached her tiny frame residence, the porch light was still burning. We rang the doorbell and waited. Soon, Kathleen opened the door and invited us in, saying she just knew we were coming for Christmas.
As we stepped inside the living room, our eyes rook in Kathleen’s short-sleeved cotton dress, the tattered sofa and chair, and rugs taped around each window to protect her from the harsh weather. A bare bulb dangled from a ceiling wire, scarcely lighting the room.
“This is ‘Honey. She’s an alley cat plus a better breed,’” Kathleen announced, stroking the animal’s soft yellow fur. “And Honey and I have a special present for you.” Kathleen picked up a xylophone and methodically plunked out “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” on its rusted, paint-chipped keys. “I found this for a quarter last summer at a rummage sale,” she said proudly, “and I’ve been saving it for just the right occasion.
“Do you have a piano?” Kathleen quizzed. I nodded, feeling uncomfortable about the grand piano in our living room at home and the nice clothes in our closet. Christmas was nearly over, and in my business, I hadn’t even played a Christmas carol. In our pursuit of the things money could buy, it seemed we had overlooked many of the things it couldn’t buy.
“Could you . . . would you go home and play ‘Silent Night?’ You could hold the telephone next to your piano, and I could celebrate Christmas one more time,” Kathleen pleaded. Then she shared with us her dream of finding a piano, preferably an old upright model like she’d played as a child. She had little money, but she had faith that God would send one her way.
After the holidays, I combed the classifieds in hopes of buying a used piano for Kathleen. It became apparent, though, that all the bargains had been snatched up by the area piano dealers. I tried to compensate with other small gifts – a pretty blouse, an African violet, a tin of talcum powder.
On Valentine’s Day, Kathleen hardly noticed the chocolates I brought her. “My piano will be here soon,” she insisted. And, throughout the winter, Kathleen’s faith intensified. Her strong faith in the midst of poverty was an unsettling paradox; it amazed me, yet amused me.
But later that spring, something wonderful happened, and Mark and I dropped by to tell Kathleen about it. Some family members had sold their home and were moving. The new owner’s sole request was that the heavy upright piano in the basement be removed from the premises. Soon.
“Can you think of anyone who could use that old relic?” they had asked. “It’s theirs if they move it.” Could we ever!
Kathleen ran to meet us when she spotted our car. “My piano . . . It’s coming . . . I had a dream last night. It’s coming from a little town I’ve never heard of near Point Pleasant, West Virginia,” she squealed.
“God’s not too far off,” Mark mumbled, maintaining a reserved amazement for God’s handiwork. The piano was indeed located in a tiny, postage-stamp-sized town only thirty miles from Point Pleasant.
Mark and I could hardly contain our joy. Kathleen was baffled – not that a piano was coming, but that we were surprised. For she had been joyfully expectant since Christmas night when she put her faith into action. “I’ve been playing my piano already in my mind,” she explained. “Without faith, we can’t please God, you know.”
And ever since the massive, oak upright was rolled into Kathleen’s living room, music hasn’t stopped flowing. Artistic expression hasn’t been limited by her advancing age or glaucoma. Kathleen’s husband has since passed away. But music – be it the classics, roaring-twenties tunes or gospel songs recalled from childhood tent meetings – connects Kathleen with the world. She accompanied the congregation at her neighborhood church and joined a senior citizen’s band. Kathleen doesn’t read music, but she beautifully reproduces what she hears.
Before I met Kathleen, I understood faith in my mind; now I understand it in my heart. For as with all acts of faith, Kathleen’s miracle happened not when she received, but the moment she first believed.
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