Friday, December 24, 2010

A Breakthrough in the Backdrop of Baltimore

Part 5 of this story series ....

Baltimore Inner Harbor's perpetual carnival-like atmosphere draws both kids and grownups by throngs. During the day, the place hums with street jugglers and musicians that wow the crowds. Tourists promenade a plaza while bathed in the Chesapeake Bay's breeze. A Naval ship is always docked alongside a length of shops and restaurants. It eclipses small "water taxis" that ferry families to the Fort McHenry National Monument (where Francis Scott Key composed "The Star Spangled Banner").

Seals playing in a pool outside the National Aquarium of Baltimore bark their greetings to kiddos. And if you'd rather eat your seafood than see it, restaurants galore offer the best of Maryland cuisine.

Combine all of this with Camden Yards, home to the Baltimore Orioles, and the bar-hopping night life in the nearby historically-quaint Fell's Point, and you have a recipe for weekend bliss.

All of this was just about an hour's drive from my little apartment near the Pennsylvania/Maryland border. I loved going to Baltimore as much as I possibly could manage it.
So when Joy suggested I meet her and her sweet little girl one Saturday at the Harbor, I enthusiastically said yes.

It had been about six months since Joy shared she was sick with breast cancer. I wasn't quite prepared for the physical change she'd undergone. Gaunt and frail, she still managed to keep her energetic child under control with her Steel Magnolia voice. She was obviously struggling physically to get through the aquarium exhibits, so when she suggested that we meander to the busy shops and restaurants, I was surprised.

"Are you sure you don't want to go home?" I asked.

"No!" she protested. "We came to meet you for the day! This is fun!"

We strolled by the street performers that were entertaining crowds under colorful, wind-whipped flags. Joy, never one to shirk an opportunity to tease, elbowed me as Navy seamen passed us and exchanged flirtatious glances. We indulged in Maryland crabcakes (ahhh, the days before my allergy to shellfish) and saltwater taffy.

Then Joy suggested that we hit a kids' science store, which contained shelves of "experiments," inflatable solar systems to hang from ceilings, butterfly nets, books about the human body and all manner of create-your-own-volcano kits.

"We love this store," Joy sighed, as if she was in her own personal heaven.

"I can see why," I agreed, not yet a mother but appreciating its kid-appeal. "I can probably find Christmas presents in here for my nephew."

As her child perused collections of plastic dinosaurs and plushy dolphins, Joy walked over to a large bin containing multi-colored crystals and rocks. I watched as she gingerly fingered each one, stroking edges as if the rocks were jewels.

"What are these?"

"These," she said dramatically, "have healing powers."

I laughed.

She shot me a dirty look.

"No, really. Why are you interested in these?"

"They really do have the power to heal!" she protested. "Native American tribes believe they have energies and can provide therapy."

"Joy," I sighed. "Joy, Joy, Joy. You're an atheist. Are you listening to yourself?" I said, but then stopped laughing when I saw the hurt look on her face. "Listen," I said, quickly realizing that I'd treaded too far. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize you took this so seriously."

She was holding a smooth, flat, grey stone with a $20 price tag. "Would you like me to buy one for you, too?" she asked.

I caught my breath. I was flabbergasted at both her strong desire to believe anything -- anything, except for God -- and at her earnestness in wanting to share her newfound discovery of "crystal healing" with me. But I shook my head.

"Joy, you're so sweet. That's so kind of you to offer. But, no. If you need these to feel better, get one for yourself, but I'm okay. You know I don't believe in anything like that. I believe in God's power."

She nodded and asked me to watch her child while she went to the cash register, buying the rock and a stuffed dolphin that the little girl had selected.

As I drove home from the outing, I was extremely troubled, but at the same time, hopeful.

If Joy was willing to embrace the idea of the healing power of a rock, did that mean she was not far off from considering God's existence?

Would she die without knowing Him, continuing to search for life's meaning through things like crystals? Or was she on the cusp of finally accepting something so much greater?

I didn't know ... but I resolved to pray.

And I did.

Tune in for part 6 of the tale ...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Persisting Joy, Resisting Joy

Part 4 in this story series ...

I don't know about you, but I always know that someone is the truest of friends when they love me and care for me in spite of myself.

Joy was one of those friends.

Three months after my father died, I landed a job at a much larger newspaper in Pennsylvania, hugged Joy goodbye and set off for "better things" in my career. However, I was a sick kitten emotionally, sinking into the blackness of grief.

At my new job and new location, I knew no one. I could have forged new friends, and as an extrovert, that's pretty easy for me. But I chose to isolate myself. I'd wake at 6 a.m., go to work, return home by 4:30, eat dinner at 5 ... and fall asleep at 6 p.m. I'd sleep for 12 hours and repeat the cycle the next day. On weekends, I slept. And slept. And slept. I turned down offers from colleagues for weekend outings and parties ... and slept.

My slumber of sadness lasted nine months. During that time, Joy persistently called me. Sometimes I returned the message. Usually I screened my calls and listened to her plaintiff sweet voice on the machine ... and then just went back to sleep.

Joy never stopped caring about me, even when I resisted her. And when I "woke" from my depression, she was still my faithful friend. She didn't have any expectations of me or any self-involved motives. She was just kind. She was just being Joy.

I realized how much she valued our friendship, when one weekend she took a three-hour drive with her 6-year-old daughter so that they could visit me. They showed up with sleeping bags and camped out on my tiny living room floor.

Joy was not going to let go of her friendship with me, even though I'd given her every indication that I was not worth it. During her visit, she regaled me with hilarious stories of the antics of my former newsroom colleagues and of the people in the community. We talked long into the night hours about Bonnie and Clyde and speculated about their post-prison futures. We ate Chinese, toured the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, watched Chick Flicks and inhaled one bowl of popcorn after another.

That "slumber party" weekend woke me into realizing that even if a person doesn't know God, they can still be the kindest and most noblest of people.

I honestly can't remember if God came up as a topic of discussion that weekend. All I can tell you is that Joy was the sincerest of people, someone who cared despite our differences of belief.

Joy was my true friend.

And so when she called a few months later to tell me that she had breast cancer, I realized it was my turn to be the friend to her that she'd been to me.

Tune in for part 5 of the story ...

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Comfort and Joy"

Part 3 of this story series ...

No surprise -- the judge found "Bonnie" guilty after a week-long trial. Yes, Bonnie had opted for a judge trial over a jury trial, which amazed me. But after Joy explained Bonnie's logic that a jury of her peers would never believe her story, it made sense. That said, even Bonnie's good looks and scripted prairie-girl innocence didn't faze that Maxwell-House-drinking judge in the slightest. When he brought that gavel down, the girl was gone for years behind a wall of prison steel.

As for Joy, the trial had awakened a need for more permanency in her employment status. She was a correspondent, which is a fancy word for "freelancer" for her newspaper. My newspaper editors knew they'd glean a jewel if they could swipe her, so they offered her a full-time job with benefits as a senior reporter.

She took it.

Suddenly, I found that my competitor was in my own newsroom as a colleague. And I couldn't have been more excited.

While other women reporters looked askance at Joy's leggy size 4 body and whispered among themselves that she was probably sleeping with sources to get her scoops, I was enthralled. Joy was the epitome of the news reporter I aspired to be. Panache doesn't quite cover it, actually.

Joy could smooth-talk and coddle the toughest of sources, when other reporters would just get a grunt if they were lucky.

She'd sashay into a meeting of the county commissioners like Princess Grace on a cloud, mesmerizing men and drawing dagger looks from women. She'd whisper-talk in her femininely evocative way, oozing Southern honey to camouflage loaded, vinegar-laced questions.

And she always received the answers. To anything.

Joy made it her mission to mentor me, giving me insights not only on the local personalities, but also on human behavior in general. She taught me how to mine gems of quotes and transform the saltiest character into a sugar plum.

We never discussed God in those early months of our friendship. Every chat revolved around our profession, and Joy gave me the keys to reporting a story with style. An old Irish saying goes that, "An Irishman can tell you to go to hell and make you look forward to the trip." Pretty much, that summed up Joy, and she imparted her secrets to me on how to pull that off.

But the depth of my friendship with Joy continued to expand, after my father told me that he had less than a year to live.

At age 25, the concept of life without my father was unimagined.

Joy was there for me at every turn of my father's illness. She kept my spirits up on days when I didn't think I'd ever smile again. She'd gently encourage me and offer her shoulder for me when I didn't think I'd ever be able to put two words together on deadline. She showed me how to keep my focus on the job and compartmentalize the grief so that I could perform at top speed.

It was during this time of comfort from Joy that the whole "God subject" came up.

"What do you see happening to your dad after he passes away?" Joy suddenly asked me one day over a steaming coffee cup at a local haunt.

The question caught me off guard at first, but when I looked up from my plate of spaghetti into her gaze, I immediately knew what she was trying to ask.

"He'll be in Heaven. With God," I answered simply.

"And you really believe that, don't you?" she pressed.

"Yes. I really believe that."

Joy sighed, cast her eyes down at the coffee and tapped her index finger against the side of the cup. It was the first time I'd ever seen her drop the cool facade.

She looked back up at me.

"If that brings you comfort, you should keep believing it."

"You don't believe that?"

"No. I think this life is the end of life. There's nothing more after this. I don't think God exists. But I'm glad that you do. I'm glad you find comfort in believing that at a time like this."

I wasn't sure how to respond. She sincerely meant it, and I knew her words weren't supposed to be insulting. But I also saw that in her own way, Joy was pitying me.

And yet, she didn't know that even though I was facing my own personal tragedy, I was the one pitying her.

Tune in for part 4 of the story of how my atheist friend became a Christian ...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bungles of Bonnie and Clyde Cement a Friendship

Part 2 of this story series ...

The trial had all the drama and hilarity of the Keystone Cops meeting Bonnie and Clyde. I had to hand it to these two bank robbers. Their modus operandi was fascinating and brilliant, and they managed to avoid capture for several months as a result.

"Clyde" was a small, slight man, all of 5 feet, 5 inches and with a whisper-thin build. His angular face of delicate features and jet black hair gave the impression that the Stork got confused and had mistakenly put a woman's face on a man's body.

And Clyde knew that, too.

So his bank robbing scheme was simple. He dressed in a long black coat, topped his head with a wide-brimmed woman's hat -- and strapped pillows around his abdomen. He made up his face, wore women's gloves and carried a large tote bag. Then he robbed the bank -- as a pregnant woman.

In fact, when the Keystone crew first put out news reports, they said bank tellers described the robber just as that -- a small pregnant woman who was probably in her 7th month.

"Bonnie" was the getaway driver. And this was the funny thing (or, not so funny, depending on how you look at it). She really was pregnant. She sat behind the wheel waiting for Clyde, and as soon as he exited with the tote filled with cash, she took off with a tire squeal. That started everyone looking for two pregnant women with a Thelma-and-Louise streak.

When they were finally caught, no one was more surprised than the detectives that the robber who was politely taking money at the point of a gun -- was really a man. And, of course he was the father of Bonnie's child.

The trial that Joy and I were covering was for Bonnie. Clyde was a witness for the prosecution. See, he'd sold his girl out for lighter sentence. But she, loyal to the grave and even after having given birth in prison, vowed that she would never turn on him.

Ironically, it was this pair that united Joy and I in a unique friendship.

Each morning before the trial started, as I sat on a hard, pew-like courtroom bench, Joy would sidle in next to me with her conspiratorial smile and give me a gentle arm squeeze. "I heard some good gossip about Bonnie," she'd whisper, and then would regale me with the latest jail house activities of the femme fatale.

I was amazed that even though Joy knew I lived for beating her at the story, she still would share nuggets of color that she'd gleaned from bailiffs, detectives and court officials. She showed me how to work the ropes of the courthouse and gave me tips, the more experienced reporter to the cub reporter. She introduced me to people who had worked the case -- and even introduced me to Clyde himself.

Bonnie would show up for court usually in a prairie skirt or frilly white blouse, looking very much the ingénue. I'd marvel at her seeming innocence to the detective who would plant himself in the seat behind me and Joy.

"Don't feel sorry for her," he'd snarl in a Northeastern Maryland drawl. "She's not as sweet as she'd like you to think." He rolled his eyes at Joy, and she covered her mouth like a Southern Belle and quietly chuckled.

"But look at her," I said to both of them. "She just had a baby. There's no way that she wasn't manipulated by her boyfriend."

"Listen," the detective answered, leaning forward so that his head sat on the back of the bench between our two heads. "She's not going to fool the judge like she has you, I can tell you that much. The night we arrested her, she fought like a tomcat, kicking, scratching, biting."

I sucked in my breath, and Joy smiled at me and nodded her head.

"Not only that," the detective continued, "if you heard the words that came out of her mouth, you'd wonder if she'd risen straight from hell's belly. It's a good thing her child is in foster care, that's all I can tell you."

All three of us glanced in Bonnie's direction. As if sensing our collective gaze, she looked over her shoulder at the three of us, then made a face at the detective, whipped her head forward and defiantly crossed her arms.

"See?" he said with a laugh. "No remorse. To her, we're the bad guys for calling off her little bank robbing party."

"Um-hmm," said Joy in agreement as the bailiff announced the judge's entry.

We rose as the door to his chambers swung open and the aroma of the brewed Maxwell House filled the courtroom.

"I want coffee," I whispered to Joy.

"I know, it's not fair that he can brew that and make all of us smell it while we wait for him," she mumbled back.

"Wanna get some coffee after this?" I asked, catching myself by surprise that I'd even suggest lunch with my biggest competitor.

"I'd love it," she said. "I'll buy the coffee. And I'll take you to a place that has great Maryland She-crab soup."

"Deal," I said.

We sat simultaneously as the judge settled behind the bench and called the first witness, both of us flipping open our reporter notebooks and pulling the pencils that were tucked behind our ears.

And in that moment, I knew that Joy was going to be one of those friends I'd have for life.

I was too young to consider that within six years, she would be gone forever.

Tune in for part 3 of the story of how my atheist friend became a Christian ...