This story starts on Christmas Eve.
After our ascent of the volcano, Papa Boie brought us to Kawa-Kawa, an extinct crater whose jungle canopied approach and now grass covered perimeter is lined with life-sized Stations of the Cross. Our six year old son of all of six days, Marvin was the quintessential boy, sliding over moss-covered stones, barely holding my hand as he clamored to tightrope walk precipitously over thin and craggy rock walls, running wherever signs warned to walk; however, each time we came to the next tableau—to which he led the way—he settled himself down, no one having to tell him to be reverent let alone respectful.
All of his own accord, at each Station of the Cross Marvin turned contemplative.
This marked contrast in our newly adopted child’s demeanor was made even more distinct by the fact that the far calmer and less independent children along this crowded trail did not seem similarly affected; for them each station was merely a place to mill about, playing tag or taking a drink while their parents rested, winded from the ascent. Marvin alone seemed captivated, captured by the story unfolding before him; we would catch up to him at each station to find him staring at Jesus, stroking the fallen figure’s cloak, trying to lift the cross from his shoulders, even striking the soldiers as if his tiny hands could defend The Christ from their blows, his fervent striking as futile there in the Philippines as if those statues had been real, and we really in first century Jerusalem.
Who is this child?
Where did he learn this?
From whence do these seemingly innate sentiments come?
Back at the bottom of the hill we went to the gift shop, a hut that seemed to grow organically out of the earth that surrounded it, filled mostly with perishables to refresh from the journey and a lot of unrelated junk for the kids—knock-offs of SpongeBob and Dora, Ben10 and Transformers—along with a few religious chotskies, little of any real quality among them. Marvin accepted a drink, he tried on a variety of flip-flops, eager to abandon the ones that were among the few items of clothing he had brought with him from the orphanage—essentially what he was wearing the day we met—however, what really caught his attention were not the knockoffs of SpongeBob and Dora, Ben10 and Transformers, but the little statues of the saints. Marvin dug through the bins as if seeking something specific, and then he emerged, unwavering in his conviction that he had found the one he wanted: St. Joseph, or, as he was then inclined to say, San José, or even more frequently: Papa Jesus.
Back at the car he showed his discovery to Papa Boie.
“Tomorrow,” Papa Boie told him, “I will come to the hotel to take you and your Mommy and Daddy to Christmas Mass, and you bring San José to have him blessed after the Missa.”
“It’s not part of my services,” Papa Boie said, explaining that we would not need to pay him—that he did not want to be paid—for that time or task. “I just want to do it,” he said, turning back to Marvin. “It’s important you get San José blessed and that you bring him to America: he will help you, he will remind you to be a good boy, that Papa Jesus will always be watching, will always be looking out for you and protect you.”
Marvin took the commendation to heart, carrying the dull plastic figure with him everywhere for the rest of that day, setting him on the night stand to pray before we went to bed, seeking him first at the first sight of dawn.
When Papa Boie brought us to the church Christmas morning it was mobbed, parishioners in the parking lot listening over loudspeakers, the stone interior standing room only. Marvin was enticed by the hawkers who wove their way through the crowds and cars outside, Mylar balloons—again, SpongeBob and Dora, Ben10 and Transformers—swaying from sticks held over their head.
“No, no,” Papa Boie told him. “Your Mommy and Daddy have to pay attention to the Missa, not getting a balloon, and little boys and girls carrying balloons won’t be able to go up to the altar later to touch the baby Jesus and receive His blessing—you wait and see.”
Then Papa Boie, knowing full well that no child could be expected to sit still for a lengthy homily amidst the carnival atmosphere of a Filipino cathedral at Christmas, asked Marvin, “Where’s San José? Where’s Papa Jesus?”
Marvin removed his hand from his shorts’ pocket where it was sweatily clutching the little plastic figure from the day before.
“That’s your Papa Jesus,” Papa Boie said to him, “but there’s a big one that looks just like him here in the Cathedral. Can you find him?” And with that Marvin slipped off on a mission, threading his way through the crowd, vanished in an instant into the interior space that seemed the size of a football field now that my son was out of my line of sight, invisible within.
I went to follow him.
Papa Boie held up his hand.
“You can’t go stumbling your way through spaces he can easily slip through,” Papa Boie said, referring to the commotion I would cause. “San José is all the way at the front,” he pointed to a pedestal elevated above the crowd. “Marvin is a good boy, a smart boy, I can tell. He is safe here, and he is already faithful to you. He will go, he will find San José, and he will come back—he will come straight back, you’ll see—you just focus on the Missa.”
I tried, but Papa Boie must have known that inside I was frantic, scenarios of a lost or kidnapped child running through my mind, Papa Boie himself even a suspect, barely more than a stranger, an acquaintance of only a few days, all his assistance and helpful advice forgotten as—my head turned calmly toward the altar so as not to belie my fear, my thoughts of being betrayed—my eyes feverishly scanned the crowd.
After about a minute I saw Marvin emerge from that sea far in the distance, like a tiny ship amidst the ocean waves as he climbed up on the pedestal Papa Boie had indicated to touch the feet of St. Joseph, silently pray, his hands folded before his face before he slipped back beneath those human waters. Papa Boie did not even ask if I’d seen it, but stated beside me, “Now count: in just the same amount of time you’ll find him back here, coming out from amidst the people, right there,” and he pointed at a spot in the crowd as if it were a door that Marvin would come through like Moses parting the Red Sea—and he did, like clockwork, right on cue, excited, his little San José in hand, his mouth full of praise for this place, proud of his having found Papa Jesus on his own and returned, proud that his little figurine was writ large there where throngs had come to see. ”What’s he doing there?” Marvin asked, the phrase run together as if it were a single word, but still his meaning was clear: he was in awe.
Marvin was filled with wonder.
After the Mass, Papa Boie shepherded all of us forward—my wife Prima, Marvin and me—through competing flows of traffic among the aisles, faces coming from every direction until we entered into the stream surrounding the altar boy who held aloft the blessed statue of the baby Jesus from the manger. Children crowded around the altar boy, barely older than they were—all the children who had not been tempted away to the parking lot by the promise of Mylar balloons and carnival candy—eager to touch and kiss and in turn be blessed by the blessed babe.
Again the quintessential boy, Marvin pushed his way to the front as if this were the line for a roller coaster, but once there he turned gentle, reverently touching and praying to the lowly infant.
Then he took San José, Papa Jesus, and carefully touched the dull plastic figurine to the life sized replica of his adopted son.
After, Marvin asked to go to the crèche, the manger scene behind us at the side of the altar, from which the baby doll had been taken. There I kneeled down beside Marvin, Prima taking our picture as our son of a single week held San José up to the camera, as if he too were a member of our new family.
Smiling, Prima looked at the snapshot as it appeared on the screen of her camera phone, then shook her head as she motioned for us to resume our pose.
Faithfully, I kneeled again and Marvin once more held San José before us like a beacon.
Again Prima snapped the picture then looked at her screen; confused, she scanned the people around her, and then looked up at the rafters and the windows around us, which greyly refracted the now overcast day. She looked at the control on her phone’s camera, seemed to push a few settings, and then motioned for us to resume our position at the front of the manger scene for another still.
Three times she took our picture. Eagerly, even now somewhat impatiently, Marvin came over to see.
“I don’t know what it is,” Prima told us. “I didn’t use the flash, no one else is using a flash, there are no bright lights or streams of sunlight,” she seemed to be trying to explain, but what required explanation we did not know. “I don’t even see it while I’m taking the picture, but afterward every one turns out like this.”
There where Marvin’s hand should be, holding aloft San José—Papa Jesus, Marvin’s chosen saint dully painted in green and brown and beige—there was nothing but bright, almost blinding light shining in all directions, although in the picture our eyes were not closed against it: it was as if San José were truly illuminating our way forward, Marvin actually holding aloft not a piece of plastic but the beacon his pose and serious demeanor suggested, our son of seven days alone among us not surprised by the light in the picture, as if he alone had known San José had been shining forth like that all along.
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