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Woman of God
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Twenty Years From Now
THE STORY had begun deep inside the Vatican, had leaked out into the city of Rome, and within days had whipped around the globe with the momentum of a biblical prophecy. If true, it would transform not only the Roman Catholic Church but all of Christianity, and possibly history.
Today was Easter Sunday. The sun was bright, almost blinding, as it glanced off the ancient and sacred buildings of Vatican City.
A tall, dark-haired man stood between towering statues on the colonnade, the overlook above St. Peter's Square. He wore Ray-Bans under the bill of his cap, a casual blue jacket, a denim shirt, workaday jeans, and combat boots. The press corps milled and chatted behind him, but writer Zachary Graham was transfixed by the hundreds of thousands of people packed together in the square below like one enormous single-cell organism.
The sight both moved him and made him sick with worry. Terrifying, unprecedented events were happening around the world: famines and floods and violent weather patterns, compounded by wars and other untethered forms of human destruction.
The New York Times had flown Graham to Rome to cover Easter in the Vatican and what might be the last days in the life of an aging Pope Gregory XVII. The pope was a kind and pious man, beloved everywhere, but since Graham's arrival in Rome four days ago, he had seen the sadness over the pope's imminent passing and, not long after, his death eclipsed by a provocative rumor, which if true would be not just the turning point in one of the world's great religions and the explosion of a media bomb, but, to Zachary Graham, a deeply personal event.
Graham had been born in Minnesota forty-five years before. He was the eldest son of a middle school teacher and a Baptist minister. He was no fan of organized religion, but he was fair minded. He was a brilliant writer, highly respected by his peers, and clearly the right person for this job—which was why the Times, still the preeminent news machine of the twenty-first century, had sent him.
Now, as he stood in the shadows of Bernini's massive statuary, watching the crowd show signs of panic, Graham knew it was time to go to ground.
He walked twenty yards along the overlook, stopping at the small, cagelike lift. Other reporters followed him, cramming themselves into the rickety elevator. The doors screeched shut. Graham pressed the Down button, and the car jiggled and lurched toward the plaza below.
From there, Graham walked north through the colonnade, the harsh light throwing contrasting blocks of sharp shadow onto the worn stones. Moving quickly, he exited through the shifting crowd in St. Peter's Square and headed toward an alley off Via della Conciliazione, where the mobile production trucks were behind barricades, tightly parked in a bumper-to-bumper scrum.
Graham flashed his credentials to get through security, then opened one of the rear doors of a white panel van.
He peered over a sound man's shoulder at the large monitor and read so many expressions on the faces in the crowd: fear, desperation, and fervent hope that the new pope would bring much-needed change.
From the election of the very first "vicar of Christ," to the current Holy See, the pope had always been God's representative on earth—a man. Could it be true that Gregory's successor would be a woman? The provocative, unsettling story that had once been just a whisper was taking on more certainty by the moment: the next pope would be an American lay priest by the name of Brigid Fitzgerald.
The possibility of a woman pope was extraordinary, astounding, and if it happened, the consequences would be profound.
Zachary Graham had done his homework.
Legend has it that in the year AD 855, a woman who had disguised herself as a man was elected pope. Three years later, while in a processional through Rome, this pope had gone into labor and given birth. She was immediately tied to the tail of a horse, dragged through the streets to her death. Her baby was also murdered, and the two of them were buried beneath the street where they died.
Given the absence of physical artifacts, this story had been officially dismissed by the Catholic Church as a Protestant story concocted to embarrass the Church and the Papacy. Yet there were etchings of Pope Joan and footnotes in a hundred ancient, illuminated manuscripts. There was even a small, disfigured shrine to Pope Joan on a small street not far from St. Peter's Square.
This old story troubled Graham's soul. It was why he was afraid for Brigid when people spoke of her as "miraculous," and why for so long he had been unable to find satisfaction or love or even sleep.
Graham took a chair in front of the screen displaying those rapt, excited, tormented faces and carefully considered his options.
Should he wait, observe, and report the facts that were unfolding before him? Should he do his job? Or should he commit journalism's greatest sin by interfering in this true epic drama? If he did that, he might very well change the outcome.
I WAS trying to get my seven-year-old, Gillian, ready for the day. She is a funny little girl, bratty and bright. And clever. And slippery. She's the apple, peach, and plum of my eye, and I love her to pieces. Thank you, God.
It was Easter Sunday, and Gilly was in the closet trying on various articles of clothing, some of which were actually hers, and she was telling me about her dream.
"I finally found out where the polar bears went."
"Oh. So, where did they go?"
She leaned out of the closet, showing me her darling face, her bouncing curls, and her bony shoulders.
"Gilly, you have to get dressed. Come on, now."
"They were on the moon, Mom. They were on the moon. And I was there. I had a special car with skis instead of wheels, and, even though it was nighttime, it was soooo bright that I could see the bears everywhere. You know why they're on the moon?"
"Why?" I said, lacing up my shoes.
"Because the moon is made of ice. The ice covers the oceans of the moon."
People had been talking about colonizing the moon for the better part of a hundred years. It was still an impossible hope. A total fantasy. But there it was every night, right up there, pristine, visible, and with historic human footprints still in the moon dust. And now Gilly's dreamed-up polar bears were not facing earthly extinction. They were partying on the moon.
As Gilly, now back in the closet, told me, "the man in the moon" provided the bears with food and volleyball.
I laughed, thinking about that, and she said, "I'm not kidding, Mom."
I was folding up the discarded clothes Gilly had flung all over the room when I heard her cry out for me.
"Honey, what is it? What?"
She came out of the closet showing me the blood coming from the web between her thumb and forefinger of her left hand. She still held a piece of broken lightbulb.
"It just rolled off the shelf and broke."
"Let me see."
She showed me the glass, with its sharp edges.
"No, silly, show me your cut."
She held out her hand, and droplets of blood fell on the front of her chosen Easter dress, a froth of ruffled pink with an overskirt of spangled tulle. It was excruciating, the sweetness and the vulnerability of this little girl. I stifled my urge to cry and said, "Let's fix this. Okay?"
A few minutes later, Gilly's finger was washed and bandaged, the glass shards were in a box in the trash; and now I was focused again on the time.
Gilly wriggled into her second-best dress, a blue one with a sash of embroidered daisies.
"Gorgeous," I said.
I stepped into my clean, white surplice, and, peering into a small mirror propped on the bookcase, I finger combed my unruly ginger hair.
"You look beautiful, Mom," she said, wrapping her arms around my waist.
I grinned down at her. "Thank you. Now, put on your shoes."
"We're not late, you know."
"Not yet, anyway. Let's go, silly Gilly. Let's go."
I BRACED myself, then Gilly and I stepped out onto the stoop.
The shifting crowd filling the street roared. Communicants, neighbors, people who had come here to catch a glimpse of me, ordinary people of every age and description, reached out their hands, lifted their babies, and chanted my name.
I'd seen this outpouring of passion before, and still I wasn't sure how to act. Sometimes the mood of a crowd turned dark. I'd seen that, too.
Gilly said, "Mom. You'll be all right."
She waved, and the crowd went wild again.
And then they pushed forward, toward the stoop. News broadcasters, megabloggers, televangelists, and entertainment-TV hosts pointed their microphones toward me, asking, "Brigid, are the rumors true? Have you gotten the call? Are you ready to go?"
I had answered their questions in the past but was always asked for more, and by now, I didn't have any more. Gilly was too small to walk through this groundswell, so I hoisted her up, and with her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist, I stepped carefully down to the street, where the crowd was at eye level.
"Hey, everyone," I said as I waded into the river of people. "Beautiful Easter Sunday, isn't it? I would stop to talk, but we have to get going. We'll be late."
"Just one question," shouted Jason Beans, a reporter from the Boston Globe who liked to be called Papa. He was wearing a button on his lapel, the single letter Y, which stood for the all-inclusive, universal question about everything: the heat waves, the long, frigid winters, the eerily brilliant sunsets, and ever-warming, rising seas. Why?
"We can walk and talk," Beans was saying. He was standing between me and other reporters who were angling for their "just one question."
I kind of liked the somewhat annoying Jason Beans, but Gilly and I couldn't risk getting swallowed up by this crowd. We had to move.
"Have you gotten the call from the Vatican?" Beans asked.
"Aww, Papa. It's a rumor, nothing more. And that's the really big scoop. Now, pleeease pardon me. I have to go to church. I have a Mass to say."
Flowers flew at me, and hands grabbed at my skirts, and Jason Beans stepped in front of us and wedged open a path. Gilly and I drafted behind him. We crossed the street, and there, midblock, stood the grand brick church that had anchored this neighborhood for a century.
People crowded us from all directions, calling out, "We love you, Brigid. Brigid, will you remember us when you're living in Rome?"
"I remember you right here and now, Luann. See you in church."
By the time we reached the entrance to St. Paul's, thousands were being funneled through the narrow streets, toward the entrance, and they understood that only a few hundred would fit inside the small neighborhood church. The panic was starting. They all wanted to see me.
Gilly was twisting in my arms, waving, laughing into the crook of my neck. "Mom, this is so great."
With Beans acting as the tip of the spear, I entered the sacristy with my daughter still in my arms. I thanked the reporter, who shot his last, desperate questions at me.
I told him, "I'll see you after Mass, Papa, I promise," and closed the door.
I let Gilly down, and she fed our pet tabby cat, Birdie. Then my little girl ran out to the nave and squeezed her way into a front pew. I crossed myself, and, hoping that I would find the right words, I walked out to the altar.
The air was supercharged with expectation.
I looped the stole around my neck and stepped up to the altar. But instead of beginning the Mass in the traditional manner, I spoke to the congregation in the most personal way I knew how.
"That was a pretty rough scene out there on the Street," I said to the congregants. "But I'm glad we're all together now on this momentous Easter Sunday. We have a lot to reflect upon and much to pray for."
A bearded man jumped to his feet at the rear of the church and called my name, demanding my attention.
"Look here, Brigid. Look at me."
Did I know him? I couldn't make out his face from where I stood, but then he walked up the aisle, crossed himself, and slipped his hand into his jacket.
In front of me, Gilly shouted, "Mom!" her face contorted in fear. But before I could speak to my precious daughter, I heard a cracking sound and felt a punch to my shoulder. I reached my hand out to Gilly.
There was another crack, and I staggered back and grabbed at the altar cloth, pulling it and everything on the altar down around me.
I fought hard to stay in the present. I tried to get to my feet, but I was powerless. The light dimmed. The screams faded, and I was dropping down into a bottomless blackness, and I couldn't break my fall.
South Sudan, Africa
JEMILLA WAS beside my bed, yelling into my face, "Come, Doctor. They're calling for you. Didn't you hear?"
No, I hadn't heard the squeal of the P.A. calling doctors to the O.R. I had only just fallen asleep. I pulled on my scrubs and splashed cold water on my face, saying, "What's happening? Who else is on duty? Got coffee?"
Jemilla answered my questions. "Got new wounded, of course. You're the last one up. How do you want your coffee? Cream? Sugar? Or the usual, we have no coffee at all?"
"You're tough," I said to the young girl standing right there.
She grinned and kept me in her sights while I stepped into my shoes. Then she ran out in front of me, yelling, "She's coming, she's coming now," as I trotted down the dusty dirt path to the O.R.
We were in South Sudan in the drought season, in a hospital outpost in a settlement camp in the middle of a senseless and bloody civil war. The hospital was the product of an NGO organization called Kind Hands, and we were doing what we could in a desperate situation to keep bucking the tide of hopelessness.
The hospital compound was made up of eight shoddy concrete buildings roofed with corrugated tin or tarps or hay. The female staff lived in one building, the men in another. We ate and showered in the third when it wasn't filled with the wounded and dying. We had the most primitive operating theater possible, a laughable closet of a lab, and three wards: Isolation, Maternity, and Recovery.
The professional staff was constantly changing as doctors went home and new ones came, and we were assisted by local volunteers, many of whom were internally displaced persons, IDPs, themselves.
Our current roster consisted of six doctors, a dozen nurses, and a dozen aides responsible for the emergency care of the eighty thousand residents of this camp. Yes, eight zero, followed by three more zeros.
All the doctors here had had to compete for an assignment with Kind Hands. We wanted to do good in the world, and yet very few doctors signed up for a second tour. It took only a couple of weeks for the enormity and the futility of the job to set in.
Ten minutes after being roused by Jemilla, I was in the operating room, scrubbed in and gloved up. The sole light source was a halogen lamp hanging from chains over the operating table, powered by the battery in Colin's Land Rover.
The boy on the table was a very small four-year-old who, according to his mother, had wandered too close to the chain-link boundary and had been struck by a bullet to his chest.
Sabeena, our irascible and irreplaceable head nurse, her long braids tied up in a colorful head scarf, was wearing scrubs and pink Skechers left to her by a doctor who'd gone back to Rio.
By the time I arrived, she had efficiently swabbed the child down, anesthetized him, and laid out clean instruments for me in a tray. As I looked him over, Sabeena gave me a rundown on his vitals.
The child was bleeding like crazy, and, given his small size, he could barely afford blood loss at all. I saw that the bullet had gone in under his right nipple and had exited through his back, just under his right shoulder blade. The boy's mother was standing there with a tiny new baby in her arms, her tears plopping onto the contractor's garbage bag she wore as a sterilized poncho over her rags.
English was the official language here, and, although probably sixty tribal languages were in use, plain English was understood.
I asked, "Mother, what's his name? Tell me his name."
"Nuru," the woman said. "My God. My little son."
I said to the unconscious child, "Nuru, I'm your doctor. My name is Brigid. Your mommy is here, too. Hang tough, little guy."
Sabeena wrote Nuru's name on a strip of tape, wrapped it around the boy's wrist while I did a FAST exam with our portable ultrasound. There was so much blood still coming from this small boy, I had to find out if the bullet had gone through only his chest or if he also had an intra-abdominal injury.
I looked at the ultrasound.
"There's no blood in his stomach. That's one good thing, anyway," I said to our head nurse. "Maybe the only good thing."
Sabeena clucked her tongue and shook her head. Then she hung a bag of blood and threaded an IV needle into the boy's vein while I considered what to do.
It was my call. It was all up to me.
I had recently finished my residency at Johns Hopkins and had volunteered with Kind Hands thinking, like almost everyone here, that I knew what to expect. But the books and documentaries that had inspired me to come here had given me only the slightest inkling of the reality of South Sudan.
Since 1983, the normally dire, antithetical-to-life conditions had gotten worse, with the country now divided and its people and their villages, families, and livelihoods shredded by genocide.
The number of displaced persons in South Sudan continued to swell. Food shortages, a lack of potable water and medicine, contagious disease, killing floods, and droughts had been compounded by gangs of murderous teenage boys and actual army militias doling out unspeakable violence.
And now I stood in an operating room that was bare to the bone. We had two standard operating tables, six beds, a few shelves of expired medical supplies. Instruments were sterilized in pots of boiling water hanging from bicycle handlebars positioned over the fire pit outside the back door. Along with the car battery, we had a small, noisy generator.
We made medical equipment with tire pumps, duct tape, and cotton jersey. I could do a lot with an empty coffee can and a length of plastic tubing.
This was it, the real hell on earth.
Everything here was desperate and chaotic. Except that right now, the radio was plugged into the generator. The Red Sox and Yankees were playing at Fenway. David Ortiz was stepping to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The score was tied, 3–3. If Ortiz could somehow get hold of one, maybe Nuru, too, could go deep.
I had hope.
ONLY MINUTES had passed since I met my young patient, Nuru. Sabeena was bagging the child, and I had determined my course of action, when my colleague, Colin, came up from behind, saying, "Step aside, Brigid. This kid could drown in his blood."
Dr. Colin Whitehead was a late thirty-something, tireless, bright, frequently cranky surgeon who had left his practice in Manchester, England, to come here.
Why? It was commonly believed that we were all running away from something, whether we knew it or not.
Colin had ten years on me and was in his fourth month of doing what he called meatball surgery. Nuru was my patient, but I handed the scalpel to Colin. It was always exciting to learn from this man.
Colin held a penlight between his teeth and made his incision on the right side of Nuru's chest. He followed up the incision by using a hand retractor to spread open a space between the boy's ribs. Then he put in a tube to drain the blood that just kept coming.
I saw what Colin saw: plenty of blood and no clear source of the bleeding. And so Colin reached into Nuru's chest and twisted the child's lung, a brilliant move that I understood might temporarily stanch the flow.
I had clamps in hand and was ready to take Colin's direction when we were interrupted by the awful clamor of people charging into the O.R.
Our settlement was poorly guarded, and outlaw gangs constantly roamed outside the fences. Everyone on the medical staff had been given a death sentence by the outlaws. Our pictures were posted in the nearby villages. Colin wore a T-shirt under his gown with a target on the front and back.
He had a very black sense of humor, my mentor, Colin Whitehead.
Maybe that darkness in him was what brought him here, and maybe it was why he stayed. Colin didn't look up. He shouted over his shoulder at the intruders.
"If you're here to kill us, get it over with. Otherwise, get the hell out of my surgery!"
A man called out, "Help, Doctor. My daughter is dying."
Just then, Nuru's mother tugged on my arm. To her, I was still her son's doctor. I was the one in charge.
I said to her, "Mother, please. Nuru is getting the best care. He'll be okay."
I turned back to little Nuru as Colin threw his scalpel into a metal bowl and stripped off his gloves.
That quickly, Nuru had stopped breathing.
The little boy was gone.
COLIN SAID, "Well, that's it, then," and headed off to the new patient on the second table.
Nuru's mother screamed, "Noooooooooo!"
Her days-old infant wailed. Her little boy was dead, and already flies were circling. Sabeena started to cover him with a scrap of a sheet, but I just couldn't stand to lose another child.
I said, "Nope, stop right there, Sabeena. I'm not done here. I'm opening his left side."
Sabeena looked at me like, Yeah, right.
I said, "Can't hurt, could help, get me?"
"Yes, I do, Doctor, dear. Better hurry."
"Berna, Rafi. Someone take care of Mommy and the baby. Please."
The procedure Colin had performed is called a limited or anterior lateral thoracotomy, a cut into the chest cavity through the side of the rib cage. Colin had opened Nuru's right side. And now, although it was highly unlikely that I would find a torn artery in the side of the chest opposite the bullet hole, we hadn't found the leak. And there had to be one.
Meanwhile, Nuru wasn't breathing, and his heart had stopped. The technical term for this is "dead."
But in my mind, he wasn't too dead.
"Stay with me, Nuru. I know you can hear me."
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2016
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown and Company