Miracle-Hunting: 12 Reasons Even a Skeptic Can Believe
August: I am sitting in my dentist's waiting room when I spot Dennis Quaid smiling up at me from the cover of a magazine. Is he People's Sexiest Man Alive? Nope. Is he playing the enfant terrible for Details? Uh-uh. Dennis Quaid's cocky grin is plastered across the front of AARP The Magazine, and according to AARP (formerly known as Modern Maturity), the man is 56 years old. But that can't be right. I mean, didn't I just see him play the burned-out bad boy in Breaking Away? "You sure did," replies Rose, the unflappable hygienist, "if by 'just' you mean 1979." Time rushes by at miraculous speed.
September: Meredith, my neighbor down the hall, is 51 years old...and seven months pregnant. There was no egg donor, no in vitro fertilization, no special blend of Chinese herbs and reflexology—just an $11 bottle of Pinot Grigio and the mistaken impression that already having two sons in college somehow makes conception impossible. Meredith is now busily preparing for the miracle of birth.
October: I'm having coffee with one of my oldest friends, Francesca Gany, the founder and director of the Center for Immigrant Health at the New York University School of Medicine, and she mentions a figure that genuinely shocks me: Of the cancer patients her center serves, 51 percent of those living below the poverty line do not have enough to eat. This is the kind of problem that makes me want to curl into the fetal position with the TV remote and a bag of Cheetos, but humanity is in luck today: Francesca has never met a crisis she doesn't want to tackle. Her latest initiative is called Food for Health, a pantry designed to aid people who find themselves with cancer but without money for food. I walk my friend back to her NYU office, located in Bellevue Hospital, where she and her multilingual team distribute vouchers that will enable patients to go to the supermarket and buy some of the food they need to get them through treatment. Each patient is also given a bag of groceries to take home; there's a can of peaches, a carton of milk, a jar of peanut butter, a bottle of apple juice, a box of rice, and a couple of other items. Francesca reads my mind. "It's better than nothing, but it's nowhere near enough," she says as she places a grocery bag into the arms of a young woman who looks beautiful and tired and enormously grateful that today she won't have to choose between buying medicine and buying a meal. "You people are miracle workers," she calls out as she hobbles toward the elevator. She's absolutely right, but Dr. Gany and Co. simply shrug off the praise and keep the line moving.
November: Thanksgiving dinner. My vegan cousin's vegan girlfriend does not spend the evening making everybody feel guilty over "turkey genocide." My creepy uncle from Great Neck does not ask if 2011 is the year Johannes will finally break down and make "an honest woman" out of me; my addled Aunt Rita does not get drunk and accuse her daughter-in-law of hiding her oven mitts. We eat, we keep our aggression passive, we go home. It sounds pretty basic, but trust me—it's a miracle.
December: Usually when I drop in on friends at work, I find them crouched in a crowded cubicle, surreptitiously shopping eBay, but my pal Valerie Soll is stretching across a table in the Textile Conservation Lab at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, a cavernous space where she and nearly a dozen other experts work to clean, stabilize, and conserve some of the world's most extraordinary pieces. "Check this out," she says, pointing to an enormous tapestry depicting a scene from the life of Christ. It took master weavers from 1643 to 1656 to craft this set of one-of-a-kind tapestries for the nephew of Maffeo Barberini, better known as Pope Urban VIII. "Tapestries were the bling of their day," Val says. "They spoke volumes about your wealth and power—they told the world what you cared about, what you believed in, what your story was."
It's a fragile thread that sutures us to our stories, and it is a miracle that through hundreds of years of travel and temperature, smoke and red wine stains, bright lights and big pollution, along with the weight of hanging in a thousand different places (to say nothing of major neglect; during the French Revolution, farmers used the Metropolitan Museum of Art's famous Unicorn tapestries as blankets to keep potatoes from freezing), the Barberini tapestries continue to tell their stories.
Tonight I will sit down with Julia and tell her the story of my year spent searching for miracles. "The thing is," I'll explain, "nobody really has to go looking for a miracle because it turns out, they're usually pretty close to home." They come tiptoeing in while you're watching a no-hitter or folding laundry or tapping a rock-hard pumpkin muffin against the kitchen counter. They're in tapestries that survive hundreds of years, and parents who survive the morning onslaught, and people who don't have enough food to make it through another day, and somehow make it anyway.
And Jules will nod and pretend to listen, then ask if she can play her Pokémon game on the computer for 15 minutes before bed, which will give me a deeply luxurious 15 minutes entirely to myself—one final miracle for 2010.
Do Miracles Really Happen?