BOOKS: Help Me Please
Golden air filled Holy Name Cathedral. Golden sunlight, weighty with dust motes, sank heavily through the windows and settled over the amber oak pews and woodwork. Maggie McKittredge felt bathed in gold and blessed.
Danielle's hair was gold, too, shining in the light, red gold, fine, curly baby hair.
Danni was three, a pale porcelain cherub, wearing her favorite long blue-and-white-checked gingham dress, the one she thought made her look like a queen. But Daddy called her Princess, which was okay, too.
The worshippers at the Saturday morning mass sighed and rustled. Maggie, who was used to counting the house in theaters, estimated about fifty people, which seemed a thin scattering in the huge cathedral. As she and Neal and Danni entered, several of them had recognized her. A youngish, pretty woman, wearing a pale lilac dress and pale lilac shoes, said, "I'm such a fan. For years, you've been my favorite singer."
This made Maggie feel a little old.
Several others smiled at her or pointed her out to a companion. An elderly man, walking with difficulty, passed them without any recognition and sat in the pew in front of them.
A woman of about sixty, wearing a worn brown coat, stuided them as they sat down. She stopped for a moment, hesitated, wondering whether to speak, and then whispered to Maggie, "Your singing got me through a very bad time in my life."
That was wonderful. Maggie smiled and touched her sleeve and thanked her. The woman turned away shyly and sat across the aisle.
My singing got me through a very bad time in my life, too, she thought. She remembered how it had been, those years of believing she would never have a baby. Years when it seemed to her she saw babies everywhere. Endless tests, some of them what the doctors liked to call "uncomfortable." Tests on Neal, too, that she knew embarrassed him. He'd been very patient, but he'd come home red-faced and silent from the doctor's office.
She ruffled Danni's hair. Danni sat at the end of the pew. Maggie was next and then Neal. Maggie expected Danni to fidget, and it would be easier having the child on the end if she needed to take her out for a walk.
Maggie had come here many times, beginning the day she'd arrived in Chicago for the first tests at Northwestern's fertility clinic, and then while she was pregnant, and then when she was released from the hospital four days after Danni's birth. She had come to Holy Name once every year after that, always four days after Danni's birthday, just like that first time of greatest thanks. It was a pilgrimage.
Little Danni had no real memory of the cathedral, of course. Danni had been here when she was four days, a year and four days old, and two years and four days, and now three years and four days.
Danni craned her head back, rapt, loving the soaring pillars and golden light, stained-glass windows, and far away, the remote ceiling, its colors made soft by the dusty air.
The priest chanted. His clear voice rose, and the cavernous church pulled it into the upper air, both thinning the voice and elevating it, purifying it. Maggie wondered what it would be like to sing here. Would you sound like an angel?
"Mommy, I hot," Danni whispered.
"You can't be, honey. It's cool here."
"Yeth I am."
"Well, take off your sweater."
Maggie relaxed. There was something sleepy and sensuous in the amber light, heavily saturated with incense. She was content. She was deeply aware of how blessed she was, as if there was nothing left in the world to wish for, and she floated on the thought.
Neal put his hand over hers and whispered, "Let's take Danni for an ice cream cone after," he said.
"Neal! She's wearing her best dress."
"They have cleaners in Chicago, just like the have at home."
A minute later, Danni said, "I hot." She squirmed. When Maggie and Neal went to their knees to pray, Danni slipped off the pew, knelt down for a few seconds like they did, then got up and slowly turned around and around in place. Her long skirt flared out a little and brushed the pew seat as she twirled.
When Neal and Maggie slid back into their seats, Danni continued to spin, stepping out into the aisle to get more room.
What should I do now? Maggie wondered. Would it be less disruptive to leave Danni in the aisle or call her back to her seat? But she's having so much fun. So much delight.
As the priest chanted, Danni began to sing. With no idea of what the priest was saying, she sang softly, "It a smaw world affa all, it a smaw world affa all—"
Maggie turned to Neal. "What should I do?"
"Nothing," he said. "Let her—"
The older woman leaned across the aisle toward them and said softly, "She's perfect. She's what it's all about. Let her dance." Maggie smiled.
And Danni had indeed started to dance. Singing, she rocked from foot to foot, then spun, almost a perfect pirouette. But the old man in the pew ahead of them turned around and hissed, "Shhhh!"
A black-cassocked priest came down the aisle. They had greeted him at the front doors when he'd welcomed them to the church. He leaned over Maggie. He had warm hazel eyes and sandy hair and a wooden cross hung at his neck. "Would she like to walk a couple of minutes? In the back of the nave?"
"Oh, I don't think so, Father. Thank you." She never let Danni out of her sight except with her nanny, Brenda.
Suddenly, there was a gurgling sound from the pew ahead. The old man coughed, made a bubbling sound, and then slid slowly sideways, disappearing from sight. The woman across the aisle stood up and said, "Look, look! What's wrong?"
Neal jumped up and bent over the back of the pew, his hand on the old man's shoulder, trying to keep him from falling from the seat to the floor, but the angle was wrong and Neal couldn't keep his grip. The man sank to the floor.
Several people stood and watched. Half a dozen came to help. A second priest from the front of the church ran quickly up the aisle. He said, "I'm Father Raymond. What's happened?"
Three or four of the parishioners hurried up. One woman said, "I'm a nurse."
The first priest lifted Danni out of the way, saying to Father Raymond, "This man just collapsed."
"Did he say what was wrong?"
The old man made a gurgling sound.
Neal said, "Somebody call nine-one-one. Quick."
By now a dozen men and women were gathered around asking to help. Maggie stepped out of the pew so that Neal could get past and reached her hand out for Danni.
Danni was not in the aisle where she had been just seconds before. "Danni?"
The aisle was clogged by a large knot of people. "Is my little girl behind you? Danni? Danni!" Maggie pushed through the crowd, but there was no little figure in a blue-and-white dress. She turned back toward Neal, looking for the sandy-haired priest. But only Father Raymond knelt next to the old man.
"Where is that other priest?" Maggie asked the person closest to her. "Where did he go?" Her voice rose.
"I think he went for help," a woman said.
"Did he have a little girl with him?"
"Yes, I think he did."
Maggie said to Father Raymond, who was slowly lifting the elderly man, "Where did that priest take my little girl?"
The old man said, "I feel terrible!" Holding both hands to his head, he climbed laboriously back onto the seat of the pew.
Father Raymond turned to Maggie. He said, "What do you mean?"
"That priest. Who took my little girl. The one you assigned to greet people coming in."
"We don't have anybody assigned to greet people."
© Barbara D'Amato. Photo of Barb by David Lasker.