framed icon

More than Cousins

       As she lay taking chemotherapy in room 12B, Mary stared at the simple Icon of Kazan framed in an elegant gold frame and mounted on a rich velvet background-incongruous in the midst of hospital plastic and metal .  She drifted back 40 years ago to Morocco – to the caves in the Atlas Mountains with her friend, Beverly – young women then.  Now Beverly sat by her bedside, sadness etched in her face.

Bev, do you remember Morocco?  How I came to have the Mother of Kazan Icon?  I was living in Saudi Arabia and you had met me in Cairo.  We travelled across North Africa and near Rabat there was an old Orthodox Convent up in the Atlas Mountains where the women were quite famous for the singing of vespers.  But one woman painted and sold icons – Remember – we went and you bought one of them?

Bev nodded.  She waited while Mary rested and then began to talk again in a voice that was high in her mouth and full of breath.

We went up the mountain to a little house behind the convent to find her.  She was old and sick.  We then walked to where she did the paintings.  It was quite chilly and I put my coat on her and took her arm.  When we got to the cave where she worked, you bought one and we started to leave.  She kept saying, “Mary, Mother of God.”  And I said, “No, not me.”  Still holding my arm, she went to an old trunk and pulled this icon out of the bottom and gave it to me. So I paid a small fee to the convent and took it.  And I was just stunned that she actually gave it to me.

I know.  She was speaking Russian and the priest was interpreting for her.  The two friends sat, remembering their shared past.

Well over the years I’ve kept the icon. Bev – I want to pass it on to a church to be enjoyed and to be used – I want someone to really treasure the kind of commitment and involvement that her life represented.  I want it to go on and be a part of a living spiritual life – maybe help us learn to live together. We are all daughters of Abraham.

Bev reached over and held her friend’s hand as Mary’s eyes closed and she slept through the last bit of her chemotherapy.

       Next door in 12C, Nadia Alkroumi felt the solution running through her veins.  She closed her eyes and remembered the garden in her grandfather’s home – high in the Atlas mountains.  It helped to think of her grandfather in this foreign world.  Nadia felt the cold and pulled the blanket up over herself.  She listened in her mind for her grandfather’s voice…she allowed his voice to fill her mind…

See binti – up there – there is where the Christians live.  They are people of the Book. We must always remember that.  There were women there who helped us a long time ago.

Nadia knew the story but said, “What happened, Jadd, tell me please.”

Well it was a long time ago and the French had come to take our grain.  We didn’t have enough to eat.  Then one day, the sisters came down, carrying baskets of food and oil.  They helped us.  We are cousins binti – Christians and Muslims.  We are cousins.

Nadia kept her eyes closed and breathed in the grey mountains where long ago, the sisters walked down carrying baskets…

Mrs. Alkroumi?

Nadia came back to the cold room with a jerk.  “Na’am?”

Are you cold?  Do you need another blanket?

Nadia heard the words but didn’t understand.  The nurse’s eyes were kind – her dark skin glistening in the hospital light.  She wore a brightly colored top.  Nadia shook her head.

Katherine Johnson looked at her patient.  “Poor dear – so far from home.  Where is her son?”

She checked the chemo running through the line.  “About 10 minutes more.”  She smiled.  Katherine never knew how well her foreign patients understood her.

     Nadia closed her eyes again and returned to her childhood and the Atlas mountains.  Jadd took her to the Christian place once; she recalled the old woman, wearing a hijab like mama, but black-colored with white around her face.  Nadia watched the old woman as she sat in a chair painting on a small piece of wood.  The gold paint was so beautiful…a poem ran through her mind.

The Healing Touch

A Shaman’s shadow dances

over rivers of lost time

drumming the truth buried in our ageless minds,

to cast out demons

struggling for our souls.

A medicine man in feathered

mask reflects in our primeval

memory to rattle beads flickering in jungle fires

and conquer evil spirits

hovering over our hearts.

Stethoscopes drawn, an army of

whitecoats advances to offer

algorithm armor wrapped in mystery tonics,

to kill assailants

of our body’s cells.

An oil-covered thumb traces

a cross across our foreheads,

emblazing a shield of faith that calls the eternal

to step forth in light

and vanish the devil’s work inside.

A chorus of exultation

an a cappella healing

choir of raised voices, sing and praise God’s power-filling

your heart with its hymn.

Held by echoes of loving embrace,

the healing begins.

(Poem by Mary Elizabeth Archer, 2001)

And she slept until her son came in and kissed her on the cheek and whispered, “Umm – good news.”

       Katherine walked next door into 12B.  She looked with compassion at the older woman laying on the bed – her friend holding her hand. Katherine repressed a sigh and smiled at the friend, but 15 years in rooms like these had honed her sense of the disease’s power.  She added a blanket to Mary’s feet and left the room.

       Months later, Nadia walked through the garden and looked up at the Atlas Mountains.  How often in that hospital so far away she had come in her imagination to this spot.  And yet now, as she stood in her grandfather’s garden with the crumbling wall, looking up at the convent, she felt a vague yearning.  She was a part of something bigger now – much bigger than her grandfather’s garden – bigger than who she once had been.  She stared up at the convent then looked down at the small black-eyed girl who held her hand.  The girl pleaded, Jadda – tell me the story.

Well, it wasn’t too long ago in a place far from here.  And people gave me hope and life.  At first, I thought they were so different but I came to know that we are more alike than we are different.  You see, Miriam, I know that we are more than cousins; we are the daughters of Ibrahim and…

       And in a sunlit room in a church, a woman knelt before another mother’s face and poured her grief into the room.  And the love of all the women of all the ages gently rocked her back and forth.

Icon of Kazan

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