THE NINETY-NINE STEPS
She always wanted to be someone’s wife but no one would have her. A fine-looking woman, she came from the family who owned the internationally acclaimed Tyler’s Oyster House in Ottawa, right across the border from Detroit. It was not unusual for families to pile into their station wagons and drive a couple of hours to dine in the wood-paneled dining room with stuffed marlins and open-mouthed sharks on the wall.
As a woman in her mid-thirties, Marian chose a fine spring day when the pink dogwoods spread their petals before the sun, got into her blue Buick and drove three hours to the capital city of Montreal.
She could see the church in the distance. The church of miracles. Its blue-domed top and tiny cupola seemed to shoot up to heaven in one huge burst. She could see the sojourners from her car, tiny as pencil points, moving as slowly as a procession of ants toward honey. But where would she park? Circling the area in her long Buick, a police officer, clad in a yellow vest, blew his whistle and directed her toward a newly vacated spot.
How handsome he was in his uniform. She wondered if all men looked handsome to her because she couldn’t get a single one. She, too, had worn a uniform to Catholic school, where she was the school’s valedictorian. How embarrassing it was to walk down the aisle on graduation day. Or, rather, limp down the aisle. That’s why she was here on this electric-blue day.
Alighting from her car, she avoided the policeman’s eyes, as she reached into the back seat to grab her cane. When he saw it, he offered to help her walk. How she hated that! Always to be pitied. Never loved for who she was.
St. Joseph’s Oratory Church would save her. She was young enough and desperate enough to believe it. She walked toward the ninety-nine stairs in her best clothes: Pantyhose on both legs, including the short, skinny one on the left, shiny black patent leather pumps – no, you couldn’t see her panties in the sheen – a white ruffled blouse, red blazer and matching red skirt.
She limped over to a special section off to the right of the huge cathedral and looped her cane around a railing. A field of canes sat indolently as if they were all for sale. She decided to climb the steps in the middle. She wanted a good view of the stairway, as if she were climbing the hill of Golgotha to see her beloved Lord Jesus in his Agony. She knelt on the cold stone step and looked upward toward the dome. She was confused a moment. How did one crawl up the stairs. To her left a mother and two young children were mounting the stairs on their knees. She watched a moment, feeling as if she were cheating on a math test, and then, hiking up her red skirt, began to crawl.
On the third step, she realized she had skinned her right knee. And then the left one. Peeking down, she saw them bleeding, but her Lord had bled, hadn’t He? She pushed aside the pain and climbed higher and higher, until she was on the first landing.
“I suppose I should crawl across the concrete,” she thought, “until the stairs appear again.”
Long red streaks of blood appeared through her torn Pantyhose. She crawled across the hard punishing concrete, then began the next level of crawling up the stairs. She was uncommonly hot. Sweat poured from her face and through her white blouse and red blazer. She wiped her brow and asked Jesus to help her with the climb. That was all right, wasn’t it, to ask His help?
Up and up and up she went. All the way to the top. When she got there, soaked with sweat and blood, and now tears, she stood up and looked triumphantly down. Supplicants of all types – seemingly hundreds of men, women, and children, along with men and women of the cloth – trudged on bended knees toward the top, a Mount Everest on your knees.
Staring down the stairs, then up toward the blue sky, she had never felt such peace, even though her legs were awash with throbbing pain. She knew that Christ on the cross did not feel exultant. “Lord, why have you abandoned me?” He cried, to show mankind that he, too, suffered with them and had his doubts.
She hobbled over to the side to issue her prayer. Best to stand as straight as she could and not lean against the impervious unfeeling stone. Having given no forethought to her prayer, she began to whisper gratitude for her wonderful life, her wonderful parents and education, the taste of the slippery fresh oysters with lemon at the restaurant, and then got straight to the point. “I’ll talk to You as the friend you are,” she said. “Lord, it’s not that I want the limp to go away, or my skinny leg to disappear, it’s really kind of cute, after all” - she enjoyed rubbing both legs with Ponds’ Cold Cream at night – and she did not hate herself or her legs – “my fervent prayer to you, Lord, is to let me find a man, get married and have a family.” She smiled.
Proud of herself for her audacious act, she returned to her car, drove home to her condo and took a hot bubble bath, which stung her bleeding knees and hands, but she cared not a whit. When she returned to work at Tyler’s Oyster Bar, she told no one of the greatest adventure of her life.
On Sunday she drove fifteen minutes to her Roman Catholic church, Saint Anthony’s, whose three spires spiking heavenward beamed in the morning sun. She always felt they were calling her and would receive her in their welcoming arms.
Father Morgan Whittaker delivered the sermon in his long black cassock.
“How many of you know what our patron saint – Saint Anthony of Padua - represents?”
He looked over the several hundred and parishioners.
“Speak up,” he said. “Don’t be shy.”
He laughed. “All right, you want to hear the sound of my voice then, I’ll tell you who our blessed Saint Anthony is.”
After a lengthy explanation, and many in the congregation thought Father Morgan loved nothing more than the sound of his own voice, he finally came to the point.
“He’s the saint of finding things or of lost people.”
Marian sat, hymnal in her lap, and uttered an involuntary gasp.
Afterward, as always, she slipped into the tiny confessional.
“Father, forgive me for my sins, but I have fantasies of marrying…. you.”
The Father was silent.
“Oh, Father, I have sinned. Please forgive me for saying that.”
“You are forgiven my child,” said Father Whittaker, in his deep distinguished voice that reminded her of a news anchorman.
Marian picked up her cane and tottered out of the confessional. Her face and ears were red with embarrassment. Yes, her old friend “humiliation” had snuggled up to her once again.
When she emerged the noonday sun had slipped into the high-ceilinged sanctuary. The stained glass cast its blue and purple hews upon the congregants as they hurried from the room, as if they had to make the next train. Looking down, she wanted to hurry outside the church and never see Father Whittaker again. She promised herself she’d find herself another church.
She heard the confessional door squeak open, but wasn’t fast enough to make it outside.
“Marion Tyler,” he called. “Marion Tyler with God’s gift of wonderful mismatched legs.”
Her huge black eyes looked up at him. Was he making fun of her?
“If you allow me,” he said. “I’d like to invite you over to my brother’s house for dinner. He looks a lot like me,” he said, touching his bald pate, “but he’s got a full head of hair. And it’s red.”
She was quiet.
“Jimmy has never married. You might say he’s saving himself for the right woman. I’ve even talked to him about you.”
“Oh, Father Morgan!” she cried, wiping away her tears.The wedding, of course, was held right here at Saint Anthony’s of Padua. In a stunning floor-length white gown, Marian’s father walked her down the long aisle, her cane emblazoned in white lace.