Maria dreaded Monday mornings.
With three children all under the age of 10, it was a struggle to get them ready for the day before she headed out to work.
“Oh dear God, please give me strength to get through this day with your grace and peace. And please draw Nicholas closer to you and your truth,” she often said as she dashed into her car and pulled out the driveway to her New York City advertising job.
“How does Nicholas do it? I pray daily and do my best to do what God wants me to do, but the children can drive me nuts. But Nicholas can always keep his cool,” Maria often thought as she drove to work.
Nicholas, her husband, worked from home as an entrepreneur. This gave him more time with their three children, Anton, 8, Nikola, 6, and Carol, 4.
His business was demanding, given the attraction many had for his freelance work and online retail business, but Maria had seldom seen her husband lose his cool with her or the kids.
“And he is not even religious. He hardly goes to church, has not prayed for as long as I can remember, but I cannot deny that he seems to have an inner peace that I do not have,” Maria pondered.
Maria and her family were raised to be religious and to take God seriously. For as long as she could remember, Maria and her parents attended services and prayed regularly as a family.
She met Nicholas at university and she was soon drawn to his quiet and yet charming nature. Nicholas did not talk much, but he had an inner calm and simplicity that she had not seen in her previous boyfriends.
It was not long for admiration to turn to love and soon to marriage after they graduated. Anton was born shortly before their first wedding anniversary, and it was not long before the single pair of pattering feet was joined by two more pairs.
Nicholas had grown up in a religious household but those spiritual moorings seemed to drift away when he left home and attended university. He used to tell Maria: “Seems that disaster hits the godly as much as it hits the ungodly. And have you read the news about the corrupt religious leaders who swindle their flock? Shepherds of the flock? More like statues with feet of clay.”
But he never stopped Maria from teaching the children about God and the spiritual realm. It was just that he paid little attention.
Nicholas was also not one to turn his back on the poor and needy. Any time he saw a child or beggar, his hands would dig in to get out money or food or kind — anything he could do to help. Maria was often wary and cautious, having read about scammers and cheats and scoundrels who conned others by posing as poor souls.
Nicholas had no truck with Maria’s logic. “What if that child or beggar was our Anton? Our Nikola or Carol? Would you pass them by then?”
Maria shared her concerns about Nicholas with her spiritual advisor. But the elderly gentleman, a former soldier who had seen many a battle and once told her that he “had seen all the wars at once”, usually smiled and often mysteriously told her: “You know Maria, someone may be closer to heaven than we are.” That was something that Maria just could not figure out.
The storm came without warning. Strong gale-force winds hit late in the night and into the wee hours of the morning.
The gusts were so strong bricks and wood flew off as if they were matchsticks. The rains that followed turned homes into sodden messes and children wailed for their mothers and fathers as their drenched clothes were helpless to keep them warm.
When morning came, Maria and Nicholas were busy with the kids.
As she rushed off to work, Nicholas said: “The roof of the orphanage downtown was wrecked and the water pipes burst. We have to help…”
But Maria cut him off.
“Honey, there are government bodies to help. The fire service will help, and other people are on hand to help. We have our hands full with our family and work as it is.”
But Nicholas could not get the faces of the orphans and children from his mind. He looked at his trio playing quietly after breakfast, and tried to stay uninvolved. But he could not reconcile the situation.
He made the rounds of the supermarkets and bakeries and bought or cajoled the storekeepers for milk and bread. Nicholas then made some phone calls, then packed the bread, milk and his three children into the family Hyundai and drove down.
Maria’s boss called her into his office after lunch.
“You should see this. Anyone familiar?” he asked as he turned on the TV in his office.
The footage showed 10 men, some of whom were giving out bread and milk to grateful children and parents, while others were nailing planks and laying bricks. The venue was the orphanage downtown. For a moment, a camera zoomed in on a man aged about 40, with two other men about the same age, sawing wooden beams. Nicholas. No doubts about his features.
Nearby, Anton, Nikola and Carol comforted and gave out warm clothes to shivering children.
Maria heard her cellphone buzz. It was her spiritual advisor.
“Saw Nicholas and the kids on the news. Wonder how he did all that, getting his friends together, and that bread and milk? Took some gumption.”
She could nearly envision a smile on her advisor’s face.
He continued: “Some pass by the poor, and just pray with words we cannot understand. Others see the need, and reach out a helping hand. Which of these do you think God will most understand?”
It was about 9pm when Maria returned home. The children had had dinner and were fast asleep, tired after the day’s adventures.
Nicholas heated up dinner (Maria couldn’t cook), and both of them ate together.
“Sorry, but I could not sit by and not do anything to help. Perhaps I should have hired a babysitter for the kids instead. But they enjoyed helping out,” he said.
Maria suddenly reached out, pulled him to her and gave him a long, loving kiss.
“Wow, that was something! What was that for?” Nicholas asked with a smile.
Maria said quietly, “An apology and a tribute. Someone is much closer to heaven than he realises.”