Suppose you were living with the Queen of Atlantis. Seriously, suppose your girlfriend insisted, with total certainty, that in a previous life she was the last monarch of that fabled kingdom. If that were true, what’s the most ironic thing she might tell you? “We’re flooded,” Lisa says. I awaken, groggy and rubbing my eyes. “We’re what, now?” “Come here. I’ll show you.”
And she does. Luckily, this flood is on a less-than-epic scale—specifically, it’s the laundry room, where there is half an inch of water. It’s not my favorite way to start a Yuletide Monday, but it should be simple enough to deal with. I find a plumber and tell him it’s urgent, and he promises to get out here.
But I have a feeling of unaccountable foreboding.
Which, on second thought, is very accountable. A lot has happened in the weeks before Christmas: Our dryer broke down, the homeowners board says we have to tear down our patio cover, and—here’s the bad one—Lisa’s mammogram had a spot on it, and she needs additional tests.
We shouldn’t panic, they insist. It’s probably nothing, and if it is something, it’s probably treatable. And there’s no sense worrying until we know for sure. But we can’t help worrying anyway, and it’s putting a real crimp in our Christmas.
“You don’t need a new water heater,” says the plumber, after he takes a look. “It’s actually a slab leak. We need to fix the plumbing, then repair all the damage to the interior drywall—which may contain asbestos. We have to deal with that, too.” Which means a simple problem has just become more complicated.
And it’s freaking me out. Because if Problem One is worse than we thought, then what about the Big Problem?
There’s no correlation, the scientific part of me is saying. These are independent events, their probabilities unrelated, like the second time you flip a coin after getting heads the first time. But Lisa has a different worldview, less sane though more chilling, and it has begun to infect me.
It’s this: Things don’t just happen, they happen for a reason, either a sign or a symbol or a message from beyond. That’s how she knows she’s the Queen of Atlantis, if knows is the right word, and why she’s so sure of things that can’t be proved. But if everything’s a sign, then the slab leak and the broken dryer and the patio cover suggest a pattern I don’t like: that bad things are coming for the holidays.
“I’m not afraid,” Lisa says. “I intend to be cancer free.”
She says this not just to me, but to a group called “the Intenders,” during a weekly meeting at Unity Church in Tustin. We don’t meet in the church proper, but in a Victorian house on the Unity grounds, overlooking a nature trail and koi pond. The meeting room has a comfy couch, lace curtains, and chairs arranged in a circle. A dozen people are attending. Soft music comes from Lisa’s Hello Kitty boombox.
The Intenders believe that our thoughts create our experiences, that what we wish for is what we obtain. We go around the room, with each person describing his or her perfect world: a world without war, without poverty or hunger, without cancer. They actually expect to see this happen. It makes them happy in a way that seems unnatural—or maybe that’s just me, playing the Grinch in the final days before Christmas.
“I intend for a diagnosis that’s cancer free,” Lisa says.
It sounds nice, but I can’t help interrupting. “What if you’re wrong?”
She shrugs. “If I’m wrong, then I’ll leave this life and be reborn as someone else. That’s just how it works.”
I don’t respond, but a response occurs to me: What if it’s all crap? I mean, I’d love to believe we all bounce back again, that in a prior lifetime I was Isaac Newton or Shakespeare or Pliny the Elder, whatever, and in the future I’ll be someone else. But I don’t share Lisa’s conviction that death is only temporary, that belief becomes reality—and that cancer can be cured just by saying so.
“I hope you’re right,” I tell her, unsure.
“It is done,” the group says, in unison.
The next day, Lisa is scheduled for follow-up testing with her radiologist. I want to come with her but I’m needed at home, to watch the kids. On her way out, she wishes me a Merry Christmas.
Yeah, about that.
Christmas celebrates the birth of someone who, we’re told, rose from the dead. Millions believe this, and half the world celebrates it, but to me it seems no more likely than Lisa’s ex-tenure as the Queen of Atlantis. How do you choose which scientifically impossible events to believe?
And even if you believe in metaphysical symbolism—which I don’t—the odds aren’t favorable. Which is better, a random outcome or a jinxed one? Because all the signs are bad. Except one.
Back at home, where the asbestos people are hard at work, we have a Christmas tree. Lisa put it up, though I kept telling her to skip it. The place is so cluttered with household flotsam. Between the closets we had to empty out and the heaps of undried clothes from Lisa’s daughter and grandkids, it’s like a Walmart clearance sale. But Lisa jammed in a Christmas tree anyway, because she wanted one for the toddlers. And now I’m seeing it with a new significance.
Trees are religious to me. They’re strong, sturdy, and bursting with life. And a Christmas tree—the symbol of the world’s most popular holiday, all sparkling with lights, ornaments, and little trademarked Disney figures—is an instant mood lifter. Just seeing a Christmas tree can make people smile. It speaks to the best in us, all that’s good and hopeful, a symbol that trumps all others.
After two hours, my cellphone rings.
“The tests are negative,” Lisa says. “There’s no cancer. It’s a benign cyst.”
“Oh thank God,” I tell her, letting out a long breath. “I’m so glad to hear that.” It’s not exactly a miracle, but in that moment it feels like one.
Now don’t read too much into this. I’m not saying she’s fine because of the Intenders or the Christmas tree. Lisa’s condition is unrelated to her choice of seasonal decorations. But there’s a lesson here, lurking between the lines—maybe that faith gives us courage, whether it’s rational or not, in a way that solid reasoning often can’t.
I don’t care if Lisa was the Queen of Atlantis in another lifetime. I’m just glad she’s here in this one.
And I hope your Christmas is as merry as ours was … finally.