This is the story of unwavering faith, a seemingly worthless gift, and a miracle that happens over 80 years after it was first foretold. I’m calling it:
Aunt Sophie and the Miracle in a Bottle.
I got the little brown bottle from my Aunt Sophie along with a gold Seiko watch my Uncle Matt was given when he retired. Uncle Matt and Aunt Sophie had married late in life and never had any children of their own. Instead, they were godparents either alone, or separate, to dozens of nieces and nephews. I however, was the only one they had in common. I was their only common godchild. That’s why I got the watch and the bottle.
Uncle Matt died when I was about thirteen. He’d had diabetes for years and I remember him having to pee in a can after every meal so Aunt Sophie could measure the sugar in his urine with litmus paper. Then, depending on what the paper showed, Sophie filled the chrome and glass syringe with insulin and injected it into him. Matt went blind first. A few years later the disease finally killed him. My brothers and sisters and I would take turns visiting in the summer and help her around her house.
In my family, High School Graduation was celebrated like a birthday. We invited the relatives, Mom made a cake, and a special dinner after which we opened cards. Just like a birthday, but without the candles. Anyway, I’d never graduated before, so this was fine with me. Now, Aunt Sophie didn’t have much money but always sent a few dollars, a stick of gum and a card for our birthdays or Christmas. But this time, she made the trip in her old blue Oldsmobile to attend in person.
Sometime after I’d open the cards, and eaten the cake, Aunt Sophie came and sat beside me. She was a tall woman with smart blue eyes who always wore a hairnet. She was my Mom’s oldest sister and almost like a second mother too her.
“John,” My aunt said, while putting her hand on my knee. “I have something else I want to give you.”
“Oh, Aunt Sophie.” I replied. “The watch is more than enough. You really don’t need to.”
Her eyes suddenly looked more intense than I’d ever seen them, and her brow furrowed. “John, I’ve never told this to anyone but it’s time I did.” She looked over her shoulder an instant and reached into her purse. She pulled out a small brown bottle with a black screw on lid. It had a plain manila paper tag fastened around its neck with a string. The words, Spark of Life – Do Not Open were written on it in thick black pencil. “Here, this is for you.” She held it out, then withdrew it shaking her head. “No, I need to tell you something about it first.”
The tall old woman took a deep breath. “You’re Uncle Matt and I prayed and prayed for a child, but were never blessed.” She sighed. “One night after years of prayers I was visited by Saint Jude.” Her eyes looked sad. “Matt said it was just a dream, but I know it was real.”
“How did you know it was real?”
“Because the Saint gave me this.” She stared down at the bottle in her hand.
Sophie didn’t take her eyes from the bottle but slowly nodded. “Yes, he’s the Patron Saint of lost causes.” She looked up into my eyes. “I prayed to him everyday. Finally, he answered my prayers with this.” She reached out and put the bottle in my hand. “Its the Spark of Life for the child we never had.”
I thought my Aunt had lost her mind. I turned the bottle over in my fingers and read the label, Nembutal 100 capsules, may be habit forming. “The child you never had?” I asked unbelievably. “This is the life of the child you never had?”
Aunt Sophie sighed. “John, Saint Jude said Matt and I were good people, but would never have children of our own. Then he handed me that bottle.” Her hand indicated mine. “He told me it contained our child’s Spark of life. The Saint said I’d know what to do with it.” She touched it lightly and nodded her head. “I must have had it for forty years. Now, I’m giving it to you.”
I held the bottle closer and read the label. Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium, Abbott) may be habit forming. ‘Did Aunt Sophie take any of these pills? Was she on drugs when she had her visit from Saint Jude?’
“Yes Aunt Sophie?”
“I’m not just a crazy old woman. I know what’s in that bottle, and I know I’m supposed to give it to you.”
“But why? Why do I need this?”
She shook her head and looked at me with kind blue eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. All I know is that you are supposed to have it.” Her body stiffened and her gaze became more intense. “Somehow I just know it’s meant for you.”
I shook my seventeen year old head and smiled. “Thanks, Aunt Sophie.” I reached over and hugged her. “I’ll go put this and the watch in a safe place.” I went upstairs to my dresser, put it in my sock drawer, and forgot all about it.
Aunt Sophie died penniless about two years later. The little bit of money she had was eaten up with nursing home fees. It was Medicare after that. Her remaining brothers and sisters paid for her funeral. That was almost forty years ago.
I hadn’t thought of that little brown bottle for years. Then two weeks ago it fell out of a box I was shifting in the basement. It landed at my feet just as the cellphone rang in my pocket.
“Dad,” it was my daughter Emily’s voice. She sounded panicked.
“Hi honey. How’s that new baby doing? Are you sleeping through the night yet?”
My heart stopped in my chest. “What’s wrong?” Sobs fill my ear. It’s something genetic is all I heard. “Hold on honey. We’ll be there as soon as possible.” I flipped the phone closed and looked at the bottle at my feet. ‘Why now? I hadn’t thought about it for years. Why now? I suddenly remembered the look in Aunt Sophie’s eyes, and the words she’d told me all those years ago. “Somehow I just know it’s meant for you.”
Now, I am not a religious man. My faith has lost its dogma, and I consider myself more of a secular humanist, but this, this was too coincidental. The very second I receive the news that my grandson was in danger it just happens to fall at my feet? The odds must be astronomical. I picked it up and looked at the handwritten tag. Spark of Life – Do Not Open. I put it in my shirt pocket and went to tell my wife the tragic news.
“Martha,” I said to my wife. “It’s the baby…it doesn’t sound good. We need to go now.”
“The baby?” The expression dropped from her face. We made the trip as fast as we could, but it still took nearly nine hours of driving.
Lissencephaly, that’s what it was. I’d never heard of it, but the doctor said it was untreatable. It caused the brain’s cortex to develop into four layers instead of six. She said babies born with this defect are never normal, and seldom lived longer than their second birthday. Some died sooner.” I looked at my daughter Emily and her husband Steve. So young. Nobody should have this happen to them.
Emily looked down at her baby. He looked normal, no sign of the flattened head that sometimes accompanied the defect. It hadn’t been caught with any of the prenatal tests either. She looked at me with tears in her eyes. “It doesn’t matter Dad. We’ll love him for as long as he’s with us.”
“Yes,” added Steve. Stroking his cheek. “We’ll cherish everyday.”
I was more proud of her than I’d ever been, of them both.
I’d kind of winced when I heard my grandson’s name for the first time. Steinbeck, Beck for short. He was named after John Steinbeck, author of East of Eden. My daughter even had Timshel tattooed on her foot. Apparently Steve was also a fan. Now it seemed ironic. Timshel, Thou mayest, the theme of the book. It had to do with mankind overcoming sin. Was it our choice, or was it a certainty? I thought of the bottle. Was it a gift from a saint, or a deluded woman’s dream?
I looked at the young couple, and my wife. “Let’s go where we can talk.” Nobody believed me. Hell, I didn’t believe it myself. After I explained about Aunt Sophie, Saint Jude and the bottle falling at my feet everyone was silent. I took the bottle from my jacket pocket and sat it on the table. I looked at Emily and Steve. “What have we got to lose?” Nobody said a word.
Steve picked it up, read the tag and turned it over in his fingers. He looked at his son, then into my eyes. “I say we try. After all, like you said, what have we got to lose?”
Emily’s eyes lit up like she’d just been thrown a lifeline. It was a slim one to be sure, but a lifeline none the less.
“Please,” I reached out for my only grandchild. “I think I need to do this in private.”
I went into the room she and Steve had fixed up as a nursery and sat in Emily’s mother’s old rocker. I cradled Beck in the crook of my left arm, and put the mouth of the bottle under his nose. I unscrewed the cap, but hesitated before I removed it all the way. When I lifted it away there was a snap, and a thin spark like you get in the winter from static electricity. It jumped between the bottle’s mouth, and the tip of his nose. Beck’s eyes snapped open, but they weren’t his, they were Aunt Sophie’s. They smiled at me, then disappeared behind Becks and he began to cry.
“My Dad died last September, but this is the first time we could get up to help clean out the house. Martha’s doing ok, but she really needs to downsize. Steve, Beck, Olive and I are only here for a few days but we think we can get most of the stuff out of the house and either taken to the dump or Saint Vincent DePaul. I hadn’t thought of that little brown bottle for years. But there it was, tucked in the back of Dad’s sock drawer. It had contained the spark of life. Beck was cured, it made all the medical journals. It was an actual miracle.
It was in a box that used to hold a cellphone charger. It still had the tag around its neck with the words, Spark of Life – Do Not Open, but there was also a note. It was in Dad’s peculiar style of printing, I could tell by the way he made the letter “a”.
“To whomever finds this bottle. Follow the instructions written on the tag and don’t unscrew the cap. Please make sure this gets to my youngest grandchild, be it male or female. I got this as a gift from my Aunt Sophie. They will know what to do with it…Eventually. Until then, all I can tell you is that Aunt Sophie and Uncle Matt were destined to have more than one child. This is a genuine miracle in a bottle. Treasure it with all your heart.”