This is the story of unwavering faith, a seemingly worthless gift, and a miracle that happened 80 years after it was first foretold.
I got the little brown bottle from my Aunt Sophie along with the gold Seiko watch my Uncle Matt was given when he retired. Uncle Matt and Aunt Sophie married late in life and never had any children. Instead, they were godparents either alone, or separate, to dozens of nieces and nephews. However, 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 Aunt Sophie having to measure the sugar in his urine with litmus paper. He went blind first. A few years later the diabetes killed him. After that my brothers and sisters and I would go over every summer and help her around the house.
In my family, High School Graduation was celebrated like a birthday. We invited the relatives, Mom made a cake, we had a special dinner and opened cards. Anyway, I’d never graduated before, so this was fine with me. 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. This time, she made the trip in her old blue Oldsmobile to attend in person.
Sometime after I’d opened the cards, and eaten the cake, she came and sat beside me. Aunt Sophie was a tall woman with smart blue eyes who always wore a hairnet.
“John, I have something else I want to give you.”
“The watch is more than enough. You really don’t need to.”
“No, I want to…I never told this to anyone but it’s time I did.” She looked over her shoulder then reached into her purse and removed a small brown bottle with a black screw on lid. A paper tag was tied around its neck with the words, Spark of Life – Do Not Open 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.”
“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.” She slowly nodded. “Matt said it was a dream, but I know it was real.”
“How did you know it was real?”
“Because the Saint gave me this.” Aunt Sophie stared down at the bottle in her hand.
“Yes, he’s the Patron Saint of lost causes.” She peered into my eyes. “I prayed to him everyday. Finally, he answered my prayers with this.” She put the bottle in my hand. “Its the Spark of Life for the child we never had.”
I thought she’d 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? This bottle contains the life of the child you never had?”
She touched my knee. “Saint Jude said Matt and I were good people, but would never have children of our own. Then he handed me that bottle. He said it contained the spark of life. He said I’d know what to do with it.” She touched it lightly, “I’ve had it for forty years. Now, I’m giving it to you.”
I must have looked skeptical.
“I’m not just a crazy old woman, John. I know what’s in that bottle, and I know I’m supposed to give it to you.”
“But why? Why do I need it?”
“All I know is you’re supposed to have it.” Her body stiffened and her gaze became more intense. “Somehow, 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’d had was eaten up with nursing home fees. It was Medicare after that. Her remaining brothers and sisters paid for her funeral.
Two two weeks ago the bottle fell out of a box I was shifting in the basement. It landed at my feet just as the cellphone in my pocket rang.
“Dad,” it was my daughter Emily. She sounded panicked.
“Hi honey. How’s that new baby? Are you sleeping through the night yet?”
My heart stopped. “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. I suddenly remembered the look in Aunt Sophie’s eyes, and the words she’d told me all those years ago. “Somehow I 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 up the bottle 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.
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 Emily and her husband. 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. “It doesn’t matter Dad. We’ll love him for as long as he’s with us.”
“Yes,” added her husband Steve. “We’ll cherish everyday.”
I was more proud of her than I’d ever been, of them both.
I’d winced when I heard first heard my grandson’s name. Steinbeck, Beck for short. He was named after John Steinbeck, author of East of Eden. My daughter even had Timshel tattooed on her foot. 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. “I have something to tell you.” 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?”
Steve picked up the little bottle and read the tag. He looked at his son, then into my daughters eyes. “I say we try it. After all, 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.
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. 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. Steve, Beck, Olive and I are only here for a few days but we think we can get most of the stuff out 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.
The bottle 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…Until then, all I can tell you is that my Aunt Sophie and Uncle Matt were destined to have more than one child. This is a genuine miracle in a bottle. Treasure it with your life.”