joseph mussomeliDecember 1969 (New Jersey)

“Christmas,” the old priest snarled, “is an outrage!” He looked about the classroom, hoping to have awakened at least a few students. “Christmas violates the laws of nature and of man.” Some students seemed to be attentive, although it was mid-December and even talking about Christmas was too distracting when they were all fixated on Christmas vacation.

“So,” he continued, “what does this make Jesus?”  Not a single hand rose and almost every set of eyes went down. The old priest searched for any set of eyes that was not glued to the ground. Finding none, he randomly chose: “Joe, what do you think? What does Christmas make Jesus?” The student looked back at him dully, with that teenage insouciance that even the best of teachers finds irksome. “Well,” the old priest continued helpfully, “if Christmas is an outrage and if Jesus’s birth violated the laws of nature and the customs of mankind, then….?” The student wasn’t particularly bright, but he prided himself on being somewhat of a smart aleck. “Um, I guess that makes Jesus a criminal,” he gleefully announced. The other students laughed, but the old priest was nodding agreement. “Yes, a criminal of sorts, but let’s say, since it is a bit less pejorative, that Jesus was outside the law, an outlaw.  He was already outside the law even before he was born: Being conceived outside of marriage and outside the natural rhythms of procreation.”

“So,” the student smirked, “to follow Jesus we must break the law, right?” More chuckling from the other students, as the priest shook his head. “Jesus never broke a law without good reason, and neither does God break His own laws of nature without good reason. There is only one reason that justifies living outside the law. What is that reason?” A few hands went up. He pointed to another boy, seated way in the back, hoping for something that didn’t amount to a wisecrack. He was disappointed. “To impress chicks?” Thunderous laughter from the boys; a few groans from the girls. “Any other thoughts?” asked the priest despondently. A girl in the second row raised her hand. She looked at the priest, then looked around at the still giggling boys. “You can only break the law to fulfill a higher law and the only higher law is love.”

Even the most infantile of the boys stopped giggling. “That’s correct,” said the priest.  “That’s correct,” he repeated, as if in a daze, never having expected that response. “Long before he cured people on the sabbath and long before his followers went through grain fields plucking all they could eat, before he saved that woman from an obligatory stoning and before he had the effrontery to forgive the paralyzed man his sins, he was already living outside the law.” He paused and took it as a minor Christmas miracle that most of them were still paying attention. “This is what you must remember: The law should be the hand-servant of love. That is what Christmas teaches us.” “Then what,” it was Joe, striving hard to maintain his reputation for seeming cleverness, “does Good Friday teach us?” The boy smirked, and his smirk was met by a sad priestly smile. “Good Friday teaches us that there are severe consequences for disobeying the law, even for a good reason. Or perhaps, especially when you have a good reason. Good Friday, so to speak, brings us back to earth.”

February 2005 (Manila)

“Not again,” he mumbled. “What is wrong with that woman?” He turned from the window and went straight to the door of the small office he had in their massive house. He shut the door firmly and remained inside for the next several hours, muttering to himself, drafting a speech, and editing some rather mediocre cables that needed to be sent to Washington that same day, even if it was Sunday.

When he finally emerged from his self-imposed exile his wife was waiting. “Are you going to just lock yourself away every Sunday until we leave Manila this summer?” He considered just ignoring her, but instead: “If need be, yes. Every Sunday.” He paused, then exploded, “Why, Sharon, why? We have two children already. We have finally gotten rid of them both! We are finally free to relax, to travel, to sleep late if we want, to do whatever we want, whenever we want! Why? Why do you keep bringing that baby home every Sunday?” Sharon, not often lost for words, just stood there quietly, tears slowly forming. Her husband was not having it. “No, dammit, no, I’m not falling for any of that female nonsense,” he grumbled and turned away.

April 2005 (Manila)

“You know, sir, ma’m really loves that little boy.” He looked at his Filipino cook and found it impossible to scold her. She was his favorite. He liked how she would talk to him as an equal even while being somehow deferential. It was a real talent among some Filipino staff to navigate that narrow passage between absolute candor and insubordination; Chona had perfected that talent. So conscientious, so loyal, and so intelligent, it was hard to see her intrusion as impertinence.

Taking advantage of her employer’s continued silence, she pressed him further. “He is such a sweet boy, sir. He is so loving and he is so bright. You would really like him, sir.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sure I would like him. I’m sure he’s a wonderful child. But I’m also sure that I am old! I’ve already raised two children. Enough is enough!” And tears welled in her eyes, which drove him absolutely crazy. What is with these damn women, he complained to no one, with their tears! He shook his head and walked away.

A week later, on yet another Sunday, his wife entered the house and predictable bedlam ensued. All the staff were gathered around the child, laughing and jabbering, and he could hear an occasional squeal of delight from the baby at the center of all the joyous noise. Unthinkingly he opened the door to his office and caught his first glimpse of this interloper who had ruined, by his count, sixteen of his last Sundays. He was a darling little thing. So little, in fact, that the Missionaries of Charity sisters had unintentionally been misfeeding him, assuming him much younger than he really was. By late April he was over five months old and surprisingly alert. Sharon noticed her husband at the door and beckoned him closer; he remained where he stood, ever ready to escape. “Joe, come on. Just hold him. Just for a second.” He slowly turned and went back into his office. He knew better than to fall into that trap! No, you never hold a baby—or a woman—unless you are serious. It’s just too hard to let them go once they are in your arms. He went back to his work, an endless pile of embassy memos and cables that rivaled the Augean stables for stench and uselessness.

June 2005 (Washington, D.C.)

He traveled back to Washington alone for his Senate confirmation hearing; he was being assigned as the ambassador to Cambodia. After the hearing, he had lunch at Union Station with some old friends and his eldest brother. “So, Joe, have you decided to adopt that little boy yet?” It was one of his favorite people—or at least, had been one of his favorite people, until he asked that question. “Johnny, I’m really just too old. And I like finally being free.” Some silence and then, “Joe, just do it.” That was his unhelpful brother talking now. More silence. “What is the little boy’s name?” It was Johnny again. “Thomas,” he answered, exasperated. They just weren’t going to leave him alone. Silence. And still more silence.

In the hotel that night an unexpected shame overwhelmed him. He imagined his wife crying each Sunday as she brought the baby back to the slums of Tondo, where he was cared for by the nuns. Joe had gone once with her. Over 70 children being tended by a few nuns in one of the filthiest places on earth. They had one faucet and they had all the babies packed into two rooms about the size of average living rooms. He typed out the email to his wife: “A child is a gift. We should not refuse a gift. Be home soon. Oh yeah, the Senate hearing went well. Love, Joe”

July 2005 (Manila)

“What do you mean?! You’re going to Cambodia with the two kids?! And leaving me with Thomas all alone? Thomas has been home only two days!!” Sharon just laughed, as did their two children. “You’ve been a father almost your whole life; you can handle the baby. Besides Chona and the other staff will help.” He shook his head ruefully, “They won’t be here late in the night when he cries for his bottle or needs his diaper changed.” His wife smiled again and looked at him as if to say, you’ll be fine and so will Thomas.

It was well past midnight and he was so tired, but he thought he should check to make sure the baby was still breathing. He crept to the crib and looked down at his little boy. Thomas was still awake, but so quiet. What a strange child! The baby looked up with his unusually large, black eyes and reached out his arms. No crying, no fussing. Just arms outstretched to his father. He took the child in his arms. Five hours later it was still hard for him to put the baby down.

August 2005 (Manila, Washington, D.C., Phnom Penh)

Thank God for such a flexible rule of law in this country, Joe thought to himself. The adoption would take many months, but thanks to a few friends in the Foreign Ministry, Thomas had gotten a passport within a week, and within two more weeks he and Sharon had gotten legal, albeit temporary, custody of the child. He was able to fly to Washington to attend his father’s swearing-in ceremony and he was able to accompany his parents to their new home in Cambodia. Unlike most adopting parents, they never had to suffer the pain of being separated from their child pending the final adoption decree. The court hearing was set for mid-December in Manila, a short plane ride from Cambodia. Sharon, who loved complaining about how lucky her husband was, kissed the little boy playing on her lap and declared, “It’s just amazing how easy this all has been. You really are just so lucky!”

September-October 2005 (Phnom Penh)

“Ambassador, it’s the State Department on the line. The Philippine Desk.” He looked up from his computer and stared with feigned bewilderment at his secretary. “Don’t they know this is Cambodia?” he smirked. “Yes, sir, but I think it has to do with something that happened while you were working in Manila. The desk officer seems really upset.” He rolled his eyes heavenward; State Department officers were always agitated about one thing or another.

He went home early that day. He couldn’t focus on his work, and he didn’t want to see anyone. He had his secretary cancel all his appointments. Dammit. Dammit. That was the nicest word that filled his addled brain. Dammit.

“Sharon, there may be a problem with the adoption.” He was speaking way too bluntly. The look on his wife’s face reminded him that he was supposed to be a diplomat. “I misspoke. I’m sorry. I’m just a little upset. I’m sure it will blow over… but I need to explain what is happening in Manila. Come, sit beside me, let’s talk.”

The Wikileaks scandal would not descend on Washington until November 2010, when that organization started to publicly disseminate approximately a quarter of a million classified documents. But in Manila a “mini-wiki” scandal had erupted five years earlier when an FBI analyst, Leandro Aragoncillo, conspired with Philippine politicians to leak classified cables in an effort to destabilize the Arroyo government. Some of the cables were highly critical of Arroyo and some had even been tampered with to make the criticism sound worse. All the cables had Joe’s last name at the bottom, indicating he had approved them.

“Is it really bad?” she asked, and from her husband’s deep sigh, she knew it was. “Well, apparently, in one cable I wrote that ‘the biggest problem for Arroyo is Arroyo.’ She wouldn’t find that amusing. She actually never finds anything very amusing; she is the most un-Filipino Filipino I ever met!” He looked at his wife and saw worry quickly changing to panic. “But it isn’t all bad, most of the cables show how even-handed we tried to be. At one point I say something like ‘the focus of both sides is too much on either retaining power or attaining power and not enough focus on what is best for the Filipino people.’” She was shaking her head and was soon crying inconsolably. “Joe, we can’t give up our baby. We just can’t!” Her tears were unbearable to witness and impossible to assuage, so he quietly hugged her and said nothing more.

December 20, 2005 (Manila)

There is nothing quite like Christmas in the Philippines. Of course, arriving in mid-December meant that three months of the Christmas season had already been missed. “What if the court rules against us tomorrow, Joe?”

“It’s possible, but unlikely. The courts can be influenced, but not all judges can be coerced. And we don’t even know if Arroyo and the others around her even know about the adoption.”

“Of course they know! How could they not know?”

“Honestly, we are not anything here anymore. We are just two American visitors. And that scandal from the autumn is old news. Filipinos have a remarkably short attention span … they’re almost as bad as Americans.”

Sharon looked at him with irritation. “Stop it! Stop trying to joke about this. This is serious. And whatever the attention span of the average Filipino, politicians have good memories when it comes to those who offend them.” He nodded and shrugged his shoulders. “So, we will find out tomorrow. No point in worrying about it today.”

Sharon had something else on her mind. Something more than the court hearing was troubling her. He wanted to ignore it; he hoped she hadn’t found out what he had done. “There is something else we need to talk about.” He looked at her blankly. “Joe, are you leaving us? After this is all done?” His blank look changed to one of feigned surprise. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about!” she hissed. “Our bank accounts. All our money. It’s almost all gone! What have you done?” This day was getting worse and worse, he grimaced. “I was hoping you wouldn’t notice and by the time we got back to Cambodia, it would all be back in our American accounts. I guess I should also tell you that I have signed over our house in Virginia to our two older children.”

She had no words. She just looked at him like he was not the man she had known for over 25 years. She was trembling. “I don’t understand.” As matter-of-factly as he could summon, he replied, “Well you said it yourself a thousand times: we can’t let Thomas go. We can’t just let them take him from us. So, we won’t. Our money, most of it anyway, is in an account in Singapore. If the court rules against us tomorrow, we will simply never come back to the Philippines … or America.” He said it so matter-of-factly, so much as if he were discussing the weather or recounting how he liked Baroque music, that she wasn’t certain she had heard him correctly. “Joe, you’re crazy! You’re an American ambassador, you have two children living in the United States, our families are there, everything we have and love are there. You can’t…” He cut her off sharply and he spoke menacingly through his teeth: “Not everything. Not everything we love is in America.” Tears now came to his eyes and he spoke more softly, almost a whisper. “I will not, I cannot, give up my son. I don’t care about my career. I don’t care about being exiled from America. Our children and friends can come visit us wherever we end up. I will not give up Thomas.” She knew he was wrong, that he was being foolish and bombastic, but she could not bring herself to tell him so.

December 21, 2005 (Manila)

Thomas had turned a year old in November. He charmed the entire courtroom as he entered cheerfully with his parents, oblivious to the reality that his whole future would be decided in the next few hours. He smiled at everyone, blinking his eyes playfully at the judge and laughing ridiculously throughout the hearing. The proceedings turned out to be anticlimactic and the parents breathed a sigh of relief. The judge was professional, serious, and ensured a proper hearing. They left the courtroom increasingly confident that they had foolishly overreacted.

December 23, 2005 (Manila)

But the next day came and went and they received no word of the court’s decision. On the 23rd a young woman appeared at their hotel room door. How she knew where they were staying, they had no idea, but it made them nervous. “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, ma’m, but the judge instructed me to tell you that her decision has been made. But the courts are closed tomorrow and of course Christmas too, so she will inform you of her decision on the 26th. Now, sir, please, the judge told me to be very precise in what I say. Sir, the judge says, you must bring the baby. You must bring the baby with you. The judge said to emphasize that, sir.” Before he could respond, Sharon harshly answered: “Of course we are going to bring Thomas with us! Does the judge think we would just leave him in a hotel room all alone?” She felt her husband squeeze her arm a little too firmly to be affectionate, and she stopped. “Thank you for coming to see us,” he said gently. “Please let the judge know that we understand and we are grateful for her kindness.”

“We will need some place other than a hotel room to stay. We still have some friends at the embassy; they can put us up for a couple of nights.” Sharon looked at him confused, still trying to work out in her mind what was going on. “On Christmas Day we will fly back to Cambodia. It is the least likely day for them to look for us at the airport.” Sharon’s confusion turned quickly to shock and then to tears. “They’re going to take our baby from us, Joe! Oh my God, my God, no, my God!” He looked at her, and his look was almost a smirk, “No, they aren’t taking Thomas from us. Not ever.” “We can’t just break the law,” she argued, but hoped he had a better counter argument. “Breaking the law is never a good idea, but the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” She was angry with his cavalier attitude. “You quote the Gospel to excuse being a criminal!” His demeanor changed as he answered. “Even now I would give him over to them—if they could assure us that he would be given to another family, just some assurance that he will not end up on the filth-ridden streets of Tondo for the rest of his life.”

Christmas Day (Manila)

The drive to the airport was always longer than it should be, with the streets so crowded and bustling. But the drive this time seemed interminable, as time itself slowed to a crawl. The airport was not as crowded as usual, but security was also more lax than usual, and everyone seemed even friendlier than usual. They easily made it through the ticketing. When they got to Immigration they thought the officer looked at them a little too closely, but fear always makes one think others are watching you. Finally, the officer smiled and waved them through. The plane would be boarding in less than an hour; everything was going to be ok after all. Well, maybe not everything. He would have to resign upon reaching their destination, and they would have to surrender their diplomatic passports and find someplace quickly to live. Perhaps, he mused, the Cambodian government would allow them to remain? Cambodia was not a signatory to the Hague Convention or any other treaty that requires cooperation dealing with custody issues.

Lost in his thoughts he had not noticed the five men in police uniforms approaching until they were surrounding him. Looking up, he saw a Philippine National Police Colonel hovering over him and Thomas. “Colonel Angelo Natividad, Ambassador. It is so good to make your acquaintance.” He said it with such warmth and such a broad smile one could almost believe he was sincere. The Colonel’s hand was outstretched, but Joe declined it.

They had almost made it—or maybe they hadn’t even come close. Maybe the judge had been ordered to tip them off so they would try to kidnap the child. It was clever. The Philippine government was now inoculated against any criticism that it was denying the adoption to avenge those leaked cables. He wanted to do nothing so much as kick himself for his smugness. If we had only returned to the court, he reflected, we could have appealed the decision. We could have appealed to the public. We could have sought the intercession of the American government. This rash act of trying to run away with the child had now ruined what little chance there had been for keeping Thomas.

They were escorted to a waiting police van, the windows darkened so no one could look in. At least, he thought, they had not placed him or Sharon in handcuffs, nor had they taken the baby away. They drove a long time, perhaps five or more hours and then stopped in a deserted area, not far from Baguio. Ordered out of the van, they stretched their legs and looked about confused. The four police guards who accompanied them in the van all had rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders, as well as sidearms.

Natividad gestured to hold the baby. It was clear he was not a brutal man; just a man following orders; he would not harm the child. Joe took Thomas from Sharon and handed him into the Colonel’s arms. Thomas immediately stretched out, arcing his body and leaning backwards, straining to get back into his father’s arms. He didn’t fuss or scream, but just quietly continued to strain his little body backwards, fingers nearly touching his father’s chest. Natividad laughed loudly. “Well, the boy seems to know where he belongs,” and he returned the boy to his father’s arms.

Natividad scowled; this would be the hardest thing he had ever done in his professional life. He had always been a by-the-book, professional police officer. He prided himself on that, and all his men respected him for it. But this time he didn’t think he had a choice. “What is it Jesus said, Ambassador? Something about the Sabbath being made for man?” Joe immediately realized just how naïve he had been. Of course, their hotel room had been tapped and the police knew exactly what was going on and had easily set the airport trap. “Yeah, that’s what he said,” Joe responded. “Well, it also says to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” laughed Natividad. “You know that even now Queen Arroyo’s soldiers are scouring the countryside for you. Christmas or no Christmas, she is determined to find you and this baby. It almost reminds me of the first Christmas,” he laughed again, nastily.

“Almost,” Joe seethed and thought he would punch this fat, arrogant bastard in the teeth if he laughed one more time.

“You don’t like our President very much, do you?”

What more was there to lose, he thought to himself, so answered bluntly: “No, I don’t.”

“What about her predecessors? Ramos and Aquino?”

What, he wondered, was this all about? Just another example of that irksome Filipino habit of being chatty and friendly, even with those you want to hurt. “I like them both. Real patriots; real people.”

“I hear you once accused Cory of cheating at some game? Is that true?”

This was ridiculous. This small talk annoyed him, but he found himself answering anyway. “Yes, she does cheat. So do I. Some games are more fun that way.” Natividad seemed equally annoyed: “So, it is ok to cheat if it is a game? To hell with the rules!”

“You misunderstand. Cory only cheated so one of her grandchildren wouldn’t lose. It was all in good fun.”

“Ah, so to hell with the law if it is done for someone else? To hell with the law if it is fun!” Natividad rejoined. “How convenient for you and how superior that must make you feel to be helping someone else.”

“An unjust law is no law at all,” he replied. Natividad smirked, “I don’t think St. Augustine—or Martin Luther King—would appreciate you manipulating their words for your benefit.” He glared at Natividad, but he had no desire to engage further with this well-educated monster. Thomas must have felt his father’s stress and grabbed him harder around the neck.

“Look at him,” Natividad motioned, pointing to Thomas, “he is attached to you, like one of your limbs.”

“Not a limb. More than that.” He pressed the little boy closer and considered pleading with Natividad to do what would be best for the child, but he could see that no entreaties would have any impact on this policeman.

Natividad smiled again. Gently rustling the little boy’s hair, he said “You know, our police and soldiers are looking everywhere for you … except here.” Joe abruptly looked toward the four police guards with their weapons; he stifled a gasp. It was not unheard of for police to summarily execute suspects, and he started to realize just how isolated a place this was where they had stopped.

Natividad looked at him with no emotion. “What a life you would give this child, huh? You would be hounded for years to come. And you and this little boy would be little more than refugees; you would have no place to lay your heads.”

“Would he be better here, Colonel?” He had given up all hope, except the hope that the soldiers would put a bullet in his head so he would not have to live this loss. He was almost screaming now: “Perhaps I have been arrogant; perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps we have been just as selfish and narcissistic as all those biological parents who insist on their so-called parental rights regardless the harm caused to the child. Perhaps, somehow, a life in Tondo will be a better life for my son.”

Again, Natividad laughed and, had it not been for the guards who now had their rifles unslung from their shoulders, he would surely have hit the Colonel. “A better life for your son? This child, this Thomas,” Natividad continued, pointing a fat finger toward the child, “would rather be with you in hell than with all of us in heaven. And I think you and your wife feel the same.”

His mind stopped working for a moment. What was Natividad saying? It made no sense. But before he could figure it out, the Colonel was speaking again: “Go, go! The plane is waiting, beyond that hill. It is a small plane, but it will get you to Laoag quickly and safely. They won’t be looking for you in Laoag. From there you will take a short flight to Taipei, and then back to Cambodia.” The two parents were uncertain what they were hearing. “What? We… we… aren’t under arrest?”

He started to thank the Colonel, but Natividad put up his hand. “You must understand that I am not happy with myself. What I am doing is so wrong in so many ways. I am ashamed of myself. But your friends, that Cheater at Games and Ramos, that smoker of cigars, asked for my help and I could not refuse them.” And the sorrow on the man’s brow made them ashamed that a decent man felt compelled to do something so dishonest. But Sharon, unable to restrain her joy and heedless of what Natividad had just said, flung herself at the Colonel and hugged him wildly, kissing him over and over until he felt compelled to also embrace her.

On the flight to Taipei, he took stock of the day and their future. The former Ambassador, the estranged American, the newly-minted outlaw, looked down at his son. The child was lively and cheerful, as always; the man was worn out and tired. He gently cupped the child’s head with his hand and tenderly kissed his brow. Another old man, also named Joseph, probably had done much the same two thousand years earlier, he thought to himself. “This may not be the best Christmas ever, but it is the most like the first Christmas we will ever experience, my Thomas. And someday,” he laughed aloud, “you will be a teenager and I might even regret all that we are sacrificing for you.” But the babe just reached up his arms, and the man realized he was making no sacrifice at all.

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