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A MIRACLE SET TO MUSIC

This story is true, although Mrs. Tiffany's name is fictitious.

A MISTY RAIN drifted through the wintry night, illuminated by a lone car's headlights as it turned into the church lot.

"Is that all?" we wondered. It was time to begin the annual church caroling, but only nine of us had responded to our minister's reminder about it. With a glance at the little group gathered in the church basement, he zipped up his coat and headed toward the door. "You're the faithful," he said. "Let's go."

Five to a car, we drove through the darkness, grateful for the warmth of those sitting next to us. We knew the routine. First we sang at the home of a multiple sclerosis victim, then we visited an intensive-care facility. After that, we headed out into the country to surprise a family whose young child was waging a long battle with a baffling disease. Only the father and child were home, but the delight on their faces made the evening seem better.

Even so, I was ready to call it quits. The rain and routine seemed to rob the night of the little satisfaction I felt in it.

"We could stop at the Millers'," our minister ventured as we drove back into town. Someone agreed, and he turned past their house. It was dark, but he refused to give up. Two blocks farther on, a new Colonial-style house caught his attention.

"Maybe Mrs. Tiffany will still be awake," he remarked, pulling into the driveway. We waited for a moment for the other car to catch us and then walked to the front door.

Her son answered the door. "We're caroling," we explained. "Is your mother still up?" He seemed to hesitate. A trace of strained patience crossed his face. Then he relented.

"You can come in, but she won't comprehend," he said. We filed past him into the front room, where a slight, white-haired and very old woman sat alone facing a TV set. He reached for the remote control and the picture collapsed on itself, taking the noise with it.

We stood facing Mrs. Tiffany uncertainly.

"She's 95," someone whispered. One of the carolers knelt in front of her. "We've come to sing to you," she said slowly, emphasizing each word.

Mrs. Tiffany looked at her and then at us. If she understood, she didn't show it.

"Let's sing," I said, wanting to end the awkward hesitation. We began with "Joy to the World" and followed with "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

Mrs. Tiffany stared blankly upward at us. Across the room, her son stood patiently at the door, waiting for us to leave. The carols ended and silence swept in.

"What'll we sing next?" someone murmured. The minister began to answer -- but he never finished the sentence.

"You don't know how much I appreciate this," Mrs. Tiffany interrupted in a steady voice. She said it without any hesitation or awkwardness, as if she talked all the time. Every eye in the room fixed on her.

"You are the kindest people, coming out in the cold and singing for us. I just can't say how much this means to me." She leaned forward, grasping the hands of those nearest her. "Please sing some more."

" 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear'!" someone prompted. This time the sound was different, born of what everyone sensed -- that something unexpected and unusual was happening.

As we finished, those of us nearest Mrs. Tiffany reached out to touch her. Once again she reached for every hand, taking and grasping it firmly.

Concerned about tiring her, our minister suggested we finish. "Let's sing 'Away in the Manger,' " he offered.

As the carol ended, Mrs. Tiffany released the last hand, leaned back and looked up. Her eyes searched from person to person. I knew she was taking us into herself and holding us there.

As we filed out, her son stood at the door, his voice hushed. Over and over he repeated, "My own mother. I wouldn't have believed it! She hasn't spoken in months."

The impatience I had seen on his face was gone, replaced by what can best be described as the look of someone who has witnessed a miracle.

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