After breakfast, Mom lingered at my apartment for fifteen minutes, then a half hour, then an hour. Ellen wasn’t about to prod her to go, and frankly, neither was I. Finally, as it crept close to eleven o’clock, she kissed Christopher and looked at Ellen. “I can’t put it off any longer, I suppose.”
“It’s up to you,” Ellen said gently. “I’ll drive either direction.”
“No, it’s time. After death and grieving, you have to take the risk to live again.” She kissed my cheek. “You remember that.”
“I will.” I hugged her tightly. “You call me anytime. You can’t sleep in the middle of the night and want somebody to talk to . . . You call me.”
I at least pulled a smile out of her. “You remind me so much of your dad.”
The whisperers didn’t know him as well as they thought they did. Few people did. His gentle grace touched off more than one scandal in his life. Like the time I sassed my Sunday school teacher.
There comes a point in a kid’s life when he realizes that the world doesn’t work the way he always thought it did. Growing up, you’re fed a steady diet of guys in white hats always arriving in time to rescue the homesteaders, of bombs being defused in the nick of time, of the miracle cure being found and everyone living happily ever after.
But then something happens, and one time, the day isn’t saved. It happens earlier than later for some kids. Mine happened the summer before I turned eight years old.
My mother had slipped into a deep, dark place for reasons that weren’t clear, or at least weren’t talked about, and I wondered whether we’d ever see her smile again. My father was weighed down by the extra load at home, caring for two high-energy boys, maintaining his practice as a therapist and pastoring the church in Daniels Fork. He didn’t smile much either.
Every Sunday though, he packed David and me off to that little church, and he would talk about the goodness of God and the joy of salvation. We would sing the hymns with the shape notes and the refrains that jumped between the women’s parts and the men’s parts about joy and comfort and glory. Then we’d come home, and see that my mother hadn’t found a reason to get up or eat or get dressed.
Somewhere there was a disconnect. We were believing in a fairytale, it seemed. Rather than bother my dad with a bunch of questions, one Sunday morning right after a lesson about the three Hebrew children, I asked my Sunday school teacher why God couldn’t do that anymore. Mrs. Morgan looked at me with pure puzzlement. “Michael, God is still on the throne. He is still in the miracle-working business.”
“Then it should be real easy for Him to help my mother. Why won’t He?”
“Maybe if your mother would realize that she is not the first person to have troubles—”
That’s when I stood up, and she told me to please take my seat.
I didn’t. Instead I asked her why again. And why wouldn’t God let Uncle James and Aunt Ellen have a baby. And did John Boyd and David Lee have to die.
She very firmly told me I was not to question Almighty God.
I muttered something about God being a sissy if He couldn’t stand a few questions from a little kid.
That’s when she snatched me by the hand and hustled me out to the sanctuary where my father was teaching. She whispered the charges in his ear, eyeing me the whole time. He nodded and said he’d take care of it. Dread settled over me.
I never moved from that front pew. David shook his head when he passed by after Sunday school. I was living up to—or down to—his expectations. My father, however, let me sit up in the front seat with him on the drive home from church and he convinced my mother to go out to lunch with us. I was glad she did, but the anticipation of what was coming once my dad lowered the boom made it hard to eat.
Afterwards, we left Mom and David at home and he took me out for ice cream. I was thoroughly confused by this point. “Michael, you were disrespectful, but not wrong,” he said. “I won’t allow disrespect to Mrs. Morgan or anyone else. But there’s nothing wrong with sincere questions about God. He will always hear your questions, but you have to understand He may not answer them.”
“Like when you tell me you’ll explain some things when I’m older?”
He smiled and nodded. “Exactly. Only there are some things we may not be old enough for until we’re in heaven.”
“So why won’t God help Mom?”
“He is. Your mom has a disease, Michael, and instead of getting a fever or spots or something, she gets really sad, sometimes for a long time. I think she needs to see a doctor and get some medicine for it, but she’s not sure that will help.”
“She went out to lunch today. That’s good.”
He smiled. “It was. I told her to do it for you. She loves you a lot.” He took a big bite from his ice cream. “Sometimes people end up in situations and it’s hard to know what to do. But you can trust that even if you make the wrong decisions, God still loves you and He will make good come out of it.”
Then he told me we were moving to St. Louis. I was terrified. He said Mom was, too. “I didn’t know grownups got scared.”
“We’re scared most of the time, Michael. Scared we’ll fail. Scared somebody will figure out we don’t really know what we’re doing. Scared we’ll take everybody else down with us.”
“Is that why the angels always say, ‘Fear not!’ when they appear?”
“Maybe so. I don’t want you to be scared, not ever. When you’re scared, you can’t take action, and a man has to be able to take action.”
I nodded like I knew what he was talking about. That afternoon I sat on the bathroom sink trying to convince myself that my hair was red just like his. It wasn’t. It’s prematurely gray like his now, but when I was eight, I wanted whatever it would take to be like my dad.
So after my mother had left and I sat on the floor hooking up train cars with Christopher, things started to line up for me. Nolan said I was hiding out in my safe job. One train car. My mother said there came a time when a person had to take the risk to live again. A second train car. And my dad said a man has to take action. And there’s the locomotive.
“Christopher, what would you think about living in the country?”
Read the rest