I’m remembering another October 8th, nine years
ago. It was a day I dreaded. It was the fourteenth anniversary of my marriage
to The Father of My Children, and it was the first one since our divorce had
become final. I got the children off to school and opened a book I was reading
for a seminary class, but I was distracted by thoughts about things I felt had
gone wrong in my past and worries about my future.
The phone rang. It was my brother calling to say that our father
had been taken to the hospital. Daddy was 77, and in the four years since our
mother’s death had made a few trips to the ER, though none of the previous
trips had turned up anything serious. I tried to read my book. In that year of
divorce, my father had been my great support in many, many ways. Since he was
in Virginia, there was no chance that I could
get to him quickly from the house we were renting here in City By the Sea . I didn’t want to be alone, but I
didn’t want to call anyone for fear of missing a call back from my brother.
When he did call back, the news wasn’t good. He was packing his wife and kids
in the car and heading south,
hoping to see our father before things got worse. They were barely underway when we learned that Daddy had died. The ambulance had taken him to a hospital where his aneurysm could not be treated, and they could never get him stable enough for transport from Jane Austen’s Village to Big City Through the Tunnel.
Soon after, all three children were home from school. They
were 11 and 6 and 2, and I remember sitting down on the kitchen floor with them,
all of us crying. It was a dark room,
and it was a dark day. We suffered loss upon loss in that year: our family as
we knew it, the familiar home we had to leave, and now the father and
grandfather on whom we relied, the old man we loved.
I grew up thinking that you got what you deserved. I think I
was pretty much promised that if I was a good girl nothing bad would happen to
me. I’m pretty sure that was the understanding Job had with God, too. I went on
thinking that way for a long time, because the people who taught me that lesson
were pretty convincing. They were religious people, and I believed them.
Have you ever heard of Struwwelpeter? Before I was a mom and
later a minister, I worked in the field of children’s books. One of the famous books of the
19th century was a collection of cautionary tales for children,
entitled Struwwelpeter. He was a scary looking character, sort of a Victorian
Edward Scissorhands! The children in the stories did bad things: they teased
the dog or played with matches or sucked their thumbs or refused to eat the
good food put in front of them. Of course such bad children got their
appropriate “rewards” for that behavior: the teaser was beaten, the
thumb-sucker had his thumb cut off, the soup-refuser wasted away to the point
of disappearance by the fifth day, and the firestarter? She burned herself to ashes!!
Job lived in a world where people thought they got what they
deserved. Job worked hard at being pious, and he made deals with God on behalf
of his children, and still he lost everything and almost everyone who had been
part of his life.
I always tried to be a good girl. But another phone call,
one afternoon in 1992, changed my way of looking at the world and at God. The
doctor calling had the results of a prenatal test, and the very sad news
compelled me to reconsider everything I “knew” to be true. If God would do something to a baby in order to punish me, that wasn’t a God I was interested in knowing. I had to find a new way to understand God. It took me a lot longer than the scripture tells us it took Job to get around to blessing the Lord again.
On that sad Wednesday afternoon nine years ago, after we got
up off the kitchen floor, I made called a few people to let them know about my
father. Soon food and flowers appeared and friends came to help. I remember going shopping for a funeral dress with my friend Amy, and borrowing a blazer for Snowman from a neighbor, and taking offered help with the children and talking on the phone to faraway relatives whose names were as marginally recognizable as their Carolina draws were comprehensible.
I no longer thought of bad news as being my fault, and I was
able to receive the love that poured out toward the children and me as a gift from and of God. In those dark days, though shocked and grieved, I was not alone. I could see the light of God’s living love.