The Story of Bethany
Written by Holly DeHerrera
Even the lamps looked sad. Dull, as if they got covered by a thin, brown cloth. I wonder why they don’t put new bulbs in them so the color doesn’t make people want to cry more. I scanned the room full of family and strangers, all holding hankies and dabbing swollen eyes.
A group of relatives surrounded us, and I couldn’t get a good look at Devin. Everyone whisper-talked, as if he might wake up and climb out of the big box in the back corner and say, Tada! It was just a joke!
But the sad feeling told me that couldn’t happen, and the room smelled like overly sweet flowers. It didn’t feel like a live place. I swallowed at the glob in my throat that kept making me think I’d be sick.
“Such a shame,” someone said, shaking a gray head.
“No one could have guessed. Don’t blame yourself.”
My cousin’s mom slumped to the floor, covering her head with spread-out fingers, her wails making my stomach hurt. I wanted her to be quiet so I could think.
Mom told me he did it with a wire, but how could a wire hold a man of 20? Nothing can hold all that sadness.
The circle of relatives opened up just enough for me to see him lying there in the box, his handsome face as pale as powder and a thick, blue-black ring marking the skin on his neck, his Adam’s apple as still as could be.
And my world cracked open because, before seeing him, I figured my empty feeling could go away one day and get filled with something good. I thought it could get better. Seeing Devin there, his throat ringed with a bruise, told me that sadness can make you want to give up altogether.
For the first time, I wondered how it would feel to die — and for the sadness to finally disappear into the sky.
Grandma Smith got real, real sick. That’s how come we moved in with her — Mom, Dad, my sister and me. I was fine with that because Grandma was as nice as a cinnamon sugar doughnut, and she smelled good. Every morning, she patted on face powder that had the big letters A-V-O-N on it. And Grandma let me ride my red tricycle all through her house when Mommy and Daddy weren’t home. She was always smiles and sweetness.
“Did you find all the goodies I hid, Bethany?”
Grandma raised her white eyebrows, lines piled up above them like folds of kneaded dough. No matter what, she was always fun, even if she was sick.
I shook my head and grinned, a tickly feeling making my tummy tingle. Grandma was all the time hiding things in tiny places — candies and toys and stuff. I reached up and buried my fingertips in her turkey-gobble chin. Tight curls looked like a fluffy blue-gray cloud around her round face. “I’ll tell Sister.”
“You do that, sweet girl.” She reached for me, pulling me into her middle. She’s thick around her belly just like me! I snuggled in, liking the feel of her squishy tummy against my cheek.
But the sweet powder smell of her didn’t last forever.
Mommy tugged my hand, and I pulled back a little, not wanting to see my grandma dead instead of shuffling around her house, cheeks as rosy as a flower petal and a smile stretched across her wrinkles.
“There’s no need, Bethany.” She touched her hand against my back.
“Can I go touch her?”
Mommy looked down at me with an itty-bitty smile and said, “Yes, you can, but it won’t be the same.”
We walked over, my feet moving faster than Mommy’s in the quiet, whispery room. I looked at Grandma who didn’t look like Grandma, still as a rock and no sunshine in her face. I reached a hand up and touched her turkey-gobble chin. It felt cold and not at all soft like before — so I jerked my hand back really quickly.
“It doesn’t feel like her.”
Mommy nodded, looking sad as a gray-blue sky.
“That’s because that’s only Grandma’s body, not the part of her that made her who she was. That isn’t inside her anymore.”
I looked around the room, wondering where that other part might have run off to. “Where’d it go?”
Mommy kneeled down so our faces were real close together and whispered the name of the place. “It’s up there, Bethany. And she is happy and free and without any sickness there.”
I didn’t know what all this meant, but it filled my chest with a soft, warm feeling, like a miniature ball of sunshine sat there instead of the bag-of-rocks feeling from before. It seemed like, even though Grandma wasn’t with us, she wasn’t gone-gone. She was just someplace else. Someplace full of happiness.
I touched Grandma’s hand and whispered, “Goodbye.” And I smiled because of the picture of Grandma all happy up in the sky, her hair blending in with the clouds.
Sister and I sat on the bed, Mommy in the middle, a book open in her hands, her words floating in the air. She read the story about a big old lion who sang a song and made all the world, the music magically growing grass and trees and flowers. I liked thinking how words and music could do all that. I pulled the blanket up to my chin and listened.
Soon, Mommy closed the book.
“Time for bed, girls.”
She got up, and the bed bobbled from side to side as she looked over her shoulder at us and whispered, “Good night.” She snapped the light switch down, and the room got swallowed up in darkness.
The bigger I got, the more Mommy changed. Some days, she was as nice as pie, and others, she was more like sour milk. I never knew who would come home.
Sister and I crouched behind the half-wall at the end of the long kitchen counter. We peeked over the flat surface toward the front door, waiting to see how hard she’d close it when she stepped in from work, waiting to see how her face looked — soft and peaceful or scrunched up like a knot.
Sister looked worried, her fingertips hooked over the wood, the pink of her nails looking white. “Do you think she’ll be mad today?”
I shook my head. I didn’t know why she’d asked me. She was older than me, and besides, I never knew with Mommy.
“I don’t like when she yells,” she said.
“I don’t, either.”
The door opened, and we hid our heads below the wall, listening. A quiet door closing.
I looked over at Sister and smiled, and she smiled back. We stood and walked to the living room to say hello to Mommy.
If we came home from school and Mommy had gotten there first, and if we smelled something baking, we knew she’d had a bad day at work. We knew on those days to keep out of her way and sneak off to our bedrooms until Daddy got home.
Seemed like he would take one look or take one sniff, same as us, of the banana bread and take off to the garage to work on the car. We all knew better than to give her any reason to yell on days like those.
The lamplight looked warm in the quiet front room where Mommy sat in her chair, her special book on her knees. The white walls and the dark brown wood that outlined each one added to the cozy feeling. Mommy and Daddy liked old stuff, so everything looked pretty, but with some dings and bumps so we all knew it had been loved by someone else. Maybe that’s what made them like to fill our house with hand-me-downs. Antiques, they called them. Dad would rub a rough hand over some old piece of furniture and smile. “Beautiful,” he’d say, all soft and rumbly. I didn’t see anything so special about the wood but liked how it made him smile.
I peered in at Mommy, my tummy twisting at the idea of interrupting her and upsetting her. She didn’t like to be bothered during her quiet time, but I couldn’t find my other shoe and thought maybe this was a good enough reason. Which would make her angrier: me going to school with one shoe on or me tapping her shoulder and asking for help?
I decided she’d rather me not embarrass her with an unfinished outfit. “Mommy?” I said it as small as I could so I wouldn’t startle her.
She looked up, her eyebrows pinching together and her mouth tipped down on the edges.
“How many times have I told you not to bother me when I’m doing my quiet time? Huh?” She stood, the leafy pages of the book sounding papery as she tossed it on her chair.
“Sorry, Mommy. I know you don’t like it but —”
“But what? Why is it so hard for you to just listen on this? Why do you make me have to punish you?”
She snagged my arm upward and then grabbed Sister, too — she’d been hiding around the corner. Mommy told us that when one of us did wrong, both were punished so we’d remember and both learn the same lesson. But that didn’t seem fair, and I swallowed down the angry feeling in my throat.
Mommy stopped outside her door, leaned down and pinched my cheeks hard. “This is your fault.” She grabbed Sister’s hand and pulled her through her bedroom doorway, then turned to me with eyes that looked like two dark beads of meanness. “And it hurts me more than it will you.” Then she slammed the door.
I stood in the hallway and listened to Mommy’s hand landing on Sister’s bottom. I knew the pink skin would turn an angry red, and I knew Sister would be biting her lip and squeezing her eyes shut to keep from crying out. One. Two. Three. Four. Because if she cried out before Mommy was done with all 25 spankings, she’d start over at one again.
I yanked down my shorts, down to my one-shoed feet and waited for my turn. I kept on thinking and thinking why I’d been so stupid to ask her.
I wondered if Mommy loved us at all anymore. I wondered why she didn’t take us on nature walks, pointing out pretty blossoms and strange-shaped leaves anymore, why she didn’t read to us at bedtime and why she didn’t say nice things anymore.
A soft crying jerked me back. The door opened, and Sister walked by me, not looking at me, her eyes rimmed with red, twisting at her T-shirt, tears spread thin across her cheeks. Mommy pointed into her room like I didn’t know which way to go. I wished I were teeny-tiny so I could be a speck on the floor and hide and not have to try to be brave enough to keep back my tears before the end of my 25 spankings.
Times with Daddy filled in the sad spaces in me. When he was home, I’d go outside, my feet curled up under me on the cool grass, and watch him work on the car.
Sometimes, he would take my sister and me out to the reservoir, and he’d drop his fishing line in the water, whistling quietly, his bushy mustache bunching up and his fishing hat scrunched on top of his head. Other times, he’d take us to the store, and we’d sit in the canoe on the floor of the big room all lined up with rods and brightly colored flies and life vests. We’d pretend to paddle someplace far away while he shopped for tackle. And every year before school started, we’d model our new outfits for him. He’d sit, as patient as could be, and watch us parade each new thing in our fashion show. He’d smile and offer the occasional That’s a nice one or a Well, don’t you two look pretty.
Daddy would scold Mommy sometimes, too, after he thought we were sleeping. I heard his muffled voice through the floor from my room in the basement.
“You’re too hard on them. You need to calm down. They don’t need you yelling at them for every little thing.”
I didn’t think Daddy knew about the spankings, or else, he would be more upset with her. He definitely didn’t know about them sometimes making my bottom hurt for days after the times I hadn’t been able to keep in the crying and she had started all over from the beginning.
“I don’t need you telling me what to do! They need to learn respect!”
“You don’t need to beat a person down to get that!”
Hearing him made all the feelings tumble around like a twisted-up ball of yarn. The tangle seemed to grow and grow until it sometimes felt like I was all tangled up in it, too, and everything, even breathing, got harder.
I hated middle school. My best friend’s mom died, and after that, things changed. She moved and my so-called friends didn’t seem to like me at all. Everything about me seemed to provide endless opportunities for teasing.
TJ laughed like a hyena. “Look at her boobs. They’re so big!”
I pulled my T-shirt away from my body, wishing for the millionth time that I was small like my sister and that my chest was flat like the rest of the sixth-grade girls.
“And you could fry an egg on that huge forehead!”
I pretended the words didn’t hurt, but they heaped on me like dirt over a live body, smothering.
“Did you hear about Bethany’s cousin?”
My stomach clenched at the mention of Devin, and I wondered how word had gotten out so quickly. I wondered if his funeral would be like Grandma’s, at least bringing a little glimmer of peace. Daddy had been so sad, he’d hardly talked since hearing about it, and Mom didn’t say anything, almost like she didn’t care at all.
“He was so pathetic, he killed himself,” TJ said, like it was the most hilarious thing in the world.
“No, he didn’t!” Tears burned my eyes, but I wouldn’t let them fall. I blinked them back and said, “He committed suicide.”
“That’s what suicide is, idiot! Killing yourself!”
A few of the others looked away, like they couldn’t make themselves laugh this time.
I swallowed over and over and over to keep from breaking down, then just turned and walked away from them, my shoes making a squeaky sound all the way down the hallway with the shiny tan tiles.
“She’s so stupid,” I heard someone whisper.
Those blue bruises on Devin’s neck proved TJ’s words and told me that there was a way out of the waves and waves of sadness I felt all the time. The bruises spoke to me, pulled me in, told me I could end it and maybe find peace like Grandma did. But I didn’t believe that deep inside.
Grandma’s way wasn’t a violent, jerking escape. It was graceful and beautiful and patient, waiting for her last breath while not wasting the ones she had on earth. She spent her life like money to make me and my sister and everyone she knew feel loved and cared about.
Still, the idea of rope on flesh, of blade on skin, crooked a finger and told me, Listen. I’m offering a way out. I can help you.
And so I began the bloodletting. I climbed under the covers in my bedroom down in the basement, took a pen and began to scratch and scratch at the flesh using the pointy, plastic lid. I scratched on my arm until blood dripped and dripped.
It was like letting the pressure out of a soda bottle — the pain gave relief. At least this way, I was doing it to myself instead of the pain I experienced with Mom’s endless list of cut-downs or those uttered by the kids at school.
Mom’s words echoed in my brain like rocks pinging against a cave wall. She didn’t spank anymore because I was bigger, but her words might as well have been weapons.
“We already have one perfect child. We don’t need a screw-up like you.” Glaring. Mouth twisting like a knot in the center of her face.
“Nobody will ever love you. How could they?”
Smiling smugly. Turning away. Closing the door. Darkness swallowing me up whole.
Cut deeper. It will help take away her words. You control this. You control your pain. Don’t let them hurt you anymore.
So whenever my day leaned toward gray-black, I took the pain out on myself, took control so I wouldn’t fall apart like glass thrown against cement.
Mom insisted I attend parent-teacher conferences, like I could add anything without hearing about it later. My presence was more for her benefit; maybe she thought it looked like she was a good mom, holding me accountable or something like that.
Mrs. Baker sat at her desk. Mom shifted in her seat to get comfortable. I waited for the hammer to fall.
“I’m concerned about Bethany,” Mrs. Baker began without saying anything about academics. “Some days, she enters this room the picture of happy and energetic. Others …” Mrs. Baker studied her fingernails a moment before lifting her gaze to me. “Others, she seems so sad.”
Mom straightened her dress, smoothing her hands over the fabric, making a scratching sound. She didn’t reply.
Mrs. Baker continued, “It is my belief that Bethany is manic-depressive.”
Without so much as a gasp for effect or a look of sorrow on my behalf, her face without an ounce of feeling, Mom answered, “I know.”
It was as if the lights in the room dimmed a little.
What? You know that I’m struggling and that I’m feeling so hopeless, and you don’t even care? You only add to it with your screaming insults? How could you!
But I didn’t say anything. Didn’t cry, because that would get me in trouble later. I just looked down at my arm, scarred from my own abuse, and I understood Devin.
I understood feeling so terribly alone that nothing seemed worth living for anymore.
Light poked against my thick, black backdrop in high school, giving me a glimpse of a different way, like a colorful dot-to-dot. Mrs. Price hefted the box of props against her middle and grinned over at me.
“You nailed that role, Bethany. Everyone was so convinced.”
I trailed her to her office, holding my books against my chest. “Thanks.”
She looked at me sideways. “Doing okay? You’ve seemed down lately.”
I blinked against the unexpected tears. Mom had been especially cruel, and it seemed like nothing I said or did anymore was cause for congratulations. She didn’t even seem to care when everyone else saw a talent or gift in me.
I swallowed the hard feeling in my throat. I could hold emotions at bay with Mom, but not with Mrs. Price, who knew all about me and genuinely seemed to care.
“It’s been hard,” was all I could manage.
She entered her office and set down the box of drama supplies and turned to me. “You know this, Bethany, but I’ll say it again. If you ever decide you’ve had enough, my husband and I would love you to come stay with us. I’ve even looked into it, and we could legally adopt you. You’d just need to say the word.”
Her words were like a life preserver, bouncing out on a choppy lake surface. I wanted to grab on and be pulled in, but I knew I could never face Mom and tell her I needed to get away from her. Besides, I didn’t want to get away from Dad and my sister. And I knew that if this came up and Mom had the last say, which she always did, she’d cut me off from doing drama. I knew deep inside that the sense of purpose I had on the stage was the only thing keeping me alive.
I huddled under my covers, my giant stuffed gorilla toppling to the floor. I pulled him back up and tucked him against my chest, and I let my words find expression on paper. The feelings poured out, unhindered in those moments, letting me breathe a little more freely.
I’m all alone
Hiding in a corner
Trying to be seen
It’s like I’m invisible
No, I’m just alone
It’s like I have a plague
No one wants to come near me
Like I’m in a bubble
Like there is an invisible force field
Engulfing my body
I’m all alone
I met Zack at church camp one summer. Every year, I attended and loved it. I believed what they said about Jesus and how he lived and died for us. I’d even told God as a little girl that I wanted to follow him, only I felt like an outsider looking in, as if I stood on one side of an invisible glass wall, screaming, and God stood on the other, shaking his head and signaling that he couldn’t hear me. And my picture of a Christian was Mom, sitting by the lamp, her Bible open in her lap and a look of You’re gonna get it now because I’d interrupted her to let her know I was in need.
Still, camp felt like an escape, a picture of what being a Christian could be with kindness and truth and no standing in the hallway, pants around your ankles, waiting for a beating.
Zack and I kept in touch online once camp was over, and because he was so far away in Colorado and I lived in Nebraska, I shared openly. I told him about the sadness, about the empty feeling, about the pain I couldn’t shake.
I waited and stared at the screen late one night while Mom and Dad slept down the hall, wanting Zack to fix it all somehow.
His words popped up. “Bethany, you just need to take it to God.” The light from the screen cast the room in a soft blue light.
I had no idea how to do that. How do I take something to someone who has sat by, indifferent for years and years, letting all the hurt happen? How could I trust God with anything? He hasn’t saved me from Mom. He hadn’t saved Devin.
Zack’s words blurred with my tears. Hopelessness settled in like a death sentence, waiting to be carried out. I clicked the switch on the side of the monitor, leaving the room blanketed in darkness, and took the stairs down to my room below the house.
Everyone was gone. The house sat quiet and empty. Just me and the knife on the table. I picked it up, laying it across my forearm, down near where the veins showed blue, and I pressed down just a little, thinking it could be over so quickly.
The wall clock went tick, tick, tick, and a bird, who had no clue about anguish, chirped so cheerfully it hurt.
Just do it. Then it will be over.
Images flashed like a landscape lit up by lightning, showing little bits and pieces at a time. Devin’s bruised neck. Mom’s twisted face saying, “Nobody will ever love you, Bethany.” Then, Mom’s voice reading The Chronicles of Narnia. Mom pointing out a buttercup on our walk. Dad smiling as I twirled my new dress in front of him. Mrs. Price saying, “We want you to come live with us if you ever decide you’ve had enough.”
The edge of the sharp knife glinted from the sunlight streaming through the window, and I pressed it down a little harder.
Just pull it hard, and then, it’ll be over.
But the phone rang, jarring me from the moment. I looked over at it hanging on the kitchen wall, the long nooselike coil twisted in a figure 8.
I ignored it, and it stopped. I looked back down at my pale arm against stainless steel. I worked up the nerve again, convincing myself this way would be easiest.
But the phone rang again, my heart pounded like rocks skipping over pavement and I waited. And I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t manage even this.
Relief and regret circled me, both reminding me I was the weakest, stupidest girl alive.
Despite Mom’s dire predictions that I’d never be smart enough to go to college, I was accepted at a place about an hour from home, a drive long enough to require me to live on campus.
But before the term started, I’d been asked to work as a camp counselor at the same place I’d spent a week every summer of my life since I was 5 years old.
All the counselors and wranglers arrived a week early for training, where we’d learn the schedule and spend time getting to know one another.
I stepped into the open-air, covered pavilion and sat on a metal folding chair, memories of past camps bringing a smile. I’d seen all week what true Christianity meant: being a living, breathing example of Jesus’ love and acceptance and grace. Nothing like what Mom did. Maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe it can be different.
The music began, and all of us seemed to get lost in our own worlds, the words becoming like a love song to Jesus. A burning filled my lungs as I considered, really considered, for the first time, the depth of his love for me. I realized that I couldn’t blame God for my problems. He’d been there all along, trying to remind me about hope and that I didn’t need to believe the lies Mom told me. Only, I hadn’t been listening. I’d let her voice drown him out. I knew God gave us all, Mom included, the choice of how we treated others, of whether we chose God’s way or our own. He’s a gentleman. Always gentle. Patient.
I’d begged and begged to be rescued, as if I was stuck in quicksand and couldn’t struggle against it or I’d go deeper in. I pictured God waiting, his face glowing with other-worldly love, offering his hand to me. I just needed to say the word and grab hold.
In just a few days the campers would arrive, but until then, I spent time with the God who, I realized, had always wanted more for me, who didn’t ever condone Mom’s behavior but still wouldn’t force himself on me, either.
Jesus, I need you to save me! I’m ready!
That was my first step away from the life I’d lived and toward the new one I sought with God.
I sat with my books piled on the bench seat beside me. Across from me sat Bradley. I’d seen him before. He was older; I could tell. Not just physically but experience-wise. There was a distance to him that told me something about pain.
“What are you studying?”
He cracked open the invisible wall.
“Oh, riveting prose.” I held up my heavy book.
He nodded and offered a lopsided smile.
After that day in the drama wing at the college — the place I worked so hard to become a “Mrs. Price” one day, offering a hand up to someone in need like I’d been — our relationship grew.
He’d drive us somewhere while we talked, or we’d head to the park and find a quiet place where he’d tell me about his tour of duty, about his PTSD, about his faith. I’d tell him about Mom, about the cutting, about the pain that only recently had receded some.
Bradley picked up my hand, rolling my arm toward his side gently, and traced the tracks with his pointer finger. “You need to stop this, Bethany.”
He waited the longest time before saying, “You know that God loves you?”
I didn’t speak because I couldn’t. I only nodded, wanting to take back my arm and hide it.
“He does. And you need to realize that and love yourself. You deserve better.”
I wondered if he spoke to himself, too. He was so quiet and still afterward.
Our first kiss seemed straight out of a movie, with fireworks exploding in my head and the room spinning.
But the sweetness began to break up, as it had with Mom, because of unexpected mood swings. Sometimes, Bradley looked at me, his eyes full of warmth and kindness; other times, he seemed to have run off to a place where worlds explode and people die. And in those times, his words hurt, like a snakebite from the sweet basket of flowers offered just moments before.
One day, he looked at me, his eyes hooded with distance and apathy. “I don’t love you anymore. We need to break up.”
The walls seemed to crumble in enormous chunks around me. Mom’s words echoed in my head. Nobody could ever love you.
She’s right. Bradley got to know me, got close enough to realize he never could love someone like me.
I pressed on in school, drama bringing me back to life, and Bradley’s nightly calls tearing me back down. For some reason, he couldn’t make up his mind, saying he loved me again, then listing all the reasons he could never be with me. The yo-yo left me feeling like a rag doll, limp and without strength to choose anything for myself. And I let it happen. I convinced myself that, as a Christian, I should offer unmerited pardon.
I began attending a church near the campus, and the message one day had to do with forgiving but not forgetting.
I finally understood the difference. I didn’t have to hold on to anger anymore toward Mom, toward Bradley. I needed to forgive them both. But I didn’t have to forget and keep opening myself up to their abuse. I could set boundaries.
After that, I stopped taking Bradley’s calls. I knew something new had begun in me, like the first notes of a brand-new song.
My two years at the community college ended, and after a brief stint at home, I escaped to a job leading trail rides with the U.S. Forest Service. I also waited tables — working over 60 hours a week to cover my expenses and keep from needing to live under the same roof as Mom. But that pace wore me down, leaving no room for God or time with other believers. I needed both, but there was no time.
I eventually rented a room from a friend, and that’s when I began attending a local church. Soon, I got involved as a volunteer, helping wherever I was needed. I’d seen Isaac before the first time I noticed him at the church. When he stepped in, looking handsome as ever, I had visions of me as a screaming teenage girl, watching him play in his high school metal band. Hair hanging in his eyes and wearing skinny jeans and a pink bandana around his neck, he was gorgeous, and I had been drawn in. When I saw him again at church, I thought maybe the Lord had decided to shine goodness on me.
I said a really smooth, “Hey, Isaac. Want some candy?” I held an Easter basket in front of me like an idiot and shifted from one foot to the other while he eyed my offering. Then, I turned and walked out of the room, pretty sure I’d never felt lamer.
But, he friended me on Facebook, and the door cracked open. I later learned he had a crush to match my crush, and a slow getting to know each other began.
Isaac was so different from Bradley and from Mom. There were no hidden sides to be discovered, no arrows drawn taut against bowstrings, waiting until flesh is exposed to be released. No, he spoke truth and kindness and never tore me down when things got hard.
So I married him. I married the guy with the pink bandana, and I felt sure this was my gift after the longest stretch of feeling lost.
“You’re pretty,” Isaac said, leaning into me with his scratchy 5 o’clock shadow.
And I believed him.
For our honeymoon, Isaac and I went to a music festival that featured a Christian heavy-metal band we liked. We stood in the grassy field, the cool night air dulled slightly by the sweaty bodies of the other concertgoers.
The lead singer spoke into the microphone, his voice clear and strong. He spoke about hurt and forgiveness. His words resonated in my chest like bees in a hive. I had so much pain I didn’t know how to get rid of. It was like an unwanted visitor intent on torturing me.
“Put your fist in the air,” he said, pulling my gaze back up. “Fill your fist with everything that’s hurt you. All your pain. All your anger.” I thought about Mom and about Bradley. I thought about myself, a pulsing anger toward my own soul because of all I’d done to hurt that little girl. I thought about how I’d been my own worst enemy. I hated my weakness. I hated that I hadn’t fought harder for myself. That I forgot all about the truth of Jesus — he’d taken that punishment on himself so I didn’t have to.
I lifted my fist in the air, envisioning all of that pain writhing inside like snakes. “Now I want you to give that to God. He’s the only one who can bring the kind of peace to your life you need. When I count to three, open your hand; he’s the only one who can heal all that. But you have to give it to him.”
One finger at a time, I opened my fist, palm lifted flat to a blue-black sky. I pictured the contents being swept away. For the first time since my childhood days, curled up with a book, learning about that lion roaring the world into being, I felt peace.
Someone in a leadership position at our church began to speak unkindly about Isaac and others, words that tore down. That’s not Jesus. God’s heart is full of love and compassion and kindness. Abuse is never his way.
I’d learned enough to know that God’s people are still going to make mistakes, sometimes even wreck a person’s life. But God and people aren’t the same, pointing back to the reason why we need him so desperately. We mess everything up, Jesus. So, rather than walking away from God because of hurtful people, I went back to what I knew to be true about God. He is good. He never gives up. He never leaves or humiliates or shames. He is gentle.
Isaac and I stepped through the doors of Mercy City Church, two beaten-down people wanting to find rest and purpose. We were like two gaping wounds. When we walked in, people greeted us, offering welcome and reprieve. We were invited to attend a class for newcomers.
The pastor pulled us aside one afternoon and said, “I just feel God is going to use you two for amazing things. Just wait and see.”
It was like salve on that wound. Where we’d felt beaten down, new hope rose up. And my experience at the concert infused me with strength to forgive but not forget.
After that, if Mom chose hateful words, I’d simply look at her and say, “You may not speak to me that way.” And I’d walk away, not defeated by her abuse. And then, there were glimpses that she was as dual-minded as Bradley was, a tortured soul. That knowledge enabled me to not absorb her anger and helped me to see her as a broken person with her own sad past.
Maybe on those days when she would do anything to keep us from interrupting her time reading the Bible and focusing on God, maybe she was so heartbroken and desperate that she couldn’t see past it. And maybe she saw us as taking her closer to the edge of a cliff she feared would kill her.
When she mentioned one day that she wasn’t a good mom, I was able to tell her, without lying, “You were the best mom you could be.”
She looked at me, her eyes those of a child. “I could have been a lot better mom to you.”
She was right.
We all disappoint, hurt, violate, discourage, lie, cheat or steal. But Jesus takes the death card, the one we deserve; he takes it right on himself. And, if we’ll let him, he can absorb the pain and offer a new way, a new hope and deep heart-healing. The best kind of exchange of all.
I leaned in to smooth the soft baby hair away from Ben’s forehead. His arms didn’t work as they should, and neither did his legs. But he was beautiful.
“Do you know how special you are?” I told him every day. He knew how I felt about him. My job with special students changed me more than any change I might have brought them. Still, though it’s a far cry from teaching drama to eager teens, I knew Mrs. Price would be proud. Hope can be infused in more ways than one — and so can healing. It’s often a sort of osmosis, a back-and-forth gift.
Ben smiled as best he could, his mouth open, lips wet with spit, and lifted his arm, crooked like a hook, enough for his small fingers to cover mine.
And I saw my true value, my true purpose, reflected in his eyes.