Defining Moments

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Psalm 51: 5-6

 

Early arrival

 

It had snowed three inches the night before but no one seemed to mind. All were sure it would be the last snowfall of the season, and time would prove them right. The early April sun rose bright and warm and quickly melted the snow, turning it to slush and then into tiny streams that trickled down driveways and along curbs. A soft hue of green was splashed across the lawns and bird song filled the air. The woman noticed it all. Her senses were heightened that day and the beauty of it made her cry. She wept, in part, because she knew her life was about to change and also because she knew that she would see something even more beautiful before the day was over. Her husband looked at her and smiled. He patted her on the leg and then returned his hand to the steering wheel. He gripped it tightly and accelerated, thrusting them into a future that neither were fully prepared to handle.

The boy was oblivious to it all. He was confused and scared. He felt restricted and confined, like a prisoner, and he was agitated that he did not have the same autonomy as he had in the past. His world was quickly closing in around him and he was certain it was just a matter of time before it would suffocate him. There was a door in front of him that he intuitively knew would lead to freedom but he had been afraid to open it. Even though he was uncomfortable, he was still in friendly territory. Each day for the past few weeks he wanted to reach out and push that door open to see what was on the other side, yet he resisted. But now he had no choice. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe. He had to set himself free.

He raised a fist and knocked on the door but there was no answer, no one came to greet him. Cautiously, he put his hand on it and gently pushed it, but it didn’t budge. Finally, he thrashed against it with all his might until it burst open. Suddenly, a powerful force sucked him down a narrow hallway. He clawed at the walls to stop himself but was unable to do so. He feared this passage wasn’t large enough for him to fit through, but it was and he quickly found himself on the other side. Now, a bright light shone in his eyes and blinded him. He blinked until he could see shadows of movement around him. Until now, his world had been dark, safe but dark. Now it was bright and cold and he felt queasy, like he was being spun around like a top. He was both excited and terrified at the same time. A swift blow was foisted against him resulting in a new and unfamiliar pain. He swallowed a deep gulp of air and burst out in response. The air tasted good, refreshing, right. He wanted more so he drank deeper from the well and filled his lungs with it and let loose another scream. Then there was newfound warmth around him, softness, and again the feeling of movement and more dizziness. Moments later he found himself in a safe place. He recognized it. He knew its smell and its familiar cadence. Bump, bump...Bump, bump...Bump, bump.... He felt happiness.

Soon an ache appeared in his stomach. It was a nauseating feeling and he wanted it gone. He moved and wiggled his body to see if that would chase it away but it didn’t leave him. He remembered how his cry had landed him in this amiable place so he willed himself to use his voice again. He inhaled another deep breath of air and summoned a wail from deep within. It worked. A soft hand caressed his head and pushed it toward exposed flesh. His lips found something pleasant, and from it flowed the milk of life. With a little coaxing he started to draw nourishment from it. The elixir was intoxicating. It was smooth and sweet and he drank of it until he slaked the pain in his stomach. Exhausted, he closed his eyes and drifted to sleep. 

When he awoke, he was in a peaceful valley and could hear the same rhythmic drumbeat in the distance. He looked around but the world was still fuzzy and cloudy. He could feel two eyes upon him so he focused on them. He couldn’t make out their color but he knew they were smiling at him. A hand gently stroked his cheek and then a finger traced his fine features, first around his eyes, then over his nose and finally across his lips. The eyes spoke to him and peppered him with compliments and questions. How beautiful you are. What will you be like one day? I’m sure you’ll do great things. You have my heart, don’t break it. And finally, What are you thinking?

He was thinking about the ache that had returned to his belly. He was thinking about the first lesson he learned in this new world: if I scream loud enough, I will get what I want. It was a lesson he would remember his entire life.

 

 Running away

 

At last the boy was moving. He looked in the rearview mirror and saw his mother and father standing in the plume of dust he just created from his rapid exit. Their faces showed no emotion, just a pale of somberness. They were worried about their boy. He knew that, and it irritated him. They’ll never understand me, he thought, never.

He sped down the lane that linked their farm to the highway and heard the familiar crunch of gravel beneath the wheels of his car, which his parents purchased for him two years earlier on his sixteenth birthday. He turned left onto the two lane highway, which would connect to another highway that would take him directly to the city. The highway was flanked on both sides by tall stalks of corn planted in long, straight rows in fields owned by his father. He looked at the ocean of green and remembered the many dismal days he spent in them dreaming of this day, of his escape. 

Did he really have to bring it up again? he thought, replaying one of the last conversations he had with his father. He couldn’t understand why his parents so badly wanted him to go to college. No one in his family had ever done so. Why should he be the first? Summer was over and all of his friends were leaving—most to attend a university—and he knew it was time for him to venture out on his own as well. He was ready to start a new adventure in the city.

He looked at the scrap of paper on the console beside him on which he’d scribbled an address and brief directions and then glanced at his clock and calculated how long it would take to reach his friend’s apartment. He pressed the gas pedal and watched the needle shoot past fifty, sixty, seventy. He eased off and cruised along fueled by a mixture of excitement and bravado. In his trunk was just one duffel bag stuffed with clothing. He was traveling light and it felt good. It was all he needed, all he wanted.

He heard his mom’s voice hounding him to pack more clothing and to take some food with him. The thought of it grated on him. Anger bubbled up from his gut when he remembered how his parents insisted that he line up a job before he left. It’s a city. How hard can it be to find a job? he assured himself.

After an hour and a half on the road, the landscape shifted from rural to suburban. He drove past one development after another of large homes stacked together on small yet nicely landscaped lots. The homes became progressively smaller as he traveled from the outer to the inner ring. He found himself in the heart of the city just as the lights were starting to tint the late summer twilight in a soft pinkish haze. He had been to his friend’s apartment earlier in the summer and was sure he knew the way, but now nothing looked familiar. He groaned in frustration and pulled his phone from the pocket of his jeans, causing him to swerve slightly in and out of oncoming traffic. He tried to dial his friend’s number but the screen was black. He cursed himself for not charging the battery the night before.

After driving around for nearly forty-five minutes he finally thought he recognized the neighborhood, but it looked much different now under the blanket of a moonless night. Yes, I remember that bar, he thought, so he turned right and headed down a long narrow street lined mostly with rusted and dented cars. The homes were small and unkempt and none of them had their front lights on to illuminate their addresses, making it difficult for him to find the house where his friend lived, a large two-story that had been converted into four apartments. Suddenly his car sputtered, jerked and lost power. He was able to steer to the side of the street before he lost momentum. He looked at his fuel gauge. Empty. He cursed himself again and then sat there for several minutes contemplating his next move. He was sure he was in the right neighborhood, sure he was close to his friend’s house, so he got out of his car and started walking. Down the block he saw dark shadows converge on each other. He heard the shouts of angered voices, the muffled sounds of a scuffle and then a gun shot. His eyes got wide, his body tensed and adrenaline pumped feverishly through his veins. He quickly turned around and started running. 

 

 

Reaching out his hand

 

The thundering drone of eighteen wheels roaring over the highway awakened the man from his fitful slumber. He opened his bloodshot eyes and glanced upward toward the noise. That simple movement was the only one he could muster from his aching body. His arms and legs refused to move, except when he involuntarily shivered. The thin cardboard beneath him had done little to keep the hard concrete from sucking the warmth from his body during the night. A searing physical pain greeted him each morning but it paled in comparison to the ache that had gnawed its way deep into his soul.

Finally, his body responded to his wishes and he sat up. The dim light of dawn illuminated colorful fallen leaves that were being propelled by a brisk northerly wind. They swirled down the street and came to rest along the curb of the sheltered underpass in which he had just spent the night. Soon the morning commuters would be buzzing past him. He knew it was time to go so he stuffed his tattered sleeping bag into his Army surplus backpack and slung the pack over his shoulder. His ratty stocking cap had slipped up on his head as he packed so he pulled it tightly down over his ears and headed on his way. To where, he wasn’t sure.

As he walked, thoughts of getting warm and filling his belly consumed him so he dug deep into his pocket and retrieved a few crumpled bills and a handful of change he had scrounged the day before. It was enough for a cup of coffee and a fresh donut. Slowly, methodically, he worked his way down the long street until he came to a main thoroughfare. The brightly lit sign of a convenience store on the corner gave him hope and he increased his pace to get to it.

Stepping into the store, he was pleasantly showered with warm, dry air that was forced at the doorway from a vent above. He wanted to stand beneath it and bask in its warmth but the stream of people coming in and out of the store made that impossible. He slowly walked to the coffee bar and studied his options. His quivering hand grabbed a pot and he poured the strong, aromatic brew into the largest cup he could find. He snapped a lid on it and then walked to the donut case. He lingered there for several minutes trying to decide which roll would best satiate his hunger. He could feel the stares of the other patrons penetrate the back of his neck. Most of them were dressed in fine clothes, much different than the dingy rags that hung on his frail, skinny frame.

He paid for his food and walked over to one of two tables in the small deli area and took a seat, putting his backpack on the floor between his feet. The clerk gave him an unwelcome stare, but he didn’t mind. He knew that he would not be asked to leave until his donut and coffee were gone. He ate slowly and drank his coffee in small sips that were spaced apart far enough for him to regain feeling in his extremities.

Once warm and having tamed the beast in his gut, he left the store and began to walk. He had no particular place to go, but the act of moving felt good. It loosened his stiff joints and helped him retain his body heat. The street was now alive with activity. Lights flashed, horns sounded, vehicles whizzed past. Other people were starting to move up and down the sidewalk as well. Some mirrored his condition. Others were in sharp contrast to it. He nestled his bearded chin into his jacket and kept walking, always looking down and seeing no one as they passed by.

It wasn’t long before he was spent. He wondered what time it was, wondered how long he had been walking. It couldn’t be long, he concluded. He knew that he was more than just physically tired, he was weary, drained. He had been running for a long time now, just how long he couldn’t recall. Has it been a year, or two? His running had turned to walking, but now it felt like he was crawling, crawling to nowhere.

He looked up and saw an old brick building on the corner. A few people, dressed casually, were ascending the stairs to its doorway. He glanced higher and saw a steeple pointing toward heaven. Heaven, it was a place he’d learned about as a child, a place that was good. It had to be good, didn’t it? He wanted to believe that it was. He wanted to remember.

He stood behind a tree and waited until everyone had entered the building. After several minutes he crept to the staircase and climbed the stairs, grasping a metal railing for support. He grabbed the handle of a heavy, ornate wooden door and swung it open just wide enough for him to slide through. Inside it was warm. A man greeted him with a smile and pointed him toward the sanctuary. He shuffled in and took a seat in the back row. In front of him were two columns of benches leading to an altar. There were not many people there, but those present were standing and singing a song. He remained seated on the padded bench and kept his head low. It felt good to be there and to lean against the backrest, taking the strain off of his tired muscles.

The man in the front motioned frequently for the people to stand, recite something and then be seated. He watched this happen several times from the corner of his eye. Finally, that man started to speak his mind and everyone settled in and fixed their attention on him. He spoke about a woman who was sick for a dozen years yet discovered a way to be healed. She hid herself in a crowd and waited for a great teacher, a physician — a miracle man — to walk past. As he passed by she reached out and touched the hem of his robe and was instantly healed.

He could relate to that woman. He, too, felt like he had been hemorrhaging inside for a long, long time. He gently closed his eyes and considered what she did; such a simple act, such a profound outcome. She wanted healing. He deeply desired that, too.

Through moist eyes, he saw the blurred shadow of a man approach him. He recognized this man. It was someone he’d met many years ago. He was speechless as he watched the man approach him and walk on by. There was only one thing he could do. He reached out his trembling hand and touched His garment.

 

I chose you

 

The man looked at the others who were seated around him in a semi-circle on metal folding chairs. He fixed his eyes on the newest member of the group and felt a mixture of pity and hopefulness for him. He wondered if his own face and body looked like his—weathered, tired, emaciated—when he first came here several years ago. Everyone looked much older than they actually were. Some had long hair, some were bald. Some had scarred complexions, or missing teeth. Most were thin and had deep, sunken features. Some laughed freely while others couldn’t force a smile. The pungent aroma of fresh cigarette smoke clung to many of them like bad cologne. But a few appeared healthy, stronger, and he knew he was among that faction. He knew the others there were looking to him with hope; hope that they too might be free from their demons one day.

Now all eyes were on him. It was his turn to share. The leader asked him the same question as the others, “What is one of the best things that has happened in your life since you’ve been sober?” He rubbed his chin and contemplated the question. There were so many things he could share, but the one thing that kept coming to mind was Marilyn. He said her name out loud and then paused. Some of the men fidgeted in the awkward silence. Others stared at him with expectant pleas for more information. Finally, he said, “I hope one day you are all lucky enough to find someone like Marilyn.”

The man met her in the city. She volunteered at the homeless shelter he stumbled into the day he decided to turn his life around. She was the first person he saw when he walked through the door. She was short and husky but not overweight. Her bobbed brown hair bounced as she walked down the hallway toward him and her smile lit up the room when she greeted him. For the past year he had not allowed himself look into the eyes of others because he feared the judgment that he would see in them, and the resulting shame. But these eyes were different. They were warm and welcoming. They invited him in.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

He nodded.

The young woman chuckled. “Okay,” she said. “How can I help you?”

He looked her in the eyes again but could say nothing. It had been a long time since he’d had a conversation with anyone.

“Do you need a place to stay?” she asked, sympathetically.

He nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “I think we have room tonight. Follow me.”

She turned and led him to a nearby desk with a middle-aged man seated behind it. The desk was littered with papers, folders and various forms and the man was busily punching the keys of a computer that was in the center of it all.

“Bob, this is...” she paused and waited for the man to answer.

He mumbled his first name, barely loud enough for them to hear.

“He needs a bed tonight. Do we have one?”

Bob looked at the man and then slid his reading glasses down on the bridge of his nose. He grabbed a clipboard and scanned the spreadsheet pinned to it.

“You’re in luck,” he said. “We do have a bed for tonight.”

“More,” said the man.

Bob looked at him. “More?”

He nodded.

“Okay,” said Bob. “First we get you a bed for tonight and tomorrow we can talk about more.”

 

Marilyn was a volunteer with the long-term housing program of the shelter. She assisted the staff in helping the destitute find transitional housing and also taught a class to help clients assimilate back into society. She worked there one evening a week and the man found himself counting the days and the hours until she would return. When she was around he felt like his old self, stronger and more confident. He was also more concerned with his appearance so he kept his hair cut short and shaved daily. While the clothes he was able to purchase with money provided by the shelter weren’t fancy, they were presentable and fit him nicely. After a few weeks of eating a healthy diet, he was gaining weight and looked good.

One day he got the courage to ask her a question. The next week another and a month later they were having conversations, meaningful conversations. The first day he made her laugh he knew the sun would again shine on his world. He attended his life skills classes with a new motivation. Now free from alcohol and drugs, he could think clearly again and breezed through his courses. Not only did he want to reclaim his life for himself, but now for her as well. The staff was surprised at his quick turn-around and constantly spoke words of encouragement to him, but none were more meaningful than the compliments that rolled off of Marilyn’s sweet lips.

His year in the transitional program seemed to breeze by in just a matter of weeks. Suddenly he found himself at a nearby restaurant having lunch with Marilyn and discussing his next move.

“Where will you go?” she asked.

“Home,” he said. “It’s time to go home.”

She nodded her head and a twinge of melancholy washed over her. She had grown very fond of him and feared that she would never see him again.

He would never let that happen.

 

The lines in his face

 

The old man grabbed the shower faucet and reluctantly turned it counter-clockwise to stop the soothing flow of water. That simple action sent a sharp stinging pain into his gnarled, arthritic fingers. He grimaced. The warm, steamy shower had given him temporary relief from his aches and pains and allowed him to forget about his ever present foe for a few precious moments.

He gingerly stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel, drying off his head and thin, wispy hair, then his torso, and finally his arms and legs. Toweling down his legs was difficult and painful and he worked slowly at this task. Next, he moved a few steps to the vanity and opened the drawer to retrieve his razor. He was mechanically following his same morning routine—wake up at 5:30 a.m., shower, shave, eat a bowl of oatmeal while reading the paper and then, as he washed his lone dish and spoon, ponder how he would fill the rest of the hours of the day.

While shaving, he normally lathered his face and scrapped off his whiskers without bothering to look into the steamy mirror. Today, however, he reverted to something he hadn’t done in a long, long time. He put his hand to the mirror and wiped away two streaks of fog to reveal his old and wrinkled face. What he saw made his gasp.

He stared at the mirror, trying to recognize the man looking back at him. He had to look deep into the eyes to see a person that resembled someone he once knew.

That can’t be me, he thought as he examined his features. He was once a handsome man with a chiseled chin and eyes that sparkled like the sun on cool distant waters. The eyes staring back at him were yellow and dark and cloudy. They had sunken into deep craters surrounded by scorched, parched earth, with a tangle of sagebrush wedged along their rim. Lines fanned out in every direction and deep crevices spilled down over his cheeks, to the nose, and to thin, pursed lips that were dragged downward unwillingly, unknowingly.

What plow dug these deep furrows? What blade could cut so deep?

When the man examined each wrinkle, each bottomless crease and fold, it slowly came back to him what was responsible. He knew it wasn’t one person or thing, but many. Like the rings of a tree, these lines revealed the events of his life; the highest joys, the deepest sorrows.

He looked at the dark splotches on his speckled head and remembered the many hours he spent outdoors in the harsh elements on his farm, a half-century of springs and summers and falls. That cursed sun was always eager to burn white skin to brown, to nearly black. The cap that always clung tightly to his head throughout each season plucked the hair from his scalp ever so gradually each time he removed it to wipe away sweat from his brow.

He looked at the faint scars still visible near his right eye and ear and was taken back to a cold night in a park when two young boys beat him with a bat just for the sport of it. He remembered lying there, bleeding and moaning, and being certain that night would be his last. For weeks his face was disfigured, unrecognizable. He looked again at his scars and thought of the many other scars that remain in deep-seated places.

But surely not all these crevices are from pain, he thought. Wrinkles go where the smiles have been, right? Looking at his face he concluded that he must have smiled often. I did. I hope I did.

He thought fondly about his wife. Marilyn made me smile a lot. He thought about his kids, his boy James and his little girl Mary. They made me smile, too. Tears of joys dropped from his eyes the day each was born, and laughter echoed against the walls of their home when they lived together as a family. His stomach quickly knotted, reminding him of each of their deaths. No one should have to bury their entire family.

He watched the mirror as the fog slowly filled in his hand streaks and hid his face, and he was happy that it did.

The man dressed and made his way downstairs, grabbing the sturdy handrail and firmly putting both feet on each step before proceeding to the next. It was a long, laborious process but he finally got downstairs and went to the front door. He unlocked the deadbolt, pulled open the door and retrieved the morning paper. He tucked it under his arm and walked to the kitchen. The coffee pot was already filled with weak, brown coffee and its pleasant aroma filled the air. He knew he should eat but he wasn’t hungry so he walked over to his favorite chair, put the paper on the end table, clutched the armrests and lowered himself into the recliner. He looked at the paper from the corner of his eye but had no desire to read it. He looked at the TV remote next to it, but let it lay. He thought again of his wife and children, of where they are now of how he longed to be with them. He felt a deep burn in his chest. He thought of his appearance, of how old he had become. He knew one day his wrinkles would be gone and he hoped that day would come soon. The pain in his chest intensified. He grasped his aching heart with both hands and closed his eyes tightly. When he opened them, he felt different, better, much better. In fact he felt better than ever. He rubbed his hands together. There was renewed strength in his grip and no pain in his fingers. Slowly, he raised his hand to his face and stroked it. He smiled because he felt nothing. His wrinkles had disappeared.