It is a difficult thing to convey one’s thoughts well via the written word. I spend the majority of each day attempting to teach tenth-graders to do just that. In my classes, we talk about the mastery of our native language and all that it entails, and sometimes I may as well be speaking Esperanto to this group, whose own preferences run to text-speak and lazy grammar. Nevertheless, I persist. My students learn about literary devices and types, learn to avoid stereotyping and clichés in their writing as much as possible. (I realize that stereotypes have their place – just ask Richard Dyer or Walter Lippman – but generally my teenagers haven’t got enough experience to identify that place and so overuse them.) What a disappointment, then, to learn that I am still the Angry Abandoned Girl – and to learn it through The Phone Call that Changed Everything…
1973, late summer
Noise, so much noise. The television shrieks for attention in the living room; the washer is off-balance in the laundry closet and THUMP THUMP THUMPs incessantly. Brown, our scruffy mutt dog, is barking his fool head off at Mother, who is as unsteady as the washer as she hurls all her little porcelain knick-knacks at the dining room wall, one by one. I lie silent under her bed because she won’t think to look for me in her own room. Even after all the times she’s gone crazy like this, she’s never once imagined I would be bold enough to invade her sacred space.
It’s hot in here and there is a pink glow from the sheer curtains at the windows. The air smells of the old-fashioned face powder that comes in a gold container. “All the movie stars have used it since the 1930s,” Mother told me once. Which, of course, is why she uses it. As a girl, she had had dreams of leaving her small-town upbringing behind and becoming the next Hollywood starlet, so she painted her life with dime-store glamour and doled out kisses to all the boys for practice. But all her effort got her was pregnant with me one night in a haystack in Bill Richter’s barn.
Mother was promptly shipped off to a relative in Georgia, and Bill joined the army. After she gave birth, Mother went to night school and completed a secretary training course while my great-aunt looked after me. I don’t remember any of it. What I do remember is the day we moved into this little two-bedroom house. I was three, and as we stepped over the threshold, Mother looked at me and said, “Damn you, I should be living in some mansion in California. Not this shack. And if it weren’t for you, I would be.”
CRASH! “Jerri, where the hell are you?” Mother shouts as another figurine loses its head. I recognize the pattern; she’s getting drunker by the minute. Soon the crashes will slow down, and she’ll begin muttering – and then yelling – about Hollywood. After that, she’ll fling herself dramatically onto the couch and cry until she passes out. Then I will crawl out from under this bed and run barefoot down the dusty road to my Great-Aunt Vivian’s house, where my aunt will feed me and question me delicately about my mother’s “condition.” It happens the same way every time, and I just want things to be different. I want Aunt Viv to say something to Mother, to make her stop. I want to stop feeling like I ruined my mother’s life. I want to be loved.
“Jerri, the truancy officer came around again today,” says Aunt Viv as I let myself in her front door. 5 years of living with her, and I still consider it her house. Not that she hasn’t tried to make me as welcome as possible, but at fourteen, I pretty much know that I don’t belong anywhere and nothing is mine.
“Yeah? What’d he say this time?” I affect a bored tone. Taking an orange from the bowl on the kitchen table, I sit down and begin peeling it, avoiding looking at her.
“Baby, you’ve got to go to school. They’re gonna hold you back.”
“They can do what they want, Aunt Viv. I don’t give a damn. Maybe I’ll just quit and save them the trouble.”
“Jerri, honey…” she trails off.
“I know what you want to say. You want to tell me that running around the way I do is going to get me in the same type of trouble as Mother, that I’m too smart to be wasting my time with a bunch of pot-head dropouts, blah blah blah.” I actually feel a little bad talking to this kind woman in such a way, but I am so sick of everyone lecturing me. Aunt Viv, my teachers, everyone is on my butt. What they don’t know is that I don’t really hang out with that group, only once in awhile. It’s just easier to let them think I do so I can hitch a ride to Atlanta without anyone the wiser. There’s a quaint little bookstore there that I go to, to hide away from everyone I know. The proprietor is an elderly man with gentle eyes and a quick smile who doesn’t mind when I curl up in a dusty corner with a stack of books and stay there all day. He’s even brought me a sandwich once or twice. If he’s aware that I’m skipping school, he’s never let on.
“Jerri, please listen to me a minute. I wasn’t gonna say all that. I wanted…I wanted – “ she takes a deep breath. “Honey, I just wanted to say that I am so sorry your mother just up and left that day. I’m sorry that she said and did the things she did. I know you try to act tough because you’re hurtin’. And I’m glad I was down the street for you to come to. I love you.”
I stare dumbfounded at my Aunt Viv. She has never once said anything like this to me since the day I moved in. She made up a bed for me, gave me a dresser for my clothes, and bought me toothpaste and shampoo, but she didn’t say a word after I burst breathlessly through her door crying, “Mother is gone! I climbed out from under the bed and came to see you and then when I went home, she wasn’t there. It’s dark and I don’t think she’s coming back, and I can’t stay there alone. What am I gonna do?”
“Jerri, I just want to see you at peace. I know God has a plan for you…”
I jump up. “Aunt Viv, I don’t think God even knows who I am.” I toss the orange peel in the trash and call, “I’ll see you later,” over my shoulder as I head out the front door.
What am I doing here? I think. Why did I ever say I would come? The only other time I’ve ever been in a church was last year, for Aunt Viv’s funeral. I was uncomfortable then; I’m uncomfortable now. My friend Martin is beside me, watching me with a small smile on his face. I have taken to calling him Martin Luther because of a note he pinned on my dorm room door explaining why God loves me, and I suppose his easy friendship is really the reason I agreed to come here. My sweet-tempered, boyish chemistry partner and I have had many a conversation over a Bunsen burner about God and creation. Martin is convinced that everything in the universe shouts of His existence, but I can’t reconcile the thought of a loving Creator with my own horrible past. Where was He through all of that?
“Stop staring at me, Martin. What is it? Am I growing horns? Is there a lightning bolt above my head? Or – horrors – do I have a booger on my face?”
Martin laughs. “Jerri, I just wish you understood how much you’re loved. That’s all. I’m hoping you get it.” The musician start playing, and he sits back in his seat, still smiling.
For the next hour and a half, I hear through songs and through spoken words how much God loves me. It’s like there’s a theme running through the whole service, and I am a little irritated at its choreographed, almost contrived feel. Still, though, the people around me look like they know something I don’t. If I’m honest with myself, I find a part of me wanting to believe…
Two weeks later, late at night
It is 2:24am by the clock on the nightstand as my eyes fly open. My entire body is completely alert. From deeply asleep to wide awake – BAM – just like that. What in the world? I listen for a minute and hear only the normal night sounds – crickets outside the window, the occasional crunch of the icemaker, the slight squeak of the bedsprings as I turn on my side. Then I begin to remember my dream. Usually in my dreams, I am running from something or building a wall out of rocks or blocks, or some other easily-interpreted thing. I don’t need a therapist to tell me that I’m emotionally damaged, commitment-shy; I know these things. But this dream was different – it felt like it was actually happening. I saw a man walking toward me, all in white. He looked me straight in the face and said, “You never let anyone touch you. Please let me hug you, just once.”
I said, “No way. I don’t know you. Who are you?” He smiled, and his face had a certain similarity to Martin’s. He wasn’t Martin, and yet, he looked so very familiar.
“I know you,” he said. “And all I want to do is give you a hug.”
Dreams are funny things. I began to want to let him hug me, and I took a step near him. “Okay, just once,” I said. “But you really need to tell me who you are.”
He wrapped his arms around me without answering, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of absolute peace and contentment. I felt my arms go around him in response, and it was like I had found where I belonged. After a few minutes, I pulled back and looked at him. “Please,” I whispered. “Can I always stay right here?”
I saw that smile again, and heard a single word: “Yes.” And now I am wide awake in my own dark bedroom, and suddenly, I know who He is.
2004, end of the school year
After graduating college with an English degree, I worked at the little bookstore for a couple of years. It was a good period in my life – the job didn’t require much of my attention, and I liked it. It gave me time to oh-so-cautiously begin exploring relationships with people and with God, and I found the prospect much less frightening than it had been before my dream. Martin and I tried dating each other and realized we really were meant to be just friends. He eventually married a sweet girl named Janice, and I was his rather untraditional best man in the wedding. I still see them and their three kids several times a year.
One day at work, Mr. Carver, the proprietor, said he wanted to talk to me. He had become a sort of father figure to me over the years, so I listened. “Sweetheart,” he said, “I’ve known you going on ten years now. You’ve read every book in this store, and you have so much passion for words. I see how you interact with customers, and I’m telling you that you need to be teaching. Besides,” he teased gently, “there are certainly other young people out there who hide out in bookstores instead of going to school – go find them and make school a place where the bookstore comes to them.” He insisted on paying for my teacher certification exam, so I took his advice. I began teaching high school English in the same school I used to ditch, and I have never left.
Now school is out for the year, and tonight a couple of colleagues and I will be honored for our years of service to the district. It is quite a big deal in our town; we will be feted with a banquet and interviewed for the local paper. I feel a little silly, as I’ve only taught for fifteen years and not thirty and thirty-five, as have the other two honorees, but it is nice nonetheless to be appreciated for simply doing something I love.
It turns out that a couple of news stations show up at the banquet, also. Our school is among the highest-performing in the state, and the big-city reporters vacillate between lofty condescension and genuine puzzlement as they ask us how we accomplished such a thing. They take their notes, shoot their footage, eye the banquet food dubiously. They tell us the story will air tomorrow and thank us for our time. I don’t give it any more thought until my phone rings the next night after the evening news .
“Jerri, is that you? I saw you on TV.”
I know the voice instantly. It is an older, raspier version of itself, but I know it. I am frozen, cannot move.
“Jerri, I – I want to talk to you. Will you come to see me? Please?”
“Um. Yeah, I’m not sure that’s really a good idea. I mean, I don’t – “
“It’s important. I’m dying, Jerri.”
Oh, God. Suddenly, I am nine years old again, helpless and sure that any decision I make is the wrong one. But she is my mother, and I have to obey. Slowly, I say yes, I will come to see her. She gives me directions to a hospital in north Atlanta and says she is looking forward to seeing me tomorrow. I do not return the sentiment. As I hang up the phone, I sink to the living room floor, and I am screaming, screaming. Years of pent-up pain and anger tear loose, and all I can do is grab the blanket off the couch, wrap it around my shaking shoulders, and bury my face in its plush, green softness so the neighbors don’t hear me.
The next day
In the elevator on the way up to Mother’s room, it’s all I can do not to push the emergency stop and stay suspended between floors. I haven’t slept, and I hear myself pleading with God to help me, just help me. I can’t believe my mother has been this close for so many years and hasn’t bothered to contact me before now.
The elevator door slides open, and I square my shoulders and walk down the hall to her room. She sits propped up in the bed, a pink chiffon wrap around her shoulders. She is frail, and I can’t see much of the glamorous woman I once knew. I pull a chair over beside the bed, and I wait. Minutes pass, and just as I have decided to get up and leave, she speaks.
“I never wanted you.”
“You know what, Mother?” I interrupt. “Let’s just forget this meeting. I don’t need to be reminded again about how I ruined your life. Next you’re probably going to tell me it’s my fault you’re here in this hospital, and I really don’t think I want to subject myself to that.” I stand.
“No, Jerri. Listen. I was going to say that I never wanted you, and I was so stupid for that. Please. Sit down and let me talk to you.” She is teary-eyed, looking up at me anxiously.
I’m feeling like the nine-year-old again, and I don’t trust her at all. But I sit, warily.
“I was stupid, so stupid and selfish. And I never knew it until recently. All those years I was convinced that I had completely missed my future because I had you, and I was angry because Bill ran off and wanted nothing to do with either of us.” Mother knots and unknots the ends of her wrap as she speaks. It makes me think of the sheer pink curtains at her window in the old house. I watch her hands intently.
Her voice picks up speed. “That day I left? I knew your Aunt Viv loved you so much more than I was able to, and I was so mad at her because she was so CONTENT, you know? She was content just to live in that big house and love you – and, and I just didn’t think that was enough for me. So I left and I went to California. And I went after my dream, but they weren’t interested in me – I was too old, too Southern. And I was angry about that, too. I spent a lot of years being angry about that.”
I can hear the bitterness she carries still as it seeps into her words, but I cannot sympathize, and part of me wishes she would just shut up. Why should I care? Why do I need to hear that loving me was not enough for her? But she will not stop talking. I take a deep breath, determined not to let her see how upset I am.
“…and then I didn’t have anybody or anything, so I came home. And there are two things you need to know. One, I have leukemia. Two, I met God, and that’s why I know now how wrong I was. There is no way I can possibly make it up to you, but I don’t want to die without at least knowing you forgive me.” Mother sinks back against the bed, exhausted from her speech, and looks at me hopefully.
I cannot meet her eyes, and suddenly I need to be anywhere but this room. I stand and move toward the door. “Mother, I am going to take a walk. I will be back.” Unlike you were, I thought, and then, Oh, God, am I really still so angry at her?
I see a small chapel at the end of the hall and go in. It is cool and quiet, and I sink into a pew and let my thoughts run wild.
Well, this is just fantastic. My mother, who never wanted me, just pops back into my life out of the blue and wants me to forgive her for being so horrible? She puts all the responsibility on me by saying I have to forgive her. She says she knows God now – is that supposed to make a difference? So do I – does that change the fact that she all but destroyed me AND accused ME of destroying HER? Oh my God, I don’t even WANT to forgive her. I can’t do this. Why couldn’t she have called me twenty years ago? Then I could have just walked away. But now? Now it’s not that simple. I’m supposed to forgive, but I am SO angry.
The door opens, and I realize that I’ve been yelling. A woman wearing a long, flowing dress and carrying a Bible glides over to me, her face scrunched in concern. “I’m Pastor Lawrence, the hospital chaplain. Are you okay?”
I find myself telling her the entire story, speaking faster and faster until it’s all out in the open and I am so completely spent that I don’t have any more tears left. She looks at me thoughtfully. “Mind if I offer an opinion?”
“Sure,” I say wearily. “But only if you don’t tell me just to get over it.”
“Oh, honey, I am most definitely not gonna to tell you just to get over it. I don’t actually think you can, on your own. This is one of those situations where your whole mind and heart are gonna have to be changed – transformed, if you will.”
“Are you telling me I need therapy?”
She smiles. “No. What you need is to see your mama the way God sees her, not through the lens of all the hurt you carry. You need to choose to forgive, but not out of obligation. God didn’t forgive you out of obligation. He did it because you asked Him to and He loves you. Seems to me your mama asked you to forgive her, and what’s missing is the love part.”
“Well, yeah. She doesn’t exactly deserve my love.”
“What she deserves is not the point. You don’t deserve God’s love, either. But freely you’ve received; now freely give.”
“But I can’t!” I cry. “I don’t know how to do that.” The tears start fresh.
“Well, I won’t pretend this isn’t a process. But here’s how you start: You tell the Lord you need to see your mama through His eyes. And you tell Him you choose to forgive her, and that you need Him to teach you how to walk that out. And then you go back to your mama’s room, and you tell her, too. Just start there.” She fishes a business card out of the Bible and hands it to me. “Here’s my number. I’d like to talk with you in a couple of weeks, see how you’re doin’.” She touches my face lightly and leaves the chapel.
Three months later
I wish I could say that everything turned out perfectly. If one of my tenth-graders were writing my story, I’d have run back down to my mother’s room, flung my arms around her, and smothered her with kisses. She would have been miraculously healed of cancer, and we would have been meeting for weekly lunch dates and becoming good friends until we lived happily ever after, the end. But life doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to make revisions until it reads to your liking.
I did go back down to Mother’s room, and I did tell her that I chose to forgive her. After that, I went home and slept for two days straight. And then I set about learning what it means to love someone you’ve hated. Pastor Lawrence was right; this is a long process, and some days are far more difficult than others. But then, some days are easier than others, too.
I’ve just received a call from the hospital, the “you’d better get here soon” call, so I am on my way to see my mother, perhaps for the last time. I am not as sad at the thought of her passing as I am at the thought of all the time that has passed us by, wasted and devoid of love. It cannot be recovered. But there is also a sweetness in knowing the redemption that comes with forgiveness: she will die unburdened by my hate. As for me, I will live my life hopeful and free, the ending as yet unwritten.