I haven’t been to church in over a year. For many reasons, really, I found myself in the back row this Sunday. I knew it was going to be hard. It’s often the music, maybe because of ways that music in all forms has played its way through my years with Dan. We are together because a mutual friend noticed an indie rock band poster that hung on the walls of each of our college dorm rooms. She knew that the Everything but the Girl fans should meet. Our record collections were nearly identical. Dan played his guitar for me, and sung his way to my heart. In so many ways, my blessings abound.
Sometimes I can’t get the tears to stop, and once they come, they carry all the brokenness over the wall. This was happening Sunday, when words to a worship song were offered to me as obviously as if a gentle, open hand presented them directly. I knew something greater must be happening when “Ezekiel” appeared on the screen that announces, among other things, the scripture readings. That is my little boy’s middle name. The little boy whose needs are so very big.
It has never been easy for me to play board games. I find it hard to pay attention. There is so much else to think about besides who takes the next turn, and which card to pull. I can still hear the frustrated voices of my siblings and cousins: “Patty! Your turn! Just pay attention.” It’s just not that easy. Nothing is.
More times than not, I have attended church without actually “hearing the message.”
The church in Oak Park was gloriously beautiful. Angel statues, stained glass, and plaster saints graced every nook of the centuries-old building, and the heady incense filtered through the pews to cast enchantment. I was 24 years old, pregnant for the first time, and feeling not-quite-right in the stifling, artificial heat of the early winter. In pursuit of fresh air, I went out to sit on the stairs until I felt better. Piped through a tinny speaker, the reader’s voice came through, clear and crisp as the air on my cheeks. What I heard was life altering. The shepherd must tend his flock. Indeed, I would resign from my teaching job to stay home and care for my baby. And that is what I did.
I went to visit Ethan yesterday. For confidentiality purposes, we have to stay in an industrial visiting room with blue-greenish rubbery couches and a small pile of board games with smashed lids and mismatched pieces. We decided to play Candyland. I noticed the word “bitch” scrawled in brown marker in childish hand on two of the cards. Ethan and I started our game just as a line of “inpatients” marched past the room. They halted at the door to Floor 1 West, and there they remained for what seemed like what would be the entire lunch hour.
“Lila! You can’t go to the cafeteria. You have to be here for 24 hours,” boomed a voice from beyond. Lila, a sweet-faced girl with long brown hair and wise eyes, and who looked to be middle school age, left the line immediately and spun around in the hall.
“She’s new,” said Ethan, matter-of-factly.
She peered into our visiting room and joined our game. Since there were only two intact Candyland markers, we used my Chapstick as another. We took turns, the three of us, and I often had to be reminded to draw my card. Lila shared that she didn’t think her mom would come to visit her, that her mom was “disappointed in her.” Pretty soon, an attendant shuffled in with some extra lunch trays. Ethan and Lila were poking at their sloppy joes, chocolate pudding, and green beans with very little enthusiasm when David burst into the room. A sturdy boy of about eight years, he looked as if he had been crying. His tray was presented to him, and he went after his food as if he hadn’t eaten in days, and talked with great passion about random things as though he had been bursting to share this important news with his captive audience.
When I was student teaching, I was secretly afraid of the “emotionally disturbed” and the “behavior” kids. I was afraid of what they might do to me. But, as I have come to learn, if not to understand, it is not about me. It is, perhaps, about the deep pain and force within that is in no way something that can be controlled and must be met, as impossible as it may seem, with a depth of understanding and compassion.
“Hey, let’s play a game,” David piped as he scrambled to his feet and pushed some more chairs toward the Candyland station. He could use the Chapstick, and I would just watch. David was first to make it to the Candy Mountain, or wherever you land when you win the game. He got up and walked directly to where Lila was sitting, moving his food-crusted face within inches of hers.
“I just think you’re really beautiful,” he said, with absolutely no emotion, before moving to find another game.
Lila looked at me, took a deep breath, and told me that she really needed to hear that. Her eyes shone with a new spark that signaled, perhaps in a subtle way, that the first glimmer of healing was taking place. It wasn’t in the form of a shot or a behavioral strategy, but from the honest, unsolicited gift of a kind word from, some might say, an unlikely source.
And yesterday, when I was back for my visit, there, too, was Lila’s mom, and they were smiling, looking at paint chips together, deciding what fresh shades of pink would look best on her walls at home.
I’m not sure I would have heard the reading this Sunday if I hadn’t been riveted to attention by “Ezekiel” passing across the screen. I again heard the words that set me on my journey half a lifetime ago as a young mother. It was the same passage, only now the meaning was much deeper. I will keep tending my flock, I will listen for the music, and I will stay strong on this journey, for my little boy and for my whole flock, because this journey is only the beginning.