Friday, February 12, 2010

What Got Me

I married my husband when I was 21. It might be dramatic to say he saved my soul; it's not like he's qualified for sainthood. But something about being married to him - being loved by him - saved me. Maybe it's not so crazy to say. He may not be qualified, but he is, after all, one of God's own saints, one of this dirty band of rascals that's redeemed.

Jesus tells a parable - really, less than a parable. It's just a sentence. It's about the lengths a person would go to recover something precious that was lost. It's one of the stories leading up to the story of the Prodigal Son: "Who of you if you had a hundred sheep and lost one of them would not leave the 99 to go and find the one that was lost?" Until I got married, I had never even considered the idea that I was anything other than one of the 99 sheep Jesus, the shepherd, had left to go find the one lost sheep. I hadn't analyzed it or anything; I didn't even think about it. From the time I heard those verses, I just assumed I was one of the ones who stayed. And those were the ones he left. He said so himself, right there.

I became a Christian when I was two. I remember standing in the hallway at the door to the room I shared with my sister, and she was telling me, not for the first time, that I needed to ask Jesus into my heart. So I did. Needless to say, I didn't have a dramatic before and after salvation story. Maybe I started sharing my toys after that, I don't know. But I do know I never strayed. I did wrong things from time to time, I suppose, but I never left the faith. I never turned my back on God, probably partly because I wasn't sure He would come get me if I did. I do believe God heard my two-year-old prayer, and it was precious to him. But that's a conclusion I came to much later, when I started to know things about how lost I really was and how far he had come to find me.

When I first met my husband, I wasn't even attracted to him. He started coming to drama team meetings at church, where I was a leader, because he wanted to meet some friendly people, and he thought if anyone would be friendly, it would be drama people. It's true. We're a very accepting lot; we'd all be in trouble if we weren't. According to him, he kept coming because he saw me. I will say that I noticed him, maybe not the very first time I met him, but not too long after. One thing that stood out about him is that, coincidentally, the year before, I had worked for his older brother Park, who was always an enigma. Park would come into the bookstore while I was behind the register and walk straight back to his office, and that's pretty much all I saw of him. He had a manager under him who directed most of the store's affairs. The only time I interacted with Park on any real level was when Paul, one of the assistant managers, made me cry. I can't remember now what Paul said, but I vividly remember Park taking me outside the front doors of the store to ask me about it. I was mortified. I knew it was probably just hormones, but he wanted to know what happened. It reminded me of the time in high school when Anthony Carifedes reached around from his seat behind me and put an empty plastic wrapper right in my crotch. I entered my next class crying, told my friend why, and the next thing I knew I was outside in the hall with Mr. MacAuley, the guidance counselor, recounting the incident and feeling very stupid, like I was making a big deal out of nothing.

When I met Shep, he seemed grown-up to me, partly because he was Park's brother, and partly because he
was grown up, six years more than me. He carried himself very straight, hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts, chest broad under his polo shirt, the weight of his body relaxed into the heels of those strappy velcro sandals he always wore, eyes just a little narrow, observing everyone, but his face completely open. He came across confident, like he knew he was somebody, but not cocky. At the same time, he was very available. He was...there. I don't know how to explain it, but it got my notice, enough to think, "I've never met anyone like him." And I hadn't. He had a chastened quality about him that said, "Here I am. Take me or leave me," like he was offering himself without requiring anything in return.

That probably had to do with where he was in life. He had gone his own way for awhile, and had just come back to the Lord, making a break with his old friends, haunts, and habits, even determining not to date anyone for the time being. He was taking some time to be lonely with God, and he was definitely lonely. He says he would leave drama team listening to Twila Paris' song "Love's Been Following You." When it was over, he would hit rewind and play it again:
Some days your heart just couldn't be colder, but Love's been following you. All you have learned just makes you feel older, but Love's been following you. You think that no one cares; still Love is always there; He would go anywhere just to find you; Love's been following you. Something about me - my friendliness, the point I made of being kind to every single person - made Shep feel that that song was true. He imagined that if he went up and made himself known to me, he would be met with the same kindness. He even imagined I was the one singing the song. I suppose I was saving him, too.

He didn't ask me out until two years later. For one thing, I was 18, and that made his hands sweat because he was 24. Also, he had made that commitment not to date. But the biggest deterrent was a tiny little promise ring from my parents - if you looked close, you could just barely see the diamonds in it - that I wore on my left ring finger as a sign that I was keeping myself for my husband. He thought I was engaged, to Brian Jackson of all people. (Talk about oil and water! Get two such bull-headed people together, and we would have ripped each others' throats out.) It was two years before he knew any different.

He finally decided to make a move the day he saw me at church for the second time. It was a very large church with lots of services to choose from, so you could go quite awhile without seeing a person. The first time was around Christmas, about six months since he had last attended drama team meetings, and I called out to him, "Shep!" and hugged him when he came over to me. It's just the way I was. Overflowing with youthful exuberance and naivete, I would hug anyone I saw. Certainly I was glad to see him after so long: I liked him. But I liked everybody. For him, it meant a lot more.

The second time was the next August, just after my sister had gotten back from her honeymoon. I remember she was wearing a bright salmon-colored dress and she couldn't walk straight because she'd gotten the bends from scuba-diving in Cancun. When I saw Shep, I called him over. He felt bad for Lauri - he didn't know why her head was bobbing up and down like it was - but he was struck that I thought he was a nice enough person to introduce to my family. Something about me showing him that kindness, and probably something about how long it had been since he'd seen me and how long it could be before he saw me again, made him determined.

In September, he had a friend call me to ask if he could call me, and then he called me. We went to Books-A-Million for coffee. I remember sitting with him at one of those little tables in the cafe, listening to him talk and ask me questions with a slightly overwrought enthusiasm. I left with the impression that he had been nervous, but he was a nice person. I wasn't particularly attracted to him, but I wasn't repelled. Mostly I was surprised he was interested. Of all the people in the world to ask me out, I would never have predicted Shep Hendrickson. He had seemed so grown-up to me, even indifferent. Over the next three months, he asked me out only a handful of times - a few coffees and a dinner - but he wasn't indifferent. He could tell I was skittish as a deer, and he didn't want to scare me off. From the start, I asserted to my family and friends how very much I was not interested. But I didn't tell him to go away.

A few days before my 21st birthday in November, he had arranged to meet me at the theatre department after classes to take me to lunch. At Applebee's, I ate my food and then finished his crispy oriental chicken salad. I felt comfortable with him. We never talked about anything profound, but we talked without playing games. Afterward, in the parking lot, I hugged him good-bye, and I remember he said, "Oh! I get a hug!"

"Sure," I said. I didn't mean anything by it. I didn't want him to take it the wrong way, like I was hot for him or something, but I guess it showed I wasn't cold.

"Have a happy birthday," he said.

Two weeks went by. I started to wonder, just a little, if he was going to call again. When he finally did, he said he hadn't wanted to bother me while I was celebrating. This time he asked if he could take me to dinner. I said, "Sure." We went to Houston's Steakhouse. It's a very nice restaurant, and I had a terrible time. I sat across the white tablecloth from him, awkwardly receiving the napkin laid in my lap by the server. The steaks were delicious, I suppose. I'm not a big steak person. I'm not even a big nice restaurant person (though they can grow on you.) There's nothing that makes me feel more anxious than when a lot of money is being laid down; then I
really better have a good time. Shep looked at me solicitously, the lines in his forehead showing, which I know now means he is not at his most relaxed. He asked me all the right questions you ask on a date to "get to know" a person. I tried to stay engaged, but I wanted out of there. Where was the light touch, the feeling that I was free to stay or go? Before this, I had never been on a second date with anyone. I had never even had a boyfriend, not that I didn't want one, and not that no one wanted me. I just had never given anyone much of a chance. After dinner, he took me to Park Avenue for a stroll, and after a turn or two, he asked what I'd like to do next. I said, "It's getting late. I should probably get home." It was 8:00. As soon as I walked in the door, I threw myself on the rug in the family room and wailed, "He's not the one!" Apparently, some part of me had considered that maybe he was.

Two days later, the phone rang with his number on the caller ID. I was too nervous to answer it, but my mother, attempting to quell her girlish amusement, was not. Taking the phone from her, I went into my room and lay on the floor.

Shep said, "That date didn't go the way I intended. I got nervous and told a whole bunch of stories to make you laugh. I hope I didn't offend you."

"No, you didn't offend me. I just don't like dates, and that felt like a date."

He said, "Oh, I'm sorry. It wasn't like that, not a date. It was just two friends getting to know each other."

I said, "I like the sound of that better."

He said, "I have to tell you the truth." And here he hemmed and hawed a bit. "When I saw you at church and you introduced me to your family, I was really touched."

I was surprised. "Oh, that was no big deal."

"I don't introduce just anyone to my family. It was sweet of you."

"Oh, good, I'm glad," I think I said.

He hesitated a little more, and then he said, "I think you're a neat person. After I saw you that day, I knew I didn't want to leave Florida without being able to say I got to know Mimi Shepherd."

He was making a profession, but I wasn't turned off. I knew he was saying he liked me, but with no strings attached. I was free not to like him back.

He said, "There's no pressure. I just wanted to get to know you better."

It was an ingenious approach, considering how deer-like I truly was, ready to run into the woods at any moment. But he really meant what he said. He didn't have to own me. He didn't need me to reassure him. It was probably the only way anyone could have won me, and nobody had ever tried it before. Only God knows how badly I needed it.

I felt the tension melt out of me. I was easy with him again, comfortable, but also something more. I was warm, like I had come in out of the storm to a quiet spot. I wasn't in love, but I knew he really cared about me, and so my heart was beginning to open to him. He could sense he'd made some headway. But it seemed to me he was even okay if he hadn't. And that's what got me in the end.


My husband and I are in the middle of buying a house. I'm in the middle of organizing an upcoming conference at my church. My girls and I are in the middle of recovering from some kind of infection that has filled our lungs and sinuses with mucus; I've been up with one or both of them in the night for going on two weeks. Besides that, I'm in the middle of being pregnant, which I haven't been keeping enough in the forefront of my considerations, obviously. I am terrible about putting myself to bed. Even with being sick, once I've put the kids to bed, I want to read a book or watch reality tv online or write a blog entry. I do crave that alone time, but it makes it so I get precious little sleep, and that is bound to hurt the immune system after awhile. Overall, I've just been going going going, lifting without too much discretion, pushing myself to keep the house [somewhat] clean, not really making a point of acting pregnant. For some or all of these or other reasons, I went to the midwife's office yesterday morning with some worrisome cramping. She gave me a "z-pack" (antibiotics) for whatever is causing this hacking cough and put me on 1-2 days bed rest.

I didn't know how that was going to work out since Shep had left just that morning for a five-day ski trip to Colorado, and my parents were running around preparing to go on a cruise the next morning. (This timing was really just coincidence; my family is not always running off on luxury vacations.) Bless them, Mom and Dad dropped practically everything to take the girls off my hands for the rest of that day and overnight. I couldn't believe my good fortune - all day in bed with nothing to do but sleep, read, write, catch up on my Bible study, and who knows what else? I was going to get so much done!

But somehow it didn't really work out that way once I lay down. First I tried sleeping. After sleeping very restfully for about 20 minutes, I woke up and thought, "What next?" I thought about delving into my Bible Study Fellowship homework on John, chapter 13. Or maybe I could work on my blog; I'm always ravening to get more time to do that. Or I could start The Curate of Glaston by George MacDonald. I had possibilities just stacked up beside me on the bed - too many possibilities. I ended up watching a two-hour online episode of The Biggest Loser, then configuring my Netflix account (after first joining Netflix). Then I couldn't find a movie I was just dying to see on Netflix, so I looked into renting a movie through Amazon. After about two hours of deliberations, I finally decided on Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Five minutes into it, I realized it wasn't worth even the five minutes I'd already spent on it. By this time, I'd been in bed six or seven hours, it was already past my bedtime, and I was starting to get depressed because I'd wasted all my precious alone time trying to make up my mind what to do with it. I felt better when I got out of bed and did my toilette. I think it was just the routine of it that made me feel happy, sane, and productive again. I washed my face, going through all four cleansing steps, brushed and flossed my teeth, rinsed with Listerine, and took out my contacts. After that, I spent an hour reading recipes in Bon Appetit magazine and went to sleep a couple hours after I really should have.

In the morning, before leaving for the port, Dad came by to set up a pallet for me on Grace's floor and brought their tv/vcr with a bin full of kids' movies, and I settled in for a day of lying around turning our brains to mush. I anticipated a lot of fussing and discontent at being stuck inside and immobile all day (I mean, on the kids' part.) But it was amazing how happy they were. Maybe it was because I was so patient with them and so accommodating. Whatever Grace wanted to watch, I let her watch, and even at three years old, she could watch uninterrupted all day and be perfectly happy. I did impose a couple of intermissions, for lunch and dinner and maybe one more for a short period of mind-expanding creative play. Later in the day, I even suggested going outside, but Grace said, "No! I don't want to go outside! I want to watch!" And besides, as she pulled me to her window to show me, it was pouring rain.

Even Emma was contented. She's 18 months old, and can be quite energetic. But she spent almost the whole day with us in Grace's room. She watched a little, played with the dollhouse, played legos, climbed on me, laughed while I tickled her.

When we did leave our camp and venture into the rest of the house, I tried not to look at the dog hair clumping along the baseboards (I sent Max to the kennel for the weekend, but his hair had not yet been similarly banished), the lack of visibility in the kitchen sink, the dirty sock that was still lying outside the bathroom door from four days before, and all the countless other things that had been pulled out randomly by little hands and not yet picked up by these bigger hands. Cleaning was off my to-do list for the day, by doctor's orders (actually by licensed midwife's orders.) I felt bad for them to have to live in such a mess, but they didn't seem to feel bad about it. They were exceptionally compliant all day.

It made me think about what kids actually need. You think they need an orderly environment and a predictable schedule. But it turns out maybe they just need me, and a me that is more relaxed and not always rushing them out the door or on to the next task or putting them off while I do what I think I should be doing or what I think I want to be doing.

I didn't lift and carry them much today, so instead of changing Emma on the changing table, I sat with her on the floor to get her ready for bed. After I changed her diaper, I tickled her and tickled her, and she crawled away and I grabbed her and I hugged her and nuzzled her soft skin. I squeezed her squishy body in my arms and burrowed my face in her satiny neck, oh glorious satiny skin, and she giggled and squirmed. I smelled her clean hair. (I had felt up to giving them a bath.) I took my time.

Tomorrow I think I'll be ready to ease back into the swing of things. I haven't felt even a hint of cramping since this morning. We'll go to the Y, or better yet, the grocery store. The cupboard is dreadfully bare. But maybe we'll just get up first. Maybe in the morning I'll crawl back to my pallet and those little arms will cuddle me, that fat little body will scrabble over me, Grace's smile that is a light from the interior will shine out at me, Emma's grin with all those teeth yet to come will light up my day with its brilliance, and I'll bury my face in that soft soft skin. Maybe I'll just take another day camping out, rendering our brains on tv like fat over a flame. Maybe I'll just drown in the presence of my children, just for one more day, just one more morning even, staying at that snail's pace, forgetting the grimy state of the floors and toilets, letting loose all the busy checklist things that rule me like a military headmistress, just edging along, nudging, nuzzling along in the presence of my children, not hurrying on by just yet. And if I could only stay here forever. Why is it so easy to forget the joy of staying on the floor handling pieces of molded plastic just because it's what they like to do?