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.