Over the past couple of weeks the details of two stories memorialized in my first book have come into my consciousness. Both stories involve LifeSavers candy. These revelations have been made manifest as I have gained clarity about the hours surrounding both events.
My first book was written about 20 years ago, Laughter, Tears and In-Between – Soulful Stories for the Journey. It is a collection of 43 stories. I wrote eight other books in my past life, but that first book is the one that best captures the deeper elements of Paul’s life.
Both revelations were about memories that had been rewritten to make difficult days less painful. The first involved the day of my grandfather’s funeral. I am not going to tell that story here. If you want to know what happened, ask someone who was at Left Hand Church on Easter weekend. One telling of a difficult story is about all the energy I have.
The second story is of a Sunday night during my 11th or 12th Christmas. Over the previous year, every Thursday morning we had received 30 minutes of instruction in the German language. The class was taught over the school loudspeaker system. Despite the unorthodox teaching method, it turned out I had a facility for languages and learned more than a bit of German. In fact, I learned enough to wander around our house singing a German version of Silent Night.
My mother decided I should sing it at church on a Sunday evening. I sang every now and again during Sunday evening services. I enjoyed singing, and Sunday evening was less formal than Sunday morning, affording an outgoing child the opportunity to wow the crowd with a stirring version of America the Beautiful. (I am fairly sure I sang that song with some regularity. I had a patriotic streak.)
On this occasion, however, I did not want to sing. I was not confident of my German and protested my mother’s insistence all the way to church on that cold Sunday evening. I had been dressed in a white shirt, bow tie, and red argyle-patterned cardigan sweater, and I was forced to sit on the second row with my mother. The time came for the special music and my father, the pastor, moved to the piano to accompany me. I was terrified.
I looked out over the 100 or so gathered souls and tentatively began, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam Wacht…” And that’s all I had. My mind and voice froze and for a moment or two I stood in suspended animation as my father replayed a few measures so I could jump back in. But I did not jump back in. I ran out through the arched doorway into the long hallway that separated the auditorium from the education complex. I hid behind a pillar and looked back to see my father leave the piano and go to the pulpit and begin his Sunday evening sermon.
I stood there until well after the service was over. As my father preached, he occasionally motioned from behind the pulpit for me to come back into the sanctuary, but that hallway was my sanctuary and I did not budge.
After the service was over and we had driven my mother and brother home, Dad took me to the deli where he bought bread and sandwich meats for our school lunches the following week. He also bought me a pack of Wintergreen LifeSavers. He didn’t say much, if anything, about what had happened. He just gave me the LifeSavers.
That is the story I wrote in my first book, pleased to have had a father sensitive enough to redeem a difficult evening. Recently, however, I have gained a new and more painful understanding of that evening. It was a vivid reminder of our fascinating ability to rewrite stories to make them less troublesome.
I am not a mother, nor do I have the slightest idea about what it feels like to be a mother. Because of early life trauma, the details of which I am unaware, my mother had a number of limitations that made it difficult for her to be emotionally, and sometimes physically, available to her children. I have great compassion for her, and wish so badly she could have known some level of healing. But some wounds remain open on this side of eternity. To a lesser or greater extent, it is true for all of us.
My mother’s ability to show affection and compassion was limited. And as this story came back into my consciousness, I had a painful realization. No one came into that hallway to get me. Why did no human come and comfort me? How could you leave your child out of sight after such a humiliating experience? I could have run home, a dark mile from the church to my house. I could have been physically harming myself. But no one came. Not my mother. Not any mother.
I wonder how many other mothers in the auditorium were thinking, “Someone, please get that poor child.” But whatever their thoughts, no one came. I remained alone in that long dark hallway. Well after the service ended I sheepishly returned through the doorway and was completely ignored by every adult remaining in the auditorium, save one. Mrs. Thomas leaned over and compassionately said, “It is a difficult thing to sing in a foreign language.”
And there was my redemption, newly remembered. One woman, who I saw every Sunday morning and every Sunday night, but did not know well, showing me the compassion most every mother in the room felt in her heart.
My mother never mentioned what happened. Not ever. But Mrs. Thomas was the lifesaver before the LifeSavers.
And so it goes.