In which Claire does nothing
New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, and the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday came and went, and Claire kept her mouth shut all those weeks. She led worship, of course, and talked with Emma and Martha, with Bill and Gladys, with Trystene, and with the heating guy since the furnace at home was a bit tempermental. But about the truth in Martha’s accusation she said nothing.
She was grateful that the Saints of Francis had curtailed their mischievous ways. The Prune Drop cookies showed up twice in January, but there seemed to be a truce about the bulletin. As this did not put Trystene’s job in jeopardy, nor call into question her own integrity, Claire decided to let secret saints lie. She did not go back to any of their meetings. Neither she nor any of the other women (or men) at church gave Toledo Vader a second glance any longer. How quickly we accept beauty as everyday, Claire thought, musing on her best friend’s former fiancé. The chair of the Evangelism Committee tried mightily to persuade Toledo to join the church, but he purred at her that in his deepest heart he hoped soon to return to his beloved Spain, and he could not make the commitment.
One Sunday night, after the Prune Drop cookies had made an appearance at coffee hour, Claire fell asleep quickly. In the wee cruel hours of the morning she awoke from a dream. Trystene was in it, but her normally flat straight hair was teased out into a malevolent halo. She wore a sundress with a pattern of kiwis all over it. She stood in Claire’s doorway with the dog from the diner on one side and Rex on the other, and she pointed at Claire hissing, “Liar! Liar!”
Claire woke up in a cold sweat. Martha’s accusation had wormed its way into her subconscious and Claire had hoped to keep it there. That week the dream came back, twice. Finally she called Martha.
“Hi, sweetie, how are you? Tired of the rain yet?”
“Well, a little. Rex hates to get wet so the morning and evening constitutionals have been a little challenging. But there’s a coziness that comes with the rain.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll take snow over rain any day. How’s Emma?”
“She’s good, taking driver’s ed, God help us. But listen, I wanted to talk with you about that. About what you said when we were at your house. About her dad.”
“I’m all ears.”
“So all this time I’ve been telling myself it would be easier on her for her to think her dad died. The truth might devastate her. I want to keep her from that.”
“Okay, I get that. But what if she finds out? What if some day a letter arrives in the mail, or she get IM’d, or worse, he shows up on your doorstep? What happens then? Would it be worse for her to know that her dad abandoned the two of you, or that you had lied to her all these years?”
“I think it would be worse for her to know he walked out on us. I’m willing to take my chances on his never showing up again.”
“Okay, so let me ask you this: when will Emma be old enough to figure out these things, to get hurt and get healed without your help?”
“I don’t know. I just know not yet.”
“So Toledo’s been in church….”
That night Claire did not dream about Kiwi Trystene. Instead she dreamed of Emma, sitting in front of the boiler at the church, a mound of Prune Drop cookies in front of her. She looked so sad and lost. People kept walking by her – people Claire knew, people Claire didn’t know. They walked by Emma and went to the tunnels, ignoring the girl. When Claire woke up, she felt heartbroken and angry. She tiptoed upstairs to check on her daughter. Fast asleep, with Rex curled up at her feet. Claire went back to bed and pretended to sleep until her alarm went off.
It was Thursday, when she stayed home in the morning to write her sermon. By 11:00 she had made a good start, so she went into the office.
“Good morning, Trystene. What have I missed?”
“Hi, Claire. Gladys called and she made me promise not to call you at home, but Bill is back in the hospital. He’s having trouble breathing again and they think he might have pneumonia.”
“Oh, no. Did she leave his room number?”
“She said she knew you would want to come by but it would be better if you could wait till tomorrow when things are a little more settled. She said they would appreciate prayers today and a visit tomorrow, maybe after Emma gets home from school.”
Claire went into her office, sat at her desk, and put her head in her hands. After a few minutes, she heard a tap at the door.
“Claire, do you have a moment, or did I catch you at a bad time?” Bill Carr asked.
“No, Bill, it’s fine. Come on in. Trystene just told me that Bill Hill is back in the hospital.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s not looking good, is it?”
“No, it really isn’t. But what can I help you with?”
“Mostly I wanted to see how you are.”
“How I am?”
“Are you asking as the church sexton or as one of the Saints?”
“I’m asking as one human being to another. You’ve looked a little tired lately, and I thought I’d see if you’re okay.”
Claire stared at the man. There was still so much that was a mystery about him. Why was he a church sexton? How did he live out his responsibility as one of the Saints of Francis? Did he have a family? Did he live simply, or did he come from money?
But really the question in her heart was, could she trust him?
“There’s something I want to ask you about in the sanctuary, Bill.”
As they left the office, she told Trystene that she and Bill would be wandering the building.
“Doing Bill Hill’s monthly maintenance check? He’d be happy to know that.”
When they reached the sanctuary, Claire motioned Bill to sit down, as she did.
“I thought it would be easier to talk without worrying about Trystene overhearing us.”
“So Bill, these last seven months have been wonderful in many ways and agonizing in others. I love this congregation. There are fantastic people here who are really trying to live out their faith, who come here to find encouragement and challenge and friendship. They are so kind to Emma and me. There are days when I think I could retire from this place.
“But I am absolutely torn about the Saints. I try to imagine what people would do if they knew about you and your clandestine deeds of good. Would they be enraged? Would they demand you cease and desist? Would they throw me out for covering it up? Would they join the secret? Would they be proud that their church harbored angel spies?
“You know the dishonesty and subterfuge of the entire operation does not sit well with me. But over Christmas, when Emma and I visited Martha, Martha reminded me that I am complicit in my own subterfuge. For most of Emma’s life, I have told her and everyone else that her father died when she was an infant. The truth is that he left us. She doesn’t know that. Martha has challenged me to think about the reasons I have lied to the person dearest to me in the world. It’s made me think about the lying you all do, to people you love and to people you help. I’m unsettled about it and I’m not sleeping well. So that’s how I am, in case you’re still wondering.”
Bill looked at her. “Claire, I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent. I’ve had one serious relationship in my adult life, but he died before we were able to adopt our own kids. He died – yes, the love of my life was a man and yes, he really did die, a sudden death. He had an aneurism, and there was no time for a last ‘I love you’ or goodbye. So I don’t know what it is to raise a child, though we had wanted to. I have no words of advice. But I am willing to listen if you ever need someone to talk to.”
“Bill, I am so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Not many do. We hid our relationship from my family and now most of them are gone too.”
They sat there for a while in the sanctuary. It was raining, and they hadn’t turned the lights on, but still the stained glass windows glowed. St. Francis caught Claire’s eye – the simple man who renounced so much to serve the God he loved.
“I think you’re still making up your mind about the Saints, Claire, and I’m okay with that. I trust you will do the right thing, whatever that is. If you feel you need to tell people about us, then maybe it’s time we came out of the tunnels. I don’t know. What I do know is that the work I do here and the work I do for the Saints helps to fill some of the sense of loss I have. It will never fill all the emptiness. But it helps.”
They sat for a while in the silence.
“Beautiful windows, aren’t they?” Bill commented.
“Yes, they are. I always find the one that catches my eye on any given day is the one who brings me comfort somehow. Today it’s Francis. I wonder why.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
In which Emma prepares to get her driver’s license
“So you know my birthday is coming up. On the fourteenth. In ten days. On Valentine’s Day.”
“What? Your birthday? Are you kidding me?”
“Ha ha, Morag. I have done my practice hours. As soon as I turn sixteen, I can get my driver’s license!”
Claire’s heart sank. There was no way her baby was now old enough to drive, but as she looked at her, and watched her, and listened to her talk with her friends and with Gladys, she knew that however rightly or wrongly she had raised her, Emma had turned into a great young woman who was, in fact, almost old enough to drive.
“Okay, then. If you get the necessary paperwork from school, I will get your birth certificate out of the safe deposit box. We’ll do that sometime after the fourteenth. But what do you want to do for your birthday?”
They talked back and forth for a while as Emma made scones and Claire made coffee and Rex made whining noises, hoping against hope that Emma might drop a morsel of dough. It was not Rex’s lucky day. In the end they decided that Claire would take Emma and Marsala to a very well reviewed new restaurant in the northwest part of the city.
“You sure you don’t want a slumber party, cake, ice cream, the works?”
“Mom, I’m not turning twelve. Jeez. No, dinner with you and Mar at Expedition is perfect. But if that doesn’t feel like enough, you could always get me a car….”
“How about I pay to add you to my car insurance.”
“Okay. What-ever.” Emma smiled at her mom, and put the scones in.
Rex, ever the optimistic one, waited by the oven.
That afternoon Claire stopped by the bank to get Emma’s birth certificate. She looked at everything she had put there – her grandmother’s engagement ring that her dad gave her when Emma was born, to keep for Emma till the right time; her own birth certificate and passport, pink slip for the car, papers proving she was divorced from Emma’s dad. Visiting the safe deposit box is like doing the Time Warp, Claire thought. So familiar and so discombobulating. Where was Tim Curry when you really need him?
Claire took a good long look at the birth certificate, and as memories flooded back, she thought she might faint.
Mother: Morag Claire Grayson
Father: Harris Shelton Wood
Daughter: Emma Grayson Wood
Date of Birth: February 14, 1995, 7:35am
Place of Birth: St. Luke’s Hospital, Chicago, Illinois
Seeing his name in print brought back all the pain and grief Claire lived through all those years ago. She had tried to shield Emma from that grief. The time had come to stop the lie.
“So did you get my birth certificate?”
“Can I see it?”
“Let’s wait till after dinner, just so we don’t spill on it. We’re just about ready. Jar Soup tonight.”
“Okay. I guess I really don’t need it till we go to the DMV. But I thought it’d be cool to see it.”
“Why don’t you take Rex around the block and then we can eat.”
Emma was chatty that night. She talked about the substitute they had in algebra, and the fight between twin sisters whose parents had named them, inexplicably, Layla and Lila. She talked about how excited she and Marsala were to try Expedition, and what did Claire think they should wear, because it would be fun to get dressed up but nobody ever really got dressed up any more but it was her sixteenth birthday and Valentine’s Day so was Claire able to get a reservation and she definitely would not wear red because everybody wore red on Valentine’s Day and that was so cliché.
“Hey, Mom, I’ll do the dishes and we can get all my driver’s license stuff together.”
While Emma washed up, Claire prayed. Help me. Forgive my lie. Help Emma.
“Here you go, sweetie.”
Emma opened the faded envelope and stared at the piece of paper. She stared, and then her brow furrowed, and then her eyes got teary . She turned to her mother.
“Mom? Tell me about Dad. You never really talk about him.”
And in a breath’s time, the house of cards Claire had built around Emma, trying to protect her from the truth and from the hurt, collapsed, and she was left with nothing but a damned piece of paper and guilt etched on her face.
“Emma, I need to have a really serious talk with you, and all I ask is that you hear me out.”
“Mom, what is going on?”
“Honey, please just sit down and let me talk.”
Emma did sit down, and as she did the look on her face took Claire back to her dream: sad and lost Emma, ignored, a pile of inedible cookies in front of her.
Claire took a deep breath and began.
“Your dad, Harris Shelton Wood, or Harry, as everybody called him, really was a charming guy. He really was the life of the party. Every woman immediately went to him like a moth to the flame, so when his attentions turned to me, I was flabbergasted and happy.
“We met after college when I was living in Chicago and working at Field’s. There was a group of us that would hang out together on the weekends, and we got to know each other, and eventually started dating. Before long we were pretty serious.
“During that year I had applied to go to seminary and got accepted at a few, and one of them was in Chicago. Harry never did church; he never stopped me from going but he never encouraged me to, either. But when I needed to make a decision about where to go, we had to decide what was going to happen to us. If we thought we would get married, I would go to the University of Chicago Div school. If we thought we wouldn’t get married, I would go to Princeton, which had offered me a full scholarship.
“Looking back, I guess I forced Harry’s hand. At the end of our conversation, he got down on one knee and proposed. I laughed and cried and said yes. I was the luckiest girl in Chicago, to have landed a guy like Harry.
“So I started my M.Div. and he kept working and thankfully we did not have to live in student housing. We had planned to wait till I was done to start a family, but things didn’t turn out that way. I got pregnant with you. When I found out I was terrified and over the moon.
“Your dad was mostly lukewarm. I had finished four quarters of my classwork, and then on Valentine’s Day, you were born. I took a leave of absence and stayed home in our little studio with my precious newborn girl.
“Your dad was there when you were born and he was the first one to hold you. He was great at first about changing diapers and feeding you if I pumped a bottle. He’d bundle you up and put you in the baby carrier and take you for long walks so I could get a nap.
“And then that summer he went on a business trip and never came back. In August I got a note from him in the mail, postmarked in Denver. It basically said that I was great and you were great but being married to a minister and being the father of a girl really wasn’t the way he saw his life. He left us both.
“It was the worst day of my life.”
Emma stared at her mother, tears rolling down her face.
“He didn’t want me?”
Claire started to cry. “Oh, honey, that’s why I didn’t tell you. That bastard left us. He left you and me, two of the most fantastic women in the history of the world. He didn’t deserve us, Em. Trust me when I tell you we are so much better off without him.”
“I think I need to be alone for a while.”
“Okay, honey. I am so sorry about this. I really am.”
Claire heard Emma go up to her room, and Claire went to her own. Rex, good dog that he was, went up with Emma. Claire pretended to check her email, and then pretended to watch tv, and then pretended to read, but all she really did was think. Think about Harry. Think about that day. Think about Emma. Think about her own lies. Think about the Saints. Think about Martha. Think about what the hell she was going to do. At eleven she went upstairs to check on Emma.
The room was empty, except for a confused looking Rex, woken up suddenly from his own dream.
In which the Hills have an unexpected guest
Claire panicked. Where was Emma? Oh God, how could she not have heard her go out? She sat on the bed, and tried a few deep breaths. It was 11:00, too late to call Martha, but Martha wouldn’t care if she woke her up. But Martha was in Minneapolis, of no immediate help.
She could call Alice or Bill Carr – for God’s sake, weren’t they angel spies supposed to help people in crisis? She was in a crisis.
She could get in the car and look for Emma. She’d do that. She went downstairs to get her keys but she couldn’t find them. Shit. Maybe I left them in the car, she thought. She went to the garage. No keys, and no car.
The kid took the car.
Claire was dumbfounded. She went back inside, numb with worry and guilt, paralyzed with indecision. And then the phone rang. Claire looked at the caller i.d. Thank you Jesus, it wasn’t the police. It was the Hills.
“Claire? It’s Gladys.”
“Gladys, hi. This really isn’t a good time. Are you okay?”
“Oh honey, I’m fine and Bill is fine. Emma is fine too – she’s over here with us.”
The sense of relief Claire felt almost knocked her out. Her throat began to close up.
“Listen, honey, I don’t know everything that’s going on, but I know something has. We raised two daughters and we know things happen. I’ve asked Emma if she wants to stay with us tonight, and she said she does. I made her promise to give me the keys and not to leave, and she swore she wouldn’t. I won’t ask her anything but I will listen to whatever she wants to say. Is that all right with you?”
Claire could barely croak out an answer. “Oh, Gladys, I can’t begin to thank you. Yes, of course, that’s fine. I’m so glad she’s okay, and she’s with you and Bill. Is Bill okay tonight?”
“He’s fine, and he’s gone up to bed. Emma and I will have some chamomile tea and a cookie and we’ll take it from there. You try to get some sleep, okay?”
“I’ll try. And thank you, again, Gladys. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t called. Please tell Emma I love her.”
“I already have. Good night, Claire.”
It was, to borrow a phrase from St. John of the Cross, a dark night of the soul for Claire.
Once she knew Emma was safe, and in a place where she would be loved without condition, she could breathe a little easier. She got into her pajamas, and made a cup of tea, and curled up in her bed. Rex curled up next to her. Good dog.
The only thing that came to mind was to pray, and the only words she could find were the Jesus prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Over and over she said the ancient words. They focused her mind and her heart.
And then she felt light, and space, and an outpouring of love she knew came from the One whose love she proclaimed to her flock week after week. She knew she would be all right, and she knew Emma would be all right. It might get worse before it got better, but it would get better.
“Thank you,” she prayed, and turned off the light, and slept without dreams.
The next morning was too quiet, but Claire put on the coffee and sat down with one of Emma’s scones. The birth certificate lay on the table. Bastard Harry. It was all his fault.
No, she thought, that’s not true. It’s not all his fault. I fell in love with him. I married him. I had a child with him.
Yes, but he left me. He left us.
Yes, but I lied about it to Emma and to others.
I am responsible for this. I lied.
Claire remembered the feeling of light and space and love she had the night before, and thought about that as a call – a call to penance, a call to forgiveness, a call to change. She wasn’t sure what she would do, but she knew that morning that she was not the same person who ate Jar Soup with her daughter the night before. Things could not stay the same.
She finished her coffee, showered and dressed, and took Rex for his walk. She called the church and left a message for Trystene that she would be in late, maybe not till the afternoon. And then she called the Hills.
“Hills, Gladys speaking.”
“Good morning, Gladys, it’s Claire.”
“Hi – I thought it might be you. Did you get any sleep?”
“I did, thanks. You?”
“Emma and I stayed up talking for a while, but we both managed to get to sleep eventually. I’d let you talk to her but she’s in the shower. Do you want me to have her call you?”
“Only if she wants to. I’d like to come get her, but she did take my car. I could ride my bike over.”
“Listen, why don’t I have Bill come pick you up and bring you over here? I promise we would leave you two alone.”
“Gladys, are you sure? You’ve done so much already. I hate to impose.”
“It is no imposition. Bill and I love you and Emma, and we know you will get through this. We also know it’s part of walking the walk. He’ll be over within the half-hour.”
“Thanks. I’ll see you soon, then.”
Oh God, Claire thought. Bill Hill. How on earth was she going to face Bill? He hadn’t put anything in his top ten list about not having the pastor’s kid crash at the home of parishioners, but he’d probably never imagined he would need to. Then she remembered their conversation on the porch the first time they had dinner there, and she remembered the conversation she had with him at the hospital on Christmas Day, and she knew he would neither bark nor bite.
As she saw him pull up, she met him outside. “Hi, Bill. Thank you so much for playing chauffeur today.”
“That’s alright. It’s good to be reminded I’m still of some use to someone.”
Claire stopped. “You first,” she said.
“Claire, I don’t know what happened between you and Emma last night, and I went to bed, so I don’t know what Glad and Emma talked about. I’m a bit in the dark. But I do know what it’s like to raise a teenage daughter, and I had Gladys to help me. So whatever happened between the two of you doesn’t really matter to me. People love each other and people fight with each other and sometimes storm out on each other. Good Lord, one weekend when the girls were teenagers Gladys got so fed up with all of us she left a note saying she was staying at an unnamed hotel by herself and we could all manage without her.”
“Gladys did that?”
“Gladys Harper Hill, the love of my life, my wife of fifty-seven years, mother extraordinaire, walked out on us. Oh, she was back by Sunday night, all smiles. And when she walked through that door, we all smiled back.”
“Well, here we are.”
“I guess it’s time to pay the piper.”
“I guess it is.”
“Listen, girls, Bill and I have some errands to run. You make yourselves at home, and if you need to leave, just pull the door shut behind you. Goodbye, Emma love. We’ll talk soon, okay?”
Gladys gave Emma a hug and squeezed Claire’s hand as she propelled Bill toward the door.
“Thanks again, Gladys. Thank you, Bill. I’m sorry for everything,” Emma said.
Bill stopped and turned. “Emma, you owe us no apology. Gladys and I are glad you thought of coming to us. You take care of yourself now.” And the Hills left.
Claire turned to Emma, who couldn’t meet her mother’s eye. “Let’s go sit down.”
What Claire most wanted to do was take Emma up in her arms and never let her go, but she didn’t know what Emma wanted. They sat on the couch, Emma keeping her head bowed.
“Honey, the first thing I want you to know is how relieved I am that you’re safe, and how smart it was of you to come to the Hills. I had no idea you’d left, and it was only a few minutes after I realized you were gone that Gladys called me.
“I’m not thrilled that you left or that you took the car, but I’m pretty sure those things are secondary right now. I am willing to listen to whatever you want to say.”
Emma mumbled something in that squeaky voice of someone trying to speak while crying.
“I’m sorry, sweetie, I didn’t hear that.”
“I’m sorry,” Emma whispered.
“Oh, Emma, I am the one who’s sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you. I’m sorry I let you think your dad had died. I’m sorry I wasn’t honest and that I didn’t let you know that your dad is probably still alive and somewhere in the world. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you to be able to handle the news.”
“Oh, Mommy.” And Emma tumbled into Claire’s arms, and they cried for a good long while.
Finally, Claire said, “Let’s go home.” And they did.
In which Lent approaches
Claire called the church office. “Trystene, I’m not going to be in today. Is there anything going on I need to know about? I can check my email here.”
“No, it’s pretty quiet today. Peggy wanted to know if you’d made a decision about the Ash Wednesday service yet.”
“Not yet. I’ll email her. I just got an idea today. Please call me if something urgent comes up. Otherwise I will see you on Monday.”
“Got it. I’ll see you then. Have a great weekend!”
“You too. Thanks, Trystene.”
Claire turned to Emma. “So I called school and told them you’d be out sick today. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, that’s good. I really didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Me neither. How about we pop in a movie, eat popcorn for lunch, and then take a nap? Rex will be in heaven with both of us around all day.”
“Well… can we maybe like talk instead? ‘Cause I know you’re all sorry and everything and I get that, sort of, but I’m still mad at you. I mean, Mom, that’s a big lie you told me for a long time. And you told other people. Who else knows the truth?”
“Well, your dad knows the truth. He wasn’t speaking to his parents by the time we got married, so I guess they don’t know, if they’re even alive. Grandma and Grandpa know. Aunt Cece knows. And Aunt Martha. That’s kind of it for the people who are still part of our lives.”
“Um, well, Gladys knows now too, so probably Bill knows. I hope that doesn’t get you into trouble.”
“I trust the Hills to do the right thing. As they both reminded me, they raised daughters. And they’ve been married for a long time. They know that people who love each other don’t always like each other.”
“So Mom, why did you lie to me?”
“Emma, I don’t know if I can really describe what it was like those months when your dad left. He went on the business trip, and he didn’t call. I tried the hotel he was staying at, but they said he’d checked out. I called his company, and they said he’d quit. He must have gotten a new credit card because there was no activity on the ones we shared. I finally realized he had planned the whole thing.
“I didn’t know how I would raise you by myself, if I’d be able to finish my degree, if any congregation would want a single mom as a pastor. I thought I’d be more hirable if they saw me as a widow and not a divorced person. Just saying that, I hear how selfish that sounds.
“But really honey, and you have to believe me, I was trying to spare you the pain of thinking you were abandoned.”
Emma didn’t say anything for a little bit. Then, with a catch in her throat, she said, “But when someone you love dies, it does sort of feel like they abandoned you. Maybe not by choice, but it’s kinda the same.”
Claire nodded. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”
“Well, you never really liked to talk about Dad. I always thought it was because it made you too sad, and I didn’t want to make you sad. I guess maybe you’ve always been mad at him.”
Claire nodded again. “You know, I never thought about it. I’ve been furious with him for almost sixteen years. That’s a long time to be mad at someone.”
Emma smiled with a twinkle in her eye. “What would Jesus say, Morag?”
Claire looked at her, utterly serious. “That I’ve got some work to do.”
After grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, they both went to their rooms for a nap. Rex followed Emma. Traitor, Claire thought.
While it was good to get horizontal, the nap was not a restful one. Claire hopped from dream to dream. Martha showed up, with Toledo and the Steel Horse Diner dog. Then Trystene, in a white wedding gown. And Alice and Gladys, surrounded by babies in old-fashioned outfits in perambulators. At one point there was a hockey game with Prune Drop cookies as pucks and Rex chasing after them.
At 3:30 the alarm went off, and Claire went upstairs to wake Emma. She always looked so young when she slept, and young when she first awoke. Why do we have to grow up? Claire wondered.
“Hey, sweets, it’s time to get up.”
“I’ll be downstairs.”
Claire pulled out her laptop and checked her email. Nothing that couldn’t wait till tomorrow. Peggy emailed again, really wanting to know about Ash Wednesday, so Claire got to it. As she began writing, Emma came downstairs and started rummaging through the kitchen. “Okay with you if I do some baking?”
“Sounds great. Okay with you if I do some writing?”
“Fine by me, as long as you’re willing to taste things.”
“If I must.”
Claire started working on the service for Ash Wednesday and plans for Lent in general. She had remembered a prayer she cut out from a magazine years ago, by Clement of Rome. The words spoke to her in a new way now.
You, Lord, brought into being the everlasting fabric of the universe; you wove the tapestry of life. From one generation to another you are constant and righteous in your laws, wise and prudent in your actions. To look round is to see your goodness; to trust you is to know your generosity, to confess to you is to receive your forgiveness.
Make us clean with the strong soap of your truth. Make us whole with the powerful medicine of your grace. Show us the light of your smile. Protect us with your mighty arm. Save us from all wrongdoing by your outstretched arm. Deliver us from all those that hate us without cause. And to us and all humankind grant peace and accord.
To you, who alone can grant to us those and all good things, we offer up our praise through Jesus Christ, the high priest and guardian of our souls. Amen.
Claire dashed off an email to Peggy with the outline for Ash Wednesday and some music requests for the Sundays in Lent.
Emma came in with a plate of brownies. “I experimented with peanut butter and caramel in the brownies. Taste it and tell me it’s too much.”
Claire took a bite. “Oh my God, honey. It’s like heaven on a plate.”
“Is it too rich?”
Claire took another bite. “No, I don’t think so. I wonder if you might add chocolate chips or something to offset the saltiness of the caramel and peanut butter.”
“I could try that. Thanks.”
“What inspired the experiment?”
“Well, when I was at the Hills this morning Bill was talking about not having much of an appetite because of the chemo, but that sometimes he got a craving for chocolate and salt. So I thought I’d try this. As kind of a thank you for last night and everything.”
“So do you want to tell me what happened?”
Emma sat down and helped herself to brownie. “I see what you mean about the chocolate chips. Yeah. So after you told me that Dad left us and that you lied about it I went upstairs but I sort of felt like my head was going to explode and I had to get out of the house. Your door was closed and I really didn’t feel like talking. I saw your keys on the counter and I thought I almost have my license so I took the car.
“I was really nervous about getting caught so I just drove like two streets over and parked the car. I really wanted to talk to a mom who wasn’t you and Gladys was the first person I thought of. So I drove over there and the porch lights were still on and the inside lights were on so I knocked on the door. I must have looked really terrible because Gladys told me to come in right away.
“I guess she and Bill were watching tv or something. Bill said hi and then that he was tired and goodnight. And then Gladys asked me what was wrong, and I told her about dad and how you lied and then she asked if you knew where I was and I said know and she said I have to call your mom so she knows you’re safe. And I guess you know the rest.”
Claire looked at Emma and tears welled up in her eyes again. “Emma, I know I can’t undo what I did to you. I know I told you a lie for sixteen years, and I had convinced myself I was doing it to spare you hurt. But I know I didn’t, and I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. You are the person most precious to me in the entire world and I hate that I have caused you so much pain. And instead of packing up your things or smashing all the dishes, you make me brownies to taste.
“I promise, honey, I will do everything I can to make things better, starting by telling you the truth – about your dad, about me, about whatever.”
Emma gave her mother one of her looks. “Okay, so Morag, it’s getting a little heavy here. I know you totally feel bad and I kinda think you should. But I also think maybe my dad was a bit of a dick – like Robbie’s dad but different. So I’m also sort of done with this conversation for now, and I need to get the brownies out of the pan, so I’m going to go back into the kitchen.”
“I love you, Emma.”
In which Ash Wednesday is observed
The organist was playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano as people entered the sanctuary. Candles flickered on the communion table, and in front of the table were baskets with strips of fabric and Sharpies. The lights were a little dimmed. Printed on the cover of the bulletin was the prayer by Clement of Rome. The sanctuary held a full quietness.
When the prelude finished, Claire began the service. “Friends, welcome to our Ash Wednesday service, as we begin the season of Lent. This year during the next forty days we will be guided by these words of Clement, one of the most ancient of the church fathers. In the prayer printed on the cover of the bulletin he lifts up practices, and we will encourage each other to engage in these practices as part of our own Lenten discipline. We will touch on those disciplines in the service tonight, and in the weeks that follow.
“Now let us sing the opening song, ‘O Lord, hear my prayer’.”
O Lord, hear my prayer; O Lord, hear my prayer.
When I call, answer me.
O Lord, hear my prayer; O Lord, hear my prayer.
Come and listen to me.
Again and again the congregation sang the words, until the organist sensed it was time to finish. The song was followed by a full minute of silence. Claire looked out on the congregation. Gladys sat by herself. Bill must not be feeling well. Alice and Garrett were there, looking thoughtful. Toledo sat in the back, and Bill Carr leaned against the doorway in the back. Claire didn’t see Emma, and figured she had decided not to come after all. All told there were about forty there. The Ash Wednesday service was one for the most devout, those who welcomed the introspection of Lent each year.
Claire motioned to Garrett, who came forward to do the reading. “A reading from the Psalter, number 51. Listen for the word of God.”
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin….
Garrett is such a fine reader, thought Claire. He doesn’t just say the words, he embodies them. As he finished, Claire gave him a quick smile. She got up once again.
“The psalmist and Clement have given us a lot of images to work with tonight – fabric and soap, hyssop and sacrifice, light and truth, a tapestry, protection, forgiveness, confession. My old preaching professor would probably say there are too many images to convey a message.
“But life is like that sometimes, or most of the time. We never have the opportunity to work on just one thing. Most days we have dozens of things come our way – work, family, school, friends. Illness, disappointment, betrayal. Hopes fulfilled and hopes dashed. It’s never just one thing, one image, one virtue or vice that we get to work on.
“This Lent I’d like for us to think of this season as a time when we are making a tapestry, weaving together all the strands of our lives into a whole. In the prayer and in the psalm we’re given threads to start our work.
“Tonight you may start with the thread of sin or mercy. You may need to begin with the strong soap of truth, or the medicine of God’s grace. You may desire to be made clean by the God who knows you, or to bring your best offering to the God who loves you.
“You probably noticed the fabric and pens here. You are invited, as you feel moved, to take a strip of fabric, or more if you need them, to write a piece of your tapestry. It may be a prayer, a hope or a confession; it may be the name of a person or a place that lies heavily in your heart. It may be a hope or a gratitude. As we collect them we will weave them together and make our own Lenten tapestry.
“Come as you feel ready. Let us begin our Lent.”
Claire sat back down and noticed that Alice was looking at her intently. Claire gave a half smile back. After a few moments, Claire took her own piece of fabric. “The Saints” she wrote.
When those who wanted to come forward had, Claire offered prayers for the evening, and then the imposition of the ashes. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” she said, over and over again. To Martha’s old flame, Toledo. To Gladys, whose beloved was closer to the grave than any of them wanted to admit. To Garrett who embodied the scripture. To Alice, who seemed vulnerable, and who in turn offered the ashes to Claire.
The service concluded with an a cappella singing of “What Wondrous Love Is This.” Claire noticed Gladys bow her head during the third verse. She looked so alone and so sad.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and grateful be,
And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity I’ll sing on.
First thing I do when I get home is pour myself a big glass of wine, Claire thought. She called upstairs as she went in. “Emma! I’m home.” Rex came trotting out to meet her.
Claire went upstairs. No Emma there. No note. She couldn’t have taken the car because Claire had it. She wasn’t at the Hills because Gladys or Bill would’ve called. No messages on the phone. Where was she?
Claire called Marsala’s house. Not there.
She took a deep breath. She said a quick prayer. She called Martha.
The phone rang several times before Martha picked up.
“Did I wake you up?”
“Just a little bit. Are you okay?”
“I can’t find Emma. I had the Ash Wednesday service and I came home and she isn’t here and there’s no note.”
“Okay. Let’s think about this. Does it look like anyone broke in?”
“No. The door was locked and none of the windows were broken. And Rex was fine.”
“Did you call the usual suspects?”
“Anything going on between you two?”
“Oh, jeez, Martha. Yes. I forgot to tell you. I told her about her dad, and she ran away to the Hills, and spent the night there, but then I got her and things were fine. She said she understood but she was still mad but things have been fine, I swear.”
“Okay. Let’s remember we’re dealing with a sixteen-year-old. They aren’t always known for their common sense, even as great a kid as Emma. Have you checked the computer?”
“No. Hang on. Google history. Oh, God.”
“She’s been googling her dad. ‘There are seventeen people named Harris Shelton Wood in the U.S.’ And one law firm in Albuquerque. She followed up on one in Montana. Crap, Martha – you don’t think she’s headed to Montana, do you?”
“Maybe. How would she have gotten to the train station?”
“The bus stop is just a few blocks away and then it’s a straight shot to the train station. Give me a sec to see if it looks like she packed.”
Claire set the phone down. Emma’s backpack was not on the kitchen table. No toothbrush in the bathroom. No jacket on the door.
“Martha, I think she’s gone. What do I do?”
“Okay. Knowing how sensible she is, I wouldn’t call the police just yet. Go to the train station. See if she’s there. I’ll work on things on my end.”
“The Saints?” Claire’s voice cracked.
“Where there is darkness, light, Claire.”
“I’ll call you when I get to the train station.”
“Thanks. Try to stay calm.”
Claire left a note for Emma.
Em – if you are reading this note then please call me IMMEDIATELY. I am worried sick about you and have gone to look for you. Please let me know you are home and safe.
In which Claire searches
Claire ran into Union Station. She quickly scanned the room. No Emma. She went to the two ladies’ rooms. She found a security guard and showed him Emma’s picture. No, he didn’t remember seeing a girl who looked like that, but then, he hadn’t been looking either.
She went to the ticket desk, to ask if there was a train that left that night headed for Montana. No, not Montana, but there was one that was headed for Boise, Salt Lake City, and Denver, or another that went up to Seattle and then Spokane.
“I can’t find my daughter and I think she might have taken the train.”
“Ma’am, here’s what we do. If you can email a picture of your daughter to this address, they will send that to the conductors of tonight’s eastbound trains. They’ll do a check, and if she’s found, she’ll be escorted off the train at the next stop and detained at that station until you are able to arrange to pick her up.”
Claire sent the picture of Emma immediately.
“Now what do I do?”
“Ma’am, I suggest you go home and wait. You’ll get a call if anyone sees her.”
The few people left in the station gave Claire strange looks. It wasn’t till she got home and looked in the mirror that she realized she still had ashes smudged on her forehead. Was the Ash Wednesday service just tonight? It felt like a million years ago.
A big glass of wine was the farthest thing from Claire’s mind. She washed her face, made a cup of tea, and called Martha.
“So if I get a call intercept I have to take it. No sign of Emma at the train station, and I’ve emailed her picture to Amtrak. They’ll send it to the conductors of tonight’s eastbound trains. They’ll detain Emma if they find her and they’ll call me right away.”
“Good. Do you think you need to go to the airport?”
“Shit. Let’s see. It’s 10:30. Oh, God, I don’t know, Martha. My brain won’t work.”
“Let’s try another tack. How would Emma have paid for a plane or train or bus ticket?”
“She knows where I keep my emergency credit card. Let me check to see if there’s any charges tonight – no. Oh God, Martha, where is she?”
“Listen, Claire. I don’t know where she is. But I believe we will find her and she will be okay. She is mad at you, mad that you lied, mad that her dad abandoned you. God knows what else she’s mad about because she’s a teenager and her frontal lobe is not yet fully developed. We will find her. What you need to do is try to stay calm.”
“Oh, thanks a lot. You have no idea how I feel right now. It’s fine for you to be all curled up in Minneapolis with no child to worry about, telling me to be calm. Jesus, Martha.”
“Okay, so we’ll come back to that another time. Listen, Claire. While you were at the train station I called Alice and explained the situation. All the Saints in the city are working their networks. We have people at the train station and the airport. We have people at the shelters. We have people at hotels in case she’s there. Unless she’s hiding underneath a big rock, if she’s in town or trying to leave it, we will find her. And I’m sending Tom over.”
“Oh, no, Martha, not him.”
“Look, I know you think he’s a big suave faker, but trust me. He will help you. I’ve got some calls to make but I will be in touch later tonight. Try to stay calm, honey.”
“Thanks, Martha. I’m sorry about the thing I said.”
“Don’t worry about it. Love you.”
Claire was too choked up to say anything.
She changed into jeans and a sweater and put her tennis shoes on. She let Rex out in the backyard in lieu of his evening walk. She plugged in her phone so it was fully charged. She checked her email – nothing. Then she heard a knock at the door. It was Toledo.
“Hi, Claire. Martha has let us know what’s going on. May I come in?”
“Any word from Amtrak?”
“Nothing. Um, any word from any of your, uh, people?”
“Not yet, but we just got started.”
Rex came in, took one look at Toledo, and started a low growl.
Claire sat on the couch, her hands under her legs, her knees bobbing up and down. She stared at the wall, unsure what to say or do.
“Toledo, I’m going to crawl out of my skin.”
“I understand, but we need to say here in case Emma comes home.”
“I’m going to go crazy doing nothing. Can we call Alice and ask her to stay here so you and I can look for Emma?”
“Yes. Give me a second.” He called Alice, spoke briefly, and hung up.
“She’ll be here in fifteen minutes. What do you need to take with you or do before you leave?”
“Let me pee, feed the dog. I don’t know, what else do I need?”
“Do you have any pictures of Emma you can pass out?”
“Um, no. No – yes. I’ll make copies on my printer. What else?”
Toledo went over to her, and put his hands on her arms. He looked at her and said, “Claire, it’s going to be okay. Trust us. More than that, trust the God you tell us about every week. I’d like to say a prayer, if that’s alright with you.”
Claire nodded, and then shrugged Toledo’s hands off.
“God of light and hope, come close to all who love Emma, and especially enfold Claire in your peace. Be with the saints as they do your work, and be with whoever is with Emma right now. Most of all we ask that you send angels of mercy and protection to this girl. Help her find safe people. Help her to forgive. Show her the way home. Amen.”
Claire’s heart stopped its frantic breathing and she was able to take a full breath. She fed the dog, stopped in the bathroom, and checked her email once more. She saw Alice pull up and opened the door.
“Okay, Claire, I’m here. I will call if Emma comes home. You two keep me posted too.”
“Thanks, Alice. I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t need to say a thing. Now go.”
And Claire and Toledo headed out into the night.
They went back to the train station. The security guard remembered Claire and said he hadn’t seen anyone who looked like Emma. Both Toledo and Claire checked the restrooms. Nothing.
They went to the airport. Toledo talked up a female security guard who was more than happy to bask in his presence for a few minutes. She didn’t remember seeing anyone meeting Emma’s description, but she hadn’t been looking. She did talk to airport security and told Claire and Toledo that they would do a walk through of the gates that were still open. Claire and Toledo checked all the bathrooms they could get to. No Emma.
They drove downtown, to the all-night shelter. No, the staff hadn’t seen any teenage girls that night. They checked the ERs of the three big hospitals. Thankfully, no Emma.
By now it was one in the morning. “I think I need to take you home, Claire.”
“But we haven’t found her.”
“I think right now she doesn’t want to be found. You and I have done all that two tired, anxious people can do. Let me take you home, and you can wait there. We’ve got the network of Saints on this. Trust us. We will find her.”
Claire agreed to let Toledo take her home. They went in the house to find Alice reading a magazine on the couch, Rex curled up beside her.
“Listen, Claire, I’m going to stay here with you tonight. I told Garrett a friend of mine was having a bit of a crisis and he’s not expecting me. Toledo, go home and if you hear anything, let us know.”
“I will. Good night, Claire. I will keep you and Emma in my prayers tonight.”
“Good night. I really don’t know how to thank you.”
“It’s okay. We don’t do this to be thanked.” And he left.
Claire turned to Alice, her voice breaking. “Alice, if something happens to her, what am I going to do?”
“Claire, I think it’s important right now to deal in realities and not possibilities. The reality is we don’t know where Emma is. That’s all we know. Let’s stay there. Now, can I get you anything?”
In which Claire waits
“Claire, would you like a sleeping pill?”
“No, Alice, thanks. If something happens I want to be alert and ready to go.”
“Do you think you might sleep?”
“No. Listen, why don’t you go lie down on my bed. I’ll sit on the couch, and if I get tired enough to sleep I’ll just stretch out here. Please. If you stay up I’m going to feel the need to make small talk and I just can’t right now.”
“I understand. Thank you. I’ll go lie down but if my phone rings and I hear anything, I will let you know.”
“Have hope, Claire. I believe things will work out.”
Somewhere around three in the morning, Claire’s phone rang. “Ms. Grayson? This is Wanda Brennon. I’m the station master here in Spokane and we’ve all got a photo of your daughter. I showed it around and one of our security folks thought they remembered seeing someone who looked like her, but if she did pass through, she’s not here now. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything else, but I thought I’d let you know that.”
“Thank you. No, we haven’t heard anything else. I really appreciate the call.”
“Sure thing, hon. You sit tight. That girl of yours will get home. I’ll send up some good thoughts for you folks. Good night now.”
Anxiety and exhaustion had left Claire feeling abuzz, like she had had too much caffeine. She stared dully at the wall, doing everything she could to keep panic at bay. How had it come to this? How had her choice to keep an awful thing from her daughter led to such despair in her girl? Didn’t Emma know she was treasured? Didn’t she understand that Claire did it for her own good?
She began to cry, and didn’t stop for a long time. Finally, as the sky began to lighten, she stretched out on the couch and slept for two hours.
She awoke to the smell of coffee. O, blessed Alice, thank you, she thought.
“Good morning, Claire. Did you hear anything?”
“The station master in Spokane called and said a security guard there thought he’d seen someone who looked like Emma but she wasn’t at the station anymore. Other than that, nothing. You?”
“Not a word – yet. I saw you slept a little. What’s your plan for today?”
“I don’t know. I think I’ll shower and call Martha. And then I’ll check in with Trystene. And I know it’s too early, but I’ll call the police too.”
“Alright. Well, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go home to Garrett. Toledo will be your main contact for today. You have his number?”
“Yes. Thanks again for everything, Alice. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through last night without you.”
Claire showered, took Rex for a walk, and left a new note for Emma. She got to the church at nine, and found Bill Carr and Trystene deep in conversation.
“Morning, Cl – oh my God, what is wrong?”
“Do I look that bad?”
“Listen, I need you two to come in. I have to tell you about something.”
They went into Claire’s office, and as they went in, Claire saw a note on her desk.
Mom – I’m really mad at you and I’ve gone to find Dad. Don’t try to follow me. I need to do this on my own. I will be fine. I took the emergency cash you keep underneath the hamburger rolls in the freezer. Pet Rex for me. I will call you when I’ve found Dad.
Claire showed the note to Bill and Trystene, and then she started talking. She told them about Emma’s dad, that he was not dead as far as she knew, but that he had abandoned them when Emma was a baby. She told them about her decision to lie to Emma and everyone else about him. She looked at Bill, and then she told Trystene about the saints, about the bulletin signals and the Prune Drop Cookies. She told them how betrayed she felt when she found out her best friend was part of the Saints, and how grateful she was because she knew there was a group of people doing what she couldn’t – look for Emma. She looked at Trystene, and told her Frank was one of the Saints too. And then she finished.
“Son of a bitch,” Trystene said. Claire looked surprised. Bill snorted. “That son of a bitch. He’s ten times worse than my ex. What an idiot, to leave you two. Claire, I am so sorry about all of this. You want me to ask Robbie to start looking for Emma?”
Then Trystene turned to Bill. “And you, mister. Messing up my bulletins on purpose? Making me look incompetent? Sneaking around this place like you own it? Claire, I can’t believe you didn’t fire his ass when you found out.”
“Believe me, I thought about it. Listen you two, I am glad for this distraction but I really need to go tell the police. I think we need law enforcement on this.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“Thanks, Trystene. I think I’d rather you stay here in case someone calls. But Bill, if you’re free, I would like some company.”
“Sure. If you don’t mind, I just need to finish up one quick thing with the boiler. Since I’m going that way, Trystene, would you like to see our secret lair?”
The three of them headed down to the boiler room. Claire made sure her phone was charged and the ringer at full volume.
“Claire? Do you want to show Trystene the tunnels? I just need to finish up one quick thing.”
Claire nodded, check her phone, and proceeded. She flicked a switch and the cinderblock hall was illumined.
“Nice,” said Trystene.
“Well, I will say the room is better than I’d thought it’d be. So here we –“
And there was Emma, asleep on couch.
Claire sank to her knees, head in hands. Trystene went back to tell Bill.
Claire stared at her daughter. She looked so at peace. Her backpack was on the floor. She had kicked off her shoes, but she still had her jacket on. Claire didn’t want that moment to end – Emma wasn’t mad at her, wasn’t complaining, wasn’t driving. She was asleep, innocent, safe.
“Emma?” Claire whispered.
Emma slowly blinked her eyes open. “Mom? What are you doing here? What is this place?”
Bill and Trystene came in. “I’ll call Alice,” Bill said. “Trystene, let’s give them a minute.”
“Mom, really, what is this place? Why is there this gorgeous room? I was trying to sneak out the tunnels.”
“Oh, Emma. You’ve got to stop scaring me to death. I am so damned tired I don’t know if any of this will make any sense, because even when I’ve had a full night’s sleep it doesn’t make any sense. St. Rahab’s is a hub for a group of angel spies. Alice and Bill Carr are the ringleaders. Martha is one of them, as is Toledo Vader who used to be Martha’s fiancé. They run around the world helping people according to the prayer of St. Francis.”
Emma stared at her mother. “Are you kidding me?”
“Nope. Let’s call Martha. She’s been worried sick too. She’ll verify what I just said. But we have to move because there’s no cell reception down here.”
As they made their way upstairs to Claire’s office, Claire gave Emma brief history of the Saints. She told her about stumbling into Bill and Alice that night, about the Prune Drop cookies, and about her own struggle with the good they did and the lies they told.
When they got to the office, Claire handed Emma her phone and told her to call Martha. Claire used the office phone to call Alice first, and then Toledo. She then emailed Amtrak and told them that Emma had been found. When she was done, she joined the conversation.
“Well, Martha, I guess the jig is up.”
“I guess it is. Emma, honey, can you forgive us?
“Okay, so, no. This is the second time in a month people I love have totally lied to me. Jeez, what do I have to do, run away to Mars?”
“I guess we deserve that. How about I come for a visit?”
“Let me think about it.”
Claire told Trystene she was going home to take a nap and write something resembling a sermon. Trystene got up, gave her a hug, and told her everything would be fine.
“I don’t deserve you, Trystene.”
“Oh yes you do. Now go get some sleep.”
When they got home, Emma and Claire curled up together in Claire’s bed. Rex jumped up and made himself at home. For the moment, all was well. Light in the darkness, Claire thought. Thank you.
In which Bill Hill takes a turn for the worse
After her nap and lunch, Claire thought about her sermon. First Sunday in Lent – the temptation of Jesus. Not her favorite, but she thought maybe this year she would have something to say about trying to do good by being someone you’re not. Then again, there was always the old sermon file.
On Friday Emma went back to school and Claire went back to the office to take care of a few things. She asked Trystene if she had any questions about the Saints, and Trystene answered she was still thinking about it. Claire asked Bill Carr if he was upset that she had told Trystene and Emma about the Saints. Bill said again that he trusted Claire’s judgment on the matter.
Friday night over dinner, Claire told Emma they needed to have another serious conversation.
“I figured I wasn’t going to get off this time.”
“Honey, we have to figure out a way for you to get mad without running away. A lot of people – a lot of people didn’t sleep on Wednesday night, looking for you and worrying about you. I was about to call the police.”
“I know. I just was home thinking about you and you lying to me and Dad leaving us and I just got so mad. I wanted to hurt you the way you hurt me, and I decided I would go try to find Dad. I figured out when the service would end, and then some time so you could talk to everybody and then clean up, and I left when I thought you’d be driving home. I went to church to leave you a note, but then I heard someone and I didn’t want Bill or whoever to see me so I decided to sneak out of the tunnels.”
“How did you get in?”
“Remember when you lost your keys? And you got replacements? Well, I had hid them and I kept them because I figured some day I might use them for something.”
I have completely underestimated the wiliness of my kid, Claire thought.
“Anyway, so I snuck down to the boiler room and I went into the tunnels and then I found that room, and I was hungry so I ate the snack I had brought, and then I decided I was tired and I could get up really early and I fell asleep. And then you found me.”
“Emma, I’m so glad you’re safe but what you did is not okay. There has to be a consequence. I’ve decided you can’t drive without me for two months.”
“Do you want to make it three?”
“What about you? What about your consequence for lying to me?”
Claire stared her daughter down. “Don’t you think I paid my penance last night?”
“Can we be done for now?”
“Do you want to watch The Princess Bride?”
“As you wish.”
Claire and Emma made it through Saturday, and détente was in the air. Sunday morning arrived, and Claire with Emma made it to church, though neither Gladys nor Bill was there to hear that sermon on the temptation of Jesus. Gladys had left Claire a voicemail on her phone at church very early Sunday morning, saying that she and Bill were headed to the ER, and not to stop by before the service but please to include Bill in prayers. Claire did.
During coffee hour (in which there were no Prune Drop cookies) Alice approached Claire.
“How are you doing dear?”
“Better. Thank you again for everything the other night, Alice.”
“It’s my work, Claire. I’m glad everything turned out well. So, do you know what’s going on with Bill?”
“I don’t. Gladys just said they were headed to the ER. I was going to drop Emma off at home and grab a bite then head over to the hospital.”
“I think I won’t go just yet.”
“I think that’s good. If he’s still in the ER things will be busy, and if they admit him, they’ll all be adjusting to that. I probably won’t stay long myself. I will call you tonight.”
“Please give both of them my love, Claire.”
As Claire and Emma headed to the parking lot, Emma asked her mother why they couldn’t go straight to the hospital.
“Honey, I know you love Bill and Gladys, but things might be a little chaotic and if Meri and Junie are there and Bill’s still in the ER, it’s going to be crowded. I’m not going to stay there for very long. And Rex needs to be let out, and I need a bite to eat before heading over.”
Emma said nothing but slumped down and sulked.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay,” Claire said, not wanting to talk about it either.
Lunch was a quiet affair, though Rex kept looking hopeful that one of the women would drop a little of their BLT. No such luck.
“Well, I’m headed out to the hospital.”
Claire stopped. She looked Emma straight in the eye. “Listen. I know this is hard. I know you and I still aren’t in a good place. I know you think of Bill and Gladys as honorary grandparents, and I know that Bill dying scares you to death. I get that. But the least you could do is say, ‘tell them I say hi’ or ‘tell them I’m praying for them’ or ‘tell them I love them.’ I’m really not good with, ‘okay, whatever.’ How about you give that another try.”
Emma’s reply was to get up, stomp upstairs, slam her door, and not say a word. “Could you please not run away today?” Claire yelled upstairs.
God give me strength, Claire thought, to mother my daughter and offer hope and peace to a dying man.
Claire went to the check-in desk at the Emergency Room. “Hi, I’m Bill Hill’s pastor. Can I see him?”
The nurse looked down at the chart, then said, “I’ll be right back.” She went down the hall through double doors. Claire waited, trying to get out of herself to make room for some grace. The nurse returned. “He’s in room 7. The family said they would love to see you, but just for a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” Claire said. She headed back down the hall.
Room Seven was really just three curtains and a wall, so there was nowhere to knock.
Claire stuck her head in, making eye contact with Meri. “Is it okay to come in?” she asked.
“Hi, Claire. Yeah, come in.”
Bill had an oxygen mask over his mouth and didn’t speak, but his eyes followed Claire and he nodded his head. Gladys was sitting by his bedside, holding his hand. She saw Claire and stood up, motioning her to take her seat.
“I’m fine, Gladys. You sit.”
“Oh, I need to stretch. Really, take a seat. It will be easier for Bill to hear you that way.”
“So, you’re still here.”
“Yes,” Gladys said. “He was struggling to breathe this morning, and the doctor said to bring him in. They’re going to admit him – they’re just waiting for a room to open up in Oncology.”
Claire read the fear in the faces of the women. Bill didn’t look fearful or anxious, just focused. Maybe he was simply trying to breathe, Claire thought.
Claire turned to Bill. “I’m sorry you’re here but I hope you’re getting some relief. I’m going to say a prayer and go, but all you need to do is call me and I’ll come back.” She turned to Meri and Junie and Gladys. “Is there anything in particular you want me to pray for?”
“Hope,” Junie said.
“Comfort,” Meri said.
“Peace,” Gladys said.
“It sounds like a Christmas carol,” Claire said, hoping the stab at humor would break a little of the tension. The three women smiled, and their shoulders went down a tiny bit. Claire stood up and put her hand on Bill’s shoulder. Gladys took her hand and Bill’s; Meri sat on the bed, and Junie held Bill’s other hand.
“Gracious and loving God,” Claire began.
“Mr. Hill,” the nurse interrupted. She looked around the room. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“I’ll be just a minute,” Claire said.
“Can I join you? It’s been a morning, and I could use a prayer,” said the nurse, moving to the end of the bed.
“Gracious and loving God….”
When Claire got home, she sat in the car for a minute, willing herself not get mad at Emma. She went in and was greeted by Rex, who had run down from Emma’s room. “Em? I’m home.” No answer.
Claire sighed and changed into her jeans and a sweater. She went upstairs. Emma was lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling. “Can I come in?”
Claire sat down on the bed. Emma had been crying. “So they’re going to admit Bill. He was having trouble breathing. I think the tumor is pressing down on his lungs.”
Emma said nothing, but Claire saw her eyes well up with tears. Claire took her hand, and the two sat there in silence for a while. Rex jumped up, and curled up against Emma.
“Mom, I just want to be alone right now.”
“Okay. I’ll be downstairs.”
Claire called Alice and let her know about Bill. “How are you doing, Claire?” Alice asked.
“I’m okay. I love Gladys and Bill, but Bill’s pretty sick. It’s really hard on Emma, so that makes it hard for me in a different way.”
“Well, if there’s anything I can do for you, or Glad and Bill, just let me know.”
“Thanks, Alice. You’ve done so much already.”
Claire looked around. The living room was in desperate need of a vacuum and dust rag. Just as she was getting out the cleaning supplies, the phone rang. Please don’t let it be the hospital, she prayed.
It wasn’t. It was Martha.
“What, do you have mental telepathy now? How did you know I needed to talk to you right this very minutes?”
“Another bad day?”
“Not terrible, just a lot of little things. I’m still tired from the other night. Bill Hill’s dying, and Emma doesn’t know what to do with her sadness, and she’s still more than a little mad at me. I did a Lent throwdown and challenged everyone to live with more honesty, and then you lying Saints came to my rescue. And now Trystene and Emma know about you guys. My house is a mess and I’ve had cheese and crackers and a glass of wine for dinner twice this week. I have no social life. But my dog loves me, so there’s that.”
“Sounds like I need to come right over and throw you a big pity party.”
“Listen, I’ve got to go. I know I just called but – I’ll call you back.”
“Okay. Love you.”
Claire went back to the vacuum cleaner and the dust rag. She plumped up the couch pillows and refolded the afghan. She recycled the old magazines and gave the bathroom a quick wipe down. Five-thirty. Better check the fridge to see what there might be for dinner. And then she heard a knock on the door. There stood Martha.
“Martha! Oh my God! Why didn’t you tell me you were in town? I thought you weren’t coming for a couple of weeks! What are you doing here?”
“Surprise! I am here to throw you a pity party. Now where’s that girl of yours?”
“She’s upstairs and she’s all yours.”
Martha headed upstairs and when Claire heard Emma’s squeal, she knew everything would be alright. She peeked in the grocery bag Martha had brought. Take out from Cinghiale. She had the best friend alive.
Martha and Emma came down the stairs, both with grins on their faces. Emma gave her mother a quick hug. “I’m sorry I was such a pill.”
“That’s okay. We get to be pills to each other sometimes. Okay, so Martha, you brought enough food to feed an army.”
Martha stammered, which was completely out of character. “Well, about that….”
Martha had been in town since Friday, it turned out. Visiting Toledo. Staying with Toledo. Rekindling things with Toledo.
“So, the end of that story is that he’s coming over at 6:30 to join us for dinner.”
“Aunt Martha, I can’t believe Toledo Vader was your fiancé. And now you’re dating him again? Are you going to get married? Oh my God, is that for real?”
“For real, Ems. Definitely for real.”
The four had a grand time, though Rex was still wary of Toledo. He greeted the guest at the door with a growl, and ran protectively around the women until Claire finally filled the Kong with peanut butter and banished the dog to the kitchen.
Toledo and Martha laughed easily with each other, and the affection they had for each other was the kind that expanded and didn’t shut out. Emma was mesmerized by Toledo’s stories, and Claire felt both joy and envy.
At ten, Claire kicked Martha and Toledo out. “I’ve had a long day without the usual Sunday nap and Emma’s still got homework to do. Out you two.”
“Goodnight, Claire, goodnight, Emma. Please thank Rex for not biting my ankles.”
“Goodnight, sweetie. I’m in town all week, so I promise we’ll get together again. Goodnight, Ems. Go do your homework. Love you both.”
Emma went upstairs to finish her homework. Claire checked her email. One from Gladys.
I’m wondering if you can come by the hospital at 11 tomorrow. We’re going to meet with the oncologist and someone from palliative care to talk about hospice. Meri and Junie won’t be there, but Bill and I talked and it would really help us to have you there. I’m going home tonight but won’t answer the phone. Just email me a yes or no.
I could use some of that medicine of your grace right now, Claire prayed.
In which Claire meets with the Hills
“You’re looking better than you did yesterday, Bill.”
“Thanks, Claire; Gladys bought me a new cleanser and it’s doing wonders for my skin.”
“Darling, I think I like you better with the oxygen mask on.”
Bill, Gladys, and Claire were settled comfortably in Bill’s hospital room, Bill in the bed, Gladys in the chair next to the bed, and Claire sitting along the window. It was a cold, rainy day, the kind that gets under your skin, and Claire was grateful for the warmth in the room.
“How are the girls doing?”
“Well, Meri is being her usual self, making lists, taking care of things, dead-heading the geraniums and putting soup in the freezer and generally dealing with all the stuff to do. Junie has tears in her eyes all the time, and gives us hugs and rubs Glad’s shoulders and tells me all the things she learned from me. Mind and heart, our two daughters. They’re okay. My declining health is hard on all of us.”
The doctor came in, petite in her scrubs, efficient and warm. With her was the hospice nurse, larger and looser but just as warm as the doctor.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hill, I’m Carolyn Walters. I work with hospice and I’m here to talk with you about some options that you have.” She turned to Claire. “Are you their daughter?”
“No, I’m their pastor. Claire Grayson. Bill and Gladys asked me to come to the meeting.”
“Oh, that’s great. We believe the spiritual part of the journey is as important as the physical. Welcome to the team, Pastor Grayson.”
The palliative care team met with Bill and Gladys and Claire for about an hour, talking about options and hopes and plans. It was a good meeting, and ended with a fair amount of Kleenex in the wastebasket. When the doctor and nurse left, Claire asked Bill and Gladys if there was anything they needed.
“Claire dear, I think we just need to absorb all of this. You’ve been a saint. If you don’t mind asking, how are things with Emma?” Gladys asked.
“Well, stable for the moment. It’s a long story but now is not the time. I continue to be more grateful than I can say to the two of you.”
Bill spoke up. “Claire, I’m feeling pretty useless these days, but if I can do anything, I am more than happy to. I pray for you and Emma every night, if that makes a difference.”
“It does, Bill, it does. I’ll leave you two and check in tomorrow. Get some rest.”
“Thanks again, Claire. We love you.”
“I love you too.”
Claire went into the office and gave Trystene and Bill Carr the update, then started her Monday routine. She checked email, looked at meetings for the week, then turned her attention to Sunday and the sermon. She thought about Clement’s prayer, and the strong soap of truth, and the way Jesus told the truth about God and himself and people and the powers. She thought about the arc of Lent, and the invitation she had issued on Ash Wednesday. She thought about the role of truth, and lies, in her own life and relationships. And then she knew what she had to do.
“Alice? It’s Claire. I wonder if you have anytime to talk this week.”
“Of course, dear; your schedule is far more complicated than mine.”
“I’m not sure about that, but it’s kind of you to say. Would tomorrow morning work, at church, 10ish?”
“That sounds fine, dear. See you then.”
Claire called the hospital and spoke briefly with Gladys. Bill was fine, getting a transfusion, and they were both resting as best they could. Claire said she would stop by the next day, which Gladys said was perfect.
Martha came by – without Toledo – for dinner that night, and had them in stitches within minutes. Emma made a new and improved batch of chocolate/peanut butter/salted caramel brownies for Claire to take to Bill the next day. Martha pronounced them heaven in a pan, and with that benediction, Emma went upstairs to work on her homework.
After they heard Emma shut her door, then two began to talk in earnest.
“So, Claire, how are you – really?”
“So really I’m doing okay. I love Lent so much and the themes and introspection of it are really helping me. I still get nervous leaving Emma home alone, but this is just something we have to work through. I’m pretty sure I will never go on a date again, but I cannot imagine one more thing in my life.
“I’m so sad about Bill Hill but so – what’s the word – inspired? grateful? by the way the family is dealing with this. And I’ve made a decision. A big decision.”
“You’re going to look for a new church.”
“You’re going to quit ministry and become a yoga instructor.”
“You’re – oh hell, I have no idea. Tell me.”
“I’m going to tell the congregation about the saints.”
Silence descended like an anvil dropped from the 40th floor.
“Claire, you can’t do that.”
“Yes I can.”
“No, really, you can’t. It won’t work if people know about it. The big reason we’re successful is because people have no idea they’re being helped.”
“Martha, that is bullshit and you know it. The big reason you’re successful is because all of you are committed to this, and are deeply kind and courageous, and you stick with it. Secrecy is the least of your weapons. And, in fact, I think it’s hurting you.
“Look at what lying does. Look at how it’s affected our friendship. Look at how it’s affected the church staff. Look at what my lies did to Emma. Lying is not good.
“It’s time the saints came into the light.”
“You are so new to this you have no idea what we do, and how secrecy has been our friend in all of this. You will ruin the Saints, Claire. We need a vote on this.”
“No, we don’t need a vote on this. You are more than welcome to tell Toledo tonight, and I’m going to tell Alice about my decision tomorrow. I’m sure you already know I’ve told Trystene, and, for your information, things are a lot better between her and Bill Carr now. They actually collaborate on things.”
“It’s not your decision to make, Claire.”
“With all due respect, Martha, it is my decision to make. There is a secret group meeting in the church where I am pastor and it is my decision. You’re not going to change my mind about this.”
“You’re making a huge mistake.”
“I’ll take that chance. Now, are we done? Can we stop talking about this, or do you want to leave? Because I’d really love the scoop on you and Toledo.”
“Shit. Why do you have to be my best friend?”
“I guess I’m just your cross to bear. Now tell me: when’s the wedding?”
“We’re not there yet, but….”
In which Claire tells a secret
“Claire?” Trystene buzzed from the outer office. “Alice Weston is here.”
“Thanks, Trystene. Have her come on in.”
“Good morning, Alice. How are you?”
“Oh, dear, I’m fine, but my heart is heavy every time I think about Glad and Bill. How are they?”
“They’re ok. I’m sure you know they’ve put Bill in hospice care, but they’re facing in it with the grace and humor and honesty they always face things with. It breaks my heart and uplifts it at the same time, if you know what I mean.”
“I know. I know.”
They sat for a few moments in silence, and reached for tissues at the same time. Alice laughed, and Claire smiled.
“I suppose we should get on with it then. What was it you wanted to talk with me about?”
“I’ve decided to tell the congregation about the saints.” Another silence followed, this one without tears, laughter, or tissues. Alice set her lips firmly together, and tilted her head in a way that reminded Claire of one of Rex’s favorite moves. “Alice? Any response?”
“That was a fairly definitive statement, dear. I’m not sure I could say anything that would change your mind.”
“I have thought about it quite a bit, Alice, and yes, my mind is made up, which is not to say I’m not interested in your opinion, reaction, concern, or advice. I know this will change things for the Saints. I also believe you all have been working in the dark for too long. It’s time to let your light shine, as the saying goes. It’s time to inspire others to join in your work. And it’s time to stop lying.
“You should probably know that Emma and Trystene know about the Saints. I’ve told Martha about my decision to tell the congregation, so Toledo probably knows too.”
Alice sat there, head still tilted, lips still pursed. Claire waited. And then, without a word, Alice got up and left.
That went well, Claire thought. Not. She looked at her watch, and realized it was time to go visit Gladys and Bill. No time like the present, she thought.
When Claire arrived at Bill’s room, she gave Gladys a hug and squeezed Bill’s hand. Gladys had pulled up a chair for her on the other side of the bed and Claire sat down.
“How are things today?” she asked.
Things were okay; Bill was growing mighty tired of jello and was so grateful for Emma’s brownies that he ate two right away. “Tell that daughter of yours she can run away to us any time,” he said. Claire winced a little, but was grateful for the opening.
“So there’s something I want to talk with you about that has nothing to do with the Hills or cancer or hospice, but if you’re not up for it, it’s nothing that can’t wait.”
“Oh Claire, we would be grateful for any diversion! Staring at these walls is making us both a bit crazy, and there’s only so much Jeopardy and CNN we can watch,” Gladys said.
“Well, this should be a pretty good diversion, so I’d like to share a story with you, and then hear any advice you have to offer.”
She started. She started with Emma and the driver’s license, and Emma’s dad. She talked about Martha, her best friend, and Martha’s pointed comment about Claire’s hypocrisy. And then she told them about the Saints, about Alice and the Prune Drop Cookies and the messed-up bulletins, and Bill Carr, and the tunnels, and the secret room, and Toledo and Frank and Sandy and the whole lot.
As Claire went on, Bill and Gladys took hands, and then began to smile. By the time Claire finished, both were grinning broadly.
“I have to say that is not the response I was expecting.”
Bill and Gladys laughed, and Claire was oddly grateful that her story had inspired some levity for the two of them, given all that they were facing.
“Claire, I’m a pretty cut-and-dried kinda guy, as you know. We once had a business retreat where we all took the Myers-Briggs test, and I came out an ESTJ. I like people and I like facts and data. You could say that I don’t have much of an intuitive side.”
Gladys chimed in. “You could say he has no intuitive side.”
“Fair enough. Anyway, as I said, I’m not much of one for hunches or weird feelings, but I’ve always had a weird feeling about St. Rahab’s. I mean I love the place; I love the place more than I can say and in a lot of ways it has been the center of our lives. But it always felt like something was just a little off, like it was a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing.
“And maybe it’s the chemo or maybe it’s being closer to death than I’d like to be, but yesterday Glad and I were talking about the church and the people there we love, and the community, and that led to coffee hour which led to Alice’s goddamn Prune Drop Cookies and I said, I bet she hates those cookies as much as the rest of us. I bet there’s some hidden meaning to them, like they’re the Book of Revelation for St. Rahab’s, a code, a symbol. I was damn close, wasn’t I?”
Claire didn’t know what to say. Finally she smiled and shook her head and said, “You two are amazing, you know that? So here is my dilemma, and I would appreciate any advice you’d like to offer. I think I need to tell the congregation about this work that is being done secretly in their midst. I think that for all the good the saints have done, the deceit needed to accomplish the work is, well, it’s wrong. It undoes some of the good somehow.
“Plus I think the work that they are doing is work we should all be doing if we’re going to say we follow Jesus. We might not have the international connections they have, but we should all be bringing love and joy and hope to the world and to our community every day. Am I wrong to want to bring them into the light? Will it ruin them – are Martha and Alice right? I know you have a lot on your plates right now, but I value your collective wisdom so much.”
Bill looked thoughtful, and Gladys watched him. Finally he spoke. “Oh, Claire, Claire. I wish so much that I would be around long enough to see all of this play out. But the fact is – and you know how much I like facts – I really don’t have that much time. If I’m still alive at Easter that will be miraculous. I’m having a good day today, but most days are hard and a struggle. So there’s a part of me that thinks I should, for once, keep my big mouth shut. If I give you advice that you follow, and I’m not here to stand by you…. I trust you, Claire.
“I am, though, very interested in what my brilliant wife has to say.”
Claire turned to Gladys, who was softly crying. Bill squeezed her hand. Claire was about to say something, when Gladys cleared her throat and began.
“Claire, I – I won’t apologize for crying. Bill is the love of my life and I’m not quite sure what I’ll do when he’s gone. But I don’t want him – you, darling – to suffer and this cancer is not going away. And like Bill, I trust you implicitly, if only because you have been so honest with us about your struggles and because you have been present to us in the midst of all of this.
“I know that if I’m going to give you advice, then I need to stand by you if you take it. So here’s what I would say. Tell the truth. Tell the truth about the Saints, about the good they do. Tell the truth and bring them into the light. Didn’t Jesus say something about not hiding our light under a bushel?
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far in this horror of cancer, it’s this: we have to be honest with the people we love. Honest about how we love them, and how they make us crazy or disappoint us or encourage us or make us proud. We have to be honest about death and dying. We have to be honest about the way that faith both holds us up and sometimes seems like such a lie when things go south.
“Bear the truth, Claire. You’ve seen in your own life what happens when you hide the truth. I suspect you and Emma still have some mending to do, and I will be there, and my house will be there, if you ever need us. Bear the truth in your home and in the church. I’ll take truth over a lie any day. So that’s my two cents’ worth.”
Tears welled up in Claire’s eyes, in part because of Gladys’ words and in part because of the way Bill beamed at his wife. She smiled at them, and reminded herself that if she every married again, she would have a partnership like the Hills’.
“I’ve been here long enough and have used up enough of your energy. Thank you both, so very much. Bill, I’ll let you know what happens as long as I can. You both know I’m just a phone call away. May I say a prayer before I go?”
And so she prayed, and so she left.
In which Claire and Trystene conspire
As Claire left the hospital, she checked her watch – lunch would be late and Rex would be crossing his legs, but she ran home and made a quick sandwich, enjoying one of Emma’s brownies. She thought about Gladys and Bill, still a bit amazed by them. She headed back to the office and went straight to Trystene’s desk.
“Trystene, I’m not sure if you’re in the middle of something but I’d like to talk with you today if you have some time.”
“Um, sure. Let me just send this email. Your office or my desk?”
“Why don’t you come in to my office.”
Claire had no idea that Trystene immediately thought she was going to get fired. Trystene not only sent the email, she also straightened up her desk, cleared out the spam file, took a few tissues, and readied herself for the bad news. In she went.
“Claire, am I about to be fired?”
“Good Lord, no, Trys- what on earth would make you think that?”
“You just seem real serious and not smiley kind Claire. But as long as I’m not about to get fired, I’m okay.”
“Actually, I wanted your advice about something. I’ve decided to tell the congregation about the Saints.”
“Whoa. That’s – I mean – wow. Really?”
Claire smiled. “Really.”
“But don’t you have to get permission from somebody? The Saints? Or the board? Or Bill Hill or somebody?”
“Actually, no, I don’t think so. As far as I’m concerned, the Saints are using this space without our permission so I think that gives me the right to talk about them without their permission. And once the board knows, there’s no way that secret will stay hidden. I just came from visiting Bill and Gladys, and they know and they say to let the secret out.”
“Wow. Okay. How are they?”
“They’re amazing and realistic and heartbroken. Bill said if he was still here for Easter it would be a miracle. I can’t even think about it most of the time, it makes me so sad.”
“Dang. I hate that part of working at a church. You know, the dying and the funerals and the hope. Hate it.”
“If it’s any consolation, I hate it too.”
“A little. So if you’ve made your decision, what on earth do you need me for? You’re the one who knows all the church stuff. And the Saints stuff, for that matter.”
“What I need is common sense from someone who’s a bit on the outside of all of this. One of the things I appreciate most about you is your level-headedness, and the natural kindness of your heart, and your willingness to call a spade a spade.”
“OK. I can do that. What’s your plan so far?”
“Well, I thought if I called a special board meeting people would worry or start to suspect something was up and the news would spread through the congregation like wildfire. We have a board meeting in a few weeks, and right now it looks like we don’t have too much business to do, so I thought I’d say something then. And I’d frame it as a decision that I have made, not something I’m asking permission to do. Because once they know, the proverbial cat is out of that proverbial bag.”
“I’m with you so far. Good thinking. Except –wait – is Alice on the board? Won’t she be, um, upset?”
“Alice already knows that I plan to let the secret out. She’s not happy about it but she knows I mean it. And I would do the courtesy of letting her know I was telling the board, so she could decide if she wanted to not come that night or come and help me tell the story.”
“Ok, good, go on. What’s the plan for the congregation?”
“I had a crazy idea about that. I think I’ll tell them on Easter.”
“Really? Easter? I mean, won’t that take away a little from, you know, the empty tomb and all that?”
“I thought about that, I really did. Here’s my thinking, and again, be honest with me. This Lent we’ve been talking about facing the truth in our lives and world, the “strong soap of Your truth” from the Ash Wednesday prayer. People have been great about taking that on as a practice during Lent, and I’ve had a few amazing conversations with people, including one today with the Hills. What if I framed it as Easter being God’s great truth telling about love and life eternal, and the call to tell the truth, and an amazing true story to tell about St. Rahab’s. Too much? Have I lost my mind? Or at least my senses?”
“Man, Claire, I don’t know. I don’t know. There are a lot of visitors on Easter and word will get out into the community. I don’t know if the church or the Saints would be prepared for that. I do have an idea, but I don’t know if you’ll like it.”
“I think we should get Bill Carr in here and run it by him. He’s a Saint and he knows this church and he knows the community. Him and I have been getting along a whole lot better since our little talk. I think I trust him, funnily enough. He’s got a good head on his shoulders too. Should I ask him to come up?
Bill Carr joined the women, coming into the office and grinning ear to ear.
“Well, Claire, I must say you have certainly livened things up around here. Alice came and found me and gave me a penny or two for her thoughts, which were mighty and wide ranging. Seems like you’re going to let our little secret out.”
“Yes, Bill, I am, and Trystene and I were just talking about my roll-out plan. She thought you might have some ideas, or at least an opinion about it. Have a seat.”
Claire told him her plan. When she got to the part about telling the secret to the Easter congregation, Bill’s grin widened even more.
“Bill, I have to say, this is not the reaction I was expecting.”
“Well, yes, I can see that. You know a little bit about how the Saints saved my life and how important I think out work is, but really, I’ve never been all that comfortable with the clandestine nature of our work. I hated messing up the bulletins, even though it was fun. And I understand why in the beginning they needed to keep the work secret, fear of outsiders being what it was in the twenties and in the war years, but things are different now. There’s the internet.
“I think Easter is as good a time as any to share the news. I mean, if the Saints aren’t good news, I don’t know what is. Plus you then get to say it’s all good news and not something we need to be ashamed of.”
“Thanks, Bill. I appreciate your thoughts. But there’s one person I need to convince of my plan.”
And all three said together, “Alice.”
In which Claire and Alice hash things out
“Alice? It’s Claire. I felt that our conversation ended a bit abruptly this morning, and I would really like to meet with you again, and hear what you have to say.”
“Oh, Claire, dear.” (Crap, Claire thought. She’s reverted to Church Lady Mode.) “Claire, dear, you know I always love sitting down and having a good one-on-one with you but a few things have happened and I need to have a hard conversation with my husband tonight. Let me call you tomorrow and we’ll see what kind of time each of us has.”
True to her word, Alice did call the next day, and the two agreed to have lunch at the Steel Horse Diner on Thursday. Martha flew home that day, so Claire didn’t have the opportunity to check in with her best friend who, Claire realized, was awfully good at compartmentalizing things. That’s probably why she had a secret job at the State Department.
Emma was thrilled that Bill loved her brownies, but got very quiet when Claire shared his prognosis with her.
“Mom, he’s going to die, isn’t he?”
“Yes, honey, he is. And probably before Easter.”
“Can I see him?”
“I can’t promise it, but I will do everything I can to make that happen. Gladys and Bill both love you, and I know Bill would want to see you. And after he goes, Gladys is going to need both of us.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’m going upstairs. Homework. The scourge of adolescence.”
“Away with you, then.”
Alice and Claire met at the Steel Horse Diner on Thursday at 11:30, as planned, a little early so they could get a booth and have more privacy for what Claire was sure would be a hard conversation. Sandy waved them in, and once they started talking, did not interrupt them but brought burgers and fries and iced tea. The peeing dog was nowhere to be seen.
“Alice, how are you? And before you answer, I’d like to ask one thing of you. Could you please not go into Church Lady mode? I really would like to hear from the real Alice, not the daffy baker of Prune Drop Cookies.”
Alice stared at her, and Claire wondered if she had crossed a line that she could not retreat from. But she held her ground, and Alice began.
“You put me in an awkward position, Claire. Once I knew the secret would be out, I knew that Garrett would find out that I had been lying to him for years. And that – well, I felt angry, and guilty, and incredibly worried about what he would do. I vented some steam with Bill Carr – who really is the saint of the Saints –and then I went into the sanctuary for a while and tried to pray. And then I went home.
“I took Garrett a Scotch while he watched the news, and made his favorite dinner, and agreed to let him beat me at cribbage until at last he asked me what was wrong. Actually, what he said was ‘What in the world is the matter with you?’
“I told him about the Saints. I told him I had lied to him for forty-seven years, that I was not the Church Lady Supreme who traveled around for meetings and conferences, but a spy for hope in a group of people that met in the bowels of the church and went out and did good. I told him about the Prune Drop Cookies. I told him about the bulletins. I told him about our conversation. And then I asked his forgiveness.”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t say anything, not at first. He got up from the table and went into his study, and then came back. And he showed me his diary, recent entries that made it clear that he had known about the Saints for a good long while. He said of course I had his forgiveness, as long as he had mine for keeping the secret that he knew about my secret.
“And then he said as long as we were in the forgiving mode, perhaps I should forgive you for doing the right thing. But I think it is I who needs to ask for your forgiveness. I am sorry I stormed out yesterday. And I’m sorry I didn’t trust and respect your decision. But mostly I am sorry about the lies we thought we had to tell so that we could do some good in this world. So I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that I accept that it is time to bring the saints out of the dark and into the light, and however you choose to do that, I will stand by you.”
“Oh, Alice. Thank you.” And Claire took Alice’s hand while the French fries grew cold.
“Things are looking a little serious over here, ladies. Shall I top off the iced tea, or go get the emergency stash of bourbon?” Sandy came over with a knowing look in her eye. “And look – Dog Who Pees is back! That should lighten the mood.”
Claire and Alice had been talking long enough that the lunch crowd had dissipated, and Claire invited Sandy to join them as she told them her plan for letting the secret out. They agreed with the plan, in general, although Alice thought it might be a good idea to have Martha and Toledo and Bill Carr and Sandy at the board meeting as well.
“I’m out, ladies – Monday night’s my night off, and I’ve got square dancing which I never, ever miss. But you’ll do fine without me, although I’m sure my charm and feminine wiles might help things.”
And so it was decided: Claire would tell the board at its next meeting, and the congregation on Easter Sunday.
The next week Bill went home under hospice care, and Gladys promised on his next good day, she would have Emma come over for a visit. As luck would have it, he felt well on a Saturday, and Claire and Emma went over, brownies in hand.
“Come in, girls, come in. Bill will be so glad to see you Emma, as am I . Give me a hug because God knows I could use it. It’s pretty quiet here right now – Meri and Junie will be over later, but I asked them to give up a little time so you could have Bill all to yourselves this morning.”
“Thanks, Gladys. We appreciate it. Emma, do you want to visit Bill alone?”
“Um, no – I think I want you with me. I think I want both of you with me.”
Out of necessity, they had converted the cheery dining room into Bill’s room – the hospital bed fit nicely with space for chairs all around, and the bathroom was close. Bill was sitting up, looking frail, but warmth emanated from his smile as he saw the three women enter.
“Ah, the three Graces, coming to shower me with love.”
“Hi, Emma. How are you, kid?” And Emma welled up with tears, trying to gain control until at last she said, “I don’t want you to die.”
“Emma, I don’t want to die. I still have things I want to do, but the truth is I’m not going to get to do them. I have cancer that’s winning. And it’s terrible, but I’ve made peace with it. I wish I could make this easier for you, but I can’t.”
“Your grandparents are still alive, aren’t they?”
“Yeah. Well, my mom’s parents are still alive but, uh, I thought my dad’s parents were dead like I thought my dad was dead so I don’t have any idea if they’re alive or not but whatever, because I never knew them.”
“What makes you sad about my death?”
“That I won’t get to see you again, or bake you brownies, or watch the way you and Gladys love each other, or watch how you help my mom without her knowing it. And I’m scared that everyone else I love will die too and I’ll be all alone.”
At this point, there was not a dry eye in the dining room. They talked for a while, and Emma was reluctant to leave, knowing she probably would never see Bill again. But they ran out of things to say, and they ran out of tears, and they ran out of Kleenex. So with a long hug, Emma said goodbye, and she and Claire left.
In which Easter comes and the secret is out
“Christ is risen!”
“He is risen indeed!”
The sanctuary was full and all the hymn numbers were correct. The service moved along at a good pace, the visitors satisfied with the lilies and brass, the children happy with their Easter baskets, and Claire a wreck as she made her way to the pulpit.
It was John’s Easter story that day. As much as she loved the ambiguity of Mark’s version, she needed the sweetness of John’s story if she was going to make it through.
The board had been stunned by her story, as she expected, but the presence of Alice and Bill Carr and Toledo helped. There had been a lot of follow up conversations, but as the days led up to Easter, Claire sensed a crackling in the air, a sense of anticipation by those who knew. And now the moment had arrived. Time to tell the Good News, and the good news.
“Friends, I bring you greetings! It is a great and glorious day, this Easter, as we hear anew the story of God’s love for us. Some have said that Easter is God’s joke on the Devil; some say Easter is God’s last word against sin and death. But this morning I invite us all to think of Easter as God’s truth-telling. Sin will not end us. Death will not end us. God gives us life, and that is the truth.
“Throughout this Lenten season, we here at St. Rahab’s have been on a journey of truth-telling, examining those places in our lives where we have needed to be honest with ourselves or with each other, or honest about our community and the world. We have admitted things we held in secret. We have confessed lies. We have looked at the truth of what is whole and what is broken in our midst.
“Today I would like to tell you a truth, a truth that has been covered up for years and years by well-intended lies. It is the truth about followers of God bringing light and hope and pardon and joy and faith and love into the world. It is an amazing story, and while its beginning long precedes St. Rahab’s, this truth has always been a part of St. Rahab’s, hidden in the shadows, but an undercurrent to all that we do here.
“It all began with a world in crisis, and with a desire on the part of a few to try to make a difference in the wounds of the world. When St. Rahab’s enters the story, it is because of our founding pastor, Reverend Bouvier, who had for a few years been a part of an underground spy ring whose charge was to live out the prayer of St. Francis – ‘make me an instrument of Thy peace’, the hymn we sang just before the sermon.
“It’s because of the work that Reverend Bouvier and others did that this church got its name, after the woman in the book of Joshua who hides the Israelite spies. For ninety years, St. Rahab’s has hidden a group of spies in a room everyone thought was nothing more than a dank tunnel that led nowhere, its end having been blocked long ago.
“In fact, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a room where a group of faithful people meet, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, year after year, sharing stories of people in need and making a plan to bring them some hope. Some of these Saints you know – our sexton is one of them. Our very own Church Lady Alice Weston is one of them. For those of you who love the Steel Horse Diner, Sandy is one of them. My best friend from Minneapolis is one of them, as is one of our frequent visitors….
“I wasn’t supposed to find out about them. It had been a long time since any of the church’s pastors knew about these spies for hope in their midst. But because I had left a candle burning and came back to the church late one Saturday night to blow it out – because of light shining in the darkness, I found out. And eventually I decided to share this secret, and I have our board’s blessing, and the blessing of the Saint Spies, in doing so today.
“Now I will admit that one of the reasons I decided to share this good news with you today of all days, today on Easter, is because the lying it took to keep this work secret was taking its toll. Lying does that. But more than that, I wanted to share this good news with you today, of all days, because what these people have been doing in our midst, for decades, is the work of Easter people, the work of people who have chosen not to believe the lies of the world which says that death is the end and violence is the only way and sin can’t be beaten – no! They choose not to believe that and they choose not to live that.
“These saints – some of whom I have come to know quite well – these saints believe the truth of God’s love and God’s light. They believe that God wants good in this world – that God gave St. Francis a call and St. Francis gave them words to live out, centuries ago, words that the world needs today….
“I know for some of you this is a shock, and maybe this good news will put you in the right frame of mind for how Mary felt that Easter morning so long ago. She was shocked when the tomb was empty. She was shocked that the gardener did not know where the body lay. And she was shocked – shocked and blessed and jubilant – when she learned the truth of who that Gardener was….
“He is risen. He is risen indeed! That’s good news enough for today.”
And Claire sat down. The truth was out. And then, to her amazement, someone stood up and began to clap. And another someone stood up. And another, and another, and another, until the entire congregation was on its feet, clapping and cheering and ready. Claire smiled at Toledo, in his usual place on the front pew, and he winked at her. Alice put her hand on her heart and nodded. Trystene, sitting near the back with Robbie and her parents, gave her two thumbs up. Emma blew her a kiss.
But Gladys and Bill did nothing, because they weren’t there that day.
In which we say good-bye
Martha and Toledo joined Claire and Emma for Easter dinner, and Claire gladly turned all responsibilities for the meal over to the other three. There was ham and asparagus, potatoes au gratin, grapefruit and avocado salad, and a divine lemon cake that put an exclamation point on the whole thing.
While Toledo and Emma did the dishes, Martha rubbed Claire’s feet. There wasn’t much left to say that day – the line to shake hands after the sermon lasted an hour, and more conversations took place during coffee hour. Claire expected a reporter might call the next day, and alerted Trystene. But for the moment, Claire was tired and full and getting her feet rubbed. Life was good.
“Can you stand one more bit of good news today?”
“Honey, as long as you’re rubbing my feet, you can say anything you want.”
“Tom and I are getting married.”
“If I weren’t so damn tired I would jump up and kiss you! Oh, Martha – I am so happy for you! Congratulations! Are you sure this time?”
“Yes. We haven’t ironed out all the details but in light of everything that’s happened, it seems a negation of all that is good not to be with each other.”
“We will celebrate soon, I promise, but I have a memorial service to plan.”
“Sad. Relieved. Making lists and getting through them. Being Gladys.”
“I’m glad she has her girls, and I’m glad she has you and Em.”
The following Saturday the church was filled, again, to witness to the resurrection, again; to witness by giving thanks for the life of William Meriwhether Hill. It was a fine service, with nary a mistake in the bulletin, and people cried and people laughed and people were reminded that they had been blessed in knowing Bill.
Claire let Emma stay home from school the day before so that she and Alice could bake up a storm for the reception after the service. Lemon cake, toffee brownies, and peanut butter and salted caramel brownies adorned the table, and in the center of them all, in the biggest bowl the church had, a bounty of Ruffles.
“Not a Prune Drop in sight – Bill would be so pleased,” Gladys said. Claire chuckled and nodded.
“Claire, I wonder if you’ve met my nephew, Jamie.”
“James Maxwell,” said a man with gorgeous blue eyes and thinning hair, extending his hand. “You’re not what I expected the leader of a spy ring to look like.”
Claire smiled. Jamie smiled. And Gladys smiled and winked at the sky.
An unexpected sun shower graced them that day, and light streamed through the stained glass as Bill Carr picked up the bulletins. He was still the sexton, and had received a newfound respect from the folks at church. He smiled as he read the words on the back of the bulletin:
Make me an instrument of thy peace, Lord:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light,
Where there is sadness, joy.
May it be so, Bill thought. May it be so.
I hope you enjoyed the story of Saint Rahab’s.
In case you were wondering about fact vs. fiction (but don’t read if you haven’t finished. SPOILER ALERT):
Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon does have tunnels that run from the boiler under the street, and when the church was built in the 1910’s, the congregation sold heat to the neighbors, and got it to them via the tunnels. There are no elegant rooms at the end of the tunnels, just a lot of spiderwebs, dripping concrete, and likely a few spiders, or so I’ve been told. I am too claustrophobic to try them myself.
I think church sextons and secretaries are the unsung heroes of congregations. Bill Carr (the name comes from le Carre, the great spy novelist) is a work of fiction. Trystene is an amalgam of many fine, fine admins with whom I’ve worked. Her name is my own invention, as is the Kiwitini. If anyone would like to suggest a recipe, go right ahead!
Martha, too, is an amalgam of the best friends I’ve had, and is named after a dear friend who died suddenly and too young. The real Martha really was the life of every party who lit up every room.
Toledo Vader is the name of an exit off I-5 between Portland and Seattle. Every time we would drive by it, we’d laugh. Of course he showed up in the book. He might have been the inspiration.
Rex is my dog Max, who constantly warns us about threatening crows, squirrels, and babies in strollers. He’d probably like a Prune Drop Cookie. No need to venture into that recipe making, though.
Alice and Garrett are based on real people who were members of the first church I served. The real Alice (not her name) never, ever wore pants and would be the last person you’d think would be a spy. The real Garrett (also not his name) did refer to his wife as his first wife. He would occasionally come into a meeting she was attending and ask if anyone had see the woman he was sleeping with. She would blush. They were very dear.
At that same church, we had a health clinic, not for AIDS, but for the working poor who made too much money to qualify for Medicaid. The clinic kept condoms on hand, but we never had them in the church restrooms. I did return from vacation one year to find condom water balloons hanging from my ceiling, and yes, they were most unfortunately pre-lubricated. I did once leave a potpourri pot plugged in, woke up at midnight to realize it, and ventured to the large, dark church by myself to unplug it. Nothing burned down that night, but I did not run into the Church Lady and sexton.
Gladys and Bill were based on a couple in my third church. The real Bill (not his name) was never grouchy and would never have presented me with a top ten list. He was as delightful and good as they come. He did get lung cancer, and it moved quickly, and I did visit him and his wonderful wife in the hospital on Christmas Day. His death still saddens me.
Am I Claire? Parts, I suppose, but she is more petite and more serious than I. I love to swear, which may be a bit of an occupational hazard, as I do it more often than Claire. I have also been blessed to be married to a man with gorgeous blue eyes, who is my partner in every way.
When I started writing this, I thought it would be a story about church, but as I wrote it and finished it, I realized that at its heart is the story of the love a mother has for her daughter; everything else is secondary. Which is true for my life, so I dedicate this story to my own Emma (not her real name.) And I hope that if she ever runs away, she has plenty of Gladys and Bills to go to.
Stay tuned for the sequel (but don’t hold your breath.) Working title “The Oncoming Train”, in which we experience Martha and Toledo’s wedding, the consequence of unmasking the saints, and further adventures of single-parenting a teenager.
Thanks for being with me on this adventure of a serial-blog story!