God gives every bird its food, but he does not throw it into the nest.
-Josiah Gilbert Holland
Learning to Fly
My mother had been dead for four months. I had become the matriarch of our family in one fell swoop. At only 34-years-old, I felt alone on the planet. I had finally gotten my independence from an alcoholic, unfaithful husband, but my dependent nature clung to me like soot after a fire. I wanted to wash it off, but a residue remained, leaving me longing for someone…anyone.
As I worked the microfiche machine at my desk at work, searching through other people’s family stories, I yearned to be part of a family and have a story of my own. I issued birth, death, and marriage certificates for other families daily. Performing marriage ceremonies seemed to feed my loneliness even more, leaving me empty and vulnerable.
I was working at the vital records counter in the county clerk’s office, listening to the good-natured chirping between my co-workers. Suddenly, everyone stopped talking. The only sound in the large room came from the overhead fans and the rustling of paperwork on the desks near the open door. Curious, I glanced up from the microfiche machine.
At first I thought everyone else recognized a movie star I had not seen before. Now I noticed all eyes were on me. I fumbled around with the switches on the machine and walked up to the counter.
“May I help you?” I looked up. Our eyes met. “Hey, I think I know you,” I smiled.
“I doubt it,” he said, dripping with sarcasm. I took a step back.
“Well, I mean I think I’ve seen you. Do you go to church?” Wow…what was I doing?
He glanced up quickly, seeming to see me for the first time.
“Yeah,” he said, sounding a little friendlier.
I helped him with his paperwork, trying not to stare at him. After he left, several of the women standing close by tittered and made little comments about his gorgeous good looks. I was thinking about how I could sit nearby him at the next church service and try to catch his eye again.
Within two weeks he had volunteered to head a committee of men who would help me get my newly rented home ready for move-in. It needed paint, some electrical work, and the carpet ripped out, and he was handy. He came over every day, bending, stooping, and reaching. I admired all 6’4” of him in all of his various positions. He talked about the Lord constantly, incessantly in fact. I tried to admire this, but it felt off and more than a little odd.
One day, coming back from running errands together, I asked him for a hug (sneaky strategy, huh?). He sat there for several moments, not moving, not speaking, his eyes closed. My stomach lurched. I wondered if I had just made some terrible faux pas. He reached over and hugged me so hard it hurt and whispered, “The Lord told me I could.”
At first we found ways to spend time together without really calling it a date. It was important to him that we went about this the “right” way for the Lord. Nearing Christmas, we made a plan together (I thought) to take my children to get a Christmas tree. My kids and I got up early. They were clearly excited as we scrambled around the house, getting ready for the big day. Then we waited. And we waited. He didn’t show up. He didn’t call. Finally, I called him.
“Hi, what are you up to?” I feigned cheer. “I thought we were going to take the kids to get a Christmas tree together?”
“You sound exactly like my ex-wife!”
My breath caught in my throat and my eyes widened as I tried to process what I just heard. A sound came out of my mouth, but instead of forming a word, I slammed the receiver down on the cradle. I began to hyperventilate. It felt like something was being ripped away from me. The kids and I remained home for the day while I wrestled with my anxiety. We were disappointed, and I felt totally confused…like I had just met Mr. Hyde.
Of course his next phone call smoothed away all my fears. He was just tired, busy, something had happened at work that had upset him, he was sorry, and he’d make it right.
One night we double-dated with another couple. He had planned the evening around dinner at a sushi bar and then it would be off to the Sycamore Mineral Springs Spa in Avila Beach, California, one of the most romantic places for a date. Each oak barrel tub is separated enough from the others for maximum privacy. Little lights line the dark paths winding up the hill through a sycamore grove. I was looking forward to showing off my new bathing suit I bought, just for this occasion. When I saw the truck drive up, I ran out to greet my friends. I opened the passenger door, jumped in, shut the door, and turned to smile.
“Don’t slam my door like that!” he glared. Everyone went silent. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to.” My face reddened, but I struggled to normalize the request in my mind. Of course he needs to make sure I don’t slam his door. It’s a new truck. I worked hard in the next minutes to pretend I didn’t notice his anger in front of our friends. It was clear they were as surprised as I was.
We ended up having a wonderful time and I let myself relax. But my mind began to compartmentalize my experiences. One part held fear, caution, and lots of confusion. The other part held the picture of the six foot, four inch, romantic man with the movie star looks. He had a good job; he was handy around the house and good with money. He was a gourmet cook and loved to grow orchids. And he was a super spiritual version of what was on my top 10 list. He was everything a good Christian woman should want, right?
It seemed like every woman in the church, single and married alike was riveted on my relationship with this mysterious man. I was suddenly catapulted into a type of churchy celebrity status. For the first time in my life I had something that others wanted too. Other single women approached him, and asked him out for coffee or for lunch. He turned them down and I felt pride that he had chosen me over so many others from our large church. Only I never felt I had a firm grip. My stomach began to do a play by play of events and I ended up in the doctor’s office almost weekly after being diagnosed with colitis. My feelings were on hyper alert. Is this what love is?
The next time we argued, he told me he was just tired, busy, something had happened at work that had upset him, he was sorry, and he’d make it right. And besides, I had pushed a button of his, and if I just had not done that, this would never have happened. I would have to try not to do that.
He planned beautiful, romantic dates at the best restaurants, including roses and wine, and ending with long walks on the beach. He drove me up to the mountaintop late one afternoon. He brought a quilt, champagne and flutes, and smoked salmon and cheddar cheese, and spread them on the ground. He helped me out of the truck and gently wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. We sat and ate and talked until dark. He tipped my chin up towards the sky and whispered, “Just wait.” Soon, a trail of light blazed across the sky. Then another. Then another. Then he kissed me. I flung my doubts out to the sky and let them disappear into the black ink.
Our relationship became a series of conflicts, retreats and pursuits, the pattern repeating itself over and over. I believed the only way to bring a stop to my insecurity was to marry him. I was sure my own fears about his love were what were causing problems. I believed it would be good for my son to have a strong male figure in his life.
The night we got back from our honeymoon was a turning point. Now that we were married, Mr. Hyde quit playing hide and seek and decided to stay for dinner. I felt helpless for several minutes while I listened to him bully my children about helping. They weren’t doing anything right. The silverware didn’t go the way they put it on the table. They weren’t fast enough and dinner was getting cold! He looked at them as if they were stupid. They became quiet, and nervous, giving each other sideward glances.
“I sure hope you are listening to the Holy Spirit right now.” I said. He glanced down and seemed embarrassed. My chest swelled a little. I had stepped in and taken care of it, just like that! I am a good mother.
Soon, none of us were doing anything right. Nothing happened without his approval. If it wasn’t originally his idea, the answer was “no.” If he said yes, he would change his mind at the last minute. My friends could come over when he said they could. They came less and less. My sister could visit, but she walked on eggshells and spent time crying in the guest room. He always answered the phone on first ring, screening all our calls. He wouldn’t let my teenage daughter lock the bathroom door.
Then we were battling over how to cook ground beef or when to start a load of laundry. He was disgusted when I didn’t know to put two slices of cheese on a grilled cheese sandwich, so he threw it in the trash. I began to filter everything I did or said around what the consequences would look like. What would he say if he knew I thought this, said that, or did this other thing? What would he do? Mostly I knew what he would do, and it wasn’t pleasant.
At times I escaped by hiding in the tree house in our backyard. I took long walks or I got in my car and drove to a nearby gas station and cried to a friend from the payphone. My anxiety attacks and depression worsened and I needed medication. My children were miserable. I started calling some friends to see if we could come stay with them for a while and no one could help. I began stashing change from the market in a shoe along with a spare set of keys. I ordered a credit card in my own name. I knew I had made another stupid, stupid mistake, and I felt ashamed. I stopped looking into my friend’s eyes when I went to church. I lied to everyone. I’m fine, how are you?
My church family and pastor seemed to turn their eyes away, as if they couldn’t stand to watch the train wreck happen. No one called; no one came to help. The church counselors knew I had bruises, but by this time his charisma and charm had landed him a position on staff at the church. They believed him when he told them I was out of control. Many times I drove onto the freeway and just screamed out to God in desperation. But I didn’t believe I deserved his help. After all, I had done this…with eyes wide open.
Finally, I was ready. I called my husband and asked to meet in the middle of a parking lot at the shopping center. With others around for protection, I told him I was divorcing him. It had been two and a half years of pure hell. I was a shell of who I had been starting to become. Thin, hollow-eyed, defeated. I was filled with guilt over what I had allowed to happen to my children and myself. I believed God was so disappointed in me that he had turned his back altogether. In one month’s time I had managed to lose a husband, my home, my car, and my job. It was my third divorce. I was wrecked.
So I did what I did best. I ran. There’s a story in the Bible about a concubine of Abraham’s. Her name was Hagar. She gave birth to Ishmael, before Abraham’s wife had her own son, Isaac. In Sarah’s jealously, she mistreated Hagar to the point of desperation. Hagar ran out to the desert with her son, alone, and seeming without friend or protector.
I thought of her as I ran out to my own desert, away from church, friends, family. I ran empty-handed. And then, just like God met Hagar in the desert, God met me there too. He picked me up and carried me like a wounded little bird in a cardboard box. He was gentle, tender, giving me little sips of water. He slowly restored my spirit and eventually, he restored everything I had lost.
And then he began to teach me how to fly on my own.