What’s Up Elizabeth?
THE HOUSE WAS SILENT, an abandoned stage set. The occupants and all traces of the lives they lived seemed to have completely vanished. There were no pushed back chairs, no scattered partially-read newspapers, no misplaced drinking glasses, sticky with finger prints. There was only pristine emptiness draped with long flat squares of moonlight. As I passed Annie’s door, I paused and wondered if I should knock. I stood quietly, listening for a sound, but there was none — no breathing, no creaking floorboards, no whispering voice inviting me in. So I tiptoed down the hallway to my room.
As I opened the door, a sleepy voice whispered, “Elizabeth, is that you?”
I fumbled for the bedside lamp as Betsy wrestled with the sheets and sat up, rubbing her eyes. “What time is it?” she yawned.
I glanced at the clock. “It’s after midnight, sweetie,” I sank down on the bed beside her. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.” Her eyes blinked in the sudden brightness.
“I can see that,” I reached over and rubbed her shoulders as she sat shivering in a thin cotton nightgown. “But why are you waiting for me?”
“Because I was worried about you, I didn’t know where you’d gone.”
“I’m sorry, Bets. I did phone your mom and let her know I was okay.”
“I know,” the large brown eyes were smudged with sadness. “But mom seemed really mad, and she wouldn’t tell me what was going on, except that you were with Jackson, and that she guessed you’d come home sometime.”
I kicked off my shoes and stretched out beside her. “Yeah, she was pretty irritated with me.” I turned to look at her. “Do you have any idea why she doesn’t like him?”
Betsy wriggled backward and leaned against the headboard. “It’s just another one of those secrets we live with around here. I know something major happened a long time ago, but no one ever talked about it, not to me at least. I knew dad had a really close friend and they had some kind of fight, but I never even heard his name. When we had Jackson over the other night, I kind of put two and two together and figured he was the guy.” She stared wistfully at me. “What do you think it was?”
“Lordie, I have no idea. You’re right, something big happened, but we’ll just make ourselves crazy if we try to imagine what it was.”
She looked chagrined, and I was afraid that my choice of words had upset her. “Sorry about the word ‘crazy’. I just meant that it’s never a very good idea to try to figure out what other people are thinking. I’m always wrong, and then I just start making a bunch of bad decisions based on a faulty premise.”
“You don’t have to baby me like that and cut the word ‘crazy’ out of your vocabulary. Who knows,” she shrugged, “maybe that is what made everybody nuts around here — the secrets, the doing everybody’s thinking for them.”
I ruffled her hair and tugged her close to me. “You’re a pretty smart cookie, Bets. Lets us promise to never do either of those things to each other — have secrets or try mind reading, okay?”
She sat quietly for a moment and then laid her head on my shoulder. “So if we’re not going to have secrets, tell me what you and Jackson were doing tonight. I thought you were going out for a walk by yourself.”
“Well, I did. That was the problem. Apparently, I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t even notice it was getting dark until I suddenly found myself down by the creek in a thicket of trees and I couldn’t see lights anywhere. I got kind of panicky, but I made myself calm down enough to think clearly, and I remembered that I couldn’t be too far away from where we were the other night. So I turned around and groped my way back to the restaurant.”
“You were scared?” she interrupted, tilting her face to look up at me.
“Yeah, pretty scared. The dark does that to me.”
“So how did you calm yourself down?”
“I said a prayer.”
“You just said a prayer and you felt better?” She sounded incredulous.
“Yes. Actually the prayer kind of said itself. It floated into my mind out of nowhere, and I grabbed hold of it and held on. I just kept saying it over and over, and it made me feel better.”
“What was it?” She stared at me suspiciously.
“‘I am safe, I am sound, all good things come to me as God’s beloved child.’”
“That’s it? That’s the prayer? You didn’t ask God to show you the way home or come rescue you or anything?”
“No, I think all that’s in the prayer already.” I saw the skepticism in her eyes. “Don’t you ever pray about things? What kinds of prayers do you say?”
“I never pray. Nobody in my family does. My dad said God was for fools — something they thought they needed, so they just made Him up.”
“Yeah, well I think I felt that way for a long time myself.”
“What changed?” She asked.
“What changed is that I couldn’t stand it anymore. I couldn’t stand being the only power I relied on, being my own God. I got to a place where I wasn’t enough.”
“And so you just made a God up because you needed one? Just like that?” she snapped her fingers.
I smiled and kissed the top of her head. “I like you so much, Bets. You’re my kind of gal. You ask all sorts of questions, and you don’t settle for half answers. When I was your age, I used to drive everybody crazy,” I flinched instinctively. It was as though the word ‘crazy’ had become radioactive. “They used to say I was way too intense because I kept asking and asking until I got an answer I could understand. It didn’t always work and not everybody liked it, but I do. So keep it up. I think it’s healthy.”
She grinned. “Okay, explain it then. How did you go from wanting a God to getting one? Why isn’t that the ‘wish fulfillment’ my dad always talked about?” She grinned impishly. “Aren’t you impressed that I know that term? I think I even know that it was something Freud said.”
“I am impressed, although I must confess to you, in the spirit of our new found honesty, that I don’t think all that much of Freud. How’s that for heresy, saying that to the daughter of a psychiatrist?” I grinned back at her. “But getting back to your question, just because you want something, need something, and then you get it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I mean on a very basic level, you want food, you need to eat, but that doesn’t make the food you get somehow unhealthy or unreal. In fact, some philosophers say that God placed the desire to know Him in us, so our wanting Him is a sign that He exists.”
“That’s interesting. But maybe I don’t like philosophers anymore than you like psychiatrists,” she jousted playfully. “What I want to know is what happened to you. I believe you, I don’t necessarily believe some old philosopher guys I’ve never met.”
“Fair enough. What happened to me, is happening to me, hasn’t been a sudden kind of thing. I spent almost an entire lifetime trying to fix myself — trying to learn enough, do enough, understand enough. Trying to be enough. I always felt I was missing some vital part of me, but I guess I thought I could make up for it if I worked really hard. So I got good grades in school, and I went on to a good university and I got a good job and built an important career. I kept thinking that the next thing I did would make me feel safe and make me happy, give my life meaning.”
“Meaning?” She looked confused.
“You know … a reason for being here on the planet, my special purpose, that kind of thing.”
“Well, a few years ago, I had everything I ever thought would fix me. I had an exciting job, lots of money, important friends. Everything I’d been aiming for was in place, and I still felt lost and frightened. The worst part was that I couldn’t think of one more thing to do about it.”
“What about getting married and having a family?” Betsy asked eagerly.
“That’s a whole different story. Maybe we’ll get to that another time. The point is I just ran out of things to try. It’s easier when you have some big dream and you can pretend that if you get it, then you’ll be happy, but all my dreams had come true. And when that still wasn’t the answer, I was …”
“Sad?” She suggested.
“Sad’s a good word. Yes, I was very sad. One day about a year ago, I took a walk on the Lower East Side. I was restless and I needed to get away from the office. I don’t know why I ended up where I did, but I found myself outside this old stone church. It was almost like I’d stumbled into a time warp. I found out later it was built in the 1600’s, so it really was like something from another world. Anyway, I wandered around it until I came to these massive wooden doors. When I saw that they were open, I went in and,” I paused. “Well, it was amazing. It just kind of took my breath away. There was this huge white wall up at the front, and in the middle of it, way up high, a window — a little portal actually — flooded gold light across the wall. It looked like a painting, like a gorgeous abstract portrait of light. I don’t know what it was, something about that wall just reached out to me and invited me in. So I sat down in one of the old wooden pews. I stayed there for a very long time, all by myself, and while I was sitting there that prayer, the one I just told you, floated through my head. I don’t know where I’d heard it before, or even if I had heard it before. But it penetrated me. It pierced through my despair. And I felt the presence of something other than myself that was loving me and taking care of me right in that very moment.”
I looked over at Betsy. Her intensity had given way to a kind of focused stillness. She sat motionless, as though she were transfixed. “So, did you know it was God?” she whispered softly.
“I think I did. I think I really did.”
She leaned forward, her young face both serious and sweet. “I believe you, Elizabeth. Thank you for telling me.”
I hugged her in a tight, fierce grip. “Thank you, Betsy, for letting me tell you. I’ve never told anyone else about it, ever.”
She looked so sleepy. I felt a pang of guilt at keeping her up so late. “Bets, it’s nearly two-thirty in the morning. Your mom’s going to kill both of us if she finds out what we’ve been up to.”
She slid under the covers and curled into me like a kitten. “Can I stay here with you?” She was nearly asleep before she finished her sentence.
“And, Elizabeth, what was the name of that church you went into?”
“The Church of the Good Shepherd, why?”
Her voice was thick with sleep, “I just wanted to know.”
I stood up and smoothed the sheet over her shoulders.
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