Fathom Mag

The Times

I could hurt this new him.

Published on:
March 10, 2020
Read time:
5 min.
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The fact that I am sitting alone in church is nothing new. My kids are grown and for the past few years, my husband did not join me whenever I went, because he no longer believed. 

Now he is no longer my husband and this is my first Christmas without him.

I may as well complicate the scene even more.

Around my neck, I wear a gray scarf with tiny flowers on it. I wore it on my head last year to cover my baldness as I preached in this very church. I was undergoing chemo and I was filling in as a guest preacher. The lectionary passage for the day was about the woman who came to Jesus to be healed. 

So here I am, chemo and divorce in one year, but now add in that there is suddenly another man, a new man, one I had just been emailing before some unseen force made me get up, change my clothes, and walk in the zero-degree Minnesota winter to my church that is just up the road from where I live now. Alone. 

So here I am, chemo and divorce in one year, but now add in that there is suddenly another man, a new man.

This new man and I were emailing about how we could fall so easily and how we could hurt one another so easily as well.

Just the night before, as I lay beside him on the couch, I asked, “What was your first experience of God?” He told me several stories and the one that stuck with me was of driving down a long driveway, away from his ex-wife and his beloved dog.

He looked in the rear view mirror and there was the dog, chasing after his car. Chasing after him. Sobs overtook him then, and I could hear the remnants of those sobs thickening his voice now as this new man said, “What if that is God?”

The fact that I am sitting alone at the edge of the congregation is nothing new either. As the closest person to the door, I am poised to bolt.

We are not sitting in the sanctuary as usual, but in the Fellowship Hall. A tall stage sits up front, and there is a stable, a manger, a frayed net. It’s to be the Christmas pageant, then. Can my tender soul bear that?

I put my hands to my knees, about to stand up and walk out when the man several empty seats away from me beckons me to come and sit next to him. I know him but not his name. I know that when he puts his ankle up on his knee, he will be wearing fancy cowboy boots. There they are—brown, and red, and beautiful. 

I could hear the remnants of those sobs thickening his voice now as this new man said, “What if that is God?”

A friend gave me a beautiful handkerchief of her blind mother’s this summer to use at my son’s wedding. (The wedding was less than two months after my husband told me he was done.) I did not use the handkerchief that day as she had intended. To be honest, moved as I had been by her gesture, I forgot about it.

Today, just a few days before the darkest day of the year, when the kids process in wearing their bathrobes and tie headbands and carrying stuffed sheep that are almost as big as they are, I know I will need something, because when I cry, my nose tries to keep up with my eyes. I suddenly remember her flowered hankie, and I grab it from the bottom of my purse to dab at my eyes and nose, feeling sorry for the man sitting next to me. He probably had no idea what he was in for when he invited me to come closer.

Which is what the new man and I were emailing about this morning. We are both old enough—forty-eight—to know our wounds, and to know our particular brand of wounding those closest to us. We both like each other enough that we do not want to cause harm.

He’s the Catholic, but it’s my impulse to “go to confession,” to pull out all of my sins, so that he can turn and run now, instead of after twenty-seven years when I have cancer. At the same time, in one of my emails to him, I tell him how I am trying to live into something Tara Brach said in one of her meditations, “the tenderness of yes.”

Why do I want to live in the tenderness of yes, because living with a good and firm no is so much easier? Saying no right now would mean I could run out into the bracing cold. Let the wind be the only thing that causes my tears. Because I can stop those, but if I give in to the tenderness of yes, if I stay and open, will I ever be able to stop these tears that flow as the kids walk in, wearing their tilted halos and smashed wings? One of the cows cannot keep her hands off her costume. Every time she pushes her black and shining belly in, it pops back out. Her eyes grow wide with wonder.

Why do I want to live in the tenderness of yes, because living with a good and firm no is so much easier?

I could hurt this new him.

He could hurt this new (and yet very old) me.

One of the angels steps up to the mike, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news that will bring great joy.”

Even without my particular current backstory, chances are good that I would have still been crying at this service today. I would have been watching those kids, thinking back to when my own children were that young, hell, to when I was that young. Plus, the songs we sing—“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” “Joy to the World”—they alone can stir our emotions. Add in all we have lost and the journey each of us is on that can end in only one way, and why isn’t everyone weeping as we straddle the three time zones of was, is, and shall be?

Only one of the kings wears a crown. It’s a boy with red hair who had to wear a helmet for a long time because he had a rare form of brain cancer. I am not the lone survivor here. I am not in a scar clan of one. Every single one of us bears scars, scars that might have battered us or left us broken.

This meal began with the fallen, the fragile.

Those of you who are broken, come to the table and find grace.

Those of you who are afraid, come to the table and find peace.

After I take communion, I sit and the man next to me—the man who beckoned me to come closer, the man who I know is the grandpa of the boy who once wore a helmet and now wears a crown, the man who I have seen lift up his grandchild, and that is God—today, right here and right now, is God again, because he notices the old woman who took my place at the edge of our row. She has lost her way. “She’s confused,” he says to me, and I see she is on the other side of the fellowship hall after partaking of the holy meal of bread and wine, body and blood. “She can’t find her way back.” 

I could hurt this new him. He could hurt this new (and yet very old) me.

This man and also the girl who is sitting at the other edge of our row and who is differently abled and who greets me and my dogs whenever she sees us walking on the sidewalk as she heads home after washing dishes in the dining services at the college where I work, the man and the girl walk over to the lost woman, and each taking one of her hands, they lead her back to where she belongs, which is in this Fellowship Hall, surrounded by the fragile and the broken as the children wearing wings and a crown sing, where on the back of the piano, there is a nativity set, and on the edge of all the other characters, there sits a dog.

Betsy Johnson
Betsy Johnson lives in Minnesota, and her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Boulevard, and North American Review.

Cover image by Justin Schüler.

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