Saturday morning I woke up shortly after six am. I was asleep on my side and, for some reason, my cell phone was balanced on my temple. When it started to vibrate, I thought there were aliens. I woke up, though, and answered it. A fourteen year old girl from church was calling. Her adoptive mother had just died. She wanted to let me know and wanted me to tell my mom and her Sunday school teacher and the pastor and the people on the prayer chain. I called the pastor and then reset my alarm for seven thirty so I could call my mom and Sunday school lady and prayer chain lady and tell them. Before I did all that, I tried very hard to say the right things to Fourteen. Her mom has been in terrible health for a long time, and we all knew she would die soon.

Oh, Fourteen. That sucks! I’m really sorry.


Yeah. Is there someone with you guys now? Do you need anybody to come up there?


You call me if you need anything, okay? Even if you, like, just want to get out of the house and go for ice cream? Okay. We love the tar out of you guys, you know that right? And everybody is praying for you big time.

Okay? Call me any time.

Fourteen and her older brother Sixteen were adopted five or six or eight years ago. I don’t really remember. They’d been foster kids and had come from a series of awful homes. Fourteen held toothbrush drives at church for several years on her birthday because, before she was adopted, she’d never had one. Her brother hadn’t much needed one anyway: most of his milk teeth had been knocked out and poor nutrition made his adult ones slow coming in. The kids’ adopted dad died of cancer about eighteen months ago. Now her mom’s died.

Sometimes churches do just want they’re supposed to. Not as often as we should. Not nearly as often. But in the case of Fourteen and Sixteen, my church has done its very best work. We love these kids. We buy them gifts for their birthdays. Four different people submitted envelopes full of anonymous cash to pay their way to church camp this summer. We drive them to church and to sports practices and to the skating rink. They are invited out for dinner after church each week by three or four different families, and they take their pick. We love them, and we show it well.

I don’t know why Fourteen called me. I really don’t. I would’ve called her best friend’s pretty blonde mom if I were her. Or even my mom. Certainly not me. I would never ever call me. I’m terrible.

After I got off the phone with the pastor, I rolled over in bed and pulled the blankets up to my chin and cried for a little while. I was sad for Fourteen and sadder still for Sixteen. Fourteen is indomitable and as hard and bright as jewels. In three weeks or so she’ll start raising money to find a cure for heart disease, or something, to beat the sword of her grief into some gentler, useful thing. Her brother, though, is a wearier sort with sad wet eyes and soft bones. I wiped my nose on my sheet and felt small and humbled by the weight of all their tragedy.

I strive to be a kinder person than I am and maybe sometimes I succeed. I hope so. It doesn’t come so naturally to me. I’m spiteful and filled with sharp words. I roll my eyes and rage at every damn thing. And I swear a lot. Motherfuckers.

This morning no one came to the Sunday school class I teach, so I sat in the library and read and drank coffee. The book I was reading talked about a Sufi parable: A righteous man pleases God with his righteousness, so God says he will give the man whatever he asks for. The man, perhaps mindful of his own vanity, asks that he be able to do good deeds unknowingly. God is so pleased with this prayer he makes it so for all people, everywhere.

The opposite, of course, is true. We’re as able to wound without knowing as we are to bind up wounds. Think of the people who have hurt you most and wonder if they knew what they were doing, really and completely.

I am humbled and frightened that Fourteen called me from the hospital lobby at six in the morning. I am scared that she loves me and relies on me because I have seen my own unloveableness and unreliablitiy. I am moved as well by the concerned phone call that came from my mother’s very elderly cousin recently. Neither she nor I had been to visit the woman in a couple of weeks, and she’d grown concerned that we were sick from the recent heat wave. It was a concern that we should’ve had for her, really, but we’d gotten busy with our respective lives instead.

Last Sunday I told that kid who wanted to believe in Zeus that we are to do God’s work everyday. It was kind of a glib Sunday school answer, honestly, and said with a sidelong, snickering glance at the friend who’d come to church with me.

But this morning I have escaped from church and am sitting alone in my office and this knowledge is before me as wide and deep and fearsome as the sea.