Chapter38: The Bench


Cold, rainy and painful was the night in some small Michigan town where we were singing at a old fashioned camp meeting.  Ironically, the cold part described my heart as I sat with my head bowed and my tears were falling on the sawdust under that giant leaky tent.

“If I’m over-reacting, why is it so cold here, why is it so cold here, why is is so cold on this hill?” Michael W Smith “Leave”
I stumbled down the stairs on a bright, sunny, warm day.  The exterior stairs of the southern plantation stairs made sounds with every step so I was sure to take it slow and easy; despite the weather, I was freezing; or maybe it was my 7 year old body physically responding to the events of the night before.  I was somewhere else, meaning I was not at home, and that wasn’t unusual.  There were other kids there, I can’t tell you who; I can say that I wished I was anywhere, anywhere but there.  As I sit at my computer and write about this I stare at the blinking cursor trying to find a way to write this—it is so hard for so many reasons.
The room was dark, and hot; except when he would open the door.  I don’t know how many hours it was, maybe it was days, I really don’t know.  This night, the one I have avoided writing about is the night that set the course of my life; and this night would produce the white haired monster slayer.
It was so hot in that room.  Somebody else was in the living room and they were watching a marathon on MASH—or so it seemed because the introduction song played over and over as my innocence was taken from me just 6 feet away.  I wish I could tell you who he was or why my mom had him watching me; but I can’t.  I know his name, but more importantly I know that the events of that night changed everything.
“Daddy’s on the sofa, turning up another bottle to unleash when I get home, I pretend he doesn’t hit me, Momma just pretends that she don’t know.”
I finally got to the bottom step without anybody hearing me, and I started walking towards home.  Who could I tell?  Would they explain to me why I just spent a night with a man who forced me to please him off and on all night long?  Could I tell my mom?  Could I tell my sister?  I certainly could not tell the “Dad” at the time—I was sure there was something waiting for me there because report cards had come out and I got a “C” in handwriting.  It didn’t matter, I knew that if I didn’t at least act like I was headed towards somewhere familiar that Officer Friendly was going to pick me up as I knew that my outer appearance was that of a toe headed seven year old, not the adult that I become over night.  So, I headed towards home.
When I got home, what was waiting for me there was a closed bedroom door and no food.  I turned on the TV and just waited, waited for somebody, anybody to magically appear so that they could explain to me what happened.  Nobody was awake.  It was almost noon.  As time went by and they finally stumbled out of their room, the secret was just that, a secret—because with every passing hour there was this emotion that I could not describe; ones that sent me racing to the shower over and over and almost using an entire tube of tooth paste.  That was the day I was convinced I was ugly, and that I would spend the rest of my life performing at the commands of somebody, anybody because clearly I did not have the power to say no to something that was so obviously wrong.  I knew if I told my step-dad I would pay for that in round 2 of the repercussions for getting that “C” on my report card.  

“And I just wanna leave, Oh, God, please help me now, I wanna leave, And I, I just wanna leave Oh, God, please help me now, I wanna leave”
So, that day I didn’t tell anybody.  The next day, when he went to work, I told my mom.  And when I told her, she told me not to tell anybody and that she had a hard enough time finding a baby-sitter for me already.  I can’t remember my response to her, but my adult response to that is probably the same one you are having right now.  I do remember walking outside though, I had to get out of that house, and the dangerous streets of the inner city seemed safer to me than “home”.  I walked and walked and walked, I don’t know how many hours went by; but I found myself sitting on this bench.  I was hungry, tired and confused.  So, I sat on that bench and I tossed around the rocks and the sand with my foot.  Finally, I had an idea of how I could get some money to go get some food—and by food I meant cheese puffs and Now and Later candy.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see white, pink, and purple flashes as the wind blew the azalea bushes in and out of my line of sight.  So, I walked over and picked some and as people would come sit with me on what ended up being a bus bench—I would ask them if they wanted to buy a fresh picked azalea flower.  And, even though there were rows and rows of the bushes behind me, I got takers; a quarter here a dime there and I was in Cheese Puff and Now and Later business.  The very idea of selling azalea flowers to people and spending the money people did give me on junk food often reminds me that in spite of the events of the night before, there was still a 7 year old kid hidden somewhere in there.  I headed to the store and made my way back to that bench to eat my junk food and drink my RC Cola.
“I used to think of talking, talking to my preacher, he says I should just forgive and forget.”
Sawdust has a distinct smell, and on that rainy night in Michigan 8 years later, all I could think of was that day; and the coldness of my heart because I had never “forgiven” my mom.  It is a demon of mine.  However, this night was a night of giving it over to somebody greater than me.  This was a night that affected me just as greatly as that dark night 8 years before.  This was a night that it was time to let it go, tell somebody, tell somebody—everything.
And I, just wanna leave Oh, God, please help me now, I wanna leave Oh, but I, I just wanna believe Oh, God, please hear me now, I wanna believe I just need to know, that You’re really out there. Tell me if You’re really out there, ’cause I believe
The message from the preacher that night was on bitterness.  It was and continues to be a definitive message for not only that time but for every day that came before it or after it.  I was determined not to get bitter; but I also understood that a magic prayer, cliche “forgive and forget” instructions or more award winning denial was not going to take the bitterness away.  This needed to be dealt with, and I had no idea how.  Mom McGowan saw me sitting there as the invitation to altar continued, I just sat there with my head dropped and every fiber in my body in a complete shut down.
“All to Jesus I surrender, all to Him I freely give, I will ever love and trust Him….”
I had heard that song a million times as in those days the invitation calls continued until the preacher man was convinced that nobody else was going to come forward.  But this time the lyrics rang so true for me; I was trying to decide the definition of “All”.
“All to Jesus I surrender, Make me, Savior wholly Thine; Let me feel the Holy Spirit, Truly know that Thou art mine”
Mom McGowan grabbed my hand, and led me to the quietness (and warm) church.  We sat in that church and she wouldn’t leave until I talked.  I told her the story of that night, the first of many more like it, in the best way a 15 year old kid could.  I told her I didn’t want to be bitter.  I told her I knew my mom didn’t protect me.  I told her I just didn’t want to be bitter.  I must have said that to her a hundred times.  Without her Bible, or any cliches she asked me a simple question: “what would you say to your mom if she were sitting on this bench with you right now?”  There was no way I was going to be able to articulate that to her that night.  She hugged me tight and left me in that church on that bench, where I wrote a letter I never sent, nor do I remember what I said.  In the wee hours of the night, as all of the other kids were on cots somewhere else in the church I laid down on that church bench, and it occurred to me that it was not so different from that bus bench; as what followed were emotions sweeter than my Now and Later candy; and I didn’t have to sell anything, to anybody.  And, suddenly, I was 15, not 40; nowhere near okay, but well on my way as I lay on that bench and laid down my pain, I finally understood the definition of “All”.  I woke up the next morning on that church bench and knew in some way that this was a significant first step in the healing process; but there was still so much more to say; so many more days like that night by so many more people; but one thing for sure was this day and that bench is when I Surrendered All.

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