I originally wrote this short story about 7 years ago. It’s based on a real moment and real conversation that I overheard at church one Sunday morning. A few weeks ago, I pulled it out to use in the beginning fiction workshop course that was part of my creative writing program at SNHU. I went into it thinking that there are always areas of my writing that can use improvement. However, I am not convinced the changes my instructor suggested (changes that I made in order to make the grade) are really an improvement. But….
Here is the final draft of the story. Hope you enjoy it.
Lessons From Genny
“I so appreciate you and Toby helping out this week, Connie,” Rebekah said, handing me a small stack of church bulletins. “You can stand right here and just hand one to everyone who comes by.”
I followed to the place she indicated, about halfway between the front doors and the sanctuary. My husband Toby was near the front doors, laughing with a couple of other men. He didn’t notice my glare, not that he would have acknowledged it if he had. He had addressed my less than cheerful attitude in the car, and I knew him well enough to know there would be no more mention of it that day.
“It’s been nearly six months,” he’d told me when I balked at his suggestion to “put on a happy face” for the day, no matter how I felt. I just was not ready to do that, to stand in front of our church friends and pretend all was right with the world, not after what had happened. “It is time to move past it and get on with your life.”
Five months, three days, 4 hours, and—I glanced at my watch—29 minutes. But who was counting?
Me, that’s who. I’d been counting ever since that day. My life was clearly divided into before and after. The before ended that day, and felt like a far off dream to me. The after was a dark, lonely place; a place I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to be in but one that I didn’t know how to get out of. It was a place that I was annoyed to be in alone. Why wasn’t my husband in the same dark place I was? Did he really not care? The way he dismissed my continued feelings of emptiness sure made it seem as if he didn’t care about me or my pain.
“You OK?” Rebekah asked me, her hand resting on my arm. “You just don’t seem yourself.”
“No, I am not OK!” I wanted to scream. “I haven’t been OK in months.” But I remembered my husband’s attitude that morning. If he didn’t want to acknowledge what the day was, it was doubtful someone not emotionally invested in my child would be. So I put on my best smile, hoping it did not look nearly as forced as it felt. “I’m fine. Just didn’t sleep well last night.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but was called away by an emergency in one of the Sunday school classrooms. I watched as she walked away, grateful for the chance to be alone. Rebekah was nice and all. She was our pastor’s wife. Talking to her had helped me more than even she knew. Still, she tended to be overly optimistic about everything. And this was one morning when I didn’t see much to be optimistic about. I just wasn’t sure if I had the energy to keep up a conversation with her.
Obediently, I smiled as I greeted the worshipers that entered the church that morning. I avoided asking, “How are you?” as I knew that would lead to my having to answer that same question. The smile felt like enough of a lie. Something about lying in church just didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t want to tell anyone I felt fine when I felt anything but, and I had a feeling no one wanted to hear what I was really feeling.
I thought I was doing a good job of being pleasant and ignoring the pain eating away at my gut. A good enough job, anyway. And then I saw her. Erin Andrews had walked into the building, rubbing her bulging belly. My smile faded. Anger and jealousy bubbled up inside me. I thought of the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” Great, that just added guilt to the ugly feelings swirling around in me.
That commandment didn’t apply to a woman grieving the loss of her child, did it?
Erin and I had been friends for years. When I married Toby, her older brother, we were excited to now be sisters. Learning that we were expecting babies—the first for each of us—at the same time was almost too much. We had plans of how we would raise our girls together. They wouldn’t be just cousins, but the closest sisters ever.
And then disaster struck. In the back of my mind, I knew when the cramping and spotting began what the inevitable end would be, but I denied it for as long as I could. The doctor confirmed the miscarriage but offered me little explanation. I sat in the hospital bed, staring at the stark, white sheets, devastated and bewildered, unable to understand how that tiny heart could be so strong one day and gone the next. My baby, my dreams, and in a lot of ways, my friendship with Erin. They were all gone. Life went on around me. Erin’s belly grew bigger every day, it seemed, a brutal reminder to me of her successful, thriving pregnancy and my utter failure as a mother. Every time I saw my friend, I felt daggers in my heart. Because she was family, I really couldn’t avoid her. Hate was not something I was accustomed to feeling, but it was the closest word I could use to describe my new feelings building up inside, feelings that grew more painful, more intense each time I saw her.
I felt a tear sting my eye as I stared at her. She turned in my direction and I quickly turned away. Her due date was two weeks away. I knew because hers was exactly 14 days after mine. And today was my due date. Today was the day my life should have been so very different.
I should have been at the hospital, in labor, waiting to become a mother.
The physical pain would have been a welcome relief, especially if it would replace this horrible, hollow emotional pain I’d been riding on since my baby’s heart had stopped beating.
“God, I don’t understand,” I whispered frantically. “Where are You? Why did You let this happen to me?”
I didn’t expect an answer. For nearly six months, I’d been asking the same questions. God had remained silent on the issue. For whatever reason, He’d chosen to abandon me. He was not just carrying me, like in that poem. This was the darkest moment of my life, and God was just nowhere to be found, no matter how many times I cried out to Him. I wanted to continue to love Him and to trust Him, but His silence made it so hard. Maybe this was one of those things my grandmother had always warned me about, one of the many things that about God’s plans that I’d not be able to understand this side of Heaven.
The only thing worse than the tears was having to explain them to someone else. When my own husband thought it was time to get on with my life, I couldn’t really expect anyone else to have even a small amount of sympathy for my sadness. I reached for a tissue to dry my eyes. As I did, my hand brushed against Rebekah’s. I looked up, half expecting to find she was taking a tissue for me. She didn’t even look at me, though. My eyes followed her gaze and landed on Genny Fairbanks, one of the older members of the congregation.
Genny’s church attendance had been sporadic for the past few months. Ernie, her husband of more than 50 years, had Alzheimer’s disease. He had his good days and bad. On the good days, she said she felt like they were teenagers, falling in love all over again. On the bad ones, which came more and more often these days, he was too much for Genny to handle alone away from home. Still, she resisted all attempts to put Ernie into a nursing home. She’d promised to love and care for him in sickness and health. So long as she was healthy enough to care for him at home, that is what she was going to do.
Ernie’s health had taken a turn for the worse recently. It wasn’t just his memory that was a problem, though I could tell from the way she spoke of him that it broke Genny’s heart that Ernie didn’t recognize her most days. His body had grown weak, to the point where he couldn’t handle daily tasks like bathing and dressing and even feeding himself. It was just too much for Genny to handle alone, and she had reluctantly agreed with her children that it was time to place him in a home for the round-the-clock care he needed. I could see in her eyes that morning the toll that decision was taking on her. The depth of my own sadness was forgotten and I had this almost overwhelming desire to hug the older woman. I watched as Rebekah handed Genny the tissue, then gently took her hand. I stepped closer to hear what was being said.
“He’s not eating,” Genny said. “Ernie doesn’t like being in a new place—he never did like change much—and he can’t do anything about it except refuse to do what he is asked. He’s been refusing food and fighting his medications.” She stopped and took a deep breath to steady herself. Through everything, she had always been so strong. She looked like she wanted to cry, yet seemed determined not to do it in front of anyone. Finally, Genny said, “The doctors want to put him on a feeding tube. I don’t know what to do.”
“Is that something Ernie would want?” Rebekah asked softly.
Genny shook her head. “No. We talked about it before, when his mind wasn’t so hazy. Ernie didn’t want anything special done to keep him alive. He said if a machine was doing everything for him, then he wasn’t living anyway. He wanted to just go to Heaven with some dignity.” She dabbed at her eyes with the tissue. “I know I should honor his wishes. I guess I am selfish. I don’t want to let him go.”
Rebekah was quiet for a moment, giving Genny some time to compose herself. And then she asked so very gently, “Genny, how would you like us to pray?”
Had I heard that right? Had Rebekah really just asked how to pray? It seemed to me that, as the wife or our pastor, prayer was something she know how to do. If she was asking what Genny wanted her to pray for…. Well, that made no sense to me and, frankly, it sounded like a rather dumb question. Really, how many was could a situation like this be prayed over? I wanted to pull Rebekah away and let her know how insensitive that sounded. “Her husband is sick,” I wanted to say. “Of course she wants prayers for healing.” Honestly, what other kind of prayer would she want? What she wanted, I was sure in my heart, was her husband back. What she needed was a miracle.
I didn’t know much about Alzheimer’s, other than it always got worse and not better. But I knew God, too. I knew that He could give Genny a miracle if He wanted. Just because He had not given me the one I wanted for my child didn’t mean I stopped believing He could do it. I wanted to tell Genny that I would pray for a healing miracle for her husband. I took a step closer, intending to tell her just that. But she started to speak, and her words caused me to freeze on the spot.
“Just pray that God’s will be done,” Genny said, her voice shaking with emotion. “I don’t like what is happening. I don’t understand it, but I know He is in control. He will get me through this.” I heard her say that she was angry, sad, and scared about what was going on, but she knew that her life—and Ernie’s life—belonged to God. “We’ve had 50 good years here,” she told Rebekah. “But I am not going to let my sadness over the end of that keep me from spending eternity worshiping God with Ernie.”
Her words hit me like a slap across the face. I suddenly felt like the most selfish woman on Earth. Six months after losing a baby that I never saw, that had only been a part of my life for a few brief weeks, I was holding tight to my anger and sadness. After 50 years of marriage, Genny was holding tight to God as she watched the love of her life slip away. Which one of us had the best chance of enjoying life once the season of sadness had passed?
But maybe I didn’t deserve the chance to enjoy life and be happy. God must have felt that I didn’t. Otherwise, He wouldn’t have created such a big hole in my heart.
But was the hole in my heart any bigger than the one in Genny’s? Why did she have such a peace about her, how could she be so accepting?
Probably because all of the sadness and despair were flooding my body. There just wasn’t enough left for her.
I stumbled backward, expecting to bump into the wall. Instead, I felt a pair of arms slide around my waist to steady me. “You OK, Connie?” Toby asked me.
I smiled at my husband, an unsteady, unsure kind of a smile. The concern in his eyes touched me in a way I hadn’t allowed anything to touch me in half a year. Suddenly I felt sorry for the negative things I’d thought about him just that morning, and an unbelievable relief that I’d not let any of those thoughts come out of my mouth. His comment about moving on was not intended to hurt me. It was Toby’s way of telling me that I needed to give the pain and anger to God. I squeezed his hand. “I feel…” I stumbled to find the right words and finally settled on, “I feel OK.”
“You feel OK?” Toby asked, sliding an arm around my waist and guiding me toward the sanctuary doors.
I nodded. “Yeah, I think I am.”
He led me toward the row of seats in the back of the room, the seats I had picked to hide out in after the miscarriage. The seat kept me in the room and allowed me to be technically a part of the service. But it was far enough away from everything so that I could hide. As we were about to sit, I saw Erin and her husband slide into a seat two rows in front of us. I turned my eyes away, not liking the idea of spending the next two hours looking at the woman who had the life I so desperately wanted.
My eyes landed on Genny, sitting on the other side of the room. It didn’t take long to notice there were two empty seats beside her. “Why don’t we sit over there?” I suggested, motioning toward the older.
“With Genny?” Toby asked. My husband was shocked. Not that I could blame him. I’d spent the last six months hiding, and now I was suggesting that we move to the front of the church. It surprised me, too.
But I felt drawn to her. There was something about the peace she had that I wanted to be near.
A piano began to play and the congregation stood for the first song of the morning. I sang along, or at least tried to. Genny’s words played over and over in my mind, making it hard to concentrate on anything. “We had 50 good years here….” Was the difference between the two of us? Was that what made it easy—and if not exactly easy, at least possible—for Genny to let go? The fact that she and Ernie had spent a lifetime together?
They’d made memories together, memories that would sustain Genny through the rest of her life. They’d raised children. They’d enjoyed grandchildren. They had shared more together than I could even imagine. Perhaps it was the ability to relive those memories at will that made this transition less difficult for Genny.
Only, I didn’t have any of the memories. I’d not had any time with my child. I’d never felt the baby kick. I’d only once heard the heartbeat. I’d never been able to count ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes, kiss pinch chubby cheeks, or blow raspberries on a freshly bathed belly. In the game of life, Genny had hit a jackpot, while I’d been cheated out of anything.
And yet, I had this nagging feeling that I was cheating myself. Memories or no, Genny could have wallowed in her own sadness and no one would have blamed her. A six month—or even longer—pity-party would have been understandable for her. No one understood my sadness, my continued pity-party. As I watched Genny sway to the music as she softly sang to the Lord, I realized that I didn’t fully understand why I continued with the pity-party either. Really, what was it accomplishing?
The bigger question, though, was how to put an end to it. How could I find the understanding, the acceptance that Genny was living with?
When the singing ended, the pastor shared a few brief announcements. One was about the need to volunteers in the nursery. “Could you spend just one Sunday a month,” he asked, “cuddling the babies and playing with the toddlers? If so, please see my wife Rebekah after the service.”
See Rebekah…. Now that thought wouldn’t leave my mind. Was God telling me something? Not that I really wanted to listen. After all, I’d been asking for answer for half a year and He’d remained silent. And yet the nagging feeling that I needed to talk to Rebekah would not go away. Volunteer in the church nursery? Could I really do that? Could I handle holding someone else’s baby, loving on another child for just a few hours?
I wasn’t sure. Still, at the end of service, I found myself standing in front of Rebekah, volunteering to do just that.
Perhaps I had been cheated out of making memories with my own child. But there was nothing stopping me from making memories with the other children of the church.
Sniff, Sniff. Very close to my heart. Beautiful.