2:00 p.m. Tuesday, Dallas
David reached the bottom of the stairs just as the grandfather clock chimed through its whole routine and bonged twice. After I have my little talk with Gloria there might be time for a short nap, he thought. At least if the girls sleep for a while.
Sleep. Please God, let me lie down and sleep. Grinding weariness drew him down, bruising him body and soul. Lack of sleep weakened his bones. His eyes burned. His head throbbed so hard his teeth felt loose. His brain seemed unfamiliar to him, his thought processes slow and thick as sludge. Sadness deeper than he’d ever known gnawed at him, pulling him down with an aching, a desperation as heavy as his weariness.
As much as Laura often drove him crazy, he couldn’t remember any time during their marriage when he had worried about her as much as he did right now. What an odd time to become aware of how much she meant to him. If he had thought about it, he might have supposed married people going through a crisis like theirs would pull together—like a team—but Austin’s disappearance could finish them off.
It had all begun early Friday morning, and they still had no idea how it would end. At first they blamed each other with Laura saying it was all his fault for leaving the van, and then he had blamed her because she stayed inside the truck stop for so long. They were both a whole lot wiser now, but they were a long way from being on a friendly basis, and they still didn’t know where to find Austin.
He approached Gloria, alone at the kitchen table, bent over her open Bible. Tendrils of silver hair had escaped their pins and sprouted around her head, reminding him of offshoots ringing an old maple tree back home. . Still in her nightgown and slippers, she looked old and, well…Godly to him, like Sister Visser at a testimony meeting in his grandmother’s church. The thought comforted him.
“I’ve been praying for you, David.” She looked up at him, reading glasses in her hand. “Come. Sit with me a while.”
He pulled up the chair next to her. “I need your help with something. With Laura.”
She patted his hand. “I’m so glad you are part of our family, dear. I can see why Laura loves you so much. How can I help?”
“She’s determined to leave in the morning. Of course you know that.” He rubbed his cheek. “I’m not a bit comfortable with this arrangement—I should be the one going—but she’s made up her mind, and you and Will told me to listen to her, so I’ll stay here with the girls. I’m hoping that in a couple of days she’ll call and ask me to meet her there. I had planned to go back at work Monday—“
At her dismayed intake of breath he laid his hand on hers, “Of course they’ll give me more time. In fact I talked to my boss a little while ago and she told me to take as long as I need,” he explained. “But if I can catch up with Laura Thursday or Friday, maybe I can check out a few things myself and that way we’d be together. The girls need their mother and I think that whether she knows it or not, it would help her to have them around, too.”
“Of course. Will plans to bring you and the girls to wherever we are in a couple of days. The girls do need her. You need her, too, don’t you?”
His eyes stung. “Yeah, I do. I just wish she needed me.”
“She does. I know my daughter. In fact, if I’m honest about some of her worst traits, I know she ‘didn’t get them from any stranger,’ as my mother used to say.”
He thought he saw a twinkle in her eyes.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” she said. “The more my daughter acts as if she’s in charge of the whole world, the more she needs you to cherish her.”
“Cherish? I know we probably said something like that at our wedding, but I’m not sure what cherish looks like. Even if I did, why now?”
“Why now?” She thought about it for a minute. “Especially now, I should think. Our worlds are being torn apart and nothing seems solid, so we need to feel taken care of. Secure. Women do, I mean. Maybe I mean Laura and me. Oh, I don’t know…maybe it’s just me. Will and I have been together so long that most of the time it’s as if we share the same brain, and yet you may have noted a little tension between us yesterday.”
David could hear the exhaustion in her voice as she went on.
“I tend to run around playing the role of the strong and capable Christian woman, but in times like these I deeply need Will to take care of me in his own quiet way and to love me in the midst of my posturing and bluster. Sometimes, like yesterday, we miss signals and find ourselves lashing out at each other in our frustration. Right now we’re all so tired and strung out from the strain and lack of sleep that we aren’t much good to anybody…” She took a deep breath.
“Why did I go off on that rabbit trail? You came to talk to me about Laura. I’ll be glad to do anything I can. What kind of help do you need?”
“Actually it does help me to hear you say that even people who’ve been married forever have rough days, but the reason I came downstairs is about tonight. You said you wanted Laura to go to the prayer meeting with you, and she agreed, but now she tells me that if she has to go, I have to go. I was wondering if you could help me find someone to stay with the girls. I know it’s late in the day, but—“
“Don’t worry, dear. I’ve had Maria on stand-by since this morning. I thought Laura might want you there with us, but I know better than to suggest it myself. If it’s all right with you, we’ll just keep that between the two of us, all right?
“You mean about you having a baby-sitter lined up before Laura decided we needed one?” He had to smile. “I sure can see the wisdom of keeping that little bit of information to ourselves.” He felt relieved. “Maria. Your cleaning lady, right? I didn’t know she did baby-sitting too.”
“Maria has helped with the house for years, yes, but she’s much more than a cleaning lady. We consider ourselves friends. She loves children and she’s very good with them. Allison and Ariel will have fun and so will she.”
When he didn’t get up she asked, “What else is on your heart, son?”
“You’re so…understanding with Laura,” he said. “I don’t know what to do with her. She scares me. I’ve never seen her so angry.
“Angry. Yes, I do understand about anger.” Gloria tried unsuccessfully to sweep her hair off her face. “You say she scares you. If anybody’s scared, David, it’s Laura.” She turned to face him and held both of his hands between her own. “I’m so pleased that you’re coming with us tonight. I’ll pray for you and Laura especially.”
He pulled away and studied his cuticles. “I’ve never been to one of these things before. I dread it, to tell you the truth. This probably seems weird to you, but thinking about sitting there with everybody praying for my boy makes tears come to my eyes. I guess I’m afraid I’ll embarrass Laura if I choke up in front of everybody.”
“If you shed a tear or two, you’ll be in good company. I think most of us respond emotionally when we sense the presence of the Lord.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.” He twisted his wedding ring around and buffed it on his pants. “It’s just that I feel as if my sanity is hanging by a thread already,” His voice came out low and quavery. “I’m scared to death about Austin, and now I’m afraid I’m losing Laura, too.”
Gloria slipped on her glasses and started paging through her Bible. He wasn’t surprised. He wondered if the verse she was trying to find would make any sense to him.
She continued to turn pages as Laura glided in, sans makeup, attired in a long black skirt, black long-sleeved silk blouse and a wide black velvet ribbon wrapped around the tight bun into which she’d tortured her hair.
“Oooooh, isn’t this special? Computer geek and the holy woman, together at last. Are you reading his aura, Mother?”
David felt as if a rubber band snapped inside his head. Laura knew how much he hated it when she called him a geek. He didn’t mind being one; he just didn’t want her calling him that. “What’s with that get-up? You look as if you’re auditioning for The Addams Family.”
“We’re going to the holy floaters prayer meeting, right? I wanted to fit in.”
“Good one, honey! When you apply yourself you really can be quite unpleasant,” David snapped. “This whole sarcastic bit is old already. Call me when you’re over it.” He stood up, glowering into the stony face Laura held up to him.
“Listen to Mr. cool-as-a-cucumber, or should I say Mr. cold-as-a-dead fish,” she spat, her eyes bright with anger.
Gloria, with an exasperated sputter, pulled her chair away from the table and grabbed Laura’s hand, pulling her down onto her lap. David watched, wide-eyed, as Laura not only permitted it, but sat there as if it were the most normal thing in the world for a grown woman to sit on her mother’s knee.
“Now you sit back down, David,” Gloria commanded. David complied. “You two take slow, deep breaths for a couple of minutes while I have my say.” She struggled for control and then held her head up in such a regal fashion that she appeared to be looking down at her daughter, perched like a cat ready to spring.
“This whole painful ordeal isn’t about calling each other names or trying to make other people feel as rotten as we do. I know what it is to lose a son, and when I say I know what you are going through, you may do me the courtesy of believing me. This feuding. The testy, childish attitude. How’s it working for you, Laura? Does it help?”
Laura dropped her eyes to avoid answering.
“Being angry doesn’t relieve the pressure build-up from a dam of tears; nothing does! I will reach the end of my days containing a well of unwept tears.” She choked, then went on, forcing her words past a wall of emotion.
“There’s no pain like the pain of losing a child. None. That’s why I’m insisting that we go to the prayer meeting tonight. God can answer our prayers even if we don’t go anywhere, but there’s a dynamic there, an anointing if you will, that happens when God’s people come together to pray. We all need to regain some perspective and get a faith boost.”
“I don’t understand what you are trying to say,” David said. “What’s the point of praying if God already knows what we are going to ask? And what difference does it make? As Laura pointed out, praying didn’t help Bryan. You just told us that you’ll be full of tears until you die.” He hated hurting her with his questions, but he desperately wanted to hear that going to this prayer meeting would solve everything. “What’s the whole point, anyway?”
“The whole blooming point,” she said, her voice sounding rough with anger, “is that God does answer prayer. What’s the matter with you people? Why are you so hopeless? I still believe God will bring Austin back to us, I feel it in my bones, but you two act as if you’re doing God a big favor by showing up for prayer.” She let out a shaky breath.
“I don’t know why He didn’t heal Bryan, but I do know that I couldn’t have lived through that time of absolute agony if I hadn’t sensed God’s presence with me. God gave me the strength, the peace—the power to live.”
She didn’t seem to notice her tears dripping off her cheeks as she talked. “I can tell you when it happened, the very moment when I knew God was with me. I sensed His presence, and all at once I knew that whatever came, I was never alone. I could feel His love. I could almost feel His arms around me.”
David heard her voice falter. For a moment she stared at him, and he saw in her eyes first a question and then despair. She closed her eyes and let out a tired sigh.
“I’m sorry.” she said, her voice flat, “I have never in my life felt more like a failure than I do at this moment. Somehow, with all I’ve said, with all your dad and I have done, with everything we’ve all gone through, we’ve never been able to show you what a wonderful life we have because we’ve trusted Jesus.”
Laura put her arm around her mother’s shoulders. “The time when you felt God all around you—was it when you were praying with Suellen and her friends?”
“Yes. Do you remember that?”
“No, I was pretty young. I do remember how upset you were. I remember that much. You tried not to cry in front of me. And I remember you and Suellen prayed together a lot. Was Daddy in on it then, too?”
“During the few moments I’m talking about, your dad was in the den praying with Stephen Kelly, and he had a breakthrough at about the same time I did. After that we prayed together. I thank God that through all of it we were of one heart and mind,” she said, looking from Laura to David and back again
“Yes, Mother, I get it.” Laura stroked her mother’s cheek, then suddenly stood up, kissed Gloria’s head noisily and grabbed David’s hand.
“C’mon. We can talk while I change into something a bit less gothic.”