The day the world broke, the telephone rang. Being eight, I wasn’t allowed to touch it. My brother had hit his first decade and earned the right to answer. He yelled for Mom. She hated the phone. It tethered her to the dining room wall. She couldn’t wipe down the cooktop or clean the frig with a toothpick, her tool of choice. Dad had installed a longer cord, but it stretched only as far as the formica table.
I listened from the other side of the wall. “Oh no.” Mom’s voice pitched in a tune I’d never heard. The dining room chair clawed against the linoleum. Her body dropped onto the chair. “Where? How?” I pressed closer to the wall. Was is Aunt Gerrie, whose thoughts raced faster than Dale Earnhardt at Bristol? Or Aunt JoAnn, with her sugared bourbon voice that cold-cocked me from fingerprinting Nannie’s cakes? “How long?”
I came out of hiding.
Mom paused longer than I ever remembered, then swiveled to hang up the phone.
“Who was that?”
Mom elbowed the table. With or without food, she considered the action bad manners. “Aunt JoAnn.” Since I’d been three and she’d had four children in five years, Mom had leaned on me. To get diapers. To babysit. To occasionally hear a frustration. “Jeffrey. A car wreck.”
My cousin, gold blonde hair and deep blue-eyes, who waved a magic-kit wand and made pennies disappear? “Is he hurt?” Would he still play his accordion?
“Hospital.” My brother was in the hospital every summer. He always came home fine. “When’s he getting out?”
Mom touched her mouth with her fingertip. To this day, shy of fifty years ago, I remember what she wore: tomato-soup red shorts and the white-ruched top I loved. “I’m not sure.”
The hospital was too small a place to hold Jeffrey and his endless energy. Why would he choose to live there? Our family had walked the color-coded halls of Duke University, talking to a man we called Dr. Pickle. Once was interesting; twice, nice. Calling it home? Boring.
“They don’t think he’s going to make it.”
These words were spoken to my sister and me about our beautiful little puppy beagle named “Lovely,” who’d run out in front of a car. I kneed the asphalt and cried, trying to call her back to life, as her belly oozed organs. I’d watched tv enough to know if people didn’t die, they sometimes ended up with twisted bodies, as had Captain Pike on Star Trek. He needed the boxy machine to keep him alive. Could Jeffrey stand that? Not using his hands?
“He’s going to die?”
Mom only nodded her head yes. My Jeffrey, who saw me and sought me out to show me his latest hobby? My Jeffrey, gone from this world? Not him. Death was out there for old people, like Grannie Sug, who couldn’t get around without a wheelchair, not my bright, shining cousin.
I hid behind the television console. This was my private spot; my brothers and sister never bothered me here. I inhaled the ozone from the tubes, then sobbed like I hadn’t ever. I fingered the tv wires like Mrs. Brodnick did her rosary, begging God to let Jeffrey live.
The phone rang, sending me running. Yes, he was going to make it. Ring. No, he was not. Yes. No. This went on all day. In the evening, another ring. I didn’t come out for this one. A cry from my mom’s lips told me. Jeffrey, my Jeffrey, was gone.
I wasn’t asked to go to his funeral in Roanoke. Punkie from next door babysat us. Before my parents left, I gave them a note to give to Jeffrey. At my church, Reverend Patterson had spoke on heaven a bit. Jeffrey was there now. Yet, I hated this thing, death. I hoped Jeffrey hadn’t split wide like Lovely. I’d rather him be in heaven, than boxed up like Captain Pike. But I hated more than I hated my mean white hamster that I couldn’t see him anymore.
After his funeral, Aunt JoAnn told me she’d tucked my letter in his coffin. I wasn’t sure what a coffin was, but it made me glad Jeffrey had gotten my letter. It didn’t take many years to learn what a coffin was. I yearn now for heaven with every box I see. I yearn for the place where Captain Pike is straightened and made whole, where Lovely’s insides are just that: inside. Where I will see Jeffrey again.
Until then, I live on the edge of bad news. As most of us, I receive it via text. These I have to read over and over, not believing what I read. Still, I get the calls. “Your dad,” the caregiver whispers, “I think he died.” Another time, my sister’s face shows up on the cell, not three hours after I left Mom, the doctor saying she would last several more days. Robin whispers, “gone,” and we end the call. Each time, I’d slip out to the porch, my Holy Place, and hard cry. The mighty oak comforted me with its agelessness, its branches canopying our house. A far cry from the 1960s console of my childhood.
When the old oak fell, splitting wide our house, a copy of the letter I’d written Jeffrey was found deep in my closet’s bowels. The broken-house me united with the broken-hearted child, the fifty-year span erasing:
I love you very much. I do. I can’t help from crying. I do. Here a prayer for you. Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. O let thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. Love, Renee Leonard
The day the world broke I wanted something bigger than myself, bigger than Jeffrey, bigger than a 90-year old white oak tree I had yet to see, to hear my desperate voice, to hear my woeful cry. After my all-day prayer behind the tv, I pulled back from God that day, as scared of him as I was of ghosts and funerals. I shut my white Bible at 16 for the last time.
So I thought. He knew better though and waited. The white oak would be 130 when I’d fall in love with it and build our house underneath its branches, when I’d open the Book again and believe. He knew better and waved his great everlasting, never-ending love over my heart. Despite the world getting even more broke, He’d heard my complaint after all. He still hears.
Something bigger than I can figure is at work here. Mysterious. Magical. This is our God.