When the alarm goes off and I hear rain beating on the roof, my first thought is that I hate rainy days.
My second thought is about how guilty I feel. That’s pretty standard.
I drag myself to the shower, because rain or no rain, there’s a lot to do today on my Hypocrisy World Tour. First, I’m swinging by Camden Dennison’s house for his first day back to school after the hospital. He attempted suicide a couple weeks ago, and according to his mom, he could use a little boost.
I’m not sure how I’m supposed to help — maybe pray with him? Yeah … that’s sure been working for me lately.
Then it’s off to church to outline my message for Sunday youth group, because I’m the perfect guy to tell teenagers how to live like Jesus. It’s what a super-spiritual youth pastor does all week, right?
Finally, I’ll head for my other gig as a barista before I meet Cassie at 7 p.m. I never thought a shift at Bigbucks Coffee would be the bright spot in my day, but mindless latte-making helps me forget the massive lie I’m living.
A few months ago, everything was perfect. Almost finished with college, check. Hired for a part-time youth pastor gig, check. College sweetheart with plans for maybe-probably-ring-shopping, check.
I should’ve known it couldn’t last — not with my family’s track record. I have the ring now, but I’ve been thinking about taking it back, because Cassie doesn’t deserve to get dragged down with me and the rest of the Hill clan. And maybe the guilt would finally stop eating me alive.
My phone rings as I head for the car. I’m running late for my meeting with Camden, and in a rush, I pick up without checking who it is. Big mistake.
“Jason? I need you to say a prayer for your brother.”
“Hey, Mom. I’m kinda behind —”
“I tried Joy, but she didn’t answer. You know how the kids make her crazy in the mornings.”
At 22, my sister is a year younger than me. She has two preschoolers and a baby on the way, all with different daddies, and the kids have the same relationships with their fathers that I have with mine, which is none. But that’s a good thing. All three baby-daddies thought Joy looked like a punching bag.
Still, Joy is a cheerful topic compared to Jake — my nieces are usually good for a fun story. “How’re Kate and Bree?” I ask. “And the baby?”
“Everybody’s fine; Joy sees the doctor in two weeks,” Mom says. “I’m sorry, hon, but your brother’s in jail again.”
So much for cheerful topics. “Another DUI? I didn’t know he got his license back.”
“He was just driving to and from work,” Mom says evasively. “Did I tell you Allied Salvage hired him again? He’s trying.”
The junkyard fired my big brother last year for showing up drunk. I guess good help is hard to find.
“Well … I’ll pray for him, Mom.”
“Jason … you know I normally wouldn’t ask. I don’t believe in handouts …”
Of course you don’t, Mom. That’s why whenever you call, you always request prayer, then cash. “You know I can’t help with bail —”
“I let Jake drive my car. When he got a job, it seemed like … well, the impound lot wants 200 dollars. ‘That’s not right,’ I told the man on the phone, ‘How will I get to work?’ But you know these people, they’re in it for themselves.”
My first thought is that there’s no way I can afford 200 bucks, and I can’t keep enabling Mom to enable Jake.
My second thought — and I’m not proud of this — is that if Mom can’t get to work, my phone will ring with a lot more “prayer requests.”
I sigh. “I’ll wire the money like last time. OK?”
“Thanks, Jason. You’re a lifesaver, hon; you really are —”
“I gotta go —”
“Can you say a prayer for Joy, too? The caseworker told her she’s out of cash benefits, so it’s just food stamps now. With the baby coming, it’ll be rough.”
“Mom, I’m sorry, but I’m driving to see a youth group kid —”
“I understand, hon. God keeps you busy now. I just thought since it’s your family, you could make a little time.”
Mom can never resist a parting guilt trip. And right now, I definitely need more things to feel guilty about.
On the last couple minutes of my drive, while I’m peering through the downpour, looking for the Dennisons’ house, I keep thinking, over and over: I can’t bring Cassie into this mess.
I’m now in the perfect frame of mind to encourage a suicidal sophomore. Camden, here I come.
By the time I leave Camden’s house, the downpour’s over. I even spot some patches of blue sky. But you know those unexpected drops that come after the storm’s over? Like the weather can’t make up its mind whether to let the sun come out?
Yeah, it’s like that outside. Which fits my mood perfectly.
Camden and his mom say the depression’s better; he has emotions again instead of feeling dead inside. Healing, he tells me earnestly — whether it happens in a psych hospital or not — is a gift from God. I totally agree with him.
On the other hand, I remember from Adolescent Psych class that when a teen has a major depressive episode, it’s likely to happen again. And I wonder what Camden will think about his “gift from God” if it does.
I’m like the rain; I can’t make up my mind about Camden. Should I hope for sunshine or brace for another storm?
I’m also thinking about the time in eighth grade when Kelvin, my middle school BFF, dragged me on a retreat with his church. Everything that weekend was new for me. Mom has always prayed when she’s in trouble, but as for church … well, we went on Christmas Eve. To me, God was Santa Claus and Jesus was a baby elf.
On the retreat with Kelvin, I heard that Jesus wanted to save me from myself. My life was basically a dumpster fire at age 13. I’d been sneaking booze like my brother, and my grades were in the toilet because I didn’t care, and I had a hair-trigger temper that got me suspended every month or so. I knew I was on the way to becoming My Old Man 2.0, who abused Mom and bought booze with her nurse’s aide paycheck until he disappeared. But what could I do?
That’s when grace burst on me like a firework. The pastor said Jesus could change my life, and I didn’t walk forward for the altar call. I ran down the aisle, kneeled in front of the drum kit, and ugly-cried while I begged Jesus to come into my heart.
But I didn’t understand that demons aren’t always exorcised immediately. It takes time to bring your grades up when you read at a third-grade level. You need a year of sessions with the school therapist to get your temper (mostly) in check. And no matter how much you pray, your brother might still be a felonious drunk, your sister might still look for her next live-in, and Mom might still be … well, Mom.
In the end, you wonder if hoping for a brighter future is a good idea, because the demons you’ve vanquished always come back for another try, and sometimes they win.
I thought I was in the clear when I made it to college, found Cassie, and landed the youth pastor job. No more rain in the forecast — the sky was bright to the horizon!
But I couldn’t accept grace. I couldn’t imitate my heavenly Father. No, I let the demons come back while I imitated my father on earth. So I ruined my life, and that’s why I feel so guilty, and that’s why everything that’s helping me rise above where I came from — the church, the wife, the big dreams — is all about to disappear. Maybe I’ll end up as My Old Man 2.0 after all.
Once upon a time, Dad got his girlfriend pregnant. Just like me.
Cassie Kretovics comes from a messed-up family, too. That’s how we met.
We were both youth ministry majors. I’d noticed she was cute — I mean, it was obvious — but there are a lot of cute girls in college. Nothing happened until we had Family Ministries together at the beginning of our senior year.
The first assignment was to write a paper about our own family’s strengths and weaknesses. It was probably an easy A for nice homeschooled kids, but it sounded like a therapy session in Hades to me. I decided to approach the prof and ask for an alternate assignment.
Cassie and I arrived at the professor’s door at the same time. To make conversation, I asked Cassie why she was there … and she burst into tears.
I found out between sobs that Cassie’s folks were still married, but her mom had a poison tongue and a mean backhand when she’s angry (which was always). Her dad coped by basically living at work. Cassie didn’t want to write the paper any more than me.
So I did what any thoughtful person would do. I took her out for ice cream. Just to help her feel better.
The rest, as they say, is history.
A few months before graduation, when I’d been hired by the church but hadn’t started yet, Cassie and I had been together almost eight months. Then Jake got locked up for his third DUI. Mom was using her mad skills in passive-aggression to guilt me for not coming home, so I was pretty low.
I poured everything out to Cassie one night at her apartment. “And this is what you might be marrying into,” I muttered darkly.
“Jase, when we have our family, we’ll be different,” she said with conviction.
“I hope so.”
“Don’t ‘hope so’!” she reprimanded. “We love Jesus, right? And He frees us from the past, right?”
“You remember that paper we didn’t write last year? About our families?”
“Best assignment I ever blew off. Look what it got me.” I kissed her.
Cassie grinned. “Well, we’re gonna do that paper now. But instead of recording the dirt on our parents, let’s plan what our family will be like — you and me. To make sure we’re different.”
It sounded like a good plan. So we mapped out our fairytale wedding, 2.4 children, and happily-ever-after in the Kentucky college town where we lived (which had the advantages of warm weather and being far, far away from our families). We weren’t married or even engaged, but in the moment, we both felt like a wedding was a formality.
Which probably explains why that night was the first time we did the thing married people do. You know, the thing that results in 2.4 children.
We both felt guilty as sin afterwards. We swore, to God and each other, that we wouldn’t have sex again until we were actually married. And we stuck with our vow … for two whole weeks. But then we did it again, and again, and again, until we were just an old married couple falling into bed.
Cassie had an off-campus apartment, so it was easy to hide the rendezvous from our Christian college. But I started having furtive thoughts of breaking up — not because I didn’t love her, but because the sex was making me feel so guilty and distant from God. I would’ve done anything to make things right.
In May, Cassie got the flu. I kept telling her to see the doctor, but she ignored me. “They can’t cure a virus, Jase,” she said. “What’ll the doctor do, tell me to stop puking?”
When she was still puking a week later, she finally went to urgent care … and it wasn’t the flu. Guess what causes morning vomiting in healthy young women?
Cassie freaked out. She didn’t know how to tell me about the baby. I could see she was upset when I saw her that night, of course. But all evening, I kept asking what was wrong, and she kept dodging my questions.
For about a week, she avoided me while I wondered what I’d done (besides the obvious). “Pregnancy” never crossed my mind.
Everything blew up two days before graduation. Cassie woke up with a stomachache. By afternoon, she was feeling terrible — so terrible that she skipped a final. She texted to let me know she was going back to her apartment, but never said why. When I offered to come over, she blew me off again.
“I’m fine, Jason,” she texted. “Just leave me alone right now, OK?”
I didn’t want to, but I had learned not to get on the wrong side of my honey’s independent streak.
I didn’t find out till the next day that she went home because she was having cramps — the worst of her life. While she was alone in her apartment that night, still without ever telling me the news, Cassie miscarried. Our baby died before I knew he was alive.
Copyright 2018 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.