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The Best Life Ain't Easy But It's Worth It
By VIRELLE KIDDER
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Stopped on the Way to the Fair
When I was six years old and my brother Roger was ten, my father piled the four of us into our '51 maroon and gray Dodge and headed to the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River. To this day, I remember being carsick in the backseat from both parents smoking in the front. Roger entertained me for hours with funny word games and whispered jokes. No one wanted to make Daddy mad.
On the way home, we stopped for lunch in a pretty, small town named Mexico in upstate New York, a few miles from Lake Ontario. Driving down Main Street, we passed an impressive brick school with huge white pillars, which had a bubbling stream running alongside it. Lush maple trees lined the streets, shading quaint Victorian homes and spired churches. The downtown was small but adequate with a post office, an old-fashioned A & P, a barbershop, a dry goods store, a bakery, and a shoemaker.
My father fell in love on the spot. Right after lunch he located a realtor and bought a six-room, 150-year-old gray house on Lincoln Avenue at the edge of town. He had no job there; we had neither relatives nor friends. But no one protested, not even my mother. Moving was an annual event in our family. I thought everybody did it.
The day the big van unloaded our things, I met my best friend, Barbie. Her sister Jane rode around the corner on her bike and invited me home for lunch. Both sisters had cute Buster Brown haircuts with bangs. Barb was shorter than me and shy, but full of adventure. Soon we were inseparable.
At home Mother papered and painted every room. Daddy had the house painted red, built a white fence around it himself in the hot sun, and planted hollyhocks, purple iris, and climbing roses. He never worked again in the yard, but often sat alone admiring his work from a lawn chair in our side yard.
That summer he also joined AA. Dr. Thompson, an anesthetist from Syracuse, became his sponsor. The Thompsons often visited us, bringing along their two champion black Newfoundlands, Sam and Mary, in the back of their station wagon. Sam would lay on the car horn with one enormous paw until Dr. Thompson would let them out for a walk around our yard. I loved those dogs. I especially enjoyed tightly gripping their leashes while they dragged me down the gravel driveway, and I'd laugh until I wet my pants. The dogs even came to the AA picnics and Dr. Thompson would show off their tricks for the crowd. My father and mother looked happy again. We all relaxed a bit.
Sometimes I sat and talked with my father in the yard, asking him to tell me funny stories. Telling stories was his favorite thing. I brought Barbie and Jane to meet him one day, hoping he'd entertain them, too, but he didn't feel like being funny that day.
One day my father brought home a baby blue parakeet. Roger and I named him Herbie. Daddy spent hours talking to that bird and training it on the dining room table. "Put your finger out and let him sit on it," he coaxed us. "He won't hurt you." And he didn't. Roger and I had parakeets for years after that, way into our adult lives. My father's patience with pets was limitless. People were another matter.
By the time I was seven, I knew Daddy was mentally ill, besides being an alcoholic. I'm fairly certain he loved us, but his temper was frightening and unpredictable. No one dared upset him. We were his second try at family life. I learned years later through legal papers that came in the mail, that an earlier wife and two sons remained in his wake just as we would. I longed to know them and often wondered where they were.
About the time our little red house in Mexico was painted and pretty, my father left. He spent his last night with us awake, smoking in his overstuffed chair in the living room, watching our bedroom doors. Many years later Mother told me she had lain awake all night in fear. In the morning, Roger and I walked to school. When we came home, he was gone.
I found Mother washing dishes. She never looked up when I asked, "Where's Daddy?"
"He left." Is she crying? I wondered.
"When is he coming back?"
"He's not." Why isn't she crying?
"Where did he go?" Maybe I can run after him and bring him home!
"I don't know."
The conversation was clearly over. I never asked again, but I cried in my bed at night begging God to tell me where he was. I couldn't think of anyone outside our family to ask. We had secrets. Talking about Daddy was soon forbidden. There was no one left to ask but God, and I barely knew Him at all. I remember thinking, maybe a Bible would help.
No one spoke about Daddy again. It was easier that way for my mother, who suffered silently most of the time. The next fall she went back to teaching school. We all tried to act normal. Roger played basketball, did the lawn, and took out the garbage. I rode my bike, played with Barbie, and helped in small ways like dusting and wiping dishes. Life was quiet, predictable, and safe for the first time I could remember. Mother tried hard to make life good for us. She sewed clothing, made birthday parties, and gave us big Christmases she couldn't afford. Her light was always on when I went to sleep. She'd work until late at night correcting papers. Roger and I both tried to be good and, we hoped, were making her happy. For me, it became a lifetime yoke.
Most of my growing up was spent with Barbie, hanging upside down in trees, or playing cowgirls wearing my favorite six-shooters in the woods, picking blackberries, or building forts and pretend campfires. We knew every trail in the two-acre woods behind my house clear through to the hilly backyards of Church Street. It was our happy kingdom. Barb's family eventually moved to a farm outside of town. We saw each other less often, but remained best friends for years. When she wasn't around, I made a pest of myself with Roger and his friends until he'd beg Mother to call me inside or do something with me.
Life could get very boring around our house. Rainy days were especially lonely. I'd stay in my room and play paper dolls or store, or sweep off the red Congoleum rug in our stone basement, arranging porch furniture and pretending it was my home, the one I'd like to live in one day. I folded napkins into triangles and welcomed neighborhood kids as guests for crackers and cherry Kool-Aid.
My imagination became a retreat into a more interesting world. It probably saved my life. As I grew, my imagination almost took over. By the time I was ten, it was getting me in trouble. I exaggerated nearly everything, only I called it storytelling. I liked it that way. Real life was dull and full of things we weren't allowed to talk about, like where babies came from, and what was the meaning of life, and where my father was.
Then, in fifth grade something amazing happened-a district-wide short story contest. My teacher, Mrs. Bullock, insisted I enter it. When she mentioned the first prize was any book you wanted, I knew I wanted a Bible. Instantly, I had a story in mind about a young boy my age who loved his horse, but the horse ran away. He searched and searched for the horse. It became a chapter book complete with drawings. Of course, the horse was found, and the boy was jubilant. I had no idea I was really writing about my father. I won first prize, and eventually took home a big red Bible.
"Why did you want that?" My mother couldn't hide her disappointment. "Why not some good book like Honeybunch or The Bobbsey Twins?"
"I just wanted it, that's all," I said, tucking it under my arm and disappearing into my bedroom. Sitting on the corner of my bed, I opened it gently and caressed the new pages. The answers to life are in here. It was a holy moment.
But where to read? I'll start at the beginning! I read a few paragraphs, but nothing made sense. Not in the middle, either, not even in the familiar chapters called, "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," or "John." I slammed it closed. I can't believe it! There's nothing here! No answers at all! It's a lie! God must be a hoax just like the Easter Bunny and Santa! Waves of acute disappointment turned to tears. I felt completely alone.
Two years later, Mother woke me for school one bright April morning. In the same voice she'd use to tell me breakfast was ready, she said, "Your father died last night. He had a heart attack. His landlady called. You're not to tell anyone about this at school. Only Aunt Char knows."
I sat up straight. "Does Roger know?"
"Yes." I ran quickly to his room and found him still in his pajamas reading a book in bed.
"Don't you know Daddy died?" I asked, stunned by the casualness of the news.
"Yes." He barely looked up.
"Don't you care?" "No. Not really." It was years before I would know of the verbal and physical abuse Roger had endured. For now, I turned away to process my father's death alone. I learned that grief couldn't be buried as easily as the dead. Like snakes under the porch, grief and unanswered questions can live underneath your life and frighten you a long, long time.
I never quite forgot my father or God, but I tried. Both I considered out of my life, less relevant with time, subjects best not talked about. Mother was right. It was easier that way. I moved on to enjoy high school academics, a mix of achievements, music, and fun with my friends. Barbie had retreated into her own world by that time. We saw little of one another in the years that followed, choosing colleges a hundred miles apart. I applied at only one school, the University at Albany in the capital, and chose a double major in Spanish and English. At nineteen, college friends invited me to spend an exciting summer studying in Spain where I found life far more colorful than any of my early imaginings.
Strangely, I still felt agonizingly lonely at times. Friends were, after all, only friends. They only cared about you so much. My mother and brother were busy with their own lives. I wanted more. I began to want a man-not just a man; I wanted a prince. Impossible. They didn't really exist. I decided to pray for one.
Pray? Where did that idea come from? How did anyone really believe in that? God simply didn't answer. I doubted He was even real. Still ...
I began praying silently on my mile-long walk to class. Lord, if You're real, show me by three o'clock. At 3:01 I'd check my watch. Nothing. I felt like a fool. Surely, He could have found some way to let me know. I prayed the same prayer again the next day, and the next, trying to give God a chance to prove Himself to me. Day after day, 3:01 would come, and nothing happened. I didn't need a Salvation Army band, just some small sign. I stretched the deadline to four o'clock. Nothing. Then, anytime this week.
I became preoccupied with God, haunted by His silence. I told no one. Only God knew, if He was even real. Seeking Him became my obsession. Months passed. Then, at 10:00 a.m. one day in late spring, Steve Kidder walked into Dr. Creegan's philosophy class and sat down right in front of me.
He was late, too.
The dark green leather jacket he wore that day still hangs in our closet. The English boots are gone, as is his dark hair. But the prince remains. I loved him the moment I saw him. The greater miracle was that he loved me, too.
Life became a romance-days whirled into months and the music lasted. It lasted through college, through our first years of marriage, through a new baby and grad school, through Steve's first job at Johns Hopkins as a new PhD, right up until that hot Sunday in Baltimore when our new friends Ginny and Keith invited us to church and home for dinner. It lasted until the moment Keith opened his Bible and asked if he could read a psalm, and I saw Steve stiffen in his chair next to me, and felt my throat tighten with some choking, buried anger. Until the moment after Keith read aloud and I said, "May I ask you something?" That was the moment the music began to die.
I hardly noticed it go. I was consumed once again with knowing God. Tearing through the boxes in our basement, I unearthed the mildewed Bible I'd won in fifth grade. I read it all summer, barely noticing Steve, or the joy leaving him. You could hardly hear the music anymore.
I took a new lover that fall. His name was Jesus. He was all I ever wanted, the God I'd hungered for so long. How could loving Him not be right? I hung on His words, talked of Him day and night, lived and breathed His Word, and gave myself to Him with abandon.
I barely looked at Steve except to notice his lack of interest in my new faith. I seldom looked in the mirror, for that matter, to see how plain I'd become. Steve didn't understand me now. He wanted the old me back. He wanted the music again. How could I tell him I'd given it away?
Chapter Two Wake Me When the Fun Begins
Want to come?" I asked flatly, knowing what the answer would be.
"No, I'll stay home."
I stared at my unshaven husband. Steve had as much interest in my new faith as he did in learning to sew. I tried every tactic to change his mind: arguments, manipulation, even pleading. Nothing worked.
"I figured that."
"I'm just not interested in going to church again," Steve said. "It's not for me. You go if you like, but I'm staying home and watching a game on TV." With that, he settled down on the long blue sofa, put his feet on the coffee table, and leaned back.
Three-year-old Lauren bounced down the stairs, her long blonde pigtails flying out to the side like wings. "Are you coming to church with us, Daddy?" She was his soft spot, but even Lauren's cute voice wasn't working.
"No, honey," I answered for him. "Daddy's busy."
"He doesn't look busy. Why aren't you coming, Daddy?"
Steve looked daggers at me.
"We'll talk about this later. Better leave, girls."
I felt like slamming the door, and would have, if Lauren hadn't been there. I was disgusted to the core with my husband. He even refused to hear about God anymore. Ever since my mother had flown down from Albany to find out where I'd parked my brains, and my brother arrived shortly afterward from Cincinnati (certainly at her request) to "straighten me out," Steve had allies. He wasn't going to budge.
In a few short months since my radical choice to commit my life to Christ, our happiness quotient had plummeted from a ten to a two. We were both miserable; the tension in our marriage was getting hard to hide. If only he'd believe.
Fine! I thought. God may have other plans for me, anyway! Maybe I'll be a missionary someplace. I already speak Spanish. Lauren and I could live in another country. But the martyr approach didn't last. I was too mad.
Twenty minutes later, Lauren and I arrived at church and made our way to the second row on the left, smiling at friends along the aisle. I loved these people. They were my family now. I knew they often felt sorry for us sitting alone without Steve, or at least I thought they did.
While Lauren wiggled in the pew and colored on the program as she waited for children's church to begin, I fingered my red Bible and thought of the deepening rift in our marriage. If Steve really loved me, why wouldn't he love the same God I do now? It would make us happy again. Why was he acting so stubborn and belligerent? I glanced around the sanctuary at other couples who looked so happy. Most of the husbands sat with an arm around their wife, looking snug and in love. Where was my husband? At home watching a game on television.
In only a few short months, our love had grown cold. We didn't laugh at the same things, enjoy the same activities, or like the same friends now. Steve was suspicious of my Christian friends, feeling like a target for Evangelism Explosion. Television shows we once enjoyed now had little appeal for me. I preferred reading my Bible. Beyond matters of faith, raising Lauren sparked our biggest clashes. Steve was a "softy," leaving me as the heavy every time, one more thing that widened the gap between us. Intimacy, once a delight, now languished into awkward, lonely moments in bed together. I often turned toward the wall and cried silently to sleep.
God, what do You expect from me now? This isn't what I thought would happen! What if Steve never comes to Christ? How long can we last like this? For the first time, other women's husbands looked good to me. Too good. I wanted one like they had.
Often at night Lauren wanted her Daddy to tuck her in. Naturally, she stacked up five or six books on his lap, all Bible stories. Steve was cornered by his love for her, staying up in her room a long time talking, reading, and listening to her prayers. One night, when he finally came down, he was fuming.
Excerpted from The Best Life Ain't Easy But It's Worth It by VIRELLE KIDDER Copyright © 2008 by Virelle Kidder. Excerpted by permission.
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