I sat at the gate, sweating, praying that the Uber driver coming would be female. It was muggy-hot, like the air needed a good rinsing, and I chugged my Smart Water. The sky had clouded up since I’d sat down, a few raindrops on the sidewalk were disappearing. We’d had a little mix up about exactly where we were meeting, but thanks to GPS, Debra-the-Uber-driver in her dingy white Civic finally pulled to a stop in front of me.
She got out of the car and loaded my suitcase in the trunk, a whoosh of stale cigarette smoke and ash exhaling with her, as if the car itself were trying to get a fresh breath of air. OK, I didn’t think to ask for a non-smoker. My bad. Thank you for Debra, not Derrick, I thought. Debra slunk in behind the wheel, her head down, shoulders slumped. Climbing in beside her, I knew my goal was getting to the airport alive and on time, not making friends along the way, but I was a little disappointed.
“Thanks for picking me up,” I said, offering a handshake. “I’m Eve.” I always feel a little awkward shaking hands with another woman. It seems to me to be a man thing, and I can’t figure out a feminine alternative. A high five is too young, a fist bump too hip. Somebody should figure this out for grandmamas. Maybe a knee-replacement-bump? It’s as if we don’t feel chummy enough for a hug when meeting a stranger, and yet we know something should be exchanged.
Debra’s hand was limp, and I put mine back in my lap. She let out a deep breath and turned the key in the ignition. I cracked my window and settled back in my seat. I had 90 minutes to ride with Debra who, I’m ashamed to say, I was liking less and less by the minute. Her hair, mousy brown and graying, hung long and languishing, parted in the middle the way we wore it in the 70’s—not a good look for anyone then, but even worse now that our skin resembles that of Chinese Shar Peis. I am ashamed to admit that I’m likely to size up anyone I first meet in an equally disparaging way. Though I’ve asked God to silence my inner critic, she’s still noisy. A little more help, God?
No, really, God. Change me. After the weekend you just treated me to, I’m embarrassed to be such a superior prick (C.S. Lewis’ word fit and made me feel better). What if she needs you, and I’ve already decided she’s not worth my time? What if this is one of those divine appointments? Show up.
I took a big swig of my water bottle and was about to try and make conversation, but her phone rang. “No, I’m workin’ and I can’t talk. Trix needs to be let out. I’m headed to the airport and won’t be back for three hours.” Debra didn’t waste any words, cutting off the connection without saying goodbye. She explained that she was not supposed to take personal calls while she drove for Uber, and added, “but I depend on my GPS. The real reason I don’t take calls is ‘cause I’m not good at gettin’ ‘round without it.” My heart sank. An Uber driver who was not good at getting around? It began to rain, and I looked at my watch. I’d allowed two hours. Deep cleansing breath.
“So you have a daughter?” I asked, guessing who called.
“Yeah, and a granddaughter. Live about 20 minutes from me. I keep her dog. Well, I guess, by now, she’s really my dog.”
“Oh? And why do you have her dog?”
“Delaney couldn’t train her. She’s high strung, that dog is. My daughter got tired of dealing with her. Said she was going to put her down. But I said we should re-home her. So we tried that and we found a home. But a week later, we got a call from the new owner that she couldn’t handle her either. I hated to see her goin’ somewhere else new. She don’t like change, that dog don’t. She prob’ly wouldn’t find nothin’ else, so I took her.”
“How’s that working out for you?” I asked.
“Well, it was hard at first. Trix bites and chews when she’s afraid, and she was bitin’ and chewin’ on us. I figured it’d pass and it mostly has. But anyway, the hard part was losin’ them other dogs.”
“Yeah, I lost three of my dogs in ten days. Near ‘bout broke me,” she rasped, her mouth twisting. She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her shirt. We hadn’t been in the car together more than ten minutes, and already Debra was weeping.
“I’m so sorry. What happened to them?”
“Well, the road took two of ‘em at the same time. We keep ‘em in the back. But this one night, they got loose somehow. My husband was outside feedin’ and hadn’t latched the gate, I guess. Anyway, they both headed straight for the road and a car come along right then. I liked to’ve died right there on the spot. I heard it from the house. My husband wouldn’t come in for the longest time after that. He went up and got ‘em and buried ‘em straightaway, knowing how I’d be and not wantin’ to see me. He felt so bad, but I was worse. I couldn’t work that week for grievin’.”
“I know what you mean. Losing a pet feels like losing a family member. I get it.”
“And then the next week, we got a puppy to sorta make up for them dead dogs, but I wasn’t ready to love her yet. I was still grievin’. Just a couple days after we got her, her neck got caught in the chain link and choked. Didn’t find her til mornin’. She’d been inside when we first got her, but she made so much racket at night we couldn’t sleep, so we put her and Trix outside together. They’d took up with each other right away. Air condition’ makes so much noise, we never heard a thing. I was real sad about the pup, but she didn’t feel like mine yet,” and she paused, her voice cracking as she choked out the words, “but still, it was another hard lick. I guess I’m still not over any of it.”
“I’m sorry. You’re in so much pain,” I said, hoping I sounded sorry. We were silent for a few minutes. I wanted to connect somehow with Debra’s loss, but I wasn’t exactly the dog lover in our family. Suddenly I remembered our experience when Cody’s puppy died, how much it hurt him and how he grieved, and I decided to tell her about it.
“When my second son was about ten years old, he got his first puppy, a Black-and-Tan Coonhound named Scout. He was head-over-heels by the time we got her home. When she wasn’t eating or squatting on the puppy pad, he was holding her. That first night, we put her in the garage because we’d seen a few fleas. We put a flea collar on her and said goodnight.”
“Oh no,” Debra groaned. “Don’t tell me.”
“Well, the next morning I was fixing breakfast and heard Scout yelping. I figured she was hungry for her breakfast, too, and I planned to get her and take her up to Cody to wake him up, but first I was getting eggs cooked and toast buttered. I got sidetracked changing the baby’s diaper and before I knew it, I realized she’d stopped yelping. About that time, Cody came down the stairs…”
“Really, please don’t tell…”
Oblivious to what she was saying, and determined to finish my story so that she could feel my empathy, I continued, “Cody went out to the garage and was back in a minute, sobbing hard, his voice unnatural, and I couldn’t understand anything he was telling me. And then finally he blurted out, ‘She’s dead, mama, she’s dead!’
“I couldn’t believe my ears, in fact, I literally couldn’t process the information even though my ears had heard the words, and we hurried outside. And there she was, hung by her flea collar on the power sprayer’s arm, lifeless. That’s when it sank in: Scout was dead. I was stunned. Cody dissolved in my arms, and we both hit the floor, sobbing. His precious pup. The love of his life…” I looked over at Debra, finally taking her into account, and she had tears streaming down her face. “Debra, I, I’m so sorry. I…”
“Yeah, I knew it was comin’. I’m just too tenderhearted about dogs, I guess.” The rain began to come down in earnest, and Debra turned on her wipers.
“You asked me to stop. I’m sorry I didn’t listen. I wanted to connect with your pain and here, you’ve come around and connected with Cody’s. That’s so kind. It’s actually, well, beautiful.”
“It gets me in some trouble, like when I have to take ‘em to the vet. I have a hard time with that. Is there more to your story?”
“Yeah, so I thought he needed another puppy right away to replace Scout. The breeders had siblings left in the litter, so we went and picked out another one that same day. I’m not sure if he ever loved that second dog. He fed her and was kind to her, but he didn’t have the same sparkle with her he’d had with Scout. I didn’t understand about sadness and grief then. I thought you just got busy and tried to forget about it when you were hurt. We got a new puppy and that was that. I realize now there just wasn’t room in his heart to love another puppy until he had grieved for Scout.”
“I wasn’t ready either. Shoulda waited. Wisht I had all three of ‘em back with me. Trix is a nutcase and Roscoe, our other dog, is too old to do anything but drag his butt around. He probably needs to be put down, but I can’t do it.”
“You have an enormous heart. And it sounds like maybe it’s still broken?”
Debra wiped fresh tears from her face with both hands and then wiped them on her jeans. “It’s hard on me,” she said. “It’s real hard.”
I realized this woman needed a ladder out of her pit, not more commiserating in it, so I tried to steer the conversation to people for a little while. “Tell me about your granddaughter.”
“She’s some fun. Comes over after school and watches TV with me in my room if I’m home.”
“Yeah, it’s a room I made just for me in my house. I go in there at night, mostly by myself, just to be.”
“Are the other rooms in the house not yours?” I wondered what kind of arrangement she was living in.
“Yeah, they are. Only my husband’s in them, too, you know? And he doesn’t like me much. He makes fun of my TV shows. He makes fun of me. He’s really just kind of mean, so I made me a room of my own, where only I can go.”
“A safe place?” I asked.
“Yeah, like that. I let my grandkids come in there. They like my TV. I got Netflix and we watch nature shows and Disney movies.”
“Do they like Trix?”
“Not really. She don’t like anybody but me. She follows me all over the house, gets in my way. If I’m gettin’ in the bed, she’s right under my feet. Sometimes I sleep in my car when I get home from work ‘cause I don’t want to have to deal with Trix when I go inside.”
“You sleep outside in this car?” I glanced behind me and saw that it was a hatchback with the backseat down, extending into the trunk space. A red heart shaped pillow and rainbow fleece were scattered among the empty soda cans and chip bags.
“Yeah. It’s just easier sometimes. Nobody hassles me in my car. I just pull up and turn off the lights and get in the back. Simple, you know?”
“I do,” I said, thinking about the weekend at Chatauqua and the safe place I had enjoyed. The quiet and no hassles. I understood very well.
“Do you get to see your grandkids often?”
“As much as they want to come over. It depends on stuff after school. I keep chips they like and Oreos. And them drink pouches.”
“They’re lucky to have you and your room. Do you have other family nearby?”
“Yeah, my mom lives in the next neighborhood. I talk to her nearly everyday. She’s always mad about somethin’ somebody’s doin’ in the family, though, and wants to talk all about it. And I have lots of cousins and aunts and uncles all ‘round. I’ve lived here all my life except for when I ran away that year to see my dad after graduation.”
“Tell me about that.”
“Well, my parents split up right after I was born. So I didn’t know my dad growin’ up. Never saw him or nothin’. So when I graduated from high school, I think, ‘I’m gonna go meet my dad.’ So I get on an airplane and fly across the country and showed up on his doorstep. He had just gotten married again, only I didn’t know it. And his new wife didn’t like me bein’ there. They gave me a room for a while and then said they needed it back for the baby.”
“Yeah, that was hard. But I knew I couldn’t stay, and I didn’t really want to. Once I got to know him some, I thought, well, now I done that. And I moved back here and lived with my mom and went to night school and got a job.”
“So what do you do?”
“I’m an accountant. I‘m real good at numbers. And I’m the president and treasurer of our family reunion comin’ up because everybody trusts me with the money. But everybody’s still complainin’ about it.”
“Well, Nikki’s the vice president and she wants it catered. Nikki don’t cook. But Jo, who’s the secretary, says we’ve always brought the sides ourselves and bought the meat only, not everything else. And now my cousins want to have a separate reunion with just us ‘cause they’re tired of all the arguin’ and bitchin.’ There’s a group that drinks and there’s a group that don’t. And the ones that don’t are the good Catholics that look down on the ones that do, who are the bad Catholics.”
“Sounds intense. Which kind of Catholic are you?”
“Oh, I’m a bad Catholic. I didn’t drink all my life until my aunt died when I was 40. We were all sittin’ there talkin’ after her service and somebody asked me did I want a beer. And I thought, yep, I think I do. And I been drinkin’ ever since. That’s a weird thing about me, don’t you think?”
“I don’t drink because I don’t like how it tastes. That’s a weird thing about me.” Debra’s phone dinged. She swiped to get a text off her screen. There was more I wanted to say, but I was afraid I’d sound like a Bible thumper. I looked at my watch and decided to thump, “You know, the first miracle Jesus ever performed in public was turning water into wine at a wedding. He was all about celebrating and giving life. Religion says folks are good or bad based on drinking, not Jesus. And somewhere in the Bible it says not to drink only water, but to drink a little wine for your stomach.”
“It does? Well, I been havin’ me some stomach trouble. My bowels are all the time churning. I’ve been to the doctor but they can’t figure it out. My shoulder aches and my back, too, and I’ve got a spot on my head that hurts when I touch it. And my hands are so stiff sometimes, I have to run ‘em under hot water when I wake up just to bend ‘em.”
“I can relate to the digestive stuff. And arthritis. I had knee replacement surgery in January.”
“I think mine’s called Fibralgia or something like that. I said, ‘What’s that mean?’ They said, ‘It just means you hurt all the time.’ I heard that! I didn’t think I’d be feelin’ this bad already at just 50,” she said.
“I know. Me either. I’ve been 60 since March, and it’s still hard to say that out loud.”
“I been real careful about what I eat and drink ever since they told me about that. I’ve lost 30 pounds, but I don’t feel better yet. I think I’d lose more if I’d give up my drinkin’. But drinkin’s about the one thing that makes me feel better. I like drinkin’ a beer by myself in my room and watchin’ my TV.”
We fell silent for a while. The countryside looked dry and scrubby where we were, like it needed to rain, but the rain had sputtered and stopped. Billboards that advertised an Indian reservation and a casino came and went. I was thirsty. My water was long gone, but I was afraid to ask Debra to stop because of the time. We’d already taken a couple of wrong turns, due to a glitch in her Uber GPS software. I looked at my phone: we had 28 more minutes of driving time, and my flight was taking off in a little over an hour. I was tempted to get my own stomach juices churning.
I’d heard something about God keeping our tears in a bottle. It was a comforting thought for me, and I wanted to share it with Debra, but I didn’t know how to circle back there without it feeling forced. I was afraid I might stir up more tears, too, but I wanted to say more before our ride was over.
“Debra, you know, we’re never going to see each other again, right? I mean, this is one of those meetings that come along out of the blue and then is gone forever. So I want to grab hold of this moment and tell you what I’m thinking and feeling because this is going to be my only chance. Can you handle me?”
“Yeah. I think so.” I saw her knuckles whiten, the veins in her hands bulged as she tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “Can you make it good? I need me some good news.”
That sounded like a green light.
“I think you’re just about the biggest hearted person I’ve ever met. Heck, you cried over the loss of my son’s puppy, Scout, and that happened 20 years ago. And you’re taking care of everybody in your life—your complaining mama and all your family and their reunion crap. And you’re taking care of your grandkids and your daughter’s crazy dog and you’re still grieving your own dogs’ deaths. And you’ve taken your father’s rejection all your life, and now you’re taking your husband’s. That’s a heavy, heavy load. That’s a load so heavy, it’d drive you to overeat or over drink or poor health or all of the above, right?”
“But lately, it’s driven you to a safe place, your room. I like that. I like it that you are doing something to take care of Debra. I like it that when you need to, you just spend the night in your car. I’m sad you have to do that, but I’m glad you have a plan for yourself.”
“I need to train that dog better. I need to get me some help with her. I’m lettin’ her take over my life.”
“Yeah. I get that. I think I’m managing a problem, and before I know it, the problem’s managing me. You’re right, we need outside help, you and I.
“This past weekend, I was in a safe place. Some friends let me stay in their beautiful home, alone, while I visited my daughter. I’ve got some things going on in my life that are driving me, too. And I felt beat up inside when I got to this house that has a kind of secret hiding place in an upstairs porch. It was such a refreshing taste of heaven-on-earth for me, that I felt restored when I left it. I’m still feeling that way inside now, even though I’m about to jump back into my life as soon as my plane lands in Atlanta.
“I feel full because I rested in the arms of Jesus while I was there. Does that sound cuckoo?” Debra nodded. I laughed, “It does to me, too. I just imagined him holding me in that beautiful space, and I let myself feel the peace and love and joy of that. He says he’s my hiding place, my strong tower, my Savior. And Debra, I gotta tell you, I need a Savior. And I think you do, too.
“A relationship with him is just about sharing your life with him and him sharing his life with you. It’s really simple when you think about it. You just talk to him like he’s sitting right there with you. And if you listen, you’ll begin to hear him talking back. I can’t go a day without him. I can’t even go an hour.”
“I used to go to mass and confession a lot,” Debra confided. “But when I started drinking, I thought I couldn’t go anymore. What’s the point in goin’ if I’m just gonna keep doin’ what I shouldn’t do? That would be lyin’. But Jesus turned water into wine at a weddin’? I never heard about that before.”
“Yeah, and some people think it was a LOT of wine, like way more than was needed. Those people were partying at that wedding, and Jesus provided the fun. Jesus is for us. Jesus wants us to enjoy being alive and to enjoy being alive with him.”
“So I can still have a beer in my room and talk to him in there, too?”
“Absolutely. In fact, I’ve been thinking about that room. I wonder if you were trying to find him when you decided to have your own space, and just didn’t know it. Is that possible?”
“Yeah…I mean, wow! Do you think so? That’s something to think about…”
I reached over and grabbed her hand and squeezed it. We both had tears and goofy smiles as she pulled over to the curb at the airport. Our time was gone—I had 37 minutes to get through security and to my gate—but I wasn’t worried.
Debra climbed out of her car and hustled back to open the trunk. I lifted my bag out and set it down and grabbed her in a great big, heartfelt hug. “You and I are needy and alone, but we have a safe place, a Savior named Jesus. Every time you enjoy a beer in your room, let yourself feel this hug from me, and ask him to let you hear his words over you: Beloved. Apple-of-my-eye. My delight. Make a list of all the ways he tells you he loves you.”
“I will. And I’m gonna think about you in your safe place when I’m in mine, so I won’t feel so lonely.”
“Great idea. I will, too.”
I turned and started to step up on the curb, but remembered something and turned back around. She had gotten back in her car and I ran around to her side. Stale cigarette smoke drifted out as she rolled down the window. I had one more thing I wanted to tell her.
“Debra, he keeps all your tears in a bottle, or, as in your case, in lots of bottles. He’s probably got cases of them by now!” We laughed. “That’s how dearly he loves you. He doesn’t waste your tears. If he’s that concerned with tears, how concerned do you think he is with your dogs? Your relationships? Your heart?” We were both crying, and I reached inside to hug her again. “Debra, this is crazy, isn’t it? I love you! Goodbye!”
The rain that had threatened us all the way there finally broke and came down, a soft summer shower cooling the air. I walked into the airport and got to Delta as fast as my alarm-setting-off-security-knee would let me go, my heart tight with joy. Blessings all mine and 10,000 besides, I thought. Streams of mercy, never ceasing. I remembered something else, too, “I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”
Yes, God. Do your thang.
I got to the gate, just as my zone was called. This has been exciting but whew, I’m so tired. I need a break. Please let me get a big ole’ bottle of water on the plane. And please let whoever sits next to me not want to talk; better yet, let me fall asleep. My introverted self was maxed out and whiney. I got water on the way in from a stewardess and settled into my seat, grabbing my book. The next thing I knew, we were landing in Atlanta, sunshine streaming through the windows, the sky a brilliant blue. An empty water bottle on the seat beside me.
Gimme them streams, God.