When you work at a church, you see and hear a lot of “stuff” that’s just not pretty…or easy. God and “stuff” are intimately connected. Oh sure, there are great God stories and plenty of happy occasions, but there are also lots of sad stories. There are many sad stories that turn into happy stories…but it takes time.
Betty was the 60 something year old nurse at my doctor’s office. Her husband, Art, was an elder at our church. Betty and Art were super sweet folks. I did not know Art very well, and I seldom saw Betty except at doctor’s appointments, or briefly around church. Still, I’d been going through a series of chronic health problems, and Betty knew some things about me that even the people closest to me did not know. I was in my late 20s and Betty was like a dear auntie. She was down to earth, unassuming, kindhearted, gentle, and just the littlest bit ironic underneath it all–the perfect characteristics for a nurse! We liked each other.
The phone rang at my desk early one morning. Betty was on the other end. “Hi, Anne. It’s Betty. I’m at the hospital. (pause) Art is dead.” The rest of the conversation was brief. Betty needed to talk to our pastor and begin some of the most difficult days of her life. I was young, and it never occurred to me then that our two minute conversation would be a catalyst in churning up the vortex of Betty’s grief and pain for a long time afterward.
Art’s service was held that weekend, and in those days we were experimenting with having a weekend receptionist. I was sitting behind the desk when the soloist for the service arrived with her scruffy little chihuahua mix, Peanut. Peanut was a rescue pup and had issues with being left alone, so his mama took him along with her quite frequently. On a dreary Saturday afternoon, with little going on in the office, I was only too pleased to Peanut-sit while his mistress went to sing Art off to Heaven.
For the most part, Peanut was fairly content to stay with me behind the desk, but when I opened the door into the hallway behind the sanctuary–to slip out for a trip to the restroom–Peanut slipped out too! And he padded quite quickly right down the hall toward the sanctuary entrance!!!
I had no way of knowing whether or not the door to the stage was open, but I could hear enough sound coming from there to be utterly panicked. Peanut was about to round the corner, and I was already imagining the sight of him searching out his mom among the mourners.
In a slow, well-stifled gasp through my teeth, I hissed, “Peanut!!! Get * Back * Here!!!!!” And just as quickly as my blood pressure shot through the roof at the sight of Peanut’s tail passing from view, he turned right around and made his way back to me. Needless to say, Peanut accompanied me to the ladies room…and even sat on my lap while I was in there. We weren’t taking any more chances.
There was nothing memorable after that, though I did share Peanut’s exploits with his mom when she came back for him.
I did not see Betty that day. Eventually, however, I did begin seeing her around here and there, and while she seemed pleasant and “OK” enough among folks after worship services and Bible studies, she was somewhat cool and avoidant around me. But it took a while for me to realize that it was not a coincidence. –And it took a while after that to figure out that Betty’s pain alarms rang whenever she saw me.
Heaven only knows how badly those alarms must have made Betty feel, if she was able to even process such feelings at all, but I sure felt sad and sorry inside. Even though Betty and I were not close friends, it hurt to know that just the sight of me was enough to anguish her heart.
It was so difficult to keep from taking it personally, and several times I came to the edge of confronting her…but I couldn’t. It seemed to me that even the gentlest suggestion of some negative behavior on her part might be misunderstood and launch the newly edgy likes of dear Betty into some kind of lambasting of unsuspecting me. That was the sort of response I’d grown accustomed to from the highly volatile people in my family, and I was not about to take that risk. In the end, I said nothing.
It was some long months later–maybe as much as a year or so–when Betty was in the church office and stopped by my desk to ask a question. She was noticeably more open, so I chatted with her a bit and tested the waters to see if she was feeling friendly. For the first time since Art’s death, it seemed safe to relax and reach out to Betty.
She was leaning casually forward on the other side of my desk, and getting ready to leave when I found the nerve to say, “It’s so good to see you, and I’m glad you’re doing well. I’ve been waiting to tell you the funniest story.” And with that, Betty welcomed the re-telling of the now quietly legendary tale of how Art’s memorial service almost went to the dogs.
I left the church to work and worship somewhere else not long after that, and I only saw Betty once or twice more. My health issues and insurance restrictions sent me to another doctor’s office. But I don’t think I will ever forget the relief I felt as Betty tacitly removed her Keep Off the Grass! No Dogs Allowed! signs.