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Back Again: Chapter Eighty-three

“Hi. I’m sorry we aren’t available but if you’ll leave your name and a brief message, Ellen, D.J. or Ben will return your call as soon as possible.”

I hung up without leaving a message. Hearing Ellen’s voice, even recorded, was difficult and hearing her voice list the family and not mention me was unsettling. D.J. was right. Ellen was moving forward, with or without me. I could hardly blame her although it still hurt. I was slowly seeping from her life, their lives, the phone calls further and further apart and zero attempts to go visit since my disastrous surprise trip that wasn’t. It was hard to explain my motivation to withdraw. I still loved Ellen, which was clear from the pain the phone call created, but I was also still mad at her for abandoning me. I hated the kids had to deal with the fallout of her refusal to move but the family staying behind was never part of my plan. It was Ellen’s addendum to the plan that had everything so screwed up and she would have to deal with the consequences. The phone message made it clear she had started.

It was nearly eight o’clock and I needed some comfort food. I was feeling vulnerable, afraid the sadness might creep back full bore, so I had to keep moving. I called Mr. Ming’s while driving and placed an order, telling them I would pick the order up. When I pulled into the parking lot I could see my bag of food through the large front window, resting on the counter waiting on me, which beat the alternative. As I paid the cashier I debated whether to sit down at one of the empty tables and eat in the restaurant but decided against it for no reason I could discern. The fear of being still was strong.

As I pulled onto the feeder road the smell of the Kung Pao beef filling the car was nearly overwhelming so I rolled down the back windows a couple of inches hoping for some relief, the second hand MSG making my eyes water. I turned on the radio and punched the buttons randomly hoping to find something that wasn’t annoying. My tolerance level was low but the option of silence was not appealing. As I waited at a traffic light, I heard the opening jangle of an old Byrd’s song, one I hadn’t heard in years, so I turned it up.

I am a pilgrim and a stranger, traveling through this wearisome land.”

The words were appropriate. I was a pilgrim and even though I couldn’t vouch for the land, I sure as hell was weary. Tired and weary. Weren’t they the same thing? If it meant twice as tired I was going to make it my motto. I was especially tired of all the questions that were pounding, pounding, pounding away and even more tired that the answers were so elusive. And I was tired of being weary.

“I’ve got a mother, sister and a brother who have gone this way before.”

That was probably true. It wasn’t like I was breaking new ground with my search. I was sure there were others out there with similar tales, tales of wrong turns and questionable decisions with disastrous results. I began to consider attending the men’s group again on Thursday. I liked that Joshua Brown had taken the initiative to call and check on me. I was already in better emotional shape than last week so I might be able to sit through an entire session without freaking out and scaring everyone.

“I am a pilgrim and a stranger, traveling through this wearisome land.”

I repeated the words from the song. “I am a pilgrim… I am a pilgrim… I am…” I suddenly felt a presence in the car with me, or at least the presence of a presence. It wasn’t bad or evil or suffocating and it wasn’t frightening. I could only describe it as good. My mind immediately returned to Thursday night at the chapel and my encounter with the something that knew who I was. That night had been a quick taste; in my car it lingered, filling completely the available space in the cab of the car.

“Who’s there?” I ventured aloud, not expecting an answer, afraid I might hear one.

I am a pilg-!”

I reached over and turned off the radio, entrusting the moment to silence. I wasn’t scared but I was totally aware of something there. A force? A spirit? Was it the same thing as before? Was this a return visit? I suddenly realized I had worked for this moment, begged and pleaded for this chance, and I refused to back away before I got answers.

“Who’s there?” It was real enough to ask out loud.

“I am.” Had I heard that or was it an echo from the radio? I concentrated and all I heard was the hum of the heater. Whatever it was had not diminished and its presence was still strong. I wasn’t scared, in fact I was emboldened and I wanted to know what it was, to see if it had the answers.

“Who are you?” I really wanted to know.

“I am.” At that moment the intensity of whatever it was doubled, tripled, and I was overwhelmed. I struggled to remain focused on my driving so I had to pull off the road and park, gather myself and settle down. I stopped in the parking lot of an empty office building, all the workers long departed for the evening. I unbuckled my seatbelt and took a deep breath. The presence was stronger, bigger, but I still wasn’t afraid. It was still good and as the presence grew so did the goodness. I tried to concentrate on driving again, getting home, but all my attention and energy kept being drawn back to the presence as if it required my full attention. I opened the door of the car and stepped out, thinking I would experience some relief from the force of whatever was filling the car. I was stunned when the night air did nothing to diminish the sensations that were enveloping me. The presence was not contained by the interior of my car and it continued its positive domination of my thoughts, of me, as I closed the door and leaned back against the side of the car. I wanted to move, to go home, and at the same time I didn’t want to leave or have it leave. Did I have a choice? It was good, whatever it was, it didn’t want to hurt me; I knew that somehow. I began to relax, the excuses to run becoming less reasonable as I lingered. What now? Would I get the answers? The questions… I had so many questions.

I gave up my fight, resigned to whatever was next. All desire to do anything, be anywhere but right there, dissolved and I became totally present in that moment. I wanted answers, needed answers, and I knew, somehow, I would get them if I would relinquish my doubts and allow whatever it was the space to answer. At that moment of surrender, the presence moved from around me to inside me and all I could do was stand there in the darkened parking lot, alone but not really, and allow the inevitable to move forward unabated.

The presence reached deeper than anything I’d ever felt. Deeper than any hurt, any moment of joy. Deeper than anything I’d ever known. Deeper than I knew existed inside me. It felt beyond me, like it went past me to another place that wasn’t me but a place which I was connected, vitally connected, and I was able to experience what was happening because of that bond. Then the presence, or some part of it, rose from that deep, connected place and approached me, the real me, and started the process of filling me, beginning at the soles of my feet, slowly working its way to my ankles, up my legs to my knees. I wasn’t hollow, empty and willing; it was replacing what was already there. I could feel its coolness pushing its way into every recess and niche inside me, seeping into all the cracks and fissures, a welcome intruder, positive and innately good, sweeping and scrubbing the grime and mold, some of it old, older than me, and leaving behind smooth surfaces, like new, ready to begin new stages of existence in better shape than seconds before. Renewed. The sensation was renewal and as it worked its way up through me I found myself experiencing feelings that were deeper, more acute, than any I had felt before. But they weren’t really feelings, at least not like I ever experienced because I couldn’t separate them from me. They were me in every way. I was thankful, not just feeling thankful. I was grateful, not just feeling grateful. When the presence pushed into my chest I gasped as it moved through my heart, cleaning, filling, restoring. There was no room for fear, resentment, hate or bitterness, only good could exist. Restoration occurred to so many rips and breaks, some forgotten, some unknown. I whispered “Thank you,” to what? It didn’t matter, not then. I didn’t question anything because I didn’t want it to stop or even slow down. It was right. True. Good. Still rising and I was thankful. I was suddenly full of appreciation—love?–for what was happening and I experienced anticipation verging on impatience for the process to reach my head, my mind. I wanted to feel the place where sparks began–anger, disappointment, hate, desire–I wanted to feel the results of the renewal there, completing the operation. To see if the restoration could conquer the dark areas in my mind, could transform the evil and make it good. To see if all the emotions could be turned from utterly negative to utterly good. I felt a twinge of guilt that I was still harboring doubt even as I was experiencing the very thing I wanted but it was fleeting, having no chance of survival in the wake of the presence. As it rose past my eyes I had no choice but to release, the tears feeling like excess joy, unable to remain locked inside and relieved to find an exit at last. There was no shame, no fear of being seen, only deliverance. Inches to go, my head was on fire, the top burning as if unprotected under direct sun, my tears powerless to alleviate the heat. Somehow I knew it was necessary and shouldn’t be stopped, couldn’t be stopped. I had no desire to try. The heat had a mission, a task to complete, finishing the work begun in the deep places where the coolness was a balm. The final push required more and I knew that, so I waited, not with joy but with the expectation that joy would follow when the mission, the task, was complete. Joy and peace. Finally, peace.

As it climbed slowly, slower than at any other time, I knew it was working, fulfilling its assignment, accomplishing and cleaning. And as it pushed its way through the last layers of skin and through the follicles on the top of my head, I also knew who was responsible.

“Thank You, Jesus.”

I said it or thought it or only experienced the words but I knew they were true. Truth. Not motivated by old filters or hammered dogma because that was all gone, cleared away, burned away. I knew it was true not because I read it or someone convinced me. It was true because I experienced it and I knew it, beyond feeling or touching it, both of which seemed so shallow, so unconvincing as proof. From the deep places, deeper than I knew existed, I knew. I didn’t question it because it never crossed my mind, my renewed mind, that it was anything but true. The knowledge of that truth was deeper and more substantial than anything I’d known before in my life. So I kept repeating the phrase.

“Thank You, Jesus. Thank You, Jesus.”

It was all I could do. It was all I wanted to do.

“Thank You, Jesus. Thank You, Jesus.”

I wanted to enjoy the moment, the renewal, in its purest form, which was a gift in itself. At that point in time I was untainted by doubt or guilt or questions. I was consumed by the perfection of that instant, by the perfect good. The questions would come soon enough, too soon, and I would need that moment of pure love and restoration as a marker, a milestone, an Ebenezer to remember and recount and remind myself of the possibilities and the promise of how it could be at the point of total surrender.

“Thank You, Jesus. Thank You, Jesus.”

I would doubt again, ask “why me?” as I fought the guilt of forgiveness. I would arrogantly take the restoration for granted, assuming I deserved the riches. I would turn away and fight and make mistakes more than I cared to imagine. It was inevitable. My humanity would win its fair share of the battles. But forever I would have that memorial, that anniversary, inside me, deep with roots, which I could return to. It was something I missed the first time around, the first 45 years. For whatever reason—ignorance?  Flawed contentment? Too busy?—I chose to experience a partial connection with a God that offered so much more. I would mourn the loss of those years, one day, but that would have to wait. At that moment I was loved. I was forgiven. I was restored.

And I needed to call Ellen.

This is an excerpt of a full length novel entitled “Back Again.” You can read it in it’s entirety by downloading it from here or you can keep coming back to this site and read it in chapter chunks over time. Your call but, either way, I hope you will read it and, most of all, enjoy it. And leave a comment or two. It lets me know you are out there…

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