A Monkey with a Bottle Opener
The Story of Freddie
Written by Monty Wheeler
It took six of us to get the heavy Impala station wagon rolling, but once onto the street, we pushed it down the hill away from our house. By the time I’d turned 15 years old, I’d worked the borrowing of Mom’s car in the middle of the night into a form of art.
“Hey!” I shouted to the guys pushing. “Don’t put a scratch in it.”
“You just steer,” someone shouted back.
Out of Mom’s hearing range, I started the big engine, and all the guys piled into the baby-blue battle tank. It was Friday night and time to party.
I’d been driving and operating Dad’s construction equipment since I was 10. He’d laughed when he had caught me running his backhoe then. Something told me he wouldn’t laugh if he knew I’d taken Mom’s car.
Once out on the isolated dirt road we called Burn Down Road, we met up with a couple other carloads of teenagers. As I fired up a joint from my shirt pocket, somebody cranked up one of my favorite Southern rock songs.
I woke up with Saturday morning’s sun streaming into my bedroom window and Mom shouting my name.
“What happened to my car, Freddie?” she bellowed.
I rolled out of bed and walked outside to see a huge dent in the station wagon’s tailgate.
I shrugged. “Dunno,” I said. “Can I go back to bed now?”
I wasn’t the one pushing from the back.
The next weekend, she waited for me at the front door when I came home with her car.
“Where’d you go, Freddie?”
“Mom! I —”
“I heard you get in my car and leave,” she shouted.
She swung the broom like a baseball bat at my backside. The straw end of the broom whooshed by me, and I lit out for the backyard.
“I’m telling your daddy when he gets home, Freddie!” she shouted at me.
I dared one peek behind me to see her hot on my heels, and I didn’t think she wanted to hand me the broom so I could sweep the kitchen floor.
“Get your shoes on,” Ms. Hattie said. “We got to go down to the drugstore. I need my medicine.”
Our grandmother watched Herbert, my older brother, when Mom went back to work, but Herbert and I both would have been too much for her. Mom hired Ms. Hattie to watch me on days she worked. I loved her just like a second mom and had Ms. Hattie all to myself until my younger brother, George, came along when I was 4.
To a 10-year-old, a cab ride always felt like an adventure. I never missed a chance for a cab ride with Ms. Hattie. At the drugstore, we sat on the spinning stools with the red covers on the round seats. I spun around on mine like a spinning top just to see if I could get it to squeak or squeal.
“Here now, Freddie,” Ms. Hattie whispered. “Can’t you sit still and quit tryin’ to make us some trouble? Just like your mama says, you are a mischievous child, and you got a high spirit to boot.”
“Who’s this you got with you today?” asked the guy with the funny white hat who always brought the ice cream or sodas.
We came to the drugstore and got sodas or floats almost every week, and he asked the same question of Ms. Hattie almost every week. I almost just asked him right there what was wrong with his brain that he never could remember, but when Ms. Hattie laughed and he laughed with her, I kept my mouth shut.
Then she answered the same way she always did. “Can’t you tell? Don’t you know who this is? This here’s my little white baby.”
I wasn’t much on her calling me a baby at 10 years old, but I kept my mouth shut about not being a baby anymore because I loved Ms. Hattie. “I’m her white cracker,” I said.
Ms. Hattie didn’t laugh at my joke.
“Where’d you hear that, boy?” she demanded. The man behind the tall counter left in a hurry.
I could have curled up into a little bitty ball and rolled away from the look on her face. “School,” was all I managed to get out.
“Don’t you ever let me here you talk like that again, Freddie.”
A good spanking couldn’t have stung worse than the crack in her voice.
“It ain’t right, and it ain’t proper for you to talk like that.”
“I won’t no more,” I said, talking straight to the floor.
“And I’m gonna tell you something I don’t never want you to forget.”
He came back with my cherry cola and her root beer float. Before I could get my hand up to bend the straw to my lips, she put her hand on my hand.
“I want you to hear me now,” she said. “When you turn folk inside out, there ain’t no black or white. Folk all the same on the inside. And you’d do well to always remember that, Freddie. Always see folk from the inside out and not from the outside in.”
“I will,” I said and meant it.
“But, Mom, I need a new bathing suit for this pool party!”
“Freddie, you’re still just 12, and you’re not going to use that tone of voice to me.”
Mom turned her back to me and talked to our supper on the kitchen stove. “I told you that you’d have to wear your old one or just not go to this pool party. We don’t have the money to spend on getting you a new bathing suit.”
“Fine,” I blurted out. “You won’t buy me one, so I’ll go get my own bathing suit.”
Mom spun around with a wooden spoon in her hand. The look on her face set me back a step.
“Well, go ahead there, big boy,” she said. The spoon waggled in her hand. “If that’s what you think you need to do, you just get on with it.”
I’ll show you!
I stormed out of the kitchen and slammed the front door on my way out of the house and then pedaled the eight blocks to Kmart as fast as my legs would pedal my bike.
Finding a bathing suit took one minute. Finding the opportunity took longer. People just kept passing the aisle or walking right down it where I stood fidgeting.
Coast clear. Do it now.
I stuffed the suit down the front of my pants. I straightened up and shifted the bathing suit so it’d be less noticeable and took one step.
Then from behind me, a man said, “You’d best come with me, son.”
He’d sneaked up on my blind side while I’d been hunched over trying to hide the new bathing suit.
He guided me into a little office and closed the door. “Sit down,” he said and pointed to a chair in front of a desk. I sat. “What’s your name?”
I mumbled my answer in an act of defiance.
“I caught you red-handed,” he said, “so there’s no use asking you what you were doing. What’s your daddy’s name?”
I answered under my breath again.
“Your daddy’s going to do a lot worse than the police would,” he said. “I’m just going to call your daddy down here. You just sit tight for a little while.”
“I’m disappointed in you, Freddie,” Dad said as he drove home. “We raised you better than this.”
“Dad, I —”
“What made you want to steal, son?”
Just whip me and get it over with. This talking takes too long.
“Dad, I told Mom I needed a new —”
“You think that gave you a right to go steal?”
Why can’t you see it through my eyes, Dad? I told her I needed it.
“I guess not, Dad.”
“You guess not? You’ll be in your room every night by 8 o’clock. No exceptions.”
You’re gone all weekend to the car races, and Mom’s not ever going to make it stick.
If they would just see things through my eyes one time.
“Where’re you going, Herbert?” I asked.
“Nunya, Freddie,” he shot at me. “You know what nunya means?”
I did. He told me, anyway.
“It means ‘none of your business,’ little brother. I don’t need no 14-year-old hanging on my shirttail everywhere I go.”
“I’m gonna tell Mom that you’re smoking weed.”
Herbert stared at me a long time. “You’re serious? You’re gonna rat me out?”
I didn’t answer him.
“You wanna get stoned?”
Best way to keep me quiet is make me guilty, too. I got it.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Turn around,” Herbert said. “I don’t want you seeing where I got it stashed.”
Probably the same place I hid the bathing suit.
I turned back around just as Herbert crumbled green leaves into a rolling paper. I watched and learned. He licked the paper, rolled it on up and twisted the ends.
“Here ya go,” he said. He had a funny smile on his face. “Fire that doobie up.”
Herbert lit the Bic, and I pulled the hot smoke into my lungs.
I coughed, gagged and hacked as Herbert laughed his head off.
“What’d you give me?” I screamed at him.
I’d smoked real tobacco straight from the curing sheds of my grandfather’s tobacco farm and knew pot couldn’t be as bad as what I just smoked.
Herbert pointed to a torn-up tea bag on the kitchen counter. He still giggled at the joke he’d played on me.
“That’s not funny!” I tried to shout at him, but my raw throat burned.
“Okay, okay, okay, little brother. Don’t be such a baby,” he said through his giggles. He pulled a joint from his shirt pocket already rolled up and ready. “Here’s the real thing.”
The smoke still burned my raw throat but nothing like smoking tea leaves. We shared it right down to smoking the roach, the final bit he clipped into the alligator clip he carried in his front pants pocket. Not being sure of what I was supposed to feel, I hadn’t known what to expect, but warm fuzzies rushed over me and settled a smile onto my face.
“I like it,” I told Herbert. “I like it a lot.”
I didn’t think I’d gotten all of what my friends talked about as being wasted, but the world looked somehow brighter through the eyes of a pot smoker.
“Where were you last night?” Dad asked. “I told you that your curfew’s 11 o’clock, no ifs, ands or buts.”
The 11 p.m. curfew came after Mom caught me borrowing her car — but she’d said “stealing” it. I never saw it that way.
I returned it. But Dad worked out of town a lot during the week, and most weekend nights, he raced cars and never came home till late.
Mom tried to enforce the rules for more than a year but never could. At 16, I knew it all and never paid her any mind.
I knew my dad’s mood and could almost see a dark cloud in his face.
You weren’t home. What difference does it make where I was?
I didn’t dare speak it. “Dad,” I said, “all my friends stay out till at least midnight, so why can’t —”
“Because you’re not them!” Dad shouted. I could see him working up to a major fit of mad this time. “This is our house, and we, not you, pay the bills. You’ll live here and live by our rules.”
I looked to see which belt he had around his waist. His wide one was the worst.
“I don’t need you!” I shouted back at him. “I can take care of myself.”
“I wish that I was just half as smart as you think you are, son,” he said. “I called your grandfather. He told me to send you on up there for a while. Your mom and I just can’t deal with you anymore, Freddie.”
All the hurt from Dad not being around more came out of me as belligerent anger. He’d always managed to show up when I had a football or baseball game, but I knew it was because he had to; he didn’t do it for love. At least, I thought I knew that.
“You can’t just send me away!” I screamed. “I hate you!”
I turned to run out the front door. Just as I turned, I heard him say under his breath, “And sometimes, Freddie, I wish you’d never been born.”
The tears that I so desperately needed would not come as I ran out the door.
As much as I loved my grandparents’ mountain home, my defiance to rules wore them down as well. I didn’t see things anymore like the kid on summer vacations in the mountains had seen things. If I saw a D on my report card, I’d done enough to get me by, and I was good with that. If I saw one of the pills called black beauties or yellow jackets, I saw a way to get jacked. I lived for that.
The high school frowned on those who carried pocketfuls of pills to school.
The high school principal caught me passing out little white pills in the hallway.
“They kicked me out,” I told my grandfather.
He sighed. “You’re not going to live here and not finish school, Freddie.”
“But,” I screamed at him, “they weren’t nothin’ but caffeine pills!”
“I don’t need you!” I yelled. “I can make it just fine on my own!”
“Well, big boy, you just get on with it then. I don’t know what else to say to you.”
Seventeen and on my own. I could see nothing but a great life ahead.
I found a job in a dive cafe and earned twice what I paid for a run-down trailer house.
Somehow, the remaining money did not support a pill popper’s habit and gas for a car.
“You could get the money out of the video poker machines every day,” my friend said.
The diner I worked at had a back room set up just for gambling on video poker machines. Some people seemed to camp out in that back room all day and all night long.
We’d gotten jacked up on some ’ludes I had scored. “I don’t know.” I turned the idea over in my busy mind.
“Those doors to the money boxes couldn’t keep a monkey with a bottle opener out. You can do it. You got every opportunity, since you work there.”
I let us into the back room after hours. And the cash, all $400, was ours.
The next day, a uniformed officer walked across the kitchen to where I stood washing dishes. “You’re under arrest,” he said. “You need to come with me.”
Every day for seven days, I made phone calls. My parents didn’t answer. My grandparents seemed never at home.
Then, finally, a sound other than a ringing phone. “How’re you doing in there?” my grandmother asked.
“Please, please, please,” I begged and broke out in a blubbering, crying mess. “Please get me out of here. I don’t want to be here anymore.” I’d survived the nights in a communal cell with 10 bunks and 14 inmates by sleeping on the floor and trying to act as tough as some of my cellmates looked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s pretty serious. I’d have to put the house up to get the money.”
“I don’t care. I’ll pay you back. I’ll do anything.”
“Let me talk to your grandfather,” she said.
“But I make no promises.”
I stood before the judge, and I faced the robbery charges. “I’ll accept your plea of not guilty on one condition,” he said. “That you join the military branch of your choice and make full restitution. Or you can go back to jail. It’s your choice.”
My grandfather, a true self-made lawyer who’d taken and passed the bar exam on a challenge of doing it without law school, must have called in a favor.
Looking at my life situation through their eyes, the Navy looked like the option to take.
I survived three and a half years of my four-year stint in the Navy, not without guilt, but without them busting me with drugs. The Navy had assigned me to work in the medical field, which gave me access to pills. The city streets gave me access to cocaine and LSD. I learned the ancient barter system: I have this, you have that; let’s trade.
And, bam! The military court sentenced me to three years in prison. Legally, I had a spotless record. They could have spanked my hand with a first offender’s warning and let me go. They didn’t see things through my eyes.
Two weeks of quarantine. They needed to know if I’d behave myself. I did. I’d learned that at 17.
My first day of quarantine, one of the guards came to the little window in the door. “I hold a Bible study every day.”
I stood up from the cot and walked to the door to get a better look at him through the barred hole in the door.
“You want to come?” he asked.
“Who are you?”
“I am a fruit loop for Jesus, a Jesus freak, and you should seek the savior’s grace.”
“Uh, no,” I said. “The God stuff’s not for me.”
I turned away from the door and sat back down on the miserable cot.
The next day, he returned. And the day after, until around day five, he said, “We got hot coffee at the Bible study, man.”
He had my attention. I’d gotten sick of rotten tap water from the one-piece toilet and sink combo.
I finally asked him, “What’s your story?”
“I’m just one of the guards,” he said, “but in my off-time, I hold a Bible study for the guys who want to come.”
I let out a long sigh. “Yeah, I’ll come.”
Another guard escorted me to the prison’s tiny chapel the next day. The guard-turned-Jesus-freak stood in front of a dozen or so inmates and began to speak. He spoke of the drug addict’s hopelessness as one who’d been there. He finished with, “If God can love me, he can love you, too.”
In the days of root beer floats and cherry Cokes at the drugstore, Ms. Hattie had filled our house with the songs of her faith. From somewhere not inside the prison chapel walls, I heard Rosetta Tharp banging on her guitar as she sang “Down by the Riverside.” I could still hear Ms. Hattie’s hands clapping louder and louder as the song played. “I’m gonna lay down my heavy load down by the riverside.”
When thunder boomed outside, rattling the windows in their frames, and rain pelted the windowpanes, she’d say, “That’s God talkin’ to you, boy.”
“What’s he sayin’ to me, Ms. Hattie?”
“Tha’s gon’ be twixt you ’n’ the good Lord, boy,” she said and never lost the beat of the music. “And someday, you’re gonna hear every word he says when he calls you.”
I never understood all she said, but I believed her because I could see her belief in her eyes. She showed me Jesus through her eyes.
“And God don’t use that N-word,” she said. “And Jesus ain’t never gon’ call you a white cracker. We’re all the same to Jesus, so you don’t never use those words, either.”
I’d tried to do just what she said. Being big and tall for my age, I played all the sports — basketball, baseball and football — with kids whose skin looked different than mine. I kept hearing Ms. Hattie’s voice telling me, We all the same inside.
The day that the two evangelists came knocking on our door, I’d just turned 13. Ms. Hattie let them in and sent me to turn the old record player’s sound down.
“Are you saved?” one of the men asked Ms. Hattie. She almost fell from laughing so hard.
The other man looked right at me and asked, “What about you, son? Are you saved?”
“It’s okay, honey,” Ms. Hattie said. “You just speak your mind.”
“I don’t know what that means. What do I need to be saved from?” I asked.
“Do you know who Jesus is?”
Mama took my two brothers and me to church almost every Sunday. The man up front told stories about Jesus every Sunday. The Christmas story, when Jesus was born, was always my favorite Jesus story. I’d memorized it right from the Bible.
“To be saved,” he said, “you first have to believe that Jesus is God’s only son and that God sent Jesus down to earth for one reason. That’s so he could save us. He died by hanging on a big wooden cross just so you can ask God to forgive you for all the things you’ve done wrong. We’re all sinners — what I mean by that is that we’ve all done wrong in our lives — and you have to want to do better. Then just be ready and willing to receive him into your heart. That’s getting saved.”
The church Mama takes us to never told me that.
“And if you’re saved,” the other man joined in, “you will live forever in heaven with Jesus. And if you’re not saved, you’ll live forever in a place so terrible that none of us can even imagine it.”
I looked at Ms. Hattie. She had a smile like I’d never seen her smile before. Her smile said, “It’s okay, Freddie.”
I swallowed hard and nodded. I got on my knees in front of the two men sitting on the sofa, and Ms. Hattie knelt beside me. We all held hands.
“Just tell Jesus what you’re feeling, son,” one of the men said.
I knew Jesus stories, but this felt strange.
“Jesus,” I whispered. “I know I’ve done some stuff wrong. I just want you to come live in me and forgive me for all I’ve done wrong.”
They prayed before we stood.
“Do you feel better about anything?” the same man who’d told me just to talk to Jesus asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. I felt different but couldn’t say how, but my feet seemed a lot lighter as I walked to the kitchen to get a drink.
Less than a year after that, life just got too busy. Mom quit taking all of us to church on Sunday, and then, I discovered pot.
“He can love you, too,” the guard repeated.
I’d walked away from all that once already. I’d come to believe that both God and Jesus hated me, and I figured they had every reason to hate me for the way I’d lived my life.
“Some of you may have heard about Jesus before,” he said.
Something got a hold on me, and a warmth flushed me from the inside out.
“It’s not too late to invite him into your life,” he said, “if you’ll come back to Jesus right now.”
I’d invited Jesus into my life, back with Ms. Hattie. Then I’d pushed him out and walked away. Everything in me wanted to reverse course, walk forward to the pastor and show myself and Jesus that, this time, I was truly ready to follow him.
I will not cry. I’m too old and got too much pride in me to cry.
Whatever had the grip on my heart squeezed tears out of my eyes. The hot tears stung my eyes and burned my skin as they washed my cheeks.
“Lift your hands up,” he said, “and worship our Lord.”
I will not raise my hand and embarrass myself like that.
My right hand slowly raised, fingers stretched toward the ceiling, as huge sobs racked my body.
“Come on,” he said, with his hands motioning toward the front of the chapel. “Right now. Don’t wait for another night to pass.”
I refuse to walk down there and get on my knees.
I stumbled at a half-run to get to that altar. My knees hit the floor, and my face kept going until it stopped in my hands near the floor.
“Jesus!” I shouted out without shame. “I believe you are who the Good Book says you are because I see you in other people, like Ms. Hattie and this guard. Please, please take my life, too. I’ve made a mess of it. It’s yours if you will take me.”
I had no idea how much time passed while I stayed hunched over weeping like a babe, but when they raised me to my feet to escort me back to my cell, I felt clean — not soap and water clean, but washed clean from the inside.
Less than a week later, while I still slept in the confines of quarantine, one of the guards banged on my cell door. “Come on,” he said. “You got a visitor waiting to see you.”
As I walked into the communal visitors’ room, Dad stood up from where he sat at one of the small tables.
I expected all the childhood hurts to wash over me as I stood face to face with the man who had whispered, “Sometimes, I wish you’d never been born.”
But as I looked at him, I saw him through different eyes.
All I could see was the man who’d tried to love the disobedient and rebellious son.
“Dad,” I started and choked on my words. “I’m sorry.”
He started to cry.
“It’s my fault, son,” he sputtered through his tears. “If I had been home more, if I had done things differently, then maybe —”
“Dad,” I said. “Don’t.”
I reached for him and pulled him into a tight embrace. We hugged without shame and with pure abandon.
“You didn’t make my decisions for me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean what I said that night. I’ve never been able to forgive myself for saying that.”
“I’ve already forgiven you. All I ever wanted was to make you proud of me. Just wanted you to love me.”
We sat, and he filled me in.
“I’ve got all your stuff,” he said after a few minutes of idle chat. “We’ll get all of your stuff home.”
“Hey, thanks, Dad. I know how long of a drive it is from home to here. Thanks for all you’ve done.”
“I can’t make this drive every weekend, son, but I’ll be back when I can.”
I nodded my head. “I know, Dad. It’s okay.”
“I love you, son,” he said, and for the first time in my life, I believed that he did.
Thank you, Jesus, for letting me see my father through your eyes.
Some months passed. I spent all of my time studying either the Bible or one of the Christian books in the chapel. But when it came to basketball on the concrete court outside, I was all business.
“Hey! Guard him!” someone shouted as I dribbled and swung my body into the center lane of the court.
I’d always been a decent ballplayer. Nobody argued my skills on the court, but prison rec ball played rough and spirited. I went up in a crowd of players and came down wrong. I cried out in sudden agony as first my ankle and then my leg collapsed, and I crumpled to the concrete.
My foot hung twisted a full 90 degrees from where it should have been.
“It’s broke, man,” someone said. “We need to get you up and off the court.”
He’ll heal this ankle if you ask him to and just believe.
“No,” I said. “It’ll be all right. Just give me a little bit.”
I’d been reading books about healing by faith in Jesus. As I read what I believed to be real-life experiences and what the Bible said about healing, I began to believe. The more I learned, the stronger that belief grew.
I couldn’t explain the feeling that dropped over me like a curtain. But sitting there, I bent my knee so I could reach and wrap my hands around my ankle. I began to pray.
“Jesus,” I said as I squeezed my ankle hard, “I believe that you healed people back in the days when you walked on this earth, because the Bible tells me you did.”
I had the feeling that every man in that circle around me deemed me crazy, and that was okay, too. I felt pressed to keep going.
“And I believe that the power that’s in your name still heals folks today. I’m going to call on that power right now in your name, and I thank you. Amen.”
All around me, men watched. Heads shook at the crazy white man, but the pain subsided. I laced my high-top tennis shoe tight and waited.
“Help me up,” I said after five minutes had passed.
I stood and took one cautious step, then another. Within another five minutes, I walked easily. Within 15 minutes, I took my first three-point jump shot that caught nothing but net.
“That’s the power of Jesus!” I shouted.
After the game, one of the toughest men in my cellblock walked over to me as I sat on the bench.
“Hey, man,” he said. “I want what you got.”
I looked up and right into a pair of dead eyes. Those eyes looked as if they’d held no real emotion in a long time.
“I saw what happened out there, man. And I want some of what you got.”
I remembered the evangelist.
“Do you know Jesus?” I asked him.
“I never believed in all that Jesus and God stuff,” he said. “It was stuff for kids’ books and old people.”
As I began to share my experiences, his face softened. As I prayed for him, he joined me in prayer. Perhaps that healed ankle was never about me but about this man who needed Jesus. My ankle just made a stronger witness than words ever could.
He cried without shame.
Within the prison walls, a small group of those of us who believed in and put our trust in Jesus bound ourselves together like the lashed logs of a river raft. We prayed together both with and for each other. I toted the Bible my grandmother and aunt had given to me everywhere I went, even though some laughed at me.
Jesus had given me a new life, and I suffered no shame in it. Holidays inside the prison proved the worst, but we held on to Jesus and supported each other.
The Navy released me from prison after 16 months of my original three-year sentence.
My grandparents let me rent their small vacation home in the mountains, a place I’d loved spending part of my summers every year. I didn’t dally but found a local church and began attending as soon as I’d settled into my surroundings.
Through contacts I made in my first business venture, I met the woman who became my wife.
When my marriage faltered, I spent hours in prayer, asking God to intervene and heal it. I believed he could, but he didn’t.
After two years and the birth of our daughter, Rudy, the marriage crumbled into loss, bitterness and divorce.
I didn’t understand. Jesus was supposed to answer prayers.
Four years after the divorce, I helped Dad with some things before going to pick up Rudy for the weekend. We had hours in the truck to drive and talk. Along the way, that small voice that I’d learned not to ignore came up from somewhere inside.
I’d been thinking about the old story my grandmother told.
“Your daddy loved church,” she told me. “He went every Sunday as a boy and got involved in all the church activities. Then he got in with a bunch who started chasing firetrucks around town. One Sunday, the preacher dressed him down for it right in the Sunday service. He never went back to church after that.”
I couldn’t say that I would have done differently.
This conversation wasn’t about the short life we have on earth. I needed to know where Dad planned to spend his forever after this life.
“Shoot,” Dad said.
“How’s your relationship with the Lord?”
His answer seemed a long time in coming. “Me ’n’ God are good, son. Why do you ask that?”
I stopped at a roadside store to get drinks and snacks. As we sat in the parking lot, I responded to his question.
“Dad,” I said, “if you died today, would you go to heaven?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, I’d go to heaven today.”
The rest of the way home, we talked about Jesus, how he’d given his life for us and how he rose from his grave to walk on the earth again, not as a ghost but as a man, until God took him into heaven. I believed Dad would be going to heaven.
I dropped Dad off at his house and made the three-hour round trip to pick up Rudy. Once we were home, that voice welled up again.
Thank your dad.
I picked up the phone.
“Hey, Dad,” I said. “I just needed you to know how much I enjoyed spending this afternoon with you.”
“Same here, son,” he said.
I could have sworn I heard him smile. Impossible.
Not 30 minutes passed after we hung up the phone when my phone rang again.
“He’s had a massive heart attack!” Mom almost screamed into the phone.
“Mom! Calm down and tell me what’s going on.”
“They’re giving him CPR right now, Freddie.”
I begged through tears for Jesus to heal my dad, and even though I believed he met Jesus in heaven that night, I just couldn’t see the why of it.
Some folks might say, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.”
I tried to not look at Dad’s passing as God taking him away. I chose to see it as God calling him home.
One year after Dad’s passing, Mom called me. “I met your son today,” she said.
“Mom,” I said, “I have a daughter. Her name is Rudy. This you know. I don’t have a son.”
“Yeah,” she said, “you got a son.”
For 16 years, I’d heard the rumors and had run from them in denial. The neighborhood girl and I had both been 16 and into what Mom called “high school mischief.”
During my time in the Navy, I’d even caught glimpses of the boy a time or two when I’d be home on leave. Denial ruled my roost.
“No, Mom, I’ll get DNA testing done just to —”
“Don’t bother,” Mom said. “Save your money. He looks just like you. His other grandmother brought him by today so I could meet him. He wants your phone number and wants to meet you.”
“Well,” I said. “Yeah, okay, you can give him my phone number.”
When my phone rang and a teenager’s voice said, “This is Jerry,” I didn’t know quite what to say.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t want anything from you. I just wanted to know who my dad is.”
I said a quick prayer. Jesus, help me to see this young man not as a stranger but as something more. Let me see him through your eyes. Amen.
“I can’t go back and be your dad, Jerry,” I said. “We’ve got 16 years to make up for. But I can and want to be your friend, and we can start from there.”
The next time I had a long drive ahead of me, I invited Jerry to ride along, and we talked.
He’d come into this world in a bathtub and with his intestines outside his body. He’d fought for life itself, and I’d missed it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have been there.”
He shrugged as if to say, It’s all water under the bridge now, and we’re moving forward.
Perhaps there would have been no place for Jerry in our house if my marriage had remained intact. Perhaps Jesus knew that Dad’s passing might soften my heart toward Jerry. I couldn’t see the big picture, but I believe Jesus could.
God has given me a son.
Two years later, Jerry graduated high school. After his graduation, he asked, “Can I stay with you?”
His mom needed time to work some things out.
I never hesitated. “Yeah,” I said. “Come on.”
He stayed with me until he needed to return to his grandmother’s house and help her.
Six years after Dad passed, I met Sandy. We’d shared all the details of our histories and our goals and ambitions through emails and phone calls before we ever met. I already loved her before we stood face to face.
Three months after we began emailing, I picked her up for our first date at a local steakhouse, and three months after our first dinner together, we married.
After two miscarriages, we’d given up trying. When Sandy got pregnant a third time, we prayed. Nine months later, we had a healthy baby boy. Six years after Billy was born, Sandy came home crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“I’m 41, and I’m too old for this. I can’t be pregnant!”
I did my best to reassure her and to trust God with the pregnancy. Pete came out three months early, weighing 1 pound and 15 ounces. I leaned on the power of prayer that I’d studied in prison and had learned to depend on. With both of my hands on that tiny baby, I dedicated Pete to the Lord.
“Dear Father,” I said, “this baby belongs to you. If you choose to take him, we’ll thank you for the time we had him and give you praise for the next 100 years, but if you leave him here with us, I’ll make sure that he knows what you’ve done for him and for us all. I’ll teach him about Jesus. Amen.”
Three months later, we left the neonatal care wing and took a healthy Pete home.
Fourteen years after Sandy and I married, we found ourselves looking for a church to join. For six months, we visited different churches, and each one we visited had its own charms and attractions.
When we walked into Oak Pointe Church and I looked around, I saw love and acceptance in a come-as-you-are style of church. Some people dressed in shirts and ties, others had on their work clothes, while others had on shorts and sandals. No judgments passed.
“Wow!” I whispered to Sandy. Already, I liked the feeling of welcoming.
Pastor Mike, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt with the cuffs rolled up as the sermon heated up, preached his sermon straight from the Bible. But not just a story of Jesus like the sermons I’d heard as a child. Pastor Mike applied the Bible’s message to everyday living.
As Sundays passed and I got to know Pastor Mike, he shared his vision and direction for the church. A church for the entire community.
Pastor Mike believed in his community. Sandy and I, as a couple, had known him through community sports and other activities.
Because I’d excelled in school and rec sports and still loved it, I’d gotten involved with coaching kids. A year after Sandy and I started attending Oak Pointe, I ran into Paul, the father of one of the boys I’d coached. He and I had never meshed as friends, but the church is of the community. I tried to see him not through my eyes as one I’d butted heads with but as a person who hurts.
“How are you?” I asked him.
I read the look in his eye and guessed not well. I knew a little of his history by having known his son for three years. He’d walked many of the same dark roads I’d been down.
“I’m all right,” he said.
Are you really?
“You don’t have to live like this, Paul,” I said. “There is a way out.”
I told him a small portion of what Jesus had done in my own life and assured him that Jesus would, when Paul was ready, move in Paul’s life as he had in mine.
Looking at my own life through changed eyes and with a new heart and mind, I could utter nothing but, “Thank you, Jesus.”