I knew something was amiss every time a certain woman would call. I had somewhat of a loose connection with her, but it seemed she had my number on speed dial in times of crisis. This was when I was at the height of raising two young daughters, one of them an infant and the other a four-year-old, who always had an urgent question for me like, can I have a popsicle? Can I go outside and play? Where are my shoes? Mom? I think the dog is frowing up. You get the picture.
She always started off so brightly when I took my chances by answering, but then the conversation would take a negative turn. She told me that all men were horrible and that no one could be trusted. This was mainly because her ex-husband, who she remained friends with in hopes of a remarriage, kept seeing other women on the side. As I tried to make our communication more positive, she would counter and bring it back down again. While she had no schedule outside of work, I did with hungry children staring at me on the edge of starvation. Many times I had to cut her short.
Alcoholism was rampant in her childhood home, where she was verbally and physically abused. Her brothers and sisters seemed to have buried their past. She did the same by drinking to excess. I didn’t know the extent to which she engaged in this, but there had been multiple attempts through counseling to get a hold of this addiction that seemed to have a firm grip. Looking at it as an outsider, she cared too much without boundaries, and the world seemed to take advantage of that. This, in turn, would activate the need to drown out more sorrow.
One night, she began talking to me about God. I tried to help her understand that grasping for things on the outside would never heal her wounds on the inside. Downing a bottle of wine wouldn’t erase anything but complicate her life more. For a while, she seemed to embrace what I was sharing with her. She told me that she had tried to go to church on occasion, but every message was about how much God hated sin, which made her feel guilty about every area of life where perfection wasn’t reached. Shame didn’t change the behavior; it only ramped it up more. Her family tried to brush it all under the rug, so she did her best to conceal her problem.
The only comfort was to continue the repeated self-inflicted numbing of the mind.
It got to the point when her number was showing up multiple times on my caller ID, I had to let the calls go to voicemail because I didn’t have the time or the energy to help. This made me feel guilty as I knew she was in some sort of struggle, but I also felt that my advice was falling on deaf ears. We kept going around in circles, getting absolutely nowhere.
One morning after praying for her, I had a brilliant idea. I went to a store and purchased a book about how to hear from God. During a moment of no interruption, I sat down and wrote her a letter. I felt that I could get some ideas across without distraction. She would have a chance to look it all over without feeling judged. I hoped that the material would resonate with her. I quoted John 10:10, which says: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”(NLT)
Sending it off in the mail, I knew it would either do some good, or the message would turn her away from me. There was nothing more I could do.
My worst fear came to pass when my phone went silent. On the one hand, it was a relief to let this go because it was beyond my ability to say anything more than what had been stated. On the other, I felt like I had let her down by pawning her off on God.
A year later, I found out that she had been in yet another emergency treatment, resulting in going to a halfway house. Hearing this, I was hopeful that maybe she was seizing the help to overcome this once and for all. I heard she successfully completed the program, and shortly after, her employer relocated her to a state in the south.
She had won awards due to her success in her career, so all of this sounded wonderful as if she had finally turned over a new leaf. It seemed as if her life was taking a turn for the better with a fresh start. That was until I heard she had died. Her physician had told her during her last bout of hospitalization that if she didn’t halt her imbibing, her body would cease to function.
Far away from family and friends, she secretly kept up her habit with a partner who loved to share drinks with her. She died alone in her bed.
In the quiet of my house at night, when all were tucked into bed, I would find myself wondering where I had let her down. What if I had continued to take her calls? A darkness descended on me that if I could dismiss her like that, maybe I wasn’t such a great person who God could even love.
During the busyness of my days, I wouldn’t ponder these ideas so much, but when I had moments alone, they would come, and I would question my usefulness.
That spring, I was asked by the family if I wanted something of hers. It felt slightly awkward looking at her possessions and realizing I would not see her again. And the guilt that was always right there to remind me of what a horrible, underserving person I was. Underneath a pile of office supplies, I saw the book I had sent with the letter inside of it.
I took that and nothing else. My grief over not being a better friend to her was overwhelming. Later that evening, I opened the book and took out the letter. She had used it to mark a specific page, and she had highlighted several passages. A bright, bold red stamp was marked across the top of my letter. RECEIVED.
I felt warmth flood my chest. Received? In business terms, that means the letter was read. But, in spiritual language, the message was embraced. For the first time since her passing, I had an assurance that she had taken in what I had said. It wasn’t that she was angry with me for trying to shove God down her throat, but she didn’t know how to get away from her habit. She didn’t want me to be disappointed in her like so many others had been.
I had a dream of her shortly after. She walked up to me with a gown on that was so white it hurt my eyes. She thanked me for helping her get to know God, and her smile was the most fantastic thing I had ever seen. Even though I could not help her one way, I had put her squarely in front of her Creator, and she was finally at peace.
When you think you might not be doing any good, you never know how you will be used.