Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I could see the storm coming from way off, a sheet of grey moving toward me. It was as though a gigantic artist was pulling a paintbrush laden with greyish black paint swiftly over the green of the hills. It was coming fast, likely faster than my horse could ride, but I pulled the reins to the left so that she would turn, facing away from the quickly-moving storm. I glanced over my shoulder to see that the storm had advanced in just seconds. Kicking my heels and pulling the reins, I urged the horse to gallop in the direction of home.

I could hear it before I felt it. It rolled behind us as the horse galloped on the dirt roads of the mission base. The sound of the rain as it hit first one row of houses' tin roofs, then another, was an unmistakable sound. I didn't even have to look over my shoulder; I heard the storm on the houses directly behind me, and then, immediately, my horse and I were drenched. I pulled back on the reins and told her to stop, giving up my now-pointless race to get home before the storm did.

This was the way of all the storms in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. In California where we lived before my family moved here to be missionaries, rain started with tiny droplets and only gradually increased in size, at least in my memory. This was no rain; calling it rain was as silly as calling a trickle of water a waterfall.

Rain here was pounding. It sometimes hit the skin so hard it made it sting. It didn't gradually wet you; you were as quickly saturated in it as you would be if you dove into a swimming pool. I was instantly, totally drenched, as was my horse.

The dirt road became a kind of creek almost immediately, and though I was almost sure the horse could navigate the roads without slipping, I felt more comfortable with her walking that distance than running, especially through the bits that involved an incline. Besides, there was no urgency to get home now. I was wet either way.

The horse approached a well-worn shortcut that jutted down steeply, far more steeply than I was comfortable with, and began to walk off the road toward it, so I jerked the reins to indicate that I wanted her to follow the road, not the scary-looking shortcut. But it was too late. She had taken this route too many times to not do it by instinct. After all, we both knew she was really in charge and only obeyed my orders because she chose to.

The path she began stepping and even slipping down made me gasp. It was one thing to walk it or even ride it, but I had never seen it this flooded. I had to almost lay back on her back to counteract the feeling that my weight was going to pitch me forward as she slowly navigated downhill. I could feel panic rising in me. There was nothing to do but hang on tightly to the reins in my hands, gripping her sides ferociously with my thigh muscles.

The path cut through the local cemetery, another thing I wasn't crazy about. I avoided this path whenever I could, but here I was riding a horse down it in pouring rain.

I suddenly registered being cold. My wet cut-off shorts and lavender t-shirt clung tightly to my body, and though the rain felt actually warm when it first pelted me, my body temperature had finally begun to drop. I was shivering.

About halfway down I began to relax just a bit. We were going to make it.

And then it happened.

The horse's foot slipped and she staggered in the effort to stay upright. My posture, lying back on her back so as not to tumble over her head, was exactly what compromised me in the second that followed. She shrieked, I cried out, my hands lost the reins, and then I was lying on my back in the muddy path. The horse was frightened and didn't even seem to hear me calling her name, trying to encourage her to stay close. I struggled to my own feet, ready to reach for the reins at the same exact moment that she regained her footing and instinctively bolted down the hill, turned at the edge of the cemetery and disappeared from sight.

At thirteen I was very rarely alone anywhere. Even in sleep I was in the top bunk above one sister, with another in the next room, and my parents in their room at the end of the hall. I walked to and from school with a group of neighbor kids. I never went walking alone. I usually rode my horse with my friend and her horse, but even when I walked back by myself, I was almost always on or leading my horse. I'd been alone in the bathroom, but that was the only exception.

Alone. So this was how it felt. As if on cue the rain suddenly stopped, as quickly as if someone had flipped a light switch.

I could feel that my leg was burning and when I looked at, I gasped. There was a cut that looked bad, but blood was only slowly trickling from it, a good sign. I looked around me and saw only trees and headstones. A chill ran through my body, but this was not because of drenched clothes, skin and hair. It was the familiar foreboding feeling that filled me when I went anywhere near the cemetery.

I'd been here before. The first time I was with dozens of other people, including my family, and I'd held my littlest sister's hand tightly as we walked behind my mom down the narrow path. Our dad walked behind me and though he didn't say anything, I knew he was ready to grab one of our arms if we lost our footing and started to slip.

I heard the group we were joining before I saw it. A sound was coming from a clearing where many people were standing that sounded more animal than human. It rose and then became a kind of scream, but a scream I had never heard before, even from my hungry or injured younger sisters.

When we got closer to the group, I saw that the sound was coming from a woman we knew very well, since our first month in the country, during which we attended language and cultural school to prepare us for the culture we were entering, was also her first week in the country. Beside Molly stood her husband of only a year, someone else who attended that same month of school with his now-wife and my family. I remembered catching them stealing glances at one another during meals in that month we all spent on the coast, and noticed the way she became sort of flustered when he was around. Even a seventh-grader could tell that there was energy coursing back and forth between Molly and Tom.

Sure enough, they began "courting" soon after, and within months were married. Mere weeks later, she was pregnant, something she announced to my mother proudly, eyes a bit wet, in the middle of one of the aisles in the small mission base store.

As we neared the group, I got a closer look at Molly. She was leaning on Tom but then fell into the dirt next to a tiny wooden box, draping herself over it. Only after reading novels years later, did I learn that that sound had a word: "keening."

Her face was twisted in a way I'd never seen it. I knew why; we had been told what had happened, and then prepared for what we were about to witness while our mother made tight, smooth ponytails of our hair in the aqua bathroom of the house we lived in. Mama's words had not prepared me for this; this was the first funeral I attended and would be the last one until my husband grandmother's funeral when I was in my twenties.

In the minutes that followed Tom helped her up and then someone slid a chair under her. Molly put her hands to her face and dropped her head between her knees and then that same wild, sad sound came from her mouth again.

I don't remember what was said as far as a funeral service, but I will never forget the way that impossibly-small, simple wood box looked, likely made by Tom himself, since he was the mission base's school shop teacher. Molly lunged from the chair toward the box.

I knew there was a baby in the box. It had been delivered still-born but otherwise perfect, my dad told us. I wondered, as I stood watching Molly lay her head on the box, knees in the dirt, then kissing it frantically as she sobbed, where the baby had been during the days between when he was born, dead, and today. I also wondered if they had dressed the baby before placing it carefully in the box, and if so, in what clothes. I'd seen all this little baby's clothes folded lovingly in the nursery of their house when we went to dinner some weeks before. They looked almost small enough for my Cabbage Patch kid, I'd told her. She'd laughed and told me that as soon as the baby was old enough, she knew I would make a perfect babysitter.

Someone pulled the box from Molly's hands, and she screamed shrilly, "Nooooooooooo...." Something jolted inside of me that made tears well up and my chest tighten, an almost uncontrolable urge to rush forward and take the box from the man's hands and give it back to Molly filled me. I buried my face in my father's side.

Thud. I looked up at the heavy, unusual sound. Molly began her keening again as Tom held her tightly. The thud had been the sound of the box hitting the ground in the bottom of the small hole, a sound I would remember long after I'd lost the ability to imagine the sound of my grandmother's voice or a song my grandpa used to sing while we walked hand in hand along the bluff before sunset.

Shovels were picked up and passed around to several men. The dirt pile next to the small hole was slowly shoveled into it, until it filled it completely and then was flattened.

The hole was gone. If I hadn't watched the scene I wouldn't have known what lay below the surface of the earth that Molly now threw herself upon. Tom crouched down next to her and spoke quietly in her ear, petting her head gently, but she seemed not to hear or feel him. She screamed, her cheek pressed against the soil and her arms and legs spread-eagle, in the posture of a sky-diver, as though she was trying to free-fall into the earth. Many years later, after having three children of my own, I would realize that's exactly what she wanted to do.

Sitting there in the mud, my horse long gone, the memory of the funeral was fresh, only about two months earlier. I registered how cold I was, interrupting the memory. I very cautiously stood to my feet, putting my hand against a nearby tree to steady me, the very tree that I might have hit if my fall from the horse had occurred closer to it. I took several careful steps away from the tree, off the path, and looked around, sure that the site of the baby's funeral was somewhere close by.

There it was. There was no flat earth this time, though, and no keening Molly. I was alone, and the spot where the infant had been buried was now marked by a small wooden cross. I stepped close enough so that I could bend down and read what was inscribed on the cross. Yes. It was his grave, his name carved into it, a name he would never be called in from outdoor play by, or hear announced as he walked across a stage to receive a diploma.

I stood there looking at the ground and then knelt next to it. I was kneeling in mud, but it didn't matter anymore. I was covered in the same red mud anyway.

"Jacob Heinrichs," I heard my own voice say aloud, reading the words inscribed on the cross. And then the second line: "Desperately Wanted, Always Loved, Waiting For Us In Heaven."

Tears filled my eyes and then sobs escaped my mouth. I didn't know why I was crying. Part of the source of my emotion was obvious: this was a cemetery and the baby that was buried not so far below my feet was someone I would have played peek-a-book with in the church nursery where I volunteered every Sunday morning. Though I never met this Jacob, I still felt a feeling of loss, especially when I remembered his mother's keening the day he was buried.

There was something else, I realized, some other reason for the sobs that I couldn't stop now, even if I tried. What was it? I looked around to make sure no one was nearby to hear me crying and was both relieved and afraid to find I was indeed totally alone.

I looked back at the cross before me and read the words again. My tears increased and my chest tightened when I read the last phrase, "Waiting For Us in Heaven."

I put my hands over my eyes and let the sobs take over, shaking my small, wet body. This little baby was somewhere in heaven, the very place that was the subject of so much of my thirteen-year-old anxiety. It was the subject of a sizeable portion of my journaling at night by flashlight and by the thin light of dawn every morning. The pages in my Bible that had verses having something to do with heaven were heavily highlighted and underlined. I knew them by heart.

"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us them, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness," I recited from I couldn't remember where in the New Testament, my voice quavering.

Another one, further back in my memory, its words in my heart since babyhood, bubbled out of my mouth. "For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him will not perish, but have everlasting life," I quoted, wiping my tears away. John 3:16.

And then another, one that made the sobs start all over again: "And the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord."

Baby Jacob had gone straight into the arms of the Lord, my mother told me that day as we trudged back up the hill after the funeral was over. That's what happened to babies when they died; they were sinless, she said.

"But what about me," I whispered, as I looked at the cross again.

I'd become a Christian at four, I knew. I had prayed the prayer of salvation, confessing my sinfulness, acknowledging Jesus as God, directing him to take over my daily life, and asking him to give me eternal life in heaven after I died.

After I said the prayer, I was saved, I learned. I didn't know what I was saved from at four, nor did I understand what sins I was supposed to be confessing. I'd just known that a man who was God, too, was nailed by his hands and feet to a cross, a vividly rendered picture in my Bible story book. My mother told me he would have let the bad men nail him there and let him hang until he died, even if I was the only person alive.

I couldn't imagine such pain, even when I tried laying on top of pointy toys so that they pressed into my skin until it hurt. If someone went through such pain for me, I wanted to do what he wanted me to do. My mother had me repeat the prayer of salvation after her, and I was a Christian then, the closest thing I could think of to thanking this Jesus for going through such pain for me.

But now at thirteen, I'd repeated that prayer hundreds, even thousands, of times. I'd said those words so many times that, even though I tried, I could not concentrate on each word or "mean" them in the way I meant them as a child. This inability to "mean" them was something that haunted me. I wasn't sure I had understood what I was doing at four, so I prayed the prayer again, by myself this time, many times a year after that day, with the desire to concentrate all my energy and will on each word. Every time I felt failure. 

Somehow, in a way I couldn't explain, the now-familiar words fell flat. At thirteen I realized I could say the same prayer in my own words, something I'd been doing for months now in the quiet of my bed, long after my sister had fallen asleep. The fresh wording caused me to "feel" what I was saying a bit more, but still, no matter how hard I tried to concentrate, tears pouring down my cheeks, I felt something inside me not quite immersed in them.

I was afraid. Terrified, really. How could I know that I was really saved? The baby whose grave I knelt on didn't have to pray a prayer; he was sinless. I thought of my sins: arguing with my parents, sneaking a book into bed at night after they'd told me it was time to sleep, talking my sister into giving me a toy with a logic I had intentionally used to trick her.

And then there was the worst sin of all. I'd read in a book about Christian sex on my parents' bookshelf that what I'd been doing under the covers, touching my private parts in a way that felt pleasant, had a name: masturbation. The book didn't say much about it, but enough for me to understand that it was sinful.

Only my future husband could touch my private parts; I already knew that, and I'd understood it. But me touching my own body hadn't registered as "someone else" until I'd read the part about masturbating. I wasn't even supposed to touch my body. The pleasurable sensations I had when I gave into the temptation to do so were feelings I was not supposed to be having until after marriage. I wasn't even supposed to know what those feelings felt like, I'd realized guiltily, a sick feeling filling my stomach. What if that future husband resisted temptation only to find that I had not? These were feelings meant to be experienced when my husband touched me on our wedding night. Even if I got married at twenty, that was still seven years away. Light years.

Masturbating was the one sin I had the most trouble not committing. And it wasn't as if I didn't know better. As soon as the thought entered my mind, laying in my bed in the dark, of touching between my legs, I knew I was already sinning. A churning began in my stomach and an ache in my chest, the familiar sensations of "guilt," and God's spirit giving me strength to resist, as well. "There is no temptation that has overtaken you, except what is common to man. And God is faithful and will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can endure, but with the temptation will provide a way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it." That was I Corinthians 10:13.

Sometimes I managed to resist temptation; other times I didn't. It was the times I didn't that I was thinking about now in the quiet cemetery. I'd confessed them, said I was sorry and asked God to forgive me, promising to never do it again. But then I did it again. Did that mean I wasn't really sorry? Did it mean that I wasn't really saved? And what about the sins I did that I wasn't even aware of; I hadn't known masturbation was wrong until I accidentally read about it.

The problem must have something to do with my heart not wanting to give itself up. And the masturbating.The answering churning in my stomach confirmed this thought.

I rested my head on the soft ground, my knees under me. "God, I'm sorry that I have had a hard heart. Please forgive me. I want you to have my whole heart. Please help me give it up. And please forgive me for masturbating. I know you don't want me to touch my private parts until my husband touches them, and I want to obey you. Wherever he is, he is probably not touching himself before we get married, and I don't want to disappoint him. Please help me. Please give me the strength to not give into temptation. I really want you to have every part of me. Please take every part. I don't want it. I want you and I want to spend eternity with you in heaven after I die."

I pulled my head up slowly, my eyes still teary but the sobs quelled. I searched my thoughts and feelings, looking for what I had read would follow absolute surrender of myself to God: peace. But no. It wasn't there. I didn't know what that meant. It scared me. What was I doing wrong?

The sun slanted through the overhead tree branches, hitting my face, and I stood to my feet, realizing it was getting late and not only would I have to get home before dark, I would have to find the horse, likely near the coral at the top of the hill, clean her saddle quickly, give her some food and put her away.

The cemetery suddenly felt creepy. I felt a kind of panic fill me like something dead was right behind me, at my heels, about to catch me. I ran up the hill the way the horse and I had come, topped the hill and then set off down the road toward the coral.

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