The next few weeks were kind of a blur. With Halloween and Thanksgiving, time seemed to accelerate. Christmas was approaching at break neck speed. When Graham was alive, they both had been involved in church musical productions, so rehearsals, potlucks, performances, and the like filled the season to the brim. In the last few years, however, her holiday activity revolved around decorating the shop, stocking seasonal gift books, and presenting an ambiance in the store that at least gave the impression that there was something warm and fuzzy to celebrate. It always seemed a bit shallow, but she sounded out the familiar greetings with precision, hoping the hypocrisy she felt was not apparent on her face. The store was everything, and she purposefully rejected any invitations to candlelight services or get-togethers throughout the season, keeping mostly to herself.
This year felt different, though. Friday afternoons in the shop with food and conversation had become a ritual with Blaise. And these times gave a comfortable rhythm to her life she had not had in a long while. She looked forward to the time and in no way felt that she nor he had a hidden agenda. It was just pleasant talk over pleasant food with no pressure nor unreasonable expectations. Somewhere along the line, they had talked about the rental of the back room, but since he was not as yet needing a bigger space, the details had not been nailed down. Harper had agreed that when the time was right, she saw no problem with his using the space for a group meeting. She had asked him how it was going with his “cult recruitment.” He did not even blink at her friendly sarcasm, but simply smiled and said, “I am praying that God will lead me to those I can help. If it comes to your wicked mind, Harper, I would appreciate if you would send up a prayer, as well.” The comment was some well deserved needling, but given and received in a light hearted way.
They talked about literature, education, news, and childhood experiences. They talked a little about theology but pretty much steered clear of the most controversial topics. They also laughed a lot, but it wasn’t until the Friday after Thanksgiving that there were tears. It marked a change—a deepening in the relationship.
“Blaise, you never really explained why you entered the monastery in the first place. Is that private or something you can share? A life like that would have never appealed to me, but I have to say at this time in my life, having felt loss and betrayal, layers and layers, the idea of cloister has a rich appeal. But for me, it would be less about devotion and more about running away.” Harper munched methodically on her faux tuna salad sandwich.
Blaise put his sandwich down and spread both hands palm side down on the table. His eyes met Harper’s, and the pain she saw there made her wish she could rewind the tape and not ask the question. But it was out there, and silence fell heavy in the room.
Blaise began. “It is not something I have talked about much to anyone, except the brothers, of course. I worked through a lot of stuff there, and though the grief is still in my heart, I don’t dwell on it nor let it torment me like it once did.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t pry.”
“No, it’s fine. Loss and struggles with faith are part of the human deal. But talking about it theoretically . . . well, that is much easier to do than expressing the actual pain of living the loss and having it hang on for years. Hmm. I think you understand that.” Harper nodded slowly. “When my dad died, I went into a proverbial tailspin. We were close in one way, yet often at odds. I always sought his approval, but I think his desire for me to be strong and focused and make something of my life made him sometimes appear harsh and distant. So, I never felt like I quite measured up. When he died, I felt this huge hole in my chest from the place he had filled, but also from the hole that he hadn’t filled. It was the empty longing place where I needed him to love me in a way that made sense to my floundering self. Confusing, I know.”
“No, I think I can understand that.”
“He had been strong in faith, a leader in the church, sure and disciplined; so, I plunged into volunteerism at the church and local food banks where he had served to try to gin up the passion that I had seen in him. Looking back now, I was not only searching for meaning in life, but also meaning in death—his death. I didn’t know how to let him go, along with all the unfulfilled hopes I had wanted him to fill up in me, his only son.” Blaise took a drink of water and continued on. “After graduation, I fabricated all sorts of schemes within and without the church, determined to be the great evangelist, the successful entrepreneur, whatever it would take to make my dad proud—or so I imagined. But I couldn’t settle on one thing long enough to have any continuity, and I was developing a reputation of not always being dependable. In the middle of all this, I met girl at church, Nan, and fell head over heels in love. We met and married within just a few months of my turning twenty-two, and I dove into married life with the same passion I had applied to my other projects. So here I had a marriage, a fast food job, a part time job at the church, a multi-level vitamin business, lots of volunteer projects, and I was doing nothing well. I did love her, but I put a lot of pressure on her to be the perfect godly wife and contribute to the image I had in my head of my being a strong husband and successful leader and businessman. Her main job as I see it now was to make me look good. I wanted all the puzzle pieces to fit, but forcing them just put our relationship in tension. She couldn’t critique my . . . well, anything . . . nor ask me about how I was feeling, especially regarding my unresolved issues with my dad. And since I was physically burning the candle at both ends, the limited time I had to spend time with her became tense, full of unspoken hurts and criticisms.” He paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “I haven’t talked about this for some time.”
“I’m glad you are talking now. It sounds like a painful time. You don’t have to continue if you don’t want to.” Harper was willing to let him off the hook.
“No, it’s okay. We had only been married six months when Nan became pregnant. It was not exactly in my plans. She was sick and throwing up all the time, and I worried about how we would pay for the birth. We argued a lot when we were actually speaking, which was not all the time. It sounds really flaky, I know. A young man trying to present an image of a strong Christian leader with a marriage literally falling apart and to top it off, a baby on the way.”
Harper hated to break in. “Was there no one to help you or give council?”
“I really kept everyone at arms’ length. They were only allowed to see the image I wanted presented; though, those closest were not totally fooled. My façade was cracking. They worried and prayed, and the pastor even offered to help, but I was too stubborn and proud to share the depths of what was really going on.” Blaise paused, and I saw his eyes moisten with tears. “It was on a Sunday morning, late spring. Nan had been throwing up and made us late getting away to church. I was supposed to be leading a small group and wanted to get there early to get the room set up. So, I was really short with her. She didn’t always fight back, but that morning she did. She let me have it! She yelled and cried while I fumed as we drove along. I was distracted and driving too fast. I drove through a light on the yellow, and a truck that had anticipated the green light hit our car on the passenger side.”
Blaise’s voice went soft, and tears silently wet his cheeks. Harper held her breath. After a long pause, he continued. “The ambulance came, the police, the blur of lights and voices; I can still see it all in my mind. They transported her to the hospital, but she was gone—both she and the baby. I was not cited for the accident, but it was my fault, and I knew it.”
“I am so sorry,” Harper barely breathed out the words.
Blaise took one of the napkins from the food bag and wiped his tears. “Shortly after the funeral, I enquired at the monastery; and before I even heard a reply, I got on a plane and showed up at their doorstep. I had read an article about them in a magazine. It was kind of a random thing to do—at least, it seemed so at the time. But they graciously took me in, and I started a long process of grieving, healing, and seeking God. So, you see I was indeed running away rather than seeking out a life of deliberate ascetic devotion. But devotion became part of the package as I received the forgiveness of God . . . and also learned to forgive myself.”
The bell over the door jingled. It was past closing, but Harper had forgotten to turn off the open sign and lock the door. An older gentleman shuffled in bent on finding an historical fiction novel for his house bound wife. Harper hesitated before rising, meeting Blaise’s eyes. He patted her hand, nodded, and smiled. “It’s okay. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you soon,” he said as he grabbed his satchel and headed for the door. She watched him blend into the darkness of the street.