Rolling Stones

Betty’s deep blue eyes were lacking their usual sparkle. Her furrowed brow betrayed her. She was troubled. She got right to the point. “What did I do?” she begged to know. “How did I save your life? What do you mean?”

There are some things you simply have to do. And time was running out. On a hot, dry July morning in Centennial, in 2011, I pulled on my cowboy boots – I was going to Texas after all! – and drove two days to visit Betty at her nursing home in hot, humid Dallas.

Betty Shadle and I had been lost to one another for thirty years, moving too many times, busy lives, much change. But finally I found her. On the internet, in fact, (in a church’s online newsletter prayer list: note, these things get found). I wrote her a note in care of the church. She got it, wrote back, thrilled to hear from me. And it was then I sat down and, through tears, using many tissues, wrote the letter I had been wanting to write her ever since I was a young adult and had come to understand just exactly what she had done for me. I told Betty what had been on my heart for all those years apart. “Thank you,” it said. And so much more.

It was time for a visit. I needed to tell her in person how she had saved me. She was unconvinced about the significance of her role. I needed her to know. I needed to know she knew.

Elegant as ever, wearing a quilted silk robe of pink gardenias, Betty beamed as I entered her room. Big hug. Kisses on both cheeks. Betty always exuded dignity and grace. We must have exchanged pleasantries but this is what I remember. She pulled me in close, looked directly into my eyes.

“What did I do?” Urgency in her question, her eyes were troubled. “How did I save your life? What could I have possibly done?”

It had started simply enough. Betty got me to talking.

I was ten back then, too timid to stand the sound of my own voice, but in response to her question, I found enough of it to say “yes.” She asked “would you consider doing me a great favor?”

“I’ve got to thinking,” Betty said in her gentle Oklahoma accent, “Charles needs someone to sit with him every day and help him practice his piano lesson. He gets distracted and needs focus. And some help with his pieces.”

“Oh, I’d pay you,” she assured me, “and you play so nicely, I thought you might help him.” And so for a dollar a week, a huge sum in my mind, I went every single day except Sunday to sit with Charles and help him practice. We worked on fingering, getting his tiny, chubby fingers nicely rounded over the keys, and on sharps and flats, discovering the pedal. Thirty minutes by the timer, we practiced.

Charles was five. My brother’s best friend. They played Legos together for hours. I had shown up on Betty’s doorstep already a few times to tell Jim it was time to come home. But Betty engaged me in conversation, and, living in a drought for attention, I readily responded. She had my number. Betty was always keen to ask me interesting questions, about my day, about my learning, and my ideas about the world. There was one time when my exasperated mother, who had sent me to fetch Jim, had to come down the street herself, to retrieve both my brother and me. I’d got so caught up in Betty’s conversation.

Betty had intuited, and seen and heard for herself that my family life was a wreck. Behind the appearances of public responsibility – my father was a respected businessman, my mother an executive assistant, my father was always either the church chairman, or head of the deacons or the trustees or the Sunday Superintendent, and, even with one hand, the catcher on the church softball league, and my mother was head of the Dorcas Circle, the Ladies Aid, and sang in the choir – beyond all that, my mom and dad had nothing left for Jim and me, especially me. My parents, wounded by life, were too impaired to care for me. I fended for myself and did a poor job of it. I played tennis and piano and shut up. My parents didn’t have the energy to care. Betty saw what I knew and felt but had no words yet to articulate. I was dead inside, overwhelmed by the feeling that I, the child, needed to parent my own parents. I had no self-esteem. And a great deal of shame. I was failing at the job it seemed life had assigned me to do.

Betty invented a job for me. An age-appropriate job. One that built up my sense of worth, of belonging, of contributing, making a difference. And she cleverly invented an excuse for me to come every day to her house and talk. About myself. About life, school, ideas, the whole wide world. It turned out I had a lot inside that I wanted to say. Dreams, hopes, and even hurts and fears. And she ‘heard me into speech.’ She gave me a sense of worth. She made my own life come alive to me. She helped me feel like I had something to give and had the right to take up the space I inhabited on this planet.

For the next six years, Betty listened to me, drew me out, over bottomless glasses of sweet tea, balanced on my lap, so as not to spill (not that I’d bet she’d mind) on her plush blue carpet, the first blue carpet I had ever seen, several shades lighter than her bright, twinkling eyes. My ‘job’ was to help her son, Charles, practice his piano lesson, help he didn’t need. In fact, Charles was a prodigy. He teaches music composition at MIT today and has two prestigious graduate degrees in music. He would have been just fine on his own. But she saw my need. And she met it. She was unfailingly interested in me, drew me out, and in so doing, I came alive to myself, first, and then to the world.

Thirty some years after we’d last met and talked, on the afternoon Charles played piano for our wedding reception, Betty really needed to know. “What did I do that was so important? We talked. You were delightful.”

“Thank you,” I said, and then tried to find an answer that would satisfy her question. It took some time. There was a silence. Until I found words to say this.

“Betty,” I told her that afternoon in 2011, all of forty-two years after I’d ‘completed’ my assignment and Charles was far beyond any help I could offer him, “Betty, you rolled back the stone. You rolled away the stone that blocked the tomb that was my life. You let me out!”

               “Come, O Jesus, Come O Jesus, and burst the grave that hides my life!”

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that an angel came and rolled back the stone that blocked Jesus’ tomb. Betty was my angel. She opened up my tomb. Jesus, of course, rose so that I could rise and live in him. I learned to do that, joyfully. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Betty helped me to get there.

Others, like my husband, Dave Erickson-Pearson, and many friends, over time, have had a part in keeping that stone rolled back, kept the stone from blocking my life. I am beyond grateful.

All of which causes me to wonder this Easter week: Who is your angel? Angels? Who has God used to let you out? Who rolled (rolls) your stone away?

And then this, of course. For whom might God be calling you to be that angel? To roll back the stone that hides their life?

Having been raised with Christ, so live in him!

Jan Erickson-Pearson

1 comment (Add your own)

1. wrote:
Excellent as always. Thanks for your gift of writing.

Fri, April 25, 2014 @ 9:45 PM

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