As I drove back to the hotel on my way back from visiting the church my reflective mood was interrupted. “I think that’s the exit we use to take coming home from church,” I said aloud.
No one was in the car with me but this deja vu forced the words right out my mouth. I glanced in my mirrors and took the Second Street exit. The immediate right onto a one way street came quickly, followed by another right.
I found myself in the parking lot of the small apartment building my husband and I once called home.
The lot was flanked by car ports to the right and concrete parking stops on the left, which pushed right up to the property line of the neighboring complex. Anxiously, I turned the rental car around, facing the building.
After clicking the console shift into park, a rush of excitement took my breath away, flooding me with emotions.
I felt like I’d run into a dear friend from the past and we were embracing after a long separation. The deep breath I took allowed just enough space for weeping to begin. I calmed myself, brushed away the tears instantantly, as if embarrassed, and then got out of the car and walked a short distance to the building.
As I climbed the nine steps to the first unit, memories of carrying groceries up those stairs swept through my mind. A wobbling wrought iron railing distracted me while the pitted concrete landing told me this was no longer the level of housing we had enjoyed when we lived here.
Approaching the door, I contemplated what to do next but before I could stop myself, my fingers were curling and knocking on the door. I barely waited before taking hold of the knob.
It was unlocked.
Should I go in?
Something told me to stop.
This hadn’t been my front door for nineteen years and though I wanted badly to look inside, I let go.
Turning, I walked back down the steps, returned to the car, and headed toward the hotel once again.
This was my first long distance trip without my husband and children. The opportunity rising out of a wedding invitation.
The bride was a triplet, one of the children in the daycare where I worked during the first years of our marriage when my husband was employed as a Youth Pastor.
Over the years, the triplet’s mother and I exchanged annual Christmas cards so I decided it would be fun to attend the wedding and see this family again.
The girls were all grown up and I knew their mother and I would talk as if no time had passed at all.
And we did.
Not long after my flight arrived she met up with me at the hotel I was staying and it truly was as if all the yesterdays became one moment in time.
But the day after, which was the day before the wedding and just prior to my unplanned stop at our former apartment, I had ventured out to visit the church where my husband and I served.
Seeing the church again began the stirring of memories I had long forgotten. It all came rushing back once I pulled onto the black top parking lot of the church.
Meeting up with groups to board busses or cars destined for work days at camp, weekend retreats, or gatherings in homes.
The sound of thunderous feet running up the back staircase to the upper level youth area echoed past the decades as I entered the building.
My mind’s eye pictured my husband’s office cubical partitioned off in the corner of the large youth room, his desk beckoning students to visit the nut machine I had given him for his birthday. It was a manual version so when kids stopped in for mentorship or a quick chat, they always left with a handful of chocolate candy covered peanuts. We still had that nut machine though it never again housed those little invites to come and chat with Pastor Dan.
The memories sparked by visiting the church building and then our apartment caused me to reminisce beyond my husband’s role and my job as a daycare teacher.
After arriving back at the hotel I spent the rest of the afternoon in my room preparing my clothes and thinking back on why we left this thriving church and community of believers who had embraced us “northerners” as their own.
As most “pastor’s wives” in the 1980’s, I was heavily involved with church activities, especially with the youth but other events as well. Even after I started working in the daycare at a neighbor church, I was able to prioritize my pastor’s wife role at our church.
We were happily building a life around ministry, except when we were unpacking our relationship. We were young newly-weds, only married six months when we moved and began our ministry.
Having grown up in the church we both imagined ministry to be a destination rather than the journey it is. We thought our dreams of full-time ministry would be completely fulfilling.
But our lives weren’t perfectly happy and we didn’t understand why. Seeking help never entered our thoughts.Back then asking for help would have meant we were spiritually unstable and therefore not able to serve in leadership.
Neither of us knew we were experiencing normal adjustments to marriage, ministry, and a bit of loneliness for our families.We thought something was wrong with us.
So, my husband resigned, thinking himself not fit for ministry.
By the time I had finished ironing my clothing for the rehearsal dinner and wedding, I was in tears again.
I never realized how much it meant to stand next to my husband in ministry. I never knew I missed this place so much.
I missed the friendships we started, and being all on our own states away from our families. I longed for the position I held for that short eighteen months.
Not the status of being a pastor’s wife, but the opportunity to be confided in by those precious young people searching for significance and energized by every moment in life.
I missed the all-nighters, the missions trips, and our adult volunteers. The sleepless nights guarding dorm doors, and the exhaustion that followed those week long trips. I missed it all. But most of all I wondered what could have been. What would our lives have become had we stayed?
Setting this all aside, I attended the rehearsal dinner, and then tried to meet up with one of the youth volunteers who I had become quite close to when we lived here. However, after several attempts navigating road construction and the lateness of night, we missed each other. Since she and I were attending different weddings the same day, and I was flying home early the following morning, the opportunity slipped away as quickly as the years since we last saw each other.
The wedding celebrations were sweet and lovely and everything beginnings should be. At the reception I was seated at the family table, right next to the Mother of the Bride. It was beautiful to see the “girls” again. They were only four when we left. I still cherish the catching up conversation with their mother the day I arrived. I indeed felt like family.
The very same way our church had welcomed us, long ago, like family. I was so glad for this trip. The hugs, laughter, and even the unexpected closure I was so unaware I needed. But I was missing my boys now and looking forward to being home.
As I packed my suitcase the next day, I realized the loss of our dreams had been masked by moving back to our home state. Our jobless careers, diminishing bank account, and the ease of being close to family was a distraction from the pain. Starting over so soon after having just begun, even at our young age, was troublesome for us at times.
After five years of seasonal jobs, substitute teaching, paying school debts, and replenishing our savings, we were able to buy a house five minutes from the teaching jobs that finally came our way.
Zipping my bag closed, I purposely left some things out. I left those dreams. I left my definition of what ministry is. I left the disappointment and grief I had unknowingly held so close for so long.
And into the side pocket of my bag, I placed the jewels of thankfulness for what this place and these people had meant to us. For the impact we made and the opportunity it was.
When my husband and young sons greeted me in the baggage claim area, it was hugs all around, probably twice. They had no idea the journey I had been on. But God knew. I was starting over once again. This time with a lighter load.
We didn’t know for many years, but God wanted us in a different kind of ministry. He wanted me to work with parents of young families and He wanted my husband to look eye to eye with five year olds, speaking their language and hearing their voice in ways no one else could, except for him.
Now, thirteen years later, we are settling in to more thankfulness for what God did even when we did not understand and when our hearts ached to be in church work.
Thankfulness for our individual careers impacting thousands of families.
For the times I see a Mom in the grocery store and she stops to ask me how I am because one day long ago she reached out to me when she thought no one else could hear her story.
For the times when former students request my husband so their kid can be in his classroom too. And all the other faces and names we both see imbedded in between the letter sounds and counting cubes, parenting tips, lesson plans, screening tools, science experiments, and wonderment of young children.
But mostly, I’m thankful to have been an eyewitness to over 30 years of public school teaching, and hearing children call my husband, “Mr. G.”