November 14, 2008
Your colleague introduces us. He’s a professor who doesn’t mean to be intimidating. You’re a professor who maybe does. To make up for that big, squashy heart? He’s walking me to the door after a meeting and he hears you furiously typing away in your office. “You two must meet.”
I instantly want you to like me – I have a big, unmanageable heart, too, that is always immediately obvious. So – is this what you want to hear? – I say I’m interested in seminary after graduating next year, though I’ve just discovered the field of theology and am pursuing a Bachelor’s in it so I, being new to the Christian faith, can get all my questions about God answered. You earned a Master’s in Divinity from Yale. You got personal, spiritual guidance from Henri Nouwen, whose books are required reading for nearly every student of theology.
I’m not sure I believe in God yet (I’m new; I’m here on the hope that this stuff about healing and seeing dead loved ones again and the making of all things new is true) but if God is anything like me, God probably desperately wants to be believed in. I try to hide from myself and definitely you that most of my energy goes toward securing love or, if I can’t have that, pity.
March 12, 2010
I have you as a professor. The class is early Christian history, from year 1 AD to circa 500 AD. We mainly discuss the first martyrs of the faith; somehow, you aptly compare us ten students to a T-group. When I refer to that class a few years later – ‘I wish I’d brought crumpets to the last meeting” – you have to explain that the T stands for therapy. ‘That you think of us as a group of little old English ladies knitting socks and sipping Darjeeling when we were talking about beheadings and upside-down crucifixion is phenomenal theology, though.”
I have a medical condition that, it’s becoming clear, my professors need to know about. I awkwardly tell you. “Sometimes, I forget where I am. If I’m not in class, I’m not ditching and someone needs to know.” I give you my phone number, my pastor’s number and my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s number. You, without flinching, give me a nickname: dearest. You don’t ask if I’m seeing a therapist. I thank God as I’m leaving your office, cross the lawn under the oak tree.
Wait. You were not fazed by my intermittent amnesia triggered by loud noises, the idea of fire and God knows what else. You stayed steady in the face of the bizarre – does this make you safe or detached?
May 11, 2010
You show a movie in this class that involves a flickering candle at point-blank range. I’m triggered into a memory lapse where I remember nothing past age five and you have to chase me down the hall. You manage to convince me you’re not abducting me, and you call one of the people on the safe list, a professor I’d met in church whose had experience with my forgetting.
By the time he arrives, you have made it onto the safe list yourself. I know this when you tell me that I called you Papa and your eyes are shimmering.
June 10, 2010
My advisor casually (accidentally) mentions that the professor who introduced you and I emailed the faculty listserv about me in October of 2008. This was when I was hideously clueless in his class, New Testament Letters. (My advisor, perhaps assuming that the amount of credits I had at the time of fall registration was because I’d taken all these theology courses, didn’t tell me that New Testament Letters had three prerequisites. I hadn’t. I had so many credits because I transferred after two years at CU Boulder, which I also spent hideously clueless about life goals and career direction, and a year off establishing residency in Washington State, making me the first person in my family to drop out of college.)
This comes up a couple years later in your office. You lean back, almost like you’re taking your place on the wall of portraits you have of your family. One of your daughters is in a wheelchair.
“Yes, I remember that email.” You stroke your grizzled beard. “More to the point, I remember what I thought when I read it.”
I raise my eyebrows and lean forward.
“He’d never sent an email like that,” you said. “I must meet the student who instigated this.”
June 13, 2010
After the graduation ceremony, my fellow theologians and I gather on the mushy lawn for pictures. It’s cold, even for the Pacific Northwest; we all pull our flimsy robes around ourselves tighter, mine actually tears a little. I take pictures with you, with another theology prof I enjoyed and with the professor I’d met at church who introduced me to this university when he discovered that my questions were best directed at a theologian. After, you give me this papa-bear hug I can still feel around my ribs, in my soul. You’re so tired you look stunned. But you also look proud.
December 15, 2010
I get your family’s Christmas letter for the first time, a Word attachment in an email addressed ‘friends and family.’ An excerpt of a book based on research you’ve done into Christian ministry in the prison system is getting published next year. One of your kids is a potter. One spent time in the jungle in Ecuador collecting samples. Your oldest child is a mighty singer who can barely open her jaw; she is one of about 700 people in the world who have Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva. Stone Man’s disease. Her body’s basically grown a second skeleton and she’s been frozen in place since before she was ten.
February 23, 2011
I respond to the Christmas letter saying I miss you. Well, I say it this way: “Can I have some big-blue-chair time?” My cheeks burn with embarrassment at my enthusiasm at being a recipient of your Christmas card. Surely, it doesn’t mean I’m on the inside of any of your special circles. You’re just being kind to include a lost-ish student with an orphan complex.
My overly wrought politeness, I see now, was too threadbare to properly cover my desperation. I had graduated with a degree in theology and still didn’t know how to believe in God. You had been so sure of your faith that you pastored a church for two decades before you began teaching on the other side of the country from where you married and buried people. I had questions I was sure there were answers to. You knew how to hear my real questions. Best of all, you reveled in fatuously, pifflingly asking delightfully nosy ones.
March 29, 2011
“Dearest,” you write back. “I apologize that it’s taken me over a month to emerge from my monstrous stack of grading. I’ve been thinking about you every day, however. Can you come tomorrow?” This is the first I have record of you signing “Papa” instead of your initials above your block signature.
March 30, 2011
“How can you be sure enough about God to give God something like faith?” I’d barely flopped into the big, blue chair I’m sure had held hundreds of counselees before me. It smelled like rain – so, soil and drowned flowers – even in your office.
Your eyes gleamed. “I was about your age when I went to a Trappist monastery for a summer in the ‘70s. When I arrived, one of the elders in the community bowed deeply and motioned for me to follow him to a fitting room in the back. He draped a brown robe over my shoulders, bowed again and left. A younger monk found me wandering the halls and led me with a hand on my shoulder out to a football-field sized plot of land, upon which stood millions of straight rows of asparagus at attention. Two monks knelt at the outermost row and, every few seconds, juicy thwacks would come from the hands of one or the other. The monk next to me rustled around in his pocket and handed me an honest-to-goodness Kukri machete. He bowed and gestured toward the two monks.”
You drop your chin and look your strong, blue eyes over off-kilter wire glasses frames at me. Was I supposed to get the point of the Parable of the Asparagus already?
“I walked over to the monks and introduced myself. They looked wounded; in unison, they rushed stern fingers to pursed lips. They went back to chopping asparagus, each so skilled that a flick of the wrist caused a stalk to practically leap obediently out of the ground and into the handwoven basket between them. I stared until one of them turned, waved to a spot a few feet to his right and huffed.
“‘Surely, we’re not going to clear this whole field one stalk at a time like this.’ I blurted, completely forgetting about the solemn preference for silence, which was, in fact, one of the draws of this place for me. ‘We’ll never finish!’
“The monks glared then smiled in sync. The one who’d shoo-ed me to my place clicked his tongue and the other monk jumped back just as the first one took a giant swing at a whole row. It did not come out clean.
“‘This is why,’” you say in a squeezed, gruff voice, ‘we go one at a time.’”
You return to your normal, jokingly stern tenor. “And indeed, until I learned to go one at a time, which was more about patience then it was about skill, I butchered so much perfectly good asparagus. But there is another lesson here about cutting the stalks one by one, which I suspect the monks had learned long before my arrival.” You take your glasses off by pulling on the part over the bridge of your nose and rub their lenses with your green sweater vest. “That field provided food for the rest of my stay and beyond.”
June 8, 2011 – December 3, 2012
We exchange frequent emails. My emotional distress and vocational flailing dominates; you handle my preoccupation with attachment heroically. “You can’t make me not love you,” you write. “And I’ll tell you as many times as it takes.”
“They’ll publish this correspondence someday, when you’re famous,” you respond to a rare moment of insight into myself I’d written to get your opinion on. You are not prone to flattery. You really do think more highly of me than I’d ever dare think of myself. You are not particularly prone to anything, it seems. Except, I sense, overpromising. You do not lack integrity, but I sense that “as many times as it takes” has a limit that not even you know about.
I am prone to disastrous feelings of abandonment, anger at people for not keeping their word, and intractable anxiety that I often mis-channel. Thankfully, I’ve never gotten mad at you; I come to fear ruining our relationship if I ever did. I fear there is a line somewhere with you that I won’t know about, that maybe you won’t know about, until I cross it.
We also meet regularly in your office for the soggy months, on benches around campus or the stairs to the building your office is in the few chances the weather gives us. I worry extravagantly about climate change ending the world in my lifetime. You comfort me by not trying to comfort me. You get it. We are both catastrophists. I keep the tedious dread of fatally damaging our relationship deep in myself.
August 1, 2011
I write “Cornfield Country,” a poem about the stories from your life you’ve been sharing with me over these last three years.
August 18, 2012
Our pastor and his wife, who have been doing a lot of heavy emotional lifting with me, too, perform most of my wedding ceremony at the beloved church where my husband and I met and have attended since we both moved to this town from different states five years ago. But you officiate communion. A perfect photo from the day captures you with a wily smile, your hands raised in blessing over us.
Dec. 9, 2012
My husband and I are in your living room because our pastor has “done something that might require us to leave the church immediately.” This is what I said to you when I called the day after it happened. I wasn’t sure what I was allowed to say. When someone you love like family – that is, that you assumed would always be in your life – does something that damages that possibility, what does faith allow you to say?
“What did he say?” You breathe calmly, loud so I can hear and be held.
“‘I’ve never met anyone so good at getting people to love them as you,’” I repeat after my pastor. I asked only how long and if his wife knew. The majority of our relationship and “she told him.” It didn’t make sense to me, either, but that was my pastor’s answer. After that, he was quiet for several minutes.
“Why did you tell me?”
“I wanted to have right relationship with you,” my pastor said. And “God said, ‘Tell her the truth.’” He was quiet for a long time again before he said, almost like he didn’t think I could hear him, “‘If I were younger and this were a different universe…’”
“What a fucking mess.” You leaned forward, elbows on knees. “First thing, dearest.” You fold your hands and sit up taller. Even on Saturdays, you wear sweater vests. “You know this is not your fault, right?”
Logically, yes, but if it was, would we still have had to leave?
March 10, 2013
You initiate contact for the first time I can remember; you invite my husband and me to hear you preach at your home church. I meet your daughter, who gives us a tour of the building and snaps jokes like Throwdowns, wheeling so fast we have to jog to keep up. The feeling of being wronged is colossal and clumsy.
That evening, a poem tumbles to my mind, nearly fully formed and in your voice. Its name is “Hard.”
August 13, 2013
Without discussing it with you or anyone, really, I apply to two seminaries. I need to get some direction in my life; I’m almost 30 and have nothing to show, not even the scraps of a career. That’s because I’ve not known what I wanted or how to figure that out. I still don’t, but maybe, if I serve the Lord will all my might and mind, God will let me believe.
You have questions, of course, but you write a rec letter, which gains me admission to the program you have started working overtime to get accredited, and a rejection from the other one. I know it’s your letter because the admissions staff called me in for an interview to talk about what you wrote. You’d sent me a copy after you’d submitted it – nearly the same letter to both schools – because of your belief in full disclosure.
This is also why you revealed much about me that not only was arguably irrelevant to academia, but – I thought – confidential. It hurt. I don’t say anything, though, because of The Line.
September 3, 2013
I start seminary. Right away, there are problems. The subtle but grating sexism of my classmates and some (even female) professors seems small compared to my anxiety from feeling radically out of place. My classmates’ preaching, teaching, academic, musical, pastoral gifts are obvious and get affirmed regularly. I love the material; I feel like a natural theological thinker but I can’t see clearly either what I’d practically (financially) do with any of this or places to get guidance. The shame that I’ve not figured out what to do with my life, that I’m still emotionally about 12, keeps me from coming to you.
I’m prone to feeling left out so I give the ‘misfit’ feeling, one of my ‘defaults’ from growing up, a year to dissipate before I drop out.
You never asked why. It took me a year and half to realize that that hurt. I don’t say anything. I still don’t know where The Line is.
January 13, 2014
I want to submit “Hard” for publication so I send it to you and ask your permission. You let your wife and your daughter read it; they approve.
June 4, 2014
There is a shooting at our school the week before the finals of what I’ve decided will be my last quarter in seminary. It takes a week for you to write to me. Being hurt by that is likely over The Line; I’m no more special than the hundreds of other students, and other younger faculty, in your care.
June 11, 2014
We meet in the new Norwegian bakery across the street from the building where the victim died. We swear loudly, I at God. It’s not quite “how dare You let this happen again?” But it’s not close to “What would You have me do?” either. I eat an eclair for the first time despite being so sensitive to sugar that an orange gives me a headache. The stomach ache lasts for a week.
“Cornfield Country” is published. I show you and you tear up. It’s the third time I’ve seen you cry and every time, I’m stirred – something about a strong, curmudgeonly man being unafraid of emotion stitches me up inside – but I instinctively block my tears. Habit, maybe. Sometimes, there are alarmingly no tears to trap. This feels worse, this void where feelings should be – and usually are. But then, they are so, so big.
“This, calligraphed and framed on my office wall,” you say drawing a line around my laptop screen displaying the online journal that published Cornfield Country. ‘What a prize that would be.’
August 8, 2014 – December 30, 2015
The email contact is less frequent but starts out just as rich. You greet me as “Dearest” or “Meg” (only my family calls me that); you sign as “Papa Asparagus,” then “Papa Anamchara” to teach me a new word (‘soul friend’ in Gaelic), then, eventually, Papa A.
Our notes begin to taper as the beginning of the year – the time for site visits from accreditation board members – approaches. You lose an email for the first time I know of; when I check in, you have no recollection of it. I wish I had been more mature than to take it personally and outsource even more of my anxiety to you to process.
December 30, 2016
I’m in California for Christmas and I sneak out to the backyard while my husband, his brother and his brother’s sons play on the driveway with the new toy drone Christmas brought them. I call you because I’m trapped – in the cold I didn’t prepare for, in a house overrun with my husband’s teenage nephews and niece, in my big, crushing feelings.
My husband is not handling his emotions well, either, and says some hurtful stuff. When I say ouch, he stonewalls.
“Dearest, you’re worth more than the price of a plane ticket. Get back up here. You don’t just have my permission. You have my demand.”
But I stick it out. This, it turns out, is the wrong choice.
January 3, 2016
“When she asks you to do something, you do it.” My husband and I are in your house again, this time in a trapezoidal offshoot of the living room with a piano by a slender window and a sitting room surrounded by books. The doorways are wide; there are few stairs. “If you have to do it later, it is the first priority, always. Got that son?” My husband nods.
Everything you said to us that day was right. It just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t that I thought my husband misunderstood you; I just didn’t have faith that it would make a difference if he did.
My husband and I move to separate living arrangements. I know you won’t take sides – you told us that when he and I were discussing premarital counseling options with you – but I really need to know you understand mine. I start writing an email to you, realize it needs to be an essay.
Your administrative duties to get the seminary accredited are as soul sucking as they are mounting, and there are some issues with your daughter’s care attendant, and you have many needy students who need your nosy questions and fierce-teddy-bear pastoral care and there may have been car trouble. You’re cracking, “driven to wonder if I should do anything at all,” you write to me. As many times as I’ve needed to be reminded of my worth, you’ve done it, and done it deeper every time. Now is the time to see if I’ve been able to learn from you.
March 9, 2016
I spend $200 getting “Cornfield Country” calligraphed and framed. I give it to you at the meeting we have the day I fly to Colorado for my grandmother’s 90th birthday.
I relish the moments I can make you tear up just as much as you relish the times you can get me to laugh so hard I bark like a seal.
April 15, 2016
I send you the “messay” about my marriage. I try to head off your compulsion to advise because, though it’s usually what I need, and though you’ve always been helpful, that’s not what I need right now. “I want you to understand,” I say, certain that I’m being clear.
Your response opens with some misgivings about what you’re going to say. Then you advise briefly, refuse to blame my husband for everything. “It doesn’t sound like a good fit,” you close.
April 20, 2016
I wish I had seen that comment as out of character, a red flag. Instead, I complained that I had explicitly begun the messay with a request that you understand, not advise. You genuinely apologize but, because you don’t ask questions, you don’t reflect what you heard me say, I dig in again. Your apology is shorter this time because you’re “crazy busy.” Triggered, I write an angst-ridden, flailing reply that “everyone says that” and “what about me?” and “I am never anyone’s priority.”
“Received and hereby acknowledged,” you write. “Nothing else occurs to me.” You sign with your initials.
I had found The Line.
July 26, 2016
For two months, I expect you’ll realize that you were harsh, that you abandoned me, that you didn’t (and still don’t) understand.
“So much for ‘I love you too much to let you annoy me,’ I finally write, quoting you hoping to trigger your memory of the traumatically sensitive soul you had stopped talking to and affirmed all these years.
“You weren’t ‘annoying’ me.’” It isn’t signed at all.
October 9, 2017
“Hard” is a finalist in a poetry contest about disability.
I write the first draft of this essay, end it with: “In February of 2016, I write you a short story as a way to thank you. I’d like to see how it ends but I can’t find it. I don’t remember the title.”
November 10, 11 and 12, 2017
I have a series of alarming dreams, the first two of which I don’t remember in great detail. The third is about your daughter.
November 12, 2017, 7:32am
“Papa A. – please forgive the salutation if it’s presumptuous,” I begin. “I’ve had some dreams and, though this is not a demand that you tell me anything, I want you to know that I miss you terribly and I’m praying.”
November 12, 2017, 8:56am
“I am overjoyed to receive your note,” your reply begins, “And I hope this email exchange can mark the resumption of a friendship which has always been inestimably precious to me, even in these past months of “radio silence.” Be assured that I do not take your “salutation” as presumptuous in the least. On the contrary, it comes as a great blessing and encouragement to me, and a very timely one. There is so much to say, and the reason I don’t have time to say it here will become clear below.”
You didn’t take my side in my marital issues (and thought that was the reason for my anger) and, when I continued my rage at you after apologizing for saying too much, you were, understandably, “more than a little hurt. If speaking what I believed to be the truth was hurtful, and if apologizing for having hurt you was itself hurtful (or at least not helpful), how was I to proceed?”
So you essentially chose “therapeutic silence.” Indiscriminate rage is unhelpful, so while the silent treatment can itself be rage-inducing and petulant and risks being passive aggressive, you were hoping that “if [your] words couldn’t get you to consider the maladaptiveness of [my] seemingly generalized rage, perhaps [your] abstaining from words might.”
So I was wrong about The Line; you just had no way of knowing when or how to rekindle our friendship, but you never considered it to be over. You were “trusting that, beneath [my] rage, [my] inexhaustible font of love and wisdom—which always has a way of re-asserting itself—would eventually bid [me] to make the move that [you] couldn’t. And now [I] have! God be praised!” In other words, you were waiting for me to grow up. You respected me enough to treat me like the adult you knew I was as opposed to the child I was being. You sign: “Your loving Papa A.” This is the best way ever to teach theology.
One of your superpowers is your ability to see me as if I were healed enough to be a positive participant in the razing emergency that is human life.
The reason you must be brief is because your daughter is in the hospital. She was admitted the evening of November 10th.
November 14, 2017, 4:30 pm
On my way to my therapist’s office, I see a bumper sticker: “Somebody’s therapist knows all about you.”
My therapist, who I’ve been seeing since two months before our radio silence starts, knows all about you. As I’m recounting the last four days, I realize the depth and width and height and breadth of my stubbornness. I also realize that the entire reason I was angry – that you “didn’t give me what I wanted” – was my fault. I actually never clearly asked for what I wanted. It wasn’t for you to understand. It was for you to reflect back what you understood and make me feel heard. I didn’t know that’s what I needed, and I lashed out at you for not knowing, either.
In my therapist’s office, I realize something else I’m wrong about: my belief that, if I had to reach out to you, I would never know how much you care about me. There is not a trace of this feeling; I am almost as happy to be so wrong as I am to have my Papa Asparagus back.
November 14, 2017, 4:43pm
Your daughter dies, about five weeks before her 33rd birthday. You send an email to the faculty, and students at my alma mater, and others, including me, at 6:58pm. I am not ashamed at being touched that I’m on this list.
November 15, 2017, 1:41 pm
After reading your tribute to your daughter over and over in search of some clue as to what to say, I finally decide on:
I received this last night as I was leaving my therapist’s office after a session that made me realize just how enormous a stubborn ass I am that it took not one but three alarming dreams to get me to resume a relationship that could have been there this whole time, how right you’ve been this last year and a half and that you did something difficult and risky in order to help me. I’ve been rereading it ever since in search of some clue as to what to say. There is no right thing, of course. So for now: I’m so sorry, both about your daughter and for my bull-headedness. I’m here if you find yourself needing to be taken out to lunch or something, or maybe just have something dropped off at your door if you don’t want to interact. I love you, and my husband and I are keeping you and your family in our prayers.
November 15, 2017, 9:54 pm
My favorite line – this makes my therapist laugh this amazing, goofy-cartoon laugh I’ve never been able to quite replicate – from your reply is: “Meg, I’m not smart enough to outwit you, but I’m curmudgeonly enough to outwait you.” Our emails, complete with dense paragraphs about my big feelings and your “stuff I’d never have thought of” insights, have resumed.
“What you describe as your bullheadedness,” you begin, “is connected with your fierce moral conscience and your determination not to be bullied or trifled with—especially by people whom you love and who love you. In itself, that’s a wonderful quality, which you needn’t berate yourself too much for displaying. It is an essential feature of being a “survivor,” and you’ve had a lot of stuff to have to survive. The trick is holding it in dynamic tension with your sense of humor, so that you don’t paint yourself into an emotional corner from which only frightening (if genuinely clairvoyant) dreams can free you.”
I suppose my memory lapses are evidence that I’m a survivor, or at least have experienced things that I have found difficult to survive. And, it’s true, I do have a sense of humor, which is as often a defense or cover for my social anxiety as it is a joy in making people laugh. But I am not free, Papa. Not yet.
December 9, 2017, 12:42pm
Eighteen minutes before your daughter’s memorial service starts at the church she showed us around and almost two years since the last time I’ve seen you, I almost knock you over with my hug. “Welcome back,” you say, squeezing my shoulders.
I used to think I’d know I was an adult when I no longer had feelings. Today, seeing you, the need to meticulously explain my side has vanished; I no longer feel this scrambling need to spend hours hammering out every detail of past conflicts, but this does not mean an absence of feeling. Today, I listen to your son and daughter talk about their older sister, ache for those little caretakers. I am roused by your son’s honesty, humbled by your wife’s grace. Today, finally, I cry with you – freely.\
Megan Wildhood is a creative writer working at a crisis center in Seattle, WA. Her work, which centers social justice, marginalized voices and hope for healing as an act of resistance, has appeared, among other publications, in The Atlantic, The Sun, Yes! Magazine and America Magazine. Long Division, her first book, was released by Finishing Line Press in September 2017 and she’s currently working on a novel. You can learn more at meganwildhood.com.