book one: Learning to Live
Her silent scream ellicited no response from any of the six billion people on earth vacant from her world. She turned from east to west to north to south, scanning the houses that dotted the horizon until her gaze rested on the church. Place of worship, fellowship, friendship--the words twisted themselves inside her head until they resembled something much more palatable--torture, loneliness, isolation.
Something tugged at the back of her mind. This isn't the way it's supposed to be.
Yes, and that's why you're here, looking. She had come to the church that morning as part of her exhausting, neverending quest. What is it exactly that you want?
A cynical smile tugged at the corner of her lips as she realized the irony of her statement. That's it. Yes, that's it. You want a way out, and you're going to take it. One way or another.
But what about . . .
Who are you kidding? Her smile broadened as she hit the thought down with practiced ease and settled on a plan that would accomplish something, wrong though it might be. She patted her knapsack, recalling its contents, then sighed. No, I can't. Not yet.
"Lord, I'm leaving this up to you," she whispered. "I know that there has to be some solution to this, though I'll be darned if I can figure it out. No. I'll be damned. I'll be damned, eternally."
Should I go? Should I stay? That old fear of confrontations surfaced again, and the excuses repeated themselves, numbing her to her objective. This really isn't very important. I don't want to be a nuisance. I can survive one more day without doing something about this.
No, she thought, the last one's a lie. But not being a bother is more important, isn't it?
Right on. And if this works, you won't be, not for long.
Time's up. Let's call for a vote.
The vote was two to one for entering the church. Once inside, she came upon the office, a small conglomeration of rooms and makeshift walls in which all the weekly business of making phone calls, printing up bulletins, and selecting music for next Sunday's service went on. Poking her head in the door, she glanced about until she made eye contact with a kindly, blue-eyed woman whose greying hair was pinned neatly into a bun at the nape of her neck.
"Hello, Tessamme," the church secretary greeted her. "Do you have an appointment?"
"Uh, no," she stammered nervously.
"Then what can I do for you?"
"Actually, I came here because--" her voice trailed off as a second member of the office staff strode around the corner.
"Hi, Tessamme. Didn't come to see me, did you?" The man smiled. There was a calmness in his eyes, one that seemed to come from deep within, even though his face quirked with the jest.
"Actually . . . well, if it's not too much trouble, yes."
The man checked his watch. "I've got some time. Why don't you step into my office?"
Tessamme complied and halted when she stood beside a chair positioned in front of his desk, surprisingly neat, with only a few scattered piles of books and papers behind a nameplate that read "John A. Welsh." She waited as he followed her inside and shut the door behind him, offering, "You can sit down," as he made his way to his own chair. Again, Tessamme did as instructed.
"So, what did you come to talk about?"
She shrugged, the old fear and excuses rising again. You don't want to be a bother.
Oh, shut up. You know what you sound like? An indecisive fool!
Maybe I am.
"So you're telling me you came all this way--you walked, right?--just to drop in and say, 'Hello.'"
"They want me to say, 'Maybe.' I'm sorry. Yes, I do know why I came here."
"Who are 'they?'"
"What--? Oh! One of the voices in my head. And I'm not schizophrenic, just so you know."
"And the reason you're here?"
She sighed and looked at the ceiling, searching for the easy way out. "They want me to say, 'Guess.' But don't. I'll tell you, sometime before eternity ends. No, before then. O.K.
"Remember my contract, the one I made not to harm myself until October 23, then the twenty-fifth, then November 3, that my counselor made me push back until I never thought he'd let it expire?"
"Well, it's expired, finally."
"And what are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know . . . yet."
"Well, are you willing to make another contract with me?"
"Please, no! I don't want to delay . . ."
"I'm living in-between! Don't you understand? If I make another contract, I'll have to put up with . . . pretending my way through life until it expires. And how do I know you'll let it expire?"
"If you choose to live, it doesn't mean you have to pretend."
"To me it does! Now, listen, I'm tired of me; I'm tired of my life the way it's going now." As she spoke, Tessamme reached into her knapsack and grabbed hold of a heavy metal object, fingers wrapped around sleek grip, all but the one by the trigger. "Now, don't try anything." She brought the gun above the desktop so that John could see it, and pointed the barrel at her head. "If you do, I'll shoot myself."
Tessamme saw John turn white. Slowly, he took a breath and spoke. "Put the gun down, Tessamme."
"Why? Who says I'm not already dead? God knows I've tried to live. Maybe it's time I admit that I can't."
Tessamme shook her head, eyes closed, a grim smile crossing her lips. She knew what was coming.
"--because you rely on yourself and not on God."
"I knew you would say that. Next you're going to go into this big, long spiel about how I can't expect myself to be perfect and how I should trust God to get me through life."
"Those are a couple of not so bad ideas."
"That's not the point," she forced through her teeth.
"Then what is? Tessamme, put the gun down, and we can talk about this."
"If I put it down I'll end up mindlessly agreeing to some contract I'll hate myself for signing," she shot back. "I don't understand, anyway," she added softly, "why anyone cares whether I live or die. I know I have to care about them, but they . . . they shouldn't have to return the favor."
"It's in God's word. They're only doing what he says. Besides, you say you love them. Well, if you really did care, you wouldn't do anything to hurt them, and if you kill yourself, you will hurt a lot of people."
"What is pain? It is only that which cannot be borne. They'll adapt. They'll survive. They'll move on. I've seen it before. Grief leads to acceptance."
"And a tragedy like suicide can leave permanent scars."
"Aren't you all Christians? You'll end up in heaven where every tear will be wiped from your eyes."
"Not everyone you know is a Christian. And how do you know that your actions won't influence someone to turn away from God? Or never find him."
"I'll pray that won't happen. And it's not my choice; it's theirs. And as for my non-Christian friends, when all is said and done, their grief over me will be the least of their problems."
"But you can change that. You can impact their lives for Christ."
"Yeah, I've tried that. It doesn't work."
"Maybe you haven't had much success in the past, but that doesn't mean you will always fail."
"As I recall, 'The past is prologue.'"
"Mistakes are what pave the way for success."
"What about, 'History is bunk?'"
"Henry Ford learned from history's mistakes, too, whether he liked to admit it or not. Jesus said, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.' There are people out there who will listen. And maybe you'll just plant a seed . . ."
"I've heard all this before."
"When are you going to apply it?"
Silence reigned for an entire fifteen seconds.
"I have a note," began Tessamme finally, "in my bag. It explains . . . for my family, my friends. Most of all it confirms that the fault for my actions rests entirely on my shoulders. I don't want them to think it's their fault. And I don't want to tear them apart."
"Tessamme, you don't want to do this."
"Who cares? In fact, everyone cares but me."
"I think you care. If you didn't, you wouldn't have come to talk."
"Well, then, I guess I'll just have to show you how much I don't care. I'll fire, on the count of three."
"A gun isn't a bottle of pills. It's irreversible."
"That's the point, isn't it? Don't interrupt me; I'm counting. One . . . two . . ."
Tessamme could not later recall what happened in the next few seconds; all she knew was that when her memory returned, she still lived, and the gun was absent from her hands.
As John unloaded the pistol, rendering it harmless, she searched her mind for an account of what had just taken place, but finding none, she whispered at the ceiling, "Why can't I die, Lord? Why can't I die if I can't live? How can I live without giving everything, but having nothing to give? My life is meaningless. My schedule is nothing but waste of time after waste of time. I wish I could do something!"
"It sounds like you really do want to live, after all."
"I'll admit it to God, maybe, but not to you."
"Well, it's a start. You know, I'm going to have to call your parents."
"If you do, I'll die. At least I'll wish I could."
"Then what do you expect me to do?"
"I didn't expect anything. I can't tell the future."
"You expected something to happen."
"Who told you that you could read my mind?"
"No one told me. I guessed. Our actions are an attempt to influence the future. You must have had some objective in mind."
"Then how come I don't know what it is?"
"Maybe you do."
Tessamme shook her head. "Not that I know of."
John picked up the phone. "I'm calling your parents, now."
"They're not home."
"Then where can I get ahold of them?"
"Well, my Dad's in Mexico, and Mom's in Indy for the day with a couple of my aunts, shopping."
"Do you know exactly where?"
"Nope. You know they're just going to send me back to an institution. They almost did when I ran off at the hayride."
John replaced the receiver with a sigh. "There has to be some consequence to your actions."
"So you punish me for trying to punish myself? Makes sense not."
"You need help."
"Why waste it on me? They can't help. They just think they can."
"Well, maybe it's time you helped yourself."
"That's not in the Bible. 'God helps those who help themselves,' eh? Nice try."
"I'll tell you what is in the Bible. 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' You're supposed to love yourself. And loving yourself means helping yourself."
"I still don't understand that."
"You don't have to understand it. Just do it."
"Whatever happened to putting others first?"
"Well, you can't help them at all if you're so focused on your own problems . . ."
"What about self-denial?"
"Self-denial doesn't mean self-punishment."
"What about taking up the cross? The cross is for dying. We put ourselves to death. Don't tell me that's not self punishment."
"It's not. We put sin to death, not ourselves, literally."
Tessamme laughed. "You know the funny thing about people who don't take the Bible literally is that they end up with ideas totally contradictory to what it says, like, 'There is no hell.'"
"Yes, many things in the Bible need to be taken literally, but if, 'Take up your cross and follow me,' means, 'Kill yourself,' then how can you do it daily, like the Bible says to? And for that matter, how can you follow when you're dead?"
"O.K. So the Bible says not to kill myself. A lot of people do anyway. I'm just one more. Why should I matter?"
"You matter to God."
"Please don't start with that, 'If you were the only person on the face of the earth, Jesus still would've died for you.' Don't you think he'd be smart enough to figure out it wouldn't have worked?"
"What do you mean, 'It wouldn't have worked?' That you wouldn't have accepted Christ?"
"I don't deserve it."
"That doesn't change the fact that he died for you."
"He died for everyone else, too! Maybe he doesn't like to see people go to hell, but they do. I'm just one more."
"So you would purposely hurt God . . ."
"I'm not doing this to hurt him! I'm doing this to hurt myself."
"Whether it's your intent or not, you're still hurting him."
"And other people hurt him, too, but he gets by. I just don't see why he won't let me die. He lets others die."
"Maybe you're special."
Tessamme's eyes narrowed. "Not any more than they are."
"But not any less."
"I can't believe that."
"Do you believe the Bible?"
"Don't trap me like that."
"You can only be trapped if you believe a lie."
"Even if it is a lie, I can't cross over to the truth."
"Yes, you can."
"I can't. It's . . . wrong. I cannot be that selfish!"
"It's not selfish, remember?"
"Anything but self-punishment is selfish to me."
"That's not God's definition of selfishness. That's Tessamme's definition."
"Well, God's definition is a little strange."
"Are you saying it's wrong?"
"No. I just have trouble . . . accepting it."
"But will you?"
Tessamme paused midbreath, seeing at once a fork in the road, where God's path contained hope and her own only disappointment and despair. Wait a minute, she thought to herself. What right have I to hope? The roads converged back into one, the road of confusion, of indecision, the same one that she followed at present.
"What's the difference?" she sighed, placing her head in her hands, staring at the floor, shoulders slouched.
"You can't let this go. It's a decision you have to make."
"It can wait till tomorrow."
"No. It can't."
"Well, let me put it this way. The only way it won't wait until tomorrow or the next day or the next is if I die today, and you won't let me."
"So, then, you have made your choice, to reject God's truth?"
"I guess so, for now. Not permanently. I wish I didn't have to."
"Yes, I do."
"That's a lie."
"Well, sir, if Satan wasn't so convincing . . ."
"You know it comes from Satan, and you still believe it?"
"Why not? Worst that can happen is I'll go to hell, and I'd, personally, rather do that than feel guilty for the rest of eternity in paradise."
"Why would you feel guilty?"
Tessamme paused, then spoke. "I didn't bring a friend."
"To heaven? God never said that you have to convert someone to earn your salvation. It's a free gift, no strings attached, only that you accept it."
"Maybe God never said we had to, but I want to."
"Well, that's good. God wants you to want to witness. Just remember that your salvation isn't dependent upon it."
"It doesn't work, remember? My witnessing. It doesn't work."
"You don't know that."
"Listen, I don't want to argue this out anymore. I think I'll just go now." She stood to leave.
"Wait a minute! You're not leaving."
"You tried to kill yourself. I'm not letting you go when you might harm yourself again."
Tessamme collapsed back into the chair. "So, what now?"
"When are your parents getting back?"
"My dad should return to the U.S. in a couple of days. My mom should get home around nine or ten tonight."
John sat for a moment, thinking. "I'll tell you what. You've never broken your word before. If you can promise me that you won't try to harm yourself in the next twenty-four hours . . ."
Tessamme rolled her eyes.
". . . and that you'll stay at your house and not try to run away, I'll take you home. But I will call your mom tonight and tell her what happened."
"What if I say no?"
"Then I will make sure that you are supervised every second until you're ready to make that commitment."
"I'm sorry, but that's the way it's got to be. If you can't keep yourself safe, others will."
"I'll just try to kill myself again, when you're not looking."
"Believe me. It'll be a while."
"I can be patient," she challenged, crossing her arms.
This time John said nothing. He began to sort through papers, going about his business as if Tessamme were not there.
Tessamme wrestled within herself about the evident outcome of these recent events. Realizing that she had not reached any sort of resolution, she forced her thoughts to rebel against the overwhelming complacency with failure that had fallen on her. No! There has to be some solution, even for me. Out loud, she asked John, "You haven't given up, have you?"
John paused his work. "No, I haven't given up. I didn't see the point in saying anything more when you would just disagree with it."
"I'm sorry. It's not that I don't want to agree. These thoughts just come to me, and they make so much sense."
"Satan's most convincing lies are distorted truths. In your case, it's the need to put others first twisted into the idea that you have to punish yourself to make it happen."
"How else am I going to do it? I've tried to care for others, but all I see is other people caring so much more than I can even imagine. They can feel each others' pain, in here." Tessamme pointed to her heart. "But I can't. I can't help because I don't hurt."
"So you try to harm yourself."
"The only way I can. With a knife. With a bottle of pills. With a gun. But physical pain . . . it's so superficial. It only lasts for a moment, and then you forget."
"But why kill yourself?"
"To make up, for all the pain I couldn't feel on earth. Death isn't temporary. Hell isn't, either."
"Listen, you may not want to hear this, but it's okay if you can't feel others' pain. We all have different gifts. Maybe yours isn't empathizing. You have a wonderful voice and an amazing artistic ability . . ."
"Both of which don't matter in the least. I want to help people, not create things." She spat the last word with disdain. "If I cared about them, really cared, not just because I don't want to feel guilty, even fear wouldn't keep me from helping them."
"What are you afraid of?"
"Maybe they just want to be alone. Am I helping them, or hurting them?"
"Well, if they want to be alone, they'll tell you. But if they need a friend, they may be too afraid to ask."
"That means I have to do it." A look of wide-eyed fear crossed her face, then left as quickly as it had come. "But I don't care, see? See what I mean? Isn't this horrible?"
"You're avoiding responsibility."
"What?" Tessamme was incredulous.
"You really do care, but you're afraid. Since fear isn't a good enough excuse, you convince yourself that you don't care, because if you did, you wouldn't be afraid. Is this correct?"
"No, I'd be afraid. But fear wouldn't matter."
"But do you expect your fear to shrink on its own, before you confront it?"
"Jeremiah 20:9 says, 'But if I say, "I will not mention him or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.' If I really cared, if I really had that sort of fire, I couldn't help but reach out to others, regardless of fear!"
"You didn't answer my question. Do you expect the fear to shrink on its own?"
"Well, wouldn't it seem smaller, if I cared so much that I couldn't keep myself from helping out?"
"You do think that. Listen, the only way for your fear to get smaller is through practice, not just thinking about lofty ideals. And let me tell you something about fires. You're a Girl Scout, right?"
"Well, what does it take to build a fire?"
"You need different-sized wood: tinder, kindling, and fuel, and some matches, dry ground, and also a water bucket, for safety."
"Now, which kind of wood do you light first? Is it the fuel, the biggest kind?"
"No! It's the tinder. And sometimes even that won't stay lit, so you need a fire starter, then you catch the tinder on fire, and then the kindling and fuel."
"The point is, you start small. You've got to build the fire; it doesn't start on its own. The same is true when you want to help people. You expect yourself to care so much right away. Well, it takes time. And practice."
"But what about things like church camp? Whenever I go there, it seems that everyone suddenly has all this fire, going at full blast, just like that." Tessamme snapped her fingers.
"Think of it as a fire starter. They catch quickly, glow brightly, but they'll burn out if you don't feed the flame."
"So, are you willing to start?"
Tessamme paused, licked her lips, letting the question sink in. She drew a breath. "I--"
The fear was not quite overwhelming.