My mother appeared in the doorway and my stomach fell. What was she doing at my algebra class? In my high school, in the middle of the day? This was exciting—it was my mother, she was here to see me—but it also felt dangerous.
Years earlier, my best friend’s mother had shown up one day wearing the same expression. We had been in gym class then, playing bombardment. From across the gym, I watched my friend jog toward his mother and disappear around the corner of the stage. Where was he headed? Somewhere cool?
No. He missed school for the next four days. Our teacher mentioned that Bobby, sadly, was attending his grandfather’s funeral.
And now this: I was in the ninth grade, my mother was here, it was me who walked out of the normal world and into the unknown. In the hallway she confirmed my worst fear. My grandfather had had a heart attack. She and my father were on their way to the hospital. I should go home by myself and wait there until they got back.
“Will he be okay?” I asked.
“Pray for him,” my mother said.
I returned to the classroom and sat stunned in my desk while the teacher finished a quadratic equation on the chalkboard. A heart attack? He was my favorite person in the world. He was feisty—that was why I loved him—but he lived hard too. He competed in everything, taking on the guys bigger than him, the rich, the powerful. He beat them whenever he could: as an athlete, as a coach, as a retiree. And then he shook their hands and pounded their backs and laughed with them all the way home.
Pray for him? I wanted him to live forever.
Intensity like his burns like a fire. And eventually it burns itself out. The rational side of me knew it was inevitable. But now? A heart attack?
My head was swimming. Fortunately my teacher let me sit in a stupor without participating. X equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus four a times c over two a… How could that possibly matter? I was lost: I didn’t know what to think, let alone what to do. I was solving for something else altogether.
My mind informed me that I could not take the ultimate reality of what loomed. Merely knowing that he was in the hospital pushed me to my limits. His death would be more than I could take. It would crush me.
Please God, I thought. Don’t let him die. Not until I’m…twenty-five!
The last sentence came in a rush—a blurted prayer—and struck me as odd as soon as I heard myself think it. I was fourteen years old. I had just asked for eleven years. Eleven. From an omnipotent being. Why settle for eleven? Why not fifty?
Well, I had done the math. He was 70 years old, after all. Asking for fifty years? Not very reasonable. God, an omnipotent being if he existed, could let him live to be 120, but that would seem bizarre. 120? Most people maxed out at a hundred if they were lucky. Surely God had received thousands of requests to live beyond that, but 120-year-olds did not roam the streets. God let babies die. Jesus, his own son, barely made it to thirty. Why would God bend the rules for me?
I congratulated myself on not being greedy, which surely would have doomed my chances at getting a fair consideration. Eleven years. Eleven years. Eighty-one. That wouldn’t cause too much attention. That wouldn’t violate any norms. That could just slip right into the general flow of things. Come on, God. My grandfather was a good man. I myself tried to be good. Was letting him go to eighty-one really such an imposition?
My calculations seemed justified when my grandfather, thankfully, pulled through! He was okay! A few weeks in the hospital, a few surgeries, and he was fine, back on the golf course, beating the rich guys at the country club even though they had brand new equipment and he himself played with his “old sticks.” We had eleven blessed years ahead of us, plenty of time! And what would have happened if I’d asked for fifty years? God would have scoffed at me, blown me off. Unreasonable. Greedy. It all might have ended, right there in the algebra classroom.
But eleven! Aha! The perfect choice. I could picture God weighing this one, thinking it over. All right, fine, young Jacke. Here you go. Eleven years. Reasonable. I wasn’t trying to challenge God or make him think I was demanding some miracle. I was hoping for a shrug, an eh, why not?
And I got it!
And this experience changed me: I had to believe in God, or at least it was not open to me to assert that I didn’t. I had turned to God when I was needy. He had saved my grandfather as a favor to me, because I had needed it. Why should I be ungrateful? I had never wanted anything more in my life, and I got it.
And then…ten years flew by. Soon I was about to turn 25, which should have been a great age to look forward to…except I had this pact hanging over me! What would happen now? Eleven years had been the deal! I had been personally spared an inordinate amount of grief at an age when I could not have handled it. But now, in retrospect, this seemed horrible. I felt as if I had condemned my grandfather to die. He was only eighty-one, for crying out loud! Spry! A joyous presence in the lives of hundreds of people! He had friends in their nineties! Why could he not have another twenty years? Because I had only asked for eleven? Because that’s what I thought I had needed? Oh, why, why, why had I been so selfish!
I was sure he would die that year. It was the bargain I had struck. If I believed in the bargain, this was all I would get. If there was a God, it seemed only fair. The math was undeniable.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t ask God to reopen the bargain. Still here, God. Still would find it a little tough to deal with. Can we go another five?
But I never asked. Maybe I didn’t believe in God enough to do so. Or maybe I did believe and didn’t want to try his patience.
The year passed. I turned twenty-six…and my grandfather was still alive! Then twenty-seven: he made it through that too! I told no one about my pact and how we were entering uncharted territory.
Was this a miracle? Or was it proof that my prayer in the algebra class was not a miracle? I had to push all that out of my mind. He seemed to be on his own schedule. He was alive: I was not going to ask questions.
And then, a few years after that, he began to fade. This time we all visited him in the hospital room. I stood at his bedside and held his hand and gazed into his suddenly childlike eyes. He was fighting to the very end, seizing as much life as he could, living longer than he had any right to expect. I was terrified at first to watch him go, wondering what the world—and my life—would be like without him. But then, as I watched him try to force what could not be, I stopped worrying about myself and focused on him, and the experience became peaceful and inspiring. It was time. I needed to be ready. He needed it. He needed me—and all of us—to help him let go, to let him slip away.
During his funeral, as I sat in church staring at the stained glass and the iconography and the painting of Jesus, arms wide and welcoming, I thought about my prayer. The eleven years were part of the deal. But after that, what were those? Bonus years? An extra gift from God? A gift to me? You asked for eleven, but you really needed seventeen, so that’s what I gave you. Is that what this had been? A sign of God’s wisdom and mercy?
Or had my request not been a request at all? Thought but unheard?
I had variables on both sides of the equation. I could solve for one side or the other. But what was the answer? The first explanation assumed its premise (that God existed). The second assumed only chance and randomness. Where was the answer key? What filled in the x?
That’s what it boiled down to. Either that prayer landed somewhere, upon some receptive listening being, or it didn’t. Which was it?
For years I thought back to that prayer, wondering what the truth was with my special mixture of sheepishness and gratitude.
Until finally I realized I was left with a mystery, an unsolvable equation, which might have been what I had wanted all along.
Which might, in fact, have been all that I could take.
Okay! Not sure if this is even a story, but as a bit of history, I’m glad to drop it into the series. Feel free to check out all the Objects. The obvious one to turn to is #21 – The Speed Trap. You can also enjoy a celebration of teachers and teaching with a hand-picked best-of-Jacke five-pack.
Image source: Wikipedia Commons