Heather Lawrence – Pursuit of Life

Here’s first-timer Heather Lawrence’s poignant story about how questions made her different. She told this for our July 2017 theme “Different.” 

I was 27 years old, standing with a band I’d put together in front of a crowd of 120 people, leading them in one of my lifelong favorite hymns when I realized I couldn’t pretend anymore.

These may be my people, but I was pretty sure that once they knew everything going on49-Different inside my head, I wouldn’t be theirs anymore.

This was a Sunday morning in early May, and I was just trying to last until June in this job, but that morning I knew I wasn’t going to make it. I knew I didn’t belong.

As I led the congregation in worship with the hymn I used to call my heart song, I broke it down line-by-line inside my head, thinking, “this line is still okay,” “I definitely don’t believe that anymore,” and “I’m still not sure where this idea even came from;” and I knew my faith was on the verge of a jenga-style collapse. I told my team I only had one more week in me.

Cue: total deconstruction.

I’d already resigned from my job two months ago at this point, but my co-worker/pastor/boss (professional church relationships are very confusing) had asked me to stay until June. So like a cracked and broken vase, I held the pieces in place until I got far enough away that I could be sure my deconstruction wouldn’t hurt anyone else.

See that’s the thing about being a pastor: you sort of get paid to be right—or at least to be confident in your beliefs. I’d spent the last three years leading up to this point keeping my ever-expanding cracks in my belief systems off-limits from anyone else. I mean, sure, I could talk to other leaders about it, but I had to be careful about how candid I was with anyone who had the power to remove me from my position, because job security.

I sure as hell couldn’t talk to people I was pastoring about it, because I had about 5 verses memorized that told me exactly what happens to someone who causes problems someone else’s walk with God.

I also couldn’t really talk to any peers or friends about it, because most of my peers were either uninvolved with theological dialogue or so closed-minded that my “progressive” ideas were never even entertained. So I was left to debate both sides inside my head—which, if you’ve never been in an ongoing intellectual debate with yourself, let me tell you that it will drive you crazy. My daily bible-reading (yes, there really are people who read scripture every day) turned into an academic text analysis of multiple topics at once. I honestly made myself sick getting so stuck in my head.

And the hardest part of all of this is that I was really hoping for my understanding of Scripture and my evangelical worldview to still stand after answering my questions; which meant I had to be careful not to toy around with these ideas too much because they may well lead me down that slippery slope I’d been cautioned against all throughout seminary.

No joke: day one of class at this Southern Baptist school: the president was teaching my first class, and he walked up to the podium and after his introduction, I can still picture his weird speaking mannerisms he had as he said, “you’re going to be tempted to question your views of morality because of the world around you, but I am warning you that it’s a slippery slope from asking whether the bible really prescribes gender roles, to then asking whether the bible really condemns same-sex marriage, and before you know it, you’ll be sliding all the way to being an agnostic or atheist,” (which, to the community I was a part of, really didn’t need to be distinguished because both needed to be “saved” anyway.)

I remember sitting in my seat horrified that I might lose my faith, my community, my future plans, my whole identity and everything I knew to be true…all because I started asking questions. So I didn’t. At least until I couldn’t pretend anymore.

So back to that Sunday when I was finally honest with myself. This church I was about to leave, my coworker and I had built it from the ground up. It had been kind of my last hope for the institution of the church. When we started it, I ran headfirst into this mission because I believed in it, and I just knew it was going to be the answer to all my frustrations with the megachurch I’d been working in previously.

We were going to do it differently. We were going to be about people, not about an event on Sunday. We were going to be about community, not about numbers. We were going to be about healing, not about programs.

The drift away from all of that didn’t happen overnight, but one of the biggest problems for us was that I was a woman. See, my coworker was invited into church-planting cohorts and supportive communities of other men doing the same thing—all of which I was explicitly not invited into on account of my gender. Turns out the conversations that happen in spaces like that will really shape the direction of an organization…and if one of the two leaders of the organization isn’t involved in that, she might slowly lose her opportunity to influence the direction moving forward…

It hurt. Like hell. But I’m really grateful for it, because it sped up my deconstruction. It took heartbreak and feeling that I could no longer be proud of this church we’d started for me to let myself fall apart.

So in my disappointment with this church, I let myself re-engage with the questions.

And my questions led to more questions, and more questions, and more questions…until I couldn’t even categorize all the things I wasn’t sure if I believed anymore. By the time I left this church, I hadn’t read my Bible in 2 months. For the first time since even my youth group days, I wasn’t in a position of leadership, and I finally let go.

One of the phrases I found myself repeating in countless debates during my three years of full-time ministry was that I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

It rang through my head as I found myself pushed to the edges in conversations. I had no way of predicting how subversive this idea would be to a community claiming to follow the most compassionate person who ever lived. But as my ideas got more and more challenging, as I moved more and more into gray areas, I clung to it as though it had come from the mouth of Jesus himself.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

This phrase would escape my mouth as I was walking away from yet another debate with a biblical literalist about marriage equality or baptism or who is and isn’t allowed to become a church member, or even about what is or isn’t a sin.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

Sometimes it was loaded with anger and accusation—you just want to have everything figured out, but life isn’t always so black and white, so how about you shake up your safe little boxes of morality and make room to love the people around you.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

Sometimes it was dismissive and defeated—I know we’ll never agree, and honestly, you may never hear me because I’m not convinced by your interpretation of scripture.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

I couldn’t be a rule enforcer anymore. I couldn’t continue to drive forward an institution that was more concerned with obeying a text from two millennia ago than about loving the people right in front of them. And I couldn’t worship a God that expected that of me.

I’d rather be compassionate than be right.

Christy Lynch – Not Safe for Work

Here’s Christy Lynch’s story from our April 2017 partnership with Meharry Medical College for “Do No Harm: Stories of Healthcare.” It’s a hilarious story of her first visit to the gynecologist. A must hear. She first told this story at Tenx9’s May 2016 theme “LOL”. 

Starting – The Understory and Next Theme

Enjoy Rob McRay’s understory from 2017’s first theme “Starting.” 

Tonight, Nashville, we started.

We started contemplating word choices after a very poor word choice was directed from a 43-startingwild-hearted, hormonal adolescent at an equally emotional mother, who responded by hurling a giant “Route 44” cherry slushy all over us—and our relationship surprisingly thawed with the frozen drink.

We started our career at a school for children with disabilities with games of hot potato pickle and endless crafts…and scoliosis and seizures and horrific stories, and one child’s personal hell—which we escaped…but he didn’t.

In a 3rd grade “physical education” class we learned of…body changes, hygiene, and fictitious babies. And we started praying for periods—which eventually led to a loud scream, and a strangely smiling mother, and…uh…pillow butt panty problems.

We started our happily-ever-after with a blind date on Valentine’s Day, arranged by the committee. And we became engaged to be engaged, with no ring—till our romantic psychiatrist eventually asked nicely.

It all started when we cautiously climbed the broken sewer pipe, and tight-rope walked the brown beam, till we reached the vast river and took a bow to the applauding white caps—and now we want to speak for ourselves.

A new journey started when Mom fell, and led us to complaints of inattentive care, and assurances of disappearing beds…and a kind hug, and a stream of tears, and a promise of prayers…. And it really will be alright.

The trouble started at tennis practice with an insensitive response to Mom’s life crisis. It took years of distance till random love superseded rational thought, and we reconciled over a vodka martini and a country concert.

We started the relationship in a spartan home with many questions and a Kung Fu Panda kite. We sat cross-legged around the same delicious homemade dish—and thought perhaps the resolution of many of our problems might start this way…when we all eat as one.

We started our penchant for bad boys with “Rebel Without a Cause,” and spent years rescuing the troubled men…till restraining orders, and a long distance move, and years more of therapy led to the discovery that we were James Dean after all.

And so, Nashville, it started.


Thanks so much to all our storytellers–Darcie, Brittany, Kristen, Irene, Jane, Sarah, Barbara, Michael, and Samantha. Please join us for our next night of stories on February 27. Our theme is “Choices.” Pitch your story here!

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Holidays – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory for our December 2016 theme “Holidays.” 

Tonight we celebrated the holidays.

We celebrated a nightmare before Christmas with Pinterest projects of disembodied heads and zombie angel blobs, all while wearing a giant pink rabbit suit.

We took a walk on a snowy Christmas Eve to the Grove Park Inn, travelling from childhood dreams of luxurious parties to a disappointing reality of fanny packs and screaming kids—and found we had fulfilled a better dream.

We shared holiday memories of great-grandmother Gigi in brightly-colored Easter outfits, 42-holidayswith eels and fishhooks and violins and a cat in a Cheerios box…and those special rolls.

We celebrated Thanksgiving with a large family of strangers, feeling awkwardly cared about, before escaping to Black Friday—only to learn during the flood what it means to be your cousin’s sister.

We remembered a Christmas with Aunt Rene, and angry growling Sput, and Spanky in our cornflakes—and screaming at a family who still wonder what that was all about.

We saved Christmas for a little boy in a hotel full of junkies, and a lonely woman in a line outside the letter room…and somehow saved Christmas for ourselves.

We wanted a better Christmas after a terrible year of divorce and debt and a destroyed car. But when our quiet coffee was interrupted by our always loud brother spewing shocking insults, we were possessed by some insanely mad spirit—but it felt good!

On a Christmas Eve we gave birth to a son and could not grasp the news that all was not OK. But three wise men led us through it all, until we heard the news that he was OK…and saw the news that for others it was not.

We celebrated a “Merry Freaking Christmas” that began with frantically wrapping our own gifts and crankily cooking carrot cake, and ended with traffic tickets and being late for dinner—and a wonderful meal full of family traditions.

These were our holidays.


Thanks to Darcie, Anna, Brittany, Will, Gayathri, Laura, John, Michelle, and Dana for their stories! Join us on January 30 at Douglas Corner for our first 2017 theme, “Starting.” Pitch your story here.

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Hard Times – The Understory and Next Theme

Brittany Sky gave a moving understory to our 2016 November theme “Hard Times.” 

Life can be very hard at times.

We’ve:

  1. Been wrongly accused as “Mommy” at the worst possible time.
  2. Lost our best friend, Tiger the dog, and watched our grandfather lose his memory to 41-hard-timesdementia.
  3. Received life changing information: our little brother diagnosed with leukemia. And we wait for more life changing news.
  4. Been banned from seeing our sister Lulu after she was burned by a caregiver, and told our absence was God’s will.
  5. Our arm candy, Carol, is saddled with a sociopath named MS.
  6. Become addicted to self-harm after being bullied as our mother faced ovarian cancer and lost.
  7. Learned that interracial relationships are hard and it is way too easy to slip back into white America.
  8. Left our husband, flown 2000 miles to Nashville with three children in the middle of a snow storm, and got stranded at the airport.
  9. Struggled with our depression, nearly losing our lives to it.

But, we are not alone.

We’ve seen community in:

  1. Jellyfish exhibits and Oreos.
  2. Grandfathers who hold us, kiss our foreheads, and recognize us in our tears.
  3. Mothers and fathers who hold our hands, pushing through our uncomfortable feelings.
  4. Having Lulu, our conviction it’s not God’s will, and it’s all going to be okay.
  5. Loving partners and strength training. It gives us joy and strong marriages.
  6. Teachers who notice and know us, and our own strength to stay sober three years.
  7. Coming out about our own white privilege on stage.
  8. Airport angels who opened up their homes and became friends.
  9. The beautiful, boundless love of family.

Thanks to all our storytellers–David, Christy, Michael, Amy, Sergio, Deepak, Lauren, Michelle, and Drew. Join us December 12 for our final 2016 event, “Holidays.” If you’ve got a story, let us know here!

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Laura Cockman – Nashville’s Reality

At our September 2016 theme “Nashville,” Laura Cockman shared the following story of how she finally got her parents to visit her in Nashville. 

Instead of having an advice-dispensing angel or devil on my shoulder, I have reality tv show hosts. They rotate in and out of advice duties based on what I need at the time. So when I was trying to decide where to go to college, it was the host of Survivor who said, “move from the midwest down to Nashville! It’ll be an adventure!” The tribe had spoken. I moved.

I’m about as adventurous as a bear in 39-Nashvillehibernation. I’m the kind of introvert who puts “alone time” in her calendar, the kind who intends to use the money I’ll definitely win from my future successful run on Survivor to buy a house on a mountain to fulfill my dreams of living isolated from everyone else. You can see why Survivor is my favorite show: a way to win win money while incrementally becoming more and more alone? Sign me up.

The reality show hosts on my shoulder tell me this may just make me the biggest loser, but I’m ok with it.

Not to be outdone by my introversion are my parents, who, when they last moved, or rather, re-moved themselves from everyone, relocated to a house surrounded by dirt for more than a mile. This is how you get there: drive up north until you see a cornfield, go through the next cornfield, turn left at a cornfield, make a crazy turn through the – wait for it – soybean field (I told you it’d be crazy), and their house is right next to another cornfield.

They’re sweet homebodies. My parents are such introverts that they barely leave the house; their favorite date night, going back for a decade, has been sitting on the couch watching The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Yes, their favorite dates are all about other people’s dates.

So all through college and my subsequent decision to stay in Nashville, my parents remained ensconced in their own chosen reality. Their Nashville experience was more Rayna James and Juliette Barnes than Keith Urban or Tim McGraw, and certainly far from my Nashville experience. I’m actually afraid to this day to tell them that we didn’t re-elect Teddy Conrad from the show Nashville as our mayor this past election.

For introverts like this, talking about stories is a great way to connect. My parents write down what they think about our shared shows, and they call me to ask questions. They’re all very sweet, like, “What did you think of last night’s episode?” and “Laura, why haven’t you switched dentists so you can stalk Cupcake Chris from last year’s Bachelorette (more easily)?”

So this past May they called me and said this: “Did you know that there are three Bachelorette contestants from Nashville this year?” And, because I think in reality show tropes, my little voices whispered to me, “This is your chance to make the conversation go the way you want it and align their ideas in your favor. You are this close to winning the immunity necklace, getting the final rose, becoming the head of household.” I convinced them to arrange plans for their first long weekend trip to Nashville.

I’ve got them where I want them at this point. Like any good reality show fangirl trapped in actual reality, I started to think about the future and how I could make my parents’ experience so fun that they’d start planning their next trip back.

“Anything we do will be fun because we’re with you,” my mom assured me.

“But really, I hope we’ll see a celebrity,” my dad said.

And just like any good reality show, life threw in a twist: my boyfriend told me he was going to be out of town the weekend my parents were coming to visit, and he needed me to watch his dog. How convenient. “You better re-strategize,” the reality shows hosts in my head were telling me, “You’ve got to fit both of these alliances’ needs in now.” I told the voices that it would be ok, that a dog couldn’t vote me out of anything, but I was still a little concerned about accidentally leaving her alone too long and her voting the stuffing out of the couch.

So I reorganized my plans for my parents to allow for several trips across town to take care of the dog between activities. This worked out well, actually, because it allowed them some down time to relax in between going out into the world. But, my dad noted while relaxing between meals and museums, he hadn’t seen anybody famous yet, other than, of course, the dog I famously talked on and on about over the phone.

They came to love her as much as I do. Saturday morning, my parents woke up excited to take the dog for a morning walk. We spent the walk talking about their first hot chicken experiences, and my mom offered to hold the dog’s leash, remarking on how well-behaved she was on the walk. We all decided to go to the dog store and get her a treat afterward.

The three of us go to this tiny dog store on the east side near my boyfriend’s house, and I make a beeline for the giant antler toys. I lean down and start to pick one up, and all of a sudden, I’m being licked by a big bloodhound who’s snuck up on me.

“Hey, sweetie,” I say to the dog, and I glance upward at the owner to ask if I can pet him. And there I see it. A tall, tan, familiar face, one that my parents have been talking about for months: Wells Adams, Bachelorette contestant.

The reality show hosts in my head start screaming at me.

“Ask him if he’s still dating Ashley from his stint on Bachelor in Paradise!” one shouts.

“No,” yells another, “that show hasn’t even premiered yet! Then he’ll know you stalk Bachelor contestants online, and all the rest of them will find out, and then you’ll never get to have your teeth cleaned by a Bachelorette contestant dentist!”

“Just say hi to his dog, call him by name – Carl – and tell Carl that you follow him on Instagram!”

“Just ask him if you can pet the dog and play it cool.”

“Act now or you’ll be voted off the island! – I mean – the dog store!”

I couldn’t act. The barking in my head was louder than any in the dog store, and so I did what any good introvert would do. I looked toward my parents for a solution. This was a mistake. My parents’, who had previously been waiting by the door, heads had turned, Exorcist-style, to stare at their authentic Nashville reality star.

I walked up to the checkout line, feeling stupid and starstruck, and bought the antler. When I turned around, the rest of my parents’ bodies had caught up, and they were full-on staring at Wells.

“Get in the car, but don’t leave yet,” said my dad, “We have to watch.”

We sat in the car and watched Wells and Carl leave the store.

“He has decent taste in cars, very reasonable,” said my mom.

“He has beautiful eyes,” said my dad.

“I’m so glad we came to Nashville,” they decided.

“This is what it’s really like. This is what you get to experience all the time, isn’t it, sweetie? This is magical.”

Just like that, after years of convincing my parents to take a weekend trip, weeks planning and replanning where to take them so that they’d come back again, hours spent walking the dog with them and hoping they weren’t bored, we spent less than five minutes in a dog store, and my parents declared those few minutes their true, authentic Nashville experience. Now, they call often and ask about my “good friend Wells.”

If this trip were a date on The Bachelor, I think they would have have given it the first impression rose.

They’re already planning their next trip back.

Secrets – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from October 2016’s theme “Secrets.” 

Tonight we learned secrets.

We learned of childhood clubhouses, and running into walls, and a pledge to keep the next accident secret—until our underarms exploded!

40-secretsWe learned of family secrets about wealthy descendants of conquistadors in dresses and gloves, and seedy pool bars, and the joy of good food, tequila, and fine wine.

We learned what goes on when cocaine addicts secretly enter a church basement and make loud, barbaric angel noises, which make us feel like we could be good—except for the faking it part.

We learned the secret of how the windshield was cracked, after we said an unladylike word 37 times, and slammed down the “end call” button—and were exposed by Sgt. Son-in-Law.

We learned a state trooper’s secret of how he lost a brown Dodge Aspen pulling a U-Haul on I-40—a secret no one should try at home.

We learned of our racquetball buddy’s secret affair, and the divorce, and four daughters…and now brushing our teeth is a painful experience.

We learned of the shameful secret tryst of two 19 year-olds in a passionate Rav-4 in a megachurch parking lot, serenaded by the strains of “Desire,” and interrupted by headlights, flashing lights, and an all-knowing blue-suited head honcho.

We learned the secrets of a woman with scars from an unthinkable cause, and another with an infection from an unthinkable source—and we responded in silence…What could we say?

We secretly dug through the trash and recovered a treasure horde of evil occult paraphernalia—and gave thanks for the wonder of answered prayer!


Many thanks to all our secret-tellers: David, Darlene, Amanda, John, Rob, Christy, Bob, Cindy, and Rachel! Our next night of true stories is Nov 14. Our theme is “Hard Times.” Submit your story idea here!

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Nashville – The Understory and Next Theme

Here’s Rob McRay’s understory from Tenx9’s 3-year anniversary theme “Nashville” in September 2016. 

Tonight we visited Nashville.

In Nashville we met Chainsaw, an English major who couldn’t understand Twain, who would be singer but couldn’t sing, and who used his body with its underlying text to meet39-Nashville his idol.

We moved from Manhattan to Music City, lured by the magic of honky tonks and amused by the cute traffic, till we found ourselves house hunting while the joys of pregnancy overflowed all over town.

We came to Nashville pursuing an opportunity at a major publishing house—excited about the life-changing, dream-fulfilling possibilities. We raced in a toy car to an interview with a team of quirky grandmothers…and now we are where we belong.

We encountered Music City’s fiddle-wearing monsters in the walls. We imagined a poltergeist of thousands of jumping spiders—but we were somehow calmed by research that revealed that the nightmares were true…but rare.

We attended church in Nashville in a large, dark sanctuary with a small gathering, listening to the endless sing-song intercession, gripping the pew and awaiting the impending peril of the silence-shattering shout.

We moved suddenly to Nashville, landing amid CMA crowds, finding southern hospitality despite the lack of room in the inns, dazzled by the fireworks of the Fourth and the glittering diamonds of downtown, and stepping outside our comfort zone to find the comfort of our new home.

We attended a wedding in Nashville between the most wonderful little girl in the world and a young man who did not follow a wise father’s advice…but who better remember some of it.

We lured our homebody parents from the cornfields and reality-show dates to their first trip to Nashville. The highlight of their adventure was encountering a real-life reality-show celebrity and watching him…leave the store.

We moved to Nashville to relive the grief of the river of tears, now flooding our daughter’s life as it once flooded our own, and moved to a new home too close to another river of tears. But, for all the tears, we would choose it again because we choose to love.


Many thanks to Brittany, Joe, Rob, Jacquie, Chris, Anne, Stephen, Laura, and Gail for telling such excellent stories! Our next night of true stories is October 24, and our theme is SecretsGot a story? Tell us here!

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Cherie Roberts – A Day at the Beach

Here’s Tenx9 newcomer and Porch writer Cherie Roberts’ story about a harrowing turn of events while enjoying a day at the beach. She told this for Tenx9’s August 2016 theme “Strangers.” 

A few summers back, I was nestled beneath a beach umbrella, reading, on the second day of a long anticipated vacation on Hilton Head Island. It was late afternoon, a peaceful time to be on the beach. I looked up from my novel to see my 13 year old son Nathan thigh-high in the waves with his friend, Bill. The boys kicked and splashed in the water while a mother and her small child played in the surf nearby.

As I returned to my novel, over the sound of the waves I could just hear a mother and 38-Strangersdaughter to my left arguing. The mother waved her rhinestone encrusted phone in her daughter’s face as the words, “told you,” “too young,” and “trouble” floated by me in staccato bursts on the breeze.  I sighed and turned away. I’d left my own phone back in the condo to avoid dispelling the serenity of the beach.

Moments later, that serenity was interrupted again by Nathan, yelling and running toward me.

“Mom, Bill’s been bit by a shark!”

Nothing stills activity on a beach like someone yelling the word, shark. Everyone stopped moving and talking all at once, and heads turned as Nathan’s voice boomed louder than the waves.

“Hurry, Mom! He’s bleeding!”

I scooped up my towel and ran toward Nathan. Surely my son was wrong, and Bill had only cut himself on something. Up ahead, I could see Bill being led out of the water by the woman with the baby. Her navy swim suit with its white flowers was a stark contrast to the bright red blood pouring down Bill’s left leg, covering his entire calf like a trouser sock. The woman’s face was filled with panic as she guided Bill with one hand and her small child with the other. As they made their way toward me, blood poured out of the leg so fast that it puddled on the sand. I grabbed Bill and laid him down.

Remarkably, he was very calm, his blue eyes never leaving my face as I wrapped my towel around his leg, staunching the blood so I could get a look.

When I pulled the towel away, I realized Nathan was right. Bill had the perfect semi-circle pattern of shark’s teeth from his knee to his ankle on both sides of his leg. The serrated teeth had pierced and torn his flesh, each tooth leaving Bill’s skin, feathery, almost like fringe. At the deepest places, the muscle had been pulled through the bite marks like the macabre threading of a needle. Blood poured over my hands and onto the towel. Soon, a circle of strangers surrounded us; but several people who were close enough to see Bill’s injuries backed away quickly. I told the woman with the baby to run and get help.

In minutes, a young blonde lifeguard came running with what looked like a float but in reality was a medical kit. Later, Bill and Nathan would laughingly describe her bikini-clad figure running towards them with hair swinging in the sunlight as a scene straight out of Baywatch. She pushed back the crowd and dumped the contents of the kit on the sand, then shouted into her walkie-talkie for a Jeep that seemed to materialize in seconds. It was then that I felt someone touch my shoulder—the mother who had been arguing with her daughter under the umbrella.

“Here, take my phone,” she said, shoving the rhinestone studded IPhone into my hand. “Use it, call whoever you need.”

We got Bill into the jeep and shot straight up to a gurney waiting at the boardwalk in front of nearby hotel. The entire walkway had been cleared of people, except for one man, standing only a few feet from me, all alone as if waiting for us.

The stranger’s appearance made it impossible for me to look away. He was so out of place amongst the beach goers. Older, probably in his late sixties, he was shirtless with gray chest hair and a firm rounded potbelly overhanging a filthy pair of sun-faded red and white seersucker swim trunks. Barefoot, he had hairy legs and feet, and his toenails were riddled with fungus. His thinning salt and pepper hair was wiry, and with each puff of wind, it parted, revealing a sunburned bald spot. But what was most unusual about him were the Band-Aids on his face, one at the corner of his left eye, and one at the corner of his mouth on the opposite side, giving an odd symmetry to his face.

For some reason, I felt drawn to the strange man, making it difficult to turn away from him, but soon it didn’t matter—he fell in beside me as the gurney began to move and I held tight to Bill’s hand. The man talked to me non-stop in a firm but quiet voice.

“You aren’t his mother are you? You’ll need to keep her busy when you call,” he said.

I could only nod to his answers like a puppet. No—yes—his voice was hypnotic. When we reached the ambulance, two EMTs moved Bill into the back, and I tried to climb in with him, but the older paramedic stopped me. It was against the law for me to ride back there. The dark-haired younger paramedic who was starting Bill’s IV looked up and said, “He’s a tough one, mam. He’ll be fine.”

In the cab of the ambulance, I kept looking back at Bill through the small window behind me, his face white as the sheet, but his eyes so bright blue.

“Second shark bite of the day,” the driver said. “An hour ago a woman lost half her thigh a mile up the beach. Haven’t had shark attacks here in decades. The boy’s lucky—because of the woman, I mean. The surgeons live on the mainland—over an hour away, but because of her, they’ll already be at the hospital when we get there.”

“I need to call Bill’s parents,” I said.

“Whoa, wait a minute! You two are doing great. No one’s panicking. Calling his mom’ll cause her to panic, and then you’ll panic.”

I looked down at the sparkling phone, its pebbled stones cutting into my palm. Then I looked the driver straight in the eye and said, “If this was my son, I know Bill’s mother would call me.” As I dialed, the man with the Band-Aids stood just outside the passenger side door. My window was rolled up, but I could hear him as clearly as if he was in the ambulance with me.

“Keep her busy. Tetanus shot—tetanus shot,” he said.

Bill’s mother answered the phone. “Hey, Suzie, it’s Cherie,” I said. “Bill suffered a puncture injury on the beach, and I was wondering if you’d check to see when he last received a tetanus shot?”

I heard a quick intake of breath but gave her no time to reply.  I told her we were on the way to the ER, and I could talk more then. Meanwhile, she should call Bill’s pediatrician.

My calm voice and soothing tone surprised me. We hung up, and I looked at the ambulance driver.

“Good job,” he said. “You’re a pro.”

Outside my window, the stranger with the Band-Aids smiled with approval. As I smiled back, my son Nathan ran up to the ambulance, jostling the bandaged man in his rush, moving him out of my line of sight. I was shocked at my son’s rudeness but I couldn’t get a word in; he was talking loud and fast before the window was even down, telling me that the woman who’d given me her phone had found his big brother, Jackson. Gasping, he continued, “Jackson said we’ll follow you in the car. The woman said, don’t worry ‘bout the phone.”

“Nathan, you shouldn’t have run into that kind man,” I said. “He was helping me.”

My son looked puzzled, and the driver next to me stopped writing. Both of them stared at me as if I was crazy. I looked out the window, but the bandaged man was nowhere to be seen.

“Mam, what man are you talking about?” the driver said.

“The man who walked with me to the ambulance.” I pointed at the parking lot. “He was standing right there.”

“Mom,” Nathan said, “no one was here when I came up, just the ambulance.”

“He’s right, mam,” said the driver. “We clear a path for the gurney. There was no one there.”

Stunned and confused, I looked back and forth between them, but the looks on their faces said it all. They never saw the strange man who helped me.

The driver turned the siren on, and we sped out into the twilight, the ambulance’s lights coloring the passing palm trees red and white.

* * *

            At the hospital, Bill was a celebrity, “the boy with the shark bite.” The ER doctor determined he had been attacked by a four and a half foot reef shark. I learned that shark teeth leave marks as telling as a fingerprint.

In the hours leading up to surgery, Bill and Nathan talked about the ordeal, each telling from his perspective. But it was a comment from Bill that left us quiet and thoughtful.

“I wasn’t scared when it happened,” he said, “and now I’m grateful. If the shark had bit the baby, she would’ve died.”

Nevertheless, my heart was heavy for Bill. We had been told that the scar would be large despite plastic surgery, and recovery could be slow. Unfazed, Bill blushed and said with a grin, “It’s okay. I bet the scar’ll help me with girls. I mean, who can compete with a guy who survived a shark bite. Right?” Then, we both laughed for the first time since the attack.

When the nurse came to medicate Bill for surgery she turned to me and said, “The news crews are outside. Do you want to speak to them?”

“No interviews,” I said. “He isn’t my child. I have to protect him.”

I leaned over a very sleepy Bill, kissed him on the forehead, and told him I loved him.  As they rolled him away, he seemed as much my child as any of my three children.

* * *

            Back in the surgical waiting room, I called Bill’s parents to tell them he was in surgery, and I’d call back when it was over. After hanging up, I looked down at the twinkling rhinestone phone—given by a stranger without hesitation.  A kind act—one of many during the unthinkable. Then, with images and moments from the day flooding my mind and heart, I sank to my knees in that dark and empty waiting room, miles away from friends and home, and I cried in gratitude for Bill’s life, for the kindness of strangers, and for a mysterious bandaged man no one could see but me.

 

Tessa Jeffers – The Angel in the Wine Bar

Here’s Tenx9 newcomer Tessa Jeffers with a heartbreaking story about meeting a stranger. She told this at August 2016’s theme “Strangers.”

The Angel in the Wine Bar

I met Jackie at a coworker’s birthday party in Mount Vernon, Iowa, about 5 years ago. It was in a quaint, unassuming wine bar, and she was drinking out of a large bottle from a paper bag. “Is that wine?” I asked her after we’d been introduced. No, she said, it’s Sutliff Cider—a locally brewed hard apple cider. She was so friendly, blonde and beautiful, and 6 foot tall just like me. She was one of the first people I ever saw wearing an infinity scarf, and she looked damn cool doing it.

We did the “where are you from/what do you do kinda thing,” and I was shocked to learn she was only 23 years old at the time. Her wisdom and calmness with life was beyond her38-Strangers years. She had charisma in spades. I asked her how old she thought I was (I was 29 then), and she said, “23 … 24?” We hit it off immediately.

In the spring she took me to the namesake, Sutliff Cider, a renovated barn in “God’s Country-side” where cider flowed like champagne in pitchers, guitars were played in the sunlight, peanuts were eaten, toddlers danced, and grandpas in overalls flirted with Jackie. I remember her telling me that her mom was worried she might be obsessed with old men. As a 3rd grade teacher and kid magnet, Jackie didn’t discriminate spreading her joy to any age demographic: She fell in love with everyone and everything around her. She was funny as hell too, sending Snapchats of her adventures in teaching: bad kids in time out, impromptu classroom dance parties, and my personal favorite: crab races in the name of science.

A year or so later we were at another friend’s birthday party in an Irish pub, and a girl started trouble because Jackie accidentally stepped on her foot. I was so protective; I whispered in the enemy’s ear. “I’m sorry you’re ugly on the inside,” I told this stranger, “but we’re having a good time so please leave my friend alone.” Next thing I knew, I was being tackled and punched by the enemy. “You’re a stallion,” Jackie remarked in awe after the fight had been broken up. She’d never been in a fight. But she also said something that’s stuck with me to this day: “Talk shit. Get hit.”

Jackie had a surprise dinner for me when I moved away and she gave me a framed map of Iowa that said “You can go your own way.”  She visited Nashville last Fourth of July; met my nieces and new friends. We ate Edley’s BBQ and went to a psychic for fun. I remember one of the questions she asked the psychic was if everyone in her family would stay healthy. We had private sessions so I don’t know what the response was.

But in the first week of January of this year I got the news from Jackie that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had a full hysterectomy within a week. They’d caught it early, it was stage three, a rare form, especially for someone 27 years young, but she was expected to recover after surgery and six sessions of chemo.

Jackie had her last (sixth) session of chemo in late May of this year. In a completely shocking, devastating turn of events, she suddenly caught pneumonia and unexpectedly passed away on June 22, 2016.

At the visitation, I saw our mutual friend Aaron from a distance. We locked eyes from afar but the line of visitors was so long, we didn’t get a chance to talk. I really wanted to connect with him, to acknowledge that someone great that we both knew had left us and this world, but I didn’t see him again at the funeral.

Before the long drive back to Tennessee, I decided to drive by Jackie’s apartment. I have no idea why. As I was driving past, her mother was leaving and locking the door. I could only imagine what she’d been doing in there. And then I remembered the 16-year-old me, going through a box of my dad’s things after his death and finding a razor with his hair still in the blades. I will never forget how it felt to have a physical piece of someone who is so definitely gone.

I didn’t realize how much Jackie had made an impact on me in the years I knew her. I also didn’t anticipate her dying, or how hard it would shake me, but I’m continually amazed at the little glimpses of her revealing themselves. I honestly feel like it’s her doing magic, and I cried when I read a Facebook post from her sister that said it feels like Jackie is everywhere and that her little niece Lily said: “It just doesn’t feel right anymore without Aunt Jackie.”

So many conversations with Jackie are fresh in my mind. This girl was so incredibly GOOD. We went Christmas shopping a few years ago and she told me her mom had a health scare with a mammogram and she was so worried but so relieved that the growth was benign. I cherish everything she ever gave me or said to me. My favorite pair of Free People socks are ones she gave me for my birthday. I have a 2015 calendar still on my desk from her, the theme: “The Imagined Desks of Historical Women.” When I opened it, I was so touched because she said it reminded her of me, and that I inspired her. It really tickled me because SHE was so inspiring to me, and I do have one regret that I didn’t get to tell her that in person or pick up the phone and call her when she needed it the most. I tried to give her the space she needed for the hardest thing she ever did in her life. And throughout it all, she still made others feel at ease when she was going through the depths of it.

After I drove by her apartment, the next stop was a coffee shop where Jackie worked while in college, just down the block from the wine bar we first met at. When I opened the door, Aaron was sitting there reading the paper. It was like fate. I was able to get that hug I needed from someone who knew. We didn’t even talk directly about her, we tried but then teared up and just kind of looked at each other for a really long pause and then Aaron had the good sense to start talking about his chef career. Then he left, and I got my coffee and looked around at the trinkets and antiques for sale. My eyes fell on a small black box with a sacred heart on it: just like the tattoo Jackie had on her back. I bought it and then drove over to the cemetery to say goodbye.

Someone had left two colored paper birds on her grave next to the flowers, and it made me smile to think that it was probably her niece Lily who made them, to fly up to heaven with Aunt Jackie. Something clicked and I went to my car to retrieve a blue stone I’d randomly picked up at a spiritual expo a few months ago at the Nashville Fairgrounds. It was Angelite. The definition:

Angelite is a blue stone with a peaceful energy that is calming and soothing. It has a vibration that is very helpful to aid contact with beings in the higher realms and in particular with members of the angelic kingdom. Many people choose to use it because it both aids you to connect with angels, and is also helpful to assist you to make contact with spirit guides. It is a strong communication stone, and an extremely helpful healing crystal.

Next to the paper birds, the stone looked like blue sky for them to soar over. I got in my car and the GPS told me that the highway from that cemetery went straight south through Illinois, to St. Louis, then Nashville. I had a weird sense of peace driving home and every single sunset I’ve seen since then has been more beautiful than the next and all I can think of is Jackie, every time I see something that feels like a familiar miracle.