the lighting was bright and heartless,
– much like the bureaucracy she daily fought against –
and hour after uneventful hour she warmed the bench with her pointed smiles and her peaceful persistence.
I was thirteen years old, and never had I felt more powerless. i had just spent a semester in what I presumed was what everyone called “high school” – a 9th grade remedial program designed for young reprobates and sheltered homeschoolers. I had learned a few unrepeatably colorful sexual terms during my first lunch break there, and had spent another locking an over-eager fifteen-year-old out of the classroom when he threatened to give my baby sister her first kiss. Now, a few scalding desert summer months later, I was roaming the halls of my first community college campus where I was to be enrolled at the first possible opportunity – given my age and “lack of life experience.”
Never had I believed in myself less, and never had someone so confidently stepped up to bat for me.
While she sat, I paced, wandering the halls of my soon-to-be campus, sticking coins in vending machines and trying to be as far as my limbs & lack of driver’s license could take me from the agonizing wait she endured on my behalf, with her characteristic, enfuriating determination.
That first day I wandered slowly back to the ill-lit office where she waited, where I was greeted by her steely grin and a resolute,
“Well, the Dean could not meet with me today & she’s finally left her office. So you know what that means? We’ll just be back tomorrow.”
And with that, she took her gracious leave of a rather non-plussed front desk secretary and whisked me out the front door.
The next day, bright and embarrassingly early, we were back – ushered in again to the samefluorescent lighting and limited hospitality of the Dean’s Office front desk of the day before and the same (now warmer) front desk secretary. My lion-hearted advocate had a way of unceremoniously demolishing people’s defenses with her boisterous, joyful charm and unflinching resolve. She was a mystery to all who met her – including myself – but the sort that you really want to solve, in spite of yourself.
The second and the third day we waited. She taught me how to wait, that woman – the sort of active waiting that involved a lot of preemptive paperwork and talking through every possible outcome of my very future, very hypothetical conference with the elusive Dean. As I desperately tried to seem swept up in pixellated re-runs of America’s Funniest Home Videos, her voice would be in my ear, willing me to work and re-work, say and re-say, everything about my short, unusual life that would convince someone that, at a meager thirteen, I was ready to take on the world of higher education.
I pretended to ignore her, but it was difficult to pretend that even traces of her stubborn confidence did not begin to sharpen my edges and sculpt me into the woman of valor I was capable of becoming.
“If she asks you about life experience, what are you going to say?”, she would repeat, as if for the first time. As if I was listening.
“Oh my word, LOOK, that kitten just fell through that grate!” I would cackle quietly, trying my best not to draw the coeds’ attention; trying my best to hang onto whatever vestige of phantom childhood I could still manage to conjure up.
Unmoved, she would continue. “Tell them about Mexico,” she would say. “Tell them how you grew up in a foreign country. Tell them you speak another language. Tell them how you’ve seen and smelled and heard and participated in things your classmates have not yet dreamed of or attempted.”
I would roll my eyes and return to my kittens, but I knew she was right.
She was right because she had been there.
She had woken me up every Saturday morning at ungodly hours to drive my sister and I to a neighborhood where all of our friends lived in cardboard boxes and never showered and shared one threadbare soccer ball between all thirty of them.
She had driven with me across states and across the continent, introducing me to stories and strange church families and Niagara Falls and wild onions and the freaking Liberty Bell.
She had filled my over-active child’s imagination with vivid images of the oppressed and oppressor; the lowly and the lofty; sinner and saint, sovereign and shamed. She had personally distilled in me an understanding of service that required my immediate action in the face of injustice, intolerance and all of the insipid inner workings of playground marginalization.
I had no right to play stupid, because at thirteen I already knew what it meant to sell all of my possessions and uproot my life for love.
I knew because she had modeled sacrifice for me, and here she was again – going to battle for me this time.
A few weeks passed of this daily nonsense: the non-plussed front desk secretary pretending not to see us, and us pretending not to see her complete indifference. Needless to say, the morning that the infamous secretary stepped out from behind her desk-sized fortress and over the threshold into the waiting room to receive me was a formidable one in both our memories. After waiting long enough, it’s sometimes hard to accept that which you waited on so long. Nevertheless, I was told the Dean was expecting me and down the golden-brick hallway I sheepishly went, behind the curtain to meet the wizard who would grant me my education and, simultaneously, my courage.
My sister and I were the youngest students to be admitted to the Associate’s program for elementary education and all our classmates knew it. The Dean told us that we were far too young and we looked it – but something about the way we’d presented ourselves and the way that our gentle, ferocious mother had fought to get us in had convinced her to admit us, in spite of her better judgement. She warned us not to make her regret it, and we didn’t.
Later, when I learned one Sunday about the story of the persistent widow, the woman who went before the unfeeling judge daily with her petition for inconvenient justice, I knew exactly who the story referred to. I had my own living, breathing, un-widowed widow.
Later, when I read voraciously through the soaring speeches of one Dr. King on the road to civil rights, something in his tone sounded strangely familiar – like a midday deja vu or a scene from a forgotten dream.
Later, when I took up my own little battles on the road to New Jerusalem – when I took the small hands of the precious preschool souls my Jesus would ask me to advocate for – I pulled her well-worn shoes out of the closet and let my toes sink into those stalwart soles as I prayed for a fraction of her steadfastness.
With the woman who bore me, my biological mother and my spiritual midwife today I stand
frightened but ferocious,
weak but willing,
calm but unrelenting.
Together now, as sisters, grown closer together by both time and trial, we both administer persistent love as best we can to match our Savior’s for us –
me following just behind, on her heels, keeping time with her long strides as best I can –
and together also we dream of a new kingdom coming, when
all the fluorescent lighting and all the apathetic gatekeepers,
all the roadblocks and waiting rooms and unfeeling judges,
all the waiting and all the warring,
will fade in the glorious light of our persistent, pursuing Father, come to make everything new again, like freedom in spring.