It was a Friday afternoon. The halls were filled with the impatient noises of kids recently set free. I couldn’t wait for the weekend. I hitched my backpack up on my bony shoulder and made my way through the salmon-stream corridors of the little Christian school my sisters and I attended.
In the car, with my teacher-mother, teacher-dad, and two younger sisters I let my mind wander. I’d tried so hard to keep it tethered to reality during class that afternoon, but it rebelled like an unbroken colt . Now I let it feed on the green grasses of my weekend freedom. Already I knew in which corner of my backyard I’d sit, twiddling strands of beleaguered hair, reading Arabian Nights. Oh Scheherezade…
I snapped to attention as my mother’s voice penetrated the misty moors of my mind. “…did school go today?” She’d gone down the line, making sure each daughter’s world was in order.
“It was fine, except my Bible teacher, Mr. X, makes me nervous. He’s not mean or anything, and I usually answer his questions. But he’s just big and loud. Even his kids are big and loud.” I sighed.
I’d left out the part about how Mr. X had a rule, which was that no student was allowed to take a test or a quiz if he or she had not brought a proper writing utensil to class. Today I hadn’t. My teacher-pleasing heart stressed to the limit, I had approached him timidly when he’d announced our Friday morning quiz. I do not have a pen. I’d swallowed hard as I’d squeaked the news to him.
He had smiled loudly (if that were possible), clapped me rather hard on the back, and had taken an ornate pen from his pocket. He’d told me it was fine, just this once, and that I could use his special pen to take my exam as long as I remembered to return it to him after class..
My mother’s eyes had returned to the road just as the ugly truth began to dawn on me. I had forgotten to return the pen! I routinely forgot all manner of things unrelated to my dreams, but this was different. This was worse than a bad test grade. My heart dropped.
I was sure the gilded treasure had to be among my things in the car. I immediately began to pray it was. Then maybe he’d never really have to know I’d taken it. I’d just slide in to class on Monday, slip the pen on his desk, and everything would be right again. I groped in my jeans pocket. The pen was not there. It was not in my backpack. It was not anywhere. Oh Lord, no…
That night I told my dark secret to my sisters. They were in the 3rd and 4th grades and were duly impressed with the magnitude of my predicament. R, in particular, had always had a permeable heart. Gentle and mostly quiet, she could charm animals and people with her kindness, her ability to listen, and to wait. When I unfolded the horrible nuances of my story to my young female audience, her eyes grew wide.
“We’ll think of something,” she said, her voice firm. “Maybe we could get him a present so that he won’t be so mad when he finds out you lost his pen. What does he like?” She was brainstorming now, ready to make things better.
“I don’t know what he likes. I’m sure it’s nothing I could get him. I don’t have any money, and all my pens are cheap. Not one of them has any gold on it and most are chewed. But I don’t want to tell Mom and Dad about it. Oh, I am so worried,” I moaned bitterly. My chest squeezed as I imagined telling the booming Mr. X about his beloved rococo-style pen, never to be seen again.
I’m still not sure how it happened, or when exactly, but the next day R approached me. She wore a sweet I’ve-taken-care-of-it smile. From behind her back she drew a pearly pink gift bag. I believe Precious Moments figures graced the front. She sat down on my bed and removed a small mountain of pink tissue paper, scented. In the bag lay a tiny stuffed bear, a girlish pink pen, and some hearts-and-flowers stationary.
“It’s for Mr. X. So he wouldn’t be mad about the pen. I had some birthday money…” R beamed.
I was speechless. I wanted to cry, and laugh, but I was so relieved that everything stuck in my throat.
“You didn’t have to do that, ” I finally croaked. “It was your birthday money.”
“He will like these things. And even if he doesn’t, he can’t be mad after he sees this bag,” she persisted.
She was right.
On Monday morning I presented Mr. X with the softly shimmering birthday bag. I muttered a stilted apology and searched for a place to rest my eyes. He surprised me by not yelling a single question. He half-whispered a bemused ‘thank you’ and never said another word about it.
R saved my life that day. She’s saved it a few times since. Today is her birthday again, and she is 33 years old. She remains my dearest friend, along with my baby sister M. She is still that kind and quiet girl, thoughtful and passionate. She is smart enough to be a cynic but carries a heart that cannot help but spill out for others. She is staunchly loyal to her family and will never be persuaded to turn her back on them. I’ve seen R bleed out and bleed out until there’s not much left of her, but the Lord always gently fills her back up again.
Happy Birthday, R. You have made my life profoundly better by being in it, and not just because of Mr. X and the pen. For so many reasons, I cannot imagine a world without you.