I like to tell people that I’m a quarter Lutheran.
But I’m really not.
I tell people that because it helps them to stay focused on the story — because when someone makes a statement that ridiculous and silly, naturally, everybody’s going to start asking questions.
When I was a little kid, we spent a lot of time with my grandparents in South Dakota. I think we visited about one weekend per month (roughly), and we always went to church with them. Hence, my being a quarter Lutheran.
Between all the Chapel services, Sunday School and roughly one Lutheran church service per month, by the time I was about 5 I knew just about everything there was to know (from an intellectual, memorizational standpoint) about God and Jesus. I also knew that the Lutheran church talked about Epiphany and Lent and Advent and Pentecost, but I wasn’t around enough to have any clue what those things were all about.
I must have heard several sermons on hellfire and brimstone too, because I was absolutely terrified of death.
Summer was the worst.
There was something about the sticky, stifling heat of summer. Something about the chirping grasshoppers outside my window and the strains of eerie music that signaled the beginning and end of the radio program, “Night Sounds,” that I listened to as I was drifting off to sleep every night. Something about the clunking and rattling of the baby blue box fans that labored unsuccessfully to cool my bedroom as I labored – desperately – to sleep in the hot, sticky dusk of late evening.
Summer wasn’t so bad the first three years of my life. Those years were heavenly in my little mind. I shared a tiny bedroom with my two older brothers and my baby brother. The room was so small that it barely held the crib and bunk bed, the tiny dresser and the bookshelf that held all the picture books we loved to read. Every night, my mom came in to deposit little David in the crib and then stepped up on the bottom bunk to reach up to kiss my oldest brother, Jonathan, goodnight. Then she knelt next to the bottom bunk and kissed my other older brother, Andy. She moved to the other end of the bed where I was snuggling into the blankets and hugging the pink bunny that was given to me when I was born by one of the people who had rented the upstairs portion of the house that was closed off from the main floor. Mom sat on the bed and leaned over to kiss me. “I love you,” she whispered and then kissed me again. Then she whispered the most important thing I thought I had ever heard; the secret that I begged her to tell me every single night before I could fall asleep. “The most important thing about you is that you are you.” One more kiss and then she tiptoed out and closed the door. I was left to dream sweet dreams.
When my parents decided to build another bedroom on to the house when I was 4, my brothers took the bunk bed and crib with them when they moved into the big bedroom next to mine. I was given a large, unfriendly metal bed that was probably left over from the World War II era. The bed was enormous. Room to stretch, right? Not to this little girl. I was drowning in bed. I hated everything about it.
The thing that mattered the most to me about my brothers moving was not the change in furniture. It seemed as if when they left, they took the comfort and security I had always felt into their new room. I’d never slept alone before and it terrified me. I certainly didn’t like it, but at first, it wasn’t too terrible.
But as weeks turned to months and winter winds began to die and the warm breeze of spring turned into the hot stickiness of summer, things in the room began to change. The heat was unquenchable. Harsh, driving rains coupled with hail and funnel clouds in the green sky did nothing to cool the air. It only served to make the heat more eerie and oppressive. It felt almost as if the heat of hell had somehow invaded my bedroom.
I began to have nightmares. I dreamed that I was dying. That I had died. That I was alone and I was dying and no one knew. I saw myself in a casket, ready to be closed up into a waterproof box and dropped into a hole in the ground to be covered with a mountain of soil.
I sought comfort in my brothers’ room. The atmosphere was different there. Their baby blue box fan didn’t clunk and rattle. And it moved the air. It cooled the room. The temperature difference was very noticeable.
I crawled into bed with Andy for comfort. This always helped. I didn’t need to talk. I just needed something warm and comforting. Somebody. Sometimes I told him my dreams. He never breathed a word of it to anyone, although I think they probably scared him almost as much as they scared me.
The dreams became more terrifying. Dreams of being kidnapped by aliens in weird spaceships. This was worse than death, because the end result was so ambiguous. Who really knows what happens to you if you are kidnapped by aliens? I had dreams of wars with aliens. Laser beams were aimed at my house from an unidentified source in the sky. Meteors crashed into the earth in my backyard leaving a crater that engulfed what had previously been my home.
Terror reigned. I could not be alone, even during the day.
At night, the heat of hell and terror of night filtered into my bedroom where I stretched out alone on the gigantic bed that swallowed my tiny body. I lay for hours, trying unsuccessfully to sleep. I could sense when my mom was about to go to bed. Minutes before she would have turned the kitchen light off before crawling into her own bed, I got out of bed and climbed into her lap.
I told her I was scared. She put me back into bed and went to bed herself. I was more terrified than ever. If I were to suddenly die, no one would find me for many hours. I finally fell into a fitful sleep, only to wake a few hours later after another nightmare.
Sometimes I went to my parents’ room. I shook mom and said, “Mom! I had a bad dream. I’m scared.”
I don’t know how often this happened. In my mind, it seemed constant and unending. I fell asleep only to be wakened a few hours later with a nightmare. What little sleep I did get was troubled.
It finally came to an end just before Christmas when I was seven years old. It was sometime in the wee hours of the morning – between when my mom went to bed at around midnight and when my dad got up at 4:30. I woke from another nightmare, terrified.
I woke my mom again, and she brought me back to my room and put me back in bed. I could tell that something was going to be different this time.
“What is wrong with you?” my mom asked. “Why do you keep waking me up in the middle of the night?”
I thought I had explained it before, but apparently I hadn’t. “I’m scared,” I said.
“But what are you scared of?”
I didn’t want to tell her, because even though I was so little, I knew it was kind of silly. But it was so very real to me that I couldn’t just pretend that it wasn’t there. “I’m afraid I’m going to die,” I blurted out.
“Oh,” my mom replied. “Is that all?”
“Yes!” I said. By this time, I was almost in tears.
She told me that I didn’t need to be afraid to die because Jesus died so that I didn’t have to worry about what happened if I died. Although my parents took us to a prayer meeting, Sunday school and three church services a week, I had never heard that before. I knew practically everything there was to know about God and Jesus from having gone to church so much, but no one had ever said anything about being able to know for certain what would happen to me after I died.
She went on to explain that when Jesus died, it wasn’t just for the world in general, it was for me personally, and if I asked Jesus to come into my heart, I could know that I was going to spend all of time with Jesus after I died.
When Mom asked me if I wanted to do that, I remember sitting in my bed, weighing this decision very carefully. It was almost as if I knew that I couldn’t go back if I decided to go forward into this strange new thing with this guy named Jesus. I almost said no. I was tired. I just wanted to go to sleep. Seeing Mom was enough for right then. I would be ok for the next couple of hours.
Then I thought about the terror I always felt when I was alone. I said, very quietly and very seriously, “Yes.”
I said a short prayer telling Jesus that I was sorry for hurting Him when I was naughty and that I wanted Him to live in me, and then Mom turned the light out and closed the door behind her.
And I slept. For the first time that I could remember, I slept the rest of the night without nightmares and without waking up.