Monday, April 5, 2010

Love Your Neighbor

Johnny sat in his office looking out at the robins that fluttered in the tree nearest the house. His mind was on a different time and place. The year was 1950 and Sandy had moved in next door.

The four young boys watched from the old wooden front porch as the new neighbors’ moving van backed into the driveway. Two adults and a young girl climbed out of the truck. “Aww gee, it's a girl” said one of the boys. They had all been hoping for another boy to round out their baseball team. Not that they even had a team. It was just a few local boys playing stick ball against each other. It was 1950 in a small town of Glens Falls New York.

The girl was seven years old and very fragile looking. She looked across the driveway at the boys. Johnny was suddenly drawn to her shy lonely face. She looked hopeful for a wave of hello but when none came she shrugged her shoulders and followed her mother into the house. Sandy was the only child of Lucille and Benjamin Baker. Her father was an accountant at a local law firm. Though his salary was sufficient for a normal family, he could no longer afford their Victorian home and pay for Sandy's doctor bills. Sandy suffered from a rare heart disease. It left her tired and unable to keep up with other children her own age.

The neighborhood where they had moved to was in a lower tax bracket. The homes were older and in need of repair. However, Benjamin Baker had carefully determined their drained income and this was the best he could afford for his family. It was with a feeling of defeat that he could not take care of his family well enough to keep their beautiful home.

As for Johnny, his father had passed away and his mother struggled to keep a roof over his and her head. His father was a minister when he lived. Pastor Tyler was a thoughtful and loving man. He had purchased their home and paid it in full with the money he'd saved. He'd taken out life insurance and his wife and child lived on their meager income. Maggie, Johnny's mother worked as a bank teller. Johnny was left alone during most afternoons. His friends had similar stories. They hung out together under the watchful eyes of the neighbors.

Mickey's mother was a stay at home mom and knew where the boys were most of the time. There was a tree house in their yard where the boys liked to hide away in. Joey's Dad was a cop and drove his squad car around their neighborhood frequently. If the boys wandered too far out of the neighborhood, Joey's Dad drove them back with a stern word. Their free time was spent within a three block radius. The rule was simple. The boys had to be able to hear their parent or guardian yell their name to come home. Disobedience brought consequences. Joey's Dad was Dad for any boy who didn't have one. Mrs. Jenkins was the 60 year old widow who surprised the boys with fudge, cookies, and extra mittens on winter snowball fight days. To the average eye the neighborhood was a little run down. But, to those who lived in this neighborhood it was a family place.

Mr. Eichler had a grocery store on the corner of their street. He'd owned it since the first house was built on their street. There wasn't much you couldn't find in Sander's store. The supermarkets sometimes had greater variety in meats but Mr. Eichler competed with honest prices that folks could afford.

Mickey's Dad owned a garage around the corner. Many times the boys would earn extra cash doing odd jobs for him. This usually meant the boys going home with grease covered faces and clothes.

Tommy and Tony were brothers. Their father worked in a catheter factory. Their mom was a school teacher. Sometimes it seemed that the boys couldn't get a way with anything at school or at home.

The only thing their neighborhood lacked was girls. Their lives changed when Sandy's family moved in to their neighborhood. The boys didn't realize just how far their voices reached. Sandy had heard their comment about her being a girl. She sat on the side stoop as her parents and a few friends brought their belongings inside.

Johnny and his friends were of the same age. This is the age when boys are the most obnoxious and, sweet at the same time. Johnny led the way [as usual] and soon Sandy looked up to see four boys aged 9-11 staring at her. Johnny spoke for the group. “Welcome to the neighborhood.” Sandy's face opened to a bright smile and at first the boys thought someone had swung a flash light on her. Her huge blue eyes shined as she said “Why, thank you! I'm Sandy!”

Sandy's voice was so soft that at first the boys though she only mouthed the words. Johnny couldn't take his eyes off her. He made the decision that he would be her protector forever. She was a puny girl and he and the boys would have to watch out for her. He only hoped she wouldn't be whiney or a tag along.

“Well, uh we just wanted to say hi. This here is Tommy and his brother Tony, this here is Mickey and
that’s Joey. I'm Johnny. I live next door. You sure are puny! What are you five?”

Sandy stood up and spoke out. “I'm seven and you’re mean to call me names! You’re not so big yourselves. I'm small but you’re ugly! I can grow but you'll still be ugly!” She turned around and flung her pigtails around as she marched inside.

Johnny was shocked! Tony started laughing and soon they all laughed so hard they couldn't breathe. “She said your ugly Johnny! We all just thought you were goofy!”

“Oh knock it off! Let's go play some ball and leave little mouth head to her dolls!” Johnny's face was beet red and the boys picked on him for the rest of the day. That night at supper Johnny still had a scowl on his face. His mother noticed and wondered what was wrong. “Johnny, has something happened?”

“Oh, it's nothing. That new family moved in while you were at work. They have a little girl. I was trying to be nice and brought the guys over to say hi. I told her she was kind of puny and wondered if she was around five. She got all crazy and told me that I was ugly. She even said that she'd grow but I would always be ugly. She's seven! The guys kept calling me ' ugly Johnny' all day long!”

Johnny's mother started laughing. “Well, do you know what you did wrong?” Johnny lifted his head up in surprise. “What?”

“Well, you called her 'puny' for one thing and since she is a whole seven years old I'm sure she didn't like being thought of as a five year old. You owe her an apology you know. Also, since there are no girls around...Oh well never mind.”

Johnny couldn't believe it. His own mother turned on him. “But Mom, she's super tiny, with huge blue eyes and blonde pig tails. Her arms look like sticks, twigs!”

Johnny's mother had a twinkle in her eye. Her son was so much like his father had been. He was a leader and noticed things no one else did. She also knew that a little teasing would not have bothered him. No, he was bothered by something else.

“Well, I'll have to get the ladies together to make a welcome basket tomorrow. Would you like to come with me to deliver it?”

Johnny toyed with his fork around some green beans. “Sure”

The next morning was Saturday and Maggie Tyler went to work. After her morning coffee she hustled off to all her neighbors. Soon, a basket filled with jams, soaps, flowers along with the names of her new neighbors was put together. Mrs. Jenkins came with Maggie and Johnny to knock on the door. A very tired woman answered the door. “Hello”

Maggie wasted no time. “Well, hello! I'm your next door neighbor and this is my son Johnny. This is Mrs. Jenkins across from you. We wanted to welcome you to our little neighborhood.

Lucy took a moment before she spoke. “A welcoming committee; I’ve heard of it but I just can't believe people really do this. Why thank you, please come in.” Lucy stepped aside as the trio walked into her front room. Maggie noticed a shy little girl standing behind a front room chair. Johnny had been right about her size. She was a sweet little thing Maggie thought.

Mrs. Jenkins was across the room with her arms around Sandy in two seconds. “Why aren't you an angel come from heaven? We have needed a young lady in our neighborhood for a long time. Look what God has brought us Maggie! I have brought some of my famous cookies. Don't be shy child, I’m Mrs. Jenkins. I never had children so I adopted all the boys as my grand children, finally a grand daughter!”

Sandy was beaming happily. She took one of the cookies and began talking to Mrs. Jenkins. “I'm Sandy and I'm seven. Do you know Johnny?”

Before Mrs. Jenkins could answer Johnny spoke. “Course she knows me!” Sandy jumped back. Her eyes grew wide.

“You, you ugly thing, who let you in!” Lucy took over her daughter in total disbelief! “Go up stairs!” she said.

Maggie was startled but spoke up. “I think Johnny wants to say something first. Don't worry Lucy! They seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot but my son started it and I do believe he can fix it. Can you speak up Johnny?”

“I'm sorry I called you a puny five year old. I'd like to be your friend if you promise not to bite me, that is.” Johnny wanted to turn around and find Mickey or one of the guys. His mother gave him a firm look that said he wasn't finished though.

Slowly Sandy turned in her mother's grasp. Maggie let go of her daughter. “I think my daughter also has some thing to say! NOW!” Sandy knew she'd messed up big time.

“OK, I won't bite you.” With that she turned to leave for her room. Lucy caught her again. "We have company and I think you should stay and be polite." Sandy looked at Johnny mixed emotions. “But Mom, he doesn't like girls. Maybe he'd rather go find those guys he was with.”

Johnny spoke up then. “Do want to go down to the corner with me and the guys for ice cream?” Sandy looked at her mother for permission. Lucy wasn't sure she even had the change for an ice cream cone.

“Tell you what Lucy” Maggie said “I'll give Sandy the change for the ice cream as a welcome gift. Lucy and Maggie exchanged knowing glances.

Lucy replied, “Why that would be fine. Johnny, Sandy isn't allowed off of this street. If you promise to look after her then she can go.”

Johnny had all ready felt like her protector. “Sure” he mumbled and he took Sandy to meet the other guys at Mickey's house. Soon Sandy was introduced and the six of them were off to the grocery store to buy the cones. Sandy was trying to memorize their names. “Mickey, Joey, Tommy, Tony and Johnny”

Sandy watched the boys devour their cones in an instant while she struggled not to drip ice cream all over herself. Mr. Eichler watched in amusement as the boys seemed not to know what to do with this beautiful little imp. He reached over and handed Sandy a napkin. “These boys wolf down their ice cream so fast I doubt that they taste it. Here's a girl who knows how to enjoy a cone.” He smiled at her and noticed the shy grin she gave back to him. “I'm Sandy. We just moved in. I live next door to Johnny. Thank you for the napkin.”

“Why welcome to the neighborhood and you’re very welcome.” Mr. Eichler busied himself cleaning the counter as the group finished off their ice cream. Soon, the boys scooted out of the store. “Want to play catch?” asked Joey.

Johnny remembered that Sandy wasn't allowed off the street. “We can do that later. Let's go introduce Sandy to Mickey's Mom and Dad. She's all ready met Mrs. Jenkins. Mrs. Jenkins slobbered all over her, right Sandy?”

Sandy smiled and said “What's slobber?” The boys exchanged glances. “You know, when she kisses you a hundred times and hugs the stuffing out of you. She does it to us constantly. It used to be embarrassing but we found out she does it to all the kids so we don't mind much anymore.”

“Oh, well she slobbered then.” The boys smiled and walked to Mickey's house. Joanne was busy hanging out laundry when the group came into the yard with Sandy. Joanne couldn't believe anything that tiny was seven. She'd listened as Maggie told her about Johnny's words about her being a puny seven year old. “Well now, I think I am counting six not five. Who is this?”

Mickey answered his mother. “Her name is Sandy and she's just moved in. We wanted you to meet her. We're going to show her the tree house.” As Joanne nodded her head she watched the boys show her the tree house. It was built in the crotch of an old tree and wasn't really off the ground. Joe's Dad and Mickey's Dad had found some lumber and nailed it together. The boys had a lot of fun in that little place.

“I thought we said no girls are allowed” asked Joey. Sandy stood still. Johnny spoke up first. “We never put out a sign so that rule isn't real.” As the boys thought about this Johnny showed Sandy the smooth work that had been done to make this tree house. “We even have a trap door on the other side.” Sandy was delighted.

Sandy asked the boys, “Do all of you have tree houses in your back yards?” “Nope, this is the only one. That's fine too because we only need one.” The boys swung themselves off the rope that was on the tree as Sandy sat down and watched. Soon, Sandy leaned against a tree and fell asleep. Johnny was worried and went over to see if she was all right.

“Oh, I do that sometimes. I'm getting used to my new heart medicine. Sometimes my heart gets tired.” Johnny was a little scared by then and decided it time to get her home. The boys walked Sandy home and said good bye.

Benjamin Baker parked his car and walked into the house with a brown paper bag. It had become a usual occurrence for him. The bag contained a bottle of beer. His wife had supper ready and after they ate Lucy prepared Sandy's bath. After Ben went in to kiss his daughter he went downstairs and opened his beer. That particular day Ben had felt like the biggest loser. He'd lost the case he'd worked on for months. That case was supposed to bring him up the ladder into more money. More money meant he could do more for his daughter. The beer started to numb his mind a bit and he sat pouring until it was all gone. Soon, Ben was drunk. His anger came back to him and he became violent. This was a pattern for him. When he was violent he forgot his daughter could hear him. He forgot about being kind to his wife. All he thought of was how angry he was. He gave full vent to his anger that night and threw a chair through the front room windows.

Soon all the lights were on in the neighbors houses. Joe's father went over to check things out. Lucy assured him that Ben was drunk but never hurt them physically. Even so, he had to cuff Ben and take him into the police station for disturbing the peace. Mickey's father boarded up the front room window with the promise to come back the next day and fix it.

Lucy sat in the dark house and felt the shame of having all the neighbors know of their disgrace. Sandy shook under the blankets in her little bed. She had no idea why her wonderful Papa was so horrible some times.

The next morning found Sandy sitting on the side porch in her pajamas eating cereal that she'd fixed for herself. Lucy had stayed up all night and fell into a sound sleep at six a.m. Johnny looked out the window and spotted Sandy on the porch. He went to his mother and Maggie saw the little girl with the cereal. Her hair wasn't combed and she looked too frightened to suit Maggie. Soon, Maggie was knocking on the door and met a disheveled Lucy. “Hello dear, I know it's been a rough night for you. I was wondering if you'd like to come over for pancakes. Perhaps, Sandy would like some.”

Lucy was mortified to realize that she was still in the same clothes as the night before. “I, dddon't know...” and she began to shake. Maggie took the woman in her arms and rocked her as she sometimes did her son. Soon, the two women were sitting on the couch as Lucy told her the sad story of her husband's trials. “He's a good man, but he just can't get over the loss of money from all the doctor bills. He adores Sandy and sometimes takes on extra jobs for her medicine. Then, he gets tired and drinks and then the scene of last night happened.”

Maggie continued to hug her neighbor as a thought came to her. “Lucy, you need a rest from unpacking and the stress. How about letting Sandy come over to visit me for the day, I’m baking today and it would not be any trouble. If you feel you want to check on her, come right over. Otherwise, I'd guess you could use a rest before Ben gets back. Be aware that your neighbors are curious but not hateful. I don't think Ben is in the habit of throwing chairs through windows is he?”

Lucy sat up and wiped her hand over her eyes. “Well no, he'd lost an account yesterday. He's an accountant you see. The stress of the move and all propelled him toward the beer I guess. But, no he's not normally this bad. I think it would be wonderful of you to take Sandy. I don't know what to say to her.”

Maggie smiled. “Sandy knows you are tired. She let you sleep and made herself a bowl of cereal you know. She's on the porch right now.”

Lucy put her head down. “What must you think of us?” Maggie touched her arm. “God has a plan for you that is what I think. I am a widow Lucy. My husband was a minister. When he died I was so buried in grief that Mrs. Jenkins had to cook, clean and take care of Johnny. It took a long time for me to get right. But, the Lord and Mrs. Jenkins helped me. So, I want to be there for you.”

“But, I'm a stranger.” Lucy said. Maggie was quick with her reply. “Friends are just strangers who haven't met yet. But, God always puts us together.”

Sandy was lifted into Maggie's arms and brought next door. Lucy sent a set of clothes and soon Maggie had Sandy all washed, dressed and hair combed. It was fun for Maggie. She had always hoped for more children. Having a little girl to care for was a treat. Johnny had waited patiently for breakfast and was smiling as Sandy sat down with him and ate pancakes as fast as Maggie could flip them. Maggie told her son that Sandy was going to help him bake. “You feel free to run off with the boys Johnny. Sandy is my little helper today.”

Johnny was surprised but did as his mother hinted. Maggie soon learned all about Sandy's heart condition and how much fun her father was. “Papa lets me ride on his shoulders even though I am seven. He takes me to fun places. We go for walks in the park and Mom makes sandwiches for us to eat. He is always telling me stories with handsome kings and princesses....” Maggie listened as Sandy chatted all afternoon. Soon it was time for lunch.

Maggie stood out side her door and yelled for Johnny. “Johnny, lunch time” Soon Johnny came running up the steps and headed for the sink to wash up. Sandy helped set the table and Maggie prayed over pb&j sandwiches with lemonade and fresh baked sugar cookies. As the children ate Maggie noticed Joe's squad car pull up next door and a very somber Ben exit the car. Ben said something and then walked to the front door. Maggie prayed that everything would resolve itself well.

Ben stood at the door a second and noticed the plywood over his front room window. He winced as he remembered heaving the chair out the window. “What am I going to say to Lucy? I can't face my daughter like this.” he thought. He opened the door and stepped inside. The room looked nice. Lucy had gotten rest and then unpacked and reassembled the living room. Pictures were again straight on the walls and it looked like nothing had happened except for the window.

He stood and hung his head afraid to move. Lucy walked into the room quietly and reached out to hold Ben. “It's all right; I know this won't happen again.” Ben swallowed and red bloodshot eyes looked at Lucy. He hugged his wife and then sat down with his elbows on his knees.

“Is Sandy afraid of me?” Lucy sat down next to him. “No, Sandy is fine. She is next door having a fun day with Maggie. They baked all day. She just about talked Maggie's ear off I'm told. She mostly told Maggie about her wonderful Papa.”

Ben was feeling like a fool. “Yeah, I'm a real winner aren't I” Ben went to take a shower and clean up. Just as he came back downstairs, Sandy came bursting through the front door with a bag in her hand. “Papa, hi, I baked cookies; I made some for you. I had so much fun today! Do you know how to make bread? Maggie gave me a loaf because I helped make it.”

Ben watched open mouthed as Sandy went on and on almost non stop. Finally she came to a halt as she threw her arms around his legs. “You’re supposed to say “I'm glad to see you””. Ben laughed and scooped her up. “Well, little muffin, you didn't give me a chance to get a word in. I am so glad to see you. I was worried that after last night, well...........

Sandy looked up at her father in confusion. “I don't understand something Dad. How come you threw the chair through the window? What a mess. You should have opened the door and threw it, ha, ha, ha!”

Ben stood there with Sandy in his arms and began to laugh. No matter what happened in his life, this little bundle always made him laugh. Lucy breathed in a sigh of relief.

When Johnny's dad had passed away suddenly in a car accident, Maggie's faith had kept her going. Johnny was not sure that God existed since his father died. How could a loving God take his father away from him? Rather than speak this out to anyone, Johnny kept himself busy. He excelled in sports. He also had become a leader to many boys in the neighborhood. Johnny had a basketball hoop attached to the garage of the house. The boys came over to shoot hoops regularly. Sandy watched from her back porch as they played basketball one afternoon. When the boys spotted her they invited her to come over. Sandy kept getting out of breath though and soon Johnny brought out a pen and paper. “You keep track of who gets the most hoops. That's your job. OK?”

At first Sandy was upset but it gave her a chance to catch her breath. “I still want to learn to shoot the hoops though.” Mickey suggested she try it by herself twice before she kept score. Everyone agreed and soon it became a routine for the group. The boys laughed at her attempts to throw the basketball at times but she soon became adept at throwing the basketball.

Sometimes Maggie encouraged the group to help clean the neighborhood by sweeping the sidewalks. Johnny made it a fun day by sweeping some of the dirt back on the sidewalks after it had been swept off. Little Sandy would holler at him. “Hey, you sweep that off! I'm gonna get all the guys to pick you up and throw you in Mrs. Jenkins flowerbed if you don't”: Before he had a chance to pick his broom back up, Tommy, Tony, Micky and Joey had him hoisted in the air. They were surprised when they saw a feisty Mrs. Jenkins guarding her flower beds. “What should we do with him Mrs. Jenkins?” The boys were all laughing including Johnny.

“Well, I'd say put him down and you all go out back and find a surprise waiting for you." The group went running after dumping Johnny on the grass. Out back they found Mrs. Jenkins had spread out snacks on her card table. Sandy had a wonderful time when it was announced clean up days.

One day Sandy sat on her side porch. Her parents had been quite loud the night before and she was sure the whole neighborhood had heard it all. Johnny's head suddenly appeared from the other side of the fence. “Us guys are going over to get an ice cream. Want some?”

Sandy looked at him miserably. “Of course I'd like some but I only have thirty six cents.” Johnny grinned. “You’re such a dunce; I wouldn't have asked if I didn't mean to buy it for you. Come on!”

Sandy's face lit up and she explained she'd have to ask permission first. “Hurry up; the guys won't wait all day.” Sandy got permission and soon they were all off to Mr. Eichler's store. She was surprised that no one asked about the noise from her house the night before. Little did she know that Johnny had threatened to beat the tar out of anyone who laughed at Sandy. “Man Johnny, I thought I'd wake up and see the whole house down after her father exploded and yelled like that! She must have been so afraid” said Tommy. " I don't care if she comes with us today, but how can we do any guy stuff with her around? Not only is she a girl but she's all tiny and looks like a scared rabbit if we joke with her.”

Johnny had a plan. “It looks like we have to teach her how not to be afraid. Maybe we can teach her how to throw a punch too. Or at least teach her how to avoid a fight. She's got a mouth but never speaks above a whisper except to yell at me! We got to teach her how to be tougher. What do you think of asking our moms and dads for some ideas?”

Mickey's mom was home cleaning and it was decided that after they took Sandy home they were going to see what she thought.

“Honest Mom, she gets all gooey eyed when we slip up and joke with her. Plus, she gets scared of nothin! We don't want her to be one of the guys, just fix it so we don't have to stand on pins and needles with her.”

Mickey's mom thought the boys were too wise for their ages. What a thoughtful and generous heart they all had. “Well, how about we get Maggie and Nancy [Tommy and Toni’s mom} in on this. They are home today. We'll let Lucy in on it later.” Soon the boys took turns explaining themselves to all three moms.”

Johnny finished up their explaining by saying “Only one thing we want to be sure you know. No one hits her and when she cries we don't laugh! If she ever gets bruised her father will kill us all. If she does ever get hurt we are to band together and get an adult and go to her parents.”

Maggie clapped her hands. “Well done, all of you. First I want you to know that girls can be tough to deal with at times. The biggest problem is that they get upset a lot. Am I right in thinking you guys want to teach her to fight?”

Mickey spoke up then. “We just thought it would be good if she knew how to throw a punch. Not that she'll ever need it. We thought she'd be less afraid all the time if she learned how to punch.”

Maggie began to giggle along with Nancy and Barbara. “What if she gives you all a black eye in her new found fearlessness?”

Joey looked panicked. “No! We couldn't hit back and she'd be dangerous! We'd have to set rules: How about Dad giving us all boxing lessons again and we'd include Sandy. Dad gives out the rules!”

Nancy, Barbara, and Maggie nodded in agreement. It would be good and we'd make sure she doesn't get winded or hit. What else have you got for ideas?”

Tony told of his ideas to get her to lift soup cans and everyone said it could work. Soon, they had permission from Lucy with strict instructions due to Sandy's heart condition. Joe Sr. spent two weekends with the group teaching light boxing lessons. He worked the boys over to a sweat but with Sandy he only explained to lead with her left and jab with her right. “Duck the head this way; throw down your shoulder while at the same time jabbing.” Sandy had great fun with her little red gloves. Joe Sr. was more than a policeman. He was a youth leader in the local church. He spoke of the responsibility of learning to box. “It's never to show off or hurt anyone. It's a sport but can be handy if you ever are in need to protect yourself.”

Soon Sandy was meeting at Joe's house with the boys once a week. Joe Sr. taught Sandy how to yell if someone tried to grab her and no one was nearby. Sandy stood on a box and was told over and over to speak loud like she was the boss of the world. Johnny told her to say “Back off creep!” At first the boys all laughed when she said it so quietly. “Come on Sandy, pretend it's me telling you what a puny five year old you still are!”

Sandy turned to him and screamed “Back off creep!” Everyone including the parents laughed, because Sandy looked like a mosquito facing off an elephant. Soon though, she got more courage and the guys enjoyed picking on her without her breaking down in tears all the time.

Some times it was a guy’s only day. That was when Sandy and her mother spent time with one of the ladies on the street. Mrs. Jenkins noticed Sandy's bluish areas around her mouth and fingertips. Sandy would often be short of breath. Mrs. Jenkins didn't want to embarrass the girl so she went on her own one day to visit Lucy.

Lucy confirmed what Mrs. Jenkins had thought. Sandy was born with heart disease. In fact that was why she was so small and had difficulty staying awake at times. She was to have open heart surgery in two weeks. All of the parents in the neighborhood were made aware immediately. The boxing lessons did not hurt Sandy nor did the slight weight lifting. Lucy was surprised at the outpouring of caring her neighbors gave her. When Maggie told Johnny he became very quiet. He thought about this for a few days. One day he went over to see Mrs. Baker and asked her if it was ok for Sandy to exercise at all. “Of course Johnny, in fact there are some exercises that you told her to do that are perfect. Lifting soup cans and walking. She needs friends and since there aren't any girls around it's good of you to include her sometimes.” Johnny went home feeling better. Lucy explained that Sandy didn't want the boys to know because she was afraid they wouldn't want her around. Johnny quickly rounded up the gang and told Sandy not to worry.

Ben was busily contacting all the physicians and making sure everything was set to go for his daughter. He had worried that he was to lose his job but so far he was not asked to leave. His life consisted of worry, work, and trying to be a father and husband. His shoulders usually sagged as he walked up the sidewalk to his home each night.

Johnny was excited about having the highest score in bowling. Maggie bought him a special sports coat to wear to the awards banquet. The award was not given to him though. It was given to the son of one of the board members.

That night after supper Sandy was on the sidewalk and watched as Johnny stepped out of the car heading for his house. She ran over to him excitedly and asked to see the trophy. “You’re always asking questions, always following me around. Leave me alone. I don't need you always pestering me. Hear me? Scram!”

Sandy's eyes bugged out of her head and tears came to her eyes. Never had she seen Johnny act so mean. Johnny turned quick and ran into the house. A bewildered little girl stood on the sidewalk. Johnny's kitchen window was open and Maggie had heard the whole outburst. Sandy sat on the sidewalk for a moment. She then overheard Johnny taking deep breaths inside the house. “What was wrong with him?” she thought. She heard his mother's voice. “Johnny, I'm so sorry you didn't win that trophy.” Sandy hear Johnny say “Oh Mom, everybody's gonna laugh at me. How am I gonna face the fellas and tell them it doesn't matter my score was higher. I didn't win because I'm poor!” Sandy heard the shaking in Johnny's voice and suddenly understood. She also formed a plan.

She went to see a couple of the guys and threatened to turn them in to the school for pranks if they bothered Johnny about the banquet. “Why? It doesn’t make sense?” Sandy answered him quickly. “Cause he got treated like scum that's why! Some rich kid won the award even though his score was lower. Your not gonna tell him I told you are you?”

“We're cool, now beat it!”

Johnny stood while his mother prayed over him. He suddenly remembered how he had blasted little Sandy. “I think I'll go over and talk to the squirt.”

Sandy was out on her back porch doing some schoolwork when Johnny walked around the house to see her. “Hi Sandy,” He wasn't sure what to say. Would she run away or use her little voice to yell at him?”

He needn't have worried though. Sandy looked up and smiled. “How are you Johnny? I'm trying to figure out this division stuff. I can put it away though. Do you want something?” Sandy was used to being nice to her father after he'd been drunk and feeling sad the next day. She smiled up at Johnny.

Johnny shuffled his feet in the dirt. “Well, I just wanted to tell yaw I’m sorry for mouthing off at you. See, I didn't win the trophy and...”

Sandy butt in before he finished. “Oh, that's ok. I forgive you. But I'm real sorry about you not winning. But, I guess you know your best anyways and that means something right?”

Johnny was almost twelve and Sandy had just turned seven. He couldn't believe how grown up she sounded. “Must be a girl thing” he thought. “Sure, but...” Johnny sat down next to Sandy. “I just feel bad my Mom spent all that money on the sports coat. Plus, now I got to face all the fellas. I should never have been boasting. What a mess!”

Sandy tried to think of something to make him feel better. “Your friends aren't going to laugh or nothing. Besides, can't you wear your coat to church?'

“Yeah, I never thought of that.” Johnny looked over at this little girl and smiled. “Sandy, you’re awful nice to a guy who was a jerk to you. Are you trying to make me feel better?” Sandy shrugged her shoulders.

Then Johnny remembered his mother's last words. “Oh, Mom made soup with homemade bread. She also is serving that apple cake that you two made. She wants to know if you and your folks can come for supper.

A quick trip inside and she came back with a yes. “Can I tell you a secret Johnny?” Johnny smiled feeling like the much older brother. “Sure, you can. I'm good with secrets!”

“I'm having a heart operation next week. See, my umm, what do they call it? Oh, valves aren't working right. Sometimes I get chest pains and pass out like I did at school. So, is it still true the guys will let me hang out with you once I get back home?”

Johnny was in shock. Sandy thought she may have made a mistake. “I take a lot of pills and I see the doctor a lot. But I can still do lots of stuff. You don't have to be scared to be my friend.” Sandy was almost in tears waiting for Johnny to speak.

“Shhhh, don't worry I'm not afraid and I won't tell anybody. You don't have to worry about the guys either. We're not creeps. You're a squirt but your one of us.” He smiled his best smile in hopes she would feel better. “Well, I'll see you at supper.”

That evening Sandy and her parents enjoyed Maggie's pot roast and apple pie. They spoke of Sandy's upcoming surgery in great detail. Sandy was surprised to see the look of worry come across her father's face.

“It's a relatively knew procedure.” said Ben, “but we are assured that it will mean a more healthy life for Sandy.” Lucy patted her husband's back as he spoke. Ben rarely gave away any signs of weakness. A different person would not have evoked this response. Maggie was a different kind of person. She spoke gently and didn't pry. She assured you that you were safe. Before they left for home, Maggie asked if she could pray with the family.

It was awkward at best, but they let Maggie pray for Sandy's upcoming surgery. The only person in the room who was sure of who she spoke to was Maggie herself. Dan was sure that God did not exist. Lucy was curious but overwhelmed by their circumstances. Sandy was sure that her father was right. Johnny didn't want to discuss God.

The week end before Sandy's surgery Ben found himself staring into the brown bottle of beer. He was so nervous and the beer seemed to comfort him. But, in the end he was more worried than ever. Before the night was over Ben drove home drunk. His car landed half on and half off the driveway. He'd run over the flowers that Maggie had planted. He walked into the house in a drunken stupor. Flinging off his coat, he heaved himself into a chair. Maggie had waited up for him and came over to cover him with an afghan. Sandy crept down the stairs to see her father. She sat on the stairs and watched through the stair rails. “Just leave me alone Lucy!” She heard him mumble. He turned and threw the ceramic statue that Sandy had made him for father's day. Sandy became enraged and ran to pick up the pieces.

Ben suddenly became aware of his daughter's presence. “What are you doing up? Go back to bed!” Sandy turned at him and for the first time she let her temper go. “Why? So you can grab more stuff and break it? I made this statue for you!” She began to cry. “I hate you! You always get drunk and break everything. Even my friends see what you do! I don't want you to come near me again!” With that outburst Sandy went back upstairs and flung herself on her bed.

Lucy was stunned but Ben was suddenly very sober. He looked at the broken statue of a horse. Sandy had told him that he was her Knight in Shining Armor. He took the pieces and went out to the garage. As he was standing at the workbench looking for the superglue, he looked into the small discarded car mirror that he'd forgotten to fix. “I look like a bum, some Knight!” Gluing the statue took some time but he managed to put the horses head back on and left in on the window sill to dry. He kept hearing Sandy's words over and over again in his mind. “I hate you! You always get drunk...” He took a steadying breath and went back into the house. Lucy had coffee for him in the kitchen.

Ben sat down in wonder that Lucy didn't scream at him before this. He'd broken furniture, windows, car mirrors, and now a special gift that Sandy had made. Why was he so violent? The one he was mad at was himself. He couldn't figure out how to support his family along with paying for Sandy's doctor bills.

Lucy took his hand and tried to soothe him. “She's only a little girl and she loves you Ben. She doesn't understand.”

Ben took a sip of his coffee and wiped his forehead with his hand. “I'm a grown man and I don't understand Lucy!” They sat in silence and finally went off to bed.

Ben tried to talk to his daughter several times before the day of the operation. He knew she was scared but wouldn't talk. Sandy pulled away each time. Ben took out the ceramic statue to show Sandy it was fixed but she said nothing. When he put his arm around her she looked up at him and asked, “Why do you have to get drunk? The other kid's dads don't.”

After several breaths, Ben sat down. “I've been messing up Sandy. I'm sorry. I don't know what to say.” Sandy was not old enough to understand that her next words were very hurtful. “Papa, I want you to stay away from the hospital when I get there. You might want to get drunk.”

Sandy turned around and saw her mother's stricken face. “I mean it Mom.” Sandy spoke quietly and serious to her mother. She walked up the stairs.

Maggie drove Lucy and Sandy to the hospital. Sandy watched as all of the doctors came in wearing masks. They told Sandy that she was going to go to sleep and when she woke up she would have some tubes in her arms and nose. “Don't be afraid, Sandy, it's to make sure you are breathing all right and also we need to give you medicine in your arm. You'll be sore in your chest for a while. We'll want to give you some pain medicine. You might feel like your flying like a butterfly and not knowing for sure what is going on. But, soon you'll be fine.”

Sandy was made ready for surgery. She began to swallow several times as she looked around the room. She had a blue bonnet on and a blue and white gown. As she looked from place to place and spotted all the equipment she suddenly became very scared. Lucy was sitting quietly next to the bed. “Mom, where is papa?”

Lucy looked over at Sandy and understood what was happening. “I want Papa! Please go get him Mom!” Sandy's lips were trembling and her eyes filled with tears. All of a sudden one of the men wearing a mask and scrubs came to sit next to her. A deep familiar voice spoke to her. “I'm right here Sandy”

Sandy looked over to her left and into the eyes of Benjamin Baker. “I'm so sorry for all that I said Papa! I don't hate you Papa! I'm scared! ” Sandy was starting to breathe quickly and Ben saw that he needed to calm her quickly.

Ben gulped beneath his mask. “I want you to relax and remember that Papa is right here. I love you Sandy. Don't be afraid, it's going to be all right. ”

Sandy's lips quivered as she spoke. “Oh Papa! My Papa! Will you stay with me after the operation?”

“Oh, precious, of course I'll be here!” Sandy smiled and settled back down. Soon they wheeled Sandy away and Lucy, Maggie and Ben sat down. The surgery took a few hours. Mr. Eichler and Joe Sr. came over and took Ben down for coffee.

Maggie sat back in her chair as she told her son about that day so long ago. “That's when I knew that there was a lot of good in that man. He'd put on the white jacket and mask and even donned the white cap so Sandy wouldn't be upset to see him. He'd tried to stand with his back to the bed that day until he heard Sandy's plea “Where's Papa?”

Joe put down his cup of coffee and relayed to Johnny what had happened next. Mr. Eichler spoke candidly to Ben. “You know, I realize you don't do much for church things but a couple of your neighbors get together for coffee once a week and I was hoping you'd join us. We all attend the same church here in town. Joe here likes to unload stress by talking to us guys. If you wish someone to talk to we'd listen. There are about four of us right now. It's small because I wanted it to be just for the neighborhood men. Now mind you, we don't want to know all your business. But, it's better to chat over coffee than be alone with your troubles.”

Joe Sr. spoke up as well. “We talk politics, romance, and baseball, whatever is on our minds. You'd be a welcome addition. We'd love to get the father's side of some of Sandy's stories of her wonderful Papa! Is it true you once slept on the floor because she was afraid of the cooties in her room?”

Bill laughed. “Oh, that was the first night we moved in. I was so tired and had gotten up four times to reassure her. Finally I grabbed a sleeping bag and sacked out next to her bed. My hand went numb from holding hers until she fell asleep. Fatherhood can be a challenge. I'm afraid I've messed up more than done well lately though.”

Mr. Eichler was smiling. “Well, I've messed up a few times myself. Course old Joe here is so perfect he squeaks! You'd never know I used to box his ears when he was younger for trying to steal stuff from the store.”

Upstairs Maggie had Lucy under her wing in the waiting room. “You don't have to stay Maggie. I know Johnny is home alone. “Oh Johnny is spending the night with Mickey. He's probably hanging out of the tree house eating marshmallows by now. They are well supervised.”

The two women strengthened their relationship as they sat together. Maggie told Johnny that Lucy had asked about the Lord that day. Most mom's think of God at times like this. Lucy had been listening to Maggie for weeks before though.

Before Ben returned with the men, Lucy had asked Jesus to come into her life. She made a decision to surrender her life and her will to the will of Jesus.

The operation went well and soon Sandy was home. The operation had been a success and Sandy was able to jump and play, like any normal child her age.

“Where did the years go?” asked Johnny as he looked over at his mother. “One minute she was seven and the next she was sixteen. He remembered the day he had turned sixteen. His mother had cornered him and found out he was mad at God.

Maggie stirred a bit in her seat. “What are you thinking Johnny?” The afternoon sun crept through the trees and through the window. Johnny smiled and told his mother that he had remembered when he was sixteen as well.

“I was startled to find out that I wasn't a Christian. You told me that Dad would have been disappointed in me. That hit like a ton of bricks. Here I was a leader in the youth group and going to all the functions. Yet, you knew I was only playing at being a Christian. That was the day you told me that Jesus is real and it was up to me to make a choice. I could go on acting which would gain me nothing or I could open up and talk to the Lord in prayer.”

“Yes, I remember how you were upset. You'd been holding a lot of things in. I doubt seriously that you even realized it.”

It had not happened over night. Johnny was silent about his feelings for a long time. Then came the night that Sandy had gotten herself in trouble: Johnny was attending the local college and Sandy was dating a boy who liked to drink. It was by chance that Johnny was at the park that night listening to a concert. Sandy let out a yell and Johnny realized that voice was hers; “Back off creep!” Johnny had propelled himself into action and rescued Sandy and took her home. Sandy's lip had swollen and she was worried about facing her father. “I'll go in with you Sandy.”

“Oh no! Dad will not wait for an explanation, he'll just deck you!” Then Johnny decided to get his mother. The three of them had walked over to Sandy's parents. As expected Ben was ready to pounce on Johnny before asking questions.

Maggie got in the middle. “Just wait a second, Johnny didn't do this!” Johnny explained what he'd heard and seen. “I'd never hurt Sandy Mr. Baker! I was just in the same place as her. Lucky for her I was! That guy had been drinking!”

The excitement of it all suddenly hit Sandy and she collapsed on the sofa and shook. Ben sat and held his daughter. He looked up and thanked Maggie and Johnny as they left the house. Johnny remembered it all so vividly. That was the night he'd challenged his mother about Jesus.

“If Jesus loves us so much then why does he let Sandy get punched?” He was angry and had thrown himself into one of the kitchen chairs.

Maggie took her time before answering her son. “My precious Johnny, don't you think Sandy has a right to make choices? God knew what was to happen and I think that's why he planted you there.

Johnny, every one of us makes free choices each day. Our life today is the result of what choices we made yesterday. Now, God doesn't want us to make bad choices. But, he doesn't want to have robots worship him either. I can't tell you why bad things happen to good people, like your father. But, I remember your dad's sermons about it. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust” was the title of one sermon. I remember when he went to an infant baby's funeral. I remember him going to the hospital and seeing our soldiers coming back from the war. He was always saying what it said in the bible. “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Do you know that your father spoke about the Father's heart? He told us of the Daddy God who longs to spend time with us. He told of the God who walks with us in our darkest hour. His last night at home with me was remarkable. You had gone to bed and your father was looking into the fireplace. He'd just finished counseling a woman whose husband died. He told me what he'd said. “This time on earth is just temporary. Eternity awaits us. We get to choose where to spend it. But, in heaven we will know each other. We will talk of our life on earth and probably forget who died first. This life is but a few short years. God is forever. We can't ask him WHY, because we wouldn't understand the answers. Our brains are too small. We can only pray for comfort in time of need and praise Him no matter what.”

Johnny went to bed shortly after and thought about his mother's recall of his father's last words; “Eternity is forever” At about one a.m. He got up and knocked on his mother's bedroom door. To his surprise she was awake. Johnny made a decision that night. He was twenty one years old. He gave his anger away and asked Jesus to enter in with everything he had. That was the night Johnny decided to follow his father's footsteps and become a minister.

Johnny blinked back to the present. It was only a few hours since Sandy had screamed at him and thrown him out.

He'd spoken to Sandy several times about the Lord but she was not interested. Earlier that day he had gone over to her home. Sandy was very animated as she explained that she was accepted into a business college. “Can you believe it Johnny? I graduate in a month and then it's off to college!”

“I have some news of my own Sandy. I've decided to go to Bible College. I leave next week.”

Sandy had flown at him in a rage. “You've got to be kidding? Are you really that gullible to that bible hype? You sure turned out to be a loser!”

Johnny had tried once again to tell her a little of why he believed. “Forget it, just buzz off OK? This is too much! I don't need you preaching at me Johnny! In fact why not just go home and don't bother me at all! I mean it, your nauseating with that stuff!”

It was a very silent young man who had walked home. Maggie had phoned Mr. Eichler and Joe Sr. and they'd both came over to reach out to Johnny. Maggie was upstairs on the phone talking to Lucy as the men approached Johnny.

“We heard you had fallen out with Sandy. That's too bad Johnny.”

Johnny turned around on his swivel chair. “I just can't believe that I've failed to reach her in all these years. Now, she never wants to see me. She told me I was a loser even.”

Joe Sr. spoke first. “You know son, I don't believe you've heard the last of this from Sandy. No one gets that upset unless the Lord is touching their heart. Is it true you leave next week?”

Johnny was toying with his pencil and hadn't heard what Joe Sr. said. When Joe repeated it Johnny nodded his head yes. “You know, only Mom and the guys know this. I love Sandy very much. If she were a Christian I'd have tried to date her. How can we be that close and so far apart? I mean I really feel like the Lord wants me to minister to people. The church was wonderful to pay for half of my college tuition. It's not going to be easy. I am going to be working in the office when I'm not in class. But, I sure hoped Sandy would have at least congratulated me.” Johnny was so deep in thought that he didn't hear Mickey, Tommy, Tony and Joe Jr. walk in. Mickey was in college, Tommy had married recently. He worked in and Iron and Brass company making a large salary. Joe Jr. was in the Marines and home on leave. Mickey was a policeman when he wasn't dating every girl in church and in every church around.

Johnny looked up in shock. “What you guys doing here?” They all hugged and laughed. “We wanted to congratulate you and be here for the party!” Johnny looked around in confusion.

Joe Sr. told him the secret. “There's a party for you over at the church. Do you think you can make it?”

The low mood was lightened as Johnny looked around the church basement. The church was packed just as it had been for Tommy's wedding and Mickey's police graduation. It reminded him of the going away party for Joe Jr. Johnny hoped no one would be all weepy like they had been that night. Joe looked great in his uniform though.

Johnny had a nice evening and thanked everyone. That night as Johnny sat on his front stoop he kept thinking of his life in this neighborhood. He kept thinking of little Sandy. Now, Sandy was five feet two and as beautiful as ever. Yet, she seldom attended church. She'd been off with the girls of the school. Johnny watched as Sandy excited the vehicle of giggling girls.

“Why girls, here's our future Pastor Tyler himself! Be sure and wear your Sunday smile for him!” Sandy jeered as she strutted down her walk. Johnny got up slowly and went back inside.

The following year at Bible College was busy as Johnny got used to the new routine. He found his studies to be challenging and fun. The first twelve months found him making new friends and enjoying his life. He prayed for Sandy each night though. In the darkness when the laughter died down and he looked at the stars he was reminded of the day Sandy had ran over to show him her new telescope. “I can see all the way to Jupiter I bet!” Johnny lay on his twin bed smiling as he remembered her antics. He remembered the day she'd pulled a prank on one of his old girlfriends. She was always into something.

When the first year was over Johnny couldn't believe how fast the time flew. He went home for Christmas. In fact, he was able to get home once a month thanks to Joe Sr. who came and got him.
The tree was gorgeous as usual and his mom and he had a wonderful Christmas. He wanted to go see Sandy but he knew he wouldn't be welcome. One day it snowed ten inches and Johnny pulled out the snow blower. He did his driveway and decided to attack the Baker's as well. When it was finished he walked back to put the machine back in the garage.

Sandy knocked on his door a few minutes later. “Hi, I just wanted to say thanks for plowing our driveway. Dad's sick and I would have had to do it or else Mom would have.” Sandy was talking very fast and Johnny was surprised she looked so nervous.

“Do you want to come in? It's cold out there.” Johnny said.

“Oh, no I just wanted to say thanks. I'll go back home now; nice to see you.” She retreated quickly as Johnny stood with the door open.

Maggie stood in the kitchen doorway smiling. “Close the door Johnny. Want some coffee?” As Johnny sat down and sipped hot coffee and was surprised at how Sandy still affected him. He looked over and grabbed one of his mother's sugar cookies.

“I've found out a little something about our little Sandy. When she says no, it sometimes means yes.” There was silence for a few moments.

“I go back to college tomorrow Mom. As much as I'd love to talk with Sandy, I'd really like a quiet night with you. You don't mind do you?” Maggie was delighted. They sat watching a movie and ate snacks for their evening together.

Sandy was doing well in school. She had a sharp mind and enjoyed learning. As she sat in her rocking chair at home after seeing Johnny, she couldn't get over how much he'd changed. He was about fifteen pounds heavier. No more skeleton chest. She was glad she went over to thank him. Perhaps he'd come over to see her.

The next day when Sandy watched Johnny leave to return to college she was disappointed. She spent her final days at home listening to her Mother talk about the church groups she'd joined. “When had her mother started going to church?” she thought. Sandy remembered going to youth group and off to hay rides and other events. Then she remember sitting with her mother in church on Sunday mornings until she was told she didn't have to go by her father.

Soon, Sandy was back at school herself. It was a rainy night and Sandy was carrying six books in her arms when suddenly she felt a sharp pain in her chest. Moments later, she had collapsed on the sidewalk. The school rushed her in an ambulance to the hospital. Lucy phoned Maggie to tell her the news.

Mr. Eichler and Joe Sr. went to the hospital to be with Ben. Ben was taking this very hard. He stood at the desk as Sandy was wheeled in unconscious. Suddenly Ben's knees buckled but Joe Sr. and Mr. Eichler were on both sides of him and managed to get him to a chair. The nurse came out and noticed Ben sweating and trembling. “If you could wait out here sir, we'll come get you in a moment.” Ben nodded and sat back in the chair.

Meanwhile, Maggie phoned Johnny with the news. Johnny quickly got hold of the dean and was given a week off to go home. The drive home seemed to take forever. He prayed all the way that somehow Sandy would reach out to God. “Even if I don't get to have her Lord, let her reach for you. Eternity is forever and I want her to be with you more than me.” After an hour's drive Johnny's prayers turned into sporadic words and words that were not even English. It was his spirit taking over the prayers. All he could manage was “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”.

As Johnny walked into the waiting room at the ICU, he saw Ben, Joe Sr, Lucy and his mother. He went over to Lucy and hugged her. Ben watched as this young man prayed and wept over his daughter. It dawned on him then how much Johnny had loved Sandy. After the surgery Sandy was wheeled inter her room and transferred to her bed. She was heavily sedated and had no idea who was around her.

Her parents were exhausted but waited to hear what the doctor would report. Ben hugged Mr. Eichler as if he were a lifeline. The news was that Sandy had come through but the next 24 hours were critical. It was decided that everyone go home. Johnny went over to the doctor and asked if he could stay. The doctor thought Johnny was a minister after seeing his prayers so he said Johnny could stay all night if he wanted.

Johnny sat in the dark watching Sandy's face as she slept. She had an oxygen mask on. She was so skinny and her face looked like porcelain as the light from the outside spotlights shined into the cracks of the drapes. He moved his chair closer to her and reached for her hand. “Lord, don't let her die.” Sandy's parents found him asleep in the chair at six am, still holding Sandy's hand.

The nurse told his parent's that he had been praying all night. “He fell asleep and was praying in his sleep. We didn't have the heart to wake him. It's ICU but the Dr said Johnny should stay because her heart monitor only jumped when he left the room to use the men's room.”

Johnny stayed in the waiting room when Sandy was awoken for fear she'd get worked up with him around. He explained his last words with Sandy to her parents. Ben understood and told him that he could go home and rest. Ben promised to update Johnny. It was a promise that he kept.

Lucy was at the bedside when her daughter awoke. “Hi sweetie”, she said. Sandy smiled and said hi to her mother. “The doctor seems to think you'll need some rest in here but just for a while.”

Sandy cleared her throat. Just then Ben walked back into the room. “I thought someone was holding my hand last night. It was weird. Some of the meds give you goofy hallucinations I guess.” Ben looked over to Lucy and said “yes, I guess so”

Schoolwork was sent home to Sandy as she recuperated at home. Her father was oddly quiet and the Lord began working. He began reading a bible. No one said anything about it but Sandy felt there had been a change in her father. He was going to a lot of coffee hours with the men in the church.

Spring came and Johnny was finished with school. One night there was a knock on the door and Johnny came inside. He smiled at Sandy and turned to her father. “You asked to see me sir?” Ben smiled and answered “Well yes, but I'd like to speak to you alone. Care to go out for coffee?”

“It's his new hobby Johnny; he loves to go out for coffee.” smirked Sandy.

Lucy was at the church with Mrs. Jacobson. She had the house to herself. A few hours later the door opened and she sat looking at her coffee without hearing it open. She didn't look up when footsteps walked toward her.

“Hi squirt” a deep voice from the past spoke. Sandy looked up into eyes the color of chocolate. “Would you like to go for an ice cream?”

“I still only have thirty six cents?” she replied with a smile. “You’re still a dunce. Come on.” Johnny replied as he remembered that scene from long ago.

“Where's dad?” she asked. Johnny waited a second before answering. “He is over at the church.” Johnny and Sandy walked up the street silently. “Sandy, how are you feeling?”

“Well, I guess I'll be OK. You heard I was back in the hospital didn't you?”

“Yes.” Johnny answered. “You know, the night after I was operated on I kept dreaming that you were there holding my hand. It was so weird.” said Sandy.

Johnny hung his head wondering what to say, “Sandy, my mom called me at the college and I took a week off to be there with you. I really was there the night you were operated on. I sat next to the bed and asked God to let you live. I sat there all night.” He had blurted it out fast and then wondered if he'd made a mistake.

“Why didn't you come see me when I woke up?” she asked.

Johnny swallowed and looked into her eyes. “The last thing you had said to me was that you never wanted to see me again. I didn't want to upset you and throw you into another heart attack.” He his immediately went down so he couldn't see the reaction. He didn't want to see the anger that might be there.

Sandy took a deep breath. “Oh, Johnny” she said. “You're probably right. But, I'm really sorry for well, everything. I've missed you. Just thinking you were there that night means a lot.”

Johnny hesitated then just jumped in. “Sandy, tonight your dad asked me if Jesus is real. He wanted to know if he could somehow do something so Jesus would heal you forever. The man's been tormented by the fear of losing you for years. It wasn't just the bills that caused him to drink and become violent when you were little. He was scared and angry. He wanted to find a way to stop being afraid. I explained to him that only Jesus could give him that kind of peace. It's the story of Jesus that I told him.” Sandy remained silent.

Johnny went on talking as they walked to the store. “It's such a simple story really. It's a story of a man who knew no sin but became sin so that you and I are allowed into a place where only righteousness is allowed in. All we have to do is understand that religion won't give us a key to peace and freedom. I know you believe that God exists, right?”

Sandy was getting restless but she answered “yes”.

“So, this God who created the world, and is perfect in every way created man with a free will. Unfortunately that same free will rebelled against him. Man began to sin. God is a righteous God. Unrighteousness and righteousness can not cohabitate in heaven. In order for us to be able to go to heaven, we needed a savior. God sent his own son to become sin for us. If we believe in that son, and invite him into our hearts, He will come in and create in us a new heart.”

Johnny reached out and grabbed Sandy's hand as they walked. Still, she was silent. She came to a stop sign and sat down on the curb. Johnny sat down next to her. Years ago they had sat there and talked over an ice cream cone. “Your father asked Jesus into his heart tonight Sandy. He's not trying to bargain with God to make your heart healed anymore. But, he's at the church right now praying that you will also ask Jesus to come into that heart you all ready have.”

The fight in Sandy gave way in a long sigh. “I'm so tired Johnny. I don't know what to say. Ever since we were kids I always trusted you knew best. The only issue I couldn't agree on was your faith in Jesus.”

“Well, I just wanted you to know.” Johnny tried to put a calm face on but his heart was pounding. “Please God, soften her heart. I love her so. She needs you. Please God, even if I don't get to have her.” He prayed silently.

“You seem so alive and I'm so empty. I want what you have. I just don't know how to ask. What to say, I mean.”

Johnny's heart jumped and said, “Only repeat this if you understand and mean it Sandy. OK?”

Sandy nodded yes. That day Johnny led Sandy to the Lord in grand style from the curb outside of the ice cream shop. Mr. Eichler was in the window praising God. As Sandy opened her eyes it was if everything was clearer. She told Johnny how she felt. She looked up at him but her eyes teared up and she could barely see him. For a moment they were little kids hugging and laughing.

When they went into the store Johnny struggled to speak as they ordered their ice cream cones. Mr. Eichler told them the cones were 'on the house'.

Things happened rather quickly after that. Sandy spent hours with the women at church in studies of this new Jesus she had found. She also enjoyed time with Johnny instructing her as well. It was amazing to see the transformation in Ben. He was always suddenly set free to give big bear hugs and laughter went with him wherever he went. His old friends in accounting couldn't believe it was the same man. Ben ended up sharing his faith at work. Soon, a young man came under his wing and Ben shared with him all that he had learned.

Then came the night that Johnny knocked on the door and Sandy saw him come flying in. He explained that he was given a small church to serve. He was actually going to be a co-pastor. His eyes were bright and he kept laughing and hugging Sandy.

Sandy was quiet and Johnny waited for her to say something. “It looks like I won't be able to tag along with you anymore.” She was looking down at her feet. She was happy for Johnny. She loved Johnny and felt bad that she couldn't truly be happy about all this.

Johnny hadn't prepared himself for Sandy's reaction. He became suddenly overwhelmed to see that God had answered his prayer. Sandy cared about him. He decided to take a chance and see how much she cared.
Aww Sandy, you can come too if you want. But I'll warn you, it won't be easy. You'll have to change your name.”

Sandy looked into his eyes that looked like he was struggling to remain calm. “Sandy, do you know I love you and I'm asking you to marry me?”

“Well, I was a little confused.” she said. Johnny was getting scared. “Was I wrong to as?”

“Oh no, I'm just trying to catch my breath. / No, it's not my heart; well it is, but not physically. I've loved you since I was ten and...I don't know what to say.”

All of a sudden Lucy, Ben and Maggie appeared. They were home from church and had witnessed this precious moment. Ben walked over to his daughter. “I think the answer is yes, but I don't know. It's been a while since I asked your mother to marry me. Maybe they do things different now.” He was giggling like a kid.

The spell was broken and Sandy leaped into Johnny's arms. “Yes, yes and yes!” A few months later found them packing to leave for the church where Johnny would be ministering.

Sandy stopped when her mother gave her an envelope. She had had several medical tests done before they had gotten married. This was the last of them. Her heart specialist had written a personal letter. “According to the last x-rays and tests that were done, I find no reason why you can not enjoy a healthy and wonderful life. By that I mean, if you choose to have children; I give you my blessing!”

Sandy grinned. She was blessed beyond the curse and His promises endured. Her joy was now her strength. First though, she had some news for Johnny.

Johnny sat in the chair downstairs going over the road map. “You may have to make several stops Johnny; In case of morning sickness and things.”

“Sure, no problem Sandy, You get sick in the morning only?” He looked up worried. “What do you have there?'

Sandy handed him the doctor's report. He read it and swung his wife around in a hug. “Well now, we'll have to see about that!”

“Yeah, just think...I'll get a huge belly, and have MORNING SICKNESS!” she yelled to get his attention.

Finally Johnny understood. “Sandy, I'm thrilled but what if the doctor had said no?”

Sandy laughed as she patted her flat stomach. “Well, he would have a hard time arguing with John Paul Tyler!”

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