Mantle of Loyalty

By Richard Drebert

©Good Catch Publishing

The imposter was tall, lanky and a brunette. She could manhandle a Kenworth truck like me. Soon she would move into my house and sell crystal meth to my customers. She would tuck my babies into bed, and they would believe that her tender kisses were mine. After I was dead, she would sleep in my bed — with my husband. They had it all planned.

My husband, Frank, wasn’t very subtle. I noticed right away that my driver’s license was missing. He had slipped it out of my purse for her to use. And according to Frank’s brother, Harry, she was spending a lot of time at the freight depot where my husband worked.

“She’s the spittin’ image of you, Jean. I thought it was you walkin’ into the cold storage. But no way she’s as tough as you are …”

Harry laughed at this, and he hopped back a step in mock fear. I felt like decking him, but flashed a humorless smile instead.

He was built just like Frank: broad-shouldered, naturally powerful without a single hour in the gym. Harry still savored a favorite memory of me shattering his big brother’s jaw with a Mason jar.

Frank had never called me a b**** again.

And Harry had it right. No way my “replacement” was a bad a** like me. I hated to think how this woman had wrapped Frank around her little finger. Lately I noticed his sideways glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. He seemed to loathe me.

Right after I moved in with Frank, our Ray was born, and I proved my whole family wrong! I cherished my baby. I had even stopped snorting crank when I was pregnant and waited months after my second child, Marie, was born before taking up the straw again.

When the kids were old enough to travel, Frank started long-haul trucking, and we hit the interstates from California to Florida, a happy couple jacked up on meth with the kids in the sleeper.

But when Marie and Ray reached school age, I put my foot down.

“I’ll hold down the fort at home while you stay on the road, hon.”

I became a homemaker, waking up to Sesame Street, cooking and making beds — while meth customers came and went like our house was a corner pharmacy. When Frank was home between legitimate truck runs, we smuggled eight-balls (1/8-ounce bags) of crystal meth (crank) from Sacramento. At home in Exeter, we cut (diluted) the meth with baking soda, chalk, talc … whatever powder we had, to stretch our dope and sell to clients.

We were a typical dysfunctional California family when Frank was home. We partied together, leaving the kids with my grandmother or mom, and beat on each other during our extreme meth highs or lows. When Frank rumbled out of the driveway in his Kenworth, a cloud of dread settled over me: I worried that narcotics agents were watching our house.

What if I got busted? I couldn’t handle the thought of prison time, the way our meth customers described it. I snorted more and more crank to ascend higher than my paranoia, and my addiction jammed the throttle toward an inevitable break from reality.

No one believed me when I told them about Frank’s plan to murder me and insert my evil twin at home. I harbored my terror alone, and I recalled the day when my paranoia shifted into high gear.

One morning I stood before a full-length mirror fingering my jutting ribcage. My dilated brown eyes rolled and darted in sunken hollows, and nervous tics amplified the desperation in my skeletal face. I couldn’t feel my biceps anymore, and my thighs had atrophied, too. Who was this woman in the looking glass? Before going out, I padded my frame with several pairs of quilted shirts and pants to try and look like the Jean that Frank once loved.

“Frank, I can’t do crank anymore. It’s killing me. Ya know?”

“Sh**, Jean! Just eat more. Or do a line. You’ll feel better.”

“But, baby, I really need to quit dope. For the kids’ sake. And I can’t kick it if we deal here at home …”

“Look.” Frank took my hands in his. “We gotta good thing goin’, and we need the money. And … I need my own stuff.”

I lit up a few cigarettes with shaky fingers instead of eating dinner. After feeding the kids, I snorted away my fit of logic and felt invincible again. I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning I drove the kids to kindergarten and forgot all about eating lunch before picking them up again.

At McDonald’s I sat at a sticky plastic table watching my 4 and 5 year old play on a colorful obstacle course. I nibbled absently at their chicken nuggets. The raucous little playground looked and sounded like the interior of my brain: Creatures climbed nets and swam in a pool of dirty multi-colored balls.

Suddenly I couldn’t sit anymore. I had to move and headed outside for a smoke. I watched through a window at Marie and Ray scooting down a bright-orange slide and noticed a young couple nearby “studying” me. They glanced at my kids.

Hadn’t I seen them before somewhere?

Frank had hired them! They were following me. I scooped up my struggling, crying kids and loaded them into the car, leaving their shoes and my “pursuers” in a cloud of exhaust.

How did they know where I was?

Of course.

Back home in every room of the house I checked lamps thoroughly for bugs. Then the telephones. I tore through the couch cushions and ripped up parts of the carpet and walls. Frank had planted eavesdropping devices somewhere

“If I turn up dead, you’ll know. Frank and that woman did me in,” I warned my friends.

If enough people heard about my impersonator, maybe she would fail to work her evil magic and erase me from my babies’ hearts.

***

Fiercely competitive at 12, I played first base and swung a bat with the power of most senior boys.

“Safe!”

My headfirst dive on home base had upended the catcher who fumbled the softball. I picked myself up off the dirt, feeling a satisfying sting from deep scrapes across my arms and belly. The softball bounced off the chain-link backstop, and the grandstand erupted in cheers.

I would add another Monarch win to my collection of medals. Mine was the deciding run in the ninth inning, and my Exeter High School teammates slapped my back red before we trotted across the diamond to shake hands with the downcast losers.

Losers. Not long ago, I felt like them. Never again …

On the diamond, the racetrack and basketball court, a forceful self-awareness overpowered my childhood timidity. Now I challenged myself to endure the pain of sprints and pushups, to excel in any sport I chose. Coaches jockeyed for the chance to sign me up for their teams, and I reveled in the acceptance, the attention, the sense of accomplishment.

“Great game!” I said, grinning, to our shortstop. The locker room rocked with Elton John, and I packed my sweaty blue and gold uniform in a sports bag.

Basketball season was coming up, and I had just reassured another coach that I was playing for her again this year as center. With long, sure strides I headed to a line of jocks boarding a bus that delivered us home. Away from my peculiar family, I dominated every key on the court of life. Any direction I looked, undefended goals invited me to score.

I arrived home, and the bus’ double doors squeaked open. I bounded out, then stopped dead at a ramshackle gate. Filing away pleasant memories of my victory on the diamond, I crossed a threshold of smothering disorder.

We had two bedrooms to accommodate my two brothers, a sister and me. My stepdad wasn’t home from work yet, but Mom was — on the couch. She nodded with half-closed eyes. It wasn’t meth this time, I could tell. She seemed woozy. Must be pot.

I turned down the TV blaring about beauty cream and headed for the refrigerator. I grabbed a container of Sunny D and glanced at our grandstand of clutter: unwashed plates, dirty pots and empty boxes of macaroni and cheese, helter-skelter knives, forks, spoons. I washed the crust from a cup and poured.

Sitting at a small Formica table, I savored the sweetness in my throat, blocking out rancid kitchen odors, and pondered my life up to now. Funny. I had no memory of my kindergarten years or early grade school. It seemed that I was born a 13 year old.

My stepdad, Buck, had joined our untidy, disorganized lives when I was about 8, and I could thank him for teaching me what it meant to endure physical pain. His beatings had prepared me to accept burning muscles and sore joints for the sake of my sport.

Mom was better than she used to be. She wasn’t as wild and crazy with men and crank as when she was younger and unattached. She lay on the couch most of the time and didn’t deal drugs much anymore.

Yes, things were a little better since I was older. I seldom found maggots crawling in the sink from old garbage, because I kept ahead of the creeping filth. Of course, Buck never lifted a meaty finger. And the four of us kids — we adapted: to the neglect, to the crank our mother snorted, to Buck’s boozy fits of rage.

It was just who we were at home.

Yet, whenever our family rented a new house in Exeter or Visalia, my gramma, like a bright, comforting star, never failed to appear. Gramma Sue always lived somewhere nearby, providing a spic-and-span haven for us kids and Mom, too. Gramma had been our guardian long before Buck staggered onto the scene.

Snuggled in blankets upon her living room floor, I watched her little TV with my brothers and sisters, feeling safe and cared for — unlike at home. Gramma said that my real dad left us when I was 5, after getting some other woman pregnant. After Dad left, Mom began partying like she had a death wish and dealt drugs to pay for her habit.

Gramma had stepped in and cared for us four kids and often for my strung-out mama, too. Even in her late 60s, as weary as she was, I knew that Gramma would never let me down. Her loyalty to me demonstrated a kindness in my life, as foreign as breakfast before school.

***

I grew up a tomboy, a loner, picked on for my disheveled, unkempt appearance. At first, my backward demeanor invited sneers from peers and unwanted attention from bullies. And every thrashing I received at home from Buck, or from girls behind some school building, fueled an aggression that simmered below the surface until ignited years later in combat.

In the meantime, I grew into Jean, the athlete. She was fearless. Confident. Taking on all comers, and in junior high school, even Buck was impressed by me. My prowess on the basketball court or baseball diamond pleasured him somehow, and he came to my practices. But deep down, I harbored a fear of Mom’s powerful significant other.

“You elbowed that big girl, and she was hurtin’. Got it past the referee, though!”

I was starved for acceptance and love, and Buck’s warm accolades soaked into me like I was an inviting sponge. I loved that I pleased him, and I coveted the cheers of a crowd after a swish or a homerun. I built my self-worth upon what other people thought about me.

In my offseason, I roared up and down our rural streets, lined with mobile homes and weathered rentals, on a 250 Kawasaki motorcycle that Buck bought me. The boys in the neighborhood included me in their mud-ball games, and I tackled as hard and bloody as any of them. Where other girls used fashion and flirting to gain favor with boys, I became one of the guys, just as tough as they were — and if anyone doubted it, I enjoyed proving my grit.

Sometime when I was in junior high school, Mom inched close to a mental breakdown, and my cousin Vanna took her to church. Buck was his surly, beer-swilling self around home and refused to go, but Mom demanded that we kids attend a little white Pentecostal church down the street. At home she nailed up pictures of Jesus after getting “saved,” and she gave up her Ouija board and quit dabbling in the occult. She started telling everyone about a life-altering, frightful demonic visitation.

“I went to church that very next Sunday, and preacher Bob called me out,” my mother explained. “He said, ‘Sister, the devil stood by your bed, and it is his desire to kill you …’ And it was true! I knew that God would protect me if I gave my life to Jesus.”

When Mom brought Gramma Sue to church, Gramma Sue went to the front and prayed for Jesus to be in her life, too. After that, Mom’s TV at home rocked with Katherine Kuhlman and the PTL Club. Cousin Vanna was elated, but I hung back, leery of anything Mom was into.

But there had to be something to it — Mom had kicked her drug addiction. She quit crank and pot, cold turkey. Now she never missed church and spent a day each week vacuuming and cleaning up after Sunday church services. Sometimes I helped her, and while dusting the old wood pews in the sanctuary, I felt drawn to the altar in front of the pulpit. It was “spiritual” up front, where the pastor paced back and forth with his big black Bible balanced in his hand.

A scene in a church skit had fastened upon my soul sometime when I was little: A judge in a black robe wrested a baby from a mother’s hands, and it was delivered to heaven while the mother was sentenced to hell. The alien idea about an afterlife had shaken me, and I knew that I couldn’t be good enough to reach heaven without someone’s help.

I’d seen other people kneel at the altar and pray, and I thought I would try it. I didn’t really know what to say to God, so I articulated the first thoughts that came to me.

“God, I really want children. Give me a little boy someday. And, Lord, I want a little blue-eyed blond girl, too …”

It was the first time in my life that I seriously reflected upon my destiny.

And Jesus was listening.

***

I stood in a row of smiling girls, stoking embers of hatred. All of us wore our blue and gold sweats and basketball shoes. The principal had handed out the last of the medals for sportsmanship, most points scored and player of the year. We were about to leave the school podium when I confronted my teammate Dixie about a mean rumor she had started — and our whispers grew louder. Suddenly my composure burst like a water balloon.

In front of the whole assembly, I flung Dixie to the floor like a ragdoll and pummeled her over and over in quick blows to the face. I straddled her, and I felt myself yanked off of her as I screamed and landed punches on whomever I could.

My whole meltdown was recorded for posterity. A picture in the Monarch yearbook later read: “Exeter High School’s First Women’s Wrestling Team.” As for my future in athletics, the school banned me from all sports programs.

Buck stood by me at the administrator’s big oak desk, looking smug.

“I’m sorry, but you have embarrassed your school, Jean,” the principal said to me, ignoring Buck in his white t-shirt. “Your behavior cannot be condoned.”

On the way out of his office, my emotions unwound like a mashed softball, innards lolling out. Buck opened the car door for me, and I crawled in, dejected, suspended from school for weeks.

“I’m proud of you, girl. You stood up for yourself. The h*** with the d*** school.”

I stared at Buck’s tanned grinning face, confused. It seemed that any door for scholarships or friendships had slammed in my face. As for the rage inside me, I felt it rise into my chest and fill my head.

Buck was right! The h*** with them. The h*** with the whole stinking world.

We moved to Visalia from Exeter, and despite her religious experience, Mom descended into a deep depression. I felt whipped and angry, but I had one consolation: My new school was chockfull of angry kids from dysfunctional families, just like me. They were the smokers who congregated just outside the school grounds, planning parties.

The school jocks wouldn’t talk to me, and their contempt opened up a vista of friendships with other misfits. The smokers welcomed me into their club of misery. If anyone disrespected me, I beat him or her down, and my fights elevated me to the status of celebrity. In junior high, I experienced sex for the first time, and I basked in a counterfeit approval that fed my young heart.

My reputation as a bad a** grew larger than life when I cruised the boulevards with several guys, picking out targets.

“How ’bout him, Jean?”

“H***, yeah! Let me out.” I tossed my bottle of Southern Comfort on the seat and threw open the car door before the ride stopped. I softened up my quarry with a few urban insults, then pounded the muscular youth to the ground before he knew what hit him. Buck had often surprised me with a fist in the face, when I least expected it. My victim lay dead still before I dismounted his chest. We sped away, laughing, and I upended my whiskey bottle.

“Find someone else!”

Rock n’ roll blasted out our open windows as I hunted.

My school wasn’t pleased about my grades or my notoriety. I fought in math class. Someone picked a fight during drama class, and I finished him off. No one wanted me around, for fear that I might explode.

Sometimes I walked to my gramma’s house for lunch, and she always had the door locked tight, even though she knew I was coming. Mom had often locked a door if she was snorting or bagging up dope. What was Gramma doing?

Her eyes were bloodshot and red when she opened the door, and it startled me seeing her in obvious pain. “Gramma! What’s wrong? What is it?”

She always smiled away my questions and sat me down for a sandwich and soup. “Nothing. Everything’s going to be okay, Jean. I love you, sweetheart.”

Buck moved in and out of Mom’s life, and together they concluded that my real father had earned a dose of my rebellion. I was, after all, his kid. So, Decatur, Illinois, became my new stomping grounds for a few months — until I beat up my half-sister.

My father had seemed genuinely pleased when his tall, dark-haired, athletic daughter invaded his life. I felt truly wanted for a short time. But his wife, Minerva, wasn’t happy. She was raising four children before I dropped into her lap, and I was a high-maintenance adolescent.

I kept my anger bottled up pretty well at the beginning of my stay, but my half-sister, Cindy, was about my age and jealous.

I was just as jealous, and when I stretched out a blouse that I borrowed, she gave me a verbal tongue-lashing. I turned it into a physical confrontation, and my older half-brother had to hold me back from beating her to a pulp.

Minerva was screaming, “Stop! Jean! No more. You hear?”

Cindy sniffled on the couch, milking her mother’s sympathy, and I screamed back, “Minerva, you stay out of my face, or you’ll get it next!”

Dad came home and huddled with Minerva in the bedroom. He was boiling mad, and I hoped he wouldn’t unleash his 6-foot-4, 280 pounds on me. It wouldn’t be pretty …

I listened at the door. Minerva’s shrill voice rose, and her nails scratched the chalkboard of my heart: “Jean’s gotta go, Ted. I can’t deal with her. She’s going to hurt somebody.”

Dad’s silence spoke loud and clear. I figured that he didn’t want me, either. A sense of abandonment stuck in my throat, and I packed my suitcase. I wouldn’t stay where I wasn’t wanted. I demanded a ride to the airport.

At the terminal, Dad nearly crushed me in his bear hug. He grabbed my shoulders and said, “Jean, why are you leaving?”

I couldn’t help brushing stinging tears away as I told him what I overheard.

“You don’t want me, Dad …”

My father’s eyes swelled red, too, and man-sized tears drizzled down his cheeks. It reassured me, knowing that he was torn to pieces, too.

But reality sets its jaws like a pit bull: Dad had screwed up his life 15 years before when he abandoned his family for another woman. He was paying the price — and so would I.

Back in Visalia, I settled in at home, and sometimes Buck put himself in charge of a case of beer and us kids, while Mom was away. I was banned from leaving the house at night, and every evening I closed myself into my bedroom, cranking up the music — then climbed out the window to find a party.

Buck hated to be made the fool. When he discovered that I snuck out, he planted himself by my bedroom window with a six-pack; sure enough, after a few hours, I popped my head inside. I stopped, wide-eyed, waiting for the next shoe to drop, but he just smiled.

“Jean, Jean … just use the front door.”

Relieved, I trotted to the porch thinking up excuses. After all, Buck wasn’t my real father. What right did he have to …

Our front door stood wide open, and I walked through, into a rock-hard fist that knocked me stone cold. Seconds later, I stirred, half in and half out of the doorway. I curled into a ball to protect my soft parts from Buck’s steel-toed boots. Buck had been drinking and fuming nearly all night, waiting.

The cops came, and I ended up in the hospital. Buck got a warning. The police officers said that I deserved what I got. Who knows what my stepdad told them. I was too dazed to report anything more than groans. It was the last time Buck beat me. But other men in my life would take up where he left off, feeling as justified for their violence as he.

***

Mom found plenty of customers for her new marijuana distribution business — in the red-light district of Los Angeles. Her self-imposed isolation from kind, loving people at church, her mental breakdown and her reclaimed addiction had shipwrecked her fledgling faith in God. My mother fell back into a familiar cesspool — while catching hold of her teenage children’s hands, one by one, pulling them under with her.

When I couldn’t find a dope supplier, Mama spotted me a few joints to get me through the days. She understood my need better than anyone. I despised my last year of high school and quit two semesters before graduating, but I had a good reason: I fell in love.

I met a man eight years my senior while partying, and I moved into his apartment. And he loved me, too — for almost a year. Where Mom enabled me to find comfort in drugs, Charley got me hooked on the competitive thrill of snorting more and more crank to keep up with him. He had me beat by a mile at first. But no one ever bested Jean for long. Before he dumped me, I could stay high longer than him.

My grandmother had let Charley and me stay with her for a time, after we got evicted for trashing his apartment, as druggies will. When Charley left me, I felt devastated and abandoned again. He was my first love, and I would have been a loyal wife, had we ever married. Gramma Sue had the same luck with men; Mom, too. Now the curse of loving the wrong man stalked me.

Months later, partying with my new lover, Frank, seemed too good to be true. Frank was a man with a chest that a woman could lean into and feel safe. He was a construction man, with hazel eyes, olive skin and dark hair with highlights from summer rays. He was well-heeled, and I respected his natural power and presence. And when I threw my weight around, testing his strength, I knew he wasn’t a man to be trifled with. Other men knew it, too.

Perfect.

I was 18 and Frank was 26 when I settled into his life, like a new piece of quality furniture. I had met Frank one time, years before, when I raced up and down the street on my Kawasaki — he liked what he saw then, too. I thought I knew how to party, but Frank was crazy. I couldn’t keep up with him, even at Charley’s pace. Frank circulated in a network of meth, LSD, mushroom and crank addicts and suppliers.

His big connection, Caesar, lived in Sacramento, and Frank schooled me in how to bring product home, cut it, bag it and keep his growing string of clients happy.

I was 20 when I got pregnant — and the prayer I prayed for a son at the little white church held me in custody the whole time I carried my baby. My conscience felt the touch of God, and I knew that he was answering my most intimate prayer. Still, I ran full tilt at life, tapering off the drugs and booze only until my baby was born.

With the birth of my son, an unfolding panorama of my child’s future caught my attention for the first time. Fourteen months after Ray was born, my blue-eyed, blond-haired daughter, Marie, shook up my world again. Her beautiful Nordic features arrested me. The first prayer for a son might be a coincidence. But how could I explain away a blue-eyed blond girl from two dark-haired parents? God had answered my prayers twice. Neither of my children were planned or even wanted by Frank, but sometimes, when he wasn’t high, I believe he discerned the same panorama of responsibility that I felt.

After our truckin’ days ended, my drug use had skyrocketed, and paranoia bonded with malnutrition. Delusions stalked every waking moment, and often Gramma Sue babysat Ray and Marie while I snorted again and again to regain control of my life. Suicidal thoughts raked my emotions whenever I allowed myself to come down from my highs.

“Come on, Jean. Caesar called and is saving a few eight-balls for us. It’ll be good to get you out of the house.”

Frank opened the front door, and I walked through, like a zombie. Two other meth heads piled into the back of our Caddy for our road trip, and I took the front seat with Frank. It was a long drive, and the thought occurred to me that Frank might have plans for my murder somewhere between Visalia and Sacramento.

It might be better for Ray and Marie if I was dead …

No one wanted me anymore. I was a shell, with no power to change who I was. My life should end. I glanced at the speedometer, and Frank was driving like he did his truck: pedal to the metal. He careened onto the Sacramento exit and hit the straightaway at 85 miles per hour.

Truckin’ on so many interstates, I had seen my share of deer shredded by cars and trucks. I pictured myself bouncing, unconscious on the pavement, ground up by vehicles, multiple times …

So easy. And it would all be over.

I reached for the door handle and squeezed …

At that instant, I felt gentle fingers touch every corrupted nerve in my body, a sensation more profound than any earthly rush. I knew immediately that it was Jesus, because of the shout in my mind. A surge of authority, love and consuming empathy paralyzed my will to die.

I’ll help you. I am right here. Just stop using drugs.

I started weeping convulsively, like a child being comforted after her first bike wreck. Frank never asked what was wrong. He just slowed down a little, unsure of what was going on. I felt the hand of the young woman in the backseat on my shoulder, but couldn’t answer when she asked why I was crying.

I think Frank and our two passengers were glad to get to Caesar’s house so they could snort away my angst. My bawling really brought everyone down for the last few miles. We spent the night at Caesar’s and hauled our dope to Exeter the next day.

A dream my first night back home helped me interpret exactly where I was in life: I stood in a deep mud hole, buried up to my neck. I could see Frank and all my drug friends around me, staring, but not moving an inch to pull me out. Suddenly Frank walked over to me, looked down and hopped over my head, laughing at me. I tried to move my limbs, but the miry clay held me paralyzed in place.

I could see and hear everything going on around me, but I was trapped.

All I could move were my eyes, and a sudden movement above my head drew my attention. An arm descended to the mud hole, reached into the mire and grasped me, gently lifting me from the pit. God’s hand carefully cleaned me off, and then he nudged me in a direction.

The same voice I heard in the car said, “It’s your grandmother’s prayers that kept you, Jean.”

Now I knew exactly why Gramma’s eyes always looked so swollen and red when she came to the door. She was praying for Jesus to save her bad a** little granddaughter.

***

I can only imagine what Pastor Donna thought when she met me for the first time. Cousin Vanna hauled me — boney and emotionally drained — to a little Pentecostal church called the Gospel Lighthouse Training Center and introduced me. The two women hugged me and led me in a weepy prayer that changed me forever. I unconditionally offered my skin-over-bones body, my paranoid mind and starving spirit to Jesus.

While the kids bunked at Gramma’s house, Vanna let me stay with her for a few days. Every whiff of drug addiction vanished, and my appetite returned. My paranoia left me completely after a week of praying and reading the Bible. I still looked like an emaciated wreck, but inside me the maggots weren’t crawling in and out of garbage anymore. God had cleaned me and taken up residence in my soul.

I stopped dealing drugs with Frank, and he wasn’t happy. I freaked him out — this new woman he lived with read her Bible while he snorted crank. When Frank partied with lowlifes, I attended meetings at the Gospel Lighthouse with my kids and Vanna. Former addicts who knew me couldn’t believe I had been freed from the mud hole they left me in.

And I was hungry! For all my favorite foods and for the Bible. Jesus spoke to my heart every time I read it. One verse in particular encouraged me. It was Psalm 40:2-3: “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him.”

As for my anger issues, I learned that God powered the truck, but I had the responsibility to steer it. Frank tried to pick fights by pushing all the old buttons, but I didn’t respond to his digs. I marveled that I was able to control my temper for the first time in years.

Then I went too far …

“Frank, I don’t think it’s right that we live together without being married. Can we make it legal?”

“H***, Jean. I don’t wanna get married! I like things the way they are.”

I prayed about my situation, and I couldn’t ignore the fact that we were living without any vows before God. One morning I drove Frank to a convenience store for some smokes, and while he stood at the counter, I drove off with him staring after me.

The kids and I packed a few things and moved out to a relative’s home. Ray, Marie and I prayed each morning and night that he would come home to us.

“Jesus, we want to be a family. Lord, change his mind about marriage.”

Through seven years of my self-destructive behavior, Frank stuck with me — an enabler for my addiction, but also a father to my children. I felt that God wanted me to follow through with my commitment to Frank.

Meanwhile, Frank partied like an animal set free from his cage — for a while. Then, according to mutual friends, he settled into a funk. For seven months he resisted God’s leading to come home to us and make things right. In that time, Jesus spoon-fed me his wisdom as I prayed and studied the Bible for hours at a time.

It would have been easy to move on with my life. But one night a dream about Frank convinced me I was on the right track. I saw Frank knocking on our front door. I opened it, and he said, “Jean, let’s get married.”

The next morning, as I wondered if God had given me this dream or if I had just eaten too much pizza, I heard a knock …

There Frank stood, a little sheepish. “Okay. C’mon. Let’s get married, Jean.”

We loaded up the kids and headed for Las Vegas, then to Disneyland for our honeymoon.

As soon as we left Fantasyland, Frank and I tangled in a life-and-death struggle of wills. Every time Frank picked up a straw for crank or got high on LSD, I experienced his anguish. I understood the pain of his addiction, and he grew to envy my God-given peace. My compassion toward him infuriated him, and I passively endured his abuse whenever our
lifestyles collided.

Sometimes I prayed, “Oh, Jesus, release me from my vow to this man. Please!” But I couldn’t leave Frank, because I knew my purpose in life was entwined with his. It took 11 years for God to show me the reason for my “crazy” resolve.

***

“Get those guys out of here.”

“Now, Gramma, there’s no one here but us …”

“Tell those guys to leave …”

I stood with my mom in Gramma’s hospital room, teary-eyed. Gramma was 72 and a diabetic. She had been on the road to recovery when she saw the angelic men in her room. In a short time, she was taken to heaven. It was her time to go.

Pastor Grimley contacted me afterward.

“I had a dream, Jean — about you. I saw your Gramma Sue handing a special garment to you before she went to be with Jesus. It was her prayer mantle (cloak), and it belongs to you now.”

I knew how potent Gramma’s prayers were — I was living proof. Frank was at the top of my list of prayer requests, and I made it clear to God that I expected this man to be in heaven with his children. I believed it with all of my heart, even without seeing a single positive change in Frank.

My husband had always been a gear head, rebuilding and souping up engines to run faster and better. I loved bored-out cylinders and pistons, too (I was 17 when I rebuilt my first motor). Frank began losing the natural strength that had characterized his life, and in a short time, he could barely grip a wrench. In 1998, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. After his treatments, it seemed that he would survive, but even after an organ transplant, his kidneys functioned at about 15 percent of cleansing capacity.

Suddenly, faced with his mortality, Frank searched his soul and discovered me. After all our struggles, I was still with him. My loyalty showed him what Jesus looked like: forgiving and willing to sacrifice for him.

Then God answered my passionate, heartfelt prayer. He sent a man into Frank’s life who spoke his language.

Seth was a friend of mine who had been paroled from prison after serving a sentence for murder. The upper half of Seth’s torso read like a collage of demons, women and barbed wire.

His tats told of the violent life he had lived before surrendering to God; now he was a wild, uninhibited street evangelist. While Frank read and listened to Seth’s story, Jesus touched his heart. The two men became friends, and Frank offered his heart and soul to Jesus. My husband kicked his addictions and became the dad to my kids that he was destined to be.

I had my precious man of God for five years before he died in my arms at home.

After Frank’s death, an old sense of abandonment crept into my soul. I downshifted to weather a bumpy road ahead: My beloved children were college age and had moved out of the house. My mother had started attending church again but still struggled with her addictions, and my brother had suddenly died of cancer at 39.

Somehow I felt disconnected from my Christian friends; I wandered into a mega-church in Visalia where no one knew me.

I settled into a job as an industrial maintenance technician at a manufacturing plant, working swing shift (no more Sunday church), and I made new friends.

“Hey, Jean! Come with us. We’re having a few drinks after work …”

I unlocked a door that led to heartache, but I was lonely. I read my Bible every other day, then once a week, then not at all.

I chose parties with self-absorbed friends over fellowship with Jesus and his people. And finally, I stumbled headlong into a relationship with Carey, a man I met while on a night out with some girlfriends. He seemed to fill a jagged hole in my heart left by Frank’s death and my acute sense of failure in serving God.

Old voices from my past roared in my ears: “You aren’t worth sh**. Why not find happiness in someone you can touch?”
I tuned out the voice of God: “Jean. Never commit your heart to this man. You’ve been through hell already! Why would you think about marrying someone who’s not sold out to Jesus?”

But I was 40 years old now, and I had my future to consider. Carey was near his retirement and had a good pension coming. We discussed keeping a nice home and plans to travel. My nightmare began soon after I said, “I do.”

We discovered very few common interests — especially regarding religion. Carey couldn’t stomach the little Pentecostal church that I loved, and for me, his Lutheran denomination seemed to be on spiritual life support. We compromised by attending Bethel Family Worship Center in Tulare.

Within a few months of our vows, I unexpectedly injured my lower back on the job. After a diagnosis from a specialist, he prepped me for a series of back surgeries. Sadly, the prognosis for my marriage appeared as bleak as my hope of living a pain-free life. My husband concluded that I would be an invalid as long as I lived.

Carey unemotionally analyzed the sacrifices he would need to make and came to a “reasonable” decision.

“Look, Jean. I’ll be retiring soon, and I can’t be saddled with someone who might end up being confined to a wheelchair. You understand …”

I choked back tears as I remembered changing soiled bedding for my dying husband — for years!I had married a man who was dumping me for a healthier model.

I reined in my old rage and said, “Carey, if you think I’m going to be some invalid because the doctors say so, then you really don’t know me. And remember this: If you were ever diagnosed with cancer, I’d have wiped your a** till the day you died.”

Carey divorced me, anyway.

Abandoned again, I ran into the arms of Jesus as fast as I could limp.

One night Vanna took me to a special church service in Porterville. The speaker pointed me out in the crowd and said, “God told me to tell you that in the Bible, Jeremiah 29:11, reads, ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” What encouraging words at a time I needed them most!

I began to notice these words often. I even won a bracelet with the verse on it at a drawing at a Christian concert! It became a constant reminder that God had better things in store for me.

***

The following year, I focused all my effort upon learning what God expected me to do with the rest of my life. I had little knowledge of what church life was all about. It seemed that God kept the shepherds (pastors and teachers) and sheep (common folk, like me) in separate pens. My mind was saturated with self-doubt, and I had no idea that God could use me to be his hands for healing wounded souls.

With thorough teaching from the Bible at Bethel, clouds of mistrust and uncertainty cleared away, revealing Jesus. By absorbing the full truth in scripture over the months, God was preparing me for a major shift in my destiny.

I had always been attracted to rough-cut men, full of themselves and strutting with bravado. But after about a year of attending Bethel, my heart grew tender toward a church maintenance technician named Leo.

I told God, “Lord, you must be crazy! Take this man out of my mind. No way is this guy for me.”

Leo was on staff — he was one of the shepherds. He understood the Bible and taught it. I was learning, but took every Bible promise at blatant face value, believing like a child and blasting hell open with my prayers.

Leo and I had a foyer relationship, greeting each other politely on the way somewhere, but every time I saw the man, it seemed that God nudged me in his direction.

“Stop looking on the outward appearance, Jean. I’m seeing the man’s heart — and it’s a kind and generous one …”

God wouldn’t give me any rest about it, so I decided to act. I asked Leo, pointblank, for a date. He said no.

I spent the next week in the dumps for humiliating myself.

I decided to ignore him at church (without much success) and implored God to take the silly attraction out of my heart. One day during worship service on a Sunday morning, I laid it on the line.

“Lord, if Leo doesn’t come over and talk to me today, I’m moving on with my life. I’m closing the book on this one-sided ‘crush’ forever.”

The service ended, and I put figurative blinders on as I strode resolutely out the door toward the parking lot. I believed I had simply misread God’s leading …

“Jean! Wait!” Leo came trotting after me. “I can’t explain it, but I couldn’t let you leave without talking to you …”

I enjoyed telling Leo exactly why he felt so panicked. God certainly has his own peculiar ways of bringing two unsettled Jesus-loving people together.

***

In view of eternity, my wonderful marriage to Leo is only a drop in the bucket of time. Our four precious years so far are strands of an unbreakable braid of mercy in my life. God’s love for me has been relentless. Unceasing.

I feel that God has catapulted me into unexplored territory. Now I head up the inner healing ministry at Bethel Family Worship Center, and I’m active in the drama team as well — even after five back surgeries.

I am on call 24/7 for Jesus and spend much of my time as a telephone minister, contacting people that God brings to mind. Sometimes these dear souls are a little surprised that Jesus is listening in. I don’t wait to put them on a prayer chain — I bring their problems to Jesus on the spot. And our church celebrates the miracles:

“Jean, I’m in San Francisco with my niece. She had her baby …” I could tell that Darla fought back tears. I had spoken with her the day before, and she had asked for prayer for her pregnant niece, Cynthia. Overnight the situation had grown serious. Medics had flown the mother to an emergency medical center in the Bay Area.

“The baby was … dead, Jean. The doctors had to revive him. Now the baby’s head is swelling.” She paused to gain a little control. “It’s the size of a football.”

I was already praying silently before Darla asked, “Can you please pray for him?”

“Of course I will. Could I speak with Cynthia?”

Darla handed the phone to the weary little mother — and I began praying with her and for her.

“Lord Jesus, Cynthia thinks that the reason her son is ill is because you’re mad at her. She thinks you are going to kill her baby …”

I felt a deep anger at Satan, the enemy of Cynthia’s soul. I had been on the receiving end of the devil’s deceptions, too.

I gentled down my emotions to talk to the frightened girl. “Honey, this is a lie from the devil. God isn’t punishing you. He is your Father. Jesus wants you to give your heart to him. He loves you …”

Cynthia surrendered her life to Jesus right there.

The three of us asked God for the child’s life, and an image raced across my mind; I saw Jesus handing the baby to Cynthia, healed.

“Now, declare and decree before God that your baby will live and not die.”

I felt an overwhelming peace in my soul, and I knew the young mother felt it, too. “I know you’ve never sensed the presence of God before, Cynthia, but this is what he feels like. He wants you to know he’s with you.”

We hung up our phones, and I sat quietly alone, feeling a deep empathy for the girl.

Ten minutes later, Darla called again.

“I just wanted you to know that the baby’s head is … normal, Jean! He’s scheduled for an MRI next — the doctors think he has brain damage due to the several minutes he was dead. Please PRAY!”

We did, and by God’s mercy, the MRI scan showed the tissue in the baby’s brain to be completely healthy.

Two weeks later, before the congregation at Bethel Family Worship Center, Cynthia held her baby boy, with Darla and me standing by her side. We told her story about the healing power of God. Three women had simply believed what Jesus said in the Bible. God healed the child and saved his mother.

And I believe that Gramma is very pleased.

One thought on “Mantle of Loyalty

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