Observe, Then Serve

September 29, 2015

I shifted awkwardly on the pine tree branch, trying to find a position where broken branches didn’t poke into my seat. My binoculars swung crazily as I overbalanced, barely catching myself in time. I looked down. This was as high as I was going to go.

“Sister Andrews, can you see her yet?” My visiting teaching companion’s voice sounded in my ear over the headset.

I whispered back, “No. The light’s on upstairs, though, so she’s probably in her room.” The houses were small and close together in this neighborhood, but most had fresh paint and no weeds in the yards. Everything at Gina Neri’s house looked well-taken care of, on the outside at least.

“We have to make sure she’s okay. You’ll need to find a way inside.”

That was easy for her to say; she was safe at home, feeding me information over my phone headset so I could do all the actual work.

I peered through the binoculars, looking for any sign of Gina, trying not to feel like a spy. I was feeling more and more uncomfortable with my companion’s interpretation of the counsel to “observe, then serve.” My companion, Sister Silva, was an older woman who was always very sure of herself, but she had taken a bad fall recently and was homebound. She spent a lot of time posting inspirational quotes on Facebook and liking everyone else’s posts. I wondered if she was just trying to create some excitement and meaning in her life through all this drama.

Meanwhile, my kids were at her house not getting their homework done or getting to bed on time while I was out playing Mission Impossible. Why didn’t I just tell her no?

“Spying is one thing, but breaking and entering?” My hands were shaking and covered with scratches from the tree branches. Maybe it wasn’t too late to say no. “I think I should leave.”

“You saw her Facebook post. And she wouldn’t answer my texts. I really feel like she needs our help. It’s the Holy Ghost, I’m sure of it.”

I wasn’t so sure. Several weeks ago Sister Silva claimed the Holy Ghost told her to come drop off some cookies for me. I nearly had to go to the emergency room when I had an allergic reaction to the nuts.

“She’s probably just taking a nap,” I told her.

“She said she thought her baby would be better off without her. We can’t ignore that. We’re responsible for her.”

“I’ll knock on the door again.”

I climbed down out of the tree. I pictured her screaming at me that I was interrupting her sleep, that she never wanted to see anyone from the Church again, that she thought I was rude and a busybody. Walking up the front path to her door, the immaculately groomed flower beds suggested that Gina at least had time for yard work. With flowers like those, could she really be in that much trouble?

“If there’s no answer, will you go in anyway?”

Stalling, I asked, “Have you called her husband yet?”

“Yes, he said it’s none of his business now that they’re separated. I’m telling you, we’re all she has! Are you the handmaid of the Lord, or not?”

Handmaid, sure. But the scriptures didn’t say anything about being the Lord’s secret agent. Surely there was some other way we could help? I brushed pine needles off my jeans and knocked on the door. There was no answer. I knocked again, louder, right below a handmade wreath of spring flowers.

“Maybe the police or something.”

“We will, once we know there’s something to report. Besides, the scriptures say, ‘Here am I, send me.’”

“I know what the scriptures say,” I grumbled quietly to myself.

We had only visited Gina once, before Sister Silva’s fall left her stuck in a wheelchair at home. I still didn’t know if Gina really wanted visiting teachers, or if she was just too polite to turn us away. She and her husband had moved here a year ago, but separated right after their baby was born a few months later. I hadn’t seen her at church since.

What was her life like? What was she thinking? I could only imagine late nights of diapers and feeding, long days of more diapers and feeding, all alone. But if she was so lonely, why didn’t she come to church? I didn’t know the whole story, but it couldn’t hurt to show her someone cared, right? I rang the doorbell, predicting it was futile.

I wished I had a better excuse for showing up on her doorstep at nine o’clock at night. Maybe I could pretend I thought we had an appointment? No, that’d be dishonest. Maybe I wanted to drop off some cookies? I hadn’t brought any. I’d just have to tell her the truth.

I tested the handle of the door. It was locked.

“It’s locked. See, she doesn’t want to be bothered,” I told Sister Silva over the headset.

“Try the garage. The code’s 7-4-2-3.”

“How do you know that?” I exclaimed, punching in the numbers on the keypad beside the garage. It opened, revealing a recently washed SUV, a jogging stroller, and gardening equipment. I waited a few moments, expecting Gina to burst through the door to see who was opening her garage. Before entering, I glanced behind me, wondering if any neighbors would think I was a thief, but I didn’t see anyone. I wondered if this was how Ammon felt, entering foreign territory, trying to do good but knowing his good intentions would likely be misinterpreted.

I crept past a pile of neatly stacked boxes with her husband’s name on them, and on top of those, photos in fancy frames. Most were family or wedding photos, but there was one of Jesus knocking on a door.

“Her husband finally texted me back,” my companion informed me. “I told him if he wasn’t going to be part of her family anymore, he should let us take care of Gina.”

I found a button to close the garage door behind me and made my way through the laundry room into the dark entryway. My footsteps were quieted by a plush rug covering hardwood floors.

“Hello?” I called into the house, but my voice cracked and trailed off into nothing, so I called again. “Hello?” Every muscle, every natural instinct screamed at me to get out of there, I was being rude, I was breaking social rules, I was breaking laws, I should not be there. I whispered a prayer for strength and took a step forward. If Esther could risk death to talk to the king and save her people, I supposed I could risk some embarrassment to make sure Gina was okay.

“Gina!” I called as I climbed the staircase. The walls were empty, but I could see nail holes where photos had been. “It’s Sister Andrews. Is everything okay?” I peeked into the baby’s room. He was sleeping, tucked neatly in his crib under a homemade quilt. I continued down the hallway towards the master bedroom. I could see light seeping under the door, but the door knob wouldn’t turn. I knocked on the door gently, then louder.

“It’s locked,” I whispered. Why would she lock her bedroom door? As far as I knew, she didn’t have a boyfriend over; there was no other vehicle parked. There was no one else in the house who would bother her. Remembering her Facebook post, I suddenly worried that she might try to harm herself. But what if she was just in the shower and locked the door out of habit? I stopped, uncertain. My companion’s voice came through the headset, insisting.

“You need to get that door open! It’s symbolic of how she’s trying to separate herself from everyone!” I had visions of interrupting her in the bathtub, either enjoying a peaceful mug of hot chocolate, or bleeding her life out with slashed wrists. Or maybe both. Either way, I’d be interrupting something she wanted to keep private. But no one else was coming to check on her. The stakes were too high; if there was even the chance that I could help her, I had to try.

I took off my CTR ring and fit it into the slot, turning it to unlock the door. All that practice with rescuing kids locked in bathrooms had come in handy. I pushed the door open timidly, calling, “Gina?”

She was sitting on the bed, her phone in her hand and headphones over her ears, but she jolted and stood up when she saw me.

“Sister Andrews? What are you doing in my house!” She took her headphones off and stood up, arms crossed sternly. I prayed God would help me say the right thing, if there even was a right thing to say in this situation. There wasn’t an Ensign article titled “What To Do After Breaking into Someone’s House to Make Sure they Aren’t Killing Themselves.”

“When I saw your Facebook post, I thought you might, uh, might harm yourself. So I came to check on you, and help, if I can.”

“So you broke into my house. What, did you pick the lock?”

This was not the reaction I was hoping for. Shouldn’t she fling her arms around me and praise my timely rescue? But instead of feeling hurt, somehow I just felt love for her. I smiled apologetically.

“No, I got the garage code from your husband. I guess I thought the Holy Ghost was telling me to come and check on you. But maybe I’ve been worrying over nothing.”

“It’s none of your business.”

I didn’t have a response to that. I looked her in the eyes, trying to convey the concern I felt but couldn’t put into words. I wasn’t sure it was working; she was still scowling. But at least she wasn’t calling the police. So I stepped a little closer.

“Maybe it’s not my business,” I admitted. “But I remember how I felt after my son Jared was born. I wished someone would have cared enough to really try to understand how depressed I was.”

She looked away. Finally she asked, “You were depressed?”

“All the time. But especially at night. I couldn’t sleep, and felt guilty no matter what I did. It was a horrible time.”

“Babies are supposed to make people happy,” she mumbled, “not turn them into pill-popping freaks.” She glanced back at her nightstand, where I noticed a bottle of medicine.

“I don’t think you’re a freak,” I said. “If the medicine is helping you, then that’s great. But it’s okay to still need other people, too. I wish I’d been able to ask for help, but I felt too ashamed. Like it was a sin to be unhappy.”

There was a long pause. Finally, she said, “That’s kind of how it’s been. I thought that, with the medicine, I could handle everything on my own. The baby, work, the house, everything. But, obviously I can’t, if a near-stranger can break into my home as easily as you did.”

“Trust me, it wasn’t easy. That was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” I admitted. She laughed a little, and shook her head.

“You’re crazy, Sister Andrews. You really thought I was in here committing suicide?”

“I had to make sure.” Then I felt guilty, remembering my companion’s goading. I’d almost forgotten she’d been listening to the whole time. “But I never would have came in here without Sister Silva urging me on.” I tapped my earpiece.

“Silva? Is that the lady who sent me all those texts? I thought she had a wrong number.”

“That’s me!” Sister Silva’s voice sounded in my ear. “Ask her if she’ll come to church on Sunday.” I suppose that’s what a good visiting teacher would do, but I didn’t want to ask Gina to do anything except forgive me for my useless meddling and trespassing.

“Anyway, I’m so sorry, again, about all of this. I completely ruined your evening.” I started heading down the stairs, and she walked me to the door.

“No, it’s kind of sweet, in an over-the-top-stalker-ish way. Just don’t, like, install hidden cameras in my house or anything.”

I tried to laugh, but it came out as a strained cough. Hopefully Sister Silva didn’t hear that idea. At the doorway, I stopped. I had one more thing to ask her.

“Well, maybe you could let me apologize by making you dinner after church on Sunday?”

“I can’t, I …” She trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

“Please, Gina. Let me prove to you that I’m not usually this crazy.”

“Well, I could come to dinner, as long as you let me bring part of it.”

Sister Silva squealed in my ear like a child opening a present and exclaimed, “Ask her to bring focaccia bread! She posted a picture of a batch she made that looked heavenly.”

“Sure, could you bring some bread or something? We usually eat at five, since church is from one to four.” There. I had even told her when church was, in case she wanted to go but had forgotten.

“Okay, sure. See you Sunday.”

We said goodbye and I walked down the street to my car, parked several houses away to avoid suspicion. I still felt incredibly embarrassed by the whole thing, but at least Gina seemed more amused than angry.

“What a wonderful experience!” Sister Silva exclaimed through the headset, “Aren’t you glad you listened to the Spirit and went over to her house?!”

“Easy for you to say; you didn’t have to sacrifice your reputation of sanity,” I grumbled.

“No, but I did sacrifice my collection of ceramic roosters to your two-year-old. So I think we’re about even, dear.”

No, not even close. I’d buy a hundred ceramic roosters before going through that ordeal again. But, if we managed to help Gina at all, then both our sacrifices were worth it.

September 29, 2015
September 29, 2015

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