Ed and Danny were twins. They were born in 1966 on a cold January night in a small hospital outside of Detroit, Michigan, and they lived their whole childhoods in the same house with their mother. Their father moved out when they were eleven and was briefly remarried, but they saw him on weekends and at their soccer games.
Their mother, Patricia, found comfort at the local independent Bible church. She became active in the ladies’ care group and took the boys to the midweek children’s ministry, called AWANA. They memorized a total of twelve bible verses each, beginning with “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
Then they begged to quit.
As teens they were occasionally attendants of the church youth group events. They played super-soaker tag and vied for the attention of the three pastor’s daughters, who were all silky haired and giggly. Nothing came of it.
After graduation, Ed decided to work for a year to save a little money before starting college. He found a job at the Boys and Girls Club for minimum wage and began dating one of the other young people there. Her name was Lisa.
Danny, however, was employed even before he graduated by a local contractor who had befriended him. By the time Ed was ready for school, Danny was making almost three times what Ed had made that year. He tried to convince Ed to come work for the construction team, but Ed declined. He claimed he loved working with the kids, but Danny said he just didn’t want to work hard. Patricia knew it was because of Lisa.
Danny had a girlfriend by then, too. Her name isn’t important to this story. They had started dating in Senior year, and been his date to the Prom. He had dumped a lot of money on it- the limo, the flowers, the dinner. The hotel room. They were hot and heavy all summer.
At Christmas that following year, she told him she was pregnant. She thought it was exciting, and gave him the test in a little box with a bow, but he didn’t find it cute. The thing was– he had already been planning to break up with her; he had just been waiting until after the holidays. There was a new girl on the line already- a waitress at his favorite breakfast spot. Her name was Julie, and he had actually jumped the gun a little and made some promises to her.
After a week of bad acting, sleepless nights, jumping at the sound of the phone ringing, and sweating profusely, as they pulled into a friend’s New Year’s Eve party, his girlfriend made the mistake of asking- “What is with you today?”
By the time the ball dropped, the long emotional fight was over, and they were no longer together. She cried to her girlfriends in the kitchen at the party, and went the following Monday to have an abortion.
Danny introduced Julie to his mother and Ed a week later, and as she went to use the restroom, he said- “And stop calling me Danny. Everyone just calls me Dan. I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Okay, Danny– I mean, Dan,” his mother said, gently. She put her hand over his and smiled uncomfortably. She never found out what happened between Dan and his old girlfriend, but she was glad Julie was a nice Christian girl, and she made her feel welcome.
Ed and Lisa did eventually go to college. Ed majored in education and Lisa pursued a pharmacology degree. They got an apartment together, but didn’t get married. It broke Patricia ’s heart. At her ladies’ group she bemoaned her son walking away from Christianity. As far as she knew, Lisa was Methodist, but the two of them only attended services when they were home at Christmas.
Julie, however, was the light of Patricia ’s life. She was a good girl from a good Christian family, and because of her, Dan was in the pew every Sunday at the large Baptist just four blocks away from where he had grown up. Within a year, they were engaged, and then quickly married. When their first son was born, he was dedicated in front of the church, and Patricia gave thanks to God as Dan held his son and the pastor prayed over and blessed the young family.
Ed and Lisa were not there, but they heard about it later, and though Lisa was unsure about it, Ed seemed pleased. He hoped that it meant Dan would be a good husband to Julie, and not run around with his old crowd so much. Thankfully, it did.
The years passed. Julie had two more sons and then a girl, and Dan, in both an effort to rid himself of his old friends, and to be his own master and boss- started his own contracting business. It was a struggle for awhile; he had a tendency to cut corners and do things the “economic” way, which sometimes meant he left a bad taste in his customer’s mouths. But he had a growing family and often said he “had to do what he had to do.”
Lisa and Ed also did something for economic reasons- they got married. Mostly for insurance, because Lisa was hired as a Pharmacist and Ed was employed at a non-profit that was not lucrative enough to offer benefits.
Every year, at Christmas, Lisa and Ed came home to stay with Patricia for a few days, and Dan and Julie would bring the kids over. Lisa loved to shop and would bring them all new pajamas, educational toys like building kits and chemistry sets, and books. Always books. Sometimes Julie would shake her head as she looked through them afterwards.
“I can’t read these to the kids,” she would say. “They’re so liberal.” But she wasn’t the type to be upset or unkind. She just prayed for Lisa and Ed. As did Patricia .
When Julie was twenty eight, her doctor discovered a tumor on her thyroid. It was a scary time. She went through three different surgeries and months of treatment. During that time, she and Lisa grew very close. While she was in radiation, the two of them had a standing phone appointment at 8 am every morning, and during the calls they often prayed together. When she was on the other side of it, Julie told Dan that she would do it all over again if it could be used by the Lord to bring Lisa closer to him.
In 1996, the year the men turned thirty, they all rented a cabin together on Anchor Bay. It was a happy week, green and windy, mostly spent on Adirondack chairs while the kids splashed on inflatable toys in the sparkling lake. They played rummy in the evenings and popped popcorn over a fire and rented bikes and read novels and fried the few measly fish they caught.
At sunrise on the last morning of the vacation, Patricia and Lisa were the only adults up. Dan’s youngest, Maya, was watching Cinderella on the couch, but other than that the house was quiet. The coffee was just ready, and as Patricia poured them each a cup, she worked up the courage to ask the question. Didn’t the two of them ever want to have kids?
Lisa had known it was coming. Sometime, anyway. She had heard a version of it often enough from her own parents. She took a sip, cleared her throat, and tried to answer gently.
“Of course we would enjoy having children,” Lisa said. She sorted through words in her head, trying to find the least offensive ones. “…but we’ve talked about it and we both feel that the world has a population problem and we don’t want to contribute to it.”
“A population problem?” Patricia scoffed, without thinking. “Maybe in China.”
Lisa was extremely put off by this. She raised her eyebrows and her mouth fell open without her realizing. It took her a moment to recover, and she was never quite sure what she said in response, but Patricia took it as Lisa calling Dan and Julie selfish. The conversation only grew more heated as each side tried to defend their position, and by the time Dan wandered out not ten minutes later, it was a full-blown standoff. Dan, after his fifth night of not sleeping well on an soft antique mattress, was ready to fight anyone, and seeing his mother looking pale and attacked brought out the tiger in him.
When the older boys came racing for the cereal, Patricia was crying and Dan was aggressively shaking his finger in Lisa’s face.
Neither did Ed or Julie bring any resolution. Julie, who had gamely tried to overcome her own insecurity around her highly educated sister-in-law for years, held her younger son on her lap tightly and felt that Dan was right in “speaking the truth in love,” saying things they had both wanted to say for years. Unfortunately Ed and Julie felt no love at all. Dan pulled out every scripture he could think of in his diatribe against their liberal, worldly, yuppie lifestyle, but the longer he talked, the more they all began to see how really, truly differently they viewed the world.
Breakfast was forgotten. Instead, years of tiny slights and misunderstandings were dragged out and slammed on the table alongside opposing ideologies and conflicting worldviews. Both sides felt judged and criticized, but Patricia, Dan, and Julie especially felt a sense that they should proactively speak up for what they saw as offending God. Not attending church. Having a close friend that was an overt lesbian. And the worst: being vocally pro-choice, which brought Julie to tears. “How could any loving people advocate killing babies?” she asked.
Lisa gave up defending herself and finally retreated to her room and packed their things, but the heated discussion moved to the driveway as she and Ed loaded their bags.
Thankfully, they didn’t drive away angry. Though Dan was willing to “shake the dust off his feet” and stomped back into the house, the other four managed to bring it around and there were even some sincere apologies for the personal offenses. At the end, Patricia and Julie embraced both Lisa and Ed and called the kids out to say goodbye. On the drive home, Ed apologized to Lisa for his family and tried to chalk a lot of it up to too long of a vacation together. “From now on, we’re sticking to weekends,” he chuckled. Lisa wasn’t so sure, but she took a deep breath and tried to let it go.
For a few months there wasn’t a whole lot of contact, but by October, the women were communicating about Thanksgiving. As the holiday approached, Dan made some remarks about what he would or wouldn’t put up with, but only Julie heard him, and she talked him down somewhat for the sake of family. She agreed, though, that they didn’t want his brother and his wife to influence the children in ungodly ways, and they were do their best to keep watch.
On the day, all the adults felt some anxiety about re-gathering, but they all mostly handled it and by the time it was over, they breathed a collective sigh of relief. It had been okay to be together. They could do it.
As the years went by, they moved into a slight routine. Lisa and Ed would come into town (from Toledo, where they had relocated when Ed was hired as the director of a Disabled Youth Center) and would spend no more than a long weekend staying in the guest room at Patricia’s house, where Julie and Dan would come to see them and bring whichever children (and eventually grandchildren) that wanted to come see their Aunt and Uncle. They would all play board games with the kids and eat Patricia’s macaroni casseroles and Lisa’s salads with couscous and arugula, and as time went by, they all grew more comfortable broaching subjects that they differed on. First pop culture and music, books and film. Then politics and public policy. Eventually they even discussed some more meaningful and painful issues- the ones that struck at deep things inside of them. Dan wouldn’t tolerate any talk that seemed anti-Christian to him, and once or twice, he’d stand up and say, “Kids, get in the car. We’re done.” But it wasn’t often, and people mostly knew where the lines were drawn. The longer time went on, the more they began to think- they were family, and family meant that you could disagree and still be loved. Didn’t it?
In 2015, Patricia fell while getting out of the shower. She didn’t break anything, but she managed to sprain both of her ankles and was stranded for almost an hour until a friend stopped by and found her. She was 75.
Dan and Julie still had their youngest two at home, and Maya was in a traveling competitive gymnastic team that took up much of Julie’s time. At the same time, Dan had taken on a huge contract to build condos, and was under a lot of pressure.
Ed took six weeks leave and moved back home to care for her until she was back on her feet, but while he was there, he began to realize what a state she was in- how many things at the house were unsafe and unsanitary. Things had declined a lot since his last visit a few months earlier. Something didn’t seem right. He got a referral for her to a memory center and to everyone’s dismay, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
There were a few sad family discussions, but in the end, Lisa and Ed made the decision to move back to town and be her primary caretakers. They bought a one-story house in a nearby neighborhood, and Dan and Julie chipped in to renovate the master bath and make it handicap accessible. The house they grew up in was sold, and Patricia moved into the newly-painted pink bedroom with only a few tears.
Five years went by. Living in such close proximity brought a little more friction, as did the pain of watching the mother deteriorate.
Ed never returned to work since the move- while sorting out the options of daytime care or home health aides, he and Lisa had both come to the decision that they could manage on her income if he was the full-time caregiver, without having to pay additional help. Also, initially the brothers and their wives had agreed that Patricia’s Social Security check would supplement the household budget, buying groceries that they all used, paying the television bill, and of course, providing her with any clothing, household, or over-the-counter medical things she needed. (She was insured for most medical things, which helped, though not for dental or vision.) It worked for them. Ed initially found it hard to leave the work he had been doing, which felt satisfying, challenging, and useful- to become the caretaker to his increasingly disabled mother. But after a while, they had a routine. She could still piece puzzles, and seemed to enjoy working at them for hours, while he spent much of his time working slowly at an old research project that he had always wanted to pursue as a doctoral thesis. Someday, maybe, he might be able to return to his work. But he was content. Most afternoons he took her for a walk around the park nearby, or the mall when the weather was cooler. He drove her to doctor appointments. Lisa was pleased at her new position, and the two of them even began attending a small Methodist church on Sundays, initially for Patricia, but they both found increasing comfort and interest in it. It worked.
But Dan was unhappy. Miserable, even. Dan and Julie should have been in their best years, but the housing bubble had popped and they had gotten burned on a big investment. They were hurting for cash and things were tense between them. In addition, their youngest son was “going off the rails” in his last years of high school, and they disagreed about how to handle it. Dan was always right at the edge of angry, and his blood pressure was really unhealthy, but he refused the diet changes that Julie tried to make- and blamed Lisa’s advice on them. He began hating his work, and he increasingly resented his brother for “lazing around” at mom’s house, especially whenever he was called to help in any way. (Ed was never particularly handy with repair.) He began to make comments about the way Ed handled their mother’s finances, and insisted that all of the money from the sale of the house be moved out of her savings account and be put in an estate trust “in case she ever needed it.”
“When will she need it?” Ed asked Julie later. “Aren’t we already providing her end-of-life care? It’s just going to end up being divided between the two of us after she passes.” But though he thought it was silly, he really didn’t care; they were getting along fine.
By 2020, things had changed a lot.
Dan had always listened to talk radio at work and watched conservative news at home, but now he was obsessed with it. He and Julie began to see increasing hostility towards their conservative demographic everywhere they looked. Julie had recently read the entire popular series set in the End Times, and the ideas combined with their tight finances in such a way that only a few months after Maya had gone away to a Christian College, Julie had almost completely filled her daughter’s old bedroom with shelves stocked with dry and canned goods “just in case.” Dan was stockpiling, too. He had hunted some as a younger man, but now he had a gun collection that had nothing to do with deer or grouse.
Then Covid hit, and things in the family were irrevocably divided. I won’t tell you all the sad details, but I’m sure you can fill them in. Lisa and Ed and Patricia were vaccinated. Dan and Julie and most of their kids (and grandkids) were not. In fact, when Julie and her eldest granddaughter found out that Patricia was vaccinated, they cried together. Dan, however, was livid at his brother’s over-step. He had his concealed carry permit by then, and was on high alert since the George Floyed protests, considering himself a shield between the faithful law-abiding citizens and the increasing number of threats that might rise up against them. He began to wonder if the day might come that he’d have to defend himself against his own brother.
During that time, there were many tense and sometimes volatile interactions regarding how Lisa and Ed were stewarding Patricia’s care. Each side felt the other was acting out of irrational fear.
But all things do not last, and Patricia passed away peacefully in the summer of 2021, not of covid but other factors. Her funeral was held outdoors at the cemetery adjoining Dan and Julie’s church. Dan was a deacon there, and many of the members of the congregation came to support them. Ed and Lisa did not know many there, and in addition, they were some of the only few who chose to remain masked. When it was time to move to the gravesite, Dan and Julie and their many children and grandkids were at the front, but for some reason, Ed and Lisa hung to the side, arm in arm. The pastor began the service with prayer.
Dan looked around at his wife and children. Three healthy sons, two married, and a beautiful daughter with her new fiance beside her. In addition- he beamed at the five lively grandchildren squirming around their parents. Despite the grief for his mother, the sad day made him reflect on his own life. Not too bad, he thought. He had a large family, respect in his church, a business that had at least potential and a large reputation. It’s all paying off, he thought. Going to church, tithing all those years, well, mostly. Putting in all that effort to do the Christian things. Yes, he was glad he had done things right. He was even about to inherit almost $60k from his mother’s estate. Things were certainly looking up.
Just then, his brother off in the distance caught his eye. Sad, Dan thought, how deluded they were. Childless, practically friendless, godless liberals they had turned out to be. Miserable.
I thank God, he thought, that I’m not like that.
Ed, on the other hand, was having quite different thoughts. Just at that moment, he was remembering a day in the not too distant months that he had been having a hard time with his mother. It had been a long day, and Lisa was gone working a double shift. Ed had known that his mother could use a shower, but he had been tired and decided to wait until the next day. Instead of completely changing her, he just quickly changed her house dress to a night gown and put her to bed. She had been more-than-the-usual resistant to him that night, and in hindsight, he should have patiently tried to figure out why she was agitated. But he had been tired and impatient, and eventually convinced her to lie down.
After that, he had gone to the living room to watch a few episodes of a favorite television show- nothing important, just some waste of time trash show that he laughed at occasionally. When Lisa got home well after midnight, and he turned off the TV, he heard a noise from his mother’s room and realized she was still awake. He went in to her, and though she was non-verbal by that point, he discovered that there had been a safety pin in the back of her nightdress that had come open, and it had been continually poking her in the thin skin at the back of her shoulder blades. It had actually gone in almost a quarter inch. He had removed it, put some ointment and a small bandaid on it, and had rubbed his mother’s back and talked to her until she slept.
But at this moment, he didn’t remember that part. All he could remember was the guilt he felt about rushing her off to bed. He remembered distinctly the distressed look in her eyes as she had tugged at the nightgown and tried to communicate her pain. He remembered also his rough insistence that she lay down and stay still, his lack of tenderness, his sigh of irritation as he had turned off the light and told her to sleep. Every bit of the interaction was present before him. The hours of her pain were heavy agony to him now.
Try as he might, he couldn’t wipe it from the screen of his mind. It was as though he himself were holding the open pin on her delicate flesh, and making her writhe in pain.
None of the hundred of hours of care mattered in that moment. It was only that day, that one selfish act that mattered. It was the litmus test of his whole life. Why hadn’t he given her the tender care she deserved? Why couldn’t set aside his selfishness and take the five extra minutes to fix her pain?
His own sin stood like a marble slab, barring the door to heaven, and him on the other side.
The congregation began to recite together the Lord’s prayer, and Ed tried to join in, but the only words that came were not those- they were just-
“God, have mercy on me.”
The reference that inspired this story was the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican from Luke 18:9-14. I wrote this story not to condemn anyone for their past, their mistakes, or their views on current events, but to bring a fresh telling to Jesus’ statement: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” None of us deserve mercy for the sins that bar us from the presence of the Lord. But we are highly mistaken if we think that our ideology, theology, virtues, values, or membership will gain us favor before the Judge of All. It is only our humble entreaty that the blood of Jesus will cry mercy over us.
I also want to repent, with this story, of categorizing people in my own heart into “Christian” and “not Christian.” I have far too often used “culturally Christian” markers to decide who I would align with, rather than looking at the actual fruit in a person’s life, and I apologize sincerely for that. I wanted to write this story to try to rectify that a bit. There are Christ- followers that don’t look like what I’d think, and there are people who claim the name Christian that have never truly known Jesus. Let’s make sure we are not in that last camp.