(This is the serial telling of the book written by me, Brian Shimer. Please share this post with others. Let me know what you think of Phillip’s story.)
I guess I should tell you: Today is my birthday.
I told you I am 6, and I guess I really am, since “this is the day.” But I was born at night so if I’m really truthful, I would have said that I am five and 365 days old.
I’m not certain if I really want to have this birthday. The last ones haven’t been great. I don’t even remember a couple of them. The year I turned three, the lady and man had a massive fight, and he called off the party. The cake was out and decorations were everywhere. I was so excited. But then, it was over. I stayed in the closet a long time that day.
The year I turned 5, last year, was like a storm at sea. That birthday fell on a Sunday, so we went to church in the morning. We were riding in the car on the way there, riding in the man with the car’s blue convertible. We always dressed up. He wore his blue suit, white shirt and tie with flowers on it, the lady had on her white dress and a red scarf tied around her neck and a white, frilly hat on that tied under her chin, and I was wearing my favorite dark blue pants and blue suit coat, a bright, sunshine yellow shirt and my green, blue and purple tie that reminded me of the sea, and my brown shoes. The man was driving, but he looked an awful lot like a lobster, his face was red, the veins bulging on the side of his head, as he yelled at the lady, saying that she wasn’t dressed right, that she looked like a “slut.” I didn’t know what that was, but from the looks and sounds of it, probably not a nice thing to say. Well, and besides that, she looked like the comment had slapped her.
The car was filled with black even with the top down. I felt so scared. I started to yell. I put my hands over my ears and yelled and yelled. The man’s face got redder. We had stopped at a traffic signal. While the light was red, he turned around, grabbed my knee hard and then pointed a finger at me. I closed my eyes. I heard him yell, “Now, you shut up you little mama’s boy or I will cancel your party this afternoon!”
That’s when she began to yell at him. “You cannot take that from him!”
“You wanna bet?” the man retorted. I was yelling, and felt the car move again. The black was hurting my stomach.
Rocking. Scared. Feeling the black like fingers gripping my throat. Skye put a paw on my leg and nuzzled me. Tears streaming down my face, rocking, yelling. Skye kept his paw on my leg, the lady shot dagger looks at the man, and like this, we pulled into the parking lot. The man’s face red and hers pale. Through clenched teeth, he said to her, “Now. We have an image to uphold. We will return to this later.”
As soon as he opened his door, I looked up still yelling. Mr. Clay walked up greeted the man with the car, who had just stood, saying, “Good to see you, Pastor. How are you today?”
“Just great,” the man with the car lied. “Phillip is having a rough day,” I heard him say as if he cared and hadn’t caused it.
I missed the rest of what he said. I squeezed shut my eyes and kept rocking and screaming.
I wanted my closet. I wanted MC bear. I didn’t want to be seen.
I wanted to go home. I knew the man with the car worked at the church. He was always smiling, laughing, talking around the church. People would speak privately to him. They would shake his hand and greet him warmly. He would pray with people. I knew all this. But that’s not really who the “man with the car” was. I also knew that.
I knew he didn’t want anyone to know he yelled so much or was so angry. He didn’t want anyone to find out. So, whenever we pulled into the parking lot, he would say something like “Let’s put on our best face now,” and for some reason we mostly all would. Not me, so much. I was screaming now.
The lady was out of the car too. Other people with smiling faces came to greet her, and some pointed at me. I had my hands over my ears and was rocking back and forth in my car seat. Skye was sitting next to me. I was saying my colors inside. I overheard the lady, saying, “Yes, he got upset on the way here over something, but he’ll recover.”
The people kind of understood about me. They were the ones who called me “special,” in that kind of sickly way that didn’t sound special, like cool or wonderful, at all. There were some people here that I did love, and Skye began nuzzling me, and putting his paw on the edge of my car seat as I rocked, still yelling. Skye kept doing that to “pull me back out of black” and to remind me where we were. All I could hear was the threat. No party. I really wanted my party, but once the man with the car made that threat it usually happened. For some reason, he was that powerful.
With Skye, now, and the lady reaching in, patting my shoulder, and saying, “Come on baby, we are at church. I’m so sorry that he yelled like that. I’m so sorry. Remember, honey, Miss Jeanne is here,” I stopped rocking, began to stroke Skye’s hair.
Miss Jeanne! I remembered! Just hearing her name loosened black’s fingers.
As the thought sank in, it made the black go away. I wiped my eyes, the lady helped blow my nose and unbuckled my booster seat, and then I got out of the car with Skye. The man looked surprised as Skye and I walked together up toward the big pink stuck-o church building. There were six stairs going up into the front, then you walked through the sanctuary, to the stairs that were at the back, and went up those, there were 11 wooden stairs, to the education rooms that were on the second floor along the hard wood hallway.
Miss Jeanne’s classroom was all the way at the end of the long hall that was filled with rooms. She taught my class, and can I tell you the truth? I don’t want to grow up, for I would prefer to stay with her forever. She’s the one who taught us how water reflects the sky!
When I got to her white, wooden door, it stood ajar. I went in and looked. There she was. I thought she might have been 100. She was so old but so kind. She stood about five feet tall, so only about 6” taller than me, with short grey hair that was all curly around her head and wore wire-rimmed glasses. She had teeth that kind of went every direction, but even still she had the gentlest smile. She was just-the-right-size to hug, plump wearing a floral print polyester dress, light blue with little flowers everywhere, and a light blue sweater. She was always wearing that sweater.
When she saw Skye and me, she smiled and said the same thing every single week, “Why, Phillip James, my day just improved with your arrival. Jesus loves you lots, buddy. Come take your seat here by Timmy, and we will get started when everyone has arrived.”
Every week she told me that my arrival improved her day. That alone had to make mine.
As I sat down Timmy reached over and patted my hand to greet me. I liked Timmy. He was supposed to come to my party that afternoon, if the man didn’t cancel it. That thought brought tears to my eyes and I felt like the black might get me for a second.
On the table in front of us, though, were crayons, markers, paper, a basket of scissors, glue, and a pile of magazines. There was a blank sheet of paper in front of me at my place—everyone had one—so I reached for the crayons and began to put black and blue and red and yellow on the page. I put the black and blue on the bottom, and red in the middle and the yellow at the top of the page. When I colored, I sometimes forgot everything. It was like the lights came on inside and everything scary went away. It was like saying my colors. As I colored the anger of the man in the car, the fight, the arrival and them pretending everything was okay, the way people looked at me, the fact it was my birthday and the man in the car threatening to take it away, these all got colored away. I colored and colored and colored.
While I colored, I guess the others arrived. I looked up and realized they were all there: Susanna, Trudy, Rosie, Tucker, Michael, Nemo—I think his parents had really liked the movie Finding Nemo—Timmy and Kevin. We were all ages from me, 5, on that day, up to Trudy who was 11. Kevin always sat on the opposite side of me. He was also coming to my birthday party. If it happened. He was a big kid, twice my size, and super smart. He knew lots of things and talked plenty. Since I never spoke, we kind of balanced each other out.
I had returned to coloring, and then Miss Jeanne started to talk, at first, I didn’t hear a thing but then I heard my name.
“…. Phillip James is preparing just what we need for today’s lesson.”
I stopped coloring and looked up and everyone was looking at me with joy in their eyes.
Miss Jeanne said, “Phillip James, I love your picture and it is the perfect beginning to today’s story. I don’t know how you might describe your picture, if you could let us in, but here’s what I see, the blue and black is water, the red is a boat on the water and the yellow, the bright yellow, is the sky above. Is that okay if I see that in your picture?”
Even though my picture was of the darkness of the car ride, and the brightness of arriving in Miss Jeanne’s classroom, I didn’t mind if she saw something different. I loved how she could always make me feel like I was a valuable member of the class, like I mattered. So, I nodded.
She asked if she could pin it up in front on the bulletin board. I nodded again. Skye was seated next to me and reached his head over, putting it in my lap, and I started to stroke his hair. Timmy was stroking him from the other side. Skye loved Sunday School too. I stared up at the board with my picture in the middle of it and marveled: “That is mine!”
Miss Jeanne said: “In the Bible there was a prophet, that’s a person who hears from God. His name was Jonah.”
Kevin raised his hand and then said, “Hey—is this like that Veggie Tales’ story?”
“Exactly,” Miss Jeanne replied. “They got the story for their movie from the Bible.”
As she told the story, using my picture as the illustration of the boat on the sea, I was in it. And I saw what she had seen, even though I had been coloring the fight and my arrival into light, the red looked like a boat, the yellow like the sky and the blue and black could be the billowing waves of the sea. I suppose the sky ought to have storm clouds, but still, I saw it! And I saw the story!
I saw this guy hearing from God, fleeing on the boat, sleeping below decks. God sent the wind that became the storm. I saw the sailors all afraid—they were feeling the black!—and crying out to their gods, throwing stuff overboard. That sounded scary. I saw the captain awakening Jonah, for him to pray too. I saw them casting the lots, Miss Jeanne said that was like playing dice and getting the right number and rolled a die to show us. And it seemed like God made the lot fall to Jonah. Jonah told the truth. Just like the lady in the white house had done on that terrible day when I was 4.
Jonah told the sailors that he was a Hebrew and served a God bigger than any they knew of. Finally, Jonah told them the only way to stop the storm was to throw him overboard. The sailors tried with all their effort to save themselves and then turned and prayed to Jonah’s God to not be guilty of Jonah’s certain death, before throwing him overboard. Then, when they threw him into the sea, the storm stopped, and Jonah disappeared. Miss Jeanne told the story of God sending the big fish to swallow him. And how just like Jesus, Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the fish, praying.
That turned this prophet around. He then got spit up on the beach and went to preach like God wanted. The people converted, and God’s prophet got mad. Mad that people got helped? Seemed like this prophet and the man in the car both needed a turnaround experience. God had the last word with Jonah. God sent a plant and a worm and a message. It stayed with me, this story, the way God sent all these things, and the way God spoke.
That’s when Miss Jeanne asked us:
“What might we learn about God, children, that although Jonah tried to run, God helped turn him around in his heart and then in his body? What might that tell you about God? And what might that tell you about what God thought of Jonah?”
Others answered. Nemo said, “God must have loved Jonah enough to really want him to give this message to the people.”
Rosie raised her hand and added, “God loved Jonah, that’s why he pursued him.”
Another hand, Timmy’s went up, while still stroking Skye with his other. Miss Jeanne asked for his thought, “God is really powerful but really good.”
Another hand, Trudy’s went up. She said, “God thought Jonah was the only one who could take his message. Maybe taking the message was a way for Jonah to change too. Maybe God wanted to help that happen through the experience.”
By that time, others chimed in and they were discussing the story. I watched it happen. As they talked about Jonah and God, joy burst inside of me. I loved Miss Jeanne’s class. This happened every week.
That’s when Miss Jeanne said, “Now, in the story several of you noticed that God must have loved Jonah lots, even though it looked like tough things were happening—the storm, getting swallowed, getting spit out—today, do you think there might be people whom God loves a lot even though tough things are happening to them?”
As we thought of other situations that reminded us of Jonah’s, then she said, “Have you, or someone you know, ever felt like God didn’t care because hard things happened?”
I remembered the Voice from when I was 4. That was the first time I wondered who the Voice was, and the first time in the years since that I wondered if I was hearing God.
Was that possible? Was the Voice I heard, which felt blue and sunshiny and helped my heart immediately calm, was that like what Jonah heard?
How could Jonah think of running away from the Voice? With this thought, Jonah’s story came really close to my own life. No one knew what I had experienced; I couldn’t tell them. But I knew. And sitting there, on that day, I discovered perhaps the Voice was maybe even Jesus Himself. Bubbles filled me. Tears of a different kind came to my eyes. And it came to me in a flash, all of a sudden, I was hearing from God. I couldn’t take this in. I started to shake. And even at home, God knew exactly where I was.
“In front of you,” Miss Jeanne was speaking again, “you’ll find a blank piece of paper, and magazines, glue and scissors. While I am preparing our snack, you can work on making a collage of today’s experience with Jonah. Create anything that helps you remember what you have heard.”
Everyone went to work, tearing, cutting, gluing, chattering. I worked too. I found a picture that reminded me of Skye, and of the Voice—water, sun, waterfalls and a peaceful lake. I glued this onto my sheet. Then Miss Jeanne turned around from where she had been working, and there on a plate were cupcakes for all of us, each with a candle, and said,
“Now. Today is Phillip James’ fifth birthday so I thought a treat and a song for him was in order.”
I was so surprised. Suddenly my birthday was happening anyway. Even if the man with the car wanted to try to take it away, he didn’t have that power. Just like the story, God was larger than anyone’s decisions and sent things to change our stories.
They sang. I smiled and then blew out the candles. We had napkins for the cupcakes and cups of water. Miss Jeanne collected our pictures and posted them on the board with my coloring sheet from the start of class.
As we ate, I gave Skye sneak nibbles of cupcake. Everyone talked at once. It was a great sound. Do you see why I love this class?
I suppose I wouldn’t say my fifth birthday was the worst if that’s where it had ended. The fight in the car was bad but the class was good. I went outside with Skye at the end of class, so he could go…you know…and then the man with car was behind me, squeezing my arm really hard, and hissing in my ear, “I’m not going to forget your behavior as we arrived today.”
That’s all it took. The black came back. I hunched down into the grass. Put my hands over my ears. And rocked. Skye came next to me and sat down, putting his paws on my leg. The lady came out and saw me and I heard her say, “What did you go and say to him?” And he said, “Nothing. Just came to check on him.” I rocked. Said my colors quietly. And felt swallowed. Not only was the man terrible, but he had lied. It was like Jonah’s storm.
I felt the lady had her hands on my shoulders. She was slowly picking me up into her arms. I stayed curled up. She whispered into my ear, “I’m going to get us out of this, I’m so sorry sweet boy. Sometimes daddy is mean.” She had her arms around me, but I couldn’t feel them. It was as if I was being filled with the black. I started to cry in ragged sounds. I just wanted my closet.
“Sarah,” the lady was saying, “could you take Phillip and me home? He’s having a tough time for some reason and needs to get home.”
“Sure, Dorothy, sure. In fact,” handing her the keys, “just take our car. Jim and I came in two today, so I can get a ride with him over to your place afterward to get the car.”
“Are you sure, Sarah? Wow. Thanks. Could you help me the car seat and get him settled?”
“Absolutely, no problem.”
So, the lady went and got my car seat out of the man’s car and put it into Sarah’s car. Then she, and Skye and I got in to drive home. I was still feeling the fear from the man. There was pain in my arm where he had squeezed it. I also had the feeling that this was not going to be a good day after all.
I didn’t see the car run the stop sign as we came through the intersection at First and F streets. I just felt the impact. It hit on my door where the car seat was. Skye was thrown out the other window, which was open. I heard him yelping and yelping. The world slowed way down and exploded all at the same time. Glass shattered. Sarah’s car was forced across the intersection, across the lawn opposite and took out the front porch of that house before it stopped. Then, I don’t remember anything until I was under bright lights on a bed in the hospital. I didn’t know where anyone was. I got scared and started to cry.
Then, there was a nurse at my bedside. She smiled above her mask. She had green eyes, soft hands, and she said soothingly, “There, there, there now little buddy. I know it’s scary. I’m Becky. I want you to know you were lucky. You could have not made it through that one. You escaped without head trauma. You do have a broken right arm and left leg. Both breaks were clean and they will set easily as soon as the swelling goes down. So, you are going to be okay. You need to be careful, for they are just wrapped and splinted for now. Your mom will be fine, though. She was knocked out and escaped only with scratches, which also was amazing.”
Hearing the name she used, I thought “Mom” was an interesting name for the lady. I was worried about Skye. Where was Skye?
“Oh, are you wondering about your dog? The paramedics said there was a dog at the scene of the accident, who was injured but okay. Your dog wouldn’t let the emergency guys leave with you without him along too. So, for the first time ever in my memory, we have a dog in the emergency room. We patched him, up too, with a splint on his leg. He’s sleeping right now, over there.” She pointed to the corner of my room. Tears came to my eyes and a big sigh came from my lips.
She looked me right into my eyes, stroked my head. “I hear you don’t speak much, but want you to know, Someone was looking out for you today. And if you are okay with it, I’m going to pray for you.” I nodded. No one had prayed for me before, I knew.
“Jesus,” she said, as if she was talking to a friend, “my buddy Phillip James here is hurt and needs you to heal him. Heal his bones. Set them back right and proper. Come on bones. Mend. Heal. And heal his heart, Lord, from fear and uncertainty. From the memories of impact. And bring peace to his heart too, Jesus. Wash over him now, like water, and burst inside him like sunshine. Let him know deep within him how you are for him and love him. In Your name, Amen.”
Phew. I did not know anything but this: When she started praying the same feeling as I had in my closet when the Voice spoke came over me. Bubbles on the inside of me and this insane warmth in my arm and leg. It felt really good. And this peacefulness like blue everywhere flowed over me. As far as I was concerned, nurse Becky could just keep praying as long as she wanted to.
I thought of the story of Jonah —how God sent the storm, the decision of the lots, the big fish, the plant, and the worm. If he had sent the accident, then perhaps he also had sent this nurse.
I ended up in the hospital for three days. Skye and the lady stayed in my room with me all the time. My room got filled with bouquets of flowers and a bunch of people came to see me there. It was the strangest birthday for certain. The man with the car came twice—once on Sunday the day we had the accident and again the day I was discharged, but both times he didn’t really say much. I didn’t think he was used to the lady not yelling at him and she didn’t want to talk with him. He knew he was responsible for upsetting me, which resulted in the accident, but he also was mad—he was usually mad. Church had been disrupted. We had made him look bad, or something. My party, of course. got cancelled.
Jonah’s story was coursing through my mind as I was there. Thinking about this prophet who could hear the Voice but ran the other way fascinated me. What was he thinking running when he knew his God was the God of the sea, dry land and the heavens? I mean, kind of senseless to run. Who would run from the Voice that felt like a waterfall? I just wanted to hear that Voice again, I knew that. And I wanted to follow whatever He might say to me.
I didn’t like the hospital too much. It felt heavy to me in there. There was a lot of pain around me and I felt it like a dark grey color that came with the nurses some days.
I liked that I had a window and looked out at the trees and sky. The nurses used bright color markers for my board. And Becky was my nurse twice while I was there. Jerome was another one of my nurses. He was super cool with deep BLUE eyes and a mustache that drooped around his mouth. And he had white teeth and liked to smile lots. He was a big guy too, maybe a wrestler, and he joked all the time with me.
One time he came in and said, “Well, Phillip James, I think I would like to take a break. Could you take over my shift for me for a while? You are getting around with your splints just fine, now, so I think you could handle it.”
I looked at him like he was losing his marbles. Take over for him? I thought he was serious. I didn’t know what to think and then he started to laugh so hard that I started to laugh, too. I got it then, that he was kidding me. After that, every shift he would try something: he’d bring me apple juice instead of grape, and he brought me chocolate milk every shift he worked. For that I loved him!
And once when I took the cover off my meal, there underneath it was a stuffed play lobster instead of my food! How he managed to trade out the plate so that the worker, Sally, who delivered the meal, missed it happening, I don’t know. But she looked as shocked as I was seeing that stuffed lobster on my plate smiling at us! I started to laugh at that one, and in he walked with my plate of real food. Sally, still laughing, socked him on the way past! That was great.
Jerome could just look at me and know what I needed. And it was Jerome who found a way for Big Skye and I to be in the bed together. That helped me a lot. I didn’t spend much time crying and never screamed. There wasn’t any black to recover from in my room.
The surprise came on Wednesday morning. They took new x-rays so they could cast me and discovered both breaks had healed. They had the original x-rays of from Sunday to compare. Completely healed. There was not even a line that the fracture had been there. The doctors and nurses were all astounded. All except Becky, who came and whispered, “Well, there, you see? I guess Jesus decided there was not anything more to be gained by hobbling around for six weeks and just healed you up. Ain’t that cool?” Again, all blue, all over me.
God had sent a big fish. I smiled and nodded.
At 2 pm on Wednesday, I was discharged and the man with the car came to get us at the hospital. He had not won any points with the lady by how he had just left us there and came only twice to see us. She was sore; I could feel it. It was strange to travel in the car on the way home, but it felt like that fear of being in a car also had been healed too. I wasn’t afraid of getting hit again even when we went through the same intersection that we had been through before.
When we drove up the little hill to the big white house, it felt good to see it. Like getting spit up onto the shore might have felt to Jonah, except without the fish spit all over him.
That is, that’s what it felt like outside the house.