For his midlife crisis, James found Jesus. While friends found
women half their age, he found a man about five hundred times
his. It was the least conventional thing he’d ever done.
It crept up on him subtly. Elise was going through one of
her phases again, writing this time. She’d picked up
every book on writing she could find and had been particularly
struck by Ann Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” so
struck that she’d also picked up “Traveling Mercies.”
While “Bird by Bird” found and kept an honored
place on her nightstand, “Traveling Mercies” lay
forgotten atop the toilet in the guest bathroom.
It probably would have remained forgotten had he not been
struck by the flu that was leaving the United States helpless
in fits and starts. The guest bathroom was much closer to
the big screen TV where he lay watching bowl games. The attacks,
no matter how much he thought himself ready, always caught
him by surprise, typically at the peak of an exciting drive
to the end zone.
Perched on the toilet, he found nothing to read but the forgotten
Lamott. He wasn’t typically a reader, except while doing
his business. And even then, he generally preferred the current
issue of Sports Illustrated. As much as he reminded himself
to cart some magazines into the can in between bouts, their
denouements were met with such relief that he just gratefully
crawled back to the couch.
Elise was hit far worse by the bug. While he evacuated the
virus one way, she expelled it in a far less pleasant manner.
She kept to the bedroom, trading fevered bits of writing for
the occasional cool of the porcelain against her forehead.
The few times she made it downstairs, she sent a withering
glare at James. This, like so much else in her life, was absolutely
his fault. He pretended not to notice, a technique that had
become his preferred method of keeping the peace over the
The flu lasted for about a week, during which time Ann Lamott
took over and divided the house. Upstairs the pages flew,
as Elise wrote her stories not bird by bird, but fault by
fault, litanies of incompetent and unloving husbands (or so
he imagined). Downstairs, James was stunned to learn that
not only did he like “Traveling Mercies,” but
it made sense. The concept that there are essentially two
prayers, “Help me” and “Thank you”
was perfectly logical to him. On the few occasions in his
life that he’d prayed, the prayers had been “God
help me pass this exam” or “Thank God that car
missed me.” Religion, and Christianity in particular,
was at last clear to him.
And so the prayers began. At first, he was ecstatic to find
this new relationship and didn’t even notice that his
prayers were heavily weighted in one direction. “Lord,
help me to ignore Elise’s bitching.” “Lord,
help me not to make an ass of myself in front of the Board.”
“Lord, help me to remember to take out the garbage tomorrow
so Elise doesn’t get pissed off.”
It took a period of weeks (and a re-read of “Traveling
Mercies”) before he realized that he almost never said
a “Thank you” prayer. He took to adding one line
to every prayer. “Lord, help me to be thankful.”
He searched avidly for things about his life for which he
was thankful. He and Elise lived in a beautiful house in Winnetka.
They had plenty of money. It seemed empty, though. Since the
Lamott flu had hit the house, he rarely slept upstairs anymore,
preferring either the couch or the guest bed. Elise didn’t
comment on it, seemed relieved, in fact.
As he struggled to find gratitude to God, his prayers became
shorter, finally just repetitions of “Help me, help
me, help me.”
Finally, one night, he decided he needed baptism to be truly
saved, to find the ability to deepen his relationship with
God and Christ enough to be grateful. The epiphany came at
one o’clock in the morning in the middle of the week.
He didn’t want to wait.
The drive to the lake took about ten minutes. The air was
warm for a December morning on Chicago’s North Shore,
perhaps twenty degrees. Crossing his arms, he briskly rubbed
them through his robe.
He trotted down to the shore, his sheepskin slippers flip-flopping
against his heels. He quickly removed his robe and his silk
pajamas. Carefully, he folded his pajamas and set them, along
with his slippers, several feet from the robe. He figured
the terrycloth would make a good towel once he came out.
He sucked in one deep breath and prayed, “God, help
me to feel closer to you. Amen.”
Shivering, he raced toward the lake, knees pumping high, not
letting himself feel the biting cold of the water, until he
finally lost his footing and plunged forward, perhaps twenty
feet from shore.
The water was colder than he’d imagined. He tried to
find his footing, but was disoriented and could not find the
bottom. Panicky, he knew that hypothermia would not take long
to set in and he swallowed more of Lake Michigan than was
healthy. “Help me,” he thought.
As his energy was leeched away by the icy currents, he ceased
struggling. Miraculously, his body righted itself, and his
head broke the surface. His flailing had taken him further
He tried to breast stroke back, but found his limbs too
heavy to cooperate. Before going under one last time, he realized
what it was he wanted to say, “Thank you."
Copyright © 2004 Dave Clapper