A year ago, for my birthday, my friend Valerie treated me to a fancy dinner at a wonderful restaurant, and her family made cards for me. Two of her children, Rachel and Josh, are in my Sunday school class, and they passed along “gift certificates”—Josh’s was for “an hour of guitar-playing.” Somehow I never took him up on it, which was a shame. He’s an awfully, awfully good kid, and he lights up when my family appears at his basketball or football games. From time to time, he gets surly with his parents about attending Sunday school, because no other kid he knows is “forced” to attend church, let alone an extra hour of teaching. But he always talks about this openly, apologetically. “No offence to you, Denise. You are great. Really great. I just shouldn’t have to, you know?”
I just look at him and smile, and remind him he has great parents. One day he was offered a chance to get out of church, to provide child care for the service, instead, and he refused. “Why are you refusing? I thought you liked to get out of church?” I asked.
“Not today,” he said. “Today I get to sit with my dad. There is nothing better than sitting with my dad in church.” Other days, Josh has been training his younger brother John to be an acolyte, and the two of them look so proud to be standing together. Josh treats John as though they are in on this grand joke together, and their affection for each other shows. I am not speaking too much about Rachel, here, but she enjoys the sermons and is very much like an adult. We hear she has surly teenage moments, but none of those is apparent in our class or in church—in fact, those reports are just hard to believe.
So yesterday, Valerie and I ate our annual Denise’s Birthday Dinner, always belated enough that I’ve long forgotten I had a birthday. We drank good wine and dined at a little Italian bistro, on a cold rainy night. After a quick dessert at Valerie’s house (homemade fudge sauce on ice cream, yum!), I thought we were winding down, when Josh came through the door.
“Hey, that’s Denise’s fish bag purse! Denise, you here?”
I nodded, and Valerie asked him to bring down the guitars. He shook his head, insisted he was hungry. I talked a little while longer with Valerie and her husband when Josh walked in grinning sheepishly, with two guitars. Eric picked up the acoustic, and Josh the electric, and after a teenage-boy-sized fudgy sundae, the two started noodling their way through their catalog: Chicago tunes, Green Day, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, and some of their own songs, as well. Josh’s ears turned red when his mom asked him to please sing, but he just couldn’t go that far. Still, an impromptu post-birthday guitar jam is a good enough present for anyone, really. My heart was almost too full to be in a room with a boy whose ears are blushing for him, so I didn’t stare too much at my performers, hoping I wouldn’t get teary.
About eleven-thirty, Josh apologized that he wouldn’t be in Sunday school today—he’d be at his new job at the chowder house. He’s saving money for a new guitar, and he was smart enough to find a job before all the good ones were taken for the summer. I tell him that’s okay, and thanks for telling me. And I tell him I will miss him tomorrow. The next time we talk, I will no longer be his Sunday school teacher, just a friend, and his mom’s friend, though I don’t think he’ll consider it much until fall, when the summer ends. I’ve considered it for months now. I manage well until I get to the car and settle in for the ride home, when no one else will be made to blush, and then just as I suspect, it hits me when I turn on the radio, some nice guitar music, and how I will miss this particular role in this particular boy’s life. There will be another role. But it won’t be this one.