Women and rain don't mix. It's a hair thing, and when the first drops fall, we're often dashing for cover, frantic to protect our 'do.
But three winters ago, as I stood on the banks of the Canal Walk in downtown Richmond, Virginia, with the rain pelting my face and the biting wind piercing my leather coat, I didn't care. I understood for the first time what led some people to kill themselves.
I had never considered myself self-righteous. But that night, I felt like a biblical Pharisee, who for years had been judgmental of others about the right and wrong way to live. I had never seen any gray areas in the Scriptures: Either you followed God's Word to the letter, or you were being disobedient. I didn't beat people over the head with my beliefs, but for me, they were as critical to my existence as breathing.
Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. Honor thy father and mother. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Yield not to temptation.
Now here I was, the very offspring of false piety. The sins I had pinpointed in others had been shadows in my own life. They had reared up and slapped me in the face.
If the principles in God's Word were so concrete, what happened when we didn't live up to them? What happened when we tried to hide our sins from others so we could appear to be something we weren't, instead of asking for forgiveness?
I knew I wasn't going to jump into the partially frozen river that night, but the shame and the hurt that enveloped me left me wondering how to go on. My heart hurt. I felt as if I'd been hit by an Overnite Express truck crossing the Manchester Bridge at breakneck speed. I felt worthless, even stupid.
How many people had known the truth about my life while I didn't know? How could I not have guessed in all these years? I turned my wet face upward, wishing the answers would drop from the sky with the persistent rain.
The raindrops hit the cold earth and sounded like marbles pinging back and forth in a pinball machine, only at a steadier pace. Somehow, the sound comforted me.
I knelt on the brick-and-concrete pathway that bordered the canal, oblivious to the puddles in the crevices. The moisture quickly soaked the knees of my pants. A sliver of moon escaped the smoky clouds... I knelt there, shivering, and let my thoughts wander. The rain washed away my tears, but not the lead that saddled my heart.
I wondered if I would ever again be able to look people in the eye with the self-assured focus I'd always had. Despite the challenges I faced growing up with a single, widowed mother, I had never doubted that I was special, that I belonged, that I mattered. But in the short time it took a few truths to cross my mother's lips and reach my ears, that confidence had begun to crumble.
I would always remember the day as the best and the word of my life.
The pace of the marketing department of the children's software company where I was a long-term temp employee had been hectic. We were preparing for a charity fundraising gala, and there was much to do.
By the time I arrived home, I decided to quickly prepare some stir-fry and spend the rest of the evening doing absolutely nothing. Those plans changed when I checked my mailbox and found a single letter awaiting me. The envelope was thick, so I knew.
Still, when I opened it and read the words inviting me to enroll in Boston University's graduate program in advertising, I couldn't help myself. I screamed a "Thank you, Jesus!" so loudly that the angels napping in heaven must have been startled awake. . . I dashed to the kitchen to call Mama. I sank into the beige sofa, stretched like a cat, and smiled as I waited to for her to pick up.
She was the daycare center, manning the phones as usual. Before she could recite her routine greeting, I blurted out the news.
"Are you ready for an advertising guru in the family, one with a graduate degree from BU?" I asked and giggled.
"You got in!" was all I heard from the other end. I knew what the silence that followed meant. My mother wept when the good cowboy died in old Western movies, at sappy television commercials, and at anything in between. She still got teary-eyed when she talked about the day I was born and my first day of kindergarten.
"Mama, don't cry," I teased. "This is a happy occasion, remember?"
She chuckled by didn't respond. I shook my head and laughed as I waited for her to gain her composure. When she did, her words left me uneasy.
"Baby, I'm so proud of you," she said softly. "Listen, I need to talk to you tonight. Come over for dinner?"
An hour later, I pulled into the driveway behind the cozy brick rancher in North Richmond that I had shared with Mama forever before deciding to get my own place. Mama met me at the back door with a grin that matched my own.
She swung open the door and stretched out her arms wide. I fell into her warm embrace and received her squeezes. She was just tall enough for my chin to rest in the crook of her neck. Her familiar smell enveloped me as I leaned into her. She pulled away and kissed my cheek...
"I'm so proud of you, baby!" she said, tears dancing on the rims of her eyes. "I knew you'd get in."
Before she could fully close the door behind me, I had unzipped my purse and pulled out the acceptance letter. I danced in place and waved it at her.
"Wanna read it?"
"Of course," she said. I sauntered over to the breakfast nook and took a seat at the round table for two. It still bore the marks of my childhood paint projects and the tic-tac-toe tournaments I often held there with my favorite cousin, Imani. We used notebook paper by wrote so hard with our ballpoint pens that our marks would sometimes leave impression in the wood whose varnish had long ago worn away.
Mama sat across from me and reached for her letter. Her eyes consumed each word. She seemed to be imprinting the sentences on her brain so she could recite them verbatim when she shared the news with my aunts and uncles and her friends.
Her gaze made me blush when she finally looked at me.
"You've always been one to set your mind to something at go after it," she said softly, her deep brown eyes locking with mine. "This really doesn't surprise me. It just gives me one more chance to tell you how proud of you I am."
I reached across the table and grasped her hands. She was happy for me, but I could tell she was also jittery...
She sat at the table, tracing the grooves in the wood with her index finger and chatting about how quickly the weather had turned cold. By the time she took a deep breath and looked into my eyes, I knew something was up.
Still, I wasn't prepared for her to wipe my history clean with a few sentences.
"Serena, I've always told you that you can tell me anything, and no matter what, I'll love you."
I nodded slowly and waited for her to continue.
"I hope that works both ways. Sweetheart, it's past time for me to be honest with you about something that will be hard to hear, and harder to say --- Herman was not your biological father. Deacon Gates is..."
Excerpted from SPEAK TO MY HEART © Copyright 2011 by Stacy Hawkins Adams. Reprinted with permission by Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group