The wild blackberry patch was so overgrown it had taken over the back corner of our pasture, vines in a massive snarl. They’d defied my feeble efforts to cut them back.
With our fertile California soil they had even spread into the pear tree. Where to start? I grabbed another tendril. A thorn sliced through my leather glove and into my hand. “Ouch!” I cried. “Darn you, Steve! Darn you!”
I was so angry I could just spit. Steve, my brother-in-law, had promised he’d take care of this. One more bald-faced lie. One more betrayal. I couldn’t pretend otherwise.
It had happened too many times. Steve was my husband John’s youngest brother. We had taken him in when he needed a home. We’d followed the Lord’s bidding. Now I felt used and betrayed, by Steve, but maybe even more by God. I looked down at the rip in my sleeve, my arm covered with deep scratches crusted over with blood and dirt. I’d tried my best to help Steve. And this was what I had to show for it?
I’d actually been excited six months earlier when John had asked about 19-year-old Steve coming to live with us. They’d had a turbulent childhood—alcoholic father, divorced parents, abusive stepfather—and both left home as soon as they could. John went into the Marines. Steve, nine years younger, ended up dropping out of high school and joining a traveling circus. We took our three young children to see him when the troupe came through the area. But every time he looked more haggard. I worried about him and kept him in my prayers. When he called John, tired of sharing his sleeping quarters with elephants, it seemed like an answer from God.
“He can stay in the basement studio,” I said. “It’ll be great to have an extra pair of hands around the house.”
“Just until he gets on his feet,” John said. “He can help me at work.” That too was music to my ears. John had been putting in a lot of extra hours in our construction business.
The afternoon of his arrival I made Steve’s bed with fresh sheets, filled his dresser with new T-shirts, shorts and socks, then hung a “Welcome Home” sign on the door of the studio. For dinner I made a huge pan of lasagna.
Steve shoveled the food in his mouth like he hadn’t eaten in days. The kids, Nathan, four, Emma, three, and even baby Mark, looked on in amazement. It felt wonderful knowing the difference I could make in Steve’s life. I was sure with the love and structure of a stable family he’d be able get his life on track.
After dessert I asked, “Steve, would you like to help me clean up?”
“Uh, sure,” he said.
I rinsed the dishes while Steve loaded the dishwasher. “I want you to feel like you’re one of us,” I told him. “That means pitching in with the chores. And we have a few rules, like no drinking.”
“Okay, whatever I need to do.”
At first everything went well. Mornings, Steve went to work with John. He quickly learned how to run the concrete line pump. I greeted them in the evenings with home-cooked meals. But little things began to niggle at me. On the weekends Steve would watch TV for hours while John and I vacuumed, did laundry, scrubbed the bathrooms and changed one diaper after the next. Unless I asked, Steve never lifted a finger to help. Couldn’t he see how much work there was to do?
I kept telling myself that Steve had been through a lot and hadn’t had the best male role models growing up. I just needed to give him time.
One afternoon I was rummaging through Nathan’s closet for a lost tennis shoe when I found an empty beer can. Odd. Where could he have picked that up? I looked out the bedroom window. I could see the driveway, secluded by pine trees. The perfect place to sneak a beer.
A few days later I was in the kitchen when I saw a flash of color behind those pines. Steve’s head came poking out. I ran outside to confront him.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied. “Just exploring.” But his sly smile needled me, and I could smell his breath.
“Steve, have you been drinking?” I demanded.
“I don’t lie to you,” I snapped. “Why would you lie to me?”
His face went pale. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “It won’t happen again, Marci.”
That night at dinner Steve acted like nothing had happened. I knew why he’d been so quick to apologize. We’d given him free lodging and a good job. Not to mention home-cooked meals and maid service! It made his behavior all that much more disrespectful and despicable. A voice in my head warned, Don’t take it personally. But how should I take it?
“Is something wrong?” John asked as we cleared the plates after dinner. Steve was staring glassy-eyed at some dumb TV show as usual. I told John all that had happened.
“That’s not good,” John said, shaking his head. “I’ll talk to him.”
For a few days things were better. Then I began to catch Steve in other small fibs. I’d find overdue movies rented on my account, videos that he’d assured me he’d taken back. He shrugged when I asked who had finished the new bag of chips. He told me he’d been home raking pine needles when I’d clearly seen him downtown by the liquor store. Petty lies, but they chipped away at my trust until there was nothing left. I didn’t feel I could even count on him to keep an eye on the kids while I ran some errands.
One day after Steve and John left for work I went into Steve’s room to collect his laundry. The bedcovers had slipped off the end of the mattress. I was tucking them back in when light from the window reflected off something under the bed. Two big bottles of vodka, one full, the other almost empty.
I brooded until John came home. We talked in hushed whispers in our bedroom. “Things are slowing down at work,” he said. “I’ll tell him he has to go.”
The three of us talked after the kids went to bed. “This isn’t working out,” John said. “You need to get your own place.”
Steve’s jaw dropped. “But I’ll need money for an apartment.”
“We’ll cover your rent for a while,” John said. “You can work it off cutting down the blackberry vines out back.”
Steve agreed and we posted an IOU on the fridge to log his time. But we never made an entry. A few weeks later Steve left for Ohio, where he and John were born, leaving us with the lease to cover.
Now I was the one stuck cutting these brambles. I grabbed a vine and yanked it hard, narrowly avoiding scratching my face. If anything, I’d grown more bitter since he’d left. I couldn’t get past it. It felt as if there were something—a kind of twisting, choking, spiky weed—growing out of control inside of me. It was like…this blackberry bush.
The vine slipped from my hand and I stepped back. This wasn’t the relationship I wanted with Steve. Even John had stopped talking to him. I remembered that day I’d watched Steve slink behind the trees. He was still barely more than a kid, only 19, yet he’d been dealt a lifetime of pain. Had he ever felt completely loved by anyone? Secure? Trusting?
I’d wanted to be the one who changed Steve’s life. But that wasn’t my role. Only God could touch his heart. Love was what Steve needed from me. Why had I found that so hard to give without conditions? I needed to do something to heal the rift between us before it was too late, before my bitterness inflicted deeper wounds.
I went into the house, picked up the phone and punched in Steve’s number. “Hello?” he answered.
“Steve,” I said, “it’s Marci.”
There was dead silence.
I forged on. “Listen, I wanted to say I’m sorry for how everything turned out. I’m not mad at you and you don’t owe us anything. I know it couldn’t have been easy trying to fit in with all of us. Just remember that John and I love you and that you’re always in our prayers.”
“Okay,” he said. There was another long pause. “I was sure you were calling to yell at me. I really screwed up.”
“I forgive you,” I said. “I don’t want there to be hard feelings between us.”
We said our goodbyes and hung up. I took the IOU from the fridge and tossed it in the trash. I felt a little better. But somehow it didn’t seem enough to just say a few words over the phone. What could it possibly change?
We didn’t hear from Steve for a long time after that. I often wondered how he was and prayed the Lord was watching over him. In time we heard from relatives in Ohio he’d gotten a job at a tire manufacturing plant and worked his way into management. Then he met a wonderful woman and got married. We attended the wedding and John was best man.
A few years ago John and I went to Ohio for a family reunion. One evening Steve asked John and me to step outside. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he said. “I wanted to thank you for taking me in. That phone call, Marci…the love you showed me…it changed my life. I couldn’t believe you’d even talk to me. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to tell you.”
I grabbed Steve and hugged him tight. The most incredible warmth flowed through me, filling me with joy. This was the power of God’s grace, the long-awaited fruit that came from not allowing bitterness to take hold.
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