Displacing the blame

By Heidi Shott

It all started when Jerry Hames decided to retire as the editor of Episcopal Life at the end of June. My friend Tracy Sukraw, editor of the Diocese of Massachusetts’ paper The Episcopal Times, and I wormed an invitation to his goodbye party in New York as the surprise guests. We figured a surprised and delighted Jerry Hames would be a marvelous sight to behold. And, you know, it was.

On the morning of, Tracy flew from Boston and I flew from Portland, Maine. We found each other and took the AirTrain (seven bucks from JFK to Manhattan!) to midtown. Because this was just a quick trip and we’d be walking around all day, we limited ourselves to one shoulder bag. Mine was stuffed, and I kept needing to take things out of it to get to what I wanted at the bottom. I sensed this was not a good way to live, but without a convenient place to drop our bags (we were spending the night way uptown), I had no choice. Perhaps that I would lose something was inevitable. But, as I discovered when I tried to start my car back at the Portland airport several days later, losing my key ring was truly unfortunate.

If Jerry Hames was less wonderful and if Tracy was less game, I would never have gone to New York last June and lost my all my keys…keys to both of our cars, keys to the Diocesan House, keys to the Genesis Fund and its post office box and the key to my mother-in-law’s house that I’m still afraid to tell her I lost. The only reason I didn’t lose the key to our house is because we never lock our doors. That small mercy compensates for hardly anything at all.

Three weeks ago when I arose at 4 a.m. to drive to Stittville, New York, (same state – different universe) to take my mother to the hospital for surgery, I jiggled my coat pocket to listen for my keys. Clang, clang they sounded and I figured I was good to go. At 5:30 a.m. when I inserted my car key into the ignition after a coffee run at the Kennebunkport rest stop, I thought, “Gee, this feels funny.” I turned on the light and discovered I was holding my husband’s key ring.


Because I had lost my key to his car in June, one of the keys splayed out on my palm was the only key to his car in existence. That his keys were in my coat pocket is an uninteresting story that involves impatience, laundry, and designated driving and I won’t bore you with it, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was on a trip of undetermined length with the only key to my beloved’s car in my possession. Actually, when I woke Scott up at 6:30, he took it well. He knows Jerry Hames and likes him very much, “It’s Jerry Hames’ fault,” I said into my cell phone somewhere on I-495.

“I don’t think so,” my car-less husband said.

Scott borrowed a friend’s car to take our son to school and I fed-exed the keys from the road.

So yesterday afternoon, when I couldn’t find my wallet in my mother’s hospital room in Utica, New York, I thought back to the moment earlier that day as I sat in my car in the parking garage. “Should I take my wallet into the hospital or lock it in the car?” I pondered a moment, consulting my wiser self. “Take it, because you need someplace to put the money you get back from the cafeteria.”

Ah, the wisdom of moi.

The previous evening my brother Brad, his girlfriend Lisa, and I were in the hospital dining room while they were working on our mom in the Intensive Care Unit. It had been quite a bad day with a worrisome close shave with the dreaded and invasive ventilator. Three weeks after surgery and we were back to the ICU. Brad hadn’t eaten and the cafeteria was closed for business, but you could buy sandwiches from a sort of automat machine. “Here, Sweetie,” I said, “I’ll buy you a sandwich. The turkey doesn’t look too bad.”

I put a ten in, retrieved the $2.25 sandwich, and waited for my $7.75…which didn’t come. The maintenance man patrolling the dining room told me to return the next day and the cafeteria people would refund my change. So that’s why I took my wallet into the hospital – because of the turkey sandwich situation. My wallet, it turns out, probably never made it past the parking garage. Later, I retraced my steps, talked with Security, poked through the garbage cans and finally left my name and number at the main desk. My mother had 20 bucks stashed away that I could use for tolls and I had a gas card in my glove compartment. I would make it back to Maine and I did.

Before I left the hospital, I called Scott at home. That morning we’d had a little tiff on the phone about some wet laundry I thought he should have noticed and put in the dryer without being prompted. “How do you walk past a basket of wet laundry a dozen times and not notice it?” I asked, befuddled.

“How was I supposed to know it was wet?” he cried.

From the parking garage I called to ask him to cancel our credit cards, I said, “Hi, it’s me. Please don’t be mad.” And when I told him what had happened, you know, he wasn’t.

Blame is a funny thing. As someone who has worked for the Church for a long time, I’ve seen a lot of blame passed back and forth. Anyone who follows the episcoblogs can’t escape the winding gyres of blame that circle each new development. I’ve always been pleased that I wrote an essay about which both Gene Robinson and Kendall Harmon seemed to agree.

The need to place blame is so human, so natural we’re hardly aware when we’re doing it.

Over the weekend I started reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.” Though I still work for the diocese as a consultant, my family and I, once so involved in parish life, have kept our distance for the past few years. Scott was senior warden and chair of the last Search Committee. He played guitar at the family Eucharist every Sunday for years. Then suddenly something broke for us, and we’ve never quite been able to figure out what it was. We’ve visited other nearby churches, warm and welcoming all, but ultimately we believe in being involved in the community where we live. This is our church, but we feel removed from it and we’re stuck in a hard, sad place.

Taylor’s book is certainly told from a clergy point-of-view but, having lived the oxymoronic life as a “lay professional,” I understand her journey. The need to blame others for my lapse as a churchgoer is palpable. If only, if only. But ultimately I’m responsible for my own stuff. That’s what we’re trying so hard and so rigorously to impress upon our young teenage sons. You don’t like that grade in math? Oh…maybe you should try harder. You want an I-tunes gift card? Oh…maybe you should mow a neighbor’s yard.

But here’s the thing: I hate being responsible when it’s so comforting to blame others for bad things happening or good things not being done. On Saturday night if Brad hadn’t said, “Let’s go down to the dining room,” I never would have lost my wallet. In June, if Jerry Hames hadn’t retired, I never would have lost my keys in New York.

But here’s one more thing: Once you start owning up, it gets a lot easier. On Saturday morning, I stepped into my mother’s hospital room with a chocolate frosted donut as a peace offering. The word on the sibling street was that she blamed me for all the complications that had caused her to be back in the hospital instead of living independently in her own home. I had pushed her into a dangerous surgery and look what had happened.

But when I stepped to the threshold of her door, she held up her index finger to me, as though she were on an important phone call…but she wasn’t. She was in the midst of a very, very serious bout of congestive heart failure and had called for help. Nurses and respiratory therapists streamed into the room on either side of me.

Her struggle for breath was frightening. It reminded me of the brief days seven years before when my father was poised between this life and the next: the feeling that together we – he on one side and I on the other – were on the verge of something else, something unknown and slightly reckless. On Saturday my mother struggled for breath under the oxygen mask while we waited for a room in the ICU and for the three diuretics they had given her to kick in to relieve the fluid buildup in her lungs. I sat on her bed and sang all the old hymns I still knew by heart. She pulled off her mask and whispered, “Sing ‘How Great Thou Art’”, and I obliged the best I could.

If, as my siblings had warned me, she blamed me for pushing her into this awful, vulnerable place, she didn’t say it then. My mother held my hand and whispered, “I knew you’d come.”

Maybe I am to blame for the complications of my mother’s medical condition. Maybe we’re to blame for our restlessness with our congregation. Maybe we are all to blame for the current fracture of our church. But maybe blame doesn’t matter. Maybe blame is irrelevant to God. Maybe what’s important is simply showing up to church every Sunday and to every goodbye party we can manage whether we’re invited or not.

Maybe Jerry Hames isn’t to blame for my lost keys after all and maybe ten dollars isn’t too much to pay for my brother’s turkey sandwich.

Heidi Shott is press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine and communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Her essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

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