The big church service was over, and the adults talked and talked and talked like they usually did. So I, an easily bored six-year-old boy, decided to go downstairs to play in the Sunday school area.
There was a sand box in the middle of one of the rooms, a perfect place for a little boy to let his imagination fly. All alone I built forts and buildings and then knocked them down and built some more.
With no awareness of time and being absorbed with my kingdom building, I was suddenly struck by the total silence around me. I stopped building stuff in the sand and listened for a sound, any sound at all. I turned my ear toward the kitchen where the church ladies had been washing the communion trays. Nothing but silence.
Brushing off the sand on my Sunday pants, I stepped outside the room and said, “Mom? Are you there?”
I walked cautiously up the flight of stairs and noticed the big front door, which was always propped open as folks left, it was closed.
“Mom? Dad?” I spoke with evidence of fear in my voice.
No answer. Only quiet; screaming quiet.
Six more long steps for a little boy took me into the sanctuary where all the lights were off. I had never seen it that way before. I had only seen it filled with happy people singing and talking and listening. The early afternoon sun sparkled elegantly through the stained glass windows. It was always a friendly, happy place for me but this time it was eerie, almost sinister yet peacefully splendid. The empty room with its vaulted ceiling seemed bigger than I had ever realized and quieter than I had ever heard.
No brothers and sisters were greeting each other, no kids running up and down the aisles waiting for the service to start, no choir assembling and singing, no elders and deacons preparing for their parade down the aisle. Just me washed in the colorful glow of those huge stained glass windows; me and nobody else.
I had never been alone. I mean really alone. In my short life, I had never been anywhere that I didn’t know where my mom and dad and older brother were. So, on this Sunday I had my first adult thought: I figured I had to do something or I could be here alone for a very long time. But what does a six-year-old boy do when his mother and father and brother and Sunday school teacher and all those wonderful church members abandon him?
I checked to see if could get out of the building. “Whew,” I thought. “At least the front door is unlocked.” (This was a small church in a small town in 1949 – I doubt if they ever locked the door back then)
I stepped outside to look for Dad’s car – anybody’s car. Nothing, the parking lot was empty, and the street was quiet.
As I looked around, I remembered that Preacher Harris and his wife lived across the street and down about two houses. It was time to make my first adult decision. Do I stay here alone or risk crossing the street and hope I can remember which house belonged to Preacher Harris?
No long delay on that choice. I checked for traffic in both directions then headed across the street and toward the parsonage. I climbed the steps to the front porch and knocked on the door.
Mrs. Harris opened the door and looked down at me and said, “Ronnie! What are you doing here?” She looked toward the street to see if my parents were close behind.
“Nobody’s at the church – just me,” I said in a barely audible voice. “Where did my mommy and daddy go?”
“I don’t know,” she said as Preacher Harris got up off the couch to see what was going on.
“Come on inside little fella,” he said with a kindly smile on his face. “We’ll call your mommy and daddy, and they will come and get you right away.”
I sat down and waited as they called my parents. My mother arrived within minutes, embarrassed by the situation, she apologized profusely and explained to the preacher and his wife that she and my dad thought I had gone home with my grandparents to have lunch with them. “I had no idea he was left all by himself,” she said.
She thanked them, and we went home.
For up to an hour I had been all alone, yet for most of that time, even I didn’t know I was alone because I was so busy building roads and walls and forts in the sand. Then the screaming silence of the empty church awakened me to the reality of my predicament.
What did I learn from that experience?
I learned I could be alone and not know it. I also learned that it was I who was responsible for resolving my situation. All the important others in my life thought I was just fine. I wasn’t.
Fast forward over six decades.
My whole family and a bunch of life-long friends arrived for my wife’s funeral. While they were here we cried, and laughed, and sang, and hugged, and talked, and ate; busy every minute.
Then one by one they left and soon they all were gone.
And suddenly I am that little boy all alone in the deafening silence – not in a musty church basement, but in the living room of my own home that glowed with the beauty not from a stained glass window, but from the spirit presence of my life-long mate.
But can I be as brave as that six-year-old boy was over sixty years ago? Can I manage this aloneness by crossing the street and walking down a few houses and knocking on a door? Heck, I don’t even know the people across the street and down two houses. I’ve never seen them.
So I sat down and knew the same thing I knew that Sunday in 1949 – I had to do something or I could be here alone for a very long time.