Twenty Years Too Late

I had an awesome Thanksgiving post to share.

It chronicled my understanding of holidays as being more of an intimate, personal celebration rather than feasts and family. In it I detailed my incredible experiences of Thanksgivings past introducing pumpkin pie to British friends, another sipping a mug of beer (a 700 year old recipe guarded by local monks, in fact) in a cave in rural Central Europe, and still another of a private team holiday party in a “Stan” nation sharing the bond of far away and strangers in a land that didn’t want us. I even expanded the scope a bit to include my Christmas adventures in the Stone Forest of China, spending five hours with my South African family looking for holiday lights for our modest tree in my first holiday in Central Asia, and the one time I kissed a kilted man I didn’t even know in the shadow of Edinburgh castle on New Years Eve.

But the centerpiece of the story was a snapshot of a teenage girl who understood what it meant to celebrate true life and life abundant for the first time through a quiet, intimate moment with God in the snow. There I realized that being alone would become an integral part of my holiday experiences– and that I was okay with that.

Holidays, as I understood them growing up, were strictly family occasions. Family first. Being with relatives on holidays was mandatory, and any alternative had better be a proper, good reason. In fairness, holidays were often the few times of the year my immediate family of five actually got along; my siblings and I relished together in family traditions and took a reprieve from our usual fighting, while my parents managed only minor arguments and usually kept them to the two of them. When it was just the five of us, holidays weren’t nearly as stressful. For most of my experience, the whole family thing didn’t bother me too much… Well, at least not as much as it bothered my family when I went away and started celebrating with others  whom I considered just as special.

Being so far away for many years since, though, transformed my understanding of both family and what it meant to celebrate with others. My holidays have proven that family goes beyond just blood relation… that was sort of my point.

But I couldn’t finish the Thanksgiving piece.

Halfway through my holiday – stranded in my tiny town by a swollen river and record rainfall, spent eating pie with my neighbor instead of a large family gathering of extended relatives on the other side of the city – I got blindsided by a new family reality.

I called my parents like a good kid to wish them a happy holiday. If I’m honest, it’s more out of sense of tradition being the holidays and all, and it’s not always a positive experience but I often walk away from even difficult calls giving myself credit for at least trying.

After a long account from my mother about their day, I asked to speak to my dad and wish him a Happy Thanksgiving. I haven’t talked to him in months, I figured today could make up for that.

At first, I was told, he was just too busy. Then it was that he just wasn’t feeling up to talking. And when I brought up the fact that I hadn’t talked to him in a long time, my mother spilled a truth I’m not sure she meant to share:

He doesn’t want to talk to me.

When I asked why, it was a blunt and matter of fact statement, the kind that insinuated I was stupid for even asking: I had deeply wounded him and he couldn’t bear to talk to me, and that he didn’t even want to hear an apology.

My reaction to this was more irritated than surprised, at first.

Curious as to how I managed to hurt my father’s feelings enough to warrant such an extreme response, I asked what he was so upset about.

“That letter.”

Oh. Gosh.

That letter.

A few months ago I worked up the courage to tell my parents about what happened to me as a young teen… Twenty years after it happened. It was part of my own healing and working through past traumas, and also out of the decency of letting them hear it from me instead of another source.

With parents who were never home and seemed both disinterested and almost tired of their children, I never felt safe confiding in adults and had virtually no confidence that anyone could protect me if I was in danger. I wasn’t wrong; eventually a sort of negligence was born out of their lack of concern for our wellbeing, and that opened the door for all sorts of horrible things to happen without any intervention.

That’s me in the photo, age thirteen or so. It’s one of the few pictures that exist of me during that time in my life, most certainly one of the only I’m smiling in. The high buttoned collar was the style at the time, but it’s also hiding a mark on my neck I didn’t want anyone to see.

Without anyone noticing, I spent two years as a regular target of a predatory older boy who lived in my neighborhood. I lived in almost constant pain and the depression ran so deep that I was more or less passively suicidal. I stopped going to school, lost the few friends I did have, and lived with my shame in secret – in part because he threatened to hurt me if I told, but largely because I was afraid of how my parents would respond. My father, I assumed, would turn a blind eye, unsure of what to do or how to help, and just pretend it wasn’t happening. My mother was fond of the boy and would likely be angry at me for accusing him, and would likely not understand my role in the entire affair.

So, instead of seeking help, I just learned to live with it and eventually couldn’t live without it.

As for the truancy and my general reclusiveness during that time, both of my parents – they’ve admitted – just gave up trying. I’ve wrestled with whether they’d have cared if they knew the truth, and I liked to believe my dad might have to a degree.

It was my own determination and what I now understand to be God’s providence that helped me survive. My heart and mind were protected from the full weight of situation until I was finally mature enough and in a safe place in my life to begin working through it. I started remembering things two Novembers ago, and I have been actively pursuing healing and restoration since.

Initially I chose not to include my parents in the circle of people who knew. In my experience, sharing such things with them was often more dangerous and soul crushing than it was worth. So I kept it from them, still much out of fear of my mother’s gossip and propensity for taking things like this and making them about her, and also out of a strange idea that it would crush my father.

“So what if it does?” my counselor would say.

Well, gosh, you know, honor your mother and father and all that… I love my dad. Part of the reason I put up with my mother is so that I can have a relationship with my dad, and they’re sort of a package deal. Little girls, even when they’re 34 years old, are supposed to be precious to their dad, worth defending and fighting for and protecting… Sure, my dad’s not like that, but maybe if I told him… it would… I don’t know. Something?

The change in heart happened after I was interviewed by an agency that helps people rebound from suicide attempts for an article meant to inspire others that there was life after hospitalization. My story, including an account of the abuse, would be shared online and I wanted to ensure my parents heard from me first.

I did it in writing, my own hand even, so that I couldn’t be interrupted and so they could read it again if they didn’t quite catch it the first time. I was intentionally vague about time and place, described the boy in a way that would steer them far, far away from the truth, and minimized the whole ordeal to make it a little easier to take in, using language that suggested more of a one time thing. My hope was that it would help them move past the confusion over why I hit such a terrible slump in my adolescence, and I’d no longer have it over my head like some great secret.

In the closing I explained that I was working through things, asking them to respect that I didn’t want to talk about it, that if they had questions I would take and answer them in writing only, asked that they not talk to my siblings or other people about it, and that we see this letter as just a step in healing and not an invitation to go delving into my past.
It was short and to the point. No blame, no insinuation that they could have done something to help me, no malice or anger… Just a daughter telling her mother and father that a bad thing happened a long, long time ago, that it affected the way she’s lived her life, and she understands that it was probably hard for them, too.

As I wrote that sentence I wanted to say something about how I imagine it’s probably every parent’s worst nightmare to hear something like that has happened to their child, but I honestly have no idea if that was how they felt, nor would have felt should I have told them when I was just 12 or 13 years old. I knew that it would probably be hard to hear, but there was a part of me that believed it probably wasn’t too much of a shock. Afterall, I was clearly a mess during those years, it’s not unlikely they thought something had happened to send me into such a downward spiral. I heard once from my cousin that drugs were the suspected culprit… maybe that was easier to accept.

My mother, oddly enough, reacted with kindness. She wrote me a brief text message to say that she had received the letter, that she was grateful I told them, and that she promised to keep it in confidence. I never heard about it again until this weekend, months after sending the letter, being informed that I had completely destroyed my father.

That letter.

You should have never sent it. He’s so deeply hurt by it.

It was better not knowing.

So…. Am I supposed to apologize?

I feel like I’m supposed to apologize.
I know in my gut that his reaction is out of conviction. My dad read the account of the unthinkable happening to his little girl and believes, probably rightly so, that he failed. Failed to protect her. Failed to keep her safe. Failed to help her heal. Failed to help her grow up. Failed to make her feel valuable or worthwhile or even loved. Failed to be there…. And he’s right. He failed.

But he’s still my dad.

“He’s upset.”

Gosh, that could mean so many things! Is he angry? Is he sad? Does he regret that he wasn’t there? Or is he wishing I had never said anything? Does it take him back to my teens when he downright seemed to hate me? When I was angry and moody and unruly, when I was the big thorn in his side? Is that why he’s angry? Or is he just too overcome by guilt or shame or something like that?

Shame… he’s ashamed… of me?

Today I feel utterly heartbroken and overwhelmingly confused.

I feel ugly and dirty and sorry that I’ve caused my parents trouble over the years.

However I also feel, in a way, betrayed – what right has he to be angry at me? I did nothing wrong, save maybe not telling them earlier, allowing him the chance to do the right thing… but would he have done it? I don’t know.

But he’s still my dad. I love him. I love both of my parents, even when it is often so very hard to love and honor them. Even when I don’t feel like they love me.

I choose to love them.

I feel almost numb. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do or say. I’m not sure how to move forward.

On one hand I want to apologize, say I’m sorry for making him feel so bad, but on the other I feel like I have absolutely no reason to be sorry, no reason to ask for forgiveness… I simply shared a truth, a hard truth sure, and it’s not my responsibility how he’s chosen to respond. I certainly cannot apologize for what happened to me, as difficult as it may have been for my parents to hear.

Maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all.

Maybe this is where the attempts at a relationship with my parents finally stop.

But goodness, I feel so alone. It’s the same alone I felt as a kid hiding my secret from my parents so as not to upset them, and it’s deep and painful and difficult and confusing.

God’s response so far has been a prompt to look to those whose actions have called me family and let the rest of it alone for now. It’s okay to feel hurt, even cry a bit, and to think and pray and take heart in what it means to call Him my Father and for Him to call me His child.

This is where, I guess, I bring it back to my original Thanksgiving post, an understanding that family ultimately has very little to do with blood and more to do with actual care and love for one another.

I am thankful that God has brought me a new family over the years. It spans time zones and borders and ages and personalities, and it is generous in its outpouring of love. That’s worth celebrating.

“He is a Father to the fatherless… puts the lonely in families… gives a home to those who feel deserted… “ – Psalm 68:6

I share this with you not to further shame my father; he clearly does that enough himself.

Rather, I share it because the story of what happened to me is my story to tell – and this is part of that story. I tell it because after so many years I actually can. Owning your own story is one of the most important steps in healing. I want a healed heart.

I share because it’s not an uncommon experience. I’ve heard plenty of stories from abuse survivors, both men and women, whose parents refused to believe the truth to such a degree that they cast out their children as liars or troublemakers. To hear another say “you’re not alone,” is powerful – and maybe someone else needs to hear it.

I share it because I hope it’s the start of the greatest comeback ever – that it kicks off amazing restoration for all members of my family, that other long held secrets would be brought into the light, and long standing grievances would be resolved.

 

And I share it because I’m not ashamed that I took the brave step in telling them in the first place. It took courage to write that letter, it took even more to put a stamp on it. I chose love, I chose forgiveness, and I chose obedience to God’s leading as I sent it.

 

I am choosing faith and trust that this will work out.

 

Sometimes restoration requires bold steps, and I have no regrets in taking them.

Read Part 2 for the ending… 

 

 

… Now… how about that Thanksgiving story:

 

……….. I was seventeen.

Record amounts of snowfall had cut us off from civilization… well, more than we usually were in our little house in the the Bitterroot Mountains. It takes an awful lot of snow to keep Montanans trapped in their homes. It had to be at least three and a half feet with a top sheen of ice crystals before they’d even think of cancelling school. Though the ground the night before had been bare and dry, the heavens apparently opened sometime while we were sleeping and cancelled our Thanksgiving plans.

Having been in Montana for the past three Thanksgivings, we had started some new traditions with a large extended family across the Valley. They were big, noisy affairs full of people I hardly knew asking questions that made me uncomfortable, playing party games with rules I didn’t know, laughing at jokes I had no reference for, standing around a piano and listening to my aunt belt Christmas carols, and an elaborate feast of food I didn’t particularly like. At some point I’d usually try to sneak out for a walk if I could when the stories about my younger years started to appear and made my cheeks burn. My mother would drink with folks who told her that it was the holidays, that her quest for sobriety could be put on hold. My dad would hide away in the kitchen, and my siblings had cousins the same age.  The whole day would stretch my social anxiety to its absolute limits. Arguments and fights would usually wait until we got home, and the night usually ended with me slamming my door and writing halfway through the night to get my mind to quiet down.

Except for that year when the snow came and rescued me.

It must have been some magic of the holidays as we went through the entire day in relative peace, watching movies and decorating for Christmas. Since my dad usually prepared seconds of everything, we still had a turkey as the centrepiece for a relatively small feast as a family, and managed the whole thing with no arguments, no fights, and no meltdowns. There was no party I had to mingle at, no small talk I had to force, no questions to answer, no expectations of me, no social cues I had to try to pick up… By the time evening rolled around, I realized it was one of the best holidays I’d ever had.

That night I remember standing alone on our front porch watching large, fluffy flakes fall gently from the sky, listening closely as they touched the boughs of our trees and the blanket of powder on the ground. Dad had left the Christmas lights (and, of course, our massive Star of David) up from the year previous and you could almost feel the hum of the bulbs as they came to life, the color dancing in the icicles hanging from the roof.

I was already feeling contemplative in realizing that it would likely be my very last Thanksgiving with the five of us in Montana, but I remember thinking that this cold and peaceful moment at the end of the day was the start of a new tradition… holidays that were quiet and deeply personal, maybe even alone.

Just me and a cup of coffee and the God whom I’d come to believe in – who gave me reason and a desire to celebrate after many ugly years of feeling unable to.

Sure, the day might be filled with games and food and fights and sensory overload, but the highlight and real celebration for me would only be found at the end of the day in the comfort of my own company.

Well, maybe not entirely alone.

Scanning the fields in the distance I caught the glimmer of a set of eyes looking in my direction… then another… then another… I heard a rustle of movement and a few snorts before they came into view: a herd of some thirty mule deer making their merry way through our front yard and into the orchard across the way.

It’s hard to describe what I felt in that moment, but it was sort of a deep peace with a hint of excitement, all saturated in an overwhelming sense of being both alive and dearly loved by the Creator of the Universe who, it seemed, had painted this beautiful moment just for me… for no other reason than to remind me what life and love feel like.

I needed reminders from time to time.

This what holidays were really about… celebrating life and love.

For me, that didn’t require feasts or large gatherings of people or games or festivities. Sure, I picked up, even created, a few traditions along the way, but they were the sort that could be packed up and taken with me no matter where my holidays took me.

And they did take me.

But those will be stories for other days.

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