Friday, September 11, 2009

STICKS & STONES

“These things I have spoken to you, that you might find peace.”
John 16:33



I awoke that morning in September with just the corner of comfort in my hand. I had slept the entire night, which shocked me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept without a big waking hole piercing my slumber.

I did know that the gates to sleeplessness had been unlocked that previous summer—June 13th to be exact—and ironically approaching high noon. That was the day the hatchet dropped, forever severing the thorny family ties that had wound themselves around my soul, obliterating any light or inkling of my existence for decades. Like a mouse cornered by cats, I was left breathless and panicked after every interaction with what remained of my immediate family. And while I always escaped, I fled with crushing anxiety in my chest and a million tiny fish thrashing in my stomach.

In the years preceding “the end” of my relationship with my father, I had occasionally wondered what the final straw would be…as I knew full well there would one. I conjured various scenarios of potential rifts that each had the potential to launch like a rocket, only to ignite and explode into a ferocious duel from which there would be no retreat. And on that sunny June afternoon the rift unexpectedly arrived. It crept in silently amidst the volley of our words and crouched down between us.

As our voices rose, each disparaging syllable fed the monster until it grew to mammoth proportions, stood erect and opened its arms wide like a lover anticipating a caress. And at that instant, my indignation and my father’s hate took flight like a wild bird flushed from the underbrush.

There in the yard, under a cloudless sky and before the great glory of the shimmering sea, the doors of fury and injury were flung wide, unyoking every bitter emotion and angry word that I had so mightily restrained for the last forty years. It was like a flash fire, consuming everything in its path in a nanosecond.

By the time the ashes settled, we were gone from my father’s house, all remnants of our two-day visit with he and his wife erased. With lightening speed our bags were packed and loaded. And we sped out of the driveway, gravel flying in our wake, the baby strapped into her car seat and my seventeen year-old daughter riding shotgun.

In my rearview mirror I could see my father and step-mother commiserating, my father still walking in frantic circles reigning in his composure …then shaking his head in disbelief as she consoled him.

I hit the main road, ferry tickets clenched in hand, struggling to breathe. It was done. The day of reckoning, so long awaited, had arrived and I was leaving the carnage behind me. The only thing left to do was to get as far away from it as possible and then remain away—forever.

The quake was a ten on the Richter scale and it left the fragile family landscape irrevocably decimated. But strangely enough, my trauma, shock and anguish over the conclusion of our relationship lingered only briefly. And within days a quietness and peace drifted over me.

Looking back, the speed at which I came to peace with “our end” still surprises me. After all, I had lugged the hurt and pain of that relationship with me since childhood. I had hauled it into every relationship, its weight tipping every important decision I had ever made—coloring every reaction with a muddy gray hue that blurred anyone else’s true intentions. And although it’s taken years for me to truly understand it, the more I pulled it along with me, the more it pushed me into darkness.

Heaped into my wagon were memories of my father’s horrific verbal lashings and abuse. There were piles of daily rejection coated with desperate longings for acceptance and love. There were giant mason jars crammed with hurtful words and criticisms that reverberated with deafening resound every time I hit a pothole. And covering it all was a pulsating blanket of milky white scars so thick that even the sharpest insight could not penetrate it to reveal or release the bubbling toxins within.

Over the years, I had become a master at masking the scars, shrouding them in brilliant accomplishments and activities. Indeed, I had worked myself to the brink of exhaustion to prove to him, and perhaps to myself, that I was not the “fat, stupid and ugly girl that would never amount to anything as long as she lived.”

I had failed time and time again at romantic relationships, perhaps because I believed somewhere in my soul that “nothing good would come to me,” and that “life would have been better for everyone if I’d never been born.”

Perhaps my relationship with my father had been so toxic for so long, that when it did irrevocably snap that day—it had been a break so long in the making—so anxiously anticipated—that I had been prepared. In truth, I had longed for it. That day in the yard, I was no longer an appetizer but a worthy opponent. And finally, I could choose to no longer be a part of a familial entourage that did nothing but bind me.

Sadly, the peace lasted merely a week, abruptly shattered by a phone call with my older sister.

She had not been there that day as a witness, nor had I spoken to her since before the encounter. I was deliberately hanging back, letting the dust settle. I knew full well my father would be telling his tale, spinning his story and rallying reinforcements. What I hadn’t anticipated, is that she’d enlist so easily.

The end of my relationship with my only sister—now, that had been the shocker. That had had been the attack from the back I hadn’t seen coming. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I should have been braced. I should have imagined the glass pane between us shattering into a million tiny shards and flying in all directions. If I had, I could have ducked…but I didn’t.

Blindly, I turned into the punch…not of flesh but of words; words spit out with condescending authority…full of hate and resentment. Accusations punctuated with an invisible pointed finger—the omnipotent force unloading, cutting me down in every area imaginable while dredging up every petty issue back to our childhood.

Suddenly, she was not just the authority on what happened that day in the yard, but also the expert assessor on my family values, my work ethic, my career and my relationships. She was my judge and my jury. I listened, dumbstruck, to her “truth”: that being a working mother meant I didn’t love my children; that being successful meant I only loved money; that having failed in marriage only proved I was unlovable and undeserving.

As she ranted on, reeling off this accusation or that, somewhere deep inside my gut I felt a flutter. And without warning, the broken-spirited child who dwelled in the core of my being awoke, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and began to nod in agreement. Out of sheer habit she nodded, although she really had no idea as to what she was agreeing.

I struggled against emotions, fighting to remain calm on the phone while explaining my position. Systematically, I countered each allegation. But to no avail. It was frighteningly obvious that she could find nothing good in me…and certainly nothing good to say about me. For her own financial and emotional survival, she had chosen a side—and it wasn’t mine.

Two down…none to go.

From the moment I set down the phone that night, I was reeling. The child was nodding…the adult frantically intellectualizing trying to determine the truth. But what was the truth?

The fact was that this woman whom I called “sister” did not know me anymore than the cashier at the grocery checkout. For the last fifteen years, our interactions had been minimal. And after my mother’s death our visits were relegated to that cordial class of Christmas day.

Acknowledging this in my mind, I tried to console myself. I tried to convince myself and my inner child, that there was no truth in her words. How could there be if she had had no interactions with me for nearing two decades. But my heart? It was cut. My emotions? They swirled in confusion. So, any truth I did touch upon was slippery and I could only hold on to it momentarily.
As truth continued to elude me, I held fast to facts: that she hadn’t known me since our childhood; that even then, it was my father and her on one side of the barbed wire, and my mother and me on the other. And with my mother gone, I was now sitting alone without anyone to take my side—no one to repute absurdities—except for God...and their voices blared so deafeningly in my head, I just couldn’t hear God clearly above the fray.

I knew God was there. I knew he loved me. But I couldn’t quiet my thoughts long enough to hear any “word” he might have for me. None the less, I prayed constantly, desperate for truth, clarity, peace…and sleep. Over and over, I’d try to restrain my runaway emotions and silence the swirling conversations in my head, repeating as my mantra, “Be still and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10)

Still, I’d awake nightly in a sweat, heart pounding and mid-sentence…reliving the same verbal exchanges. I was consumed. I was exhausted. My brain was like a blender stuck on puree as I recalled, rewound and reviewed every conversation, feeling the pain each time anew. Their words trapped me in vortex of circular discourse that I had to fight my way out of with sheer will and occasionally a stiff drink. And, after too many countless nights, I acknowledged that their words were winning—well, actually her words were winning.
In the end, it wasn’t my abuser who was keeping me awake. It was my sister…who I’d imagine somehow was still an ally. I just could not understand why there was no kindness there. I could not fathom how she could hate me so vehemently when no crime had been committed. I could not comprehend why a sister would not be asking me what had happened that day with my father—or what had happened with him any other day for that matter. Where did this come from? Then it occurred to me, these questions in tandem with those about my father, were far too familiar.

The sad fact was, that the sister I wanted and deserved did not exist…could not exist. There was only another broken child who was lashing out in her own pain. She was another damaged soul, but one who somehow still needed the protection of her father and the comfort of his steady funds…even though she was nearly fifty.

But now, three months had passed. I was headed back to the island for the first time since “the end.” The difference being I would, for the first time in my life, not be staying with them.
The day was brilliant. And, although it was mid-September, the air was warm—that delightful morning warm that caresses your skin and then sinks into your bloodstream until it reaches your core…tickling the edges of your soul.

Above, the gulls screamed as they circled the docks…diving and fighting each other for the biggest treat below…be it a single bait fish hiding by the pilings or a randomly strewn French fry absently discarded by an exuberant toddler. After all, who can keep tabs on stringy potatoes when there is toddling to be done.

I sat behind the wheel, tickets ready, baby asleep in the back seat. It would be a good thirty minutes until the ferry docked, unloaded its wealth of bedraggled vacationers and was ready for re-boarding.

I surveyed the parking lot of cars neatly aligned in rows packed with parents, grandparents, children, friends—most excited, some exasperated, but all anxious to leave the mainland behind.
Children bounced up and down in backseats. Dogs poked their heads out of open windows, their tongues out--drooling. All the while, hoards of people buzzed about. Some hurried from their cars to the main offices of the Steamship Authority only to returned with steaming cups of coffee and waxed paper bags stuffed with donuts. The wharf was alive with people, undulating like a hive of multi-colored pinheads.

The people-watching was nothing less of superb here, as always. Randomly, I’d zoom in on one person or another, like a high-powered camera lens snapping a picture. Then for pure entertainment, I’d conjure up a little story about each: This one is happily married. This one is not. These two are breaking up…but she doesn’t know it yet. And this non-descript, unassuming one…he’ll be on the cover of the next People magazine after he goes postal at his work place…”and he was such a quite fellow,” they’ll all say.

Within minutes I’d given them all names, lives, problems and sins. After all, better right now to focus on their imagined lives then my own. And today, I was happy.


The night before, I had packed, ordered a few pizzas and enjoyed the company of my dear friend Gayle and her husband. Toward the end of the evening she asked me how I was doing with “everything”.

“Ok.”

“Yeah, really?” she replied raising her brow, “Because you haven’t said two words about your Dad or anything else.”

“He doesn’t bother me. It’s her. I just can’t her out of my head. I just don’t understand how she can say those things. My Dad I get…my sister I just don’t…” I trailed off shaking my head.

“Why do you care what they say?” she asked matter-of-factly.

Why? Why did I care? I sat with that for a moment and then looked up. “Because they are my family. These are the people who are supposed to love me…and they don’t. I’ve tried to make them love me. Maybe it’s habit. I’ve always just wanted their approval.”

At that moment, hearing my own words, I finally got the “why” of it. So simple really, but for some reason it took all these years to see. Even today, I don’t know where that clarity came from…perhaps it was God bestowing a kernel of divine wisdom. Finally, I was at the heart of it.

The evening ended. I went upstairs, checked in on the baby and tucked her back in before doing the same. I laid there in the dark with that undeniable “truth” seeping into my heart. Why did I care?

There was only one reason. They were my family and I was supposed to care. It was not because I admired them…or really even liked them. They were not people who I’d publically want to be associated with…or people I would have chosen as friends. They did not fill me with love. They did not lift me up. And, I certainly was not better off having known them—and neither were my daughters. They were my blood family and that blood was poison.

That night when I prayed, I asked God to keep me bathed in his love and light. I asked God to help me live a life that would make him proud. And I fell asleep knowing that if I my actions reflected my values on a daily basis, and more importantly reflected the values God set forth for me, no man’s judgment mattered.

I resolved that the only opinion that mattered was God’s. And then I slept—uninterrupted—until the autumn sun peeked around the edges of my bedroom shades.

By ten that morning, I was in the ferry parking lot waiting for the boat to round the shoreline and sound its horn to announce its arrival in the harbor. As it did, travelers who’d been milling about quickly gathered their belongings and scurried back to their cars.

I pulled my seat back into upright position, took a sip of my water and put the keys into the ignition. Others did the same. We were ready. I took a deep breath and sighed happily. It was good to be going.

As I waited, I noticed two young girls making their way up along my row. They were noticeably sisters, one a few inches taller than the other, both with long blonde hair whipped by the wind. They were not aware of their appearance, not unkempt, but not meticulously coiffed like the older teenagers. Perhaps they were twelve and thirteen, just below the age that most fall victim to the agony wrought from obsessing over their personal appearance.

Each of the girls wore a pair of plain, untailored shorts, flip-flops and a baggy t-shirt. Their gait, their height, their coloring…it struck me how similar they appeared to my sister and me so many years ago. How many summers had the two of us hurried up between the rows of cars, heading back to our own and readying to board that ferry?

As they drew nearer, I became mesmerized by the younger one, most likely because she reminded me so much of my younger self. The closer she came, the more I became absorbed in every detail of her until my gaze settled on the design displayed on the front of her dark green t-shirt.

I squinted, struggling to make out the image. Ah, they were words. As they approached the car in front of me, the three silk-screened words popped into focus.

“Sticks & Stones”

My jaw dropped as they hurried by my window. I looked up, raised my hands and whispered, “Thank YOU!”

It has been over a year since that day God decided to send me a message on a t-shirt, delivering the truth I so desperately needed to hear. Since then, any time my thoughts would try to sneak back in to the blender of pain, I would think of that day and remind myself, “Sticks and stones, Kathleen. Sticks and stones.” And miraculously, the thoughts would vanish leaving me at peace.

“These things I have spoken to you, that you might find peace.”
John 16:33

All of us are damaged in some way from the people or circumstances we have known. We spend our lives struggling to heal ourselves, to erase our pain, to numb our feelings. All these efforts we make, but seemingly with little progress.

That is because only God’s words truly have the power to lift us up out of our darkness, to smooth our scares and make us whole.

To our frustration, often we must wait God’s word. It does not come in our time, only in His. And if our hearts are not open, if we are not scrounging in every corner searching for it, we just might miss it.

We must be open to God’s grace in order to receive it.

I could have missed that t-shirt in a blink. If I had, I would have missed one of the most life-altering messages I have ever been blessed to receive.

As we are all painfully aware, we cannot choose our biological family. However, we can choose the family we want to belong in our lifetime and into eternity. And when we make that choice, when we actively decide and purposefully build a family of our choosing, our life becomes so full, so meaningful, so grounded that the strongest army cannot penetrate its protective walls.

Today, I have more “sisters” than any one woman could ever dream of having. They have given me more love, acceptance, care and guidance than any blood sister ever did.
I also have a Father who will not harm me in any regard. He loves me unconditionally and accepts me fully. I am wonderful and glorious in his sight. I am his princess. There is no price to pay for being with him, no punishment to endure. I do not have to sell my soul to the devil for a droplet of his love.

Back when I lived in the land of sleeplessness, I could not hear my Father voice. So he sent me a message I could see.

Today, I carry no anger...no resentment. I have peace, and when I do need an extra dose of encouragement, I seek another "word"...

"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Isaiah 43:18-19 (TNIV)

9 comments:

Gayle Dunphy said...

Fantastic!! What a beautiful picture of God's healing love and grace! Thank you for your story.

susanjsilva said...

I can feel my own story inside yours. I too know the pain of lost family ties, hurt and deep wounds. Thank you my firend for being raw, and vulnerable. But most of all finding a peace that only God himself can bestow. That peace shines from you, as the veil has been lifted.

pinkdaisyjane said...

Thank you for being so transparent! Isaiah 43:18-19 is my "Jehovah-Rapha" (The Lord is my Healer) verse. Praise God that He uses the painful and the mundane to speak beauty into our lives!

Anonymous said...

I am so happy that you have found your way. Life... It is a maze and it looks like you found the right path. Follow it and God Bless and Good Luck. MD

shan3620 said...

Once again, amazing. I am proud to be one of your sisters, and I know you're one of mine. We will continue to build our own families and the strongest army will not penetrate it's walls. Thank you God!

Nikki said...

Wow...I could feel the strength this woman didn't realize she had. It was long but I didn't notice...I was pulled in and was disappointed when I reached the end wanting more. Keep writing, it does wonders for your soul!

emily said...

Just read that whole post, which quite honestly is saying alot because I rarely read such long ones!! You could have done this one in a 3 parter and kept us coming back to hear the rest! We certainly would have returned for it. Your story and perspective are both so compelling. Thank you for telling it.

Nancy said...

So beautifully written. There is nothing like our heavenly Father's love, is there? What a richly written piece! Thank you so much for being authentic, real, genuine! God is creating victories for you, one at a time. I pray you receive every single one of them. God Bless you!

K. E. Walker said...

This is not only amazingly written [I am still digesting it] but so inspiring. I am reading it, thinking, is this me?

I have many similar experiences -- at least with some of your family matters. And how I came to my faith.

THANK you for writing this.