The sudden death of my father when I was in 8th grade left me reeling. I can still picture him pacing the living room that cold February night. He said he had terrible heartburn. He was having a hard time catching his breath. An hour later, he left the house on a stretcher still conscious saying, “take care of your mother for me.”
As I lay in bed that night, now fatherless, I knew I was different. I was no longer whole. The belief that I was now somehow damaged and worth less came to me and I invited it to stay. I didn’t know any better. In the months that followed, as the focus on my mother’s suddenly declining health grew, I began to dream about the prince that would rescue me.
I knew who he was. He hung out in my basement on the weekends drinking beer and playing cards. He must know what we were going through. I longed for him to come to me and gently say, “I understand,” as he held me tight. His hugs were magnificent in my fantasy. They were the cure to all of this.
When he did come to my room one night, his kiss was hard, a far cry from the tender hug of my fantasies. Confusion set in as he pulled at my clothes and my flesh. Tears squeezed out of the corners of my eyes as I did what he told me to, books and papers falling to the floor.
As time passed, I dropped out of high school, kept my secret, and lived my life at night. I was still on an obsessive search for the prince who would rescue me, but I no longer believed that I was worth rescuing.
I was 23 when my mom died from her long illness. I’d spent 10 years as her caregiver, along with my siblings, but I’d never stopped searching for my prince. Feeling damaged and desperate for acceptance, I was willing to do absolutely anything to avoid rejection from boys. I thought they would like me for that, but no one stayed.
Desperate, I started creating a mask of someone who was successful. I poured all my energy into creating a life that was acceptable, and a hard covering started to form over my heart. Somewhere inside I knew the real me was dying and a fake version was forming; one that hadn’t been abused and rejected by the prince. One that hadn’t been abandoned by her father. One that hadn’t let her mother die
Over a decade passed that way. By the time I got to the grief support group when I was forty, I had no idea who I was. All I knew was to tell my story and hope that someone would understand. I told them of the deaths and how I had held it all in because I had learned to be strong and independent to survive. They taught me that children lose innocence, security and trust when a parent leaves or dies. I started to taste acceptance, but only just barely.
Grace had touched my heart and stirred it. I started to come back to life. Songs I’d loved and sang to, books I’d held to my heart when I had read the final sentence — they all started coming alive again. It felt like breathing for the first time after being held underwater for years.
It took time to share my entire story — all the self-destructive ways I had lived out my identify as a “worthless orphan.” But when I was ready, I found another support group called Integrity for Women, for women facing struggles with sexual brokenness. On the eighth week, when we talked about guilt and shame, that I finally closed my eyes, hid my face, and shared my list of junk.
I expected judgment and condemnation. I expected someone to tell me they were talking about brokenness, but not things like this. But I was so wrong. I saw faces of love. Faces of understanding. Faces of acceptance. I couldn’t believe it.
I share my story now with groups that need to hear a testimony on the power of radical grace. When I tell it, I usually say I felt like the Grinch when, after stealing all the presents, he tilts his head sideways in wonder as he tries to understand the singing he hears. When I had finished reciting my list of secrets, of things I had done, of things that had been done to me, of all the junk, I lifted my head and opened my eyes. And all I saw was love. And they hugged me and said, “We understand”.
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