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September 4, 2022

At my wife’s baby shower for our first born, in full wine freedom my widowed mother roundly regaled the assembled crowd of lawyers, doctors, MBA’s who happened to be women, “Girls, if I was born when you were, I never would have had any children!” as I stood next to her, serving drinks.

I try to say “thanks” every day. I fail and find myself saying “sorry” often. But some things are neither error nor gift. They are afflictions. As St. Paul said, some things are a thorn in my side that I cannot pull out.

I have taken the gift of life God gave to me, in everything, everywhere and spent it with abandon, only occasionally remembering where all the life came from. In all that spending I had, and have, an unrelenting, unforgivingly accurate memory.

My parents were humans, not the vision of love fully felt by a four- or five-year-old. They, like me, made bad choices and did things that hurt (mostly themselves).

Hurt is most fully given to you by those you love the most. My parents’ cruelty, now 60 years past, unveiled their humanity to their children who just wanted them to be the perfection they had presented to us. These memories are graceless rends of my perspective, with no happy trivialization.

What my parents (and their parents) did has been done. If their net impact was just damage, I could adapt and walk it off. I can play with pain. But through my adult life these memories were fully manifest in crushing incoherent night terrors, almost every night – I had badly failed every night.

In the years between childhood and now I have been given a marriage to a beautiful, smart, loving person and have two healthy, intelligent good men as sons, and a career of many moments of helping others. No matter, every night brought terrifying dreams when I had the least control, as I slept. The consequences of that thorn were not easily understood.

Religion portends to offer salvation. Right. I am, by birth and predilection, a very “Low” Episcopalian. I find no solace in icons and rituals, but I love, inordinately, the words Thomas Cranmer wrote in the old Episcopal Prayer Book almost 500 years ago. On most weeks, in unison, upfront in the service and down on my knees I recite a version of what I learned at five:

 “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults.”

I know that I have followed too much the devices and desires of my own stuff, I just didn’t do those things which I ought to have done. Yes, and I have done those things which I ought not to have done – sometimes pretty well. Despite this understanding, my nights were often, almost daily, punctuated by sheet-soaking night terrors.  I lived with them, because asking God to end them, or for anything, is not who I am.

Last year, I was asked by my editor at a Christian magazine to write a “Confessional” – a monthly anonymous feature, that opened the author up to the readers in the humanity we shared – and that meant falling short of what God has given us. I wrote it. Not because I wanted to, but because I was asked. Like most things, I respond to what I am called upon to do. Perhaps the calling was not, ultimately, by my editor, but in the piece, I confessed my inability to forgive my parents.

When he was being murdered, Jesus, the human, called to God, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He could not, himself, a human, forgive those who hurt him unto death. But he could ask God to forgive.

So I did, too. In writing. In publication.

The week of the piece’s publication saw the daily night terrors that were with me for forty years simply disappear.

I’ve been thinking, talking or writing about the traumas of my childhood since my mother died over twenty years ago. And more so when my sibling committed suicide over four years ago. I have been fully open and expressive of the truth of being in a bad place, and the complexities that were only sometimes understood, but unrelenting. But the night terrors were unabated, and my sheets were often soaked upon waking. Until they stopped. Until I confessed.

We live in this world, now. Our days are spent in transaction, efforting every devotion in rationalized mechanisms — often grim, sometimes ecstatic. We soldier on, accepting limits and working hard to overcome them. We feel entitled to “fairness”, “justice”, objectively reasonable outcomes. We define the guilty, we declare the victimhood that has abused the innocent. But life, even the abused life, is not a transaction, it is a gift.

Without plan or design, I am the product of the American Century, the Greatest Generation – those who saved this world, and knew that they were entitled to all it had to offer. White, heterosexual, monied men, like me, could have the education, health, and opportunities simply by accident of birth. My parents felt that their birth earned what they had been given, because they worked extremely hard to manifest lives of success.

But their success, who I came from, and am, is now understood to be all that is wrong for so many. I did not make these injustices, but I am them, simply because of my birth. I cannot change that, but I can be forgiven

God forgave me.

My atheist friends will say that my body reached a place where my brain chemistry or its architecture changed to end the cycle of night terrors that were with me throughout my adult memory. And they are right. God made those things that changed, not me, nor or any of us.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Diane permalink
    September 17, 2022 8:20 am

    Thank you so much for this. While I don’t ascribe it to God (though I am a deist), I had a similar epiphany that my persistent “failing” was not of my doing, and the release was similarly palpable. I lived most of my childhood and well into adulthood with the unrelenting sense that I wasn’t “enough” and would never be “enough” no matter how hard I tried or perfectly I performed. It took a terrible therapist to push my anger to the point where I broke through and identified the source. Whether true or not, it allowed me to finally recognize that No, I could never be what my parents (esp my mother) hoped for—a brother for my older brother. You see, there were already my 2 sisters, then a 7-year gap, then my brother. When I was hatched, I believe they’d hoped to complete another pair set. Well, what a profound disappointment I was. This was never articulated, and my siblings don’t believe me. But that single recognition *instantly* released me from all manner of insecurity and allowed me to(re)constitute who I truly was, instead of being seen through the lens of who I wasn’t. All of which gave me more insight as I worked to understand my trans son, and ultimately gave me the strength to leave a dysfunctional marriage (in which I wasn’t “enough” to save my then-husband from his spiraling depression) and now embark on a truly happy partnership. This is perhaps more of my own confession than you bargained for. But I want to add that the most satisfying relationships I have today with friends and acquaintances from yesteryear are those in which we have kept growing and stayed close through those journeys (even if only in recent years and through digital means). I don’t engage in too much nostalgia. You and I were such different people in college—those people we were could never have been friends—and now life has bestowed something of the grace you talk about. I value that you share your thoughts with us all—I am not that brave, but I am right there with you. Thank you.

  2. September 17, 2022 8:55 am

    “Whether true or not, it allowed me to finally recognize that No, I could never be what my parents (esp my mother) hoped for—a brother for my older brother.” the undeniable humanity both unites us, and fully separates us: the commonalities in our outcomes are often tangential, like Risley, but they are also fully, often deeply connecting – even on the internet. I seen to have been given a life that is as constant as yours has been evolutionary: but since my sibling passed, the integration of the cruelties in our family demanded attention: now the (very comfy) torture of being evaluated by three pier reviewers for a very nice imprint. Even if rejected, there’s this.

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