I remember when my parents got divorced, people used to tell me, "Time will heal your pain." I hated that rhetoric. Why should my dad and his new wife get away with wrecking our family by virtue of time's ability to heal, to make us forget, to help us move on? So I vowed that time would not heal, that I would not forget, that, in fact, the pain would last.
I knew then that a vow like that was supposed to be dangerous to my own soul. I wasn't quite sure why, though. It just seemed like the universe was letting my parents get away with selfishness, 1970s style, and since the law, religion, and our tennis club friends all seemed perfectly content to overlook my pain when they moved along and accepted the devastation to our family, I decided to take it on myself to mete out justice. I did it by holding onto resentment and an unwillingness to ever forget that my dad, his new wife and my mother made terrible choices.
I didn't know then that these adults were choosing a path for their lives and I was merely collateral damage. No one told me I didn't have to adopt a posture of judgment and anger as a way to cope. It would have been startling to have someone suggest to me that I could simply focus on the pain they caused and work to create a better life for myself, without also focusing on how to make them pay. In fact, I felt I'd be betraying the moral fiber of the universe to love them, to find likable qualities in my dad or his wife, to forgive my mom for her abandonment. So I held them all at this "I love you, but that's in spite of..." arm's length distance.
To move on without judgment—that just didn't seem like the right thing to do. I would be aiding and abetting the cosmos in its indifference to what was clearly unjust! I didn't want to accept the idea of yin-yang, of pain leading to growth, or good and bad coexisting. I didn't want to believe that good could come from evil.
I've been more about linear progress, getting it right, not making mistakes, paying big attention to your impact on your loved ones, and so on. The idea that you could "move on" from making such powerful mistakes deeply troubled me... so I didn't.
The night of the Gilbert-Lamott evening at UCLA, I found myself jarred loose from my usual thought processes. I had already spent half the day in panicked arousal. Now I found myself unraveling my past while sitting in the place where my identity had been formed, for better or worse.
As a college student, I spent plenty of energy adjusting to the new reality that my family home no longer existed for me, that Christmas vacations would be spent on a pull-out couch at my mom's apartment where she lived with her boyfriend. I rarely, if ever, saw either my brother or sister (who lived with my dad). I spent summers in my apartments, not at home visiting high school friends or hanging around my siblings. In many ways, my college years were characterized by an unacknowledged loneliness. I had loads of friends, I participated in Campus Crusade, I belonged to a sorority. But at the end of the day, I had lost my family and had forgiven no one.
Sitting alone, writing in my little blue notebook, these memories swamped me. So unexpected. My young adult self walked right into my pencil and journaled herself onto paper.
The next morning, I went out to breakfast with an online girlfriend. We talked about midlife and marriage, painful choices and taking ownership of one's soul, one's life. Her honesty in revealing her journey to me led me to find new compassion for my dad (something I have not allowed myself to ever feel). I wondered what it might have felt like to be my dad, making choices or allowing them to be made for him. I thought about how he violated his own self-image in having an affair... what it must have taken for him to reconstruct a self he could be proud of and how I've been unwilling to let him ever do that.
I imagined each of my parents not wanting to create a mess in our lives, yet making a huge one as they fumbled forward into their truths and lies, not aware of what the long term consequences would be to us, but certain that the status quo had to be upended; that no matter what, they both were going to reclaim happiness and companionship because They. Had. To.
I joined Campus Crusade in the usual way: within minutes, I was sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with unbelievers. I had determined in college that I'd do it all differently, all rightly, all better. My Bible study leaders taught us about sin. I wanted truth. They tried to get me to see my own sin. All I could see were the sins of others against me.
It would have been incredibly helpful, in looking back, if someone had simply mentioned that Jesus died not just for my sins (sins I couldn't see, identify or feel), but that he died for the sins against - for those sins committed against victims. It would have been even more helpful if I hadn't been admonished to forgive my parents, but had rather been told how important my pain was to God, how proud God was of me for caring that much about truth, justice and suffering... and had then shown me a way to use that pain to create a more just and compassionate world (not just a tiny, in-grown sense of personal revenge-as-justice that I had adopted).
I don't blame anyone for this oversight. It's taken me twenty-five years to tease apart all the threads that make me who I am today.
Later in the afternoon after I said goodbye to Westwood, I drove to my dad's to watch UCLA beat Xavier in the NCAA basketball tournament. My dad and I have always connected around sports. We rarely ever get time alone together. We sat, side-by-side on the couch, hardly sure of who to root for; after all, it was like watching me play me, since I'm an alumnus of both schools. I wanted UCLA to win theoretically, but I was attached to the Xavier seniors who we've watched play here in Cinci. When Xavier lost, I felt I had lost too, even though my team, the one I was rooting for, had won.
My life has been a similar emotional tug of war. I love my parents, both of them. I'm proud of them for all kinds of accomplishments and gifts they've given to me, for the ways they have created stability in spite of the chaos of those earlier years. But I also really loved my family of origin, that original formulation of the five of us that I lost, forever. It's been hard to know which team to root for - the first family that holds my dearest childhood memories, or this new, reconstituted one, born in pain and violation.
After twenty-eight years, after all this time, while sitting with my dad in the home he and his wife have made together, I finally let it go. I'm going to accept, love and root for the family I have. I started that afternoon.