Memories are Tricky

I’ve heard them a thousand times. Haven’t you? Those stories that from your family’s history that have become legend. The time Great Great Grandmother Ocie was arrested for making moonshine in West Virginia. How Great Grandfather Lonnie was decapitated by a barbed wire fence during a tornado in Tennessee. How Grandfather changed his name to Lee on the spot, the night he met and proposed to Grandmother Jean. How my Mom has never been able to drive on family trips because of the “driving in neutral down a hill” incident on their honeymoon. Real people’s lives, turned into legend.

It’s happened to things that happened in my childhood. Events that were traumatic or upsetting at the time have become family jokes. When my sister and I had our hair butchered at a salon, and my dad famously remarked, “who traded my girls in for boys?” Or things I said as a child that have been repeated to infamy by every family member. The roadside pit stop in Costa Rica that resulted in my reply, “I just skimmed the top.”

History has a way of improving upon the original. What once was a gruesome story has become a story we all gasp over at dinner parties. The world’s most embarrassing moments make for the most hilarious entertainment after the fact. Over time stories change in so many ways. History is revised by whoever tells the story for the longest amount of time and whoever is speaking the loudest. It makes me wonder how much truth is in those stories. Or are my favorite memories more myth than fact?

It’s moments when I’m lost in these thoughts that I become curious about what my kids will remember. What tall tales will they tell of our life together? What will they even recall of our short time together with their dad? How will they remember me and the way I survived? I can only hope that I’m a hero of some of these stories, and yet I fear I am the villain. It’s easy to romanticize someone who isn’t there all the time. But me? They have me in all my bloody and bruised glory, daily displaying the full range of my humanity. Can they possibly remember in a positive light?

And yet children always seem to be little optimists. One of my parent’s favorite memories of my sister and I involves a rent-by-the-hour motel room in Las Vegas. We were a camping family and very rarely stayed in anything other than the pop top of our silver Volkswagon Vanagon. After a long day of driving my parents decided we’d stop in and see what all the fuss was concerning Las Vegas. We had a fun time walking around Circus Circus and watching all the various spectacles on the strip. By the time the evening rolled around there was “no room in the inn.” Or hotels. Or even upscale motels. So we ended up in the last dingy place available. The Sue Linda Motel.

But to my sister and I, this place was the Taj Mahal. We couldn’t see the nailed down television, bolted to prevent the questionable clientele from taking it. We didn’t notice the plastic mattress pad under the sheet to protect the mattress from a variety of unsavory fluids. We didn’t hear the doors slamming all night, along with the rotating customers coming and going. All we saw a glorious room, spacious and with a real bed. We raved on and on about how wonderful it was and my parents, with knowing looks, just laughed at our naivete. (In my parents’ defense, we left not long after arriving and just drove the rest of the way home in the middle of the night.)

So, perhaps my kids will tell the story about the road trip where Avery threw up and mommy cleaned her all up in the middle-of-nowhere gas station. And how we all spent the night in a spectacular hotel room (in reality, dingy and cheap), giggling when someone tooted after we were all supposed to be asleep. And the time mommy slammed on the brakes on a rainy day to rescue a toad from the middle of the road. They might be more legend than truth by the time they are passed down to my grandchildren, but I hope the feeling behind them conveys my love for them.

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Bittersweet

There is perhaps nothing more American than the guarantee of happily ever after. We’ve become proud owners and champions of Disney’s dream. Old stories that had complicated endings, or sometimes downright gruesome ones, have been shined and tidied up to fit our palate. Our addiction to all things sweet extends from our diet to our taste in entertainment. We like to wrap things up in beautiful packages: simple, elegant, and most of all happy.

We like nothing better than a comeback story. If there has to be sadness in life, it better be rounded out with a glorious story that gets you off your duff and cheering in the stands. Winning a trophy may fill all previous gaps left by pain in a movie, but it does not in real life. Life is much more complex. Sad and happy often are hopelessly intertwined.

Ever since I remarried I feel like I no longer have permission to grieve. No one would tell me this, but its implicit in the excited and hope-filled comments people impart. “I’m so happy that things aren’t hard for you anymore.” “God has redeemed this situation so beautifully.” “What a good thing that you aren’t alone and your kids have a dad again.” Yes, yes, and amen. But also no.

Things aren’t as hard as when I was a single mom. I don’t spend the night awake in an empty bed wishing I could disappear. I don’t spend evenings trying to figure out how I’m going to provide for my family and how I’m going to be in three places at once tomorrow. I have help at home and I have a partner in life. It is good. But seeing others celebrate their anniversaries still sting. Dealing with the fallout of having a broken family still feels painful. My life often still feels like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

My kids are unbelievably blessed to have my husband. His love for them is truly a gift from God. It was given to him full-grown and ready to be active. From the first moment they met, my kids were ready to have him in our lives and the feeling was absolutely mutual. And yet they still don’t know what to call him. I still feel stings when others assume he’s their dad; and daggers when I have to refer to their last name as different than ours. We won’t ever be the Allen Family. We won’t ever have “Allen Family Rules” proudly on display in our kitchen. Their dad will always live somewhere else and need to be explained away.

I still lost eleven years of my life. That hasn’t changed. Some of the happiest memories I’ve ever made have turned sour. I share the most intimate of moments, of making and birthing children, with a complete stranger. Much of my day can feel dishonest. I’m so often reminded of stories and things that I’d like to share with my husband, but I know they can hurt so I keep them to myself. I often think of people or things that I want to talk about, but then remember he doesn’t know because he wasn’t there.

Bittersweet is perhaps the best description for where I am in life right now. People spend a lot of time extolling how happy they are for me, so pleased that all wrongs have been made right and I am whole again. It feels ungrateful to disagree, to remind people that I still have loss. That I will always have loss. I’m an amputee. I’ve lost my arm and no amount of new things will ever cure me of this missing limb. Remarriage isn’t a cure for divorce, any more than a successful pregnancy cures a miscarriage.

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Purpose

Purpose. It’s the thing I most want in life. More than happiness, more than financial stability, or a skinny figure. Which is saying something because I want those things quite a bit. But meaning? Nothing holds a candle to that. I’ve spent years trying to figure out how to have meaning, how to make my days meaningful, how to find meaning in the things that happen to me. It is often my harsh taskmaster, enslaving my every move to the god of purpose.

Never has this been more clear to me than in the midst of suffering. Finding purpose in my pain was the only thing that kept me going on some days. If my pain could just grow some legs, go out into the world and do something worthwhile, maybe then I could breathe again. If it isn’t all pointless and I’m not just a victim of random molecules colliding, then maybe I could be okay.

I think the natural question to ask when searching for meaning is why. Why is this happening to me? Why did God allow this? Why is there no justice for the person who annihilated my heart? But there are many problems with the Why question. It gives rise to more questions and various speculations, with very little meaning. I don’t want vapors of ideas, I want firm footing for my rapidly sinking heart. I need a thoroughly tested anchor, a life-saving peace to protect me from the storm.

So if I can’t find that in Why, I’m left with For What? I may never know why things happened to me. Why I had to marry Brian and why he had to suddenly depart after ten years of marriage. But I might one day be able to figure out what good has come from it. For what am I to endure this? For the glory of God? For the love and support I could provide the church? For the faith it will grow in me? Possibly all these things.

These questions and answers bounce around in my head on nights where I’m haunted by my ghosts. They circle my mind like buzzards, trying to signal the death of my anxiety. But they often fail. Because although answers and purpose are gods that I serve willingly, they cannot comfort me the way I long for. They are no better than carved images, too dumb to listen and to inept to help.

At last my mind finds rest in Christ alone. In the wealth of peace that he pours out. No questions, no speculations, just himself. I don’t know Why and I can barely offer a satisfactory For What – but Jesus is. The only purpose, the only reason, the only peace in a chaotic world. The I AM ever over me.

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