On being brave

A friend told me yesterday that when she looked at me, and thought about all I had been through—the word that came to her mind to describe me, is brave.  This was a surprise to me, because frankly, I feel anything but brave.  I am a survivor, it is true.  I have been thinking about my resilience lately—did it come about because of nature or nurture?  Did God deposit that trait in me at birth because He knew I would need it;  or was it borne after each affliction?  I haven’t told all my secrets as of yet and maybe never will—but looking back as far as I can remember there is almost never a time when I don’t feel as if there wasn’t some invisible target on my back.  But actually there was a time and unfortunately I have no memory of it.   There are pictures I post on Facebook of us being kids, my siblings and I.  And I can tell you by our ages whether it was pre-tragedy or post.   Anything up to my age of two or so—I am still innocent to the ways of evil.  It almost pains me to see pictures of us past that point, because I know, even though we are smiling—we are hiding our pain, from our parents, from each other and most of all—from ourselves.  Because the three of us went through something together, something that only one of us remembered and he took it to the grave with him.

It’s strange how you can sort of know something but you don’t have all the pieces.  In my case I was two, and while when you are two you remember all sorts of things,  time will eventually erase them.  I don’t even remember how my sister and I had come to speak of it finally, a couple of years after my brother passed away.   She had a remembrance of being yelled at by one of my father’s former parishioners;  not just yelled at for some minor infraction—but yelled at in an accusatory fashion—-the words in fragments, remembered for their shock and harshness more than anything else—“How could you accuse him of something like that?”   Or words to that effect, because while I was two, my sister was six and her memories probably no more concise than mine.  She had just been doing what she had been told, as countless children are told to do for as long as children have been told by parents to do certain things—to go to an trusted adult and let them know when someone is doing something wrong.   But while she remembered what this particular adult said to her, she never could remember what she had said to incite the reply.   I also had a strange memory of my own concerning this person—the lady who had yelled at my sister.  When I was around four years old, this lady came to my house.  People coming to my house was no big deal, as Dad was a preacher and our living room was his church.   This family was still in our lives and would be for a few years longer, but our memories were getting fuzzy by that point I would hazard a guess, and so whatever we had witnessed we had started to forget. However, something of what I had seen that day; whether it was my sister being yelled at or something more sinister I cannot tell you; still resided in my mind—and I was angry.  I don’t remember a whole lot from when I was four, but I remember this occasion as if it happened last year.  This woman came to our house and was sitting in a chair in our dining room close to my mother.  And I can still feel the hostility I felt towards her and the knowledge that I wanted her out of my house and away from my mom.  I don’t know where I got the idea to do what I did from—it’s not the natural behavior of a four year old.  I look back at it now, and I see hate of this woman but also, dangerously, hate of self.  Maybe I had felt powerless at two to stop whatever had happened to us and at four, I found a way to strike back.  In any event—I slipped into the bathroom unnoticed, stood on the closed lid of the toilet bowl and reached up to a high shelf (put there to keep little hands away) that held my father’s shaving tools. I picked up a razor and……ran it down my dry four year old face.   I was too short to see into the mirror, so I have no idea what I looked like when I exited the bathroom—but it must have been horrifying, because my mother jumped up and came to me immediately.  I do not remember anything past this point other than the lady left.   But I heard the story for years after that—the day I had inexplicably shaved my face.  I never told anyone why; because at that point I didn’t know why;  I had just remembered being angry at that woman and wanting her out of my house.

After our brother died of cancer, my sister and I grew closer despite the four year age difference and somehow we got to talking about this event that happened when I was two, she was six and our brother was either seven or eight.  What had brought us to these people’s house in the first place,  was that my mother had gotten pregnant one more time after she had me.  She was 41 years old and in the 1960’s, it was practically unheard of for someone that age to have a baby or to carry it to term.  She had almost died having me at 39.  She miscarried what would have been our baby brother at seven months.  Her mom was in Massachusetts and our Dad worked in the city Monday to Friday;  there was no one to look after us kids when mom had to suddenly go to the hospital when she lost our younger brother.  We had no idea how long we were subjected to stay with this family and what the particular circumstances were that lead my sister to being so harshly yelled at for speaking about it.  But my sister and I had the sneaking suspicion that the father of that house had abused my brother and we witnessed it;  or perhaps he abused us all—but we didn’t remember any of it, so we couldn’t prove it.  And by the time we talked about it, that family was long gone from our lives.

Fast forward to sometime in the beginning of 2010 and an off comment my dad had made one night as he and I sat on my couch in Virginia.  I had been telling him that I had made friends on Facebook with one of the children of this family (because whatever the sins of the father had been it had no bearing on his children in my mind).  And my dad, completely oblivious because we had never told him (and I still haven’t told him), said to me, “Well, you know that the father was a pedophile.”

All our suspicions were confirmed then.   There was no joy in being right all those years, yet the confirmation that what we knew to be true was in fact correct,  even though we couldn’t remember it, was sort of a relief in a way.  We weren’t crazy, we didn’t make this stuff up in our mind and I really did have a reason to dislike that woman (never enough to hurt myself in the process, but a four year old is powerless and a two year old even more so).

It’s scary to reveal all this now, I will be honest.  Not many people know this story, maybe a handful.  And I’m the only one left to tell it, everyone else has died.  The one who remembers it the least, left to fill in the missing pieces.  So yeah I’m a survivor.  But what good comes from surviving if I don’t share my story with others going through similar situations?  Whatever I have lost doesn’t have to be in vain if I can help someone else going through the same thing—but how will they know if I don’t tell them?

I was talking to someone the other day about survival.   And we were discussing how the mere act of survival was a form of rebellion—how life throws everything it has at you and yet you prevail —Survival says—I made it anyway.  Evil thought it was going to win but it didn’t—Survival won.  Not everyone survives, unfortunately.  You don’t have to die to not survive.  You can become hardened, and heartless.  You can become angry and sullen.  You can be unforgiving.   True rebellion against evil means you can still love and laugh and live. Of course, I am of the belief that I can do none of those things without God—it is through Christ that I am strengthened to go on and because of Him that I am even here to tell you about all this.  Because truthfully I could be (and maybe should be) dead.  I took some awful chances with my life, but for the grace of God and maybe some bigger plan that I am unaware of, I am still here.

We all have stories and some of us write them down and some of us sing them and some of us go about our lives quietly—but if we are still here, having survived to this point—then we are living testimonies to someone else who needs to know how we did it.

So no, brave is not something I would say about myself, because I know how flawed I can be, how much I mess up and how selfish I can get;  but then bravery isn’t about doing things without fear or without flaw—it’s about walking through life, determined to make it to the other side, knowing that you did before and you will again.   Knowing that you can because others have and them knowing they can because you did.  To me that is the true essence of the love God calls for us to have for one another.  Not some flowery words that have no substance behind them—but love that opens up about shameful secrets and pulls people out of the despair of thinking they are alone with whatever has happened to them.

Sometimes we may have to open our old wounds in order to help heal others…….if God asks that of you—will you be brave enough to say yes?


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