Forgiveness, one step at a time

“Jules, your family has put the dysfunction in dysfunctional long before it was popular.”
He said it not with sarcasm, not with contempt but more of a passing state of resignation…
as though he was simply voicing a troubling thought out loud.

I looked down at my feet–tennis shoes no doubt and most likely jeans.
I adjusted my position in the elegant leather wingback chair.
The office was rich with dark coffered paneling–a gothic office in a Gothic Cathedral.
A copy of Diego Velázquez’s Crucifixion graced the wall—–one of my favorite paintings.

This certainly wasn’t the first time I’d sat in his office.

I was probably 18, or maybe I was 22—it didn’t matter as I had been finding myself in his office
since I was 15.

Behind his desk, on a credenza, sat several baseballs in displays cases…you see he
wasn’t just any ol priest or a random dean of a cathedral, he was also Chaplin to the Braves Baseball team—
Yet most importantly he was my “godpoppa”– a surrogate father.

I loved him immensely and I needed him terribly.

I was drowning and he offered a lifeline—one that I clung to
Just as I still love him to this day— despite the passage of time, he still finds that precious time for me.

We also shared something in common.

We were both adopted.

So I believed he always understood some things about me that I had yet to grasp or realize myself.

This was just one more visit in a long line of visits.

There really were no answers to my troubles– he was simply gracious in allowing me some of his
precious and limited time.
Time from his busy and frantic schedule, allowing a “woe some” young person an opportunity to vent,
to share, to describe the latest story—the latest incident in a never-ending stream of incidents that
only seemed to be escalating with time.

My family suffered through something that many people today now painfully acknowledge and recognize.
But for my family, at the time, our turmoil was pretty much just for us to experience.

The trouble was my brother and his trouble was mental illness.

Mental illness is now finding itself front and center of national headlines—
as there are more and more violent ramifications reverberating throughout our society.
My younger brother, unbeknownst to my parents at the time, suffered a mental illness.
It would be years before it was diagnosed, but the years of turmoil would not be lost on anyone.
And by the time of his diagnoses, it was really too late.

Both my brother and I were adopted.
We were not biologically related and were 5 years apart in age.
Something never seemed quite “right” about Ed.
He was a colicky baby, crying often and difficult to soothe.
My aunt often quips that she knew they should have taken him back as soon as they had gotten him.

A bad apple so to speak.
However, it was 1963, no one really knew much or talked much about the baggage babies can carry
from traumatic pregnancies and/ or births.
We didn’t know or understand the effects of the mother’s life on babies while in utero and
how that could/ would transcend to life and living of these yet to be born children.

Ed was different from the very beginning.

Back then, adoption agencies worked hard to match babies with the adopting families—
skin tone, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, etc.
Ed, however, looked quite different from the rest of us.
He was faired skinned, freckles, light haired, lanky.

I suppose growing up, discovering you are adopted and then looking at your family,
you immediately notice you are more different than you first realized,
which only adds to that already existing sense of alienation.

Given the fact that I was 5 years older and that I was prone to having that bossy big sister demeanor,
certainly did not ingratiate me ever to Ed.
We were more like oil and water, which I can now only imagine having grated on our parent’s nerves
and frustraton.

However, they loved us both very, very much.

In school, Ed struggled.
He was ADHD but no one knew about that particular “condition” at the time.
Believing that hyperactive element to be a part of Ed’s troubles,
our family’s pediatrician told my mother to give Ed coffee, as the Medical field was currently
looking at the use of caffeine, a stimulant, in the treatment of kids who were simply “all over the place”
counteracting that hyperness.

I’ll skip most of the growing up and won’t bore you with the mundane details.
However you need to know that my memories of family meals were not the happy Norman Rockwell
images that we all so long for—–but then again, are any family’s time together pictures of such tranquil images?

I can’t recall an evening that didn’t see some sort of fight or struggle.
Ed wouldn’t eat.
Dad would get mad, telling Ed that he could just sit there all night until he ate.

One night it was two hours before Dad gave in and told him to go to bed.
Mother would begin to cry.
As frustration set in, I would get mad.

I couldn’t understand why things always had to be so hard.
It was supper for crying out loud, can’t we eat in some sort of peace or harmony?!
Mother would leave the table in tears.

This was the typical evening.

If it wasn’t fighting over supper, it was homework.
I would just go to my room and drown my adolescent sorrows in James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”,
“Fire and Rain”, “Don’t let me be lonely tonight”—-
playing his album over and over and over.

And yes there were the thoughts of suicide.
What teenager, who was an adolescent ball of emotional hormones, who was experiencing unhappiness
night after night, wouldn’t entertain such thoughts??
What other remedy was there to such a problem?

Thank God for that gothic office in that gothic Cathedral and for the life-line I had found there.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I was aware of how bad things really were with my family.
It was my 22nd birthday. Mom and Dad had not called all day wishing me a happy birthday.
This was long before cell phones, texting or e-mail.
It was a long distance to Athens from Atlanta—the rates went down after 5PM so I was expecting my call.
By 8 PM I was getting a little sad, as well as concerned.
Finally, I called home.

A collect call of course.
Mother answered.
No words of happy birthday but rather “everything here is fine.”
Great, I thought, but does anyone remember what today is?
I wonder out loud.
“Oh, Happy Birthday Sweetie, Ed’s fine.”

That’s odd.
I wasn’t asking about Ed, and truthfully didn’t particularly care.

This was a surreal conversation and happy birthday to me.
Mother told me Dad was busy and would talk to me later—doubly odd to say the least.

It wasn’t for a week or so later that I discovered the truth behind that strange evening’s call.

It seems that Ed had decided to run away.

He took mother’s car, two thousand dollars (where in the world he came up with money is beyond my soul,
as we did not have that kind of money lying around)
and his bass guitar.
He decided he would go to California
(why do all young people seem to want to run away to either California or New York?!)
to live in the desert and look at the stars.
Okay.

He made it to the US/ Mexican boarder when the Boarder Patrol stopped him.
They searched the car.
I suppose seeing some 16-year-old kid driving an old mom car pulling up to the US/ Mexican Boarder
threw up a giant red flag.

When they opened the trunk they found wet underwear hung over the bass guitar, drying.
They also found the money.

The Agents called my parents and told them that had they not stopped him,
he most likely would have been stopped in Mexico and most likely would have been killed by
the border bandits when they found the large sum of cash on a wayward kid.
Dad had to fly out to get him and drive back to Georgia.
I said then and there, they should have left him to his own devices.

Later, when it was time for me to start my student teaching,
I had to move back home in order to student teach at a school in the Atlanta Metro area.
My brother at the time was attending GA Tech.

Living between our great Aunt, who had run a boarding house during the War and
that of our house—–all depending on his mood.

He was really super smart but really super socially awkward.

There was one evening, in particular, that I recall most vividly.

It was my first-day student teaching.
To say I was nervous was an understatement.
And it just so happened that mother was in the hospital at the time,
as she had to have a hysterectomy.
I had to juggle the new teaching post,
running to the hospital, getting ready to help take care of mom and help take care of my dad.

That evening I had come home after a very long day of school and hospital duty
only to find Ed in the den with all of his record albums spread out all over the floor.
I sat on the floor, looking over what all he had.
Ours was a tenuous relationship and his temper was explosive–
I had to tread very lightly and truly wanted to be able to get along with him.

The conversation turned to mother.
He had fallen into the habit of referring to her only as “woman”,
as he did not consider her his mother.
I found this to be infuriating.
But the whole adoption thing was coming to a head in him, to such a level, none of
us fully grasped.

The stories of his explosive temper were becoming legendary.
Mother would have prepared him a baked potato.
If he had found it not to his liking, the potato was slung against the wall as he would spew foulness from his mouth.
Calling mother a ‘fucking bitch.’
There were holes in the walls from thrown hammers or screwdrivers or the wayward fist.

I could not fathom how on earth Mother and Dad could or would tolerate such behavior.
It made me crazy.
I was mad at them for letting him control the whole house.
I was thankful to be living away at college, spending summers away working at boarding summer camps—–
dreading ever coming home.

What I couldn’t understand, at the time, was that they had tried counseling.
Ed refused to attend.
The whole “tough love, kick him out on his own” approach was more then their hearts would allow.

This particular evening was not to be any different.

As I brought up the fact that Mother was in the hospital and that he should go see her,
he reacted in typical explosive behavior.
He blew up at me.
Why?
I have not a clue.
He proceeded to take a ball bad to every album sitting on the floor, smashing all in sight,
waving the bat at me and telling me my head was next.

He next stormed off to his room where I knew he kept a revolver.

When did my family every have a gun in the house is beyond my soul.

I left the house.

I went to the only place I knew I could find safety and solace—my godparents.

I called the house hours later only to have Dad answer the phone.
I recounted the series of events.
Dad got mad at me for “setting” Ed off.

Are you kidding me??!! He got mad at me??
WOW!!

As life with Ed is now becoming a small book, I will condense the remainder of all of this–
and bless you for reading all of this.

Ed eventually moved out of the house.
Attending Ga Tech sporadically and living in one of our great aunt’s boarding rooms,
as her large house was all but empty.

Mother by this time was broken and beaten.
I eventually got married and moved away.
Thank God.

By the time I was 25 and Ed was 20, Mother was diagnosed with cancer.
I know in my rational mind that people do not give other people cancer.
It doesn’t work that way.
Mother was sick for all of 6 short weeks.
It was as if she gave in to the cancer as an escape.
She had no will or desire to fight as her “fight” had left her long ago.

I blamed Ed for her death.

Like I say, people don’t give people cancer but I believed with all of my heart that
he had killed her.
And I resented the hell out of him for it.

By this time he was deeply involved in his quest for answers regarding his adoption.
He had also been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
It was at this point for my dad that he would do anything to help Ed find “peace”.
To say that my dad didn’t love him would certainly be a lie.
I just wish Ed could have understood that at the time.

It was the first case of it’s kind in the state of Georgia.
Ed had his adoption annulled.
My dad went before a judge, on behalf of Ed, asking that it be so.
Ed had exhaustively sought his birth parents, finding his mother and narrowing down who
his father had been.
In the annulment, he relinquished his identity of being Ed and took on the name
from his biological birth certificate–Timothy William Sommers.

There is still so much to all of this that time simply will not allow me to go into more detail,
as I am certain your eyes are already glazing over.
I am also certain that you realize that this story does not have the happiest of endings—
but it is an ending all the same.

By the time I was 31 I received a call at work.
I was teaching at the time.
They called me to the front office.
Ed was currently living in Ohio, continuing his quest to establish a relationship with his biological mother.
Upon meeting her he called my dad telling dad that he now understood why he was the way he was—
seems the old expression holds true—nuts don’t fall from the tree.

This particular day, when I reached the front office, I saw something in the face of our school secretary.
She was handing me the phone telling me it was my dad.
No one had to tell me what I was about to hear.
Dad was on the phone, telling me that the State Patrol in Akron, Ohio had called him.
They had found Ed dead in his apartment from a single gunshot wound.

You would think that this would be the sad ending to a sad story,but it is not, thankfully—

I am a firm believer in Redemption and Grace.
God’s hand has been too evident throughout my life, despite a troubling growing-up.
And yes I wholeheartedly believe that what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.

It took me a long time to stop blaming Ed for mother’s death,
and for resenting him for how terrible our family was because of him.
I even had a great deal of resentment for my dad for not being stronger to do something,
anything to stop the craziness.

It wasn’t until years later that I found the forgiveness I so long needed—
not so much for Ed’s sake but rather for my own.

I had a student who was terribly troubled and had a severe drug problem.
He was removed from our school and sent to an alternative school.
I was terribly frustrated in that here was a kid that I never could reach and felt as if I had
somehow failed with him.
Shortly after his removal from school, he killed himself.

Being raised in an Anglican church, to me, suicide, at the time,
was very taboo.
Many victims of such were not even given church funerals.
I had always thought it to be the greatest sin against God—as it was a slap in the face
for a most precious gift of life.

The husband of a dear friend, who at the time was a Methodist minister,
sent me an email regarding the situation.
He told me that at the time when a person seems to be at their lowest point on this earth…
a time when we cannot know what is transpiring between that person and God—
how can we say that at that decisive moment when a person pulls a trigger,
or takes a drug, or breathes in a poisonous breath,
that God is not right there, right then still offering His undying and unyielding Grace and Forgiveness?

I can’t answer that.

And so it goes.

That God is so much bigger than me, my brother, this student, my parents, the cancer,
and all the tragedies any and all of us ever experience!!

After all of the years and all of the energy, the oh so negative energy,
I could and can look at my brother, and yes despite an annulment, he will always remain my brother,
I could and can find forgiveness.

Yes the story is sad—but it is not hopeless—
as long as there is light on the Earth, there will always remain Hope.

I must forgive as I too have much to be forgiven for in this life, just as we all do–
for it is one step, one day, one act at a time—

God remains Sovereign!
His Forgiveness and Grace endless…
Thank God and Amen!!!

12 comments on “Forgiveness, one step at a time

  1. Melissa McCain says:

    I don’t know why your birth mom gave you up, but I’m so thankful that you are well and that you had a mom and dad who loved you. You have such wonderful gifts that you unselfishly share with others. You are the most generous and caring person that I know. Your experiences have shaped your life and I hope your blog will help others. Thank you for being my friend. I’m blessed in knowing you.

  2. Needless to say, I am in tears. Forgiveness is something I think we cannot accomplish without first filtering our pain, passion, and hurt through the mighty Heart of our Creator. WE can’t do it alone, but HE always can if we reach for Him and let Him!! A lesson hard learned. I thank you for opening your soul and sharing something that reaches us all, my dear, dear friend!

  3. […] addressed the issue of my own brother’s suicide in the post Forgiveness, one step at a time (https://cookiecrumbstoliveby.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/forgiveness-one-step-at-a-time/) I don’t wish to rehash a previous post but I do think it important to note that the finality […]

  4. David says:

    Thank you for sharing. My wife was adopted. Both her parents are dead now, but they were the most wonderful people, and Marilyn never thought of them as anything else than Mum and Dad. Now our eldest son and his wife have adopted a little boy. He was three when they adopted him and he has been with them for one year. He is gradually calming down, but still has his moments – hardly surprising if you knew his background. We don’t know the future, but we are proud of our son and his wife for being willing to be Dad and Mum to our grandson. Much prayer needed I think as this particular journey continues.

    • David, thank you for your heartfelt words and for sharing your family’s story. I think it is wonderful what your son and daughter-n-law have done with the adoption of their young son. Parenting, as you know, is not easy with biological children, throw the dynamics of adoption on top of that and the road can become quite bumpy from time to time—but love is indeed love—and your grandson will grow in that unconditional love!
      Blessing to you and your family—Julie

  5. […] old. I won’t retell that long convoluted tale as you can read it elsewhere if you so desire, (https://cookiecrumbstoliveby.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/forgiveness-one-step-at-a-time/ ) but suffice it to say, he’s meant the world to […]

  6. Wally Fry says:

    Thanks for this Julie. Maybe with Mom gone, I might share some stuff. Never did because some of it would have hurt her, because I am sure she never even understood they happened. Forgiveness..yep. I did,and had, but she never acknowledged anything. Don’t get me wrong, she was as good a mom as she could be I guess, but neither one of them should have brought children into the world. So, thanks for this. It’s comforting to know others have similar life experiences.

  7. […] That was when I actually learned that her grown son suffered from the same mental illness that had plagued my brother—a tale which was in a post I had once written about forgiveness. (https://cookiecrumbstoliveby.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/forgiveness-one-step-at-a-time/) […]

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