While the threads of my story do begin at birth just like every one else’s, the threads of this particular story do not begin at the very beginning at all. The threads of this story begin several years later with a girl in the front passenger seat of a Silver Chrysler Town and Country minivan and my father in the driver’s seat behind the steering wheel. We pulled out of our drive on that rainy gray March morning in the Midwest, the kind of morning where you can feel the change of sunshine and blue skies right around the corner, but the grayness of winter is still hanging on. It was raining as the minivan accelerated to twenty-five miles per hour on the short-less-than-a-minute ride down the mostly-straight, slightly-slopping down on the way out to the main road and slightly up on the way home Sycamore Creek Drive, a road though now I only visit once a twice a year I could possibly drive with my eyes closed. I don’t remember where my father and I were driving that day. I know we were sloping down and heading out somewhere. My memory was as cloudy as that overcast day and I can’t recall which way the van turned on that main road. At fourteen on a morning in March I could have been going to the dance studio (my second home), a friend’s house, I could have been late to school or maybe my father was driving me to visit my mother in the intensive care unit in the hospital downtown.
I remember that less than minute drive like it actually lasted a lifetime. Or maybe the memory has been stretched out and hung onto, revisited so many times it now feels like a stretched out knit sweater which was left on a metal hanger to dry in the laundry room. The moment by means of minutes and seconds was short but the memory, the pieces my brain has tucked and filed away feel like they have traveled around the world, through time and back again, stretching and weaving into my story across years, seasons, places and stages.
I am the kind of person who cringes at the notion that someone may reach out and touch my shoulder or give me a friendly hug. Physical intimacy has always been difficult for me. I would gladly and firmly shake your hand and flash you a smile but for as long as I remember that is about as chummy as I can get, left up to my own self. So I imagine this memory, this story defining moment as feeling cold. Two people in a car, I in my personal space on my side and my father respecting my personal space behind the driver’s seat the feeling of so much more space than that between us. That day was incredibly gray both the weather and the words that were about to be birthed out of my father’s mouth. I know he labored over those words. Carefully thinking about how to deliver them to me. The last seven years for our family had been less than Leave it to Beaver with my mom being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991 and as the oldest child in the family I felt the emotional weight of what was going on. I knew what he was about to tell me. I had felt the weight of what he was about to tell me and carried the anticipation of those words around with me like a heavy cloak.
On the exterior I am a tough girl. It is my nature to pull up bootstraps, march on, hold it all together for everyone else. My deep desire is to appear strong. Appear solid. So with the expectation of my father’s delivery of these words I emotionally prepared myself. I made sure my gaze was fixed opposite of him. I knew if I looked in his eyes I would cry. My firm foundation built upon all the human strength I could muster up was brittle and shallow like a thin sheet of ice on a neighborhood pond. The simple resting of a branch upon its waters could cause the surface to crack, exposing what lies underneath. So I layered invisible walls between us in the front of that Silver Chrysler Town and Country minivan. I turned my gaze out the window on that gray day in March. I focused on the blurring line where the slopping curb meets the grass on Sycamore Creek Drive. The lines which when riding at twenty-five miles per hour it is difficult to tell where the sloped curb becomes grass and vice versa. My inner monologue chanting ugliness, don’t you be weak Rachel, you better not cry. I stared out the window, my father drove, he labored, he delivered.
“Rach, you know- mom is going to die.”
I didn’t have to look at him to know he was choked up behind the steering wheel on the Chrysler Town and Country minivan on Sycamore Creek Drive. I could feel his tears through the invisible walls I had built between us and as I tried to focus on that blurred line where the curb met the grass on that gray day in March. Those lines went from a straight streaking blur to a jumbled up swirl of gray-green as my vision became impaired by the tears I was trying so hard to keep myself from crying. There were hot tears in my eyes that I couldn’t stop from coming. I gritted my teeth as if my jaw was the gatekeeper of those tears. Being broken for me was the very worst possible thing I believed I could do for my father in that moment. The news that he had labored over went in one ear at out the other. I wanted to be numb to it.
“I know,” I grumbled in hard-core teenager-like fashion.
When my gritting teeth helped me choke back those tears, my gaze turned up from where the curb meets the grass on Sycamore Creek Drive and I saw my reflection in the window, then my father’s reflection and finally I felt the weight of disappointment on my chest. I had screwed it all up. Even with all my wall building. If I could see my reflection in the window, my father could see it too. He knew I was crying. He knew I was hurting. In that moment I believed I had failed at accepting what was happening. In my fourteen-year-old brain I had already reasoned that I had no time for anger, or sadness and forget grief counseling. This was my first test and I failed. When I have recalled the long drawn out threads of this moment, stretched over times and seasons, I honestly can’t reconcile which I am more upset about: the news of my mother’s coming death or the fact that I felt deep shame over being sad about it.
So in that seat on Sycamore Creek Drive I committed to winding up my threads a little bit more tightly. I committed to building greater walls. The more I covered up, the less I would be seen. The less I would be found out for a sad girl unaccepting of her future to live her life without the glue of everything she knew. So I committed to hiding beneath a tough exterior at fourteen the best I knew how. I committed to a life of bootstrap pulling and winding up tight. A committed to a life without anyone ever knowing the real me.
But thankfully I see this moment as the beginning of the story. The beginning is the winding up tight and the rest of the story in the chapters that follow is the loosening of those threads. The unraveling of them. Where overtime, season by season threads are loosed from what I believed was true about strength and brokenness and walking in what God says is true about strength and brokenness.
“It would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that ‘from that time forth, Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader