I insist this is a love story.
I was twelve or 13, and I was in bed, crying, because earlier that day, I looked down at one of the desks I passed in class, and saw I hate Heather gouged into the wood with a blade.
I was hoping my mom would hear my crying that night. When she did, she came in, listened to me wail, and she got me a cool wet washcloth for my face. Then she told me stories of how she felt alienated from her friends sometimes—which in her tiny town were her own cousins. She got me a drink of water and smoothed back my hair until I quieted.
What quieted me was the sure knowledge that here, in my own house, in my own bed, I was loved. My surety stilled me, helped me sleep.
But back then, and for years, that surety also kept me up at night.
The night, my brother and sister weren’t there. They’d been essentially gone since I was six. Mostly, they’d been at Sunshine Acres, a Christian children’s home an hour-and-a-half from our house. But there were other places, too: my sister at a psych ward for three months, and later, my brother in jail for nearly three years.
Why did our parents send them to the Acres in the first place? That question has also kept me up at night.
As a child, I took the my parents’ answers—Katie was manipulative, had attachment deficits; Steve was possibly autistic, did not socialize normally—as gospel, but the older I got, the more I knew my siblings as adults, the less I understood. The older I got, the less I trusted my parents’ explanations.
The more I questioned, the more troubled I became. A simple, loving memory—me in my own bed, my mother coming to comfort me—made me wince. The comfort I rested sure in that night was not available to my siblings. And when love is not fair, it keeps you up at night.
I did not ever want to tell my parents that their love kept me up at night.
But how, how, how can love be sustained, be truthful, real or healthy if there is such a big question at its center?
Last year, all that long-wondering and ache and anger and bewilderment came volcanoing out of me. My whole family changed. There were phone calls and talks and therapy and letters and some ugliness, and also a lot of hard work by all of us.
Can I tell you that my relationship with my parents has vastly changed? I imagine the changes are hard on my parents. I feel certain they would not have chosen them.
On my end the changes have been necessary, hard, something to grieve and, yet, also hopeful. I insist on hope, because when truth comes to the surface, Jesus is near. As Simone Weil put it, “If one turns aside from [Christ] toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
I trust that speaking truthfully, lovingly to my parents, and them to me, will yield wholeness.
Before last year, I hated that my family story felt so unusual, so inexplicable. But the more I dealt with my questions, the more it dawned on me that my story isn’t unusual at all. Ultimately my story is quite simple.
All of us have to come to terms with parents who are fallible, with whom we might disagree. We all have to bear broken family legacies—addictions, abuse, lies, resentment, mental illness. We all have to struggle to ask our questions out loud and to pursue truth. We all have to make hard choices to find healing.
And parents have to struggle to accept and love the children they have.
I have felt like a bad daughter. I have wondered if my questions are an act of love. I have wondered if the story I am writing with my parents is a love story.
I insist that it is.
I insist that even when I disagree with my parents on questions at the core of our family, I still need to honor them.
I insist that I can love them, the whole of them: Their creativity, their passion for their work, their desire to do good in the world. Their sense of humor, their homebody habits, their Midwestern values. Their musicality, their amazing cooking, their overflowing love for my kids.
I love them—even the parts that make me ache. All of them.
I can be grateful for the love they were able to give me, because fair or not, it was the best they could do at the time, and it was intended as a gift. I am struggling to accept that their love for me and my siblings is complicated, like all human love. I can be honest that it was not fair, and that its unfairness was unhealthy. But I do not have to let it keep me up at night anymore.
I insist that we can always sing love stories in our families, even when our relationships do not turn out according to plan. I insist that wholeness might not come easy, but that it’s worth it. I insist every family story can be beautiful.
I insist this is a love story.