I have a stepsister.
As it happens, I have a stepbrother as well, but for the purpose of this post, that's neither here nor there.
So again, I say: I have a stepsister. I don't know if I can quite convey to you how weighty this statement is, how deeply affected I am by this, or how long it took me to ever be able to say that out loud. What she was, up until about a year ago, was my dad's wife's daughter.
I mentioned in a previous post that some years ago, I lost my dad; not to death, but to another family – another life, another wife, another set of grown children.
My childhood was, for lack of a better term, pure magic. I grew up under the wings of my strong and lovely mother, and my gentle and completely hilarious father, and floated through the years next to my two beautiful sisters. Of course, our family did not lack in the yelling, fighting or griping departments – but rare was it that we didn’t sit down together as a family of five for dinner each evening.
I am blessed to be able to say that nothing bad – really really bad – had ever happened to me. Tragedy was a stranger to me, and I didn’t know any better than to float through my life blissfully ignorant about so many of life’s big and little things.
Follow me to the winter of 2006, though; I’d been married for six months, was held tightly within an amazing community, and had almost every soul dear to me within walking distance. One Sunday evening in February, my world fell to pieces when my sisters and I were gathered together and told over the phone that our dad had left our mom – he’d just packed up half of their belongings, and moved out. And that was that.
I vividly remember fruitlessly begging him to change his mind, to come home, to work on this; I pleaded for answers – why? What happened? How could you do this to us? What about our family? And all for nothing – I was told this didn’t have anything to do with us girls, that I needed to trust him, and that this was something I wouldn’t be able to understand. And still, I begged, I cried, I despaired. I was a twenty-three-year-old girl who suddenly felt six, and so very alone.
All this, though, was just a month or two before I learned who my father really was; that outside of the gentle and utterly hilarious, present and wonderful dad that I’d grown up with laid a chronically unfaithful husband who I’d known nothing about. Needless to say, I experienced a shift – where once was sorrow suddenly laid grief mixed with fire – pure anger, resentment, and the feeling that I’d been cheated out of my entire life thus far. And yet, the sorrow remained.
And at that, our relationship ended. In one blink, I lost my dad.
There came a day when my father remarried. I got up all the guts I could muster, and left a letter under the windshield of his car, which was parked outside the church he was in, vowing his love and his life to a stranger. In it, I talked about how not a day had passed that I had not been broken; that just as a piece of me died on the day he left, I was broken and re-broken, strangled and smothered throughout each day of my existence. I told him that each day that he is gone, I clamber through mud and rain, dragging my fingers through wet soil, just to keep from slipping into the depths of the earth. I said that that he had shredded my veil of hope, and torn down my foundations of love.
After I drove away, I waited for a response. Years passed, and I never received one.
For each prayer I prayed asking for my father to be returned to me, there existed one in which I begged God to let him suffer; I realized from the experience that I had yet to understand what forgiveness truly is. I prayed that peace and beauty would not acknowledge him. And I prayed that there would come a day when I might rise above this and experience joy again – a day when I might accept that he did not exist – that my father, as I knew him, never was.
Six years went by before we communicated. Granted, I would receive the odd e-mail over Christmas, or on a birthday here or there, but I never found it in me to reply to him. Instead, I’d keep my reactions to myself – or I’d gripe or grieve to my husband and sisters over how angry I was – particularly when I started receiving correspondence asking me to get over this already, to quit ignoring him and put this behind us. As if he had a right to put his foot down and put me in my place. I spent those years angry, resentful and sad. In those six years, I couldn't even say words about what had happened without breaking down into tears. And at night, my dreams were flooded with scenes of him chasing me down – strongly commanding my name, backing me into a corner. Some nights I’d cower in fear, others I’d yell and scream so loudly that my throat swelled. I’d wake up acknowledging that not only was I deeply angry, but I was terrified of this man I once called father.
Something eventually changed in me, though. I’m not sure exactly when it was that I decided to change the way I was living; but I started to realize that I needed to move past this – or even just step into it, and over it – in order to get anywhere further in my life. It was occurring to me that my silence – the bitterness and anger I was harboring – was only destructive to me; that I was being pushed downward, and for what? I was tired of having misplaced all my hope; I wanted my light and my life back. In order to reclaim what was mine, I needed to address this.
So one afternoon, I wrote out a long, thoughtful and emotionally charged e-mail to my father. I didn’t know where to begin, at first; so I started with the basics. I told him about who I am today, what I do, what I’ve accomplished, and what I love.
And then, I told him what he’d done to me. I said that he has hurt me and our family immeasurably; and that while I hoped for years that he was suffering every single day – wishing that he’d never know peace – that I had more recently come to a place where I know that harboring my hatred for him is only destructive to me. I needed him to know that at my very core, I am changed – from the moment he left, I was shattered into a thousand pieces, and left hopelessly to gather up what I could, and keep muddling through my days.
And amazingly, whether this was completely shocking or sadly exactly what I should have expected, he didn’t get it. Somehow, he didn’t understand. I fought tooth and nail for about a week or two, trying to get him to see what he’d done, but to no avail. Sure, he offered an apology eventually – he said he was sorry for everything he’d done to hurt me, but it didn’t offer me the solace or the resolution I’d been looking for, because I realized I was throwing my feelings at a wall. And in the end, I decided to be okay with that; not only because I needed to be, but because surely my resolution needed to come from elsewhere anyway.
So I dusted off my knees, packed my feelings carefully back into my heart, and moved along; one foot in front of the other. And today, I am okay.
What I set out to talk about, though, was my stepsister. My dad's wife's daughter. A year ago, she had a baby – I found out because my dad sent me an email letting me know, and mentioned that she had noticed that our babies had the exact same birth weight; cute, I thought! He sent me her e-mail address, in the event that I might want to write to her.
And I did. Because if pregnancy, childbirth and hatching out of my shell as a brand new parent had taught me anything, it was that mothers – new ones, especially – need all the help, hope and support they can get; and not a bone in my body cared to shut this girl out when she was no more of an instigator of this mess than I was; we were both just children, floating in little bubbles above it all. I needed to stop thinking of her as someone who lived in the enemy camp.
As it turns out, today she's one of my favorite people to correspond with. She and I write emails to each other back and forth all the time, and is one of the most understanding and easygoing people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. And part of me – no, actually, most of me – looks back at this and can't believe that I've come this far. The months and years leading up to all this were all about scaling mountains; they were about forgiveness, enlightenment, and blessing. They were about discovering what strength laid within me, they were about my strong capacity for resilience, and about the power of forgiveness, with respect to myself and to those around me. They were about what fundamental importance lies in not judging others, and in giving people a chance.
It has sparked within me a great motivation to teach Margot the importance of all this. She's this little person running alongside me, looking up to me for help, support and an endless supply of love. At this exact moment, she's sitting on my lap sucking her thumb as I type. I know I'll always be on a steady incline when it comes to my dad and what he did to our family, but I can't help but feel like I owe a debt of gratitude to Margot; her very existence challenges, motivates and urges me on to be a better and whole person. I will set the bar high when teaching her just what capacity the human heart has to love, grieve and forgive.