Knowing and Denial, Gifts of Grace

“Knowing is God’s heads-up of the truth. Denial is God’s protection until you can handle it.”

I knew the truth long before I knew the truth.

Since I was four years old, I had this vague yet consistent sense that a man was missing from my life, a man with whom I shared a deep connection. In a deep place within myself that I didn’t understand, I felt his absence, sensing that at one time he was physically present although I had no conscious memory of him. Yet I felt him with me somehow, a warm, constant, accepting presence.

These feelings might have made sense if I didn’t have a father. That perhaps my imagination was creating one for me to fill that aching void. But I had Dad, the sun around whom my world rotated and whose black eyes lit up every time he looked at me. Still this vague sense of loss nagged me like a sharp, elusive pebble that remained in my shoe no matter how often I tried to shake it out.

My favorite summer pastime was lying on a quilt spread across our front yard and staring up at the clouds, intrigued by their barely perceptible shape changing as they wafted overhead. When I tired of imagining what each cloud resembled—a sheep, Santa’s beard, an anvil that Wile E. Coyote tried flattening Roadrunner with—I envisioned what heaven was like on the topside of the clouds. Convinced that Jesus was riding on the cottony cloud-carpet keeping an eye on things, I strained to catch a glimpse of Him surrounded by angels and endless royal blue.

During one of my musings, rather than a Jesus sighting, eyes that matched the vivid robin’s-egg blue sky appeared in my mind’s eye. Kind, smiling eyes that belonged to a man but whose face was shadowed and grainy like a blurry photograph. Who was he? I strained to make out the rest of this blue-eyed man’s features, but they remained inscrutable.

***

My overall favorite pastime was eavesdropping. This was so easy at Grandma Rose’s house where playing with Cheryl and Kathy was the perfect cover. Assuming that we were too engrossed in our play to be paying any attention to their conversations, the adults often spoke without reservation. Grandma’s was a veritable feeding frenzy for gossip, and I sucked up every morsel.

One day, Kathy and I were playing Hands Down on the living room floor while Grandma, her sister SeDell, and Mom chatted at the dining room table.

“I remember running into an old lady in the dime store when I had Diane in the stroller when she was about a year old. ‘Oh, is this Georgia’s baby?’” Grandma mimicked, her voice raising an octave. “‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Oh, she looks just like Jerry!’” Grandma threw her silver head back and clamped her eyes shut as she recounted the six-year-old memory, her round frame jiggling with laughter. “I thought to myself, ‘Right. Looks just like Jerry. With those big black eyes?’” Grandma bugged her small light brown eyes, imitating my large round orbs. Bursting into another cackle of laughter, Grandma took off her glasses and wiped the tears from her eyes.

Jerry, I knew, was Mom’s first husband, a fresh-out-of-high-school nuptial that ended within one year and was months before she and Dad started dating. However, something about that old lady’s comment fanned a smoldering ember of instinctive knowing in the pit of my stomach: Why would that lady think that other man is my dad? I thought to myself.I squirmed, trying to escape the visceral sensation of sand granules under my skin.

Kathy jumped and looked at me wide-eyed when I slammed the fluorescent pink hand down harder than I had intended.

In my gut, I knew that if Jerry were my biological father, Grandma would never have breathed one word of it, especially when I was within earshot. Plus it didn’t feel right. Somehow I knew that Jerry and I shared no connection. Yet no matter how hard I tried to shake it off, the nagging doubt persisted that Dad wasn’t my biological father either.

***

“Daddy, fix this.”

Dad stared at the mangled cereal-box treasure that I’d dropped into his thick hand. “Honey bun, you bring me the most torn-up shit. I don’t know that I can fix this.”

Dad always said that and then proceeded to always fix whatever I’d given him. I waited for him to work his magic. Within minutes, he started tinkering and fiddling with the plastic mess like I knew he would. I stood next to him as he disentangled one piece and straightened another while Grandma’s words from a week ago swirled around in my head. I still can’t believe the words that came out of my mouth next.

“Are you my real dad?”

Was it my imagination or did Mom gasp? I turned to look at her. She stood frozen with a dinner plate in her hand midway to the table. Dad continued tinkering patiently with the toy—now nearly restored to its original condition—but I swore I could hear his mind racing.

Say yes, Daddy, say yes, I pleaded to myself. My pulse throbbed in my temples until I thought my head would explode. What was taking him so long to answer? What if he says no? I regretted having opened my mouth, but there was no taking the question back. I adored Dad, and he adored me too. Mom and I related more like siblings than mother and daughter, engaged in brutal battle on a daily basis. Without Dad in my life—

My stomach lurched at the thought.

If he says no, where did I come from? Knowing my roots on both sides of my family tree was a big deal for me. My throat tightened as uncertainty hovered over my paternal heritage.

“Wahhl . . . I guess I a-em.” Dad had reverted to his lazy, drawn-out Southern drawl, which he did whenever he was caught off-guard and was forming his response on the fly. He continued concentrating on the toy, never once lifting his eyes to mine. “I was thaar . . . the daaay . . . you were borr-en.” Click. The last errant plastic piece of the toy snapped into place.

Ecstatic and relieved that he didn’t say no and thrilled with my restored toy, I hugged and kissed Dad and skipped off to play. As I did, it seemed to me that Mom’s shoulders relaxed as she resumed setting the table.

As the years passed, I hung on to Dad’s answer like a lifeline, refusing to entertain any nagging doubt. Dad was my dad. Period. Still, this specter caught up with me when I least expected.

***

About a year after the divorce, when I was thirteen, Dad and I were headed to our favorite pancake house for breakfast when, out of nowhere, he said, “I need to tell you about my cousin Don. Do you remember him?” A captain in the U.S. Air Force, Don had been killed in Vietnam four years earlier.

I looked at Dad, confused. “Of course.”

Dad grew agitated. “Don was a good man. And smart.” He fixed me with an insistent look, barely keeping his eyes on the road. “He was so smart. If he had lived, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t have done.” Casting nervous glances between the road and me, Dad fidgeted in his seat as if he had seen a ghost. Or was in the presence of one.

I studied Dad, wondering where this was coming from and why. On reflection, I see now that this conversation came a few days after the wife of Dad’s best friend, in a fit of rage, told me, “Your mother may have walked off and left you, but your dad’s doing you a favor by keeping you.” When I told Dad, I expected him to be outraged and to confront her. To my confusion and heartbreak, he was not outraged, nor did he confront her. Rather, he told me to ignore her. Ignore her?? Dad was my parent. Parents, good parents, don’t abandon their children. How was he doing me a favor by “keeping” me??

“Don and Mom were high school sweethearts, right?” I asked.

Dad nodded.

“Then why didn’t she marry him? Didn’t she love him?”

“She loved him, but she didn’t want to leave town when Don went into the air force.”

We rode in silence as I processed this. Then I said, “So then Mom marries his first cousin? How weird is that?” I fixed my eyes on Dad. “Didn’t that cause problems between you and Don?”

“No, not really.” Yet Dad squirmed in his seat.

“How could it not have? They went together for four years and then Mom marries you? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“You just have to know what a good, smart man Don was. Don’t you ever forget that, okay?” Dad’s black eyes pleaded with mine.

I studied Dad before answering. “Okay. I won’t.”

We pulled into the pancake house parking lot. The subject of Don was dropped and was never brought up again.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that Dad feared that his and Mom’s secret was threatening to be shouted from the rooftops. But I didn’t make the connection then. I had lost too much in the past year to handle such a devastating blow. The lid on my denial snapped shut tight.

I’ve repeatedly experienced throughout my life that knowing and denial are gifts of God’s grace. Knowing is God’s heads-up so that I’m not totally blindsided when the truth is revealed. Denial is God’s cloak of protection until I can handle that truth.

I wouldn’t be able to handle this truth for another twenty years.

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