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.

The King and I

Elvis Presley, the noted King of Rock and Roll, was like a member of our family. Mom worshipped him and owned several of his albums and 45s that I wore out singing and dancing to when I was little. And we never missed his movies on TV. Both of us planted ourselves firmly in front of the set, Mom on the couch, twirling a single lock of her long blond hair, and I on the floor on my belly, not budging an inch lest we miss a glimpse of our sultry heartthrob. I melted as he crooned to one of his dewy-eyed ladyloves, envying the dazzling beauty while wondering what it was he saw in her. To me, they didn’t hold a candle to his gorgeous wife, Priscilla. I believed she was the luckiest woman on the planet, and I often daydreamed about her idyllic, fairy-tale life with the King. The birth of their little princess, Lisa Marie, completed the fairy tale.

The similarities between Dad and Elvis were eerie. With birth dates only one day apart—Dad’s on January 7 and Elvis’s on January 8—they were both Southern born and bred—Dad in Kentucky and Elvis in Mississippi. Both of them had jet-black, slicked-back hair, had a thin, wiry build in their youth, and stood close to the same height. Dad and Elvis adored and were adored by their mothers, doted on their daughters, and were divorced from the love of their lives within months of each other—Dad from Mom in June 1973 and Elvis from Priscilla in October 1973.

The similarities didn’t stop there. Gossip rags had it that Elvis suffered from severe depression after his divorce from Priscilla, as did Dad after his divorce from Mom.

“I can understand Elvis’s not wanting to go on anymore after losing his wife and daughter,” Dad said to me as we were driving in his car sometime in early 1974. He looked at me, his black eyes wide with panic. “I wouldn’t want to go on if I lost you!”

His desperation was palpable in the tiny, enclosed space. I stared back at him, wide-eyed, as my heart jackhammered in my chest. “Dad! Don’t say that!”

“I’m serious! I wouldn’t want to go on living if I lost you! I couldn’t handle that!”

“Dad, stop it! I’m only thirteen years old!”

“Well, I can’t help it! I couldn’t handle it!”

“This is way too much pressure for me, Dad! You’re making me responsible for whether you live or die!” Now I was panicked. I felt the walls closing in, sucking all the oxygen out of the car. I grabbed the car door and breathed deeply, trying to get my bearings.

“Well, that’s how I feel! I wouldn’t want to go on living if I lost you!”

In that moment, I realized in the most visceral sense that not only had I lost my mom a few short months earlier in the divorce, I had also lost the dad I had prior to it—stable, calm, and strong, the one I depended on for safety, security, and love. Now he was depending on me, his child, to be stable, calm, and strong for him, the one he depended on for safety, security, and love. At thirteen years old, I was now the parent to the only parent I had left. This was all too much to take in–all too much to bear.

Trying to make Dad’s life easier was one thing, but feeling responsible for whether he lived or died was another. Now I not only needed to fend for myself physically and emotionally, as Dad had escaped into working twelve- to thirteen-hour days, I also had to keep Dad afloat emotionally. I had to be okay so he would be okay. As I saw it, both of our lives depended on that. Such a heavy burden on my young shoulders.

Turns out, Priscilla’s life with the King wasn’t such an idyllic fairy tale after all. And four years after their divorce, their beloved Lisa Marie, only nine years old, lost her dad to a tragic heart attack after years of addiction to prescription drugs.

I recall in vivid detail where I was on August 16, 1977, when I heard the news. My friend Debi was at the helm of her dad’s pickup truck and I was riding shotgun. The afternoon sun was blazing through the windshield, cooking the cab, as we headed across the railroad tracks on Main Street of our small hometown in northern Illinois, the radio blaring. Suddenly, the music stopped mid-song, and a stunned male voice announced, “Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, died today at the age of 42.” Debi’s jaw dropped, and I shouted, “Noooo!” as I turned the volume higher, hanging onto every detail yet unable to process what I was hearing. There had to be some mistake.

But there wasn’t. Elvis Presley was dead. Time stood still as Debi and I inched down Main Street, mute from shock.

I shivered despite the August swelter. Lisa Marie had lost her doting, adoring dad, who reminded me so much of my own. My worst fear, losing Dad, was staring me square in the face in broad daylight as if in a spotlight. If Lisa Marie could lose her larger-than-life dad, I could lose mine too.

Not only was Dad clinging to me for dear life, I was clinging to him too. Neither of us knew we were grasping at the wrong lifeline.

That’s the nature of addiction. And ours was codependency.

“Neither of us knew we were grasping at the wrong lifeline. That’s the nature of addiction.”

A Lesson in Self-Defense: Lights! Camera! Action!

About one year after Mom and Dad’s divorce, during one of Stevie’s weekends with Dad and me, Dad set up his tripod, movie camera, and floodlights in the middle of the living room. Dad was a photography nut, and Stevie and I had grown up with a camera shoved in our faces, but this was the first time any of Dad’s cameras had seen daylight since the divorce.

“We’re going to make a movie about two kids being home alone at night and an intruder tries to break in,” Dad announced.

Whoa . . . this was way too close to the bone for me since I stayed home alone every night Dad was at work. But I recognized that creative glint in Dad’s eye and knew better than to argue. It was either play along or be cajoled senseless. Plus it was good having Dad somewhat back to himself again. He’d been but a shell of himself since Mom left with Stevie.

Dad slid open the utility closet door in the living room around the corner from the kitchen. “The scene will start with you two watching TV from the couch. Then you’re going to hear someone trying to break in the back door.” He paused for dramatic effect; his black eyes were round with suspense. “You then run in here to hide.” He pointed to the closet. “Close the door, leaving only a crack to peek through. Now—I’m the intruder, of course—I’m going to walk into the living room from the kitchen looking around for you kids, but I won’t notice the closet. When I get to this spot on the floor . . .” he walked to the center of the living room, “I want you, honey bun,” he pointed at me, “to run out and beat me over the head with a broom.”

“I can’t beat you over the head! Won’t that hurt?”

Dad waved dismissively. “Not the bristles.”

He walked over to the movie camera and peered into it again, making sure it was positioned and focused properly. Satisfied, he switched on the two floodlights. Instantly blinded, Stevie and I squinted until our eyes adjusted.

“Okay, honey bun. When I tap three times on the back door, turn the camera on.”

Having been Dad’s filming assistant over the years, I was familiar with the various buttons on his cameras as well as his stage cues. Dad raised his thick black eyebrows and fixed Stevie with a serious look.

“Now you listen to Diane, Son. Once she turns the camera on, we’re rolling, so you remember your part.”

Stevie giggled, nodding like a bobblehead.

Dad walked out the back door, shutting it tight behind him. Total silence filled the house. Then tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .

I switched the camera on and checked to make sure the red light on the top was lit, indicating that the camera was rolling. I made eye contact with Stevie, held my finger to my lips, and we took our places on the couch.

We pretended to be engrossed in the TV show. Within a couple of minutes, we heard strange sounds coming from the back door.

“What was that?” Stevie’s green eyes were wide in mock fear but his lips twitched from stifled laughter.

“I don’t know!”

We both feigned seriousness as we strained to listen.

“It sounds like someone is trying to get in the back door!” I said. My heart stopped as a terrifying thought popped into my head. What if Stevie realizes that this could really happen? My maternal instinct to protect my four-year-old brother kicked in, but I pushed it aside and stayed in character. “We’ll hide in here.” I ushered Stevie into the closet, squeezed in next to him, and shut the door.

The searing floodlights baking the living room made the cramped, two-by-two foot compartment in the closet feel like a rotisserie. A nervous giggle escaped from Stevie as we anxiously waited for the “intruder” to appear. I held my finger to my lips again while holding the broom in my other hand. Stevie clamped his hand tight over his mouth, shoulders heaving with laughter.

I peeked out the door. Nothing.

Time stopped as we continued to wait. Dead silence and stillness enveloped the house; my heart hammered in my ears as I strained to hear any movement. Stevie wiggled impatiently in the cramped space but straightened up when I shot him a stern look.

I peered out again. A black-haired man in a long black trench coat with the collar pulled up around his face skulked past the closet, his head swiveling slowly from side to side, scanning the living room.

When the intruder reached the spot in the middle of the living room, something inside me snapped. I exploded out of the closet, brandishing the broom with every ounce of strength I had, Stevie hot on my heels whooping war calls.

Thwopp!! I slammed the broom down hard on top of the intruder’s head. He staggered, trying to catch his balance, as he tried fleeing from me.

“GET HIM, DIANE! GET HIM!” Stevie hollered.

I swung the broom again—thwack!—planting another wallop alongside the intruder’s head.

“OW!” he yelped, ducking his head into his shoulders as he fled toward the front door, his arms flailing to ward off the blows.

“HARDER, DIANE! HARDER!” Stevie yelled.

Adrenaline surging, I swung again. Thud!

“OW!! DIANE, STOP! STOP!!”

Hearing Dad’s voice saying my name snapped me back to my senses. I stopped in mid-swing, the broom poised over my head.

Dad ran to the camera and switched it off. Stevie and I looked at him, bewildered.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“What’s wrong?? You damned near killed me, that’s what’s wrong!”

“You told me to beat you over the head with the broom!”

“With the bristles, not the handle! Didn’t you hear me yell?”

“Yeah, but I thought that was part of the act. And I did not hit you with the handle!”

“Give me that.” Dad grabbed the broom out of my hands. “Here are the bristles.” He strummed his fingers through the straw. “You were hitting me with this!” He knocked on the wood where the bristles connected to the handle.

In my adrenaline rush, fanned by Stevie’s cheers, I’d forgotten that we were pretending. I was so in character and caught up in the scene—and the fact that this could really happen—all that mattered was protecting Stevie and myself. “Oh . . . sorry, Dad. I’ll remember next time.”

“There’s not going to be a next time.” Dad rubbed his head and turned to me, his black eyes wide. “I’ve got a goose egg on the top of my head! You damned near knocked me out! No more. That’s it.” He switched off the floodlights and started dismantling the camera from the tripod. “I don’t think we have to worry about you not being able to defend yourself!”

Nope, that was pretty clear. And poor Dad had the lumps to prove it.

But I still turned on the yard lights and triple-checked the locks every night, just in case.

The Sound of Silence

For a while, I felt secure and comforted nestled within the familiar four walls of our house, now quiet as a mausoleum. The shambles of my former life lay strewn around me, but at least now there was no more name-calling, backbiting, or seething, rage-laden tension.

But there was one thing I hadn’t anticipated: the silence made me aware of every creak and pop in my surroundings. Not a good thing with my Technicolor imagination.

As soon as dusk fell each night, I flipped on the outside lights that illuminated three sides of our house to discourage any would-be lurkers in our bushes. I made sure the doors were locked at least a hundred times every hour, and although I rarely used the gas stove, I checked and rechecked that the burners were off lest the house blow up. Only when Dad finally walked through the back door did I breathe a sigh of relief for having made it through one more night alone. If my instincts were accurate, Dad did too.

The silence also magnified the yammering inner fear that haunted me every waking second:  Dad leaving me too. I tried to drown it out with blasting the TV or stereo until the windows rattled and my obsessive focus on the door locks and stove burners and, in the winter, the thermostat. On top of that, I became the model daughter–agreeable, obedient, and sympathetic to Dad’s pain and problems (not a stretch since I had been Daddy’s girl from my first breath)–so as to not give him a reason to leave. Yet for all my efforts, my fear and anxiety deepened rather than waned.

Many nights I tossed and turned, terrorized by the thought of Dad leaving me and wondering, Who will take care of me if I can’t take care of myself? I racked my brain, but kept coming up empty. I certainly couldn’t get a job yet, as I was only twelve years old. I reasoned that even if Grandma and I managed to call a truce–as likely as hell freezing over–she was raising two daughters of her own and certainly didn’t need one more. Despite our animosity, I didn’t want to be a burden to Grandma. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.

And Mom wasn’t an option. I had never felt loved by Mom, and as a young child I often wondered why she hated me. Her leaving without a word to me convinced me that my perception was right. Dad had told me that he thought Mom left without saying goodbye to me because she couldn’t face me. My shattered heart told me that I didn’t matter to her and was easy to leave behind.

What will I do if Dad leaves too? Fear and panic were my constant companions.

I wasn’t yet aware that I was never alone, and that no matter what happened, I would always be loved and taken care of.

 

Scrambling

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who had begun running.

In what seemed like overnight, Dad took a second job, leaving at 6:30 a.m. and not getting home until 8:00 p.m. during the week. He explained that he had no choice, as he was buried under a mountain of debt from the addition to and complete renovation of our home the year before and now the legal bills from the divorce and child support payments. As Dad became more and more focused on work–ultimately becoming a principal in the business of his second job–I became more and more focused on Dad and Stevie. As a natural nurturer, I worried myself sick about them and hovered over them, trying to ensure their health, comfort, and safety, as well as trying to hold together what semblance of family I had left. What I didn’t realize until four decades later was that as long as I kept my focus on them I was able to run away from my own grief, confusion, terror, and panic over the implosion of my home and family and the resulting abandonment of both of my parents. We were all running away: Dad through his work, Mom through her new relationship, and I through obsessing over and mothering Dad and Stevie.

Dad and I had always been close. He was a constant physical and emotional presence to me, even, and especially, through the divorce. But after the divorce everything changed. Prior to the divorce, Dad was home by 5:15 p.m., Monday through Friday, and home all weekend, available and game for fun things like watching the silly movies of W. C. Fields, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy, or to just hang out, cutting up and acting just as silly as the movies we watched. But after the divorce, in addition to getting home later in the evenings during the week, Dad worked at his second job every other Saturday, when we didn’t have Stevie. When he was home, he was often tired and preoccupied. Still he was far more available to me than Mom was, whom I hardly ever saw or talked to, and when I did, we were at each other’s throats. This was not a new development between Mom and me. We had been adversaries for as long as I have memory. The divorce only made it a million times worse, particularly because I blamed her for it and she targeted me when enraged at Dad. Now Dad was only home long enough to eat dinner, shower, shave, and sleep, and Sundays were for grocery shopping and other errands. With three-quarters of the furniture missing, leaving the newly renovated living room downright cavernous, our house was the only constant that remained of my former life.

For a while, I went to my grandma Rose’s when Dad was working, but I stopped when Grandma’s and my bitter fighting over Mom and Dad’s divorce escalated. She blamed Dad and I blamed Mom, and neither one of us could let it go or were willing to give an inch. Unable to stand any longer the incessant strife between Grandma and me, I refused to go back.

Being home alone was not as much of an adjustment as I had thought. After the daily, ongoing combat between Mom and Dad during their divorce–they lived together until the day it was finalized–and the hostility between Grandma and me in the months that followed, the silence and tranquility of our tiny house on West Fourth Street, now my refuge, was balm for my traumatized, battle-weary soul. At twelve years old, I had discovered the blessed peace of solitude.

“Focusing on others enabled me to run away from my own grief, confusion, terror, and panic.”

Our Journey Begins . . .

And continues . . . One. Day. At. A. Time. That slowly. That deliberately. That mindfully. I need this reminder, and this discipline, every single day, and perhaps you do too. I hope that my experiences encourage you to begin–or to continue–living your life rather than focusing on or obsessing about someone else’s life or living the life someone else demands you to live from the identity someone else has assigned to you. I’ve been there. Oh boy, have I.

Long before the shocking discovery of my real identity and throughout the painstaking recovery of my true Self in Christ, my quest has been and remains this:

  • Be present
  • Be real
  • Be kind

So, please, join me. None of us can do this alone, and I would love the company.