Grief Shamed and Buried

If only I had known that none of this was my fault and thus my responsibility to somehow fix.

Within the first year of Mom and Dad’s divorce, all of the loss became too much to bear. Unable to withstand the pressure any longer, my strong façade collapsed. Baring my soul to Dad—to anyone—for the first time, I expected to receive understanding, compassion, and Dad’s trademark bear hug and kisses. Instead, Dad stood frozen in the middle of the living room, his black eyes blazing as the dam of my pent-up grief burst in a torrent of words and tears.  

“You can sit around on your dead ass feeling sorry for yourself, or you can decide to make something of yourself! This is weakness.” Dad’s face contorted with disgust. “And I hate weakness.”

My stomach clenched as if he’d punched me in the gut. Shocked to composure, tears I dared not shed lodged in my throat, as I stared at this stranger before me. Dad had never shamed me for expressing my feelings before. He was the one I could talk to about anything. But it was now clear that that was no longer the case. I’m bad for crying, for making Dad upset. I shouldn’t have said anything, I thought to myself. I had broken my vow to myself the night Mom left with Stevie to not burden Dad with my pain or problems.

Wary, I kept my eyes fixed on Dad as I wiped my face dry with the back of my hand, determining to never again express my pain over the divorce, or any forbidden feeling, to Dad. But how was I to know which ones were forbidden?

I need to make something of myself. Whatever that meant. But I’d figure it out. I had to. I believed that my survival depended on pleasing Dad so he would still love me and not leave. Aside from that, I adored Dad and wanted to please him and make him proud of me. My desire to please Dad and my sense that my survival depended on doing so entangled together like Silly String. This moment heralded the decades of my hiding behind an unflappable, competent, smiling mask, disguising the ever-present terror, confusion, loneliness, and grief that swirled inside me.

From that point on, I grieved only when alone, the last time when I was about fourteen. While walking home from school one day, I saw a childhood friend laughing and chatting with her mother as they drove up Main Street. Although Mom and I had never shared a close connection, I longed for one. I barely made it home before breaking down. Consumed by grief and not expecting Dad home for another four hours from work, I didn’t hear him come into the house. His appearance in the doorway to my bedroom jolted me back to my senses but too late to hide my tears. Genuine concern registered in his warm, cocker spaniel black eyes.

“What’s wrong, honey bun?”

Recognizing pre-divorce Dad, I felt safe telling him the truth. “I wish I had a relationship with Mom like other girls have with their mothers.” A fresh stream of tears ran down my face. I felt so relieved to let everything out, to finally be heard.

But Dad’s black eyes now glittered like an angry Doberman pinscher. “There’s no point bawling over something that neither one of us can do anything about!” His roar filled the tiny room. He then spun on his heel and stormed away.

In hindsight, I now see that Dad, too, was drowning in grief over the divorce, and that his response to his pain was work, work, and more work—hence, the “make something of yourself” declaration—in an attempt to fill the gaping black hole he carried inside. I suspect that my unhindered expression of grief triggered Dad’s grief, along with his powerlessness to fix or change the situation, both of which he was trying so hard to keep a tight lid on, resulting in his rage.

But my fourteen-year-old self didn’t have that awareness. I stared, frozen, at the empty doorway as the undeniable reality stared back at me: I had nowhere to go with my grief. I didn’t dare alienate Dad. He was all I felt I had left in the world.

If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that Dad wasn’t all I had left in the world and that I wasn’t alone in my grief. If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that God was with me every single second and that I could pour out my grief to Him at anytime, without restriction or reservation.

If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that none of this—Mom’s rejection, Dad’s pain and rage—was my fault and thus my responsibility to somehow fix.

But I didn’t know any of that. So, while Dad was burying his grief with work, I buried mine through pleasing and taking care of Dad, Stevie, and, as time went on, everyone else around me. However, in doing so, I was abandoning myself.

I didn’t know that either.

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.”

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.”

Confessions of a Recovering Runner

I ran every day of my life since July 1973, just two months short of my twelfth birthday. And I didn’t stop running until September 2016, when I was 55. For 43 years I ran–and I was good at it. So good that had I not stopped running when I did, it would have destroyed me.

I’m not referring to marathon running or even daily jogging. My body is simply not wired for that, which I discovered after graduating from high school. The thud-thud-thud of each jarring footfall on the pavement rattled rather than soothed my already jangled psyche, and I suffered from horrendous shin splints no matter how much I stretched or paced myself or what kind of shoes I wore. But my running was just as debilitating, even more so, except the effects weren’t obvious for four decades, which made it potentially more lethal.

You see, I was running from my grief. Fast and hard.

On a steamy summer night in July 1973, at 2:00 a.m., my mom, recently divorced from my dad, showed up to get my two-year-old brother, Stevie, of whom she was granted custody. Peeking around the corner, I saw her pick up the sleeping bundle from his crib. Clutching his beloved “ToTo,” a drooled-on, puked-on, gnawed-on, now fur-less stuffed Tony the Tiger, Stevie’s heavy head bobbed on Mom’s shoulder as she strode past Dad, who stood frozen and mute, to the front door. From my bedroom, I heard my little brother’s sleepy voice.

“Bye, Daddy.”

“Bye, Son,” Dad said, his voice cracking.

I crept down the hall and peered around the corner as the storm door swung shut. Dad, still as stone, watched Mom and Stevie drive away until the red taillights disappeared around the corner. Closing the front door, he turned the latch and locked it. I tiptoed back to my bedroom, slipped into bed, and pulled the covers up to my nose.

The hall light, which had served as Stevie’s night-light, switched off, and Dad’s shadowy figure drifted past my door into his bedroom. Seconds later, I heard his bed squeak as he crawled into it.

The silent stillness echoed like a death knell. Unable to breathe or swallow, my heart hammering in my chest and ears, I stared into the darkness, clutching my pillow, as I listened to Dad cry himself to sleep. To this day, 47 years later, Elvis Presley’s song “Don’t Cry Daddy” takes me back to that night. Only within the past few years can I get through that song without sobbing. But my eyes still fill with tears and lodge like a grapefruit in the back of my throat.

In shock over what I had witnessed and overwhelmed by my own pain and Dad’s that was palpable through the walls and the thick darkness, I vowed that I would not burden Dad with my pain and problems. With Mom now gone, I would take care of him, and Stevie, too, when he came to visit on the weekends. It never occurred to me to wonder who would take care of me.

My running had begun.

“I was running from my grief. Fast and hard.”