My family threw a joint Graduation/Birthday birthday party for me and my mother this past weekend. My mom turned 85 on May 17th. It was a wonderful party and it was great to see everyone again, but the highlight for me came when my partner Stephanie sat with my mom in a quiet part of my sister's house and showed her the video of my graduation speech.
Stephanie told me that half way through the video my mom started crying.
And afterward she sat with Stephanie and talked with her as she never had before.
She told her about the difficult time I had when I was growing up....how shy and withdrawn I was, how I felt as if I would never "fit in," and how much pain I experienced just trying to make it through high school when I had no hope for the future, and saw no value in my own existence. My mother told Stephanie how worried she was for me as I struggled to get through those difficult years, and how proud she is of me and what I've accomplished.
Hearing this made me cry.
My mom is not one for huge shows of emotion, and she has never been one to feel comfortable in the presence of those who are showing emotions.
It took many years for her to return the "I love you" I shared at the end of our phone conversations without hesitation. I don't recall her saying those three words very often when I was growing up, although she showed her love in a million other ways.
When I was going through those difficult years, I would often pour my heart out to her at the kitchen table, and not knowing what to do with my pain or how to ease it, she would simply get up and go about her business. As I sat there crying she would get up from the table and go fold the towels in the laundry room.
I now understand that after years of listening to my fears and frustrations she had run out of calming words to offer. She felt powerless in the face of my pain, and feeling her own discomfort with my displays of emotions she reacted in the only way she knew how.
I understand that now.
But at the time I felt abandoned and unheard.
For years as a teenager and young adult I had nightmares in which I was following my mother from room to room, screaming to get her attention and she would never even turn to acknowledge that I was there. In other dreams I would tell her one thing and she would hear another, and I'd spend the entire dream trying to get her to listen and understand that she had misunderstood me.
Feeling not heard.
These have been life long issues for me.
And I know these fears originated long before I became a forlorn teenager.
As I've mentioned here before, I was born with a cleft palate - both my hard and soft palates were not fully formed (I was essentially missing the entire roof of my mouth), which made eating difficult and caused a noticeable speech impediment. Before the age of five I had several operations to repair the hard palate deformity, all of which were unsuccessful. The scar tissue that formed as a result of these operations precluded any further attempts to fix the deformity, and I did not have my cleft palate completely repaired until a new type of operation was presented to my parents when I was 16-years-old.
But the emotional scars that formed during the early years of my life went much deeper than the physical scars. I had my first operation when I was 18-months-old and I vividly remember standing in a crib in the hospital, reaching over the side and crying hysterically as I watched my mother walk away. I was too young to understand what was going on or where I was. Even at the age of 5, I don't recall having any comprehension of what was happening to me. My mother tells me that I screamed so much after each operation that I tore the stitches out every time. For weeks after I was brought home I would wake up screaming in the middle of the night and calling for my mother.
These early experiences influenced the fear of abandonment that overwhelmed me as a teenager. Added to the mix was the fact that I was naturally shy, and the speech impediment only enhanced my social inhibitions, and I was not yet fully conscious of the fact that I was gay, which led to all sorts of issues surrounding gender expression and feeling like I didn't "fit in." Add these all together and you have a recipe for one unhappy teenager.
And then there was the bullying. Taken by themselves any one of these factors would have been enough to slap a target on my back. Taunts about my speech impediment in parochial school led to outright expressions of hatred and disgust in high school. By that time I was so withdrawn and experiencing the symptoms of depression that my mere presence seemed to trigger the worst in my peers. I didn't talk in class, I didn't socialize with anyone, and like many who experience depression I had little concern about my appearance - I would often wear the same clothes day after day and showered only once a week. In the societal microcosm that is high school I was "the other" in a group of young adults who were desperately trying to find and assert their own identity while trying to conform at the same time. I was the weakest link.
I am still amazed that I made it through those years without taking my own life.
I thought about it. Often.
I saw a psychiatrist briefly who prescribed some anti-anxiety meds for me - which I rarely took but instead saved in massive quantities for the day when I would finally end it all.
When I was 15-years-old I was convinced that I would not be alive to see my 18th birthday.
But yet I was.
I can't put my finger on any one single reason why I made it through those years.
I had the operation that finally fixed my cleft palate when I was 16, which helped me feel more confident about my speech.
I saw the move "Breaking Away" and fell in love with the sport of cycling - Cycling gave me a sense of freedom and accomplishment that I so desperately needed.
And I had a friend, a pen pal, who reached out to me and helped me to feel valued and special. She would end each of her letters with "I love you" - the words my own mother had such a hard time saying.
As these three influences converged in my life my depression seemed to wane and I grew to be more comfortable in my own skin.
I stopped caring so much about being different and not fitting in, and instead embraced it.
And once I learned that I could face this kind of adversity, and live through it, there was no experience or fear that I couldn't face, and ensuing disappointments would not bring me down for long.
Life was a roller coaster, with ups and downs.
And it's realizing that the downs don't last forever that is the secret to survival.
I don't know if my mother has ever fully understood what I was going through during those difficult teen years. I don't know if she has ever realized how close I came to taking my own life.
But she knows that I was in pain.
She knows that I had lost hope.
And feeling partly responsible for that pain (she often blamed herself for the fact that I was born with a cleft palate) and feeling unequipped to restore my sense of hope, she clawed and dragged her way through that period of my life the same way that I did - Not knowing what to do or say, and often doing or saying the exact opposite of what we should, but holding onto each other none the less.
In recent years my mother has never held back from telling me how proud she is of me and what I've accomplished, and how much she loves me. And I know in the core of my being that she has felt this way all along.
Hearing that she cried upon viewing my seminary graduation speech connects two moments in time.
One moment I am standing in the pulpit using the voice that God has given me, and in another I am sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, trying desperately to speak from my silence.
Both moments are gifts from God.
Both are woven into the fabric of my life experience and both moments inform how I have come to live and be in this world.
This world is not perfect.
Our lives are not perfect. Not by a long shot.
There are many reasons why we might lose hope.
But this is the world that God has given us.
These are the lives that God has given us.
What we end up doing with both is up to us.
When I think about the days when I felt as if the only way to end my pain was to end my life, I can't help but cringe at the thought of what I would have been throwing away.
These lyrics from a song by Collective Soul come to mind:
So I walk up on high
And I step to the edge
To see my world below.
And I laugh at myself
While the tears roll down.
'Cause it's the world I know.
It's the world I know.
This is the world I know.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Happy Birthday, mom.
I'm glad I was here to celebrate your 85th year.
And I'm glad you were here to celebrate my graduation from seminary.
I can't wait to see what we'll do next!