Friday, April 20, 2012

Blame & Forgiveness: the Ultimate Cage Fight (Part 2 of 3)

OK. My first child was born the day before my twenty-eighth birthday. She rocked my world. She shook my foundation like nothing before--not bone disease, not the rigid family silence of denial, not arrogant statements of idealism by our church. All my baby did was arrive when I gave birth to her. But she was perfect. She changed everything I believed about perfection being only spiritual.

As I held her in my arms,she asked what my standards were. Her presence asked what I would be willing to do for her. Her existence wondered what I would settle for. She shifted the foundation of my life the way a blade of grass cracks concrete to reach sunlight. I knew I would do anything for this brand-new creature. She was more important than all else. I made a conscious decision: if I ever had doubts about her health, I would take her straight to a doctor. I was the adult; if my child needed medical care she'd have it, Christian Science or no. I was her mother and there was nothing I would not sacrifice for her, no element in my life so sacred I wouldn't question it for her sake.

A few years later I abandoned Christian Science altogether. I got divorced and started seeing a therapist. I lived in the same area, not far from my parents who often babysat for me. One night my little girl was crying when I picked her up after work. “Mommy, my ear hurts.”

My mother's face was drawn and bleak. As far back as I could remember, she would have responded by saying something like, She's a spiritual idea--she can't really be sick--  We'd been hard-core Christian Scientists. Which was why I limped on a fused leg. And why I'd started going to therapy for depression and panic. And why we never, ever talked about the horror of those years I was a young teenager when we only prayed about the bone disease that almost killed me.

My mother said, “Can you do something for her?” But this time she meant, Can you stop her pain—now?

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s probably an ear infection.” It felt bold, rude, to state  the discord we’d always denied. “I’ll pick up some children’s Tylenol on the way home. Tomorrow I’ll take her to the doctor.” I held my little girl on my hip. She clung to me, her tear-streaked face pressed against my neck. The idea of telling her that what she felt wasn’t real made me nauseous.

“I‘m glad you know what to do.” My mother’s face crumpled. My father was a shadow behind her. They'd been raised by powerhouse single mothers fervent in the Christian Science mindset. This lifestyle was all my parents had ever known. But I could see them struggle too, now that I'd begun to question our lives. And their decisions. 

The next day as I stood in line to pick up the prescription, I thought, This is what parents do. They find a way to stop their children's pain. They keep trying until something works. Or at least they're supposed to. 

My therapist asked me, "Where's your anger at your parents?" She asked this year after year. I'd say, "Oh. I don't know." But it was there, percolating under my thick skin. I'd cultured toughness to counter the failure I'd always felt at having failed to be "healed" in Christian Science. And as I began to see who I was, I knew I was hard hard hard, a former child soldier with that thousand-yard stare. Depression could knock me into a fetal position for days at a time. My employment history was sketchy and unreliable. I jerked in my sleep from PTSD. I'd assumed the responsibility of my own survival--the perfect "healing" I was supposed to achieve when I was thirteen and fourteen and fifteen, the spiritual healing my parents had expected. Ironically, this strength and  responsibility had made me passive and codependent in relationships, marriages...and of course with my parents.

By the time I had a second daughter (ten years after the first) I'd come to believe certain things about parenting. I made sure my girls knew I'd go to bat for them anytime, anywhere. I'm the pit-bull hell-parent they can depend on. I run interference and advocate when it's needed. I'm my kids' firewall: to get to them, you have to get through me. I've realized how hard I can be, and tried to not to be hard on them. (It's hard!) In turn, they've made me grow in a way that nothing else could. My insistence on a higher quality of life for them has taught me that I deserve good too.

"So how's your relationship with your parents??"

During this time, my connection to my parents remained close. But it gnawed at me. I was in therapy for over a dozen years and my therapist was right: I couldn't put my past ordeal into perspective until I confronted it like a frightened horse shying at a rock. Being a parent made me see that my own parents had abdicated human responsibility to a "higher power." They'd been raised to believe  Christian Science prayer was my only hope during my childhood osteomyelitis. But I finally looked straight at what their decisions--conscious or passive--had done to me. I lived with the consequences which were physical (my scarred, bent, fused leg that I eventually had amputated) and emotional: my codependency, depression, mood swings, broken relationships and inability to hold a job.

I hit bottom. The bedrock of my feelings was apathy. I wasn't sure I could ever love my parents. I didn't hate them; I understood who they were and why they'd done these things. I was fluent in Christian Science; it had been my first language and the way I interpreted the world around me. But my second language became Reality. Its hard pan floor was my bottom line: children should never be expected to forgive their parents. They should never be put in that position. The act of being a parent assumes total responsibility even for bad luck and unexpected disaster. I believed parents had to cowboy up and accept this.

I'd begun to let go of the inappropriate burden I'd taken up in childhood and give it back to my mother and father. 

But I wasn't ready to just call it even.

At least, not until horses gave me a reason. Not until horses showed me the grace in forgiving. Not until horses let me see it--and need it--from the other side.

Stay tuned for Part 3. This photo of my daughters and me was taken a few years ago. (Now, of course, they're both taller than me...)


  1. WOW. WOAH. Congratulations on becoming the kind of mother any kid would want in her corner. This is so good, I am knocked speechless.

    1. I just remember so clearly how I felt as a kid. I knew when my first daughter was born I wanted her to grow up with the confidence I've had to work hard to find. Thanks, Laurie.

  2. Liz, Thank you for the beautifully written blog about your life. As a former CS, I find your story intriguing and courageous. I lost several loved ones from untreated illness but it still took me several years to completely deprogram from CS. I am not sure I will ever understand why it took so long!



    1. I appreciate this Stacey. Being a CS takes a long time to process. It was five to ten years after leaving the church before I had any kind of perspective on it. It's a uniquely weird and isolating background to share.

  3. Timely topic. Just last week forgiveness was the topic of my pastor's sermon. He said a quote that really stuck with me: "forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past". What a powerful idea!

    I love your comment about your parents abdicating their human responsibility to a "higher power". Seems that a lot of the worlds problems are a result of this kind of behavior. Just because someone is a "believer" doesn't make it okay to ignore their responsibilities here on earth.

    1. I really like this quote, Dory. Forgiveness, blame, hope and grace are so intertwined and complicated. Trying to act spiritually doesn't make it OK to quit being a responsible human, but some religions don't say that...Thanks for the thought.