I’m sitting at the kitchen table in the cabin looking out at the still fog-covered and desolately beautiful lake. It’s noon, and the day is cold and damp and cloudy—completely the opposite of what it’s been over the past two days of glorious sunshine and temperatures into the 80s. But that’s a good thing. Because if it was another nice day, I’d be outside kayaking and swimming, or at least lounging lakeside or in that heavenly Panama hammock that swings back and forth and lulls me to sleep when I’m trying to read.
But a half an hour ago, I realized that I’ve got something far more important to do with this day – something that I should have done years and years ago; something that I’ve continued to put off because I don’t know where to begin or how to put into words what I want to tell you. Not that I’ve tried. I’m full of excuses, and I suspect that a whole new batch of them will come to me as soon as I get started: The sun will come out, my laptop will freeze up, I’ll get a text or an email that distracts me, my stomach will start growling or I’ll take a trip down memory lane….The possibilities are endless.
The most likely excuse is the one that has held me back for so long—fear. Fear that you’ll just roll your eyes at a letter from me. Fear that you’ll see the length of it and set it aside till you have more time. Fear that when you eventually read it, you will write me off as a whack-a-doodle. So let me begin by saying that I’m not. Just trust me on this.
Yesterday (my 39th wedding anniversary, by the way) I began a second run-through of a 30-day program that I first did back in 2008 when my life looked very different than it does now. I wanted to see how much I’ve changed over the past six years by comparing my responses then to my responses now.
But mostly I want to stop living life on hold, and I believe that this program may give me the kick start to move forward, despite the continued uncertainty of what I’ve come to think of as “the divorce that never ends.” The program is called One Month to Live, and I purposefully want to complete it before I know the judge’s decision from our last court appearance. I don’t want my responses to be flavored one way or the other by money—whether I’ll have any or not.
Anyway, in one of today’s exercises, the question was asked:
“If you were certain that your life as you know it would end in a few weeks, what would be your biggest regret?”
My answer took me by surprise. I expected that my biggest regret, especially right now, would be the end of my marriage. No. Or at least the many losses, financial and otherwise, that I’ve sustained as a result of our separation and looming divorce. Nope. Maybe the old standby regrets—that I wasn’t a better mom, or that I hadn’t made better choices as a young adult. Not even close.
My biggest regret would be not having told you my story. Because maybe if you learn a bit more about me, your story—and your kids’ stories—will turn out better.
I realize that you think you already know everything worth knowing about your mom. But a year or so ago, I saw the startled look on Lauren’s face when I said something in passing. It made me realize that you are clueless. Not that that’s your fault: I am a pro at pretending everything is just fine.
So here I am at that place of not knowing how to begin, so I guess I’ll just start by telling you what I’d let slip to Lauren: That once upon a time, not so very long ago in the great expanse of my life, I’d considered killing myself—committing suicide.
Before you dismiss that admission as a melodramatic moment in time that passed quickly before I zapped myself back into being “just fine,” let me tell you that it wasn’t just a fleeting thought, and that all of my attempted zaps—including six months or so on anti-depressants—failed. Miserably. With each failed attempt to “snap out of it,” I went further downhill.
And just for the record, this wasn’t a quick dive into despair. It was years of a slow-motion fall into that “black hole” that you’ve probably heard of. I couldn’t dig myself out. I think I figured that as long as I could fool everyone into believing I was “just fine,” I would be. But I wasn’t, and it kept getting worse.
Eventually my well-practiced pretense at being “fine” failed. People were noticing, and they didn’t want to be around me. I got to the point where it was a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. I was feeling hopeless and helpless and dead inside. I hated my life and most everyone in it. I remember thinking that the handful of people that I still loved would be better off without me.
That was when I realized that I was at the end. And death looked good to me.
But something—I had no idea what it was—made me give life one last shot. I had nothing left to try, nowhere else to turn. So I did the only thing that a good Catholic girl could do when on the verge of committing the end-all mortal sin: I went to church.
Oh, I’d always gone to church. But this time I didn’t go because it was a rule. I went because I was desperately seeking anything that would save my life. And I didn’t just go to church: I listened like I’d never listened before. I begged God to throw me a life line— anything. And he did. Pretty much the second I asked.
We were members of St. Pat’s in those days, and it was Father Michael Kennedy who spoke the words that got my attention. In retrospect, I can see that it wasn’t necessarily what he said; it was that I was finally ready to begin—to “let go and let God” as they say. (And I know, Mitchell, that you will be rolling your eyes right now but you might as well stop because I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I need to tell you.)
Now I look back and I wonder why Father Michael’s words grabbed me so. He sure wasn’t giving me the step-by-step plan out of depression that I needed. But he gave me a starting point. He said, “The goal isn’t self-awareness. The goal is conversion.”
Conversion. What does that even mean? A changed life. Sounded pretty darned good from where I sat. But I had no idea how to begin. Amazingly, the next step fell right into my lap. And that next step was just as bizarre as the fact that I was sitting in church actually listening and praying from the heart for probably the first time in my life.
It was February 1999. Traditional Catholic church in rural Minnesota. We had Mass and confession and choir practice and catechism for the kids one night each week. We had fund raisers and an annual carnival and Stations of the Cross. We did NOT host special events for adults in the middle of the week in the middle of winter. Yet I’ll be darned if we didn’t do just that. And I’ll be darned if I didn’t happen to be listening and grasping at straws when Father Michael announced it that day in church.
So there I was, a week or so later, sitting in a pew at the Church of St. Patrick listening to a black guy from a southern church singing and talking and praying. A black guy in lily-white St. Francis. Not only that, but he was kind of a Baptist, almost holy roller type in our fairly conservative Catholic church. Totally bizarre, right?
His name was Grayson Brown, and he said many things that night—one of which was right off the bat…something I’d never heard before but that I continue to practice to this day: “Let’s get quiet in the presence of God.” Wow! What a difference it makes to purposefully close down all of the mind-chatter before trying to pray.
And by the way, kids, in case I forget to tell you later, that’s something else that I heard years ago and treasure: That “trying to pray is praying.” That is so reassuring as we fumble around for the right words, especially in the midst of crisis. Anyway….
I don’t recall the purpose or focus for that special event at St. Pat’s on that cold night in February, only the hope that I would be zapped with something real, something concrete that would make my life worth living. And I remember something that the speaker said because, just like Father Michael’s conversion statement, it ultimately saved my life. He said:
“Some of you are sitting here waiting to be ‘zapped’ (I swear the man said ‘zapped’!)–thinking that just by showing up, something will happen. How many other good things in your life have happened as a result of you just showing up and waiting for it? Your career didn’t just happen. Your family didn’t just happen. You had to do something to get those things. Why would a relationship with God be any different? You can’t expect it to just happen. You have to do something.”
Do something. It had never occurred to me in my entire 44 years of life at that time that I needed to do anything other than show up, hang around, and wait for the zapping.
* * *
Round about this point, you must be thinking, “What’s the point?”, right?
Be patient. I’ll get there.
The thing is, I’d known my whole life that something was missing, even in the best of times. I never thought that the missing piece was God because I was always a believer, never doubted his existence. But I’d spent my entire life seeking to find that illusive something that others had and that had passed me by. (Well, not my entire life, but definitely from age 15 on when best friend Debby and I went to a Pentecostal church and knew that we wanted whatever it was that had zapped all of those folks.)
It wasn’t that I was unhappy; it’s just that I was never really content—that I was always…“seeking to find.”
And I’d looked in all of the wrong places—booze, drugs, sex, and more—all risky, all taking me further and further away from the person I knew I was supposed to be. But the farther that you get down a certain path the harder it is to turn around, in large part because all of the companions who are traveling that same road with you would laugh, and would write you off as a complete whack-a-doodle for doing such an about-face.
Anyway, I knew it wasn’t God himself that I was missing. But those two new concepts—conversion and a relationship—stuck with me. I never knew that people had a relationship with God. I thought it was all about following the rules—kind of like paying the entry fee in advance for a ticket into heaven. And conversion: Would a relationship with God change my life? If that was the case, I was all in.
Here’s the thing that you’ve probably already figured out: It was only because I was grasping at anything that would give me a reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other for one more day that I latched on to this do something message and decided to give it a try. What did I have to lose? If it didn’t work…well, I knew the alternative would still be available.
So that’s what I did. I didn’t know where it would take me, but I decided that I was done sitting around waiting. That I would do something. And I did.
I’d heard somewhere that helping others was a good remedy for feeling sorry for oneself, so I started volunteering. And I became a seeker. I bought a Bible for the first time in my life. I signed up for every devotional I could find. I fell in love with authors Charles Stanley and Max Lucado and Marianne Williamson. I read everything I could get my hands on—Christian, New Age, I didn’t care. All of a sudden I was just cramming myself full of whatever I could find. I did the “Course in Miracles,” I walked the Labyrinth, I let Jehovah Witnesses and 7th Day Adventists and Mormons into the house and listened to what they had to say.
But mostly, I just talked to God. And I read that Bible, and I kept buying new ones till I finally found one that I could understand—one that had some notes with it, and oh my goodness, I grew by leaps and bounds, and from that very first moment I knew I was not going to kill myself.
I was going to be OK.
* * *
Fifteen years ago I was in this exact spot, sitting lakeside on Five Island Lake when I felt God’s arms wrap around me for the first time and hold me tight as I sobbed my eyes out for what felt like the entire summer.
I guess that was the cleansing, cumulative effect of all of the spiritual growth I’d gone through over that six month period that began when I chose life back in February 1999. My “salvation summer” was a huge leap forward—the start of my new, changed life. But I had no idea until very recently that it was only Part One of the conversion process—this wonderful, “seeking to find” journey.
* * * The Backstory * * *
So now I digress. Go back in time with me even further. Mitchell will remember. Lauren maybe not. I hope not, but I know better because I know how much it affected her too.
It was the most horrible time of my life, the time that led me down into that dark hole of despair. I tell it now so that you can get your arms around where I’m coming from, so that you can understand what brought me to my knees in a way that a miscarriage hadn’t, that cancer at age 37 hadn’t, that losing my mom at age 40 hadn’t.
It’s a story of just one night out of four or five years of nights filled with worry and dread. I’m leaving out the details because those are Mitchell’s to tell if and when he chooses to fill in the blanks for his own children—and maybe by doing so, change the course of their lives and the lives of their someday-children too.
We were in the front hall of our old Isanti house. Mitchell stood with one hand on that burnished brass door knob, ready to bolt as soon as I stopped talking long enough to take a breath.
He was steps away from the stairway where he’d played just a few years before, his imagination allowing the giraffe and zebra from his safari set to intermingle peacefully with his Fischer Price little people and farm animals. I can still see the sheets of aluminum foil that he used for the lakes and ponds in his pretend play—the foil crinkled and crushed just the right way so that it looked (if you had the imagination that he always did) just like water with waves and ripples running through.
And we stood in that spot at the bottom of the stairs in that same place that used to hold an entire farmstead, a little crowded now with just the two of us. The little boy—my beloved firstborn—who used to wake up before dawn and race down those stairs each morning singing, always singing, was now over six feet tall and in more trouble that I could possibly understand, then or now.
When I’d first realized that my smart, funny, responsible son was in over his head, I asked his former best friend, Joey, why he hadn’t told me. His answer haunted me for years:
“How could you not have known?”
By the time we stood in that stairway with me trying to convince him not to walk out that door, I knew. I was sick with the knowledge of it and the helplessness of not being able to fix it—or even to pretend it away. Like my son, I was in the fog of denial.
But on that night in the front hall, there was a moment of clarity—for both of us I think—when he told me that he was afraid he was going to die. I still remember the look on his face—a scared little boy, yet with eyes darting to the door and the escape it promised.
He was so afraid and so real. For the first time in years, I saw my son again—beyond the bravado, seemingly to his very core—the core that had been replaced by a shallowness and something that can only be called an emptiness of spirit.
That emptiness of spirit plagued both of us by that time, but I didn’t realize it then. Remember that I was the queen of denial myself. Only in retrospect can I see that I was the one role-modeling the way, teaching not just Mitchell but my entire family how to sustain the illusion that “everything is just fine.” Chaos reigned, but we kept smiling and pretending through it all.
It was another ten months before I began to peel my eyes open and peek at the possibility that just maybe the descriptors I used to describe Mitchell—fake, lost, a shell of his former self, frantic, out of touch with reality—really described me. But on that night, I knew only that it was Mitch. And I couldn’t bear the pain of watching him—of feeling myself—slide down and down and down into…nothingness.
Nothingness. Mitchell was going to die. I knew it and he knew it, and still his hand kept reaching for that door knob.
As always, I could not understand—especially once he acknowledged his behavior as deadly and his fear for his life—why he just couldn’t shake himself out of it. As always, I was looking for the reason as to why he went this route in the first place. Because if I could figure out why, surely I could fix it. I fixed everything. Broken promises. Broken workplaces. Broken people. I was a fixer. So how could I be so inept at helping my own son? If I only could figure out why….
You, my beloved children, who love your own children as much as I love you, can probably imagine how I felt. Or maybe you can’t, because you haven’t been there, because it’s simply unimaginable. I pray that you will never know.
It just didn’t make sense. And so as his eyes darted and his hand reached, I asked him the question I’d asked a hundred times before. “Why, Mitchell? Why?”
“What is it you’re running away from?”
He started crying and I did too, probably not for the first time that week or even that day. But in that little window of time as we stood in the front hall, my tears weren’t so much out of fear or sadness as they were filled with love and gratitude for those few minutes when we were as real and as close as we used to be…before he became so puffed up with bravado; before I disappeared into my “everything’s fine” false front.
We’d spent most of the past four years so far apart emotionally. But not at that moment, on that night, in that little cramped space at the foot of the stairs.
“What is it you’re running away from?”
His answer surprised me and has stuck with me ever since. The proud and so-skilled-at-faking-it 22 year old didn’t (couldn’t?) even try to avoid answering. He settled back from the door as the “oomph” just seemed to ooze right out of him. I can still see him at that moment, breathing an old man’s sigh with such pain that was evident down to his very soul, visible through eyes that looked up and away from me…not evasive eyes as I’d become so accustomed to, but eyes deep in thought; eyes that held such longing—seeing nothing that I could see and feeling what I couldn’t possibly feel. At least not then. Not on that night in the front hall.
“What is it you’re running away from?”
For once, he didn’t have a snappy comeback. For once—maybe for the first time in years—he was real. I watched him gaze off into the distance as he gathered his thoughts, such pain in his eyes. And then he gave the most simple and profound answer, one that set me on my own path and led me to my “salvation summer” of 1999:
“I don’t think it’s so much a ‘running away from’ as it is a seeking to find.”
Seeking to find.
Mitchell, did you have any idea of what your “seeking to find” was all about? Did I? I can’t imagine. We were both so lost.
And Lauren, you were pretty much lost in the shuffle, weren’t you? Your “seeking to find” took a different route than Mitchell’s, than mine. Only in retrospect can I see it.
Seeking to find. A search for meaning, for purpose. A filling of the awful emptiness that hits fast and furious and goes so deep.
It’s a biblical phrase, this “seeking to find.” I didn’t know it until I went through the process myself. It’s like grabbing at air until you realize what it is you’ve been searching for…and recognize that He’s been waiting for you with open arms all along.
“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” –Matthew 7:7-8 (NIV)
* * *
There’s a very important Part Two to my story. It began to blossom in January 2011, though I didn’t realize it until just a few months ago. But that’s a whole other chapter, so to speak, and I figure this is enough for now: If I die tomorrow, I can do so with no regrets because I’ve now shared at least this much of my story with the people I love most in this world – my children and grandchildren. Now you know that:
- I spent more than 40 years “seeking to find”—trying to fill the emptiness inside of me with all kinds of things—relationships, career, money, accomplishments, addictions, the accumulation of “stuff,” even my beloved children….
- Nothing filled the void and I became a pretender, convincing myself and everyone else that “everything was just fine”
- Until it wasn’t and I couldn’t fake it anymore, and only when I was on the brink of suicide did I finally let go of my pride and self-sufficiency and
- I asked God—begged him—to help me, to save me, and
- He did. Just like that. Before the words were even out of my mouth.
- In that instant, my life changed. I literally felt God’s Spirit envelope me, and I’ve never been the same since.
- I’ve had troubles since 1999, for sure, some of them biggies. But knowing that God’s got my back and will never, ever abandon me makes all the difference.
- God loves you too and is just waiting for you to make the first move—because that’s what it takes: You’ve got to do something! And although I’m living proof that it’s never too late, I hope you won’t wait as long as I did: There’s so much more to life than the way we’ve lived it!
My deepest transformation didn’t begin until January 2011 and the miracles that I’ve experienced since then have been nothing short of amazing. More on that in Part Two: Tell me when you’re ready for it.
But kids, I don’t want to make light of this, and I hope that you’ll take me seriously when I tell you that my biggest and best dream for you is that you won’t wait until you are on death’s door yourself before asking God into your hearts. Yes, it’s the whole heaven vs. hell thing for sure, but it’s so much more than that! There is such abundance right here, right now—joy and peace and contentment and blessings that continue to multiply in the midst of uncertainty and even tragedy—you can’t even imagine. I couldn’t. I had no idea what I was missing, no idea that there was so much more to life than the way I’d been living it in my “old” life.
I just wanted you to know. Because I love you so very much, and I want your stories to have happy endings.