It was a very difficult time for me, to say the least; watching my Mother suffer terrible agony as the disease, at that time still new to medical science, destroyed her organs one by one. Non-A Non-B Hepatitis, they called it. It was so unknown, the disease didn’t even have a name, just a description of what it wasn’t. Later on, it became classified as Type C Hepatitis, a more virulent disease that combined the worst aspects of the previous varieties. And since the doctors didn’t know what the disease was, they weren’t really sure how to treat it. Intellectually, my medically-inclined mind was intrigued by this diagnosis. But my heart, oh my heart, could not bear to watch the woman who had endured so much to give me life have her life stolen away piece by tortuous piece. My Mother, a woman who had single-handedly brought her family to a new land, with only a few dollars in her pocket, had raised her children and supported her husband for years while he labored to pass his employment examinations, the woman who was the rock and guiding light for the entire young generation of our extended family, the woman whose voice commanded authority by virtue of her experiences and her sheer force of will… she was now the same woman could not get out of bed, whose eyes were dulled by the powerful narcotics that failed to keep the pain at bay, and whose voice was nothing more than a raspy whisper because her depleted blood could no longer carry the oxygen her very cells needed to stay alive.
She was the architect of my life, and she was dying before my eyes. And there was nothing I could do to stop her dying, just as there was nothing I could do to stop my life from unraveling thread by thread.
From the time my Mother married my Dad in 1963, she had wanted nothing more than to have a family and raise her children and give them the best chance at a future as she possibly could. Though she came from a small rural town with no running water and no electricity, she refused to let fate diminish the dream she had held on to from childhood, the dream of having a family and giving them opportunities that she never had. And to do this, she knew education was the key. Education would pull her out of the cycle of poverty that she was trapped in, and education would ensure that her future family would never have to endure the indignities of deprivation that she had endured. She couldn’t afford shoes, but she walked to school anyway, barefoot and determined to keep up with her peers. She couldn’t afford textbooks, but she begged and borrowed them and studied anyway, and graduated nursing school with honors. She couldn’t afford the tuition, but she buckled down (one of her favorite phrases) anyway, and won an international scholarship, and earned her advanced degrees in a far, far away land called America.
And it was there, in that far, far away land where any dream can come true, that she knew lay her future. It was in this land called America that she would raise her family, that she would give her children the skills and knowledge they would need so that they would never have to know the empty ache of going to bed hungry, and waking up hungry, and going to bed hungry the next night, and the next night, and the next.
With the determination and iron resolve that she had developed walking barefoot to school as a young girl, she set about to make this dream come true. She earned her education and learned how to educate any children she might have so that they would excel. She married an aspiring young professional, a medical school graduate, who shared her values and who could give her future family the opportunities they would need. She began the long legal process of emigrating to the land where dreams can come true. She did everything she knew how to do to make her dream come true.
My Mother, my Brother, and I, in 1975
Fate would not make her path easy. Try as she might, her future family did not take form. For one reason or another, none of her pregnancies would proceed to term. Again and again, she was denied that sense of fulfillment that she had so desperately yearned for. She sought solace through adopting a child, and though he was a child whom she loved, he was not her child, and that profoundly deep yearning within her was not slaked. And so my Mother, with the flame of determination burning white-hot within her, did not give up. Six years and four miscarriages later, she finally had that which she had longed for since she was a barefoot girl… she had a family. She had a child.
But this child, this precious prize that my Mother had wrested from the fates through sheer force of will, was not just a child. He was a symbol. He was a vindication. This child was a symbol that my Mother, loving that she was, was a paragon and perseverance and unyielding effort. This child was a vindication that my Mother, who had been denied so much in her life, would not, could not, shall not, be denied any longer. She had her family. She was going to raise them, but more than that, she was going to raise them in a fashion that they would have everything that she was never able to have. She would raise her family, and by raise she meant that she would personally and meticulously design their lives, in a manner such that they would never suffer the deprivations that barefoot girl had suffered so many years ago. And God Himself would not be able to prevent her from this.
He was, to all outward appearances, a remarkable man. Not so much physically, being of average height and weight with dark hair and mild eyes, but in terms of what he represented, he was quite an achiever. An immigrant to this country, he was an accomplished surgeon in the delicate and demanding field of ophthalmology. He was respected by his peers, an active member of several civic groups, and a leader in his community.
Like his wife, my father was born to poor rural parents, in this case farmers. The village from which he hailed was tiny, nothing more than a dusty clearing in the vast central Indian plateau, a village with few paved roads, no modern utilities, and even less of a chance of ever amounting to being anything more than an anonymous whistle stop along the local train route. And as is the case throughout the world, tiny, backward villages like this had a tendency to produce some of the most driven and determined sons and daughters, who would do anything at all to escape from the limitations of daily village life.
Like my mother, my father chose the path of education and achievement to escape poverty and social degradation of that life. To be poor was to not have the means to escape the limitations of that life. To be poor was to be left behind while others moved on. And so he excelled in school, moved on to a larger city and completed college, and moved on to a larger city yet and graduated from medical school. He was now a doctor; a member of one of the most respected professions. People would call him Sir, defer to his judgment without question, and give him preferential treatment wherever he went. Never again would he have to endure the deprivations of poverty. Never again would he have to watch others achieve their dreams. Now, he would be the dream maker.
The Taj Mahal (Source: Wikimedia)
India is many things. In an 8000 year old culture of civilization that is now comprised of over a billion different perspectives, the customs and mores that make up Indian society are varied to the extreme. This has led to a society in which almost any cultural statement is simultaneously true and not true. Is religion in India monotheistic or polytheistic? Yes, and no. Is the officially accepted government in India democratic or autocratic? In some places yes, in some places no, in some places something entirely different. Are living conditions in India first world or third world? Yes and no. And both, together. Monogamy, polygamy, or polyandry? Yes, yes, and yes. And no. Paternalistic or materialistic? Yes, except when it’s not. Veg or non-veg? Both, please. Every question that one could ever ask about India can be answered definitely in the affirmative, and vehemently in the negative, all at the same time.
In a society where almost anything goes, there is one overriding principle that has evolved to keep order: a hierarchy. Everything in Indian society is stratified. Every custom, every profession, every relationship, every person is assigned to a level above or below someone else. And interactions between those levels are enforced. Rigidly enforced. Good or bad, it’s the only way that those billion people, all packed together shoulder to shoulder, have been able to live or even survive. And nowhere else are the rules of interaction and obedience more strictly enforced than in the family. Every member of the family, nuclear or extended, has a predefined role, and a predefined set of regulations. For example, a person’s manner of speaking to their older brother’s wife’s younger sister’s husband, is very different than when speaking to their older brother’s wife’s older sister’s husband. And don’t make the mistake of mixing up the two. That would be bad… anything from a stern look to social excoriation and shunning.
An example of Indian child marriage (Source: AlexiaFoundation.org)
Though gender plays a role, the familial hierarchy is based primarily on the relative age of the family members. A person older than you always has authority over you, regardless of who they are or how else they are related. Whether you’re 4 or 24 or 44, you elder is your elder, and you are always the child. Adults of similar ages have similar authority over you. When the parent isn’t around, an aunt or uncle of that age category has the same parent-like authority over you. And when no family is around, any member of society of that age category has parent-like authority over you.
The practical result of all of this complex and rigid family structuralization is that children never, never, and I do mean never, have the authority to contradict or even question the decisions of their parents. The parents make every decision for the child, and the child’s opinion is irrelevant. After all, the parent is older, wiser, and as a result, knows what is best for the child, so what does it matter that the child might have an opinion? School, lifestyle, career, marriage partner… all of these are decision made by the parent and imposed on the child. Had my family remained in India, I would have chosen a wife for me, and gotten me married, most likely at an early age. The parent makes the decisions, and the child follows them. No ifs, ands, or buts. That’s just the way it is, and there is no other way.
That Greyhound driver taught me to love all things snow
The culture within my family, like Mother India herself, was developed from, and as a reaction to, a polyglot of influences. The overall culture was an extension of the rigid hierarchical stratification of Indian everyday life. Everyone had their place, and every role was well defined. Rules were the rules, and there was no asking why. Parents made the decisions, children followed those decisions, and that was it. Period. Full stop. End of discussion, next topic please. Internally, my parents where each driven by their childhood. They were ambitious, goal-oriented, driven. Like the Indian version of the Asian Tiger Mom. But not just an ambition for the sake of achieving… there was something more, something deeper. My parents embodied an ambition that was fueled by their childhood experiences. More tellingly, by their childhood deprivations. They both were haunted by the years of having nothing, being cold and barefoot and hungry. Now as adults, they weren’t trying to just achieve difficult goals for the sake of accomplishment; they were using those achievements to somehow make up for the desperate longings of their childhood.
It’s not their fault. Who can blame them? To some extent, aren’t we all a product of our childhood? As adults, don’t we all in some way seek to put right the wrongs of our past?
In the late fall of 1974, my parents accomplished their goal of immigrating to the United States. My Mom, Dad, older brother and I landed in New York with nothing more than a few suitcases and our hopes for the future. We made our way to Erie Pennsylvania, where my Mom had secured a nursing job. I was only four years old, and don’t remember much about that trip, except that as our Greyhound bus was hurtling through the cold night, I could see out the window that wondrous white fluffy things were falling through the sky. I turned to my brother, who was seven and therefore knew everything. He patiently explained that it was baraff (the Hindi word for snow), and that it was cold, and that it tickled your tongue if it landed on it. He had learned this when my parents lived in the foothills of the Himalayas. I was puzzled. No matter how he explained it, I couldn’t grasp what he was describing. My parents must have been occupied, because my brother turned to the next authoritative adult close by, the bus driver. The Conductor-Sahab (Mr Bus Driver) tried his best to explain what snow was to me, but it must have been clear to him that I still wasn’t getting it. And then, in a scene that could only have transpired in an era very different from today, I remember the driver slowed the bus and pulled off to the side of the road, took my brother and me gently by the hand, and led us outside to show me what snow was and give me my first experience of tasting snow as it fell magically from the sky. The memory of that considerate and touching act has stayed with me to this day as an example of how beautiful and full of promise this land of America could be. Maybe my parents were right… after all, they had sacrificed everything they had for the chance to pursue their dreams in this country. Maybe those dreams would come true.
The perfect family... from the outside
Time passed, and eventually we settled in Philadelphia, where my Mom taught nursing at the sprawling Hahnemann Medical Center, and my Dad worked day jobs while he studied to pass the US medical licensing exams. It was a blow to his psyche, to have overcome so much to become a respected doctor, and then to have to start all over again in this new land. But he would not be denied, and he soldiered through, eventually gaining his licensure and obtaining a position at Wills Eye Hospital, one of the most prestigious eye surgery hospitals in the world. His legacy was finally taking shape.
My parents, as their professional lives blossomed, became sponsors for more of our extended family to immigrate to the US. In just a few years, there was quite a sizeable number of siblings and siblings-in-law and nephews and nieces that owed their chance at the American Dream to my parents.
The perfect family... check.
I was living the American Dream. My parents were immigrants to this nation, and by virtue of their proverbial blood, sweat, and tears, they had created a life for themselves, a very comfortable life. Both were medical professionals, highly regarded in their community, and they both lived well, and rightly so. They worked hard, and they had earned the right to reap the rewards. A nice house in a community of nice houses, expensive cars, the latest and greatest electronic gadgets and toys, frequent trips international and nationwide… these were all the trappings of the life my parents had created in this nation of opportunity. It was exactly what my parents had wanted.
But there was more to it than that. The house, the cars, the nice things, the luxuries; these were just things. And the accumulation of things was not what drove my parents. It’s not what fired their engines of ambition. What really drove them, what really fueled their passion for achievement, was social acceptance. Because social acceptance equated with placement on a higher level on the hierarchy. And placement within the hierarchy, the overriding system of classification and order, was everything. It was everything. All thoughts, all actions, all desires, all dreams, every erg of energy that drove you to breathe, walk, talk, move… everything was directed at finding a place on that hierarchy, and then finding a way to move up.
Maybe this all-encompassing focus on social placement stemmed from the traumatic deprivations of their childhood. Not just the deprivation of things, but the deprivation of acceptance by others. The inability to move up because they didn’t have the means. The deep emotional wounding of being left behind while others moved on and moved up. The trauma of being considered less than others because they didn’t have the means to keep up. For my parents, placement on the social hierarchy was more than just an indication of status; it was symbol of acceptance, an emotional validation, a vindication for that barefoot child left behind by their peers from so long ago.
As a biological child of my parents, I was the culmination of those desperate, deep set efforts to achieve acceptance. Because, as a biological child, I was not just their offspring, I was an extension of them. This, in a nutshell, is the narrative of my childhood: I was an extension of my parents. My adopted brother, though he was a member of the family, was not biologically from my parents, and so, they did not see him as a part of them. But I was. Oh, was I ever.
It was not enough that I simply was, that I simply existed. I existed for a reason. I was important to my parents, I was of value to my parents, for a very specific reason. The desire that drove my parents above all else was acceptance in the social hierarchy. My value to my parents was that by becoming an accomplished offspring of theirs, I would reflect favorably on my parents, and thereby raise their social acceptability, and move them up one more peg on the hierarchy that was life. Accomplished professionals and respected members of society? Check, my parents had achieved that. An affluent life and trappings of luxury? Check, my parents had achieved that. Successful parenting ability as evidenced by having a child who is successful and affluent also? Bingo… that was the next step on the ladder of acceptance. The idea of me, the creation of me, the raising of me… my very existence… for my parents, these were little more than a check-marked criterion, a goal to be achieved, on their journey on the hierarchy. They knew what it was to be left behind, to be socially degraded. Never again. Moving up the social ladder. That’s what it was all about. And my childhood, from the minute I was born, was just another rung on that ladder.
And so, every aspect of my childhood, good or bad, was determined by my parents. Because they were affluent, my life was affluent. I wore nice clothes, drove a nice car, had nice things, and had friends who had nice things. Because in their lives education had played a vital role, in my life education was primary. I went to the best schools that money could afford. Doing well in school was not just a priority, it was the only priority. Everything else was secondary. I studied every subject, every night. And then my parents reviewed all of my work, every night. I didn’t watch television, except for the national news, and then I wrote a synopsis of the major stories, which was discussed during dinner. Every night. A grade of A- on a test was a serious infraction, and a cause for the use of the wooden paddle. A grade of A- in a class was something more severe, and brought out the leather belt.
Boy Scout Troop 383
If a successful parent is to have a successful child, that child should be well rounded. So my free time was filled with lessons in music, the arts, and sporting activities of other successful parents, such as tennis and soccer. I joined the Boy Scouts because it would look good on my resume. I enjoyed my activities in Scouting; it was one of the few times I could express myself away from the constant watchful eye of my parents. There were many times when Scouting threatened to steal away my all-important focus on studying what my parents wanted me to study, but somehow I always managed to find the balance and do well with both. My persistence in Scouting would pay dividends later, in ways that I could never have imagined.
My brother was not so fortunate. He was not able to provide my parents with the grades and performance accolades that would validate their status as good parents, so he was marginalized and treated as a second-class member of the family. Not surprisingly, this lack of affection caused my brother to fall further behind in living up the standard my parents needed him to display, and his treatment deteriorated into emotional and physical abuse by my parents.
It was a difficult thing for me to endure, watching my brother be yelled at, struck, and beaten almost every day. All because he couldn’t make my parents look good. His tears, his pleas, the smack of the paddle or the crack of the belt, his cries of pain, his broken voice asking for another chance, please just give me another chance and I will do better… these haunt my memories. But the worst was when he would beg me to explain to him why couldn’t Mom and Dad just love him for who he was, and why did Mom and Dad always think he was not good enough. I had no answer. Only my parents knew the answer to those questions, and they only spoke through the paddle or the belt.
I was three years younger than my brother, and all through my childhood as I watched my brother be abused and degraded, I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do for him. At the time I could not verbalize why he was treated in that way, so I could not answer him when he begged me to help him understand what he was doing that was so wrong. Even if I could have had the maturity to formulate a plan and do something, I couldn’t fight against the lifelong conditioning that parents were never, never, never to be questioned. Even if you saw them doing something and in your heart, in your gut, you had a feeling that it was wrong, terribly wrong, you could never dare to contradict them. And every time I saw my brother wince from the paddle, that unquestioned superiority of my parents was reinforced, and every time I saw my brother recoil from the belt, that inescapable submissiveness of us children was burned afresh into my psyche. And though I was too young to verbalize it and explain it to my brother, I knew in my bones the unspoken lesson that my parents were beating into us… children are not valued for who they are; the value of children is only that they are an extension of their parents. Children exist to make the parents look good. Children exist so that the parents can climb the hierarchy to the next level of social acceptance. And if you can’t make your parents look good, then you have no value. My brother was not biologically their child, and he wasn’t able to bring them the social accolades they sought, so my brother had no value. I was the biological child, and I was able to instinctively understand that my parents wanted me to excel so that they looked good, and I played that role very well, so I had value. And throughout the years, as we children grew, that gulf in treatment became wider and wider. My brother was devalued even more. And I was lauded even more. I couldn’t help him as I watched him spiral downward. And because of my conditioning and sense of self-preservation, I had to keep doing what I needed to do make my parents look good, to lie to the world and show them that my parents were good parents because they were raising such a successful child. Eventually, when my brother became of age, he escaped and moved out and lived on his own. Now my parents had no use for him whatsoever, and so his value decreased to zero. He was ignored and shunned. And now since I was the only child at home, all focus was now on me. Every attention, every effort, every expectation was solely on me to make my parents look like successful parents. Now the real pressure was on. That was my childhood.
My Mother’s pregnancy with me, after so many previous miscarriages, was very difficult. She had to deliver via Caesarean, and the resulting blood loss caused her to require a transfusion. Medical practice in India in 1969 was not all that advanced, but that was of little consequence. A new disease was a new disease, and regardless of where that transfusion would have happened, the outcome would have been the same. Blood cannot be screened for a disease that no one knows exists. During my childbirth, during the very event when my Mother’s greatest dream was materializing into reality, she was infected with the disease that would kill her.
For many years, the as yet unknown and unidentified Non-A Non-B Hepatitis virus kept a low profile in my Mother, doing its devious work behind the scenes. It was not until the mid-1980’s, during the time when her life in this new land of opportunity was blossoming, when things were well with her home, with her profession, with her husband, and with her child, that this disease raised its head and struck her down. The irony is as cruel as it is sharp.
My Mother went from being a vivacious, energetic, full-time professional and full-time mom, to an invalid who couldn’t walk ten paces without almost fainting, a person whose limbs were contorted with spasms and whose body was wracked with pain. When the virus would be in remission, my Mother could manage a wheelchair and speak in whispers, but when the virus would flare, she would be confined to her bed, alternating between unconsciousness and crying out in agony.
The doctors didn’t know what to do. My Father used all of his professional connections to get her treated by the best doctors in the country, but to no avail. This new virus, that was just now being identified, much less understood, wrought its devastation on my Mother with total abandon.
My Mother’s life, the life she had so meticulously crafted through so much hard work and effort, was slipping away. She was on the cusp of achieving the social acceptance and hierarchical success that she had craved since childhood, and now she couldn’t even cook a meal for herself, much less throw the lavish 100-person dinner soirees that she had become famous for. Her beautiful and elegantly decorated home was now filled with unsightly medical equipment. Her husband, whose career was hitting its stride, was having to spend more and more time away from developing his business as he tended to his wife’s medical needs. And her son, her superstar son, who was the jewel of her eye and the envy of her social circle, was becoming distracted from his responsibility of making the family look good because he was spending so much time caring for his Mother. That was unacceptable. Something had to be done. The family needed a helper, someone to take on the role of running the house and coordinating the entertaining and keeping up appearances. Someone who could care for my Mother so that her husband could keep his attention being a successful professional, and so that her son could keep his attention on being a successful son. Someone who would fall in line with the status quo because that’s the way things are supposed to be, and who wouldn’t question the ultimate authority of the parents, because, well, that would be unheard of.
That someone was my sister. She was my cousin, actually, the youngest daughter of my Mother’s youngest brother. But she fit the bill. She was Indian, of course, so she knew her role in life, and she understood the importance of hierarchy. She was part of the extended family, so she knew the rules of the internal family dynamics. She was young, only 10 years old at the time, so she wouldn’t ask awkward questions, and she could be molded to whatever my parents needed her to be. She was smart and cute, so she could excel socially in ways that my older brother was unable to. My parents had sponsored many of our family to immigrate, so they knew the process well. And after all, they were bringing a poor young child from a backward third-world nation into the land of milk and honey, to give her a life, to give her a future, to make all her dreams come true. To anyone who mattered, and those were the people in their social circle, my parents looked like winners. It was a perfect solution. And that’s how my cousin, who became my sister, came into our family. Not as a daughter, but as a solution.
My sister knew the drill. She worked hard at school and excelled socially. She worked hard at home and did my parents’ bidding. My Father could give some much needed attention to his business. I could give some much needed attention to maximizing my chances of getting into a good college, which would maximize my chances of getting into medical school, so that I could (what else?) follow in my Father’s footsteps and carry on his legacy. But my sister was smart, too. Perhaps a bit too smart. She knew under the surface, all was not as it seemed, and all was not as it should have been. She knew well enough not to say anything outside of the family… God forbid, that would have been a tragedy, for her. She, too, knew the feel of the paddle and, when needed, the belt. But she confided in me. She knew that she was not loved as a daughter should be loved, unconditionally. And she knew she was there in our house to fill a role. By this time, I was old enough to understand her situation in a way that I was unable to do for my brother. But I was still bound by the conditioning and control of my parents, so again, there was not much I could do. I was still too young, still completely dependent on my parents financially and emotionally. Though I could console my sister in her plight, I was too young and too incapable to emancipate her. All I could do was help her endure. It was not much. But unlike with my brother, at least now I could be of some help.
By 1989, my Mother’s condition had deteriorated to the extent that her internal organs were dying, and she was put on the list for a liver transplant. In August of that year, we took her to Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh, and she underwent an 11 hour transplant surgery. For the next few months, she needed to stay in the Pittsburgh area so that her team of doctors could follow her progress. I stayed with her in Pittsburgh, while my Father and sister stayed in Indiana. He needed to keep working, and my sister was by now trained well enough to run the house. My brother had made his escape and was living on his own on the East Coast.
Even through all of this, my education remained of paramount importance. I remained in school, but in name only. I had to remain in school, I just had to, because that was going to be my springboard into becoming a doctor, so that I could continue the legacy that my Father had so laboriously created. For my entire life, I had been groomed for that role. Even in grade school, I remember the choices my parents made for me were geared toward maximizing my acceptance into medical school someday. However now, with my Mother’s illness encompassing my every thought, paying attention to school had become impossible. Between not being physically present at my classes because I was in Pittsburgh, and not being mentally present at my classes during the few times that I was there, my grades suffered. I begged my parents to allow me to take some time off to take care of the family, but education was king, and my Father’s need for me to attend medical school and continue his business trumped all other concerns. My grades fell to zero. Regardless of the fact that my Mother couldn’t even speak a sentence without pausing to gasp for breath, I was expected to put all of this aside and act like everything was normal at school. I understood the why of this, of course. Social appearances were everything, after all. For my entire life I had been putting on a face to the outside world, a face of normality, a face that hid the abuse and dysfunction at home. And now I was expected, I was demanded, to do the same. As much as I tried, though, I couldn’t this time. I was expelled out of school, and I was devastated emotionally. True to form though, no one outside of the family was allowed to know the extent to which my parents’ meticulously crafted plan was falling apart.
Eventually, my Mother’s health improved enough for her to return home for a few months at a time. Things went back to what was normal for our family. I applied for mercy at school, and was re-admitted back to college at Indiana University Bloomington.
By 1991, my Mother’s condition took a turn for the worse; her transplant was failing, and she was too ill to undergo any further surgeries. Again, she and I returned to Pittsburgh so that she could get whatever treatments she could endure, and I did my best to ease her torment. But it was to no avail. One night in September, the decimated blood vessels in her abdomen gave way, and as I held her, she vomited blood, coughed a few times, and lost consciousness. She would never wake again. After a few days of lying in a coma at the hospital, her tortured body gave up its struggle. My Mother was no more.
As a keel is to a boat, so was my Mother for our family. She directed us and she kept us together. Now she was no more. Our family was without its source of cohesion. For better or for worse, she had directed every moment of my life, and now I was left utterly without direction, and without the skill or ability to determine that direction for myself. I had been an extension of her; now that she was gone, I was an extension of nothing. My Father was equally adrift. How could he now present the public persona of a successful doctor and husband and family man? All he had left was his work. And passing that legacy on to me. So that’s what he focused on, and I was sent back to Bloomington to salvage what I could of my preparation for medical school. To him it was imperative that I return and get back to pursuing the goal he had set for me. “You must do well in school,” he said as he saw me off at the door. “Your Mother knew you weren’t doing well, and it broke her heart. And then she died. Don’t make that same mistake again.”
My sister stayed at home in Evansville, and ran the house, and cooked and cleaned for my Father, and kept up the lawn care, and whatever else had to be done. Appearances had to be maintained, after all. And she was 16 by now… plenty old enough to handle being the woman of the house. According to my Father.
Part of keeping up appearances was my sister’s responsibility to attend social and business functions with my Father. It was not something she was comfortable with, and she told me several times when I was home that things were “weird.” There was nothing either she or I could do… even though I was an adult, I was still a child to my Father, and as such, I was to obey him without question. I was expected to be at school, even though I still had not recovered from the trauma of losing my Mother. I wasn’t able to study, I wasn’t able to think, and now I was getting that same feeling in my stomach when as a young boy I watched my brother being abused and was told to turn away and keep my mouth shut.
It happened one weekend in May of 1992, about seven months after my Mother had passed away and my sister had been expected to step into her new role. I was home from college, and my sister took me aside and quietly asked me if I could install a lock on her bedroom door. A lock from the inside. Her voice was trembling and her eyes were full of tears. She went on to describe actions with my Father that no 16 year old should ever have to describe. Bile churned in my stomach and the room began to tilt. I steadied myself and held her hands and speechlessly listened to her plea.
It was the second time in my life that I had heard that plea. A plea by a child for protection from an adult. The first time, it had come from my brother, and I had been too young and too naïve to even raise my voice. This time, I would find my voice.
It was not just my Father that I would be confronting. It was man who was the absolute and complete ruler of my life since the minute I was born. It was not just my Father who was always right because his decisions could not be questioned. It was a man whose belief in hierarchy and the submission of children was backed by a thousand years of culture and values and customs. I would not just be exposing actions that were twisted and perverse. I would be exposing the inner dysfunction of a family that never, never, never revealed its flaws. I would be going against the inertia of a man who had spent every ounce of energy in his entire life keeping up appearances for the sake of social acceptance. What I was about to give voice to would rip apart my Father’s life, his business, his profession, his social standing, his place in the hierarchy… everything he had spent his entire life trying to achieve.
I looked again at the tears in my sister’s eyes, cleared my throat, found my voice, and rose to say what I needed to say.
When my head cleared and it was over, I knew I had committed a terrible crime. My Father was dead. And I was responsible for it. I called the police and turned myself in. I went before the Judge and I confessed and plead guilty. I was given the minimum sentence, but still that was 30 years. I was shipped off to the maximum security prison in Michigan City Indiana, and there, as punishment for my crime, I was plunged into darkness.
It was a place of darkness, that prison, a darkness of the soul. I witnessed brutalities that haunt my dreams even to this day. Sometimes, on the bad days, I can still hear the screams. But the worst part was the terrible loneliness that swallowed my soul. I had committed an act that would forever set me aside from the rest of civilized humanity. I was flawed, broken, and I could never be healed. With nothing to lose, I fell in with the wrong crowd, and the darkness tightened its grip.
Eventually, I was transferred to a prison near Pendleton Indiana. The scenery was different, but the darkness was the same. I continued to hate myself, but more than that, after so many years, I had lost the hope that I would ever do anything except continue to hate myself. I had no friends and I had no contact with anyone outside; I just wanted to shut everyone out. It was easier than the alternative.
My Sister in happier days
By the grace of God, not everyone felt the same way.
After several years of not writing to anyone, I was convinced that everyone thought that I was an unredeemable monster. I certainly thought so. One day in prison I received a letter from a guy I had known in the Boy Scouts. He had been my Scoutmaster, and he had shepherded me through many camping adventures. He knew a little bit about my parent’s unwavering emphasis on my following the family’s legacy and how from time to time my Scouting life had conflicted with that educational mandate. It was he who had been brazen enough to butt heads with my parents on the value of keeping me in Scouting. And now he was the one writing to me in prison. At first I was reluctant to believe him and suspicious of his intentions. Slowly, however, he began to give me the hope that not everyone thought I was a lost cause. And again, by the grace of God, I gingerly took a few small steps to believe that for myself.
I began the long painful process of therapy to perhaps understand how I had come to be the person I was. It was a process of years. I was so under the spell of my parents’ enmeshment, it was many months before I could even accept that my family was severely dysfunctional. And then, with a lot of patient guidance from my therapist and some church friends and, of course, my Scoutmaster friend, I began to peel away the layers of deceit and falsehoods and facades and repressive thought control that I had called a family. I studied psychology and sociology and history and anthropology, so I could learn to understand the role culture played in makeup of my parents and their perspectives. I talked with family friends who knew my parents as peers and who could give me some insight as to what they were like as people. I got answers to questions that I had always wondered about, and I got answers to questions that I had no idea about. A lot of the answers I got were things I didn’t want to know or didn’t want to accept, especially the ones that pointed out the unhealthy perspectives of my parents and the glaring deficiencies in myself. But I had to. I learned to understand the kind of person I was, how my upbringing contributed to that, and, and most painfully, how and why those factors came together to cause me to commit the crime I committed. I reaffirmed that I was completely responsible for what I did; I just wanted to understand why I did it. Slowly, in the years to follow, like a blind man navigating a minefield, I was able to map out my psyche, and chart the holes and chasms. And with a lot of support and love from my friends, I was able to begin the long, long, process of rebuilding myself.
Me in the prison library
Though I had been raised to live for my parents and achieve their achievements, in my heart I had always wanted to be able to do for others what they couldn’t do for themselves. In prison, I was able to tap into this desire by becoming a tutor and helping the other inmates (and some of the guards, too) learn how to read, how to write, how to do math, how to understand simple, everyday things like a checking account or a job application, things they would need to know to help prevent them from falling back into the traps that had ensnared them their whole lives. For some, their goal was to be able to write a letter to their grandchildren for the first time in their lives… I helped them learn how to do that. For others, it was to get a GED and possibly be the first one in their family in three generations to have a genuine shot at college… I helped them learn how to do that. When an off-campus college program became available in the prison, not only did I enroll to attain degrees for myself, I helped tutor my peers so that they could attain a degree and become an example of perseverance for their own children.
For as long as I could remember, my Mother had been the Chief Architect and Director of my life, and God had been nothing more than a curious sideshow. Throughout the crisis of my Mother’s illness and during the catastrophic events after her death, I had told God, “I can handle this. I am a smart and capable young man that no obstacle has yet thwarted. Just sit to the side, and I’ll let you know if I need You for anything.” Oh, how my stratospheric my hubris had been, taller than tower of Babel itself. And, oh, how utterly and completely had I been humbled. It was one of the greatest lessons of my entire time in prison… that if my life were to amount to anything other than a complete failure, I needed another Captain at the wheelhouse. My Mother and Father were no longer an option. And my taking the wheel of my own life had proven to be a spectacular and fiery failure. I had no other choice but to let God take charge, as He should have been from the day my ship left the docks. And so I did. Ever the rational, evidence-seeking scientist, I waited to see what this newfound spirituality would wreak in my life. I was still too much of a novice to understand that God had already been working on my heart and in my heart for years. And I had my share of doubts and recantations and falling off the wagon. But by and large, I was ooking for evidence to see if God could do a better job directing my life. It was a long time coming, but, boy, did He ever come through. In a way and to the extent that I could never have dreamt possible.
In the meantime, I became known in prison as a person who took the time to help those who could not help themselves. Everyone in prison has an angle, a swindle, a thing that they do for which they are known and sought out. Some people’s swindle is providing vices, some people’s swindle is providing contraband, some people’s swindle is to provide products and services that make prison life just a little bit more bearable. My swindle, in my years in prison, was to not have a swindle, to not have an angle, to not be the one who was trying to get over on you just like everyone else. And it worked. I became known as the guy who would help in any educational manner he was able, for the sake of helping, regardless of whether the person asking was a fellow inmate, a guard, or an administrator. I achieved state certification in tutoring, and logged thousands of hours helping people learn how to read, write, add, subtract, solve a quadratic equation, or to write computer code. I developed an electronic catalog and checkout system for the prison library to bring them into the 21st century. I wrote appellate briefs for inmates to prevent unscrupulous attorneys from taking advantage of their uneducated ignorance. I helped guards understand their own training manuals so that they could put in for a promotion or contest an unfair evaluation. I developed an automated, networked registration system for the on-site college program to replace the pen-and-paper system that was limiting them to a few dozen students. When their enrollment swelled to over 150 students as a result, they put me in charge of everything from academic advising to navigating the dreaded FAFSA form and the associated federal bureaucracy.
My Scoutmaster visiting me in prison
There were benefits for me, of course. Inmates realized that I was one of the few who would not exploit them, and they gave me a measure of protection from the baser elements of the prison population. Guards gave me the leeway to go where I needed to in the prison, and meet with whom I needed to so that I could help them with what they needed. They knew that I could be trusted to be honest with the other inmates, and with them. On occasion, one or two of them even shook my hand.
But there was a greater benefit to me, one that I did not perceive at the outset; one that became apparent only after about a decade or so in the penal system. I was learning, bit by bit, that I could be a good person, that I could be an honorable person. Though I had committed an unspeakable offense, I was not, at my core, a lost cause. I had value, a sense of self-worth, that I never knew I could have, but clearly there was something there. My parents wanted me to live only for them, so they never helped me develop my own sense of self. But now I was. And it was good. My fellow inmates and the guards could see it. God could see it, because in times of quiet reflection, I could feel His approval. And perhaps, just maybe, if I was to continue to be honest with myself, I could see it too. At my core, in the place where God had created the child He had meant me to be, I was a good person. I had committed a crime, I had perpetrated a tragedy, and without a doubt, I bore sole responsibility for those actions. But those actions were a result of circumstances, and while those actions were wrong and abhorrent, they were a product of where I was emotionally and mentally at that time in my life; they were not a definition of who I was at my core. I was not that person now. I was a person who could be good, who could be valued, who could be loved. As a friend once told me, though it took me a long time to understand, “God made you, and God doesn’t make trash.” I was a person who had committed a crime, but I wasn’t trash. I was serving my sentence, but my sentence wasn’t forever… someday it would be over. There will come a day when the society that had punished me, and rightly so, will deem that I have sufficiently atoned for my transgression, and will reaccept me back into their fold. There will come a time when even I, who is notoriously hard-headed, even I will have learned the lesson that I was sent to prison to learn. The lesson that I am good, I have value, I am loved. And as a result of that, the knowledge that I can do good, I can do things that have value, and I can love. It was lesson that started with a letter from my Scoutmaster, a letter that opened my heart, and allowed me to become the person that God had intended me to become the day I was created. And my life has never been the same ever since.
My Aunt, who counseled me
In 2003, after 11 years, 2 months, and 18 days, I was released from prison. It was a wonderfully bright and breezy late July day. One minute I was shuttered away in the eternal night of the correctional system, and the next minute I was standing outside the courthouse, blinking in the sunlight, watching the downtown Evansville traffic stream by. For a long time, I just stood there, blinking. Like a deep slumbering Rip Van Winkle struggling to wave away the cobwebs of sleep, it took a while for reality to dawn on me. I noticed out of the corner of my eye a large water fountain at the courtyard of the Civic Center, and walked softly, gingerly toward it, not making any sudden movements. I did not want to wake from this dream, if it was one. I reached out my hand and felt the cool, clear water. It was real. The water was real. And my freedom was real. I was finally free.
Technically, I had a few weeks of post-release supervision, but that was just a formality. In September of that year, I officially completed all terms of service on my sentence, with no parole, no probation, no supervision, no reporting. I was a free man. I had served just over a third of my sentence. Due to my good conduct and the counseling and educational programs I had completed, I was given the opportunity to stand before a Judge and make my case that prison had accomplished its original goal of punishing me and changing me. After reviewing the circumstances of why I went to prison, and what I had achieved while in prison, the Judge concurred that prison had accomplished its goal.
That decision affected me deeply on many levels. From a Social Contract Theory perspective, as advocated by the framers of our Constitution, I had paid my debt. Our democratic society is based upon an unspoken social contract. The people allow the government to have certain rights and responsibilities. As long as the government fulfills those responsibilities to its citizens, it has the freedom to exercise those rights. If the government fails in living up to those responsibilities, the people can take away those rights. Likewise, the people have rights and responsibilities. As a citizen, I had violated my civic responsibility by committing a crime against society, and so, rightfully, my freedoms were curtailed for a set period of time. Now the government, in the form of the Courts, had likewise deemed that I had paid my price, and my freedoms should be restored, and that I could reclaim my status as a full member of society. If our community was a house, I had overstepped my bounds and broken the house rules, I was punished by the house, I had accepted my punishment and paid my debt to the house, and now I was square with the house. From a very intellectual and theoretical perspective, I was satisfied with that result.
That’s what my brain felt. But my heart and my soul felt very much different. I hadn’t just committed a crime, a violation of the rules of society. I had sinned. And not just a sin, but a Sin, with a capital “S”. Regardless of what I was thinking, or what emotional state I was in, or what led up to it, I had sinned against one of God’s creations. I had sinned against God Himself. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I could do to bridge the chasm I had created between me and God. I could never extend my hand out to reach God. I could only hope and pray that God in His mercy and grace would extend His hand out to me. For all the years that I lived in darkness, that I hated myself, that I saw no value in myself, I lived in that chasm I had created. And when slowly, slowly, my heart had begun to see that I was a person of value; that I could do good because at my core I was good, it was then that I was able to feel God in His mercy reaching out to me. I could feel God saying, as a parent would say to a wayward child, “You have done wrong, but I still love you. I don’t love your actions, but I love you.” And for many years thereafter, I resisted God’s love because I still thought I was not worthy, but eventually, I came to accept it. And now, as I stood there outside the courthouse on that bright July afternoon, I could feel God saying, “OK, I know you have done wrong, but I’m going to give you another chance.” And I could also hear Him add as an afterthought, “I’ll be watching you, boy. Don’t make Me regret it.”
So, as I stood there and felt the cool water of the fountain remind me of reality, my heart and soul were full of emotion. I was elated because I knew that God was forgiving me and giving me another chance. But I also felt the pressure of the expectation that God had for me, the expectation that I would live in a manner that would do Him proud, that would justify His giving me another chance that would show Him that I understood what it meant to be a child created through the love of God.
God had forgiven me, but was I worthy of His love? It was a question that stood at the forefront of my heart as I stood there on my day of release. It was a question that would nag at me and cause me to question myself over and over again. It was a question to which I would not find an answer until it came to me one day, many years later, when I was sitting in a library, reading, of all things, a book on statistics. Huh, go figure. God works in mysterious ways.
The rest of that day of my release is a bit of a blur. My friends who had picked me up asked what I wanted to do, and all I could answer was the first thing that came to mind, “Get a pizza.” I remember being vertigo and light headedness in the car as we went to the restaurant, because I hadn’t been in a vehicle in over a decade. I remember standing barefoot on my friend’s living room floor and wiggling my toes with delight, because I hadn’t felt carpet in over a decade. I remember standing outside at night looking up at the stars and marveling at their beauty, because high-intensity sodium vapor security lights had obscured my view of them for so long, I couldn’t remember what it was to experience the grandeur of creation.
Every little thing was a source of wonder and amazement. It was like I was a child again. It was great. I would get up in the middle of the night and go to the fridge to get a snack, not because I was hungry, but because I could. I got my first mobile phone ever, and I remember being amazed at how society had progressed since I had last been a part of it. I got my driver’s license and jumped in my friend’s car and zoomed down the road, with no destination in mind, giddy with the freedom and excitement of being able to go wherever I wanted, just like a newly minted teenaged driver, though I was now almost a middle aged man.
Eventually I moved on to more prosaic things. I moved out of my friend’s basement and got an apartment. It wasn’t pretty; the interior design motif was Early American Yard Sale, but it was good enough for what I needed it to be. Play time was over. It was time for me to stand on my own again.
And then I came to the first of many conundrums I would face. I needed a job, but to get a job, I had to have experience, but to get experience, I had to have a job. I had neither. And, as I found out, being an ex-felon was a scarlet letter that would haunt me time and time again.
Again, my Scouting background came to my rescue. My old Scoutmaster’s father had, because of his son, followed my case throughout the years. He had known me when I was a child, and now he came to talk to me when I was a brand new ex-felon looking to get a job. He was a wise one. He knew that I needed more than a job; I needed someone to guide me, to mentor me, to help me adjust to living in a society vastly different than I had known before. He embraced me and told me that he could help. Under his tutelage, and working in his office, I learned skills that would benefit me for the rest of my life. But more than that, I learned that although God had given me another chance, He didn’t expect me to do it all on my own. He would put people in my life to help me. He had been doing that all along, even when I didn’t realize it, but here was a clear example that God was serious about my redemption.
I saved up enough money to take a plane out to Boston to see an aunt of mine that had been instrumental in my psychological recovery in prison. She had shepherded me through the hardest of the soul-searching I had done as dug into my family’s history and learned to accept the reasons why they had done what they had done to my brother, my sister, and to me. This woman would drive from Boston to Indiana, sometimes up to 15 hours one way, to visit with me for the prison allotted three hours, and then drive all the way back home. Just to see me face to face, to teach me by virtue of her actions that I was worth such a sacrifice, that I was worth saving. It was a humbling lesson that she taught me, my aunt from Boston. She taught me not only that I was worth saving, but as a result of that effort, I now had earned the responsibility of living in a manner so as to not betray or disrespect that effort.
It is a lesson that had been acted out and reinforced over and over again by many people in my life since that day. No matter what happened to me in the past, no matter what I did, no matter I have experienced as a consequence, I am to remember that I am valued and that I am worth fighting for and worth saving, and as a result, I have a responsibility to honor and pay due respect to that sacrifice and that effort. It is a code by which I have since striven to live.
As my experience and scope of skills grew, I went on to different jobs with greater scopes of responsibility. A mutual friend got to know me, talked his boss into taking a chance on me, and brought me aboard a structural steel engineering company. What did I know about structural steel engineering? Nothing. But to honor and to pay due respect to the fact that this friend had taken a chance on hiring me, I took the classes I needed to take, and learned engineering and sales and marketing that I needed to learn so that I could understand and excel at the responsibilities I was given. For example, I learned how to optimize critical path product development and fabrication schedules and I learned what effect annealing temperature and hydrogen embrittlement have on the molecular structure of high-carbon steel, not only because I needed to know those things to excel at my job, but also because I was being given the gift of a second chance, and it was my responsibility not to squander that opportunity.
My experiences in tutoring everyone from non-literate septuagenarians to Master’s Degree philosophy students has given me the ability to explain concepts to, and have conversations with, people of any ability or education in a manner that is neither condescending nor coddling. It is a skill that I have used to great effect as many of my jobs have required the facilitating of communication, for example, between production and sales departments in a given company, between starry-eyed clients and buttoned-down CEOs, and between stern-faced federal safety regulators and equally tight-lipped safety management professionals. Everything I have learned, and every experience I have had, for better or for worse, I have turned into a method of living this life with honor and principle worthy of the second chance that I have been given.
Though I have had many and varied successes in my professional life, I have experienced a number of setbacks, some of which I expected, and some of which surprise me anew even though they happen again and again.
I know that although I have technically paid my penance and completed my sentence in the eyes of the courts and the government, I will always carry the label of ex-felon. That means I will always have an extra burden of explanation and reassurance for those who don’t know me well enough to understand what kind of person I really am. I expect that, and I understand that is part and parcel with the consequence of my past.
What I don’t expect, and what surprises me every time it happens, are the subtle and persistent ways that I am reminded that I am not worthy of the same level of respect as every other member of society. For example, there have been many projects that I have worked on, and have had the prominent share in developing, planning, and carrying out, from international trips to fund-raising soirees, but when it comes time for recognition, I have been kept in the background, behind the curtain, or tucked away in the fine print. Is the message to me that my talents and abilities have value, but not me as a person? This is a perspective I refuse to accept, so it surprises me every time. Or I might work as the leader of a team that develops a new product or negotiates a particularly complex agreement, but when it comes time to put pen to paper, I am asked to refrain from documenting my role, lest awkward questions be raised. Is this the new version of the three-fifths compromise? If it is, then I reject it wholeheartedly, as it was rendered obsolete 150 years ago.
If you do the crime, then you must do the time. I accept that. I did the crime. And I did the time. I know the value of redemption and forgiveness… all I’m asking for is a chance to prove that.
Amy, my beautiful Wife
From that time many, many years ago when I was in a dark place spiritually and emotionally, and I made the conscious effort to put my life in God’s hands and trust His decisions for me, there was a question that tickled the back of my mind from time to time, and prevented me from fully accepting that God had taken me back into His fold. Perhaps that doubt was a remnant of the tortuous and searing guilt I had wrapped myself in for so many years. Or, perhaps I was just overthinking it, as I have a tendency to do with every major decision.
The question I had was, if God has truly forgiven me, if He has truly reached out to me and embraced me and taken me back into His fold, as I hope and pray He has… then how will I know? I didn’t deserve to be forgiven, and there is nothing I could have done to make up for my sin, or to earn back my place in His arms. God presented me with His forgiveness solely through His grace alone. It was a gift I didn’t deserve, and a gift I have every day since tried to prove worthy of, and it was a gift that God gives as He does everything… unconditionally. I understood this. I felt this. I accepted this.
But the scientist in me, the skeptic, the empiricist, wanted proof. I didn’t want to just accept it, I wanted to know it, without any shadow of a doubt. For many years thereafter, and when I was released from prison, for many years after that, I lived with the suspicion and hope that I was forgiven, but not the proof. I tried to live in a manner worthy of the grace-filled gift of a second chance, but always with that little shred of doubt that God was still holding back a little. Oh me of little faith.
One day, several years after I was released and working a practical and stable job and living in a practical and stable apartment, I was approached by my mentor, who also happened to be my Sunday School teacher. He quizzed me a little bit about my tutoring experience, and asked whether I had experience in any advanced college math classes. “Sure,” I said nonchalantly, as I launched into a long list of classes I had tutored. He put his hand up and stopped me… he was not looking for a self-congratulatory list of accomplishments from me, he was looking at my eyes to see if I was being confident and genuine in what I was claiming to be capable of. Apparently, whatever he was going to ask of me what not something he took lightly. It was important to him. So, I began to pay attention. There was this woman he knew, the manager of a restaurant that he and group of friends met at regularly. This woman had gotten to know him and shared a bit of her story with him. She was a single mom, with five kids, raising them on her own while working a full time job. Oh, and she was putting herself through school, on her way to a degree in Social Work, so that she could help other women who were struggling with unfair loads in life. This woman had my admiration. Apparently, she was having some difficulty in one of her classes, and could I find a few hours to meet with her a time or two and give her some pointers. I thought about it for a second, and then I agreed. I was pretty busy with work, and I was trying to finagle some vacation time into my schedule so I could go out East and visit with some friends, but I thought I could squeeze in a few meetings with this lady, and send her on her way, so that I could be on mine. Far off, from on high, above the clouds, I thought I might have heard a deep, rumbling chuckle.
As it turned out, the class was statistics, and we met at the town library near where she lived. As I walked in, there sitting at a table with a pile of textbooks was a strikingly attractive woman, with blonde hair, sea green eyes with gold flecks, and the timeless beauty of an Athenian goddess. Oh, and did I mention that she was strikingly attractive? Anyway, arrayed around her were five kids, elementary to middle school aged. She waved them off, and they scampered around, gathering piles of books to take home. That piqued my interest even more. In this day and age, if a woman has taught her kids to love reading and to know their way around a library... well, that's pretty impressive. I took a seat next to the woman, and found myself entranced by her story. From time to time, the kids would peek around the shelves to check on their Mom and slightly goofy guy sitting next to her. The more we talked, the more I was impressed with her. She was intelligent, driven, passionate, animated, quick to smile, and had a beautiful laugh. She had that ability, as good moms do, to know what her kids were up to even when they were behind her and down two aisles of books. I found it harder and harder to concentrate on the reason why we met in the first place... she was doing fine in her class. She just needed a couple of the homework problems explained a little differently, and she was off and running. As the evening progressed, I found myself inching my chair closer and closer to her, and putting my hand up on the table hoping that she might accidentally brush it with hers. Here I was, an almost 40 year old man, feeling giddy like a pimple-faced teenager on his first date. A beautiful woman will do that to you.
I was hooked for sure. But it was not until the end of the evening that I knew I was in love. As we were wrapping up the study session, her middle child came and sat across from me, put her chin in both her hands, and stared intently at me. “Well,” she said with a challenge in her voice, “how did it go?” I knew she wasn’t just evaluating the study session; she was evaluating me. “It went well,” I said, “but from what I can seen, your Mom has a problem.” Oh my. When I said that you should have seen that girl, you should have seen the fire explode in her eyes. If she hadn’t been so well raised, she would have come across that table and tackled me. I paused for effect and then I continued, “The problem is that your Mom is extremely smart, but sometimes she doesn’t believe that she is. All I did was help her calm her doubts, and she did all of the rest.” It took a while, but the girl finally did believe me, she finally believed that I was giving her Mom a compliment. That was the test, that is what she was looking for. I knew right then that I could love this woman and I could love her kids. Those kids loved their Mom, almost more than they loved themselves. They were willing to go to bat for the Mom against a stranger, and to do it together. That was the clincher for me. Any woman who had successfully raised a child to love someone else as much as they love themselves, and to protect the other person when they are down… this is a woman I can definitely love.
And so I did. I fell in love with Amy on that fall evening in 2008. It’s now been a little more than four years since we married and became a family. It’s been the greatest little more than four years of my life, bar none.
When I accepted God’s forgiveness for the crime I had committed, I had done so with a bit of doubt, doubt about how I would know if God really had forgiven me. It was a question that I had asked of God those many years ago. His answer to me was Amy and her kids. His answer to me was love.
All my life I had been denied love, true, unconditional love. I had never been allowed to express love, only obedience and acceptance. Now, for me to fall in love, for me to become part of a family, meant that I would need to learn how to love unconditionally, and how to raise a family in an atmosphere of love. I would need God’s guiding hand every day of my life. I would need to accept God’s help. And by allowing me to fall in love with Amy and wanting to become a family, God was saying to me that He trusted me enough to show these children and this woman the kind of unconditional love I never knew.
I had learned my lesson. I had been forgiven. Now I had learned to love. I had atoned for my sin. My soul had been redeemed. Now my life had been restored.
I was whole again. And every time I looked at Amy or the kids, and every time they looked to me for guidance, or advice, or for a smile or a hug, I had my proof. I was whole again.