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Growth Pains

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

This is the first installment in The Story of Hanna

October, 2011

I’m still feeling a bit wobbly following my surgery this summer. It was unexpected, it was rough, and it happened without the benefit of anesthesia. I lost an important part of myself, and my wounds have not yet closed. As a counselor, I’m always helping others deal with enmeshment and individuation. I get this stuff. I was surprised at some things I learned when I had to look in the mirror.

“I knew as soon as I saw your hair and clothes.” Hanna had said, unable to fully articulate what had begun to go wrong between us the moment she and her husband arrived from Germany for a month-long visit. This was their first visit in five years. I had finished my graduate work and taken a job in my field. I wasn’t sure what taboo I had broken. What had I done to trigger such feelings of loss and betrayal?

Hanna and I met when we were assigned to the same fifth grade class in XCity, Germany. We were classmates for four years before I returned to the U.S. I was the pig-tailed American girl with the Ranger Rick backpack and the bad John Denver habit. She was the quiet, white-haired kid who wore traditional leather pants and carried a pocket knife. I thought she was a boy. It wasn’t until our early teens that our best-friendship became firmly cemented.

By ninth grade, Hanna had become a star athlete and a Beauty. Her looks and effortless air of mystery caused boys to pine and become irrational in her presence. I, on the other hand, had followed my family blueprint to become a gangly, pimple-faced Nerd. In my presence, boys experienced…nothing. They didn’t notice I was alive unless they needed help with their homework.

Steadfast through the decades, we visited back and forth and were in frequent touch in between. Despite our outward differences and our geographic separation, we were, as Hanna’s father often joked, “ein Kopf und ein Arsch.” A head and a tail. A single creature. Though he meant to tease us, he had hit upon the truth: We were so close that we hardly knew where she ended and I began.

Hanna and I understood one another intuitively and profoundly. Our enmeshment worked unbelievably well. In fact, I believe it saved us from childhoods which could have undone us.

Hanna came from a family in which feelings were poorly tolerated. She grew up without hearing the words, “I love you”; and when she showed emotion, she was criticized as mentally unstable and threatened with boarding school. Invalidated and undervalued, she could easily have gone for broke and self destructed.

My family was equally dysfunctional. We were just as well versed in passive aggression but it was located within a larger arsenal of weapons intended to help us bite and scratch ourselves to the top of the family heap. Punishment came frequently and unpredictably, and nobody wanted to be the one in the crosshairs when Dad was in one of his moods. I became observant and stoic. I distrusted and ignored my own feelings. I could easily have gone on to become an abuser or else continued to withdraw until I lost touch with myself altogether.

I know Hanna’s love and support made me more resilient and allowed me to hold my head a little higher. I conjured her presence to help me when I felt clumsy shopping for clothes, and I imagined myself in her skin to give myself the courage to take risks. I later learned that she had carried me in her heart in much the same way. Admiring my dispassion and logic, she imitated me when she needed to think her way through difficulties without becoming overwhelmed by her emotions.

Our outward experiences were always very different. I was a goody-goody; she experimented. I accepted Christ; she remained skeptical. I went to college and became an athlete at about the same time she retired from athletics and moved to a small town to apprentice as a goldsmith. I dated little, married young, and couldn’t wait to have babies. She traveled the world and dated a series of colorful characters. Nevertheless, we always shared intimately and without judgment.

We each made an important decision around the year we turned 40. I returned to school to pursue my M.S. in Pastoral Counseling. After making progress towards an undergraduate degree in Psychology, Hanna dropped out of college to become partner to a man with a serious and chronic health condition. We did not realize that the cord which had kept us connected for so long was about to fray.

My grad school experience was arduous and protracted. Family responsibilities resulted in my taking over six years to finish; but stretching out the timeline had gifted me with the opportunity to deeply contemplate and assimilate the material. The program required more of me than the memorization of facts and the writing of research papers. I was challenged at every turn to reflect with honesty upon my faith and my life, past and present. I experienced anger and sadness, joy and gratitude as God used this time as the crucible for a work of healing and enormous growth.

It was suggested this summer that I had changed, that I had become “other.” It was hinted that I had become less. Less hospitable, less authentic, less available. I disagree. I know have become more.

Somewhere along the way, I grew my own head, heart, and lungs without even realizing it. My brain thinks clearly, my heart beats confidently, and my soul expands with every breath. I love Hanna, and I want her friendship just as much as I always have. I simply no longer require her. In time, I believe I will be able to feel the profound beauty of this truth.

We are not yet at the end of the story, and I do not know how it ends. What if I survive the surgery, and Hanna does not? What if we both survive the surgery but the friendship cannot be resuscitated?

The wait is painful and uncertain.

To follow this thread, please click on the tab for The Story of Hanna or find second installment here.

I Missed My Dad Today

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Today seems like a good day to publish this reflection. Blogging about my family has involved fleshing out pieces I had written in years past and adding a few in between. But the discipline of writing and editing is stirring up old feelings and awakening some I didn’t know were there. Focusing so much on my father and our relationship made me miss him so much earlier this week that I just wanted to climb into bed and hug myself.

March 17, 2013

I missed my Dad today.

Driving home from Charlottesville, after dropping our daughter Bec off at a friend’s house to catch her ride back to school, I saw two vintage Buick LeSabres just like the one my Dad used to drive. I became so lost in thought I missed my exit. The car was one of the few models which could accommodate his height. I suspect some odd synchronicity at work, as my drive had gotten me thinking about a road trip I took with my Dad during my senior year of high school.

I can see my father’s hands on the wheel. He’s in the taupe zip-up sweater he wore all the time back then. I remember the way he used to warm up the car and lay his puffy winter coat on the back seat. After my father’s death from stomach cancer in 1990, my Mom sold his perfectly-kept car for a song to an overjoyed fellow who turned it into a city cab.

I had begun hearing from schools interested in me because of my running stats. The University of Virginia was not one of them. I pursued UVA, and the school’s athletic department tolerated my interest. I knew it was a good school, and its running program was strong. In the end, I rejected the school because it rejected me.

I wasn’t terribly excited when I learned I hadn’t made UVA’s cut for academic admission but the coach said he’d pull some strings if I wanted to come and run for them. His lukewarm attitude should have tipped me off but, given the reputation of the program, a campus tour and a meet-and-greet were in order. My Dad and I scheduled some other visits for the same week, packed up, and headed out of town.

I might have been able to swallow my academic pride but I couldn’t overcome the coach’s inconvenienced air and his underwhelming faith in my athletic potential. In one breath, he held out the offer of a 1/4 scholarship. In the next, he took it back: He made a point of letting me know he had a talent pool so deep I might not get to race.

Sayonara, UVA! Hello, University of the Free Ride! Let’s just call it UFR for now.

These were the early days of Title IX and athletic scholarships for women. UFR felt too close to home, and back then it was a popular “safety school.” I nearly wrote it off. The scholarship offer made me take a second look. That and the UVA snub. The program at UFR was coming along well enough to challenge and develop me, yet it was small enough that I would get to be a contributor at the Division I level. As a parent of three young ladies, I have developed a massive appreciation for the generosity my father displayed in squiring me around to several other schools without ever complaining. He was the sole breadwinner, and I had two younger siblings. We were comfortable but not rich. He never pressured me to take the money.

We had visited the University of Delaware (Great school but the program was not far enough along. To be honest, the thought of being a Blue Hen didn’t sit quite right either.). We had also visited Wake Forest (Gorgeous and welcoming but it felt too small.). McGill had been recruiting me but we never made that visit. The coach seemed like such a great guy but it was too far, too cold, and too much for me. I knew in my heart I was not mature enough to manage it. There were a few other offers here and there but nothing I considered a serious contender. So Dad and I visited UFR twice, just to be sure.

I don’t remember what Dad and I talked about while we were on the road. Nothing deep, certainly. Of the trip to UVA, I mostly just remember the nauseous smell of paper pulp and the effort involved in trying to damp down and hide my nervous energy. Those who know me well recognize that when I become unnaturally calm and rational, I am close to panic.

Were the college visits fun? That would be a resounding “NO.” A stoic young woman, I don’t think I came across as friendly or likeable. I looked good on paper but the real-life girl was distant and stiff. I had trouble connecting with other people because I had trouble connecting with myself. At this point in my life I am able to put words to the experience but I would not have been able to do so at the time.

Feeling scared and awkward was a dominant and recurring theme for me. It felt both exhilarating and alarming to have attracted notice. On the one hand, I felt sweet joy and power in my developing gifts. On the other hand, I was sure I would be discovered as an imposter–so much so that I feared failure to a paralyzing degree. I was my own worst enemy. I learned much later from my UFR coach that I had been branded a “head case,” which had discouraged some coaches from taking a chance on me. This assessment had some basis in fact.

My Dad had never been involved in athletics. My father found sports dull and had never watched them on TV or bonded over them with other men. He was afraid of water. He couldn’t throw or catch a baseball. With apologies to 50% of the human race, I am going to use an expression I know you will understand even though its prejudice will infuriate you: My 6′ 4″ father threw like a girl. He was a high-order nerd, a hot house plant, and he didn’t understand the culture at all. A few years earlier he had told me I should stop running because it would permanently damage my reproductive organs. He eventually started to come around to the fact that this running thing was here to stay. The one time he came out to support me at a high school meet, he became panicked when I vomited after the race.

My Dad wasn’t well equipped to champion me through the college selection process, and he hadn’t figured this out. I held the angst and self consciousness for us both. There was my father, only 46 at the time: tall, pasty, his upper body already permanently wilted like one of the giant sunflowers we used to grow in our back yard, making his way through terra incognita like Albert Einstein at a cocktail party. Witnessing his interactions with the UVA athletic department staff made me want to crawl under a rock. But remembering him now, I feel such affection. He was determined to care for me the best way he knew how. He was clueless. He was weird. He was difficult. He was my Dad, and he would have taken a bullet for me. I never thought about the fact that he’d be gone one day.

So there we were, two intimately-related, emotionally-disconnected individuals cruising down the highway in his pimped-out white Buick LeSabre with the blue vinyl top. It had baby-blue velour upholstery, and it’s ride was so soft we barely felt the road. We said little. The engine purred a comforting “ticka ticka ticka ticka.” I think I knew him. He thought he knew me. Yes, I can see his hands on the steering wheel. I drive the same way.

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