Climbing trees is something that has always fascinated me. I remember, as a nine year old girl, walking around with my head tipped back, trying to decide which tree offered the best climbing branches. Once, I managed to get pretty far up this tree, and then I had to come back down. I remember that sliver of fear snake its way through my body.
When I was sixteen, I agreed to do Opyrland’s SkyCoaster with my sister and a friend. Let me explain how nervous I was about this: I had refused to do this for at least a good year previously. But it was my sister’s birthday, and her adventurous spirit needed a dose of confidence. So, being the good big sister, I agreed to tag alone. I vividly recall, in perfect detail, the minute my heart stopped beating when the floor was literally dropped out from beneath us and we fell on our faces. After that, I remember (unintentionally) scaring my sister and poor friend half to death by praying out loud all the way to the top of the ten thousand foot (or so it seemed) ride. That same year, we moved to Pine Mountain and I began writing a book on the holocaust, “Mountains of Hope.” Call me crazy if you want to, but I saw demons one night. They surrounded my bed and laughed at me in hoods. Like I said, call me crazy, but I was not imagining this. I was pretty doggone scared then, too. For my eighteenth birthday, I stupidly decided I could run the fastest horse I’d ever been on barefoot. And, boy, could he run. I ended up upside down, with my bare foot trapped in the stirrup, my (helmeted, thank God) head bumping along the meadow. When the guide finally rescued me, I was shaking. Scared, yeah. Fast forward a few years… Breathe was eight and a half months old when I was informed she would need a surgery on her skull. I have never known fear like that. I did not sleep, eat or take a potty break for 72 hours, until she was moved out of the ICU. I was afraid then. And, of course, there are dozens of other events that create my problems with insomnia, from earlier in my childhood, that define for me the word fear.
Fortunately for me, fear has been relatively absent from my life for several years now. Occasionally, I’ll feel that tingling rush of adrenaline that puts all my senses on alert. But not in the hair-raising, Tiffini-needs-serious-with
Until yesterday evening.
For the past week or so, I have been re-decorating my house, big time. I’ve painted the hallway, I’ve painted one entire room, I’ve painted some of the kids’ furniture that had crayon marks on it, I’ve planted this year’s garden, I’ve taken furniture out and put it back and re-arranged it –again–, about half a dozen times. I’ve won the war against the bees (I hope!), steam-cleaned the carpets, even bought a new bookshelf for much needed storage space. It has been a major ordeal. Yesterday, I ran out of paint (again), and I needed to look for some new curtains. I decided I’d take a trip to the local Target.
I walked out of the store with nothing, was headed to my car, when I saw my father’s brother and his family. I was deeply traumatized by this particular uncle of mine, when he came to visit Breathe in the ICU, hours after her surgery was over. And that doesn’t even mention the pain I have felt since losing contact with him, and that side of the family, six years ago.
Upon learning of my childhood, Joe’s mother called me from Iowa to ask if I was okay. That phone call still makes me cry when I think about it, because this uncle of mine, nor neither of the other two of my dad’s brothers, nor neither of my grandparents, have yet to call or come by to ask me the same question a woman who did not even know me until I, as an adult, fell in love with her son, cared enough to ask. I have lived in the same house all these years, and only my father’s sister has ever come by. None of my uncles (except for my one aunt’s) have sent a letter, called, emailed or come over to ask me my side of the story. Yet, one month after my father was released, they welcomed him home to presents beneath a Christmas tree.
They have listened to his side of it: they have not even asked me mine.
Rather than plaster a fake smile onto my face and pretend devastating things did not happen to me, rather than force myself to act normal and quiet, and be the “good little girl” I have always been, I sent them a letter explaining my side of things (a letter which was never answered or acknowledged), and then I stopped contacting them. I refused to go to holiday dinners where I would be hugged and they would laugh and chide me for not coming over more often, but where nothing important would be mentioned. At a precious event in my life, a book-signing, I was compelled to send them an invitation. My grandmother showed up and told me it was my obligation as a Christian to come see my father, because he was ill. Even then, not once did I hear, “are you okay?” or even “what happened, Tiffini?”
Yesterday, I saw this one uncle, and his family.
Fear hit me, full force. One careless word, and I’d break down, and I knew it. So, I was the good little girl I always have been, hoping that for the sake of peace and their listening, impressionable kids, they’d do the same.
I smiled. I hugged. I commented on how big his children have gotten. I commented on the popularity of Pokeman, one of their sons’ favorite things at the moment. He didn’t ask me how I was, he didn’t mention the book signing or my dad, he didn’t suggest that we go somewhere to talk, he didn’t ask if he could e-mail me sometime either. Honestly, neither did I. But I was shaking, and warding off tears of fear and leashed, but very real, pain. Finally, when the polite conversation fell to an uncomfortable silence, I smiled broadly and said I needed to go, but that it was good to see them. I gave more hugs. Then, I turned to leave and I heard the youngest son ask my uncle, “Do I know her?”
The dam of tears broke. I got in the car and cried.
It bothers me, their complete lack of understanding. It bothers me that they *don’t* know my side of it. It really bothers me that they didn’t care about me as a niece, as granddaughter, as a child, enough to ask me what happened. It bothers me that they think it was easy for me to stop going over, to cease all contact. It bothers me that they don’t *get* that I lost not only a father, but an entire family. It bothers me that they don’t mind the absence of two nieces (my sister and I), two grand-daughters, two daughters. It bothers me that what is more important to them than the truth is appearances. It bothers me that just seeing them made me shake with fear. Fear that I could be hurt again. Fear that I wasn’t good enough (which is something they make me feel without trying). Fear that they’d make me feel guilty, when all I have tried to do is defend the little lost girl they all knew, once upon a time.
It bothers me that just seeing them produces intense fear in me. It bothers me that I know that there’s nothing more I can do to remedy it: that it lies in their lap and they aren’t ever going to do anything about it. They’d rather lose me and my sister and my mother than hear the truth. It bothers me that he said they all needed to see the girls, as if it were my sole responsibility that the girls don’t even know about the existence of that side of my family. It bothers me he didn’t even *ask* about Mandi or my mom, whom they have also not seen in six years. Feeling like I’m a seven or eight year old scared kid whenever I see them bothers me.
Being afraid bothers me the most.
I’ve been afraid half my life. Sometimes the fear has been legit. Sometimes it’s been the result of an over-active imagination. As I said, it has not come often over the last few years, but, when it does, it paralyzes me. My bones go rigid, my teeth clench and I start shaking. That’s what I was gripped with last night. But, the truth is, fear does not accomplish much. Fear doesn’t beget love, it doesn’t inspire compassion, it doesn’t warrant empathy, either. Fear is all about ourselves, and what we don’t want to happen. Some fear is healthy: there were lots of times I had every right to be perfectly terrified. But, psychology taught me that fear is intended to motivate: if you’re house is on fire, the fear you feel motivates you to get out. If you have a wreck, your heart furiously pounds with fear because you know you or someone else might be hurt. If you turn around in the grocery store and realize your child is not beside you, the fear motivates you to run the aisles, your cart forgotten, in search of her. When Jesus was afraid, it motivated Him to pray. Fear is supposed to inspire action.. It isn’t supposed to make you freeze or to paralyze you.
In other words, fear is supposed to help you.
I have learned that you can live in fear of being afraid. You can organize your life around avoiding anything and everything that might cause you to be afraid. If you’re afraid of people, or of germs, you can have your groceries delivered to your house. If you’re afraid of failure, you can over-achieve and never give yourself a break. You can shelter yourself, build walls high enough, that it’s hard for fear to penetrate through to your heart. But, in the end, all you’re rewarded with is emptiness and a lack of an emotion which should be a positive one.
I’m afraid of being hurt again, of laying myself bare only to get stomped on, again. I’m afraid of being emotionally hurt. Sometimes it feels as though I’ve had all I can take and one more thing that might come along just might be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. Fear such as this is not healthy. We should feel fear, allow it to motivate us to some act, and then let it go. We should not live in fear.
The truth is, I miss my grandparents. I miss my uncles, aunts and all the kids with whom I grew up. But I can’t do anything about it anymore. I’ve reached out by sending the letter, by sending the signing invitation, by hugging and smiling, demonstrating by action, if not words, that I love them. It is painfully easy for me to accept the blame I feel they place on me. After all, I am the one who spoke up about the truth, the one who placed them between me and their son. Though that wasn’t my intent, though I never dreamed they’d isolate him, I understand how it might feel differently to them.
The truth is, we all live within thirty miles of one another. That’s close enough that, at some point, we’re bound to bump into one another. I can let last night be a learning experience, or I can wait, with two cups of fear and a half of teaspoon of hope, for the next unexpected run-in and then feel my bones start to shake with the fear. I’ve wondered all last night, and all today, how I might let it be a learning experience, what I might could do that would ease another interaction, besides fervent prayer. I’ve asked myself what action the fear I felt last night could have wanted me to take. Perhaps, it wanted me to be bold and verbalize how I miss them and love them and regret that the past is what it is. I can’t apologize for speaking the truth, because I promised the little girl who I once was that I would forevermore protect her. But perhaps the fear last night wanted me to tell them, rather than just assume they must know, how hurt I have been. Perhaps it wanted me to ask them, rather than silently wonder, why they never came over or called, not even after my heart surgery. Perhaps it just wanted me to walk away and retreat behind the peace that God has allowed me to feel for the past couple of years, walk away without speaking at all. I don’t know.
What I do know is that today is a gift. We worked in the garden, the girls and I, we did more re-decorating, we did schoolwork, we read books, I confirmed the date and time of a new book reading and signing. Today was a good day. Yesterday was, too: Joe and I had time together, which is infrequent enough to make it special, the girls and I had fun together, there were blue skies above me and cool grass beneath my feet. I wish I could say I’ve conquered the fear. I wish I could say I’m more resolved to separating them to the past I can’t regain, nor change. I wish I could say with confidence my nightmares won’t display their faces again, or that my heart is immune now to the pain they are capable of inflicting on me. I wish I could say lots of things. Unfortunately, I can’t.
What I can say, though, is that I am more confident today of important things, like my relationship with God, my children, my sister, mother and Joe. What I can say is that I am not the scared little girl anymore: I am now a safe and strong advocate for children’s safety. Most importantly, I can say that I know who the little girl Tiffini is, and I protect and love her. I am me and my God promises me that that is a good thing, even when I don’t feel like it, even when I’m shaking with fear.
Thus, I make my truce with fear for, when it comes at me again, I will know to picture Jesus in the garden, praying, because He was afraid. Even if I can’t do anything else, I can pray. And if I can act, even in such a way as just with prayer, then fear is ultimately powerless.