Yesterday, something happened that struck a nerve and has been weighing heavily on me ever since.
I received a “friend request” on Facebook from a family member I have not seen or honestly communicated with in many years.
Neither my mother’s family nor my father’s family are normal. Both sides have their share of idiosyncrasies. Just as I myself do, each member on both sides has his/her share of flaws. Each member has his/her share of strengths, too. And each has a unique place in my mind, each laid claim to a piece of me during my childhood and though many years have passed since I’ve seen any of them, I have not forgotten our history. I remember each of them and sometimes more than others, my heart aches for missing them. With the exception of one aunt, I have not been to visit any of them in almost ten years or more. I have not talked to them on the phone. I have not sent or received mail. When I say that communication was severed, I mean severed.
I was twenty-three years old. My father had been arrested when I was sixteen for fraud and was still in prison. I was about to give birth to my first daughter and a storm started blowing in my heart when I received news that my father was going to be released; he was about to come home. It would have been the first time in seven years that he would have been around on a daily basis. For the first time in seven years, knee-knocking fear started shadowing me. But it was worse this time around because I was about to give birth to a baby girl. If he was released from prison, my innocent baby girl would grow up knowing him… and he would have access to her. No matter how protective I would have been, no matter how cautious, I knew I would not be able to guarantee her safety. While I had not ever been able to find the courage to seek protection for myself, it mattered more when it was my daughter. So, I came forward and told my mother. She immediately blocked my father’s telephone calls and together she, my sister and I started a petition for which we lobbied support from friends and strangers alike. The justice system can and will deny parole for current inmates if there is evidence that the community is still afraid of that inmate. So I went and testified to a cop, who recorded my testimony. I was still petrified of seeing my father so my mother took the petition and my recorded testimony before the parole board in order to request that his parole be denied. The parole board agreed and denied him parole. He remained in prison.
The next nine months of my life was a slow burning nightmare.
A cousin was hurting, so I called her to tell her I understood and why. I thought I was telling her something new…. I certainly had never told anyone about what had happened to me. But this cousin replied: “I know, Tiffini. We always knew. Everybody knew.” This broke my heart and devastated me. It told me that members of my family had known, or suspected, what was happening in our home but never said anything to my mother, never raised a single alarm. Abuse is not a novel concept to this side of my family; in fact, it has been a vicious cycle. Nearly every, single female on this side has been sexually abused in some way during her lifetime. Horror stories from generation upon generation can be recounted at a moment’s notice from anyone. I thought that this meant I would be understood. I thought this meant that I would be emphasized with, and comforted. Instead, it felt like old news. Instead, it felt like everyone was just saying, “welcome to the club” without truly acknowledging how severely I had been traumatized. Indeed, they had suspected it ever since I was a child. One aunt said I was “a classic case” because I displayed so many of the typical signs of an abused child and yet not one ever told my mother while I was young. This really hurt and bothered me and, once my daughter was born, I started trying to imagine what I wanted this baby’s life to look like. Did I really want her to be around such horrific displays of anger and resentment? I mean, hair-pulling, fist-fighting, being-banged-in-the-head-with-a-cast-iron-skillet-in-front-of-children type of events were rather common. Decades of raw wounds, generations of abuse and neglect and even virtual abandonment made trust impossible. So I started to withdraw. I decided that the thing I needed the most in my life was peace. I decided that if I could grant my daughter one thing, one gift, it would be peace. So I stopped communicating in all formats with this side of this family. It was painful but, in a way, it brought a sense of tranquility. I didn’t have to worry anymore about who was mad at who or who didn’t do what or who hurt who anymore. I missed them, and I love them still, but I needed out.
That left the other side of my family.
This was the family that, as a child, I had related to more. This was the family that had taken me and my sister to Sunday School whenever we were in town. These were the grandparents that had let me sleep in a chair in their room. This was the grandfather who had not only listened to me read my books aloud to him but then passed them along to a published author for review. This was the family in whose home I watched Superbook. These were the cousins I had played with more and, truly, grown up more with. I remembered going to the post office, where my grandparents worked, and helping fill vending machines. I remembered going to my aunt and uncle’s wedding and spending the night with them. I remembered the aunt who always packed baggies of Cheerios for us to snack on while we sat with her in the pew at church and how, one day, I sang along and afterward, my uncle was proud of me for it. I planted a tree in the front yard of my great-grandparents’ house and, when it stormed hard one night, my great-grandfather took care of my baby tree. I had grown up believing that this side of my family was idyllic. Whenever we got into a mess, this side of the family was always the one to help us out. We lived with them on more than one occasion. They traveled vast distances to come get us when my father was arrested or simply skipped out on us again. Several times, we called my uncle, who works as a doctor, for ideas to help my intense migraines. In many ways, they were the family I knew the best because, no matter where we traveled, we always came back to where they were. Once, I remember my grandmother taking my sister and I to visit our uncle, who lived in another state. While we were there, I was reading a book and my uncle walked behind me and ruffled my head. He didn’t know it but I really admired him, and loved him.
I knew my family had to know about my dad. But I was an emotional wreck. I was terrified of their reactions and I felt so ashamed and so alone. So instead, I wrote them a letter and I asked my mother to go talk to them. She went to the most approachable aunt and uncle first. And they responded with great care and love. They stood up for me and they went to great lengths to make sure I knew I wasn’t alone. They remembered the little girl I once was. There is a kindness that happens when someone you love supports you, even when that means supporting you against members of their own family. This aunt and uncle made me feel safe and loved. But they were the only ones on this side. My mother talked with the other members of the family as well. No one called. No one came by. No one sent a letter. No one wanted to talk to me at all. But it was more than that.
Nine months after his parole was denied, my father got a judge to overturn the denial and release him. It was Christmastime and he went to his family’s. I’m sure it wasn’t all roses; I’m sure there were moments that were uncomfortable or awkward. But he received presents and he was welcomed while neither my sister nor I were even invited. While they might not have done so intentionally, it felt like they had chosen to believe and accept my father over me. It felt like a rejection and it hurt me more deeply than I can convey with words. For a very, very long time, I missed my cousins. I missed my grandparents. When the holidays came around, I imagined my uncle arriving and the aunts cutting out coupons and getting excited about going Black Friday shopping. I wondered about the cousins I missed, I wondered if they knew why my sister and I had virtually disappeared.
And then came a book signing.
I still missed my grandparents. Particularly my grandfather. I remembered how supportive he had always been toward my books. I remembered how, even when I was very, very young, he thought it was special and wonderful. And I wanted him to know that I had made it. I wanted him to see a book in printed format and know that I was having a real book signing now. I wanted him to be proud and I wanted to say thank you to him for always supporting my writing. I wanted him to know I remembered him and loved him. So, two days before the signing, I sent an invitation to the book signing to their house. I was very nervous. I did not know what to expect and, honestly, a small part of me hoped that it would not get to them in time. But, on the day of my signing, my grandmother showed up. It was the first time I had seen her since my dad was released. I gave her a hug, she sat for a little bit, she bought a book. Then she asked me to come to her house to see my grandfather. Uncertain what to do, my sister said she would come with me if I wanted to go. And I did want to go. I was on the verge of agreeing when my grandmother said, “you need to see him, you know. He could die, Tiffini. The doctors, they’re about to do surgery on his heart.” At first, I thought she was talking about my grandfather, and I was worried. But then she said, “No matter what he did, forgiving him is the Christian thing to do.” I stood there, realizing that she was telling me that my father was going to be at her house too, and feeling paralyzed with fear. My mother intervened and then, when my grandmother wouldn’t stop talking, my sister took my arm and pulled me out of the bookstore before I completely broke down. My grandmother came to my book signing for my dad. She didn’t ask if I was okay. She didn’t ask if I needed anything. She didn’t tell me she loved me.
My heart broke.
I was emotionally devastated.
And that’s when I backed away from that side of the family completely, with the exception of the one aunt and uncle who had been so supportive. I stopped communicating on every level and went about my life. I didn’t see or hear from any of them until my grandfather was about to die. My uncle sent me a message, telling me that he was in hospice and that if I wanted to see him, I needed to go soon. Late one night, my sister and I called the hospice and asked the nurse if anyone was there with him. When she told us no, we drove up to see him. Very ill with Alzheimer’s, he did not recognize us. It was a very difficult thing to see him but I was glad we went. My sister and I both wrote my grandmother a note, too, that thanked her for being there for us when we were little and that told her we loved her. We left the note on the table beside my grandfather and we left. We were speechless and tearful for all that we had both lost as we got back in the car.
So. Much. Pain.
But communicating with them means communicating with my father. Whatever I say to them, I might as well say to him. I can’t ever be sure where he is and, while I am a lot stronger than I was, I still do not want to see him. Contrary to what my grandmother said, my pastor assured me that there is no need for me to see him, that what is most important is for me to feel safe and at peace. And I am trying to do that. I have made a conscious choice to make my life about things that are joyful. I work really hard to keep violence and instability out of my life and that of my children’s. I have lost a great deal for the sake of truth and for the pursuit of peace. But I have an insatiable desire to do what is right and to live my life so that I do not have regret. And I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made thus far. But sometimes, I feel shards of the arrows that have pierced my heart. Like, when I realize I can’t talk to my daughters about my grandparents or my aunts and uncles or my cousins because they do not know any of those people. Or like when I realize I would be an alien if I walked into a room of my relatives today. An aunt from the other side of my family e-mailed me awhile back and said she knows she doesn’t know who I am anymore, and that I don’t know her, and it broke my heart to admit she was right.
Last night, when I received the Facebook friend request, I thought about all my options. I could just ignore it. I could deny it but message her a letter to explain, once and for all. I could accept it and pretend again. I prayed. I prayed long and hard. And all day today, I’ve wrestled with it. Ultimately, I think my heart is safer away from it all. I spent my entire childhood pretending everything was okay when it was not. I smiled when I really was dying inside. I was the little girl on the bed looking for cracks in the ceiling and listening for the floorboards to creak. I was great at pretending. But I can’t do it now. I can’t pretend my heart wasn’t shattered, I can’t pretend to be the same person I was then, because I’m not. I’m a lot stronger. And I want to teach my children to stand up for themselves and for the truth and for each other, no matter what. In the end, I decided to send her a message but deny the friend request. The letter was my way of reaching out; of hoping that change can happen. The denial of the friend request was the acknowledgement that I cannot be part of a world that requires me to pretend things are the same and I am okay when they and I are not.
I love my family, on both sides. Truly, from the depths of my heart, I do. And I don’t know for sure that my choices are the right ones. And I know that they weren’t deliberately seeking to hurt me, my sister or my mother. It isn’t about holding a grudge or not letting go of the past. Instead, it’s about trying to move forward, trying to make something better than a past of ashes. In order to have a constructive and healthy relationship, there would have to be conversations about truth and accountability, there would have to be structural changes that, truthfully, I just don’t see happening. I don’t want to separate brother from brother or mother from daughter or sister from sister. I don’t want to be the wedge that drives people apart; I have never asked for anyone to be isolated, not even my father. I never expected them to cease communicating with him or to not give him a place to come to after his release. I just need space, and I need to feel safe now. Safe, not only physically but emotionally. As strong as I am, I am incapable of emotionally handling the pull and tug of these divided families. It is too painful. That being said, I am carrying all the good with me. I haven’t forgotten. I still sing Mama O’s song to my girls, I still bake her pie. I still think of my cousins and recount stories of them from when we were little together. I’m still here, singing:
Grandpa, tell me bout the good ole days
Sometimes it feels like
This world’s gone crazy
Grandpa, take me back to yesterday
Where the line between right and wrong
Didn’t seem so hazy.