The day before my fortieth birthday my mom and I talked with my sister Gayle on the phone. It was not an eventful conversation, we talked about kids and family and she wished me a happy birthday. The next day she got up and cleaned her house, packed boxes of keepsakes for my sisters, and then she asphyxiated herself in her garage.
My oldest daughter and I drove across the frozen passes to Newcastle. Gayle and her husband had retired there, and it seemed that they had a beautiful life. My sweet sister frequently traveled to visit us in Broomfield, but I seldom visited her. I asked myself what I had missed? How was I so unaware of her state? I had just talked to her; how could I know that was the last conversation we would have in this world? My devastated heart could not be consoled.
I could not have known that the consequences of this event would send my life sliding into an abyss of unbearable shame. I was so hard on myself, believing that I would have known she was suffering if I had paid more attention. I saw that I had developed a pattern of trivializing connections, and that none of my relationships were real, deep and truly loving. I wondered who else I was ignoring?
Not long after Gayle’s death, I learned a dark family secret. It was a heartbreaking story that answered some of my questions.
The family story was that my mother’s father was a Cherokee from Oklahoma. He and my grandmother married when she was sixteen years old. They had two children, my mother Waneta May Durham, and Glennie Earl Durham, a son who died from pneumonia at three months old. Soon thereafter, my grandfather was killed in a quarry explosion. She became a widow at the age of nineteen, her husband’s family refused to help her, my grandmother went to off to find work. My mother went to live with her maternal grandparents where she was cherished and spoiled. She was an adventurous and happy little girl, she was the only child in a world of adults living on her grandparent’s farm. That experience inspired her deep love of family. She longed for the companionship of other children, and she was happy when her mother returned with a new husband and a new family.
The new husband was almost two decades older than his young wife, the new “sisters” were teenagers, just a couple of years younger than their new stepmother. They took my mother to live on a farm in Missouri. It was the Depression, times were very hard, and my grandmother had lucked out, finding a husband who had both property and an income and who didn’t mind raising a five year old little girl.
Life was now very different for my mother. Her new stepfather was too attentive to her, and my grandmother was petty and jealous. This was during the Depression of 1921, and times were very hard. They attended small local church, and one Sunday, a neighbor brought his little girl to the church. He was dying and her mother had abandoned her. He asked if any of the members could take her. My grandparents volunteered. They took this little seven-year-old girl, assuring the father that she would have a better life. My mother would finally have a sister and companion her age to play with.
As soon as the family returned from church, my step-grandfather took that little girl into the woodshed and he raped her. From that day on, as my mother told me, he “used” her. No one in the family ever said anything about this, even though it was well known. They told the neighbors that they had taken little Frieda to be a companion to my mother, but the truth was, the girl was taken to fulfill the lustful fantasies of an evil man. When my mother told me this story she was so filled with guilt and sadness, and it made what happened in the next part of the story seem even more tragic.
Years later, when my mother was a divorcee with five young children, my grandmother and step-grandfather came to live with our family. The promise of a better financial situation seemed to rob my mother of some sensibility, or she didn’t expect that her paedophilic stepfather would hurt any of her own children. In those days, the nature of pedophilia was ignored, it was not seen as a common occurrence, and the serial nature of the offenders was unrecognized or ignored by the world. I don’t know how desperate she felt, or what she knew at the time.
The day they moved in, my step-grandfather took my sister Gayle into the woodshed and he raped her. He threatened her to force her silence and she became his own little toy. My sisters knew, and my grandmother probably knew, but nobody in the family ever said anything about it. How could my mother let that happen?
Now, my sister was dead, I learned this horrifying truth, and I was stunned. The insidious stage of grief known as ANGER ravaged my heart. My own childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a step-father, brought into my home for money and security, was a repetition of Gayle’s story. My mother had been saved this horror by coincidence, a family in need who was willing to give up their own child so that she wouldn’t starve. Like me and my sister, that child’s innocence and freedom was destroyed by a sick old man. Grief became a burning ember in my heart, threatening to burst into a raging inferno at any instant. I became dangerous to myself and I threatened my own life many times. Many years would pass before I was able to let go of any part of that anger and betrayal.
Now, every experience I had was a story about Gayle. Walking in my neighborhood reminded me of her, the mountains reminded me of her, music reminded me of her and I became overwhelmed with memories and regrets. In this troubled mental state, I decided to run away, to leave everything I knew and try to become a different person.
I looked at all of my relationships and I saw how I was faking it most of the time. This was the beginning of my quest for the truth about myself, who I am, and how I truly relate to the world and others. Eventually, I recognized the problem was that I avoided true relationships and looked for the easy, impersonal, relationships with little emotional investment.
Years later, I made a solemn vow that I would never again take a relationship for granted. This is how my journey into Oneness really began.
I got a job in Ohio, working for a government contractor and I moved my family across the country. I sent my mother to Kansas to stay with my sister, and I cut ties with the rest of my family of birth. It would be years before I saw or talked to the rest of my siblings. I thought they had all let her down and I was angry with them too. Mostly I was angry with myself for not hearing her anguish. I realized that she came to our house to find a kind of peace and joy that she had lost; to renew a connection to family, and to feel cherished. I had let her fall, and I thought I could run away from the guilt. Instead, I fell too. My body was showing me the way out, but it would be a long time before I got the message.
“I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt.
Loss is not loss when properly perceived. Pain is impossible. There is no grief with any cause at all. And suffering of any kind is nothing but a dream. This is the truth, at first to be but said and then repeated many times; and next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations. Then to be considered seriously more and more, and finally accepted as the truth. I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt. And I would go beyond these words today, and past all reservations, and arrive at full acceptance of the truth in them.
Father, what You have given cannot hurt, so grief and pain must be impossible. Let me not fail to trust in You today, accepting but the joyous as Your gifts; accepting but the joyous as the truth.” (ACIM Lesson 284)
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book God is Free – Everything I know so far…
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