Coming Back

Written by Richard Drebert

© Good Catch Publishing

 She lay in bed at the nursing home, at the edge of eternity, frail, but her mind engaged enough to deny the deepest wound in her broken life.

“Mama,” I said quietly, damming up my emotions, “It wasn’t ‘all right.’ It’s not just a normal part of family life.”

Her watery blue eyes hid from mine under heavy lids, and I felt her fingers squeeze my hand to calm me a little. She turned her powdery, pale cheek into the pillow and shut me out. How could I expect the careful lies knotted in her heart for almost 75 years to be untied in a single conversation?

 I had barely begun to loosen the same kind of knots in my own life.

A person close to Mama’s family had soiled her childhood and contaminated her heart for a lifetime, but in the 30s era of soup lines and big bands it was taboo to speak about her sexual abuse. Mama had grown into a beautiful woman, spirited but needy, and she seemed to gravitate to bad choices, especially in men. And when a relationship soured, she just ran away. She could never “unlive” her formative years. Though she always worked very hard, she survived the trauma of tainted memories by changing jobs often and wandering to new places.

Now Mama couldn’t run anymore, and I ached for her. And I ached to know more about my own strange beginnings. Just weeks earlier she had confided to me a missing piece to my own puzzling life:

It was 1949, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and times were hard. My mama had left my father. Then, finding herself pregnant, she couldn’t face delivering a child at midlife into her confused existence. Two of her boys had joined the Army, and her youngest son was still at home.

She was propped up on a cold steel table in a secret room, not far from the same hospital where my three brothers had been born, and Mama’s belly throbbed with life — my life. She had decided to terminate me, her last “mistake” with Dad before the divorce, but moments before the abortion, a stranger had leaned close to my mother’s ear.

“Get the h*** out of here! You hear me?”

The whisper rasped against Mama’s guilt-ridden nerves as she stared into the eyes of a middle-aged woman dressed in white. They were the words she needed to hear, and a surge of relief energized her. She needed to run! Mama hopped off the table and fled from the illegal facility.

A few months later I lay in her arms in a warm hospital bed; no father standing watch, no family attending. At my birth we were alone together, and now at the end of Mama’s life, we two were alone again.

And so many influences and events in her life mirrored my own.

***

The raspberry bushes at Grandma’s house seemed to tower over me, where I ran down the rows dodging honey bees in the warm Wisconsin sunshine. On and off Mama, my brother and I stayed with my grandparents as I grew up — the only stable influences in our lives. When I was 11 years old, Mama married Frank, who lived in California, and we became a “family,” but after two summers Mama’s recipe for permanence soured again. Frank was a drunk, and his rages over his ex-convict son grew unbearable. One night we packed up and, as always, Grandma Lynn, with open arms, welcomed us to her old house again.

Mama came and went from Grandma’s house with flamboyant red hair one day, and jet black the next, or some unearthly shade that she brewed up at one of the hair salons where she worked. Drifting deep in Mama’s psyche were lies, surfacing and diving through her life-like unruly minnows or sometimes whales. Only Grandma Lynn consistently made room in her big heart for her unreliable daughter.

Grandma had been a tavern girl and hell-raiser herself, but according to an uncle, she had suddenly changed. As a young woman she began attending a Lutheran church, and in the 60s she opened her home to “flower children,” barefoot hippies who were searching for spiritual meaning in their travels. Grandma Lynn, with her big black King James Bible spread upon her aproned lap, and a parakeet choir squawking over her shoulder, left a lasting impression of kindness and godliness on many a visitor — and on me.

I soaked in Grandma’s steady, peaceful character like a sponge. I can still picture her head with its long gray hair, up in a bun, bowed over her Bible that she often read to me. It was the first time that I heard that God was a “Father to the fatherless,” and I yearned to embrace him; but I couldn’t believe that he could accept me, as imperfect as I was.

My teenage years rattled past as if my life was cast by a worn out film projector: unsteady, erratic. My skills in coping with any reality seemed stunted, and I fled from any confrontation. I often feigned sickness at school so I could lie down in the nurse’s office and escape the expectations in class. I despised myself. Movies and romance stories fettered my thoughts, and I retreated into a world of heroes and villains where I could control the outcome. It seemed that I had been born an adolescent, my memory of early childhood all but erased.

In high school my essay drew concern from my psychology teacher; I wrote: “I am trying to find God, but I cannot …”

He replied in ink, across the top of my paper: “Keep looking, Julia, because he is right around the corner.”

I attended four different high schools in four states before I graduated from high school back in Eau Claire, and for the first time I felt excited about my future. I entered a nurse’s aide program at the local hospital, and with a fresh passion to help others I ironed my crisp, green uniform for work each evening. At last I was needed and I was good at what I did!I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and my vitality began maturing into an attractiveness and dependability that my friends and colleagues noticed.

Robert noticed.

He was a patient whom I had been attending for weeks, and by the time he left the hospital we had begun dating. In a few months we were married, but like Mama, I had chosen my man hoping his affections might satisfy my deep yearning for fulfillment.

One night Robert came home drunk again, and he told me that he had something to confess …

“Julia, I … I’m on the run.”

His words didn’t compute. “Run? From who, Rob?”

“From the police. I know I should have told you, but you wouldn’t have married me. I served my time for armed robbery, but …” Robert hung his head and sniffed. “I jumped parole in Minnesota, and the law’s catching up with me.”

I had married a convicted thief — a liar.

I was not yet 21 when Robert left me, and I never saw him again. I was thankful that we had no children (I was physically unable to have a child, according to a doctor). Those two years of marriage might have been wasted except that my sense of abandonment hit a high note; I realized that only God could save me. It was in these troubled times that an uncle introduced me to Jesus at his kitchen table. I joyfully leaped into a fulfilling stream of life, but was still unaware that a supernatural current of love had been carrying me all along, right from the day that my mother fled the abortion table.

I was 25 when I moved to Portland, Oregon, where some of my family lived. I had been attending church regularly in Coalgate, Oklahoma, and considered myself a pretty good Christian. But in the “big city” I never really established friendships with other believers, and I began to lose touch with Jesus, a little at a time. And the heavy veil of shame that had shadowed me in the years before I asked Jesus to control my life came back.

Blue-eyed, blonde, vivacious around other people, I wore a mask portraying a happiness that I could no longer feel. In Portland I had a good job as a nurse’s aide, and in the evenings I hit the local clubs for fun with friends. I loved to dance. It was one way that I could express myself without tripping over words to convey my feelings.

Over the years, relationships came and went like Oregon thunderstorms, and I promised myself that I would never walk back into church. I had strayed too far for Christian people to ever accept me again, and I despised a hypocrite, especially if it was me.

One evening after work, my coworkers dragged me to a club where I hunched over a drink, expecting to tolerate a boring night while nursing a broken heart. A boyfriend and I had just parted ways, and I moped while the booze and music marinated everyone. Dancers gyrated to a disco beat, and I began to feel better. That was my kind of music …

“Would you like to dance with me?”

A handsome dark-haired man smiled down at me, and I hesitated for an instant as the music pounded out an inviting beat.

“Why not?”  I said with a growing smile, and my future husband, Ben, gently took my hand. I had no idea that the man who held me had been sent from God, and would become a faithful lifetime friend. And Ben had no idea that he danced with the woman who would become his greatest test of loyalty and love.

I wasn’t about to rush into marriage this time, and it took a year of letter writing and dating before we were married in a judges chamber overseas, where Ben’s parents lived. Ben had connections in a small community in eastern Oregon, and in 1980, before the housing boom of the 90s, we set down roots in a quiet little town called Hermiston.

***

I held a miracle in my arms.

Just a year after Ben and I were married, my beloved daughter, Gina, was born. As I gazed into her eyes, I caught a reflection that jolted me: Trust. My firstborn relied on me to set her on a safe path through life, but I knew I wasn’t up to the task. The enormity of the responsibility shook me, and I searched my mind for my own “first lessons” or “first bonding” from which I might draw confidence, but my memory was a blank page.

For the last nine years I had been treating Jesus like a dashboard figurine, ever present, but not a real person central to my life; suddenly I knew that I needed his help. And I needed godly counsel from others who knew Christ, so that I could learn to be a mother that my child could rely upon. Ben felt the weight of responsibility too, and we shared an urgent need to find divine guidance. In desperation, I turned back to Jesus; he turned to the Catholic church.

Our marriage grew unbearable in the coming years as I found comfort in friends at a good Bible-believing church called Hermiston Christian Center, while he attended Catholic mass.  It seemed that the more I studied God’s word and the closer I felt to Jesus, the harder it seemed to get at home. Anger boiled inside me over his seeming indifference to my feelings, and the old self-hatred and fear of abandonment overpowered me at times. And always the strange, inexplicable stain I felt inside, an uncleanness that should have been gone when I gave my heart to God. Did I not have enough faith to feel completely clean?

On Sundays Gina would wave to her daddy from the steps of our church after he dropped us off, and after service Ben would be reading the newspaper with the car running, waiting. Sometimes my meetings at HCC went late as people prayed at the altar or were reluctant to leave the presence of God after the teaching. Ben chafed as the worship music wafted through the parking lot.

“What in the world are you doing in there, anyway?”

Ben’s growls veiled a sincere curiosity; God was drawing him to a personal relationship with Jesus, and I enlisted the whole church in praying for him.

It would be a miracle to be of one heart in conversations and decisions. Lord, please.

One evening, while voices in our prayer meeting droned on, Ben had folded up his newspaper and quietly come inside. From his back-row seat he explored: They sounded so sincere when they prayed; the cross is empty; hmm … Christ actually felt alive in this place. As Ben studied us, his eyes were drawn to a whiteboard where someone had written several names, including his own.

After church our ride home was very quiet. How could I explain how desperately I wanted him to know Jesus? The whole church was praying for him! I watched his face as he drove.

I started to explain. “We list our friends and families on the board and pray for each one …” He frowned a little.

“I’m glad you were praying for me,” he said. “I … I need it.”

By the time our second “miracle” daughter was born, my dear Ben had given his life to Jesus too. Everything changed in the following years as we worked through marriage issues that had been festering without resolution. At last we shared a common vision, and together we dedicated our lives to serving God by serving others in need.

It was beyond a dream come true for me, an answer to my deepest desires: I had a stable Christian home; a man who loved me; two wonderful daughters; a vibrant ministry in our church. Could I ask for more?

I knew that I had been forgiven by God and that I had been born again. But why did I still feel somehow abandoned? Unaccepted? Unclean? Sometimes my inner struggle manifested itself in ways that I hated. Sometimes it was all that I could do to keep from running away. Eating became a comfort to assuage my feelings of guilt, and often weariness consumed me.

From the church’s point of view, my husband and I glowed as a team: round-the-clock, unstoppable, involved in youth ministries and teaching. I thrived on the pace, and constantly searched for new ways to try to be more like Jesus. This led me to seek out certification as a professional counselor for victims of mental traumas, abuse, and depression. Ben and I accepted positions as associate pastors at another Hermiston church, and I dived into a three-year course through Good Samaritan Ministries.

At first I worried that Good Samaritan’s philosophy might displace the simple Truth of God’s word, but my fears were unfounded. Not only was the Bible central to their counseling program, but the former state-trained professional counselor was as down-to-earth as anyone I knew.

Christa was a farm girl from eastern Oregon, as comfortable on a tractor as she was at a counselor’s desk, and we hit it off right away. As a prerequisite to taking the course I also submitted to a stringent evaluation of my own emotional makeup and needs, and I was ready. I projected for Christa a documentary of my life, enough to satisfy her professional curiosity (I thought), then launched into Bible lingo to show how far I had come in my “walk with God.” I thought it was a great start, but after a few sessions, Christa looked at me as if I had been plowing a crooked furrow.

“That’s wonderful, Julia. Now, let’s talk about the real you, without all the embellishments.”

I had become an expert in dodging painful memories. I balked at delving into my past too deeply, but I also wanted to know why despair gnawed at me. I fought Christa for months over taking off the mask that I wore for people who were on the “outside.”

It was during this counseling that doctors told me that my vertebrae were “collapsing,” and pain racked me most of my waking hours. Ben and I still ministered to about 40 rowdy teenagers each week, in addition to helping anywhere else the church had a need. I believed that the stresses in our family were just “trials” to endure in serving God with our whole hearts.

Wouldn’t it be selfish to turn away from the mountains of ministry “God” had placed in our path? It never occurred to me that we needed to cut back our schedule for our family’s sake.

One day during a session of counseling, Christa jarred loose a pebble that started an avalanche in my life. She asked me, “What are your earliest memories, Julia?”

I strained to recall my life at three, or five, or seven with toys like a tricycle or a doll, but only conjured up shadows of my existence. It seemed that I had been born a 12-year-old girl.

“You know, often this is typical of someone who has erased traumatic events from their life. It’s a method that the mind uses to survive injuries too heavy to bear. Is it possible that someone abused you in your childhood?”

I didn’t know. And I didn’t want to know. Nearly a year into my training to be a counselor for others, God was exposing my own trauma to the light for the first time.

Weeks later, while visiting with my older cousin that I grew up with in Eau Claire, I mentioned offhandedly what Christa had said during counseling.

“She thinks that I may even have experienced some sort of abuse when I was very young. It makes me wonder…”

I watched color drain from Lawrence’s face, and he was silent.

“What?” I asked.

Lawrence took a deep breath. “There’s something I need to tell you, Julia.”

Something intruded upon our time together, and we both shrank from unearthing this “corpse” from our past. We were relieved that we never finished our conversation, but I couldn’t forget.

As the months passed, the secret pressed upon my mind like a slow-growing root, and suddenly the seam in my wall of self preservation cracked; I had to know what my cousin knew — I had to know the truth. I called him, trembling.

Sheer terror.

 I hung up the phone and doubled over as the world lost its form. Panic ripped my breath from my chest, jagged, harsh, cold.

“God, Oh God, help me!” It was him! And I was so young and helpless!

Calmly my older cousin had described that he had molested me; at what age, and even where …

For over 50 years I had been living a lie that I was “okay,” but in an instant the trickle of shame and self-hatred inside me turned to a foaming deluge, even while I was begging for God’s help. My confidence in everything that I knew was true and stable slipped from my grasp, leaving me flailing alone in a mire of hopelessness — except for one thing: I knew God loved me and I loved my Lord. All else was shattered.

Depression: I had often wrestled it to a draw, but now I met its ruthless stronger sibling, Despair. It overwhelmed me. Ben could not save me, though he interceded with God with tears. I rejected even his gentlest touch, and I became a stranger to my girls, lashing out uncontrollably at times. I had been an associate pastor with my husband for nearly seven years, and I could barely control my emotions long enough to apply God’s simplest promise to my own wound. Jesus had assured: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

But I felt abandoned.  

“You’ve been lying and hiding from yourself your whole life, Julia. You’re afraid to come out of your shell and find your identity.” Christa had been saying it for months, and now I knew that somehow I had to rediscover who I really was.

After my phone encounter, my emotions had become first raw, then numb toward my family and friends, as if the nerves in one of my limbs had been severed. I couldn’t feel anyone’s heartbreak over my anguish, nor could I sense God’s love for me anymore. Fears raced through my mind, stealing hours away from sleep or day-to-day tasks, and it took all my courage to resist a longing to run away forever.

If I despised who I used to be, now, at 50 years old, I loathed myself. A vivid shame invaded my mind and shone through even the most mundane chores. The abandonment and self-hatred that I had lived with sporadically now manifested as panic attacks, fits of anger, real physical pain, and thoughts of ending my life.

And my dear Ben suffered with me like a weary soldier, contending with each new upheaval that ravaged his family. One day he told me, “Julia, I’ve lost you. When will you come back?” And I didn’t know. I was searching for me, too.

I had no idea when I began my “training” for counseling that Christa would become my best hope for reclaiming my sanity. It was like painful therapy bringing a limb back to life again, and my evaluations morphed into intense sessions with Christa who stubbornly prodded me to search for my identity — as a human being, as a woman, then as a Christian. She worked methodically, as if she were clearing a field of rocks and weeds, until finally my garden plot was ready to replant, one tiny seed at a time.

In a secret fertile pocket inside my weary heart God still resided, inviting, and without condemnation. And the moment that I began to tear down the wall of protection that shielded my emotions, my strange journey to healing began.

First I had to relearn how to be angry for the right reason.

I actually called my cousin and let loose, telling him exactly how his actions had ruined years of my life.

I had to forgive.

I might never forget about his thoughtless acts, but I must let go of the feelings that would try to prey upon my mind. Self-destructive thoughts ran amok if I invited the tiniest feeling of self-pity inside my head.

I had to learn to really trust.

I had to cease the endless search for the answer to: WHY? It was far beyond my ability to comprehend an issue so universal, so cosmic; it was like trying to explore why Mama had nearly aborted me, or why Ben had chosen to dance with me over twenty years ago. Why had the doctor told me I could never have children, and why did I have two beautiful daughters?

Somehow good and evil seemed wrapped in God’s ultimate purpose, and I had to decide to be confident in his design for my life every day. And when I began to trust Jesus, without demanding impossible answers, the feeling in my severed “limb” began to flow back. I sensed God’s presence again in a way I had never experienced.

***

“I lost you. When are you coming back?”

Today, I’m not just “back,” I am healed! God has returned to me the joy of my salvation!

I feel clean from the ravages of rancid “secrets,” cleansed from guilt and self-pity. No longer do I struggle with feelings of abandonment or hopelessness. I am secure. After nearly five years of God’s “intensive care,” I can truly say the panic attacks are gone. The memories are there, but there is no more pain. There is a huge grin inside my chest, full of thankfulness and pure joy. Still flawed, I trust God in a richer, more real way to protect me. And I know who I am.

I used to believe that God wiped away all traumas in our lives the instant we asked forgiveness for our sins and committed our lives to him. We all want instant relief, like taking a powerful pain pill to deaden past hurts. But I had to reveal my deepest pain, so that Jesus could revive my hope of healing. In my case Jesus used my faithful family, a counselor and friends to help un-wrap my painful, festering old wound so that he could clean it out and let it heal. He has freed me to be who he planned for me to be — a humble, bubbly child of God, one who loves people deeply, who now can show her scars and say, “Let me tell you what God can do for you!”

I am physically frailer these days; pain in my spine still keeps me up nights sometimes, and other ailments worry my doctors, yet in this “weakness” I have become stronger in faith than I ever could have been before my ordeal. And now I understand Mama better, whose heart had been so badly abused by others, as well as by herself. Before she died at the nursing home in Hermiston, I perceived an innocence, a new faith in Jesus budding like a tiny rose in her heart, and I believe that she and Grandma Lynn are in heaven waiting for me. I have forgiven all, for they too were people in need of a Savior.

Ben and I no longer clamber up the “mountains” of ministry everywhere around us. During our eight years as associate pastors we mistakenly thought that God had mandated us to scale them all, but now we rest in him, listening for direction. We have returned to Hermiston Christian Center, the church where Ben was saved, and enjoy their sweet fellowship, as if we had never left.

On my 59th birthday at midnight, my daughters called me from their homes miles away, radio turned up loud, and we “phone danced” together, celebrating me! When people say to me, “I love you,” it’s weird — it seems to go in deeper and touch me somewhere fresh inside.

And today my girls are united in the same current of God’s love that has carried me my whole life. I am joyful, hopeful, still intense but nourished by God in a way I never knew was possible — ready for his destiny that awaits me with my Ben, my faithful partner, my champion.

You, Jesus Christ, my First Love, I shall forever worship and adore.

To you all credit for this story and its wonderful new beginning I give.

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