Saturday, May 7, 2016

16 and Alone: The Story of How Our Family Broke

This is a story which has gone untold since it happened.

The adults in my life then, did not know this was happening inside of me.

I have had several adults who knew me then, tell me in the later years, "You seemed so mature."  "You were so well adjusted."  "You took it so well."

This is the story of the beginning of the breaking of my family.  None of us could see it then, but Mom, Dad, my siblings and I look back now and can see clearly how this event precipitated a disconnect among all of us.  After years of healing, intentionality, and therapy for some of us, we've worked towards reconnection and a stronger, more healthy relationship.

I tell this story because I think it's important for missionary families (any families really) to recognize and process through traumatic events.  As family counselor Kay Bruner writes, you have to name things in order to heal from them.

I want to make it very clear that my mom, dad and I have spent hours talking through this event.  I am grateful that they have stepped back to provide space for me to talk about something that is painful for them to hear, given that they were the adults with agency and voice in this situation.  I wrote an article about the importance of parents listening to their kids, which will be published soon on another site.  I'll link to it here when that happens.  You can read that post, here.  


The day I left my island still lurks like a black hole in my memory.  I can recall flashes of it - the smell of turmeric stained onto my skin from the tear streaked kisses of my island aunties and friends.  Our little house swaying gently on its stilts, with boxes piled high on the veranda.  Getting into the canoe that would carry me to the waiting ship, not caring if my skirt got wet, pulling a cloth over my head to create a little cave.  A little space to breathe as I watched my island draw inexorably away, as I watched my village, my family, shrink to little brown dots on the shining beach.  

We were ‘only going on furlough’, but my parents had already told my older brother, 16, that he would not be coming back.  That this was it for him.  I was 14.  My parents told me that I could choose whether to stay in America, or come back to the Solomons with them.  I didn’t know really what to do with that, so when my village family asked why we were leaving, I responded with a lie that fit the cultural narrative.  “My aunties in America miss me,” I told them.  “It’s their turn to have me, so I’m going back to be with them.”  

This was a sound reason for the islanders.  On Luaniua, kids are passed around among extended family members, often staying with aunts and uncles for years at a time.  I know the islanders had always been curious about why we were so far from our own blood relatives, so this made a convenient and easy excuse, one the islanders wouldn’t try to push me on.  

I don’t remember much after getting on the ship.  The black hole vortex in my mind still holds with jealous secrecy most of the events from those months of transition.  I remember estatically eating Taco Bell in Guam, and my dad reprimanding us for using a nearby car hood as a prop for our food.  I remember walking through the brightly lit aisles of the Savers in Hawaii, trying to find a pair of shorts that didn’t make me feel naked.  I remember the spicy cedar smell of Austin at night.  Everything else is dark, hidden deep beneath an ever present pull of resentment and anger.  My two new friends.  

These friends helped me to keep some distance through summer camp in the Texas hill country, through my sophomore year in public high school.  Through youth group trips and lunch table discussions where I was lost and had to guess whether to smile or frown throughout the conversations.  Anger and resentment helped me transition in a slow metamorphosis from a turmeric stained, barefooted and hairy legged islander, to a Birkenstock and Old Navy wearing American teen, drenched in sunkissed raspberry body spray.  

The decision, whether to stay or go at the end of our year in America, was still mine, my parents said.  But I had already made up my mind back on Luaniua, when the island women were snuffling in my scent, their cheeks pressed against mine, a traditional mingling of the souls in farewell.  A deep part of me had broken off and was still swirling in that dangerous dark hole, and I could not repeat the experience.  I was afraid that if I did, there would be nothing left.  

The problem, then, was where would I stay?  My best friend’s family offered to let me stay in their old, familiar home.  It was on this house’s living room floor I had sat with the other brownies in my kindergarten Girl Scout troop, learning the Circle of Friends song.  Where I had participated in cookie bakes and playdates, where I had been me, before.  Before we became Missionaries.  Before the island took part of my soul.  

Another living option presented itself in the form of a family from our church, who responded to a little ad blip my parents had put in the church bulletin.  They were strangers, a young couple with a five year old son, with a pair of twins on the way.  Again, it was my choice, my parents said.  

In the end I chose the strangers, the ones who responded to an ad like I was a used couch or a dog someone couldn’t keep because they were moving.  I needed the space, the safe emotional distance with no knowing eyes seeing through the wall I had carefully built up around myself.  I didn’t want to be cared for.  I didn’t want to be understood.  I wanted to be left alone and to blend as seamlessly as possible into the fabric of my high school.  Any concerned adults got a polite but firm mask, held in place by my old friends resentment and anger.  

My mom took me shopping for a new bedspread for my room.  My dad helped me move my familiar furniture in.  I threw myself, in the weeks they were preparing to leave back to the Solomons, into feathering my new cave.  My new space to breathe.  I spread pictures and drawings across one entire wall, a mosaic of images that connected me to my island and also to my American friends.  My little twin bed with its new white cotton bedspread was tucked beneath the tiny room’s tall bay windows.  

It was the blinds of those windows that I closed against the sight of my parents walking away down the drive.  Against the sight of their car shrinking into nothing as it crested the cedar lined street.  It was that white spread onto which I curled, burying my silent screams into the pink crocheted throw pillow, as I was thrown back into the waiting black hole.  It was a relief when the darkness descended.