One of the things I have learned in my life and tried to be constantly aware of, is the impact I can have on other people. It amazes me that sometimes something so random and ordinary for one person can be an unforgettable, life-changing moment for someone else. Such a thing happened to me when I was eleven or so, and the details, which I am sure have been all but forgotten by everyone else, are seared in my memory. On the surface, it was nothing major, nothing monumental, but it changed me in a way I still don’t truly understand.
I have written a little about spending a major portion of my childhood with my mom’s violently abusive second husband, Rich. My days were spent living in constant fear of being hit, kicked, slapped or punched. For years, I had bruises and cuts and welts on my arms and back and legs. I refused to wear shorts, refused to change clothes for gym class. I was constantly being told I was nobody and that I would never be anyone. I was told I was ugly, stupid and should never have been born. I was made to feel and believe I was not worthy of anything in this life. And not only did I quickly start to believe all the negative things I was told, but something inside me knew to never tell anyone about what was happening at home. I don’t know how I knew I was to keep it to myself, I just knew it was my issue to deal with and I felt so completely alone. I would hide it in public, hide it from everyone and while I was always told I was so cute and sweet, inside I felt shame, rot and decay, the very feelings that would lead me to almost end my life at fourteen. As an adult, I would be diagnosed with and worked through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to things that happened, a lot of which I don’t even remember.
When I was younger, my mom’s best friend was a woman we always called Aunt Lori and she was the kind of person that just radiated joy and who would actually look at you when talking to you. I always loved being around her and in her house, there was just such a feeling of, well, something I didn’t feel anywhere else. Aunt Lori and her husband had just one child, two years younger than me, and they would spend their weekends having great adventures waterskiing or riding ATVs out in desert. They had a life I knew I would never be a part of. And then, for some reason, they invited to go with them for a weekend away. I had never been in an RV before and thought I would explode from excitement as we drove out to Salton Sea with the three-wheelers in tow. They were just doing their normal thing, but I was escaping and it was heaven.
We got there and spent the weekend in the sun, climbing on rocks, looking for coyotes and just having an amazing time. I couldn’t remember the last time I had fun without the knowledge of the drama and violence that was sure to follow. Most of all, I felt safe. Maybe it wasn’t that I felt safe, I knew that I was safe. I felt seen. I knew I was not “cool” like they were. I could not drive my own three-wheeler like their son could, but I was never once made to feel anything but welcome and accepted. I had never felt accepted before, certainly not just for being me. I didn’t have to do anything for it. I could have stayed out there forever, but the weekend drew to a close and it was soon time to head back.
When we got back to their house, Rich came to pick me up and the reality of my life came smashing back. I got in his car and left without saying goodbye or thank-you. Lori called my mom to make sure I got home ok as suddenly I had just gone missing from her house and I was told by Rich and my mom how ungrateful and selfish I was, how I didn’t deserve to do nice things. I felt so guilty about it for the longest time. I didn’t mean to leave like that, I just didn’t want Rich contaminating that perfect weekend that was and is still one of the best memories I have of my childhood.
Over the years, I lost touch with Aunt Lori. I just wanted as much distance between my adult and child selves as possible, both literally and figuratively. There were too many painful memories for me and when I would go back to California to visit, there were areas, whole cities, I would avoid. Just the thought of driving past them on the freeway would make my heart race and my palms sweat. But I never forgot that weekend, or the fact I never said thank you. I was worried Aunt Lori was upset at me and felt like I took that trip for granted. So many times in my head, I rehearsed what I would say if I ever say her again.
Over thirty years later, we got back in touch and I was able to explain. She had pretty much forgotten all that, but more importantly, she was just was warm and kind and happy and accepting as I remembered. Those things came across in our increasingly longer and personal mails on Facebook and then in person when we met face-to-face just a couple of months ago.
I am telling this because it was one of those times when someone was just going through their life and they were kind to a little boy for no special reason, not knowing the impact it would have on his life. Statistics say that I should be an addict, abusive, in jail or perhaps even dead, but that weekend, a tiny seed was planted. One that hinted that maybe, just maybe, I was more than what I was experiencing in my life, more than what I was being told on a daily basis and that just maybe, there was another life out there waiting for me. It would be years before that seed grew, but it was there and that has made all the difference in the world. Aunt Lori is not the only one, I have been fortunate enough to have and still have many people like that in my life, but she was one of the first.
When I am with my nephews or niece, I hope I make them feel as I did that weekend. I hope they look back and realize that I not only see them for who they really are, I accept and love them unconditionally and completely. I never want them, for even a moment, to think they are less than perfectly worthy and enough, just as they are. I try to remember that all my actions and words, no matter how insignificant I think they might be, can change the course of someone’s life. It made me smile when one of my nephews told me that when he is an uncle, he wants to be just like me. Is there a more awesome or humbling compliment?