Have you ever carried a burden so long, you forgot what life was like without it?
As a child of 8 years old, I sat in a chair across from a court-appointed children’s lawyer who asked, “Which parent do you want to live with?”
This was a completely unfair question on several levels. First of all, my parents had been separated for 2 years but only lived a few blocks from each other. This meant that we rode bikes back and forth regularly and saw them individually all the time. None of the 6 of us could imagine the binary of only having one of them without the other.
Secondly, I was 8. Why would an adult put that burden on a child; choosing between the two most important people in the world?
It also might have meant losing siblings to either side. The two older than me lived at dad’s and the younger ones with me at mum’s. As the middle child, I couldn’t imagine life without them. We played in the ditch, we had a fort with a stray dog we had named poochie. We planned club meetings and decided who was in and who wasn’t. We, like most kids, ran free until the streetlights came on in the neighbourhood. We knew everybody and though my kids today can’t imagine it, if we were faced with an afternoon alone, we knocked on doors until we found someone who could come out to play.
As I sat across from the lawyer, I remember clearly feeling that it was an important moment. So I looked at her and said, “It doesn’t matter to me where I go. I love them both the same.” I felt level about what I had said. It was fair to everyone.
A short time later, a three-day divorce proceeding took place and the kids were divided up. My mother left with the oldest and youngest sister. The other 4 of us were awarded to my dad; my mother in the US and the rest of us in Canada.
It’s fair to say in retrospect, I was in shock. My dad had remarried but we didn’t know the woman, really. My younger siblings and I banded together. But I had no idea what to do without a mother except to try and remember the things she did and do them myself and for my younger two siblings.
But to add to the entire mess, I realized that I had done it. I had said it didn’t matter where we went and because of that, we were scattered across 2 countries with no regular contact. I had thought I was being fair. I lived in complete denial about the living situation in my childish head. I kept a packed suitcase under my bed in case some adult somewhere changed their mind about the situation. If they did, I would be ready. I prayed hard every day and I told myself if I were good enough, perfect enough, my prayers might change the situation.
I’m not writing this post because it makes an interesting story.
I’m writing this post because today I am 44 and while I was working, the entire scenario unexpectedly came back to me and for the first time it occurred to me that it wasn’t how I answered the lawyer that day as a child that determined the outcome. It was likely a whole host of other reasons that were beyond my comprehension. People and decisions that were way beyond my control; testimonies of psychiatrists and counsellors who had assessed our family, the fact that my dad had remarried and an effort on the system’s part to keep most of us together. But I have been so accustomed to the guilt of that moment that until today, nothing ever rattled it loose.
I didn't even realize I was still carrying it.
Dear friends, remember that much of what goes on around us is out of our control. All we can do is our best, being true to ourselves and letting the chips fall where they may. Many of us are socialized with very ‘cause and effect’ attitudes that simply have no basis in reality. The weight of the burden is not determined simply by the size of it. It is determined by how long we hold it. Hard things happen to all people and so do good things, no matter where and no matter what. Give yourself a soft place to land and put down the load.
I made lifelong friends in those years. I learned independence and grit. I bonded with my siblings and found strengths in writing, reading and music. I embraced my connection to the Pacific Northwest because of what it gave me; you’d be hard pressed to find a natural setting more therapeutic than the BC Coastline.
It may be presumptuous, but I suspect I am not alone. Jobs, relationships, parenting, the folly of youth. None of us have a clean past. That’s how we learn: trial and error with a chance to move forward with experience under our belt.
Don’t hold on to the pain of the past. Let it go. Understand you did the best you could at the time with the knowledge you had then, whatever your circumstances. Try to look back with compassion for that person, that former version of yourself, who was faced with an almost insurmountable obstacle or situation and no prior training on how to tackle it. Give yourself the courtesy of allowing mistakes of yourself and others. Forgive freely knowing you’ll need it as much as they do. And remember, your mistakes are not the axis on which the world rotates, so go easy on yourself.
And be still.