Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Facing My Biggest Fear--Part 3/3!

Okay, friend.  You've made it through to the final blog post on this story!  God bless you for hangin' tough with me.  I pray for each of you to be blessed in some special way by this story (or in the least, for taking the time to read it).  Part of the reason I wanted to write about this is because I sadly don't have the time, energy, or vocal stamina to share the entire tale with every family member and friend who has asked me about it (or with whom I desire to share it).  Writing about it simplifies that problem.  My son in-law, Kale, who is working on his Doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy at the Univ. of IL, also encouraged me to blog about it for a variety of reasons.  But more than all that, I pray that the effort I have expended doing so serves some higher purpose:  that you, too, will be prompted to live fearlessly and face areas in your own life where you are letting fear trump what you know you really want or need to do.  If we say we believe in Christ, if we have come to know Him as our personal Savior, Father, and Friend, if we are new in Him, if He rules our lives, if we trust in His promises, if His strength can be ours, and if we believe everything God's Word says about His character, there is just no place for fear of any kind in our lives--period. 

We ended Part Two with the conversation I had with my uncle's wife on the phone on Labor Day of 2012.  Allie and I both felt so much relief that we had made a family contact who would now be in charge of handling the awkwardness of letting my father know I was looking for him.  As I mentioned, my aunt had told me that her husband (my father's half-brother) and my father are somewhat estranged. She also said that in a couple of days, she was about to embark on a two-month excursion with her sister for a traveling jewelry business doing shows and fall craft festivals around the country.  So she warned me that it might take her several weeks to get in touch with my father and handle all this for me.  I wasn't sure why she couldn't just call him that night, but assumed it had to do with the fact that my father and uncle were estranged (might have been an awkward call for that reason alone).  I was just so happy that someone else was going to deliver the initial blow, I let that go and trusted God with it all.  Since the ball was no longer in our court, so to speak, Allie and I felt a great amount of freedom. We knew at this point, all we could do was pray and wait.  So that's what we did.

Then it happened.  Exactly seven weeks later, on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, my father called me.  I was lying in bed at around 7AM at the time, awake and trying to muster-up the motivation to get up and get rolling.  Matt had just left for work, and I was mentally organizing and planning my typical Monday morning do-list as I laid there (and probably dreading that it was Monday)!  Then the phone rang, which was a bit of a surprise--we rarely get calls at 7AM (thank God--I am not a morning gal and you don't even want to talk to me before 8AM).  But this was a call I was delighted to receive.  As is typical, Matt and I had been gone a lot off and on that weekend, and had seen the same number on caller ID a few times upon returning home.  But no message was ever left.  We had suspected it might be my dad trying to call because though it didn't show a name for the number, it listed the town from which it was coming, and I knew it had to be him (my aunt had told me where he lived).  So when the phone rang that Monday morning and the number reappeared, I jumped up and answered with excitement and hope.  In my best, no, I-didn't-just-wake-up-voice, I said, "Hell-ooo?" and the caller said, "Stephanie?  It's your dad, [insert his name here]."  I let out a soft shriek and replied with something like, "Oh, my goodness!  Thank you so much for calling me!"  Amazingly, all fear was gone--not one trace existed in me.  We talked and talked for several hours--so long I don't really recall how long!  Time was pretty much a blur that entire day.  In the scope of the moment, the clock just didn't matter.  I don't think I've ever been able to go without using the restroom for that many hours in my life--especially having not gone even upon awakening (sorry...I know...too much info).  We cried, laughed, filled each other in on the pertinent, current details of our lives, talked about God, talked about the past, and even hashed-out a lot of the hard stuff.  Most importantly, I got to tell my father how very sorry I was for telling him to, "go away and leave us alone," when he called in an effort to see me at age 10.  My father's response to this was pretty incredible--he claimed he had never heard me say that.  So I had needlessly tortured myself for 32 years...and to think...he didn't even recall it.  Now I'm no dummy--he may have just said that to ease my pain.  As a dad, there's a good chance he just "played dumb" so I would not guilt myself anymore for something I had said as a child.  But regardless, it felt so good to apologize and hear him say that I had not hurt him by those words.

I love that my father called me on a Monday morning.  I was born on a Monday morning, and it seemed fitting.  He shared some great stories of his life with me, some funny tales, and some hard ones.  He asked me to share all mine.  I hung on his every word, taking notes fiercely so as not to ever forget one word.  I wanted to be able to not only recall and share all the details and stories later with my daughter, Allie, but also to have them for my grandchildren one day.  I don't know when I got out of bed that day, but it was probably a new record for me, other than when I am ill!  The one thing that kept resonating with me throughout our awesome conversation was my friend, JB's words to me from that previous March:   "I just think people change. I think your dad is a sixty-something-year-old-man, and I doubt he's the same person he was 42 years ago."  Since I hadn't been given the best information regarding my father while growing up, I feared him.  But JB was right--my father was nothing like I had feared.  He was tender, caring, compassionate, funny, sweet, a great listener, and quite a gifted story-teller.  I loved him right away.

One of the coolest things I came to learn that day was that I am one-eighth Cherokee Indian.  My dad's grandmother, on his mother's side of the family, was a full-blooded Cherokee. This was an intriguing factoid for me because I have always loved Native American art, jewelry, and history.  It was also pretty funny to find this out because I've had people tell me my entire life that I look like a Native American-mix.  Go figure.  I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Native Americans and what our government did to their way of life.  Finding out that I have a decent amount of that blood running through me, made me distinctly proud.  It was an unexpected blessing to glean such knowledge of my own roots and history.

I found it utterly healing to gain a better understanding of a lot of things which I had never known.  I knew my father was Mexican, but I didn't know much else about his family history.  I learned that my dad's grandparents, on his father's side, were full-blooded Mexican and originally from Guadalajara, Mexico--so our family has only been in America for four generations, which amazed me.  My father shared the details of his growing-up years and the hardships he faced.  Being Hispanic and Native American in a white, Midwest town, and knowing little to no English to boot, did not make for an easy childhood.  Some of his stories were very hard to hear and broke my heart.  Upon sharing with my father that I had been an elementary teacher for many years, he shared a precious story about one of his elementary teachers.  This particular teacher was the first one who had ever truly cared about him and treated him like he was as good as, "the white kids."  She was the first and only teacher who really took the time to teach him English and try to help him make it in school.  She took him home with her to tutor him personally and make sure he got a good after-school snack.  She went the extra mile for my father.  But she was the only one.  As a former educator, I was appalled at the level of mismanaged, educational deprivation he suffered at the hands of people who should have known better--and who were perhaps racially, "unmotivated."  Though this was prior to specialized, ESL classes in our country's education system, there should have been no excuse for passing my father to repeated grade levels without helping him learn the language and learn to read and write.  (Sorry...the teacher in me needed to rant about that for a bit).  I felt an immense amount of understanding and compassion for my father and his personal history and struggles.  It was insight I needed--and I wasn't even aware of that need.

As I had expected, the past events and issues of my father and mother surfaced in some of our discussions.  I had been counseled by a couple of wise friends and my therapist son in-law to be careful not to focus on the past and what has been done when talking with my father.  As the wise old sayings go, "Past is past," and, "It's water under the bridge."  So when these tough discussions would occur, I would try to remember to focus on the rules of, "not playing the blame game," and just avoiding the slippery slope of pitting one parent against the other. What would the point of that be anyway?  Nothing can ever change what has been done.  Some questions and things that have arisen have just had to be discussed, forgiven, buried, and left behind for good.  Both my father and my mother made mistakes, and both have certainly paid.  So from my viewpoint, I praise God that I do not harbor any anger or bitter feelings for either of my parents for any of those mistakes.  My parents were young and they did what they felt they had to do at that point in their lives.  Being able to honestly say all of that is a huge God-thing.  In our human strength, we cannot easily overlook the errors others make that vastly affect our own lives.  But with God-designed, love-tinted glasses, we can not only overlook them, but also feel empathy, understanding, and utter love for those who have made them.  We all make them.

The following Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, Allie and I got to meet my father (her grandfather), who she now lovingly calls, "Abuelito" (or, "Lito" for short, at times).  This was just five days after speaking with him for the first time, so things happened pretty quickly after that initial phone call from him.  We made plans for the four of us (Allie, Kale, Matt, and I) to meet him and his sweet girlfriend for brunch at a town halfway between his home and ours. We chose a neutral locale so as to make it easier on everyone.  [Side note:  What a blessing that he doesn't live very far from us--it has made it much easier to develop a relationship with him than if he had been at a distance.  God was so good to provide for us in that way. My father is 45-minutes from me!] When we arrived at the restaurant, we parked right next to my father and I knew it immediately.  His girlfriend got out of his truck first and came to hug me.  Then my father came to hug me.  Amazingly enough, he was more emotional than I was (it was so unlike me to be that, "together")!  I know God gave me the strength to be strong for my father (and he has since been strong for me when I have needed it)!  But he was just precious and so sweet.  I felt an immediate connection to him and felt safe with him right away (I suppose our lengthy phone conversations that week had provided a fair amount of bonding already)!  When we got inside the restaurant, the fire alarm was going off, and a flurry of activity was happening inside.  The manager told us it was a false alarm, but then firemen began arriving.  The alarm was so stinking loud we couldn't hear ourselves think, let alone try to talk.  I could tell all the chaos was making my father very nervous, so I reached over and held his hand as we stood in the entryway of the restaurant waiting for the ruckus to die down. We held hands until they seated us.  I love the funny, contradictory memory of that horrifying, obnoxious fire alarm blazing and shrieking...and me, standing there in total peace, holding my daddy's hand for the first time and glowing like a content little girl.  Hilarious and totally unforgettable.

Once the stupid alarm stopped, the firemen left, and they seated us, we had a lovely first meal together.  We visited, laughed, and just enjoyed time together over great food.  My dad's brother (my uncle) even dropped by to meet us.  He was as funny, congenial, and welcoming as my father.  He is a part-time professional musician, too, and plays in a couple of bands.  So it was fun to bounce things off of him and "talk shop," musically-speaking.  I still marvel at how cool I was throughout the entire morning--I never really felt nervous.  God amazes me.

After that first meeting, we saw my father several times within a pretty short period of time.  It was so fun to enjoy visiting in person and just get to know one another better and get more comfortable with each other.  We dined at a lot of Mexican restaurants (and still do--his favorite and mine alike)!  I love hearing my father speak Spanish with the waiters!  I even got to meet my half-brother and his wife on one occasion, which was a wonderful thing, as well.  My brother is also musical, which is a fun commonality.  I have also connected with a couple of cousins who I look forward to knowing better, too.  As I said in Part Two, there aren't many of us left.  But I am happy that I have my father and that he loves me.  That's all I really needed.

The first 3 months of our relationship, we were literally on the phone talking for 1-3 hours nearly every day, trying to attempt to catch up from 42 years of life (which can't be done, but you sure try)!  It was awesome and exhausting at the same time.  Some days, it was pretty emotionally draining to process and work through such a variety of details and things.  Every few days, I would pull out my notes, call Allie, and fill her in on all that he had shared with me.  All that phone-talking coupled with all the singing I do was pretty hard on my voice.  So that is about all I had time and energy to do most days.  I loved every minute of it though.  Sadly but necessarily, I ignored my extended family and friends to a degree during this time.  So I want to say, thank you, for understanding that I needed the time and space to do this with my father.  Allie and I both needed time together to talk and think, as well.  At times, we still do actually.  So to those of you who have felt ignored but have stood by me all the same--thanks so much.  To those of you who have shown care, concern, interest, and support--thanks a million. You are loving, true friends and a loving family--and I love you all.

In those later talks with my father, I began to be more impressed by the power of genetics.  Though I think I am a pretty good mix of both my parents, there have been things I have heard or seen in my father that are certainly present in me.  I have his skin tone most definitely--my mother is much fairer than I.  I have some of his other facial features.  But more than the superficial, there are things like how he is a bit of a neat-freak (okay, I am a borderline OCD-germaphobe, at times), and how keen his sense of smell is, that ring true for me, as well.  My father loves to wear cologne all the time, and I am the same way (and I love how my father smells)!   My father has some similar expressions and his voice lilts in ways that mine does--he has even noticed this.  When I call him, I always say, "hEY, Dad!" (with a slide tone) and apparently, that's exactly how my other half-brother (the one I haven't met) says it.   I have my father's temper (though my mother is no passive person--sorry, Mom).  My father has soft, artsy hands, and I have always remarked to my daughter, Allie, that her hands are so expressive and artistic-looking.  She is a piano player and my father is a guitarist, and both have those artsy-looking hands--go figure.  My father is a worry-wart (now I know where I get it)!  My father hates winter, cold, and snow, and struggles a bit with seasonal affective disorder (undiagnosed)--as do I.  He dreams of moving south for this reason, just like me.  My father loves fishing and water--I am a water-fiend.  My dad is an avid and talented card-player.  He even played so well he made money playing in tournaments for a while.  I love to play cards, too (though not on a "professional" level).  I love that his birthday is Cinco de Mayo--so perfect for my Latino Papa, and so fun that it is the day after mine.  We actually celebrated our birthdays together this year for the first time--just the two of us (and of course, Mexican food was involved).  That was very special to me.

My favorite similarity is that my father is also a musician--I know I get this from him since my mother has no musical bone in her body (her words, not mine).  Furthermore, my father's favorite type of music is R&B--just like mine.  My mother believes that since she went to listen to him play in his R&B band while pregnant with me, that this is what influenced my taste. Could be...or it could be that genetic-predisposition-thing again.  It has been so fun to talk about music with my father.  He has been a great source of advice, encouragement, and support this past year as I have worked hard trying to do this music-thing. Mostly, it's been an enormous blessing to have someone in my court who understands how hard the music arena is, and how fickle and undependable a lot of the people in that arena are.  I have loved hearing all my dad's stories about his music days and playing in bands when he was just sixteen-years-old.  He played some pretty big gigs in Topeka and Kansas City even as a teenage boy.  Being a former professional musician, former professional card player (he wouldn't call himself that, but that's what he was), a railroad engineer, and then a professional race car and automobile restorer, my father has had an interesting and full life. He has skills upon skills for a kid who struggled horribly through school, and he is as humble as they come.  I love his stories and feel like a little girl giggling at his humorous tales and all the fun, detailed accounts of his life.  He is one of the most interesting and bravest people I have ever met.  

The most unexpected blessing of all is that my father has healed places in me that I didn't even know were hurting, just by his precious words to me.  It felt divinely wonderful to hear my father say for the first time, "I am proud of you and the life you have made for yourself.  You and Matt have done so well," and, "You're beautiful!!! You hear me?!" I also simply adore that he tells me, he loves me, nearly every time we speak, and always closes out our conversations with a very cheerful and sincere, "Okay, baby!  I'll be calling you!"  Knowing that my father wanted me, wanted to see me, and having proof that he tried to do so many times has blessed me in ways that I didn't know I needed blessed.  It is amazing the things we "stuff" and repress.  Talking about God often and even praying with my father over the phone, have been other immense blessings.  Hearing his words of worry about me when he knows I will be on the road alone late at night, and just feeling his love and care feels really good.  Hearing him speak so proudly of my only child and daughter, Allie, has also been such a great thing--for Allie and I both. Hearing him say that I am his only daughter and he is so glad that he has one now--well, I can barely type that without welling-up in tears.  I love that my father is a no-bull type of person.  He says what he means and he means what he says.  The conversations we have had have been real.  If you know me at all, you know that I am not a big fan of people who put on false heirs or seek to impress.  I like to share about my life and talk openly with people--sometimes this scares people off or they view it as negative or too forward in some way.  But I like real people, real honesty, and real conversations--and my father is as real they get.  He is a genuine guy with a big heart.  He is easy to talk to and he cares about what you are saying.  He cares deeply for his family, for his kids, for his grand-kids, and for his friends. My friend, JB, likened my father not knowing Allie and me, to missing out on the lottery.  As I write all of these things about my dad, I realize that I am the one who struck gold.

The daily hour-long conversations began to become weekly conversations sometime after the New Year, in 2013.  Now they are still nearly weekly, but aren't always an hour in length.  As great as those long talks were, my father and I have found a comfortable groove in which we are no longer striving and straining to make up for lost time.  My father no longer fears that he will lose me again (his words, not mine).  Though I believe those long talks were so fabulous and so healing for us both, I know that neither one of us had the time or energy to keep up with that pace.  But I praise God that we have grown to feel secure in our relationship to just ease into a place where we talk when we can and for however long we can, and see each other when we can.  We don't feel pressure to fix the things that aren't perfect or that aren't fixable.  We are just a father and a daughter walking forward together in love and joy, writing one chapter at a time--as my dad's girlfriend stated it best. 

Let me be clear--not every "dream" I had about finding my family has come true.  As with any personal upheaval, there have been some hard and sad things to know, face, and accept.  One sad thing I have yet to mention is that my half-brother (the one I got to meet) was a twin--and his twin brother was killed in a car wreck when they were very young.  So there have been many hardships and challenges in the family.  My father has suffered a great many trials in life.  The story isn't, "perfect," and I am not trying to make it sound as such.  But honestly, it has been only a good thing and only good has come from finding my dad--just as God reassured me would be the case from the start.  You can only move forward and write a new history in life when you choose to reconcile a broken relationship.  You can't change or fix the past.  Only God can really do that, and I praise Him for giving me the strength and courage to rewrite this story with my father.  God is a God of reconciliation--He loves it.  He came here Himself to die for our sins to give us a chance to reconcile with Him.  He blesses those who attempt to reconcile and He delights in it.

I shared in Part Two of how I began praying for my mother while I was praying for my father--that she would take the news of my seeking and finding him well, and not let fear begin to rule her or cause her to doubt my love and loyalty to her.  I told my mother after the New Year in 2013 once things settled down from the holidays.  There never seemed to be a good time before that, and I didn't want to ruin my mother's November birthday or the holiday season should she not take the news well.  I also think I just needed to focus on my dad at the beginning (facing another major thing would have been serious over-load for me).  When I called my parents (my mom and adopted dad--I will share that precious story another day) this past January 7, 2013 (another Monday morning), they took it quite well.  I, of course, had been given wise counsel again from my son in-law and a couple of close friends on what to say to them--and we had all prayed and prayed.  My mom expressed her concerns as I knew she would, but it went way better than I had expected.  So God answered yet another huge prayer for me.  My mom and I rarely speak of my father, just as we rarely ever did--and I think that is for the best.

Toward the end of one of my favorite movies, "Oceans 12," Catherine Zeta-Jones' character, "Isabel," meets her father for the first time as a grown woman.  My husband and I personally own all of the "Oceans" movies, and have watched this one numerous times (my hubby is a big Catherine Zeta fan...go figure).  In this scene, "Isabel" approaches her father upon realizing who he is, and says, "Where the hell have you been?" To which he replies, "Waiting..." And she says, "For what?"  And he says, "For this," and they fall into a tearful embrace.  This scene has haunted and disturbed me my entire life, and my darling husband knows it.  He always looks over at me in my attempted, hidden discomfort and softly says, "Honey, are you okay?"  As many times as I've seen this scene, I never truly would have thought it would become part of my own reality, though I longed for it to be.  I think deep down I never really thought I'd ever have the guts to go find my father.  It still shocks me sometimes.  Pretty much every time I hang up the phone after hearing him say, "Love you, baby!"  I am astounded that I did it.  But that's just it--I didn't do it.  GOD gave me the courage to do it, and my daughter and my friend, JB, gave me the major nudges I needed.  Much like the scene from the movie, my father says he has been waiting for me to come find him since I was 18-years old.  He thought I would surely do so once out on my own with a mind of my own.  He did not feel that he should try to come for me again because he had done so numerous times and been shut-out. After all this time had passed, he assumed I had been brainwashed to think only the very worst about him.  I know I disappointed him taking this long to come find him, but he knows me now and how timid I can be.  Better late than never, I guess--I do wish I had mustered up the gumption earlier.  But I love that this movie scene will no longer haunt me--it is mine now.

When I think about it, it is so hilarious and special that this once fatherless child now has THREE awesome fathers:  First and foremost, God my Father, and now my two earthly fathers--both of whom I love so dearly.  It also cracks me up to realize that all three of my fathers love to fish--I have decided I will never get away from these fisherman!  My two earthly fathers are fishing-crazy and Jesus was a big fisherman, too.   I guess my Heavenly Father is trying to drive home the point to me that our purpose here is to, "fish"--but not just in the regular sense of the word.  He wants us to, "fish for men," as His Word states in Matthew 4:19.  I guess that's my even deeper purpose in writing this story.  Though I will not share my two earthly fathers with you (sorry, they're mine), I do desire to share my Heavenly Father with you.  I pray that you will know Him in His fullness, grace, and love if you don't already.  And to all the fatherless people out there--here's a reality you, too, can embrace and own:  You aren't really fatherless. Your Father is right there waiting for you to fearlessly find and follow Him.  So that movie scene can be yours, too.  Praise be to God, our perfect Father and Friend.

Matthew 4:19, "'Come follow me,' Jesus said, 'and I will send you out to fish for people.'"  Amen.