Grandpa Whitehead

During the last couple of weeks that I’ve been moving, I’ve found all kinds of random stuff including the following:

A cassette tape of assorted music from college,

Notes from my child’s teacher from when she was in preschool (#unwilling to compromise),

A book I wrote about a snake when I was in 5th grade,

notes I took in dad’s appointments with his neurologist,

AND

Post it notes with prayers written from 13-14 years ago that are nothing like the words I use to pray today.

Life is full of change. All of the time. And I believe God is good all the time.

But so many things happen in this life that are terrible and lovely and in between. And so many of these things are things we cannot control.

When I was a little girl, I used to sit on my mom’s lap and ask her, “Why does God allow bad stuff to happen to us? Why does God let people hurt each other?” And she said, “Because we have free will.”

I sat and thought on these words: FREE WILL. How beautiful freedom is. And yet, how ugly free will can be when we hurt others by our choices.

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Not too long ago my uncle shared some letters with our family that he had received from a distant relative which provided details about my Grandpa Whitehead’s life (my dad’s father). These details were startling to me. The letters demonstrated that even though I knew him so well and loved him so much and was LOVED so well by him, I did not know what he had experienced in his life.

I didn’t know that first he was one person and then another and another, and I imagine he had to do a lot of redefining and reimagining throughout the seventy-some years he was alive.

My Grandpa was a big part of my life up until his death when I was 9 years old. When we went to his house, he held me in his rocking chair, doted on me, cooked for me, showed me all his plants, took me to his work shop in his shed, and let me climb up the cherry tree in the back yard. I watched him smoke cigarettes and tap them gently into delicate ash trays from Hawaii, and when I gave him hugs and kisses I was comforted by this smell of cigarette smoke in his beard.

When I would tell stories, he listened intently. When he paid attention to my brother, I hid under a table and pouted until he picked me up and carried me around while giving us both attention.

When my parents disciplined me, he would take my hand and comfort me. My mom and dad said he spoiled me, but all I remember is his unconditional love.

And so it surprised me to learn that this same man had so much pain and tragedy in his life. Unlike my other grandfather who loved to tell me stories about his childhood, Grandpa Whitehead said nothing. I kind of remember asking things and only receiving vague answers.

And then I read the letters my uncle showed us.

I had been told that Grandpa had been an orphan, but found out that wasn’t exactly true. His mother tried to drown him when he was a baby. She may have had post partum depression, but back in 1912, people didn’t know what that was. So they locked up Cordelia Whitehead (I think that was her name) into a mental institution, while baby Grandpa survived.

Grandpa had two older siblings. Those siblings stayed with the father. But grandpa, since he was a baby and his dad felt overwhelmed at the prospect of parenting him, was sent away to live with different random people. Sometimes family members. Sometimes friends of the family. He was a baby that was “farmed out.” No real home. Just random people raised him. The letter tried to make it sound like these people loved him and stuff. But if they loved him, why did they keep giving him away and passing him around, I wondered. And it made it sound like Grandpa was the most helpful person in the world, always ready to do chores, despite all the tragedy in his young life.

When he was first sent away as a baby, his father sent him with a little treasure chest of sorts that had all of his precious items–a baby blanket, photos of his parents and siblings, trinkets and small toys. The chest was his identity of sorts–it showed where he came from. That he was once loved and cared for. Every time he was sent to live with a new family, the chest followed him. And then one day there was a flood in the home he was staying in. Seems like Grandpa may have been between the ages of 3-5 at this time, and his treasure chest and items in it became flooded with water and were ruined. Grandpa ran to the chest, clinging to it, devastated. Everything he had-his whole identity-was in that chest. And now it was gone.

At some point, Grandpa’s father, who was a coal miner, died in an explosion in the mine. So Grandpa was then reunited with his older siblings and they were sent away to live together with another family member. This went on and on, and Grandpa started to see that love from others could be earned by becoming a hard worker. So he stopped going to school after 7th grade and just worked.

Grandpa met my grandmother in Hawaii. He moved there to work for the army on a base. He met this lovely, outgoing, independent and strong woman and they got married. I think they worked well as a couple because they respected each other’s way of being. I don’t ever remember them arguing, but when Grandma started nagging him, he would begin to whistle. Whistling was his way of dealing with conflict.

My dad says Grandpa was a strict but loving father who had high expectations for good behavior. I never saw this side of my grandpa. I only saw the unconditional love he showed for his family. He loved all his grandchildren in ways that I can’t even articulate but only to say he was so soft with all of us, and present in every moment we shared with him.

And so as I sit here tonight, surrounded by these different random snapshots of my life that I found while moving, I think about my grandpa. And how he weirdly did something that he had no model for. He had no traditional family. Consistency was a stranger to him. Fathering and mothering were foreign experiences to him.

He never had a real father and yet became one.

He never knew his mom and yet knew what it meant to be a family.

He never received consistency and yet knew how to provide it.

He experienced the trauma of separation and near drowning as an infant and yet knew how to love babies so well.

This is the miracle that we can count on. That we can become and become again. That we can change and own experiences without letting them own us.

I think about how while I love the person I used to be, I am thankful that I am no longer her. I also found my wedding photo album when I was moving. I wanted to trash it, because it no longer represents who I am. But then I paused and decided to give it to Aliana.

I appeared in the doorway of her new bedroom with it in my hand.

“I want you to have this,” I said. “I want you to know that this is who we once were–your father and I. And that although you don’t remember, you were made in love.”

She looked at me like this:

but then took the album.

This marriage that also caused me deep pain also had love. How true. And yet how strange.

I want to hear more of these stories. I want to know about those among us who became a new person, again and again. People who chose to be better instead of bitter. People who were bitter and then better. People who were lost and then found. These are the stories that connect us to each other during times of tragedy.

These are the stories that help us know that there are tragedies and miracles and that YES there is FREE WILL but what that also means is that we have the choice to change despite what has happened to us or what choices we made in our past.

I wrote all of these words today because my heart was heavy. So share your stories with me, too. I need them.

The Softness that is Forgiveness

If anyone again asks me what it means to forgive someone, I will tell him or her this story.

It started when I was 32, in the summer of 2009. My husband, at the time, was from the Dominican Republic. We decided to make a trip there so his family could meet our daughter right when she was turning one year old.

We arrived in the hot month of June. The Dominican Republic is near the Equator, and from the moment we stepped off the airplane, I could feel the heat of the sun percolating on my pores. I had lost all my baby weight, but now was almost too thin due to not eating. My marriage was falling apart at the seams and I was unraveling too. The only thing holding me together was my focus on my child and her wellbeing.

“I’m so glad you finally lost weight,” my mother-in-law said to me in Spanish, with a widely genuine smile when I greeted her at the airport. While I knew that a person’s weight is not as taboo of a subject in the Dominican Republic as it is in the United States, her words etched a streak on my already decrepit spirit.

My mother-in-law never seemed to like me, but I could not ever seem to deduce why. Sometimes I thought it was due to the fact I was a foreigner. Other times I thought maybe I was unknowingly breaking some cultural rules or wasn’t submissive enough, in her mind, to be a good wife.

But ultimately the reasons behind her perceived dislike for me weren’t really worth spending time analyzing. I just had to deal with it.

During this trip, I tried to keep my daughter on a nap schedule. My mother-in-law told me this was ridiculous and that no child needed such a thing. I didn’t want to argue with her because I felt that would be a sign of disrespect, but I continued to put her down for a nap everyday at the same time, even though she would blast merengue music in objection to my decision.

I loved the Dominican Republic for so many reasons: I adored the welcoming nature of its people, the love I felt from my host family when I studied abroad there, the hospitality of strangers in the community, and the kindness and resilient spirit I witnessed in its people.

But I did not love my mother in law. I could not love my mother in law, no matter how hard I tried.

I looked at her and I saw pain. The pain of being an abused wife. The shame of being left by her husband. The guilt and oppression she suffered from so many losses.

And yet, I couldn’t find it in my heart to accept her in her brokenness.

The entire time we were in her home, I was belittled and criticized for being overly focused on my daughter. I was confused by the criticism that seemed to be contradictory at the time: one moment I was being told my schedule was ridiculous, but the next moment, I was called disorganized for not getting my daughter’s bottle ready quickly enough.

It was gaslighting behavior, except for it was my in-laws doing it, instead of my then husband.

As for my then husband, he remained silent most of the time, choosing not to intervene. When he would intervene, it was to side with his family as they were telling me what I was doing wrong in my mothering.

The last night we were there, I felt relief that we were finally going home. As I was rocking my daughter to sleep that night, my mother in law called for me to come talk to her. When I was done putting her to bed, I went to find my mother-in-law in the kitchen.

“I need to tell you something,” she said to me in Spanish, “something I should have told you before.”

I had a moment where my heart softened. She’s going to apologize, I thought. She feels badly for criticizing me.

But before my heart could soften any further, her words quickly transformed into daggers that were aimed at my heart, my self worth, and my ability to love.

“You are an awful mother and wife,” she said.

I gulped down air, feeling like I needed to run away, but instead froze.

“Do you want to know why?” she asked.

I didn’t answer, standing there without moving. Apparently I was now an ice cube, stuck in my tray, unable to transform back to fluidity.

“You have paid more attention to that child than your own marriage. So if my son cheats on you… if he has other women he wants to sleep with–that’s no one’s fault other than your own,” she said.

“You deserve however he treats you,” she stated, and finally stepped aside so I could walk away if I chose to do so.

I suddenly felt my legs melting. I bowed my head and exited the kitchen. I went upstairs and wanted to cry, but couldn’t. I didn’t have tears. I felt as if whatever bubble of dignity was still present in my spirit had been popped by a sharp needle and had oozed away.

Despite this terrible emptiness, I somehow realized a small push of determination to fight for myself was still present within me. I imagined myself putting on armor, lying down in it to rest, knowing that this was temporary. I just needed to remember that the armor was there to protect me.

The next morning we left the Dominican Republic. One year after that, I left my husband.

And then nine years after that, I walked into my ex-husband’s house to pick up my daughter, and I saw her face. When they told me she would be there, I was scared. Scared I would not know what to say. Scared she would take her anger at me out on my daughter. Scared that she would take me back to that day nine years ago in her kitchen when I last saw her.

But when I saw her face, I instead felt the strangest thing. I felt something weird, as she walked over to me and cupped my face in her hands and side kissed my cheeks, as is the custom in the Dominican Republic.

I felt a tenderness. I felt empathy. I felt respect. I felt seen.

I don’t know how that happened. I have no FREAKING idea. But I know that’s what forgiveness is. It’s a softening. A turning towards. It is not reconciliation. It is simply understanding. It is letting go. It is loving from a distance. It’s gratitude from learning the lessons the pain taught you.

Time creates space. Space creates room to see the truth. I know that without the gift of time and space, it’s hard to learn to recognize the truth. And the truth is that you never need closure for anything. Things fall apart and the only thing you need to remember or try to do is put yourself back together. And once you do that, you may see that in your brokenness, you are strong. In your pain and bitterness, you have lessons. And one of those lessons might be that you may one day, after time and space, find yourself looking back on everything, with a very different softness about you.

And that softness is forgiveness.

Happy Re-Birth Day to Me


9 years ago today, after laboring for 30+ hours, my daughter, Aliana, was born via Caesarian section at 7:50 am. After experiencing what my OB-GYN proclaimed to be a freakishly challenging pregnancy, that included sciatica, kidney stones, preterm labor, and gestational diabetes, it was mind-blowing to me that a human this extraordinarily healthy had actually been percolating inside of me for nine months.

On this day, June 15, 2008, I was 32 years old, yet I was just a shell of a person.  I had no personality, no likes or dislikes, and no idea how I had gotten myself into the mess of an abusive marriage.

And now I had this tiny, gorgeous human with a full head of curly black hair, that was staring at me with the deepest coffee colored eyes I had ever seen.  And somehow, those eyes were the only thing that ever could break me of my numbness.  You see, I could no longer disassociate from my life, because that would mean I was disassociating from MY OWN CHILD. 

In the intensity of her gaze, I imagined she was saying to me, “I am here.  I am LIGHT.”

Her existence broke me into a million pieces so that I would be somehow be forced to make a plan to put myself together again, because her eyes–HER LIGHT–showed me that she needed a mama who was whole, and that mama had to be me.

One day, I was giving her a bottle when her father entered the room.   I don’t remember what I had said that upset him so much, but he spat on me.  His spit ran down my face and dripped onto my shirt.  I didn’t react, as I knew that would make it worse, but Aliana did. She screamed at the top of her lungs and she no longer wanted the bottle.  Her screams and her terror reminded me of my own terror–reminded me that I needed to finally be terrified in order to be her mother. My heart of darkness slowly began to crack, and I allowed her light to seep into me.

Her birth was my rebirth, so in many ways, this day, June 15, is sacred to me and forever will be. It is a day that I was also born, as this baby was the one who brought me back to life.

Sometimes people say to me, it’s unfortunate that you and your ex husband conceived a child together, because that means you have to still communicate and can’t be completely unattached. What people who make these comments don’t understand is that if I hadn’t had my daughter, I might still be living in that marriage. Aliana’s existence propelled me into a completely new level of life, because I finally loved a person so much that I didn’t want her to live the way I had been living.  The love I couldn’t feel for myself, I could feel for her. 

Something deep inside of me knew that I could never be the mother she needed unless I could fully be myself, and the journey to self discovery started with her birth. 

Changing lives is serious business, and this girl wasn’t even planning on getting into that business; the universe simply deemed it so.

And for that I will always be thankful. Happy birthday, Aliana. 

Weak is the New Strong

This is what it’s like to save your own life.


My husband of almost ten years tells me he is going to go out of town. I feel a pit in the bottom of my stomach. Pain wells up. Fear brims over me. Adrenaline rushes through my body in the way it does when someone attacks you, leaves you for dead, and you survive and escape.

I pretend I am dead. Not literally dead, of course, but dead in the same way I have  been dead for ten years. I do not show him I am still breathing and that a flame is flickering under the surface.

He believes me. When he walks out the door, I get to work. Time is ticking. I put my toddler to bed and start packing. I try to remember what is important-photos, toys, clothes, passports, birth certificates. As I stuff them into random boxes and suitcases, I suddenly feel like I just can’t move anymore.

I lie down on the floor of my bedroom. I want to cry, but my heart is pounding and my body is hollow from not eating. I realize I do not feel sad. I feel paralyzed. Paralyzed by the fear of doing something that other people will think is crazy. I realize they will think I’m crazy, only because they do not know I have lived a lie for years. The lie is crazy-not me.

I call my only friend.

“I can’t do this. I can’t pack another thing.”

My friend reminds me that voice is a liar and that I need to keep moving.

I do the next thing and the next thing, followed by the next.

Soon, it is morning. Even though I did not sleep, I keep going. My uncle and aunt arrive to help. Then my mom and dad show up. We pack the moving van quickly. I am afraid a neighbor will see me and ask me what the hell I’m doing. But no one does.

Next, I go to the courthouse. I empty out all the contents in my purse and put my belongings on the conveyor belt as I walk through the metal detector, clutching my paperwork for the protective order. I make eye contact with the security guards  and I wonder if they can observe that there is strength in my frail body.

I go down to the basement to file the order. I speak to a victim’s advocate. She tells me I am beautiful and that my life will be better after I file the protective order. She tells me her story and how she once ran away too. I look at her perfectly done nails and long blond hair. We are nothing alike. Can our stories really be the same, I wonder? I do not feel beautiful and I’m only pretending to be strong.

I rush home, drive the van to a storage unit, and unpack everything there except for a small suitcase. A stranger catches my eye and asks me if I’m moving.

“Yes,” I tell her, hoping she does not ask anything else because my mind may crack.

I get home and I take one last look at my kitchen where I used to bake cookies. I do not feel sad. I know the same kitchen where I baked is the same kitchen where I was once beaten with a broomstick.

Everyone leaves the house and goes to their vehicles. It is pouring torrential rain, and we need to get out. But I feel the familiar wave of paralysis again, underneath the adrenaline and I cannot move. I ask my uncle for help.

My uncle is my second father. Over the last ten years, I have burdened him and my aunt with the story of my shameful  marriage, so that my parents’ hearts wouldn’t break. He knows everything, and he and my aunt have walked beside me through the pain and recognized the flicker of light, streaming through my brokenness.

“Do I leave a note?” I ask him.

He pauses and thinks. I can tell he doesn’t think I need to, but he gives me a piece of paper anyways.

“This is what you write,” he tells me. “Aliana and I are okay. I hope you can find a way to be okay, too.”

This note feels truthful and perfect and heartbreaking, all at the same time. I am proud of this note. I put it on the door and we walk out and never turn back. The note feels like a bomb that is about to detonate on the path of fear I have walked for so long.

I tell you this story today, because I remember what it feels like to die and start again. I tell you this story because I do not want to forget it. I do not want to disassociate from my darkness completely, because every time I do that, I forget the lesson that lives there. That woman is me. She is a survivor. I AM A SURVIVOR.

I need that lesson. Like, that lesson is the antithesis of my kryptonite. All my power lives right there.

And the lesson is this:   WEAK IS THE NEW STRONG. Each time I get to the end of myself, there is power in the new beginning. At the end of everything hard and messy, there is a reclamation of self that must occur. There is that moment that you do not want to cross the next line and do the hard thing, but you pick up a piece of paper, and start writing out the truth. You create your reality and are simultaneously shocked that you could do it.

I will keep trying to remember my lesson, and I hope you remember your lesson, too. When life is hard, remember that really hard thing you did. And know that you can do it again. And again. And again.

Child of God

On Tuesday, I drove up to Kokomo to be with my dad at his doctor’s appointment. On the way there, I stopped to grab some coffee. 

I went inside the coffee shop and ordered. As I was waiting for my organic, almond milk, local pumpkin “spiced” latte, (I know, I’m annoying), I sat down on a couch and peered out the window. 

Outside there was a child with a beautiful round face playing with legos at a table while a woman (presumably the child’s  mother) chatted with a few of her friends. 

The child came up to the window and waved at me through the glass. I waved back, smiling, and wondered what gender the child was. It was hard for me to discern, and I found myself wanting to know. 

And then I sighed. And just sat there, mesmerized by this child’s smile, until I heard the barista say, “Order for Emily!”

And as I walked away, I suddenly snapped out of my wondering. I am not sure why. Maybe it was just the emotional state I was in. I was trying to go into the doctor’s appointment with an open heart, trusting what was about to happen, despite my fear.  And so I heard a voice inside me say, “You don’t really need to know everything, Emily. Don’t put that beautiful child in a box. Separate yourself from this world of boxes and labels.”

And I began to think about my own baby, who is really not a baby anymore, but a vibrant 8 year old. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, when people ask her, “What are you mixed with?” I feel weird and awkward and like some boundary has been crossed. I am still stunned when strangers and acquaintances ask that question so effortlessly. It slides of their tongues like smooth butter. 

“What is she mixed with?”

“What is she?” 

“Are you her mom? What is her dad?”

It’s a label–a category–that people want. And it bugs me. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive. Or perhaps I’m not. 

But here I was with this beautiful child, in the coffee shop, wanting the same. I wanted a label. A box. A category. Male or female? I’m embarrassed to admit that my psyche may have wanted to know, so that it could structure my interactions with this child based upon knowledge of his or her gender. 

And that is NOT someone I want to be. 

I suppose my brain knows that deep down–which is why it started talking to me about boxes and labels. The child is a child is a child. The child has his or her own identity which is being shaped and formed and I have no business being involved in that process. 

One of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, (who recently divorced her husband) announced that she’s in love with another female, who happens to be badass soccer player, Abby Wambach. Everyone is suddenly like, “Is Glennon gay? Is she bisexual? What IS she?”

And there’s something about those questions that I find unnverving. It’s like, we humans are so obsessed with checking boxes. These are some of the common boxes we like to check: 

  • Gender 
  • Race
  • Sexuality

And there’s a lot more. But those above are the three biggies. And there’s a reason for that–people treat you differently based upon their associations and/or unsettling beliefs they associate with those labels. 

There are people in this world who are very uncomfortable without labels; these are the people who can’t stand not knowing what “categories” others fall into. They find comfort in categories and do not like ambiguity. 

And yet, if there’s one thing to be certain of in life, it is that our lives WILL be filled with ambiguity. We are not omniscient nor were we designed to be.

And so I was thinking about ALL the things I just said (I’ve a busy brain) as I entered my dad’s doctor appointment with his neurologist. And as the neurologist gave me his diagnosis, “Your dad is in the beginning to moderate stages of Alzheimer’s disease,” I made a conscious decision right then and there to not let this diagnositic label DEFINE him. 

I saw my dad’s face, as the neurologist told him that the disease is not curable. He was unable to make eye contact with the doctor. He was somber. He did not ask questions. So I did. 

“What does this mean?” I asked. 

“It means he needs to start this medication I’m prescribing as soon as possible to prolong the quality of his life,” the doctor said. 

He went on to explain that with this medication, we are buying at least 8-11 more years of a life that is true to him. 

When I looked over at my dad, I thought I would cry, but instead I just felt overwhelming love and compassion for him. I looked him square in the eyes when we left and told him that this is a condition… but it’s not WHO he is. 

We cannot let these labels–these boxes, these words–DEFINE each other. They are cages. You know what my most important identity is? Child of God. That’s it. Because I’ve had important labels taken away from me–wife, niece, granddaughter, and friend. And yet, I’ve gone on living. 

People build walls in the name of labels; when what we REALLY need is proximity. 

As for me, I am going to do my best to fall in love with the ambiguity, while  decreasing the distance between myself and those different from me. 

And I’m going to keep reminding my dad of his most important identity: child of God. I love you, dad.