“OK. So what’s a blow job?” She forced herself to ask as soon as she opened the car door and slid into the passenger seat without even so much as a glance in the direction of my face. The question didn’t particularly alarm me considering my adolescent clients keep me well informed on the milieu of current middle school culture. Oral sex is certainly a popular enough category for me to have estimated this type of conversation at some point.
“Well, I’m happy to unpack that with you, but can you first help me understand the context and why you’re asking?” I responded and watched her entire body sink into her seat as though she had been waiting for permission to wave her white flag and surrender all that she had been containing throughout the day.
She proceeded to share the details of a narrative involving a new friend being propositioned to perform oral sex on a male classmate in exchange for money, a school suspension, and perhaps even an expulsion. I could see her initially fighting back tears and then with another exhalation she let go of any remaining composure. The tears began to stream down her cheeks and eventually found their way into her lap.
I imagine those tears tasted of confusion, of the experience of indirect shame as she bore and divulged this narrative, of grief at the sense of her childhood innocence dissipating. These are often the most painful conversations I have with my girls. How can I explain sexual exploitation in a way that doesn’t frighten them? How do I name the horror of a world that has a long history of sexualizing and objectifying women and girls while buttressing their own capacity for agency and empowerment? How do I talk about the ways our culture has deprived boys and men from believing that they were made for so much more while keeping hope alive that there are boys and men who understand what it means to honor themselves and the women they know and love?
With courage. That’s what I’ve come to rely on heavily in these recent years of navigating the terrain of mothering adolescents. I have transitioned from being a mother of strictly little girls into a mother of little women rising. So with each step, with each conversation, I grab hold of the courage to just show up, to open up, to talk about the things no one ever talked about with me. We sit in the messiness of it all together so at the very least, these little women rising are not left to sort it all out on their own.
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There I was, going about my morning routine, when WHAM. Out of nowhere, I found myself grieving over A Thing I Cannot Change. See, it was National Siblings Day. And my social media feeds are all about random “national” holidays. I mean, who doesn’t love National Donut Day? Or Talk Like A Pirate Day?
So on this day celebrating brothers and sisters, smiling sibling pictures popped up all over my feed. But to paraphrase Monty Python, grief is like the Spanish Inquisition; one never expects it. Perhaps I should have; sibling relationship is a touchy subject for me right now. If you invited my extended family over, there are people that would not or could not attend. And out of all of the ridiculous things to set grief off, it was a social media blitz of togetherness.
You see, there is a hole. If I were to put up an old picture of my siblings right now, it’s almost like some people would be grayed out. It feels as though someone has raged through the picture album of my heart, crudely cutting out faces. Their bodies remain; they exist. But their faces are stolen. If I were to put up a current picture, people would simply be missing.
I know that others’ families have also been torn by tragedy and brokenness. For me, there is hope that someday things can somehow be mended, and we will be whole again. For others, death has stolen that hope. Illness, disease, suicide, fatal accident–whatever happened, the hole created cannot be mended this side of the veil. And that is a grief I cannot imagine. I hope that our hole can be mended before there is a physical finality to that possibility.
The hope I feel is like a spark of light; the hole I feel is like a vacuum. Brokenness tends to feel like that; it oozes through time and space in the deep places, tainting what it touches. It is hard to see a picture of a loved one lost to drugs, or alcohol, or crime, or abuse, or disagreement, or whatever other brokenness and unfinished business remain. It is hard to miss a sure friend, one whose presence should be lifelong but whose absence exists instead. It is hard to know that the next family picture taken will not include them, not because they are lost to this mortal world, but because they are lost to the possibility of presence. That they have disincluded themselves, or they have disincluded you, or both. There is a hole.
Growing up, I desperately wanted to belong to my family. There were ways in which I did not feel a sense of belonging, especially among my extended family. But a principle was held sacred nonetheless, that family comes first. Friends come and go, but family–siblings especially–is forever. And in that, up through my teens, I felt secure. I might have been closer to some siblings than others, but I never doubted that we all were friends, and that our relationship transcended whatever life would throw our way. That we were there for each other, forever and always. I belonged; they belonged.
I never imagined that over the tumultuous years of growing up, the lines that held our life rafts together would be purposefully cut. That we would become lost to each other. That relationships would grow cold and stale, and that instead of seeking to know each other, shallow judgement would be upheld instead. That people’s poor decisions would launch them far away from the safety of reach. That small slights would cut deep, and that true offenses would crack open gulfs only crossable through reparation, humility and forgiveness.
What does one do when you’ve lost your earliest playmate? When terrible, tragic decisions were made that caused boundary lines of safety to be drawn? When one whom you love cuts themselves off of the family branch to pursue their brokenness? It is a wound that will not close; it is a hole.
Most days, I find comfort in my relationship with my maker. At one point, I went to therapy and gained some tools. I invest in the healthy relationships I do have. I am not without hope, and most days I am not so raw; the hole all but disappears. But some days, I find that grief is like the ocean. Never turn your back to the ocean, they say, because a powerful wave can sneak in when you least expect it. I didn’t expect a silly holiday to bring a frothing surge of grief. But, today at least, there is a hole.
Melissa Taft is a stay-at-home mom in Seattle who enjoys reading, puttering in the garden and the smell of autumn. Her favorite drink is Thai Iced Tea.