Last year started, as years are known to do, on New Year’s Day.
I had decided 2016 would be the year of yes. Yes to my kids, yes to more clinging to Jesus, yes to trusting more, yes to adventure, yes to challenge. Yes.
"No" was still used, but there were more yeses.
So gathering up my year, I word-draw the neat pretty piles and the ugly messes of the last 12 months because we were made to remember.
The stale wintry Ohio sky turned into a fleeting spring with the white bleeding heart that returned in the front, a summer garden full of tomatoes and peppers out back and a quick orange-brown fall and Honey Crisp apples from a favorite muddy orchard. I thought my wispy bleeding heart wouldn't make it back, but it did.
We skipped around Disney, saw Celtic Woman, and I changed my hair color, then changed it back. I tutored Challenge A and dissected the world in maps, good books and a cow's eye with enthralled budding teens. I got a license to teach Zumba and began teaching it to friends and strangers, who will become my friends. I went jet skiing for the first time ever, and, yes, my friend and I flipped our boat, and who knew that would be fun?
The year aged and furrowed its brow as I saddened more and more with the days.
There was a double rainbow that brushed away the dark summer clouds turning the sky into a canvas barely big enough for it. It was slippery wet not from rain showers but from my river of tears rushing down into hours.
And hours into months.
The flood rose higher and higher and I, flailing, knew I was drowning. And what do you do when a Nile isn't long enough to get your ache stretched across? What do you do when the dam of dark memories breaks?
This year? I darkened, not only from the sun but from depression and anxiety.
My short-term memory had already been slipping while the deeper, longer one grew cleats, and I'm afraid my whole life is slipping. I couldn't tell you what happened yesterday, but 30 years ago? Different story.
These old biting stories are newly vivid like that rainbow. My boy asks me to tell him a story from when I was a kid, and I panic in secret for the forty-ninth time. He wants a funny tale. He wants to know his mama better. He wants to get closer and I've been running away from the stories my whole life.
They've been locked up in a closet in a house on Winterset Drive since I walked out.
Remembering can sadden and gladden. It can choke and it can soothe. I used to think old painful memories were sought. But I did not invite these nasty things. This year, let’s face it, remembering was a kick in the stomach.
It’s what I did all year. Remember not meaning to. It all tromped back, invading my present. Or did I go back to my past? Until this year I thought time machines were only the stuff of fantasy.
But God knew about the closet and turned me into a time traveler. Because He was coming after all of me, and He needed me to remember all of it, all of me.
For his writing assignment, my boy composed a story about two men who travel through a portal and into another world where friendly dragons and children play together. But the Deadly Fire Blasters appear out of nowhere to fight alongside their army of bad dragons, capture the good ones, and throw them and the children into the dungeon.
I’m like those two men, treading a dark portal and its outlying path to a bleak place I’ve been before. I have to see someone, and I’d rather be stuck in a dungeon with Grodd, who’s not a dragon, but a freaky, mind-controlling gorilla.
Having left her long ago in that lifeless colonial on Winterset Drive, I’d vowed never to look at her again. I know she’s pathetic, and I can’t stand what I’ve yet to see. How will she look, how is she coping with misery?
I forget to breathe as I inch and push through. It’s beginning to look more familiar. I search untamed in the dark for the closet. There it is. The old 70s door tucked at the end of the narrow hall is smaller than I remember. I don’t bother turning on the light, so I just close my eyes, push my heart-shaped key into the hole and turn the knob.
There she is, a shivering, shriveling shadow. She’s weak, stubborn and alone. I can’t see her eyes, and I’m glad.
I’ve come to slay her when I need to love her. But I do neither. I only cry in the dark with my 16-year-old self.
I hold her tight in my arms for as long as it takes to unleash - to remember - almost 30 years of uncried hurt.
And while the tears fall, the stench rises out of the quiet wreckage. She’s surrounded by everything else. The wild anger, shock over lost friends and family, ache of sadness, embarrassment, abandonment, humiliation, neglect, shattered dreams, old hopes and old memories meant to be sweet turned bitter by the rind of disappointment. The odor of my mother’s meanness and jealousy smokes. No one’s been allowed in. Her heart has been surrounded by high stone walls that are beginning their fall.
The clamor of the crumbling grows as I finally turn on the light.
The stink turns into a perfume of acceptance and embrace. It was not only my mother who emotionally abandoned me when I was 16. I did too. When I stuffed it all in the closet, the meat of me, the best part, was thrown in there too, like the baby with the bath water.
But I’m still breathing, though in tiny ripples, so I say, “I’ve come for you. It’s over now.”
“This is all I know,” she trembles.
“Just you wait, it’s much better now. You’ll see.” I finger the heart-shaped key in my hand, tracing the edges.
“I’m comfortable here,” she persists, but her voice falters.
“I know. But real love, giving and taking it, is wall-shattering. You’re going to really love now. You can’t love here. Besides I need you. I’ve always needed you, you’re the best part of me.”
“I’m the weakest and most damaged part of you.”
“You’re going to become the strongest,” I show her the key, but she doesn’t see it.
“Not without a mom. I need her. I need a mom’s love.” She is so young and so broken up. She wipes her eyes, which never meet mine. “I want her to hold me tight and tell me she loves me,” she pleads. “I want her watchful eyes to be keen and her voice gentle and assuring. I want to take walks and hold hands and plant one of her thousands of flower pots with her. I want to watch her paint which she’ll never do again. I want all of her. Most of all, I want her to want all of me.
“I’m not leaving without her.”
Heart sinking, I speak slow and steady. “She might have lost you, but Love has found you… and He’ll never leave you - ever.”
This God we have with the lightyears-long, galaxy-wide arms reached out and picked me up and sat me down in the Zumba time machine.
The dancing Zumba people are the heart-shaped key that opened that heavy closet door. They believed in me when I didn’t. They saw a person I couldn’t see. They saw the girl in the closet and invested in her. They loved all of her, even the shriveled part.
Now I see her, and I’m finally beginning to love her too.
It’s going to take a while, but Love will always remember, and it won’t always feel good. Sometimes, some years, like my 2016, buried memories will come out of the closet and fire up pain, refining you, rekindling your heart so it can breathe love again. Healing love.
Love that heals is love that will not fail. It will be miraculous, mysterious, piercing but it will not fail when it’s real.
It will be dangerous and precious. It will gain everything and lose everything. It will bind up a heart and break it. But whichever path it blazes, it will go on and on.
And so will I.