My dad’s not dead

As we drove around the corner, on our way to celebrate my birthday, I caught sight of several paramedics putting a silver blanket over the body of a homeless person. It was early March and cold. They’d passed away sitting on the sidewalk, back resting against one of the brick buildings just a few blocks from Pike Place Market. It appeared they’d died alone, despite being right in the middle of a major tourist hub.

That night I sobbed in bed as my husband held me. “What if my dad died alone?” I choked out. “What if he died just like the person we saw today? What if he might still be alive? What if he’s living on the street? What if he’s cold right now?”

“This is what your mom said your dad wanted,” he gently reminded. “Your dad wanted you to be safe.”

But what about Dad’s safety? I wondered. Why did no one ever talk about what was best for him? He was part of the family, too. And why was an ill man allowed to decide what was best for him and his family?

Thirteen years earlier, when I was 17-years-old, my mom told me: “Your dad has been diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia.” And with those nine words, my world crumbled.

As would be expected, Mom slowly told our entire community — family, friends, people at church, neighbors. She explained, again and again, the painful story of how her husband was dying of a rare degenerative brain disorder. She wrote about it frequently for her websites and blogs. “The diagnosis is a death sentence,” she often explained.

Dad would slowly fade away, one little piece at a time, until he was completely gone. He’d gradually become different, likely even violent, before the disease finally took him completely. If he was lucky, my mom said he’d have 10 years left to live. By 2014 he’d be gone.

Mom said that Dad likely wouldn’t be able to work for much longer. Mom said that we couldn’t safely live together anymore — and it was what dad wanted, for us to be safe from him. Mom said that Dad couldn’t always remember what he wanted for us; sometimes he didn’t even know he was sick which was, itself, a heartbreaking symptom of the disease.

Sometimes from my bedroom I’d hear Dad getting angry, arguing with Mom about the diagnosis. But mom assured us that in his moments of clarity, when the fog of dementia briefly lifted and Dad remembered he was sick and was able to express what he wanted for his family, he always said he wanted us to live separately. He always said to do whatever it took to keep ourselves safe from him.

“But isn’t there a hospital for this kind of thing?” I’d asked. I’d been told no and that it was important for us to respect his final wish: Our safety from him. My parents were both conservative Christians who believed in gender roles, so Mom explained that this was Dad’s final act as head of our household. We needed to submit.

For our one-income working class family of five — all three children still school age — separating from Dad threw us into a financial crisis. A crisis I couldn’t begin to imagine how we’d possibly survive. Thankfully, some members of our community stepped up to help.

My mom’s editor gifted mom and me frequent flyer miles so we could attend a conference in Philadelphia for those losing a family member to frontal lobe dementia. I spent a jetlagged weekend listening to speakers discuss grief and the pain and emotional mess of losing a family member without the usual finality and closure.

At the conference I met several parents who later connected me online with their teenage children. The pain and isolation of losing a parent to this life-shattering illness left my pen pals battling crippling depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and self harm. I had found my people. I wondered how many of us teens would make it out of this alive.

After my mom broke the news to my grandpa Hough (Dad’s dad) about Dad’s dementia, he added Dad to his cellphone plan. He worried that as the dementia got worse his son would start getting lost while driving or even just walking around town. A cellphone seemed like a necessity for safety.

Someone my mom knew offered their family vacation house on Camano Island for free. With all that was going on, they thought we could use some time away. They were right. Mom probably took us three kids there around five times, maybe more. It was a beautiful, peaceful home on some wooded property, and all we had to do was call ahead of time so they could drop off the key.

So many people — family friends, people from our church, and readers of Mom’s various online websites and newsletters — offered support when they learned about my dad’s diagnosis. Money and gift cards. Groceries and household items. A subscription box to locally grown organic vegetables. A one-time cleaning service. Thoughtful homemade gifts. Even practical things for the cats.

Our church, worried for our eventual safety as Dad’s health declined, paid all the move-in deposits on an apartment in Seattle so that my dad could move out. The apartment was close to his work. I hoped that meant he’d be able to work for longer.

Before Dad moved out, my siblings and I went with Mom to the store to pick out housewares for Dad’s apartment. “I think we should get the nicer spatula,” I remember saying. Money was incredibly tight, with the future looking even more financially bleak. But my dad was a professional baker and chef who was going to be living in a tiny apartment in the city, completely alone, as a brain disease slowly took his life. He was going to die in that apartment without a single one of his family member, not even one of our cats. The least we could do was not skimp on a spatula.

Two months after Dad moved out, the rest of us sold our house and moved to a mobile home in a different city.

My life ripped in half the day I was told Dad was dying. Before and after. My life had been permanently altered, and I had been too. After I was told Dad was dying became the landmark for when my eyes became hollow. For when I learned how truly lonely I could feel. For when I wanted so badly to give it all up but chose not to only because I had younger siblings who were financially dependent on me.

I was 17 when my mom began regularly referring to me as my siblings “second parent.” But I not only became a second parent, I became the breadwinner. It was a heavy load for someone so young to carry. I often felt so overwhelmed I physically couldn’t breathe. I felt crushed under the responsibility of keeping my family warm, fed, and off the streets.

I lived with my mom and siblings at the mobile home for eight years, moving out when I got married. And during the vast majority of those eight years (with the exception of two times my mom worked at a call center during the Christmas season, and one time she briefly worked at our church), I was the only person in our household of four working. My mom said she was too grief-stricken to work. And while grief and depression was eating me alive, I needed to do everything I could to help my grieving family survive. “I’m doing it for Dad,” I’d tell myself. “He can’t keep us safe, so it’s up to me.”

I paid for rent, groceries, gas in the car I didn’t drive, everything related to holidays, clothes for everyone, and so much more. When the power got turned off again, it was my responsibility to turn it back on. I paid for it all with minimum wage jobs and loans — loans I’m still repaying to this day.

It was grief though that weighted on me heavier than any of the loans or even the responsibility for caring for a parent and siblings at such a young age.

Due to grief, Father’s Day became the hardest day of the year. A time of year to survive.

As a kid, I remember making cards with construction paper and markers that read “#1 Dad.” After noticing how many Father’s Day gifts had pictures of ties, I tried to convince my mom to buy Dad a tie for Father’s Day. “But he doesn’t wear ties,” Mom said. “I know!” I thought. “That’s because he doesn’t have one!” I worried my super casually-dressed father was missing an essential part of his dad uniform.

When I was in my early-20s, and my family was attending a little Presbyterian church, I came to the conclusion that it was best to try to avoid leaving the house as much as possible on Father’s Day. During the children’s lesson, the senior pastor asked the little kids gathered at the front of the church to raise their hands in response to questions like: “Does your dad give you hugs when you’re sad?” and “Does your dad help you learn how to throw a ball?” The assumption was that all the children would raise their hands. But each time he asked a questions, all of the hands went up except one — my little sister’s.

Each time my sister’s hand didn’t go up, my heart broke. By the time she came back to the pew, she was holding back sobs. I grabbed her hand and escorted her out of the sanctuary. We stood in the church lobby, holding each other and sobbing. We sobbed as hard as the day Mom told us our dad was dying.

We sobbed so hard that several people at church who we barely knew, who had no idea why we were crying, came over so they could stand next to us and gently pat us sympathetically.

We sobbed so hard because our dad was gone. Even though he was technically still alive, we had no idea where he was. And even if we found him, he wouldn’t even remember he had children.

We sobbed so hard because we didn’t have closure — and never would. There was no grave marker with my dad’s name on it, no place to bring flowers. But yet he was gone. And someday very his name would be etched in stone but we’d never know where he was buried.

We sobbed so hard because we’d lost our daddy.

When I got married in 2013, the grief ripped me open all over again. It’d been 9 years since I’d been told my dad had 10 years left to live. This meant that while he might still be alive, he wouldn’t remember me.

He wouldn’t remember how much I’d been a daddy’s little girl. He wouldn’t remember how I’d raced the car every day he left for work so I could be the last one to wave him goodbye as I stood on tiptoe at the end of the street yelling “Bye, Daddy! Bye! I love you! Bye!” He wouldn’t remember how he took me to Starbucks to get a steamer every year for my birthday before anyone else in the house was awake. He wouldn’t wonder what I’d been up to since he saw me last, years ago. He wouldn’t even know my name.

Some people find memorial items comforting to work into their weddings. But I didn’t have the closer to find that helpful. And the idea of including a picture of him or a special candle felt weird and painful without that finality. If someone had asked me if my dad was still alive, I wouldn’t have known how to answer. “It’s complicated” would’ve been the most honest reply. He was gone, even if he wasn’t dead yet. But was he up there somewhere looking down on us? Or was that still coming? Not knowing hurt so much.

After learning I was engaged, well-meaning acquaintances gushed about how I must be so happy. The happiest time of my life. They asked about whether I’d found The Dress, what color scheme we’d decided on, and about my dad. “Will your dad be walking you down the aisle?” and “Are you going to have a father-daughter dance?” and “What does your dad think of him? Do they get along? When did they meet?”

Every time someone asked about dad, it felt like when I’d slip off the jungle gym as a kid. I’d land on my back so hard it knocked the air out of my lungs. Time stopped as I lay in bark dust staring up at the sky, back hurting and unable to even gasp for air.

When my fiance and I looked at a potential venue, I ugly cried in public. Imagining what it’d be like to stand there holding hands as we said our vows, family present … except my dad.

Like Father’s Day, my wedding became a thing to survive, an event to get through as quickly as possible. More than anything else, the grief that my dad wasn’t going to be at my wedding dictated wedding planning. From waterproof mascara to deciding to only have immediate family present, everything came down to missing Dad. (For more on this, read my article for Offbeat Bride Wedding Planning as a Fatherless Bride, and check out the comments too.)

A few years later, I was chatting with a maintenance man at our apartment complex. Somehow it came up that we both used to live in Olympia, Washington and even attended the same church.

“What’s your dad’s name?” he said. “I wonder if I knew him from the men’s groups.”

“Stuart Hough,” I said. I hadn’t said my dad’s name out loud in years and it hurt.

“Hmm. Don’t think I knew him. What’s your mom’s name?”

Thankfully, he couldn’t place my parents. So I didn’t have to explain that Dad was gone. It’s a small world though. I lucked out that time but other people from our old church did remember my parents. Other people even remembered being told my dad was dying and asked how my mom, siblings, and I were doing. They meant well but it hurt.

After I wrote a blog post about how hard it was growing up bisexual in a homophobic religious setting, my mom immediately cut contact with all three of her children, to the point of even blocking us on Facebook. While it was definitely the exact opposite of how someone hopes their parent will respond when they come out, it was honestly a blessing in the end.

Not long after my mom blocked us, I saw the homeless person who’d passed away while in Seattle. And no longer being in contact with my mom provided the space and freedom to begin to doubt and question how she’d handled things with Dad.

Even within a conservative Christian context, why was a sick man who couldn’t always remember his brain was deteriorating allowed to make important decisions regarding his own health?

When I talked with other people who’d lost family members to various forms of dementia, the family made choices based on what was best for their loved one (and the family at large). Why hadn’t my dad been cared for in a similar way?

Why was he allowed to move to an apartment in Seattle by himself? Why was he allowed to cut contact with his family when he was sick? When I’d met other people with family members suffering frontal lobe dementia at the conference, no one else ever said that the sick family member was moved to another city to live alone — and even if that’s what the family member had wanted, it wouldn’t have happened because it wouldn’t have been safe.

As my siblings and I allowed ourselves to question how things were handled, we realized our dad’s declining health had been handled horribly. We wondered if there was any chance he might still be alive. And if he was, we wanted to be there for him at the end. He’d been alone for years; he deserved to be surrounded by family at the very end, even if he didn’t know who we were.

If he was alive, we figured he’d probably be living on the streets. But how would we find him? Posters? Flyers? Ads in the newspaper? Calling homeless shelters? We were committed to finding either where our dad was buried or being there for him at the end. If at all possible, we were going to finally say goodbye.

To our shock, it only took a few days to not only determine he was still alive and locate where he was living but to also receive a message from him.

Dad texted us a selfie of himself sitting on his couch. He had less hair and more wrinkles but it was it him. We excitedly, hesitantly responded by calling. “Hi sweetie!” he answered. His voice was exactly as I’d remembered. As he talked, his mannerisms were exactly as I’d remembered, too. But I wasn’t the only one who could remember.

Dad asked us questions, including if we were the same height. He remembered each of our exact height. He remembered so many little details. He remembered us. Our dad remembered us.

As we started to get caught up over the next couple of weeks, we found out Dad was dating the same woman for a decade. That he lived in the same apartment building as when we first helped him move out. That he’d worked for the same company for years and had even been promoted several times.

Listening to him talk hurt. It hurt to think of all the years we’d lost. It hurt to look at his face for long because his wrinkles felt like reminders of all the time we’d lost together, so I’d try to look away as much as I could.

Dad told us about how he’d known Mom was saying he’d been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disorder. And how it wasn’t true.

My heart broke imagining what it must have been like to have his entire community, including his children, told he were dying. To have everyone told he was going to become violent. To have everyone told he wanted to live separately from his family, from his kids. And to know that no one would believe him because if he said he wasn’t sick, they’d say that was a symptom.

How horrible to know that no one would believe him because no one expects that someone would ever lie about something as serious as a family member being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

My siblings and I grieved our dad for over a decade, for no reason. All of that pain was the result of a lie. He was never sick. He didn’t need to move out. He didn’t want to be separated from his kids. He didn’t need to miss all the wonderfully ordinary things that fill up a decade of life. My dad didn’t need to miss my wedding.

It’s been a wild, horrible, bizarre journey. One that would better fit in a book than a blog post. It’s a journey that will always impact me. At 17 I felt the massive riff between me and my peers who hadn’t lost a parent. And now I feel an even bigger riff between me and everyone else. My dad was technically never even sick but I grieved his passing for years. When I find out someone I know lost a parent when they were young, I want to say I know how much it hurts because I’m a part of that club, too. But I’m not, not officially. Not anymore. Even though there’s still so much grief.

The more the reality has set in, the more I’ve swung between happiness, grief, and rage. The more I’ve felt physically sick. The more it’s felt like I entered the Twilight Zone. But as I continue to process, I can also feel myself healing.

In closing, I’d like to personally thank everyone over the years who supported my family. Your compassion was blatantly exploited. Your gifts, however, weren’t wasted. Life wasn’t kind to my siblings and me as we were growing up. Your gifts added light. Thank you for your love, support, and generosity.

I’ll never understand any of this. Why on earth my mother would lie that her husband was dying of a rare degenerative brain disorder. Or how my own mother could watch her children grieving the loss of their dad for over a decade, when it wasn’t even true. It’s the most baffling mystery of my life and the most painful thing anyone has ever put me through. I’ll never know her motives but it certainly feels like the most evil practical joke imaginable.

I’m thankful for those of you who helped make that nightmare a little more bearable.

All my love,


My dad and me in Seattle, shortly after we discovered he was alive.

“Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” (or Mulan, Fundamentalism, and Me)


It was 1999 and I was twelve-years-old as I sat on my bed listening to Christina Aguilera’s self-titled debut album on my Walkman to prevent the parental units from hearing some of the racier lines that weren’t exactly church-sanctioned—“Hormones racing at the speed of light / But that don’t mean it’s gotta be tonight … I’m a genie in a bottle baby / Gotta rub me the right way honey.”

I was an extremely sheltered Christian homeschool kid whose only real friends were other Christian homeschool kids at our church. The closest thing I ever got to sex ed., even while in high school, was when I was assigned to read I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity. The basic premise of the books when it came to sex: Just say no. We never even talked about anatomy, that was the Forbidden Zone.

But despite being so isolated even I knew that some of Christina’s songs could get her added to the ever-growing Banned List—the list that included things like Pokémon, almost all fantasy worlds besides Narnia, some Disney movies, computer and video games and movies that had magical components, and anything and everything that seemed to be going against my parents’ conservative Christian beliefs. Even I knew “rub me the right way” didn’t exactly fit with my family’s abstinence-only and no-dating/courting-until-you’re-old-enough-to-get-married rules.

Christina was my little secret. But what that album showed me as I sat in bed listening to her sing through my crappy Walkman headset was just how many secrets I had hidden.

I cried every time I heard her sing Reflection from the movie Mulan.

I will never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.
Can it be,
I’m not meant to play this part?
Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.

I was hiding so much more than some sexy lyrics on a Christian Aguilera CD.

Earlier that year my mother had confronted me regarding my clothes. The modesty teachings at church and home were already underway. I’d already began to feel like my body was wrong because it had the power to cause men to sin, so it needed to be covered up and hidden. However, when crop-tops are in it’s extremely hard to find anything in the Juniors’ Department that meets the modesty guidelines, and middle-school femininity felt so foreign and uncomfortable to me (lip gloss, glitter, and the works—although I did make an exception for butterfly hairclips because, after all, it was the 1990s). So I’d started dressing more androgynously, buying unisex t-shirts and cargo pants.

But it turned out that wasn’t okay, either.

“If you didn’t have long hair, you’d look like a boy,” my mother said one Sunday afternoon once we were home from church.

My frizzy hair was nearly to my elbow. But I would’ve chopped it off if it’d really been an option. I was told I’d have to wear a hat to church as sign of my submission to God, but it had felt more like it would have been a sign of shame. And I was instructed that I would have  to carry a hat everywhere I went because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to pray. Getting a haircut had sounded like a lot of work and a lot of guilt, so I kept it long. But I hated it every time I looked at my reflection.

After the comment about my clothes my mother asked: “Are you a lesbian?” In our world lesbian wasn’t a word used in polite company.

She asked if I’d been sexually assaulted, to which I responded no. I’d been taught homosexuality was a form of sexual perversion. There were degrees of perversion, but having a crush on another girl was just one step away from making love to a cow. At home I’d been taught that homosexuals had become perverted as the result of trauma; their sexuality was broken. Perverted. My mother thought I was perverted. Broken. My mother thought I was broken.

She said my clothes were ugly and that I looked like a dyke, a word I’d never heard.

I began to cry. “I’m not a lesbian! I’m not a lesbian!” I didn’t know if what I was saying was true but it didn’t matter.

My mind raced and the world felt swimmy as I thought of the time earlier that year when Misty, a girl from church, had grabbed my journal, refusing to give it back. Terror had surged through my whole body at the thought of her seeing the page of doodles I’d dedicated to brunette at church’s name.

I was terrified Misty would know what I couldn’t even put into words; what I didn’t even know yet, myself. I was terrified she would tell people what I couldn’t find the words for. But as she held my diary out of reach she flipped right past the incriminating evidence without knowing what it meant.

But can you be a lesbian if you still like boys? I’d only learned that “gay” could mean more than happy the year before, so “bi” was nowhere in my vocabulary.

“I’m not a lesbian!” I cried again, unsure if I was telling the truth. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t be one. I couldn’t be that word.

My mother began to get angry. She said I was lying.

“I’m not lying! I’m not a lesbian.” I wasn’t sure if what I was saying was true. But it didn’t matter because I planned to make it true. Or at least I would make everyone believe it was true.

She called me butch, an unfamiliar term I could tell was intended as an insult so it stung even without a definition. She called me an ugly lesbian.

Ugly. Lesbian.

And at that moment I decided that if this is what happens when you’re a lesbian, then I would never be one. I would do whatever I needed to do, say whatever needed to be said to avoid ever being called that word again.

She said I disgusted her. She said I made her physically sick.

I needed to get away from the accusations so I pushed past my mother, throwing my bedroom door open so quickly that it shatters the mirror behind it with a crash.

I ran down the hallway and out the front door.

I didn’t even notice that I’ve forgotten my shoes until I was already halfway down our street.

Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.

I chose to be a good Christian girl. I eventually got rid of my secular music, even Christina. I didn’t go on a single date in high school, or even for years after high school. I didn’t go to prom. I said I only liked boys. I said I loved being homeschooled. I read my bible and prayed every day. I was actively involved in my church. I said I was theologically and politically conservative. I tried so hard to squeeze myself into the box that everyone said was mine, but I’m not a contortionist so I got pretty bruised up as my arms and legs knocked against the walls of my prescribed identity.

They want a docile lamb,
No-one knows who I am.
Must there be a secret me,
I’m forced to hide?

I hadn’t listened to Christina’s song Reflection for years, but heard it by chance not that long ago. It brought 1999 back in all its butterfly-hairclip, crop-top, Christian Aguilera glory. It brought back the tears as I remembered the identity question Mulan and I were both so quietly whispering that no one even heard.

Can it be,
I’m not meant to play this part?

The Sign Twirler


Flickr CC Britt Reints

Just past one of the high schools Elton the sign twirler—although he doesn’t usually twirl so much as sway back and forth as he holds an umbrella—is standing in his usual spot. I’m not sure how effective hiring someone to stand in front of your business holding a sign is because even though I say hello to Elton every week I can’t for the life of me remember what the sign he’s holding says.

“I’m Elton. Like Elton John, only without the fame or fortune,” he said in a strong Tennessean accent upon introduction.

“Or rhinestoned glasses,” I added.

“I could take care of that,” he said. “I have a glue gun at home.”

He seemed so delighted someone had actually stopped to visit with him that I’ve made a point of doing it every week since. I wonder how many people not only miss Elton’s sign but miss seeing Elton altogether.

I think Elton sees everyone.

“Howdy, neighbor!” Elton always says when he sees me coming down the street. I ask him if he’s managed to stay somewhat dry and warm lately, and he says he’s happy to have finally been able to pull out his sunglasses (which are still lacking in rhinestones). He told me once that he worked as an engineer at Boeing for years, but then developed problems with his right hand and was no longer able to work there. He says he goes to regular physical therapy and that it’s slowly getting better. But for now he holds his sign.

“Have you always lived in the Seattle area?” I asked last time I saw him. Washingtonians say you can spot non-locals by their umbrellas. After all, Real Washingtonians pull up their hoods and charge on through the rain unabated without the aid of umbrellas. But even locals would pull out an umbrella if they were standing in one spot holding a sign all day, so it’s the accent and not the umbrella that gives him away.

Elton tells me that he  grew up on a farm in Tennessee, said he wanted to see the world once he was done with high school. And he did. “I was a pig farmer in the Philippines,” he tells me.

“Oh, really? How did you end up doing that?”

He says it was his wife’s farm, so when they got married they ran it together.

“I don’t think I’ve don’t much else,” he says. “I mean I lived in Japan and Canada, but that’s not very interesting.” However, I imagine that the story of how a small-town farm boy from Tennessee traveled the world, met and married a pig farmer in the Philippines, eventually moved to the Seattle region to work for Boeing and is now holding a sign next to the high school where he tells me his son attends contains a lot of stories that are, regardless of what Elton thinks, interesting.

“Did I tell you ’bout how I hired someone to come split some of my wood?” he asks. I say that I don’t think he has, so he tells me about how the people who stop by to chat with him are usually homeless and one time one of the men asked him for money. “So I told him if he was willing to help me with some work I’d be happy to pay him ten dollars an hour. He came over and we split wood together for most of the day, and then I had him stay for dinner. He comes over regularly now to help with things around the yard and we have dinner together.”

I notice how it doesn’t sound like charity when Elton talks. He doesn’t say he now regularly feeds the poor homeless man because he’s such a great guy; he says they have dinner together. I can tell that to Elton the man isn’t “a homeless man” or a member of “the needy,” he’s a person.

Sometimes Elton will mention factually how he’s hoping to finally land himself a better job soon. I’d hire him in a second if I had the money and any reason to actually hire someone; partly because he’s so nice and friendly even when there isn’t a supervisor peering down their nose to check on his customer service, and partly because I’d love to get him out of the rain. But I can’t hire him. So I wish him luck. I really hope he finds a job he likes soon, but I’ll miss him when he’s gone. One of these weeks I’ll get to his usual spot on the street corner and he just won’t be there anymore, no one will say “Howdy, neighbor!” And I’ll hope it’s because he’s finally found himself a place out of the rain.

My acquaintanceship with Elton is a little imbalanced; it isn’t quite fair. You see, I know more about him than I’ll allow him to know about me. He stands there holding his sign every week, so I know what his job is. I know his life probably isn’t going according to plan right now. But he doesn’t know where I’m going.

He doesn’t know that when he sees me once a week it’s because I’m walking to counseling. He doesn’t know my life isn’t going according to plan, either. He doesn’t know that sometimes I bring my rhinestone-free sunglasses with me so that on my way home he won’t know I was just crying. He doesn’t know that even though the sun is out and we’re both sporting our sunglasses just how much darkness and cold has worked its way into my life.

He doesn’t know how much is hiding behind the smile I always put on, even when things are bad, with the hopes of adding a little sunshine to his day because I can see how much it means to him that I stop to say hello. And I might be the only person all day who does. Besides, he’s not being paid enough to play therapist for me.

“Where are you off to today, neighbor?” he says.

And I respond with my usual, “Oh, you know, just running some errands.”

He nods towards that fire ball in the sky we so rarely see around here and says, “A good day for errands.” I agree.

“Try to stay dry this week,” I say, turning to give Elton one last wave as I continue my walk to counseling.

Halfway Out of the Dark: Candles, Christmas, And the Winter Solstice


[Trigger / Content warning: A deadly shooting, and a scene involving child abuse]

It was 32 degrees that morning as I stood at my regular bus stop next to 7-Eleven. I’ve never done well with cold temperatures, so I pulled out all my winter gear: down vest, black water-proof jacket (a wardrobe staple in the Seattle region), thick socks, winter hat, and gloves.

Right below the bus stop sign there were glass candle holders with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The weather hadn’t been great that week—lots of wind and rain (it’s Washington, so mostly rain). But the four candles were burning.

There was a balloon on a stick stuck into the ground reading, “I love you.” Another read, “Thinking of you.” There were flowers strewn on the ground. The artificial ones were still standing up smartly, still holding their color. But the bouquets of real flowers hadn’t survived all the rain and had turned into a soggy mess of petals, stems, and tissue paper on the concrete.

I’d brought flowers, too. I’d written a card. I’d made a sign reading that the regular riders of our bus route remembered. That I remembered. But now it was all gone, just a part of the water-logged mess.

But the candles burned on.

I hadn’t known the victims—a seventeen-year-old boy and his father. They’d been sitting at the bus stop around five in the afternoon, right at peak when they charge you an extra 25 cents. They’d just been sitting there at their regular stop. At my regular stop. And someone drove by and shot them right there.

The younger brother was there too, but news report said he wasn’t hit. But that’s not true, not really. He wasn’t hit; he was shattered. His world ended at five o’clock in the afternoon as the rush hour traffic was just beginning to form.

Lives were taken. Lives were shattered. Evil left its mark. Darkness entered our bus stop and our neighborhood.

But the candles burned on.

Candles like that don’t keep burning forever. They have to be lit, and relit. It was morning. It was cold. But someone had already been there to light them. Someone made sure that they burned on. There were puddles of wax around the candles. They had obviously tipped over, spilling hot wax onto the cement. But someone had righted them. Someone had relit them.

The candles burned on during the longest nights of the year.

As a small child I didn’t even know when the Winter Solstice was but I’d been warned against it. I imagined pagans dancing around bonfires, casting spells, and playing with tarot cards as The Satanic Bible peeked out of their back pockets. The Winter Solstice was spiritually scandalous. It was the time when all the dark things crept out from under that dusty, cluttered spot under your bed; all the mischief and mayhem that lurked in the shadows, afraid of the light, beckoned to one another to come out and play.

But now, as an adult, I’m beginning to find a tremendous amount of comfort in the Winter Solstice. It’s a time of darkness but not dark doings. It’s a time for light to shine. It’s a time for the candles to burn on when we need them most.

Every time I stand at my bus stop I’m reminded that somewhere, very nearby, a family is mourning. For them this festive time of year is undoubtedly a time of anguish. Their hearts are grieving, hurting. If the Wise Men showed up at their home, they’d bring myrrh.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

I have two friends whose fathers passed away recently. They’re living in the shadow of death as Jingle Bells pays on the radio; living in the isolated valley of grief and loss.

There were four warm, friendly white-haired women who sat in front of the husband and me at the little church we sometimes visit—I think of them as our Lutheran grandmothers. Despite my religious trauma, these adorable older women have helped their church feel safe. And I found out this Sunday that one of them passed away. Her funeral service will be three days before Christmas, on the longest night of the year.

I had to call 911 last week because of a domestic disturbance across the street. I looked out the window when I heard scared children screaming, “No, Dad! No!” to see an angry man waving a large kitchen knife aggressively as his children jumped into a car that quickly pulled out of the parking lot, driving them to safety. I feel like I haven’t even recovered from the scene, so I know the children haven’t.

So much darkness. So much hurt. And that’s only looking at the small sliver of humanity  I have access to. When I turn on the news or read articles online I’m greeted with more darkness, more bleakness. So much violence. So much pain. So much sorrow. So many people in need of shelter and safety. So many people who are afraid, and rightfully so.

I don’t know how to handle it, this darkness. So much death and grief and brokenness, so much pain. The darkness is so thick that sometimes it makes me feel like I’m chocking. And December, despite all of the holiday lights and super sales, has a way of making that worse.

December is a time of year that can bring with it great joy and also great sadness. It’s like the Great Multiplier. Whatever feelings you’ve been experiencing already are multiplied, accentuated, and accelerated. When you’re already feeling an ache in your chest, tears are already threatening you at gun point, it makes it even worse. So much worse.

One of the most comforting moments in this month for me is on Christmas Eve. Even though I no longer identify with the religious tradition of my childhood, midnight Christmas Eve services still bring comfort and hope. I hold my red pew hymnal and my candle while singing Joy to the World. And in that moment, there’s light.

The candle burns on.

I have a thing about candles. They can be symbolic or spiritual or sentimental or sensual or scented (and I’m sure all sorts of other alliterations I can’t currently think of). They’re a little bit of light in the dark.

This little bit of light doesn’t fix everything. Or anything, for that matter. It doesn’t mean death hasn’t touched our lives; it doesn’t mean that existential crises have come to a close; it doesn’t mean healing has finally been achieved; it doesn’t that we’re feeling all sappy and sentimental every time we hear Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Last Christmas playing over the noise of people shopping. It doesn’t mean things are fixed. It doesn’t even mean things are okay. It doesn’t mean we like the holidays, or any of this.

Candles don’t fix things. They don’t heal things. But they provide just a little bit of light.

To me the light—symbolic and literal—this week of the Winter Solstice and Christmas reminds me that I did it. It reminds me of a line from my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special, a sci-fi retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.’ Back on Earth we call this Christmas or the Winter Solstice.”

The holidays can be an extremely hard time of year for a lot of people. And if you’re feeling that way, may the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, remind you that you’re halfway out of the dark.

In a few days the holidays will be over. In a few days we’ll be changing out the calendars. In a few days you take down the holiday wreath, burn the tree, and never be forced to say merry fucking Christmas for an entire year. In a few days the sun will begin to resurface. In just a few days.

Well done. Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark.

I’m tired of being a Christian


I’m tired. I’m tired of being a Christian. People say it’s only a term, only a word but that word feels like the lead apron at the dentist’s office. It’s pushing down on me from all sides, clipped tightly around my neck. It carries the weight of the hearts that have been wounded and the spirits that have been broken in the name of Christianity.

It carries the weight of teenagers who have been kicked out of their homes — gay teens and unwed mothers. It carries the weight of women who have been told to submit to their abusive husbands. It carries the weight of women who question their value, their worth, because they were raped or had sex with someone they loved before they were married. It carries the weight of so many tears that have been shed after someone was verbally accosted by a Christian. It carries the weight of scars and wounds that run so deeply they’ve latched onto people’s identities and sense of self-worth.

And I’m tired. I’m tired of being a Christian. This isn’t irritation or angst; it’s exhaustion.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means I have to believe that I have a monopoly on ethical living or spiritual truths. If my personal creed needs to be forced on or applied to anyone other than myself, than this isn’t for me. I’m tired of the policing in the name of righteousness, which really just starts sounding a lot like I’m-more-right-than-you-ness. If enforced, unasked for “accountability” is the rule, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means I have to be certain. I want to be comfortable with “I don’t know.” I want to relax into it. To deeply breathe it in and out like the fresh, salty, restorative ocean air. I want to welcome my doubts, to open the door when they knock, rather than trying to hide them out of sight. If I have to know for sure or debate every little theological point until I can present a list of tenets worth defending until death (be it mine or my opponent’s), then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means spouting theological bumper stickers when life is crumbling, cracking all around like a house under demolition. If saying “Life is really shitty now” would be inappropriate for a Christian or somehow unfaithful or if it’d be expected that I add in a trite little “But God will work it all together for good!” at the end to ease the discomfort of my listeners and to showcase my faith in redemption, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means that it would not only bring dishonor to the name of God but that it would also be a sin if I were to stand in front of a crowd on Sunday morning and proclaim my love of God. My teaching would bring shame. My praises would be sin. If being a woman is so shameful that my words of homage would bring scandal and humiliation, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means that referring to God as Mother is heresy. A God who mothers; a God who kicks down the door to the Theological Boys’ Locker Room; a God who understands and welcomes me. If insinuating that maybe the Creator of the Universe is a little like me, a woman, is sacrilege, then you can let me off at the next stop. I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means damning love to Hell. I want the outgrowth of my faith to be love not protesting someone else’s family. I want to encourage, support, and defend romantic and familiar love. If I’m expected to picket and condemn loving, happy families, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means spiritual practices are strict and ridged. If writing instead of going to church doesn’t count; if reading poetry or coloring in the morning instead of reading the bible isn’t good enough; if praying with color, scissors and glue, and quiet, overwhelming feelings when there are no words doesn’t count as real prayer; if the fact that watching a sunset fills me with more peace and awe than reciting liturgy isn’t religious enough, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means saying that every fiber of my being is wretched, tainted, depraved. At the beginning of the world God looked at her creation and declared it good. And I’m part of that creation. There’s fire and magic in my personhood; there’s a holy hellion in my heart; there’s a wild mystic in my soul. If believing there are sparks of the divine in me and every person I come in contact with is heretical, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means silencing those who have been hurt by the church. If we’re just expected to read the bible every day despite the panic attacks; if we’re just expected to go to church every Sunday despite the scars; if we’re just expected to keep our mouths closed because our church experiences were traumatic and less-than-stellar, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

It might only be a word but it carries the weight of so much pain and sorrow. But somehow, despite it all, I still find myself clinging to Christ. As a child sitting in children’s Sunday school he seemed to say: “It’s okay, you’re welcome here. Come sit down right here next to me.” And now God calls again, she calls, Mother calls, welcoming me to sit down next to her. And I do. But I’m worn out. I’m exhausted. I’m tired.

A Sunflower for Gilbert (Or, that Time I went to Hungary)

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Honestly, I’m not sure we were supposed to be up there in the first place. Or even out of bed for that matter because the school, in order aid in the celibacy of the students, had a strict curfew. But there was something about quietly sneaking through a dark castle with towering ceilings and great windows that felt, to use an Anne word, romantic.

We weren’t kindred spirits to begin with. It’s not that we ever fought, but common ground seemed to be in scarce supply.

I’d only graduated from high school a matter of weeks before. Only spoke English. And was living and traveling on my own for the very first time.

Hermina, on the other hand, had grown up in Serbia, but after attending a university in Hungary had decided to call it home. She was very well traveled and spoke multiple languages fluently.

And we were roommates.

My ex-denomination had a bible college in a tiny rural town in Hungary. During the summer the old Hungarian castle — yes, it was a castle — served as a conference center for pastors and missionaries throughout Europe. And in 2005 Hermina and I found ourselves living together for three and a half months as we volunteered during conference season doing dishes, making beds, working in the coffee shop, and enjoying our one day a week off work.

As an “on fire” Evangelical youth I’d gone to Hungary with the goal of aiding those who were sharing the Gospel. However, what I actually ended up doing was converting someone to the Gospel of Saint Anne of Green Gables, patron saint of romantics and misfits everywhere.

One of the American staff members at the college owned all of the Anne films on VHS and Hermina, to my horror, had never even heard of Anne. So we located an old TV in a finished section of the attic that was used during the day as a classroom for the teachers’ children.

We didn’t have a lot of time for movie watching, so it took us a while to get through the films. But every night that we could, after the Hungarian castle was asleep and the lights were off, we’d tiptoe through lonely rooms that in their previous lives may have held grand balls but now, only a few hours before, hand been bustling with conference guests.

We’d climb several flights of spiral staircases with wrought iron handrails. And then, when we got to the top floor, would open a small door that looked like a closet but was  another set of stairs leading to the attic. Once there, we’d sit on the rug in front of the TV since the furniture in the children’s classroom was all on the small side. Hermina would lay on her stomach, taking in every moment, as I sat there feeling proud of my new convert.

The Canadian films were very foreign to Hermina. And some aspects about the historical context and word usage required a little translating.

“Why does Anne have such a strange last name?” She asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Of Green Gables — What kind of last name is that?”

“‘Of Green Gables’ is more of a title,” I explained. “It’d be like if I called you ‘Hermina of Serbia.'”

But one thing translated just fine: Gilbert Blythe. We may have been different when it came to age, education, and the section of the globe we called home but we both couldn’t help falling in love just a little with that steadfast Canadian. We fell in love with the idea of a romantic someone encouragings us in the pursuit of our dreams rather than standing in the way. The idea of being loved for both our mind and our daydreams. And the idea of being loved because of, not just in spite of, our quirks and faults and even the beauty we couldn’t see (like carrot red hair).

He wasn’t some rugged bad boy tamed by the love of a woman. Or a two-dimensional Prince Charming. Gilbert was the character, the man, who showed us what it meant to be cherished.

I loved watching Hermina react to the story that was by this time very familiar to me. It made it feel new again. She was annoyed with Gilbert when he had the nerve to call Anne carrots and pull her braid (and appropriately shocked and proud when Anne responded by cracking a school slate on his head). And then when Gilbert started to grow up and his admiration and love for Anne became increasingly obvious and endearing, she lamented Anne’s long-held grudge. She’d routinely ask, “Is she ever going to like him?” And I’d just laugh but wouldn’t say a word.

Hungary will always remind me of Anne and Gilbert, not just because I had the chance to share their story with Hermina but because Hungary would’ve suited them so well.

Anne would’ve loved spending a summer in that castle; she would’ve imagined the love affairs that had transpired there, and the ghosts that couldn’t bear to leave. She would’ve loved strolling through the little town past a small Catholic church with an overgrown, forgotten cemetery; the petite cottages that lined the street and were practically overrun with flower gardens; and the bright orange sunsets.

She would’ve loved the summer storms that seemed to roll in out of nowhere, and how the lightning would be so close that during the night it’d light up the entire castle like something out of an old horror film and how the windows with their old locks would sometimes blow open during an especially hard gust. She would’ve loved Budapest: the architecture, the vastness of the city, and the romantic but not-so-blue Danube.

Anne would’ve loved my favorite part of Hungary, too. She would’ve loved the fields of yellow as far as the eye could see, so bright it hurt my eyes. When Hermina and I’d drive in to Budapest I’d point out the window like a little kid who’d just spotted the gates to Disneyland for the first time. Look at that! It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. “Kelsey, they’re just sunflower fields,” Hermina would laugh. But there will never be such a thing as just sunflower fields. And Anne would’ve understood that.

And Gilbert would’ve loved how happy Hungary and the sunflowers made his Anne girl.

Like so many fans of the books and movies I’m heartbroken about Jonathan Crombie’s death (the actor who played Gilbert). But he will always live on in the movies and my memory as the one and only Gilbert Blythe. I’d leave a sunflower at his grave if I could. My memories of sunflowers and Hungary and late nights spent watching Anne finally, slowly, fall for Gilbert are all so closely tied together that no other flower would seem appropriate. But this will have to do, instead.

Wishing you fields of sunflowers, Gilbert.

Reflections on a Month of Marriage

If my life were a romantic comedy, the Mr. Man and I would now be exactly one month past when the credits would’ve begun to roll, indicating that the goal, marriage, had been reached and that there just wasn’t much more to tell.  After all, how much real excitement could happen if everything else can be summed up in “happily ever after?”

The Mr. Man and I just a few hours before our wedding.

The Mr. Man and I just a few hours before our wedding.

Because real life often isn’t like the movies though — well, maybe some dark indie comedy but not really the they-rode-off-into-the-sunset blockbuster variety — I’ve made a habit out of asking newlyweds whether married life is what they expected. Now, because I obviously have a lot of insightful things to say given my four whole weeks of experience, I thought I’d write a blog post answering my own question: Is marriage what you expected?

Marriage is Hard

The most common thing that friends have said surprised them about marriage is how hard it is, which always surprised me because it seemed that since they could still count the number of days they’d been married it shouldn’t really be hard yet.  After all, they should still honestly be in the mists of believing that the sun shines out their spouse’s butt, right?

Well, I feel like I get it now.  Or at least I’m starting to.

Marriage, even only the first four weeks, really is hard. There are so many changes, especially for couple’s like the Mr. Man and I who also moved in together for the first time after the wedding. I love the fact that we waited to move in together but it did make for a lot of changes. New apartment — I’d never lived in an apartment before. New name — or at least I’ll have a new one once the paperwork is finally all figured out.  New immediate family — a husband is so much more than a roommate because, unlike with a roommate, I don’t even have my own closet or bed or anything, really.  We share everything (okay, well, not everything because my toothbrush will always be off limits).

In addition to all the changes, there’s also a lot to figure out together.  How much money will we budget towards food?  Do potato chips count as “food” or does that come out of the piggy bank dedicated to random crap? What time should we eat dinner? If we eat soup every other night would that be “too often” or simply fantastic? Which way are mugs stored in the cupboard — up or down? How many evenings a week do we watch TV or a movie together? How many evenings should be screen-free? How much time do we dedicate to our introverted need to recharge individually? What time do we go to bed?  Do we go to bed at the same time? What temperature should the thermostat be set at? Are we eating enough veggies? What are we doing for Christmas? And so on.

So many changes, so much to figure out.  And in the midst of it all, life still happens.

Life’s Still Messy 

As we drove away after the wedding, family waving and hugging and wishing us well, I felt elated. Despite anxiety and grief leading up to the wedding for a variety of reasons, things had gone smoothly. I’d enjoyed myself and, while it might not have been perfect, the wedding was beautiful and I loved it. As he drove to our apartment, I sent out a mass text I’d written earlier that day announcing to friends (our wedding only consisted of immediate family) that we were now, officially, hitched. So happy.

When we got to our apartment, we carried my last couple of bags and a few wedding presents upstairs. I waited on the porch, shivering but happier than a kid on Christmas morning, as he brought everything inside. “Your wife is getting cold!” I called in after him. At that, he came out and carried me in fireman style.

The day was lovely. But, to no real surprise, I also ended up crying later that evening because my daddy hadn’t been there. While the grief certainly didn’t ruin the day, I was aware of the hole where my dad should be — especially during family pictures — and I still cried once I arrived at my new home. Life’s messy; sometimes it’s happy and sad all at the same moment.

The Messiness of Adjusting 

Things have continued to be messy in their own right as we’ve gotten more adjusted. I was sick most of the first week and had to go to the doctor.  You know, going to the doctor for bladder infection medication less than a week into married life is one of those things they seem to leave out of the films. We both had the stomach flu over Thanksgiving. And my anxiety disorder made things interesting for the first two weeks as I began to relax from all the pre-wedding stress and get used to the apartment. I’d wake up in the middle of a panic attack almost every night because the neighbors upstairs were vacuuming at 2 am again or sometimes because I wasn’t sure where I was, which meant that neither one of us got a decent night’s sleep until I’d gotten at least a little used to sleeping in the apartment.

And, when I finally thought everyone was well and things were going a bit smoother, I knocked myself unconscious by running into the side of the bathroom door. Yup. So, currently, I’m home from work with a concussion (please note, if there is an abnormal number of typos in this post, that’s probably why).

Things Are Beautiful, Too 

Mr. & Mr. Munger

The new Mr. & Mrs. Munger

In addition to the messiness, we’ve had a lot of fun too. He took me to the Seattle Symphony for my Christmas present, introduced me to the BBC show Sherlock (and, next, I’ll introduce him to Doctor Who), and we started reading The Princess Bride and Jesus Feminist before bed. We’ve gone grocery shopping, unpacked a few more boxes, practiced saying my two new favorite words — husband and wife — and bought Christmas presents for our families. We’ve listened to Christmas music while doing the dishes, discussed feminism while cuddled up on the couch, and talked abut theology and modern American Christendom as we drove home from a Christmas-y date in Seattle.

He’s also reminded me again and again of exactly why I married him as he’s had plenty of opportunities this month to live out the “in sickness” part of our vows. He’s brought me breakfast in bed when I was sick and continues to now that I have a concession, cleaned the entire apartment when my to-do list was longer than my stamina, and held me tight when I needed it.

It’s been quite a month. We’ve planned and dreamed. Cried and giggled. Kissed and apologized. We’ve learned new things about each other as our own insecurities and fragility and, sometimes, brokenness becomes more evident. And we’ve learned new things — or at least I’ve learned new things — about ourselves, too.

Yes, marriage is messy and it’s hard work. And life seriously doesn’t go according to plan sometimes (concussions, for example). But, nonetheless, for whatever my few weeks of experience is worth, I think being married is beautiful.

Copyright 2014 Kelsey Munger. All rights reserved. For reprint permission, email me at KelseyMunger1[a] Stay up to date by following me on Facebook or Twitter