Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Saying Good Bye to the Stepmother I Never Knew

On Sunday, August 27th, the stepmother who raised me during my formative childhood years passed away. Her name was Stella. She was 91 years old.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel any personal loss when I learned Stella had passed. The truth is my stepmother and I were not very close. I haven’t been secretive about the fact that I’ve had to be healed from some aspects of my upbringing under Stella. Sometimes when Stella got very angry, something would “snap” and she’d inflict rather bizarre, humiliating forms of punishment on me, my younger sister and my older brother. On top of this, the Stella I remember was always distant and almost always quite miserable and angry. If I had any tender moments with Stella, they for some reason didn’t stick in my memory.

In the time since she left my father (Ed) and his three kids 37 years ago, I had reconciled with Stella, though we’ve had very little contact. Two years ago I visited her for an afternoon in Detroit since I learned she might not have long to live. We had the best exchange I think we’d ever had.

In the early 1970’s, shortly after leaving us, Stella became a “born-again Christian.” To say she changed is the understatement of the century. Stella was in fact the single most thoroughly transformed person I’ve ever known. She became a sweet, lovable, tender lady who said “Praise Jesus!” incessantly and handed out religious tracts. Not at all like the woman who raised me!

In any event, yesterday Shelley (my wife) and I flew to Detroit, attended Stella’s funeral and spent the day with rest of the family. What an enlightening day! Among other things, I heard story after story about what Stella was like before she married my father and they all revealed a woman very different from the lady who raised me. As told by her daughters and all who knew her well, with the exception of the 11 years Stella was married to my father (along with the two years or so it took for her to recover from the marriage after the divorce), Stella was a loving, caring, rather carefree spirit. This loveable disposition intensified greatly after she became a Christian, but it was there before–except for the time she raised me and my siblings.

One of Stella’s two daughters (who is about 10 years older than me) told me how shocked she was with her mother's negative transformation. She said she wondered to herself, “Where did my mother disappear to?” Stella’s happy-go-lucky, vibrant personality became militant, miserable and vindictive.

What changed Stella? In her view, it was her marriage to my father. If there are marriages made in heaven, this one seems to have been made in hell. Both Stella and my father came into the marriage with lingering love for their former spouses. My father had recently lost his wife, my biological mother. And Stella and her husband had been forced by the Catholic Church to annul their marriage because it was revealed that her husband had been previously married and they faced excommunication if they stayed together. (I never knew this till yesterday!) They chose their religion over their love.

On top of this, my father was a difficult, demanding and somewhat eccentric man. I knew this already, but I didn’t know the extent of it, nor the impact it had on Stella. From the perspective of my older sister and two half-sisters, he made life absolutely unbearable for Stella. (My father always said the same about her). My three older sisters all think Stella may have suffered a breakdown of some sort, or at least that she was always on the verge of one (and this would explain her tendency to “snap”). I learned that when she finally left Ed and his kids, it was on the advice of a psychiatrist who felt it was necessary as a matter of survival for her.

She agonized over the ethics of the decision, I'm told, but after a year or so of being out of the marriage, the former Stella began to return.

I had already been freed of all anger I had toward my stepmother growing up. I forgave her almost thirty years ago. But learning about Stella outside of the 11 year period she raised me gave me a sense of compassion toward her. I came to appreciate more fully how myopic my childhood perception of this unfortunate woman was. Despite her sometimes abusive behavior toward me, this was a woman who was doing her best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

And to my surprise, at some point during the funeral I began to feel something I hadn’t felt before: a personal sense of loss over losing my stepmother. But the sense of loss was directed more toward the wonderful stepmother I never knew than to the tormented woman who raised me.

Yet, I have no regrets. At every turn, God has overcome evil with good. While God of course didn’t will much of what I and my siblings went through -- or what Stella and my father went through -- I firmly believe he’s used all of it to further his sovereign purposes. I would not be who I am today had I not gone through what I’ve gone through. And so for all others involved in this family.

Among other things, God used our unfortunate experiences to help bring me, Stella and my father into a transforming and healing relationship with Christ. I look forward to the day when the three of us – and hopefully the entire extended family – will embrace as we celebrate the goodness of God whose love conquers all evil and heals all wounds.

Without regrets,