Monday, April 21, 2008

A Tale of Two Sisters

We have two daughters. They are sisters by birth, separated in age by just about two years. They have many physical similarities. They are both very beautiful. They were born with luxuriantly thick, wavy (sometimes frantically curly) black hair which surrounds warm, tan skin and velvety dark brown eyes.

But in personality they are very distinct from one another. Our fifteen-year-old daughter is reserved, moody, aloof, boundaried. So much like her father (me) I sometimes marvel that I contributed nothing biologically to her origins. Our thirteen-year-old daughter, on the other hand, is outgoing, cheerful, bubbly, open. She in so many ways has the personality traits of her mother (my wife).

When they arrived at the ages of six and four, I thought the younger daughter would be the challenging daughter. I anticipated that she would be the one to push boundaries, question authority and act in consistently defiant ways. And don't misunderstand, she does, at times, exhibit some of those attitudes. But when the fire has burned to coals, she is remorseful, apologetic and ready to reconnect and move on. To this point she has become the easier daughter to understand and manage.

Last night our younger daughter and I had dinner together. Sunday evening is traditionally "each person for him/herself" in our home in regards to food (we usually have a large lunch together on Sundays), and occasionally I will take one of the kids out to talk and have a meal together. We had a lovely meal together (the food was average family dining fare) with good conversation. She is an excellent conversationalist, loves to talk, but has also learned to listen to others and is aware of their needs and concerns. We covered a gamut of topics ... what it's like to go to college, how she wants to be a reporter, what is appropriate sexuality (in our family's book it is wait until marriage), and on and on. By the time we arrived home I felt the satisfaction of a parent who has had numerous healthy, helpful interactions with a young teenage daughter.

We returned home and I was sitting at my desk in our bedroom, processing email, when I heard muffled sniffling behind me. Turning around I discovered the source of the emotional breakdown. Our fifteen-year-old daughter was wrapped in a blanket, her eyes puffy and red from crying, her voice husky with emotion as she asked if she could go to a friend's house to stay overnight. There were several strikes against her request. It was nearly 9:00 PM, and typically we don't accommodate last-minute requests, especially on school nights, and she had spent most of the past weekend with the friend in question. I told her why I was inclined to say "no." She left the room, and then returned to sit on the bed.

Once again I took my fingers off the keyboard, turned around and asked in most gentle, loving father, seminary-trained therapeutic voice, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I just want to go to ____'s house."

"Well, I've already explained why that's a bad idea. You are obviously emotionally upset, and I think it's better for someone so upset to be close to familiar surroundings and get rest. Why don't you call her?"

"It's not the same."

"Yeah, I guess you're right about."

Long, long pause. As in multiple minutes.

"So, would you like to talk to me about what's going on?

"No. I don't know who I can trust."

Another long pause.

"Do you think your mom or dad might be a place to start?'

"Not yet. I'm not ready to do that."


The minutes tick by as she sits on the bed, shrouded in a blanket, silently sniffling, and as I sit quietly in my chair. We share the silence together. Is it healing? Is it therapeutic? I can never really tell. But I have few words to say, and she has even less.

"What can I do to help?" I query. My question is met with weighty, though not icy, silence. Then she speaks.

"There's nothing you can do. Only time will tell."

"Only time will tell what?" I ask empathically.

"Only time will tell what the outcome of this will be."

And the statement hangs in the room, dripping with intrigue.

"You know," I remind her of what we have said multiple times, "all of our children have disappointed us at some time or another. You would not be the first, not would you be the last. If we talked about this you might feel a lot better."

"I'm not ready to do that yet."

"I understand that. But this big secret you are carrying with you is overwhelming you. Isn't it time to do something about it? I mean, the power of a secret is the hold it has over you. Until you get it out it will hold you captive. It will always be there in the back of your mind."

She looks up at me, nods her head in agreement, and stolidly maintains "I can't talk about it."

And so I, the father that always thought she would be the easy one to raise, the father who has always held out hope that she would have the internal strength to make good choices even when others around her do not, I say: "Well, you know that we love you and nothing you have done will ever change that. When you are ready to talk to me or to mom we will be ready to listen and to help."

As she burrows into her self-constructed hiding place physically and emotionally, she looks down, averts eye contact and assumes the quiet posture of the tormented. Together we sit in the silence of the moment, until some seven minutes later she breaks the silence.

"Are we done talking?"

"I don't know, you tell me," I say in my calmest, most pastoral voice I can muster.

"I guess so, then," she utters in resignation as she lifts her sullen body from the bed, enfolds herself in the blanket and wordlessly exits the room, her dignity intact but her soul crushed from the secret she harbors.

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