On the outside, I looked like a man, grown-up, clean-shaven, sometimes dressed in black slacks, a colorful Ariat shirt, and Altras. But inside, I was just a pup, like Ben the grizzly, old funeral director in Forest Grove called me. It was a freezing cold winter day when he picked me up in the hearse to head to the Banks Cemetery atop a hill. Its location meant it was all the colder. I shivered as I slid onto the black leather seat, the light blue coffin behind us. He had on his black, thick wool, long, blanket-like coat, black gloves, grey and black scarf, and black, wool hat. He looked at me and smiled his practiced grin and chuckled, “Well,” he said in his deep baritone, “You ain’t nothing but a pup.”
It was not a putdown. Ben just spoke what he saw and he was right. I was a kid, a boy in a man’s body. Deep within, when I was really in touch, there was a 2-year-old, 5-year-old, and many other ages at which I was stuck. Things hit hard when they needn’t. And when they hit, I reacted. Indeed, I reacted before I felt or thought. In order to find out what I was thinking, I talked out loud. I needed to hear what I said before I knew what I thought. Years later, this tendency frustrated my patient wife, who actually thinks BEFORE she speaks.
When a child, I felt lost, unable to connect to the people around me, isolated. As I grew, I still felt like a child within. My two older brothers’ favorite game was “Ditch Brian,” because I was a pain to be around. Really. They were older than me by five and seven years, I wanted to be like them and do what they did but was seriously uncoordinated and unpredictable. One moment I was acting like a happy, laughing kid, and the next, I became an erupting volcano of emotion. Everything felt big emotionally, while I felt little within. One day, as a toddler, I was playing with one of those big, red pencils, and drove it into my thigh. I was inconsolable. Also, I was marked. Just like the indelible mark of the abuse showed on my soul, sixty years later, that purple bruise still marked my thigh.
Mopping the dining room floor as a 7-year-old, while my dad convalesced in the room from knee surgery, I slipped in my bare feet on the already mopped floor and fell on the mop’s metal handle. I split open my upper lip and broke my front tooth. Blood spurted out filling my mouth and running all over the floor. My screams alerted mom to come from the kitchen. My dad, never ruffled, was unable to be of any assistance. Mom got ice and a towel on my lip, cleaned up the floor, and then rushed me to the doctor. I got stitches. Then, she took me to the dentist, where I ended up with a silver cap over my front tooth.
Again, I was marked. That tooth looked huge and ugly to me. It accompanied me, even led the way, for the next eight years. With it, it felt like I stood out in the worst way. It stared back at me from every mirror. I felt little, isolated, and also, ugly.
We had lined up for a family picture outside of our house. My mom needed a campaign picture to run for the open city council position. We ended up with three pictures, which captured me. In the first, wearing my favorite green, knit polo shirt with blue and white stripes, I had puffed out my chest trying to be like my mental picture of what my big brothers looked like. In the second, my brothers having made fun of my posture, I pouted, face down, chest deflated, and my stomach pushed out in defeat. In the third, the picture for the poster, before which my mom had given me a quick word, I looked like a kid, just standing and smiling. I was marked by emotion and confusion. I didn’t know who I was.
At ten, a good friend, Anthony, was overnight sleeping in my big bed in the overflow room. We kissed accidentally that night and this shock of joy surged through me. What was that? It felt like electricity. I wanted to try it again, but he did not. The three-year devastation of sexual abuse (age 5 to 8 at the hands of the associate pastor of our local church more fully described here) had ended two years before this instance. I’d buried the abuse so deeply; it was not accessible. But I had been marked by it, and that night it showed up in the first thrill of connection.
By that age, the end of 4th grade, I had experienced 10 years locked into an emotionally incestual relationship with my mom. She used me to process her life and feelings and had emotionally replaced my dad in her life with me. Because of this, I had tried to run away as a 2-year-old. It was at age 10, I came to the traumatic conclusion, I could not remain a boy and please my mom. Since, from my perspective, she didn’t like my dad and he was a boy, I needed to reject being a boy. I was astute enough to know, I was not a girl. I felt trapped in no place at all. Inside, I felt little, confused and afraid someone would find out the truth and reject me.
In sixth grade of all my classes, I only loved Miss Sousa’s choir class. We went on a winter choir tour in December to Santa Cruz and went to the Boardwalk amusement park. That was the highlight of Middle School. But, by late winter, my classes overwhelmed my life. Fear enveloped me. Physical Education class taught by retired military marine George Otis Dudley was crippling. “Notice what my initials spell,” he growled. “I expect to be obeyed.” He taught P.E. as if we were in Marine Seals’ Hell week. German with Frau Rector stumped me. I was getting an F. In science with Mr. Sealy, I floundered. I was behind in reading and English.
The pain began before summer. Heel pain radiating up my legs. It became so severe, I could not walk. I got cortisone shots in my heels and progressed to walking casts up to my knees.
Then, I was put on crutches and finally, around Christmas, into a wheelchair. I suddenly became popular in that thing and got pushed at high speeds around the school. All this time, I hurt.
Finally, my mom took me to a psychologist, who after meeting with me a few times diagnosed me: “Brian cannot stand up to life.” That was it.
No one asked the obvious question: “What happened to Brian to cause this response to life?”
But the doctor’s diagnosis did prompt mom to decide I would walk, damn it. So, on a bright, California, February day, about a month before my 13th birthday, she met Ken and me, who had pushed me home, at the back porch. She stood there in the brown-framed screen door, one hand on the door, the other on her hip, in her pink and yellow apron, and said, “Brian, get up and walk inside!” I shuddered. It would hurt. I didn’t want to hurt. “I can’t,” I whined.
“Yes, you can, and you will!”
Ken didn’t say a thing. Haltingly, I stood and walked, crying all the way, up the two cement stairs, across the cement porch dad had poured, into the house. Ken brought in the wheelchair and went home. So, I did walk again, and by my birthday in March, was bowling.
I was broken in relationships, so God used new relationships to bring healing. One person at a time. There were women and men, of course, but in this story, I will highlight how God worked healing through men who showed up, hugged me, held me, walked with me, listened to me, and loved me into wholeness. Many guys became surrogate dads, mentors, friends, accountability partners, brothers, and, along the way, I had opportunities to pour my life then into others.
Through the years, I’ve discovered how interested God was in making me whole. My warped image of God over the years made him into someone waiting on me to remake myself. But in contrast, God was in pursuit of me, constantly seeking to use everything to mold me into the fullest image of His love. Could it be, this is the same way He views you? Not as a project, but as a loving pursuit?