The air was crisp but the sun shone bright in the Northwest Indiana sky. Christmas Eve would normally signal a time of excitement for a 13-year old, especially for me because my 14th birthday would be in three days. However, Christmas lost its magic and luster over the years and this was about to be, arguably, the worst Christmas I’ve ever had.
Before I continue with this story about my Christmas Eve of 1984, you need to know about my grandpa. Grandpa Struble was a wiry, silver-haired ex-sailor with a gruff personality. I spent most of my younger years testing his authority. Every time, he showed me he was not the type of person to be messed with. He never had much to say, but when he spoke, people listened. I understand my grandfather probably wasn’t the best father to my dad and uncle, but we grew close after my parents divorced. He and I spent a lot of time together, often walking down to the park in the summer to watch Little League baseball games (the fact I never played Little League is a whole other story). I would mow his (extremely large) yard in the summer, which was how I earned enough money for my first baseball glove. Some of my most cherished memories are of playing catch with him.
Early on in ’84, Grandpa kept getting sick. At first, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. By Christmastime, brain cancer had its death grip on him. I had been told in November how bad it was and by the middle of January he was gone from my life. What a gut punch!
So, back to Christmas Eve. I walked into the house early in the afternoon and I had to ask myself several times what I was doing there. You see, my dad and his second wife, Mary, were in the middle of their ugly divorce, but my brother and I were invited to Mary’s parents’ house for the typical holiday celebration. To say it was awkward was an understatement! Mary’s family never liked my dad anyway and I knew it. Everyone knew it. It wasn’t like anyone tried to keep it a secret.
Mary’s mom, (Gran to me in those years), always treated me as one of her grandchildren though. As a matter of fact, we went on summer vacations in their RV every summer with the rest of the cousins. When my brother and I were with Gran and the cousins, it was easy for me to forget this wasn’t my real family. It was everyone else that reminded us we didn’t belong; that’s what I was feeling on this day… I didn’t belong there.
My grandfather was in the hospital fighting for his life, my dad and Mary were going through a divorce (the second divorce my brother and I would go through in six years), and now I’m spending part of the holidays in the lion’s den. I tried to “act normal” but apparently this wasn’t working because people asked me several times that day, “Are you ok?” No! I’m not ok! My life is falling apart all around me and I’m obviously in a place I’m not wanted! But I would just politely smile and tell them everything was great.
For Christmas, Mary’s only nephew received a model train set. Not knowing how I should be acting or what I should be saying, I got excited for my cousin and moved in close to look into the box with him to see what all he received. Maybe I deserved it, but one of Mary’s brothers pinched my shoulder, pulled me back and told me, “You have your own train set. This is his!” He was a large and strong man. For two weeks afterward, I had a bruise on my neck and shoulder from him pinching me!
I didn’t know what to do. I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me. What was I supposed to do? At that point, I was done trying to act like everything was “normal”. I was done! I went out into the family room, away from everyone else, hoping this torture session was almost over. Several of the adults came out and saw me sitting by myself and chided me for “pouting” because I didn’t get a train set. Never in my life had I felt as unwanted as I did right at that moment and I finally broke. Again, the adults reprimanded me for being upset about the gifts I received or didn’t receive but never once showed any true interest in knowing what was really going on with me.
What you should know is that I’ve spent my whole life fighting this feeling of being unwanted. When my mom and dad divorced and he left, I thought I was unwanted by him; but he came back for me and I went to live with him. I felt like my dad really did want me after all. However, he immediately turned around and married a woman who found it way too easy to beat us. We were clearly unwanted by her. Mary’s dad and brothers clearly didn’t like my dad and by association, I was unwanted by them. Because my mom lived all the way in Nebraska while I lived in Northwest Indiana with my dad, he and Mary convinced me I was unwanted by her as well. Somehow, knowing my grandpa was going to die, I convinced myself that he, the most important person in my life at that time, didn’t want me either. Some of these feelings of being unwanted were legitimate; some were not.
Not too long ago, someone asked me why I never kept in touch with Mary’s family after the divorce. I didn’t really have an answer at the time but it dredged up all of these memories that, for the most part, I had successfully buried deep in the darkest chambers of my mind.
That was such a dark time for me. I was lost. I didn’t know where I was going; I was angry and I started to spiral into depression.
Something miraculous happened, though, in the middle of my freshman year in high school. My mom came to save the day! I don’t have the time or space here to explain how dark things had gotten for me, but it was almost like being buried alive. Just as I was about to accept my fate that there was nothing more than this, my mom came to my rescue. She shined a light into my dark world and pulled me out just in time. Not to be overly dramatic about it but this was what it was like for me. What my mom did for me in those years made me the man I am today. She taught me how to take responsibility and how to be a hard worker (no one works harder than single parents in my mind). She also taught me that while I cannot control what others do, I will always have control over what I do (and think). Most importantly, she showed me how much I was wanted!
Divorce has a way of making people feel unwanted and I guarantee most of the people reading this have been affected by divorce in one way or another. Maybe you don’t think about it consciously but it’s hard not to struggle with thoughts of being unwanted. Unwanted by your ex. Unwanted by your parents or grandparents. Maybe you married into a family and struggle because you don’t feel you are truly wanted as part of the family. This can wreak havoc with your life.
Everyone is different and deals with things in their own way, but if I could say one thing to you today that helped me, I would say, find a place where you are wanted. Not to oversimplify it–I wouldn’t want someone to walk away from a relationship just because things are hard. What I do mean though is that you should set healthy boundaries and enforce them. Evaluate your own actions to make sure you are not causing those around you to feel unwanted. And most importantly, don’t allow fear to run your thoughts and emotions. Super easy right?
Listen, I would never have made it if it wasn’t for someone like my mom to pick me up, brush me off and set me on the right course. All you need is one person to help you break the lie that you are unwanted. If you don’t have that person in your life now, find them. Pray for them to come to you. Do whatever you can to get the right people around you because I guarantee once you surround yourself with the right people, you will realize how truly wanted you are after all.