My neighbors signed my report card.
Having had the same conversation countless times in my life, I have learned that one sentence sums up a cacophony of explanations.
It is tricky, I have found, trying to explain why friends are listed as my emergency contacts, why I wake up Christmas morning in the home of people to whom I am not related, and why my parents — both living — have been anything but.
The separation started so long ago that I struggle to remember exactly when it began. When I was starting middle school my mom’s depression hit hard and fast. My dad, who understands love as a finite commodity, could not muster any for me. Loving her meant giving all of it to try to save her. His attempts and inability to do so created a stress that amplified his MS from inconvenient to disabling.
In a moment, it seemed, they were gone.
We were wealthy and Southern and had everything that went along with both: a close-knit community, punctilious social obligations, and money to stay afloat. In the world in which I grew up, everyone surely knew everything about everyone, but damn if they weren’t polite enough to pretend it was all OK. It was a magnificent masquerade.
But the truth remained: I was an orphan.
Too often, the notion of orphans is met by one of two extremes; whimsical literary heroes such as curious Tom Sawyer and adorable Little Annie, or humanitarian images of dirty cribs and naked babies. These aren’t necessarily bad.
We need to boldly participate in the human race to ensure no child is hungry or naked or vulnerable. I know many people who have been lucky to welcome beautiful children into their families from all over the planet. They are right to do so and I celebrate it, but this is not about those orphans.
This is about the orphans among us.
Spotting one is easy. I have learned that “family” is meant to imbue three things: identity, value, and belonging. Kids, who have a sense of what they are about, self-respect enough to make choices which defend their worth, and the freedom to explore and come home with whatever they may find on their adventures – remain rooted at home wherever they may be.
I saw a boy on the sidewalk yesterday with blood-red eyes holding a lollipop. Someone in that boy’s life abdicated the responsibility to show him that he is too smart and strong and creative — too precious — to walk around lost in a haze of drugs.
I saw a girl at the gym last week, sickly thin and an hour deep on the treadmill. You can’t convince me she hasn’t resolved in her heart that only a certain type of person is worth loving. Orphans engage life at dangerous levels of superficiality.
To think it is just kids is myopic. A dear friend, long estranged from her father, buried her mother a few months ago. She is not yet 30, unmarried, and in a city far from where she grew up. She is too poised to say it but there are times when the loneliness in her face is unassailable and confronting. I have seen those eyes in the mirror. She needs a family. She needs someone to step up and say, “You’re with us. Come hell or high water, on your best days and your worst ones, we’re here, non-negotiably.” She might then begin to process the grief.
Frankly, the epidemic of orphan-hood has become so widespread that there may be a little bit of orphan in all of us. Our complex, hurried world launches all sorts of attacks on a human’s identity, value, and belonging.
In friendship, in family, in romance, let’s recognize that hearts may look elsewhere in order to discern who they are and what they are about. If it is a healthy place to which they turn, consent. Pray. Believe God will hold all things together, as God promised God would.
Even when they would resurface occasionally, my parents humbly allowed others to take the reins, to participate in moments and emotions that were sacred to my development. The separation was too deep, I was too hurt to need or want them, and they knew the people who embraced me and places to which I ran were full of life.
I am grateful for that — for them and a commitment to hold things with an open hand, even when it meant they lost. In doing, they gave me back what the darkness had stolen from all of us.
For me, it was a long, difficult search to find where I fit and who I was. It happened in myriad ways, big and small, through a great many people, all of who turned up before I even knew I needed them and without the designs of my hand or imagination.
My neighbors, the ones who signed the report cards, gave me a list of chores and asked hard questions. I couldn’t evade things such as, “Are you having sex with your boyfriend? Are you being safe? Are you drinking?” I was 17 and accountable to someone and something.
My best friend graciously shared her family, constantly fighting her own demons tempting jealousy. She came to see her place in their eyes as irrevocable and I saw someone who believed in who I could become enough to make sacrifices on behalf of that belief.
My pastor and his wife always seemed to care about me, regardless of how much liquor perfumed my breath when I’d stumble over for our regular Monday night dinner. They have one child, but all over the planet there are people who call them parents because they made room for a few more on Monday nights.
And then ... the Turners.
I met them around the time I could no longer run from the past (literally and figuratively), when I had a choice: to confront the fear that built the walls that kept anyone from having a chance at loving me or impenetrably hobble through a lesser version of life.
They dug in their heels and stood with me as I weathered some gnarly storms. Two knee surgeries, one crushing heartbreak, graduate school, debt, a cross-country move (no wait, two), rape, an eight-country travel itinerary, a lay-off, the betrayal of friends, a totaled BMW, moving my father into a nursing home, nine birthdays without a husband but hope that love will come, and so many more.
It took a year and a half before I would see their daily call and not think, “Why are they calling?” I had no idea there were people who’d call you every day.
Eventually I did. Eventually it became the most natural thing in the world. The Bible says that orphans are placed in families; and for a long time I believed in that and mistook having a family as the end, — the prize in and of itself.
But what I have found — and what I pray the orphans among and inside us discover —is that being a part of a family, in time, stops erasing the pain of abandonment and starts being about the power of the future.
It begins with an orphan and a family, but it ends with one trajectory being propelled into another.
Night becomes day. Weeping gives way to dancing. Death is undone in resurrection.
Sarah Johnston lives in Seattle where she is a Finance Manager at Amazon. Originally from Florida, she spends most of her time cold, wet, and pale. She holds an MBA from Duke University and considers herself one of the luckiest people on Earth.