Ascending from the Flames
We are the hero in our own story. There are defining moments in our lives when we slay our own demons, come to the aid of those in need, or simply transform our lives from mundane to sublime. These hero stories have been retold around the fire in days of old, written about in novels, and enjoyed on the silver screen. These mythical moments happen every day. They are what make the journey that we call life both deeply meaningful and mysterious. They are common, they are rare, and they are sacred.
It is in the seemingly common moments that we forget to see humanness transcended. We mistakenly believe the story is about finding the prize, rather than the searching, as in the story of the Holy Grail. We forget that courage does not mean a lack of fear, but rather continuing on despite one’s terror, as Bilbo Baggins did. We forget that many times the hero first descends into hell before rising up out of the flames. This is one such story.
Many of you know the story of my brother Michael. He committed suicide at the age of 27. What you may not recall, is that he struggled with drugs and alcohol, mental health issues, gangs and violence. He himself was a victim of abuse. His early years were beyond challenging. Our mother was married four times, and several of her husbands were violent alcoholics. She died at the age of 59 of chronic lung disease after nine years of physical illness, and a lifetime of emotional unbalance. Michael was 21 years old at the time of her death. He never knew his birth father, and while this seems on the surface to be a sad piece of information, it may have been one of the few blessings he was granted during his short visit on this earth. The life-cards he was dealt were not the best. There was no royal flush, not even a pair. My sister drew from the same deck, and her hand was much the same. She, however, made better choices about which cards to discard, selected some new possibilities, and played with a steely determination that kept everyone guessing until the winning hand was played. This is the story of my youngest sister, Dawn.
Dawn grew up in the same household as my brother Michael. She and Michael and my mom “escaped” from Dawn’s father when she was a very little girl, so Dawn also grew up without a father, again a stroke of luck. During the rest of her childhood, she only had one parent to contend with, and while there is a lot of concern about single-parent families, the alternative can be even more devastating. Fortunately, the heavens did smile down on our heroine, and thankfully our Mom, at this point in her life realized that her choice in men was, shall we say, flawed (besides, having a single Mom proved to provide ample opportunities for Dawn to overcome her youth). Dawn cared for a sick and emotionally abusive parent, rebelled, and married at eighteen in search of a sense of family. Finally, after two weeks in intensive care and two respiratory failures, Dawn helped make the decision to remove our mother from life support. She became parentless days before she turned nineteen, and we celebrated her birthday on the same day as the memorial service for our Mom.
This is not the place of a new beginning, not the place of the happily ever after ending. Following her childhood trauma, Dawn’s marriage was filled with betrayal and abuse. Her life was complicated by post traumatic stress disorder, hypochondria, and depression. She had two children. She was in the system. She lived on welfare and was at the mercy of subsidized housing. She divorced and remarried. She lost the only other family members that she could recall having lived with: first her grandmother to cancer and then a year later her brother Michael to suicide. All of this before she was twenty-five. Statistically, the odds were not good. She was still in the game, but no one, much less me, thought she was in a position to win. And then, something shifted deep inside her. Who knows what, perhaps it was tenacity, or longing, or pure rage. It happened shortly after our brother chose to escape the hand of fate and fold. Dawn decided to play it differently; she chose to up the ante. She enrolled in college.
For nearly three years my sister has been on the Dean’s list, a non-traditional student in ways beyond the date that appears on her drivers’ license. She is nearly a straight A student, who has two elementary school children at home. Her area of study is the social sciences, and her dream is to work for social services. There is little money in this work, but it is my sister’s work to do. She was specially made to serve troubled families, for who knows better about hopelessness. She knows this as the child whose parents were absent and ill-equipped to be her guides. She knows this as a young and single parent, without the education or the wherewithal to provide for her family. She knows what it’s like to be despondent and dependant on others for the very basics needed to survive. But perhaps most importantly, my sister knows other things. She knows how to rise from the ashes. She knows how to rise from the very flames of hell and become that beautiful bird that transcends this human experience. She is a heroine, claiming her rightful place in the stories of the great ones who have won against impossible odds. Who better to serve America’s families, than one of America’s own heroes?