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Life in the BlenderBlending Families, Lives, and Relationships with Grace
By SANDI PATTY
W Publishing GroupCopyright © 2007 Sandi Patty
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Chop and Mix Cycles
Mending and Blending Broken Hearts
Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! -2 Corinthians 5:17 MSG
First United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, where I was born, is more than one hundred years old. Called "First Church" by its members, it stands across the street from the national memorial marking the site where the Murrah Federal Building was bombed on April 19, 1995.
The violent explosion killed 168 people, including children. While our whole nation grieved over the tragic and senseless loss of life caused by the bombing, smaller losses were mourned as well. The blast caused such severe damage to the grand old First Church structure that the congregation was displaced for three years while its destroyed sanctuary could be rebuilt. Among the treasures lost when the front walls of the old building collapsed were First Church's beautiful old stained-glass windows.
Almost before the dust settled, volunteers and church members lovingly collected the fragile shards of glass from the heaped-up rubble of the collapsed walls. Over the next five years, they carefully put those pieces back together in totally new creations-crafts, decorative items, and mementos that became beautiful and meaningful works of art.
Today, wonderful new stained-glass windows glow on the building's reconstructed façade. One of them, in the chapel, includes a single piece of unbroken glass that miraculously survived the blast. On that unblemished piece is the face of Jesus.
The windows at First Church are especially meaningful for people like me, and for families who feel like their lives have gotten all cracked up and glued back together-who know what it's like to be broken and end up in a totally new creation. We are living out the powerful truth of the inscription on one of the windows: The Lord takes broken pieces and by His love makes us whole.
The First Fact of Blended Families
We laugh a lot in my family. (You know, with eight kids, you have to either laugh or cry about something just about every day, so you might as well laugh. It feels better and costs less-no tissues needed. As my kids constantly remind me, "Mom, you've just gotta find the joy.") In this book, I want to share a lot of laughter with you. But before we can get to that point, there's a somber fact we have to establish. It's the difficult cornerstone all blended families share. I call it the first fact of blended families, and sadly, it's this: every blended family is born of loss.
Whether it's through death or divorce or an unmarried parent who was never part of the picture, a blended family comes into being because something precious was lost. And that loss brings pain.
It's the pain of brokenness, a kind of hurt I know oh, so well.
My first husband and I separated after fourteen years of marriage and divorced two years later. And just let me acknowledge right here that those of us who have been through divorce dislike it when others use the word broken, even though we often use it to describe ourselves. Children of single-parent or blended families hate to overhear gossipers whispering to each other, "You know, those kids come from a broken home." When a marriage ends, especially when children are involved, it's not just our home that's broken; it's so much more than that. It's our heart, and we don't like to think that our innermost feelings, our anguish and hurt, are out there for public review and commentary.
A friend of mine married a wonderful man whose wife had died, and I've watched her go through many of the same issues with her stepchildren that I've experienced. No matter how you end up in a blended family, there is loss, there is pain, and it's always a challenge to be a parent to stepchildren without coming across as trying to replace the original parent.
My own blended family is the result of two divorces-Don's and mine. While it's tremendously hard on any adults and children to go through a marital breakup, in my case, I made the bad situation exponentially more painful by the poor choices I made during that already distressful time. The full story of my sin and restoration as a "new creation" in God's kingdom is told in my book Broken on the Back Row. But I hope this greatly condensed version will help you understand how I caused myself and my family incredible pain even beyond the "normal" agony a family goes through when it's split by divorce.
Let me just take a breath here before I lay it out for you in one succinctly sordid sentence: while I was still married to my first husband, I had an inappropriate relationship with Don Peslis, who was also married.
What I did would be a scandalous sin for anyone to commit, but frankly, I wasn't an anonymous "anyone." I traveled the world as a well-known Christian recording artist, singing out the gospel message before large audiences. But as my career peaked, my private life plummeted. Unhappy in my marriage, I found friendship, comfort, and love in another man-Don-then I lied about what was going on.
I understand and probably deserved every hurtful thing that happened to me when my shameful behavior was finally revealed and I acknowledged what I had done. Emotional upheaval, estrangement from friends and colleagues, and a career that dropped from the mountaintop to the valley seemingly overnight-those were just a few of the consequences.
I had no one but myself to blame. Still, I was determined to face my failures head-on and make a new start. I could take whatever came my way. What nearly killed me, however, was that my children got hurt by the public humiliation that descended on me, and they hadn't done anything to deserve it and were too young to even understand why it was happening.
Ironically, the turning point came for me one Sunday before things came to a head-while I was still in the midst of the emotional train wreck, separated from my husband and in love with Don. At that stage in my life, I felt very far from God, and I was miserable, knowing the dark secret I was living and fearing how it would affect my career and my future if it got out.
It was my turn to have the kids that weekend, and I decided to take them to a different church in our Indiana hometown. After quietly dropping the kids off in the Sunday school that morning, I settled into a seat on the back row of the balcony and cried my way through the service, quietly releasing all those pent-up emotions. When the sermon ended, the pastor stepped down from the pulpit and took a few steps down the aisle, inviting visitors to stand and introduce themselves. No way was I doing that! I didn't want anyone to know I was there.
Then that pastor, Jim Lyon, said something that took my breath away. "Maybe you've been visiting with us here this morning, and you're not ready to tell anyone your name," he said in his kind, warm voice. "Maybe all you want to do is sit on the back row of the balcony and cry. That's OK. We want you to know that the God we serve knows how to find you there. He hasn't forgotten about you. We serve the God of second chances, the God of new beginnings. We serve the God who sets His children free."
Pastor Lyon told me later he hadn't noticed me in the congregation-didn't know that someone actually was sitting on the back row of the balcony, crying. But, looking back on that day, I see him in my mind's eye as someone who was walking through the rubble that day, helping me pick up the shattered pieces of my life, just as those First Church members had picked up the broken shards of their beautiful, shattered windows in Oklahoma City.
Over the next few years, he and other leaders at the North Anderson Church of God would guide me through a long and challenging process that restored me to the church and deepened my personal relationship with the One who had died so that I could be forgiven for all my sins, no matter how scandalous they were. With the help of those caring, devoted church friends, I laid those broken pieces of my life in the hands of our Savior, who "by His love makes us whole."
Pop-up Pain: Acknowledging the Hurt That Hides
All of that turmoil and grief happened so long ago, and our family is so happy and content today, that I guess I had hoped all the hard stuff had finally been put to rest and we had moved on. Maybe I actually believed we were past the hurt. That's how I first intended to write this book. But what I've learned (again) as I've collected my thoughts, along with the kids' perspectives, is that a blended family's pain doesn't necessarily end even when everything seems settled and time has faded the hardest memories. The pain may lie dormant for a while, but it's still there, and it tends to pop up occasionally, needing to be acknowledged so it doesn't fester into an even greater wound.
For me, it reappears out of the blue, as it did that day when my teenaged Erin, remembering the troubling times of divorce and remarriage during her earliest preschool days, told me she'd never felt she knew the whole truth about what was going on with the adults in her life-adults whose truthfulness she needed to trust.
Or it comes out in a simple question, as it did one night while I was watching TV with our adopted son, Sam, who settled in with me to watch a movie. Even though it was a family flick, it touched briefly on an adult theme.
"That person is married to someone else, isn't he?" nine-year-old Sam commented thoughtfully as the plot unfolded.
"Yes, he is," I said.
Sam was quiet for a moment, thinking. Then he said, "Is that what you did?"
"Yeah," I answered grimly. "It was."
It was just a passing moment, a fifteen-second exchange between a mother and a son, but it was also a brief episode of pop-up pain that reminded me yet again that, although it may occur in different ways and varying intensities, every blended family has to repeatedly work through the pain of brokenness to get to the beauty of wholeness.
Sometimes the pain comes in haunting images that reappear unexpectedly in my mind like bubbles rising to the surface from a ship that sank long ago. One of those images comes from the evening when my first husband and I gathered our four young children, then ages two and seven with four-year-old twins in between, and broke the news to them that Mommy and Daddy were separating, and we would no longer be living in the same house. Erin was too young (we thought) to understand what was happening, and Anna, the oldest, had already been told, one-on-one. That left the twins, Jonathan and Jennifer, to absorb the full impact of this news that would turn their world upside down.
None of the kids said a word as we explained, as gently as we could, what was going to happen. But Jenni's little face took on the saddest expression, and a single tear rolled slowly down her soft cheek. It is that tear, silently staining her precious little face, that returns to my mind again and again, reminding me of the pain our children went through.
For Don's son, Donnie, the painful image is of him as a tiny boy, crying and clinging to his daddy's leg as his parents were separating.
You don't have to be in a blended family to be haunted by these hurt-filled scenes. Recently, my Women of Faith friend Sheila Walsh described in her weekly newsletter an encounter she'd had years earlier that had left a lasting image in her mind:
I was waiting to board a flight from Dallas to Pittsburgh when I became aware of a little boy sitting beside a man I took to be his father. The boy had the airline's "unaccompanied minor" packet around his neck, so I knew he was flying alone. When it was time for children to board, the boy stood up and put his Barney backpack on. His dad walked with him to the door and bent down to hug him good-bye. When I got on the plane I realized that the child was sitting just across the aisle from me. He had his head down and his seatbelt tightly fastened. Later when we were served drinks, I noticed that he couldn't get his bag of nuts open, so I asked him if I could help. He handed me the packet. "That was my dad," he said. "I see him every summer."
"Did you have a good time?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied. Then he turned his face away, toward the window, and said, "I'm not crying."
My heart ached for that little boy. He was only about six years old and already his life was torn in two and his heart was broken. I wondered if he carried the burden of blaming himself for his parents' separation, as so many children from divorced families do.
It was so like Sheila to reach out to that little boy with kindness-and also with prayer. Her story shows us something good that can come from this hurt that doesn't go away, these pieces of pop-up pain that remind us where we've been. By remembering our own time of brokenness, we can offer Christ's love and comfort to others whose lives still lie in pieces amid the rubble. We can show them through our actions-and when it's appropriate, through our words-what Sheila wrote in her newsletter: "There is healing in the will of God, a pulling together of all the pieces of our lives. It doesn't mean that we will always understand what is happening to us, but we bring our torn edges to him who holds us together."
Loss of Place
Besides the loss of an intact family of origin, those living out life in the blender face other losses as well. Many times the children will lose their birth-order rank. For example, Donnie was the oldest of Don's three kids, so he enjoyed the status of being big brother to two little sisters, of being the "little man" who shared a special place in the family lineup. That ended when Don and I married. In our blended family, Donnie landed smack-dab in the middle of the birth-order rankings. He went from having all the status and privilege of being the firstborn (at least as much status and privilege as one can manage when he's four years old) to becoming that socially disparaged cliché: the middle child.
Donnie admits now that it was a little rough, but although he gave up his oldest-child ranking, he quickly established his undisputed place as the family comedian; we can always count on him to crack a joke or make some comment that causes the room to erupt in laughter. Donnie also wants me to tell you that, although he is not the oldest child in our blended family, he is "still the coolest."
In addition, adults and children in blended families may lose a literal sense of place-their family home. The transition phases that they bump over as they go from intact family through separation, divorce, possible relocation to another city or state, remarriage, and blending can take a toll on children-and their parents too. They may find themselves living in a different place at each different phase, maybe having to change schools and make new friends while missing their old ones. Sometimes changing financial situations mean the children leave a house where everyone had his or her own room and move into cramped temporary (or permanent) quarters.
Early during my separation from their dad, my four kids and I crowded into my parents' smaller home when it was my turn to have them with me. Before Don moved into a bigger home after his divorce, he temporarily lived in a one-bedroom apartment where Donnie and his two little sisters would sleep crossways on Don's bed while he slept on the couch when it was their turn to be with their dad.
One of our kids remembers that during the transition "sometimes we bought milk on a certain day when the coupon was good, and there were times when we couldn't have cereal for breakfast because there was no milk. We went from having huge meals every night-salad, meat, two vegetables, and dessert every night-to having simple suppers, like sandwiches or a bowl of soup."
Find the Joy!
Thinking about those days, our hearts ache to think how confusing and exhausting life must have been for our weary kids as they were passed back and forth between parents and houses and, in my kids' case, lived in different homes on various days of the week, every week. It was a hard time.
Yet there's something surprising in those challenging memories too: laughter. As Don says, "Some of our best memories came from those days when Donnie, Aly, Mollie, and I were becoming a new family, just the four of us, in the apartment and later in the two-bedroom house. We got to know each other all over again; we got to know who we really are."
They still laugh about some funny things that happened as they were settling into their new life as a different kind of family. Some of those stories are about Aly's and Donnie's various sleepwalking and sleep-talking adventures. The three children, all under age six or so, shared a single bedroom and a set of bunk beds, with Donnie sleeping on top and the two girls sleeping in the bottom bed. As Donnie tells it now, it took awhile to adjust to their new sleeping arrangements.
"We were sleeping, and I had to go to the bathroom," he said. "I climbed down the ladder. Well, for a little kid, climbing down that ladder was a pretty good distance, and our bathroom wasn't very far from our room. So in my sleep state, when I got to the bottom of the ladder, I figured I was in the bathroom, but I was actually standing right by the girls' bed. I dropped trou and ..." You can imagine what it was like for Don, sleeping in the other room, to be awakened in the middle of the night by the hysterical screams of his two little girls.
Excerpted from Life in the Blender by SANDI PATTY Copyright © 2007 by Sandi Patty. Excerpted by permission.
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