One winter night in 1994, the confrontation that had been brewing for months, finally erupted. When I heard my 14-year old daughter stumble into our apartment past curfew again, I summoned her to my bedroom. "I love you, Kellee, " I said, "but I've had it. This behavior can't go on." She lifted her chin defiantly. How had my innocent daughter turned into a wayward teenager? I could see the sweet, vulnerable little girl inside her, but I just didn't know how to reach her anymore.
Kellee and I had moved to Huntington Beach in the middle of the previous semester, and adjusting to a new school was hard for her. So, I had looked the other way at first when I found her hanging out with a bunch of older kids whose top priority seemed to be having a good time. Kellee had never taken her studies as seriously as I, a former teacher, would have liked. "At least she's making friends", I tried to reassure myself.
Then she started coming home at all hours, her eyes glazed, her breath foggy with alcohol. "I'm disappointed in you," I'd harangue her. "I have high expectations for you, and I know you can live up to them." Kellee didn't listen. If anything, her behavior got worse.
That February night, I'd had all I could stand. "I won't have you drinking and taking drugs," I said firmly. "Not while you are living under my roof. If you stay here, you live by my rules." "Fine," Kellee snapped. "I'll leave then. You won't have to worry about me anymore." "I'll never stop worrying about you," I protested. "I'm your mother." Not saying a word, Kellee snatched her purse and walked out. "The door's always open..." I called after her feebly. I was pretty sure she was just going to stay with a girlfriend for a couple of nights. Still, a terrible fear crept into my thoughts. What if Kellee had walked not just out of our apartment, but out of my life altogether?
I sank down on my bed, more discouraged than I had ever been. My fiance' had called it quits recently, a blow that hurt almost as much as my divorce from Kellee's dad. Now my daughter was gone too. For as long as I can remember, I had pictured myself as a wife and mother. I'd failed miserably on both counts. "What do I have left to offer?" I wondered. Despair swept over me and I gave in to it, sobbing so hard, it ached to breathe. Finally, drained, I got up to try to pull myself together. But when I saw my reflection in the bathroom mirror, the hopelessness of my situation struck me anew. Not only had I been unable to handle the all-important responsibilities of wife and mom, I couldn't even find a job to give me the smallest sense of accomplishment. No employer would hire me looking the way I did, and I couldn't blame them.
My face was covered with ugly blisters, the result of osteomyelitis, a type of bone infection. It had started after a minor accident during a root canal nine years earlier. The tip of a metal file had broken off and lodged in the root of my tooth, causing an infection in my jawbone that had failed to respond to treatment, and had spread to other parts of my body. Now my appearance frightened even me. I turned away from the mirror. Back in my bedroom, I paused at the window. Gazing out into the starry night, I started praying. "God, please protect my daughter", I pleaded, picturing him wrapping a deep purple blanket around Kellee to keep her safe. I knew it was up to him now. "And please help me find peace in my life." I lay down again. The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was the electric, tree-top angel I'd saved from Christmas and hung above my bed. The soft glow of its lights always brought me comfort, comfort I desperately needed that night. "God release me from my pain. What's the point of going on? Everyone I love leaves me."
I hadn't been sleeping long, when I found myself getting out of bed. I walked out the front door and stood on the balcony, looking at the sky, a canopy of midnight blue. Then, amazingly, I was floating over the balcony railing, up into the velvet expanse. I realized I must be dreaming, but I felt fully awake. The stars were so near, that I couldn't resist touching them. Their texture felt like snow melting in my hands. I peered more closely at them. All around me, as far as my eyes could see, were tiny angels! Garbed in a glistening crystalline substance so they looked like snowflakes, they whispered past me, drifting somewhere on the breeze.
The next thing I knew, I had glided to a stop in a cloud. Someone was standing beside me, and I glanced over to see who it was. Love, pure and boundless, streamed from him, suffusing me with a cosmic sense of well-being immediately. I knew I was in the presence of Christ. And I knew he was directing the angels-to earth, to do his work.
Gently he wrapped his left arm around my shoulders and held me close to him. Neither of us spoke, yet communication flowed between us. "I am your brother, and I will always be with you." he told me. I nodded. "I know that now, but I need to know one thing more" I thought. "What is my purpose on earth?" I asked. His answer was unhesitating: "To give and receive love; to give and receive forgiveness." "Love and forgiveness." Those words were on my lips when I woke, rested and renewed. But whom did I love? Whom did I need to forgive?
In the days following, I began to make a list. I prayed over every name during the next months. My ex-husband, Kellee's father, for our failed marriage. I'd had my part in it too. My dentist, for causing the infection in my jawbone during that root canal. It was an unfortunate accident and I knew he felt bad. My former fiance', for ending our relationship. It wouldn't have been right for either of us. Slowly, I let go of my anger and hurt. But what about Kellee? Six months later, she still hadn't come home. Technically she wasn't a run-away. She sporadically checked in with my mother to say she was okay. But Kellee didn't want to speak to me. Though I longed to talk with her, I had to accept that she wasn't ready to reestablish our relationship. The longer she stayed away, the more I came to accept that she was her own person. "I forgive you for not being the serious student I wanted you to be," I told her in my thoughts. "I love you the way you are: bright creative, free-spirited. I hope you'll forgive me. I only want to protect you."
I could feel my emotional wounds beginning to heal. With the help of prayer, the problems that used to drive me into despair, gradually became bearable. Yet somehow, I didn't feel completely free of the pain of my past. "Do I still harbor negative feelings toward someone I need to get over? I wondered. One morning, as I gave myself the usual cursory once-over in the mirror, I noticed the blisters on my face weren't inflamed. My skin actually looked as if it was getting better! Marveling at how my illness seemed to be abating, I gave thanks to God. Almost like an answer, the words Christ had communicated to me in my dream came back. "Love and forgiveness." Gazing at my reflection, I knew what I had to do before I could be whole again. It was going to be a long, complicated process, but I needed to learn to love and forgive myself.
It helped when Kellee finally came home nine months after she left. "I love you, mom." she said. "I want to try again. Will you give me another chance?" "If you'll do the same for me", I replied. I hugged my daughter tight, and I didn't think anything could feel better. When Kellee told me she had started going to a 12-step recovery program to help deal with her drinking and drug abuse, I was proud of her. I was grateful. I knew God had sent his angels to watch over Kellee when I couldn't.
Now it was time to find something to give me a sense of purpose. I thought of counseling over the telephone, where people wouldn't be put off by my appearance, and where my education in behavioral science and my experiences in life might be of use. I contacted mental-health programs in the area, and New Hope, a suicide and crisis hot line, had an opening for a counselor. When I saw the title of the manual I received on the first day of training I knew I had found the right place. "Giving Life by Giving Love." Not long after that, I was led to a doctor who was able to treat my osteomyelitis successfully, and eventually the infection in my jawbone cleared up completely. My appearance returned to normal.
Love and forgiveness. They have brought me a release from my pain far beyond what I could ever have imagined. As my faith in myself has grown, so has my job and my relationship with my daughter. At New Hope, I train new counselors. I also teach parenting classes in Huntington Beach. Under my guidance, Kellee studied at home and earned her high-school-equivalency certificate. She is now a student at a local college. Today, four years after that desperate winter night when I nearly gave up all hope, God's blessings continue-carried into my life, I think, on the snowy wings of his angels.
Rhonda Linn McCloud
Huntington Beach, California