The Missing Birthday

Yesterday would have been Eric’s 42nd birthday. This time of year typically puts me into a spin cycle, hurtling me towards the anniversary of his death on October 29, then to the holidays where his presence is noticeably absent, then finally spits me out sometime in January, when the frigid weather numbs my raw emotions. My brother Luke’s birthday was August 31, and mine is coming up on Sunday. We always celebrated our birthdays together, my two brothers and I. With all three birthdays little more than a week apart, it was not only convenient for my family, but was a special bond we all shared.

This year, we celebrated Luke’s birthday separately, and it felt nice.  I couldn’t help but feel, though, the void in between. With my birthday coming up on Sunday, we’ve lost the connection in the middle. The missing birthday. I’ve struggled a bit with throwing big birthday bashes for myself ever since Eric’s death because it just never felt right. It feels somehow selfish, to revel in the joy of being alive another year, when someone you love isn’t.

Maybe this year will be different. With my oldest in preschool, I can already feel a change. Fall will mean a fresh new start, and not just another reminder of Eric’s death. Maybe this year, my birthday will feel different, too.

Opening presents at one of our shared birthday parties.

Read more of Eric’s story here.

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Save the Born AND the Unborn: My Thoughts on Abortion

I hesitated before writing this post. I have friends on polar opposite ends of the abortion spectrum, and I know how passionately you feel about the issue, whether for or against. I hope you can read this with an open mind and open heart. But then again, if you’re any friend of mine, I already know you will. 

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Recently, while driving down two-lanes in rural Kansas, I’ve seen two separate handmade billboards positioned in pastures facing the highway. One, I agree with, and one, I vehemently oppose. The first simply said:

Life – God’s Most Precious Gift
I absolutely believe this is a true statement. After having felt my daughters growing in me and seeing firsthand the miracle that is human life, there’s no fiber of my being that believes otherwise. But here’s the thing. I can’t explain why God would allow a rape victim to become impregnated, or why He allowed a baby to form in my Fallopian tube with no chance of survival. It’s growth caused my tube to tear, causing internal bleeding and an emergency surgery to save my life. I can’t answer these questions. And for that reason I know it’s not a black or white issue. And it should be treated with the utmost sensitivity and respect.

And the second:

Abortion Kills!
Now, the verbiage of this sign was obviously hostile, but that’s not what bothered me. It was the picture. Or drawing, rather. It was a crude stick-figure baby, with limbs dismembered and splatters of blood all around. Now, I understand the point. To shock and awe. But really, who are you trying to reach? The woman who’s had an abortion and is too ashamed to tell her family? Hmm, your sign probably made her feel awesome. The teenage girl who doesn’t know where to turn? Hmm, she’ll probably be less likely to seek support from a Pro-Life pregnancy crisis center if she thinks that’s what you’re all about. To me, and this is just my opinion, it seemed to be someone’s misguided attempt to make themselves feel better about their own morality, rather than to actually make a positive impact.

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Where was the march for HIS life?

But, this post isn’t about billboards. It’s about my brother. You see, although I consider myself Pro-Life, I often cringe when I see Pro-Life billboards, t-shirts and other materials? Why? Because I feel that not near enough effort has been put forth to save the BORN, and yet people will shake their fists and wave their signs to save the unborn. People will travel across the country by the thousands to March for Life. But, where was the march for his life? Where was the outrage, the sign-holding, the homemade billboards, the t-shirts, the shouting? The fervor is there. The passion is there. Just not for victims of clergy sexual abuse.

My brother’s life mattered, and so did the lives of the other five suicide victims his perpetrator molested. (And countless other victims.) They never should have been exposed to a pedophile priest. They never should have had to endure years of shame and guilt. They should be alive. They should be alive. If only ten percent of  the effort of saving the unborn was put towards saving the born, the children who made it into this world, where would we be?

That’s all I have for now. I don’t want this to turn into a debate, but I feel like I needed to speak on behalf of the clergy-abuse survivor movement, who struggle with this issue. I’m not telling anyone where they should stand on abortion. But I should hope that if life is precious, all life is precious, then we can agree that children outside of the womb need protection, too.

It wasn’t really about the birds and the bees…

He was an awesome big brother for so many reasons (besides rockin’ big frames just like his kid sister).

“Catherine, we need to talk. You know, sometimes, when you see the cats in the yard, and it looks like they’re wrestling on top of each other? Well, they’re not really wrestling. They’re…”

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod…He is NOT talking to me about this! I can’t believe this is happening. This is so embarrassing. Don’t look at him. Just look down. Pretend this isn’t happening. Think about something else. ANYTHING else. 

When my older brother Eric sat me down to have the “birds and the bees” talk at the age of 12, I was mortified. Actually, there has to be a stronger word for my emotion. I wanted to disappear. An avid Star Trek fan, I never so badly wanted teleportation to be an option as I did at that moment. Somebody freakin’ beam me up! My face was hot, my body was numb, my heart pitter-pattering wildly in my prepubescent chest. And I remember being angry. What gave him the right?! Besides, I already knew all about the  technicality of sex. I had an older best friend who’d already filled me in on every graphic detail, although I think she said you could get pregnant from kissing. So glad she wasn’t right about that.

There are only a few things I remember from that encounter, besides feeling completely embarrassed. I remember the drops of dried milk (or some other food substance) that were caked between the ridges on the side of our dining room table. As I sat there, head down, trying to mentally escape the awkward conversation I was being subjected to, I began scraping the white film off with my thumbnail. I can still remember running my thumb down that ridge, letting the gunk that had accumulated over the years build up under my nail, scraping it out, and starting over again. I remember being grateful that nobody had ever thought to clean there, as it gave me something to focus on.

I also remember the end of the conversation, after he’d said vague things about waiting until marriage, finding someone you love, God’s plan, etc. He was sitting on my left side, across the corner of the table. He gently touched my left forearm and said, “Catherine, you need to look at me and listen. If anyone ever touches you in a bad way, you have to tell someone. Tell mom, tell dad, tell me, tell somebody. It’s not okay. You have to tell someone, ok?  Has anyone ever done this?”

“No,” I stammered. At this point, I don’t think I’d ever even kissed a boy, so my innocence was fairly in tact. I did consider telling him about the boy who showed me his penis in daycare before I was even in kindergarten. No, I didn’t think that counted. “No,” I said again, “Nothing like that has happened.”

Looking back now, I realize the enormity of that moment. My mother has no recollection of ever having asked Eric to carry out this task. I mean, how many 12-year-old girls want to get the sex talk from their older brother? No, he chose to do this on his own. It had to have been just as awkward for him, if not more, than it was for me. But he loved me enough to try and protect me. He didn’t want the same things that had happened to him to happen to me. He was 12 when he was molested, the same age I was when we had that talk. I’m so glad he was brave enough to speak those words to me. I only wish he’d been able to speak them to himself.

If you haven’t yet had “the talk” with the children you love, don’t wait. I’ve already talked with my three-year-old daughter about “good touch” and “bad touch.” No, this won’t  prevent her from ever being victimized, but I hope it plants a seed in her mind that if she is, it isn’t her fault. Yes, it’s an awkward conversation to have, but they’ll appreciate it later, whether you know it or not.

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Read more about Eric’s Story

Don’t Underestimate Your Emotional Backstory

Olympic Judo hopeful Kayla Harrison is an incredible athlete. Her strength and skill have propelled her to the top of her sport, and earned her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in London. But according to this NPR segment, she’s sometimes frustrated at the motives behind the bright spotlight:

“Do I wish that everyone would just talk about how, you know, awesome I am — and how I could be America’s first gold medalist? Yes, I wish that,” she says. “But America wants that comeback kid story. They want the person who overcame obstacles to reach their goals. And I fit that bill pretty well.”

I’ll let you read the article to find out the obstacles Kayla is speaking of. If she’d rather have more attention focused on her atheleticism than her emotional backstory, I fully support her. After all, I can somewhat understand how she feels. You want people to recognize your succeses, and see them as purely that, success. Not success despite obstacles, just success.

Kayla’s perspective really has me thinking about my own emotional backstory. It’s a doozy, afterall. While I haven’t exactly hidden my dark experiences (and have been openly sharing them), I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever be known for anything else. Am I ok with that?

I’ve been amazed at the stories others have privately shared with me while I’ve been on this journey to unpacking Eric’s story. They share stories of abuse, addiction, dysfunction, mental illness, and many other difficult situations. The one thing that has surprised me the most? How quick people are to say, ‘Well, it’s nothing like what you’ve been through.” They underestimate their own emotional backstories. I truly believe that we’re all dealt a relatively similar amount of trauma throughout our lives, whether it be a deep, narrow wound or a constant scratching of the surface that leaves you in constant discomfort. Which is worse, losing a loved one in a sudden, tragic accident, or spending a lifetime in a loveless, abusive marriage? Both probably bring the same amount of pain, they’re just distributed differently.

Don’t underestimate your pain. Don’t think for a second that what you’ve been through doesn’t matter. It absolutely does. It’s helped make you who you are, for better or worse. Hopefully, you can channel that into something positive, as Kayla has. Just knowing what your story is, and telling it to others walking down the same path can be a tremendous testimony. And if you haven’t found a way to do that yet, you will.

When a father loses a son, there is no statute of limitations on pain.

After the NCAA issued its ruling against Penn State today, part of me celebrated that the egregious cover-up was being treated seriously, and part of me mourned the justice that was not done after my brother’s death, after the deaths of four other victims, after thirty years of abuse was shoved under the rug.

NCAA president Mark Emmert called the case the most painful “chapter in the history of intercollegiate athletics,” and said it could be argued that the punishment was “greater than any other seen in NCAA history. Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” Emmert said.

That’s good. That’s a step in the right direction. But I can’t help getting mad all over again. By the time Robert Larson’s (the priest who abused my brother) legacy of sexual victimization hit the media, the statute of limitations had passed for many of his victims, and he couldn’t face criminal charges for many of them. There may be a statute of limitations on sexual abuse (which is ludicrous), but there’s no statute of limitations on grief. On pain. On depression. The “Joe Paternos” of my brother’s story are still held in relatively high esteem. Their “statues” haven’t been removed. Their reputation is hardly tarnished.

My dear father wrote this letter to Judge Ice, prior to Larson’s sentencing. His words are haunting, but powerful. He was a father, who lost a son. His baby. A boy that he still talks to every day.

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Dear Judge Ice:

I sat down waiting to get a hair cut last week. My normal waiting activity is reading; however nothing was handy. My mind was on nothing. A father’s voice from a few seats away caught my attention. “Sit still, Bobby, it’s not going to hurt. There, it’s OK, the nice man is just cutting your hair …it will make you look nice for Mommy”. I caught my breath. It was as if I couldn’t get enough air and felt hot, empty and somewhat claustrophobic. I then realized that, of course, this was Saturday morning at the barbershop. Another boy sat in front of me very close to tears as his father also assured him that he was right there and everything was going to be just fine. I wanted to bolt but I couldn’t move. Like those two boys I was afraid and close to tears.

He is a father, who lost his son. A son he still talks to every day.

My heart was pounding and my stomach was knotting up. Sounds and sights started to slow down as I peered into this tunnel and the surroundings become foreign, distant and of no importance to me now. I was thinking of Eric. I was on vacation in Oklahoma, waiting for my little boy to get his hair cut. As those men around me I was my child’s protector. From Eric’s echo I clearly hear “Dad” but I look around and the lady is asking me “Sir, sir, are you ready?”

My hair is being cut and I watch the watchers as several young boys and girls are watching fish watch them from inside a fish tank. One boy now has his nose right up to the glass and is trying to stay abreast of a small fish as it goes back and forth. They all giggle. I force my mind away from them. Although she has only cut my hair a couple of times the barber mentions the articles about Eric. I thank her for her comments and for bringing it up for, if he is mentioned, I openly enjoy talking to anyone about Eric. You see, I am proud to be Eric’s father.

In a cubicle I am answering questions before I have some medical tests done. From beyond the divider I hear, “O what a beautiful baby boy.” My mind snaps back to Eric. Oh, if they only could have seen him, if only, if only. When I awake, during the day and before I sleep I think of Eric, always.

Only now am I starting to fully realize what a precious soul we have lost.

I’ve been so focused on Eric’s adult life and his death that I, until now, was not able to clearly remember or ponder, for any length of time, on Eric’s life as a child.

Until now, God in his wisdom has, no doubt, been protecting me from this task.

With a trembling heart I will now allow my mind to remember Eric as a young, loving child. It is so terribly hard. I pray I can now do this –for I owe it to Eric.

Eric’s death is not something that I will ever “get over, move on from, find closure for, come to grips with, or not be in denial over, etc.” How can a parent “not” understand that their child is dead? Is there a “timetable” or “statute of limitation” for grieving that, on a certain date, one should start to forget that a loved one is lost? I do not fault people for thinking, and sometime saying that this is what one must do to be made “whole” again. In general people just do not know what to say and we understand that. Thank God I can still feel Eric’s hugs and even today hear his voice. No, if it means missing this experience I would rather not “find closure” or “move on” with life.

I guess some kind of “healing process” is required; however, when one is in the deepest throes of suffering ,it’s hard to think in these terms. In many ways Janet and I are having a harder time now than ever. Through experience I take some comfort in the fact that, over time, “life” and the day-to-day demands it requires will, more and more, mercifully crowd in between Eric’s death and the “here and now”. However, my life will never be the same since two policemen told me “your son Eric has committed suicide and how very sorry I am that it is my duty to tell you this.” To this day I still cannot sit on our couch in the same place that I sat when they told me this. Myself, in shock, and my wonderful sister Betty, she was the first one I called, then had the awful responsibility of contacting and informing the rest of my family. Telling Janet and our other children, Becky (33) her husband Curtis, Catherine (17) and Luke (21) was so very very painful and almost unbearable thing to do for Eric was loved so much. Becky then had to explain to her four boys just what happened to their loving uncle. It makes me so sad to see these words on my computer screen as it brings it all back to me again. As I write this through my tears I now start to understand a little about what my grandmother and mother went through when my father was killed in the Navy in WWII. She, now with three young children to raise alone, only mentioned once what it was like when she opened the door and found two officers there. Like the “policemen” they had a task I could never do.

There were so many good times. That’s what hurts the most.

Eric loved me and I loved him and, as with all of our family, we often hug and express this to each other and have always done so. Our family will be sadly and terribly affected for generations by Eric’s death. What will be passed down from generation to generation about his abuser? Will it be said that he spent 90 days in jail while others with similar crimes spent 10 years? Will it be said that it was possibly because he was a “man of the cloth” and/or some state legal issues? I wish Eric had lived to see 70 years as Larson has. Who knows, Eric may have married and had children. We have lost this as well. Who knows?

Larson has never attempted to personally seek out other victims that may be facing suicide due to his sexual abuse. The Church, in order to try to prevent the loss of another life, needs to do more. A couple of sentences in the news, comments uttered by his lawyer or four (blame shifting) articles in the Catholic Advance leave a lot to be desired. Could it be that Larson’s and the church’s prayers would have been answered if Eric had been run over by a truck instead of exposing this scandal and paying for it with his life?

There is no “statute of limitation” for the pain this man has caused. Victims will never know how lives would have been if only Larson had not been sent to their parish. Sweet little innocent boys with an open heart and complete trust in God, church and their local priest whom they called “Father” had their young lives torn to shreds by being betrayed by this “man of the cloth”.

Were the tears Larson shed in court for the victims, their families and for the harm he has caused or were they shed for getting caught? I’m sure he feels, in some way, that he is a victim also. If so, of what or made so by whom? He should feel good in the fact that he now has an opportunity to accept responsibility for his actions. He needs to pay the consequences, as anyone convicted in Kansas of molesting children would, prior to meeting his maker. As the church always recommends and touts, I wonder if they and Larson have already “forgiven” those that put him in the situation he is in now.

I understand the plea bargain agreement struck by Larson and some of his victims and I applaud them for pursuing their case as best they could. These victims, and many you haven’t heard from due to statute of limitations barriers, are indeed heroes. Our thanks go to all of to them, yourself, Detective T. Walton, County Attorney Matt Treaster, and Victim/Witness Coordinator Cheryl Ainsworth, and others who worked long and hard to send a strong message that “clergy sexual abuse” will not be tolerated and will be vigorously investigated and judged accordingly.

Possible decisions made, or not made, about Larson and his “problem”, in the past, were done with, I assume, legal and public relations problems foremost in mind. If so, everyone lost (including Larson). I pray that your decision will not be wholly influenced by these same factors alone. Let the law, and fairness to those harmed, guide you in making your decision regarding the length of Larson’s sentencing.

Sincerely,

Horace Patterson

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Read More About Eric’s Story Here