I'm not sure how old I was when my father said the most hurtful words that have ever been spoken to me. 19 or 20 maybe?
"How did you become so hard-hearted?" he asked. He was confused and disappointed. It took me a while to figure it out, but now I know.
We'll call her Kendra. Kendra came to our home as a foster child when I was 10, and she was 11 going on 30. She was world-wise and I was wide-eyed, and I was instantly mesmerized by her. We became best friends. She was my sister.
She was also a pathological liar suffering from abandonment issues, trauma, and probably a myriad of mental illnesses.
She lived with us for two years before a circumstance changed in her family, and she left. My best friend left. I begged and pleaded and cried for her to stay. I remember writing a letter to the social worker to try and get her to change her mind, but of course, it did nothing. Kendra was resigned to the move. When she left, we each picked something of the other's that we had always admired, for keeps. After that, I knew that I would never find another sister.
Kendra returned after about 18 months. It hadn't worked out. She was harder, angrier. Things disintegrated quickly. She was doing drugs, skipping school and generally falling apart. Shortly after turning 15, she disappeared for a week and we discovered she had hitchhiked to Quebec. I was so angry with her, but she brought me back an amber necklace.
One morning, I got up for school and my parents immediately sat me down with this strange look on their face. They told me that Kendra had stolen my bike and ridden it to a party, then dumped it in a ditch and it was gone.
My oldest sister had given me the bike for my birthday. It had been her bike, that she had received from my parents, in forest green. It was my prized possession.
I stormed downstairs to Kendra's room - I was sure my parents would stop me, but they didn't. I flung open her door and turned on the light and yelled, "Where's my bike? Where's my bike?" She squinted, hungover, and threw her arm over her face as she mumbled, "I don't know".
Shortly thereafter, Kendra got into a confrontation with my father over her cigarettes and she accused him of hitting her. I remember as it escalated, he called me from my bedroom to stay in the kitchen while they argued. I didn't understand at the time that he sensed an accusation was coming and wanted a witness just in case. I stayed in the kitchen, confused and embarrassed, as she screamed at him and I just stood there and watched. Afterwards, she locked herself in the bathroom with the phone and called the police. I watched her climb into the police car, lights flashing, and that's the last time I ever saw her.
When I was 13, my confused, adolescent heart broke and I didn't have the language to understand it. I couldn't control what my parents did, but I made a decision not to let any more foster children into my family. Instead, I staked my claim as the long-suffering caregiver and witness to the daily injustice of our home life. I made sure everyone - including our foster kids - knew that I had two 'real' sisters and however many other foster sisters. In my mind, the five of us were family, and the rest were just passers-through.
That is how my heart hardened.
It's not that difficult to understand, really. The hard part is figuring out how to get back to the kid who didn't know how to guard her heart and didn't want to. I want to be the 10-year-old with open arms. I want to be the 12-year-old who unabashedly declared her love in a pointless letter that a social worker would never receive, and who's heart broke so openly and fully that she didn't even understand it. We have to lay ourselves bare and open and bleeding in order to heal.
The love I had was foolish and unadulterated; it had no bounds, no fear, and no limit. It is the only kind of love I want to give.