She was one of the prettiest little girls we had ever seen. She had sky-blue eyes, corn silk blond hair, and a delightful little face. I remember carrying her around as a baby, when I was a little old lady of eight years old, and thinking she was cuter than any of my dolls.
There were three of us girls and we each had our roll to play in the family dynamic. I was the oldest, and was usually described as the "smart one". My middle sister was generally referred to as the "nice one", and my youngest sister was always referred to as the "pretty one".
I often thought about that after we were grown. What were these adults thinking when they gave us these labels that sunk so deeply into our identities whether for good or for ill?
Was the "smart one" neither nice nor pretty? Was the "nice one" neither smart nor pretty? Was the "pretty one" neither smart nor nice? Honest to goodness, what were they thinking?
I cannot know what they were thinking, but here is what I do know. The pretty one grew up basing her entire value on her looks. As a teen, boys chased her; as a young woman, men followed her around like lost puppies. By then, she not only liked the label, she owned it, flaunted it and traded upon it.
She wasted her youth on parties and alcohol. She wasted her middle years on parties and drugs ... and alcohol. I stood by her bedside praying for her and waiting for her to come out of a coma the first time she attempted suicide - at twenty-one. The doctor said she had taken "enough pills to kill an elephant." She survived and went to rehab, the first of many such trips.
Over the next three decades I literally lost count of the number of trips in and out of rehab. How many Sunday afternoons did I spend sitting in some drab room, surrounded by lost disheveled women, quietly talking to her about choices, and the fact that God loved her?
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Last year, after a devastating death in her family, she was not functioning at all. Her daughter suggested that her mother might feel better if she got her hair done. She had always had amazing natural blond tresses, of which she was inordinately proud. So off the three of us went to the hair salon, where she had it cut to shoulder length, highlighted and styled.
The transformation was remarkable. As we walked through an adjacent grocery store to pick up a few things, I noticed her gait was different, her head was up and she was looking around her with interest.
Suddenly, she turned to me and said, "Oh, I feel so much better. People are looking at me again. They notice me. They see me again."
I was dismayed, stunned, appalled - and deeply sad in the face of such shallowness. She still identified herself only by her appearance and how others reacted to it.
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Last month, I briefly visited her at the long term nursing facility where she has been for many months since she nearly died after having two major brain surgeries, and multiple strokes. When I came to the door of her room, she did not see me; but I saw her. She was sitting on the side of her bed, staring blankly at a wall. It was a heartbreaking scene.
She wore a helmet, to protect her head in case of fall, as part of her skull had to be removed to allow for the swelling of the brain after the surgeries. Most of her hair had been cut off to allow for the surgeries, but one lock straggled pitifully from beneath the helmet.
Her eyes do not focus well. Her speech and cognitive abilities are impaired. Her right arm and leg are partially paralyzed. She is the very picture of a wrecked and wretched life.
Tomorrow is her birthday. She will be 58 years old. And I will be fighting off tears most of the day.
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Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Proverbs 31:30 (NIV)