Your DNA Does Not Define You: Carine McCandless (Full Transcript)

These were the days before emails and text messages and iPhones, but being out of contact didn’t concern me; Chris was strong and he was good at everything he tried to do. He was intelligent, he was confident, but he didn’t have a big ego. I knew in my heart that my protector would never get himself into any situation that he couldn’t handle.

On September 17, 1992, I had to come to grips with the unimaginable. Through a series of unfortunate missteps, Chris’s life was cut short. He’d promised that he’d come back to find me, and he was always true to his word. Being told that Chris was gone forever was like being told that there was no longer oxygen in the air. I’d also separated from my parents, and I still felt this duty to remain compliant to them.

It should have been the right thing to do – keeping quiet, protecting my parents, protecting my family. Yet in truth, what I’d done is perpetuate these same lies that caused Chris to leave in the first place, and I’d given my parents the opportunity to not have to face the truth nor learn from it.

For years and years, since Jon Krakauer’s book was published, I received these impassioned letters from people all over the world. I never expected Chris’s story to touch so many people and affect them so deeply. Jon’s book eventually was published in over 60 countries and translated into more than 30 languages.

About a decade later, during the production of the “Into the Wild” movie, one of my other siblings sent me this quote by artist and poet Kristen Jongen. It reads, “Perhaps strength doesn’t reside in having never been broken, but in the courage required to grow strong in the broken places.”

I don’t speak for my other siblings, but this quote always makes me think about them and their mom who was strong enough to save them. So I had a lot of time to think about the consequences of my silence.

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As Chris went into nature and sought out his life lessons away from human relationships, I found mine by choosing bad ones, and I was good at it.

When I was 18, I’d left home, and I married my new boyfriend. He was a sweet guy in his mid-20s, worldly, smart, hard working – he promised to take care of me. Two weeks after our tiny justice of the peace ceremony, he started to beat me. I never saw it coming. With him I had financial security, a place to stay. I told my friends that he was great, that everything was great.

But after a few months, I decided I wasn’t going to make my mother’s mistakes. With careful planning, I made my second escape. I moved to a different city. I took business and accounting classes at the local colleges while I was working full time, and two years later, I started my first company. It hasn’t been easy, but I have been successfully self-employed ever since.

During that time, a lot more lessons came and went – important lessons of strength that I don’t have time to flesh out here today. But having to rely only on myself – it was empowering and comfortable.

Now during this time of Carine’s great independence, along came the greatest lesson: that of unconditional love. A 2-year-old little girl came into my life. Her biological mother eventually abandoned her. And this little girl needed a mom. That was pretty much my reaction. Me? No.

Now, I had explored a lot of trails in a short amount of time, but I never planned to go down that one. I was absolutely petrified about being a mom. I was afraid I’d be abusive. I was worried that the behavior that I’d witnessed as a child was bred inside of me, deep down in my DNA, just waiting for the opportunity to show itself.

But then in steps faith, and this overwhelming feeling that somehow moving in a scary direction is the right direction. And I thought about Chris and how he’d told me that the greatest experiences are usually waiting for us far outside of our comfort zone. This is my daughter, Heather. I know, who can say, “No,” to that face, right?

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She has been the greatest opportunity that has ever come into my life. She taught me that I can be a mother, and I’m proud to say, I’m a good one. I can be a tough disciplinarian, but always a peaceful one. She knows every single day, every second of every day, that I love her.

So a few more years go by, and my new husband and I decide that we’re going to expand our little family. And nine months later, out popped this little cutie. She didn’t exactly pop out, she was nine pounds. Yeah. Ouch. Whew! Don’t be afraid if you haven’t had children; it’s worth it.

So we were fortunate enough to have another daughter. We named her Christiana after my brother. Soon after Christiana’s born, they whisk her off to weigh her and clean her up, a little quicker than I expected they would, and a few people start entering the room, family members, and my little Heather, who was one month shy of turning seven.

A few minutes later, a nurse comes into the room that I had never seen before. She asked someone to take Heather out of the room. Heather looked over at me and I said, “No, she can stay. What’s wrong?” That’s when we learned that Christiana has Down syndrome. I was in shock. I had had no complications during my pregnancy. I was super healthy; I thought I’d done everything right.

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