The doctor proceeded to explain that it happens at the point of conception. It’s part of her DNA. So again, I was in shock, and the nurse proceeded to tell us that Christiana was being taken to the ICU because she probably had gastrointestinal disorders, and heart problems, and- at this point, for me, everything for me was a blur.
I looked around the room, to my husband, to family members for strength. Everyone’s staring at the ground; no one knows what to say or do, except for, who do you think? Heather. All these years, I’m thinking I have to be this rock for this little girl with a troubled past. And she walks over to me and takes my hand, and she says, “Don’t worry mommy, she’s going to be just fine because you’re going to take great care of her just like you take care of me.” Heather saved me. And she’s been a great little helper.
Having a special needs child certainly has its challenges, but it’s well worth the extra efforts and let me tell you, she really is too cool. I take total credit for that hair-do. Heather was right, Christiana’s doing just fine. She’s happy, she’s healthy, she’s very high functioning. She’s got some delays, of course, but, she has the right name because she has her uncle’s strong spirit.
As I’ve watched my girls grow up, they remind me of Chris and me. I can sense that Heather will always be Christiana’s protector. Hmm, God, it just gets to me still. She’ll always be her protector, and I know that they’re always going to have each other’s back.
Now, about this time, my relationship with my own parents had all but disintegrated. They didn’t do everything wrong, and in some ways Chris and I had a privileged upbringing. They absolutely deserve empathy for losing their son. They’re humans and they made mistakes. We all make mistakes.
But I’ve come to learn what matters most is that we learn from our mistakes. And you have to remain cautious around those who don’t. At all costs, you must protect your own children. All of my siblings, in our own time, and for our own reasons, have come to our final breaks with our father and my mother.
About, not long after that, when Christiana started a full-day school program, I started accepting invitations where “Into the Wild” was required reading. It had become required reading at about 3,000 high schools and colleges around the country. It was an opportunity for forced reflection. I began to understand what a disservice I had done to my brother. I had insisted that certain blanks be left in Chris’s public story. People, understandably, inserted their own answers into those blanks, that Chris was mentally ill, that he was just another rebellious teenager whose story had been romanticized by the media, that he was suicidal. None of these assumptions were the truth.
And when I gave the honest answers to the students I spoke with, safe inside the intimate walls of the classroom, I saw the incredible impact it had on them. The personal perspective I was able to provide, took Chris beyond that literary legend he’d become, and it made him more relatable.
Now I understood that teachers didn’t assign “Into the Wild” so their students would get a better understanding of Chris, it was so they would achieve a greater understanding of themselves. Listening to their questions, I understood that these students are at this age of opportunity where they’re deciding who they are. They’re choosing the paths that will determine who they will become.
As I listen to their questions, I realize that my brother’s story was no longer just an assignment, it became a real lesson that they would take with them far beyond that campus, into their lives as leaders and lawmakers, and husbands and wives, and partners, and most importantly, as parents. And I saw that they learned far more from what makes Chris human, than from what had made him iconic. I decided that it was time for me to be accountable for all that had remained unsaid, to tell my story, to tell the whole story.
Since we were kids, Chris had always taught me to journal, and after three years of very hard work, those journals turned into a book. Which is fair to say was far more painful than the nine-pound baby.
When I first began writing “The Wild Truth,” I did so with students in mind. I hadn’t really intended for it to start a new conversation about domestic violence, but taking a second look at Chris’s story caused people to take a closer look at the stories within their own communities. Not long after my book was published, I got a letter from a friend from church. Her name’s Catherine Miklos, and in her letter she noted:
“The power of abuse is in the silence its perpetrators demand. The cycle is broken by diminishing that power through exposure.”
I haven’t left one school, not one school, where at least one student didn’t come up to me to talk about their own experiences and reach out for help for the first time. It made me think how Chris’s story might have been different if someone had spoken openly to us. Sometimes people talk about whether Chris’s life can be considered a success, because he died so young. I say they need to ask themselves if life is more about quality… or quantity.
One of the greatest things you can hope to do in this life is to inspire someone, and Chris has done that for so many people, even without intent. Now in the days of social media, I receive constant messages from incredibly diverse people telling me how Chris has inspired them to make positive changes in their own lives. I think that life is like a book.