309 Meg Lavery
Storyteller and Teacher
“I knew that I had to do something, I was going to have to let him know, but I didn’t let him know. I became paralyzed with fear of telling him.”
Meg lives in a conservation community in the Chicago suburbs with her wife, daughter, and menagerie of rescue animals. She is a middle school Health teacher and coach whose passion is helping kids become good humans. Teaching important topics like mental health, consent, communication, and empathy are her jam. She told her first story at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC in 2015, and is featured on The Moth podcast.
The writer Dani Shapiro has an amazing podcast called “Family Secrets” in which people talk about the emotional fallout from things that were hidden and then later discovered.
I suspect that when families hide something, the thing they are hiding is always their own shame. I know that when families pretend something didn’t happen when it did totally happen, it is to try and avoid the emotional toll of the truth, but it doesn’t work like that. Because secrets accrue interest over time…
eventually there is an emotional balloon payment.
Because growing up in a family in which a secret is being kept from you, is like growing up in a family which has its own poltergeist. You can’t see it, but know you can feel it, you know you can hear it rattling things in the attic, you know something is wrong but the truth of it is hidden from you. And when there is a difference between what you are sensing and what you’re told, it erodes your trust in yourself and in others in a way nothing else can. Many of us who grew up in families with secrets we sensed while everyone around us was saying nothing’s wrong, just come to the conclusion that well….then something must be wrong with us.
Which is why I’ve started to suspect that secrets don’t hide the truth, they metastasize it.
My guest today tells me about the cost of her mother’s secret and the one she herself kept from a father who loved her.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber and you’ve stepped into the confessional, it’s like a carwash for our shame and secrets. Stay with us.
NBW: My guest today is Meg Lavery. She is a storyteller and a teacher. Meg, welcome to the Confessional. I’m glad you’re here, and I’m really eager to hear your story,
ML: Thank you, Nadia. Um, Ok so, I went to college on a softball scholarship and my junior year, I had this weird illness where I was really sick. For a couple of weeks I couldn’t even stand up long enough to take a shower.
After about eight weeks, I started feeling better overall, but my spleen stayed enlarged, and because of that the doctors wouldn’t give me a release to go back to playing softball.
They wanted a full family medical history to rule out anything genetic, which seems like a pretty basic task, right?
ML: Except my mom was dead, and I didn’t know who my biological father was.
NBW: Oh Gosh.
ML: Getting that information was challenging. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was breastfeeding my youngest brother, and I was six years old. She spent six or seven years just trying her damnedest to get better, but she ended up dying of metastatic breast cancer when I was 13.
NBW: Oh my Gosh.
ML: Three years later, I’m 16, and we still had all of her shit in our house, and I don’t mean in boxes in the basement, I mean her clothes were in the closet and her medicines were in the cabinet, and her Liz Claiborne Red perfume was on her dresser. Her dresser had this giant bottom drawer which was this expanse of mom shit, school pictures and stationary, Girl Scout patches that had never been sewn on. I was digging through there to try to find a blank note card and an envelope, and when I got to the bottom I actually found this folder with my name on it, and in the folder was legal documents and paperwork that was telling me that the father who had raised me, the only father I had known, actually had adopted me when I was four, right after he married my mom.
NBW: Oh wow, wait, you didn’t know that at all?
NBW: So the man that you thought was your biological father, your whole life is not actually your biological father.
ML: Correct. I mean, I guess looking back and in that moment I could see kind of all the ways I didn’t fit with that side of the family. Just even in my looks, they were super tall, thin, I called them Flat Stanley’s, and I was not any of those things. It kind of made sense, but at the same time I was obviously just a hot fucking mess of, what is happening right now?
NBW: In that moment, what was going on in your head when you found out?
ML: So I was kind of like kneeling on the floor in front of this drawer, and I kind of got panicked. I remember feeling like, you know when you get caught doing something, and you feel that pulse of race of hot blood through your body? I felt like I’ve been caught
I wanted to get the papers back in the drawer, shut the drawer and get as far away from them as possible.
NBW: Oh wow.
ML: Which is exactly what I did. I put the folder back, and I had the information, and I just didn’t tell anyone anything about it for a really long time.
NBW: Really, you didn’t tell anyone?
ML: No, no I really didn’t.
NBW: Oh wow, you really tried to put it back in the drawer. What story were you telling yourself at that point?
ML: I think I was just telling myself I didn’t want to lose my family. That I had already lost my mom, and this would mean that maybe my brothers weren’t my brothers.
So, yeah, I think I really was just afraid of that disconnection.
NBW: Yes, and you’re so young too at that, I mean jeez. Okay, then you just, you keep your mother’s secret.
ML: Yeah. I really had succeeded for quite some time and then my mom’s college roommate for my high school graduation sent me an invitation to come visit her in Washington D. C. and probably the second or third night I was there, I had some red wine with her and ended up telling her that I found these adoption papers. And she kind of took a deep breath and she explained to me that on New Year’s Eve, my mom and her roommate had thrown this big New Year’s Eve party where a football coach who had been interested in my mom for some time came, and her roommate was pretty certain, that they had hooked up that night.
So she gives me this story that my dad raised me isn’t my dad and that this unknown football coach is potentially my dad.
So my mom’s roommate had given me all of this information just as I’m heading off to college. I was kind of like, “Fuck this. I’m not dealing with any of this at all. I’m going to do my life. I’m going to put all of this away.” When I was a junior and I was sitting facing this doctor who basically told me I needed to get my medical history, or I was potentially losing the ability to play softball, which was a scholarship that I needed, I had this really hard situation about what to do.
I thought about it for a long time. Well I guess it was, in hindsight it was just a couple of days. I decided that I was going to call this football player guy.
I was sitting on my bed in my dorm room, and I had this phone number that I had kept. It was kind of wadded up because I kept moving it from place to place, as I thought about what to do. I dialed the number and it’s in Southern Illinois. And in true Southern Illinois fashion, when he answered, I got like, “This is Bill.” Like when you’re just on the edge of all anxiety to hear something like that was so contradictory and almost funny. Then I got super awkward and just started rambling and gushing my name and saying my mom’s name.
I really was just speaking full anxiety speak. And when I finished the other end was just silent.
NBW: Oh my God, of course.
ML: I waited for what I felt was a super uncomfortable amount of time and said, “Are you there?” Then came the sound out of the phone that I will never forget. It was this like grown man’s guttural sobs and cries.
Through his sobs, he was saying that he had waited for this call forever and that he was unsure if it would ever come. He got himself together and he told me how he and some college friends had stopped by my childhood home when my mom was sick. Just to kind of say goodbye and he saw my picture on the mantle with my brothers. He said he knew immediately that I was his kid.
NBW: You weren’t a flat Stanley.
ML: Right. I wasn’t. I was not a flat Stanley. As he told it, he said he went to the picture and picked it up and looked at my mom and said like, “Sue, this is my kid. We look exactly the same.” My mom asked him to leave.
He did not have any children of his own, and he said he didn’t know what to do. That he wanted so much to be a part of my life. That he genuinely had no idea that I existed, but also that I was about to lose my mom. He didn’t want to do anything that would make my life more difficult at that time. He just made a decision to let things carry on as they had been and pray that someday he would get the call that he was talking to right now.
I was super fearful that he would say, I don’t know what you’re talking about, or be angry at me or just kind of flippant. When he started sobbing, I was completely caught off guard. Also what a lovely accepting, beautiful thing to have happen and he’s a manly, manly hunter man. That kind of made it even more tender.
NBW: What happened from there?
ML: We just started building a relationship. He would come visit me. He would invite me to come to Southern Illinois, and we would ride four-wheelers in the Bottoms and fish and go on boats – things that I had not really done growing up. Then when I had my daughter, when I was 25, he would come visit and we’d take the train to the city, to Chicago, and go to American Girl Doll. He would buy her matching outfits and we went picnics and we went to cubs games. Those first five or six years of getting to know him and him getting to know me was really nice.
NBW: How did the family that you grew up respond to this?
ML: My brothers were sad when this all came out, they’re just a little bit younger than me. They were a little bit confused, like how this happened and they were both like, “But you’re our sister. You’ll always be our sister,” and I really wasn’t in super close contact with the dad who raised me. He had gotten remarried and it wasn’t a situation that I really felt welcome in.
NBW: So You’re describing like having a dad you connect with, you’re going to the Cubs games and four-wheeling and fishing. And I’m like, this sounds like a movie montage where there’s like a song playing in the background and it’s showing you guys doing all these scenes, which feels great. It also feels like the point where then something changes.
ML: That’s exactly right. I’m not sure what song would be playing but it’s definitely about to change.
ML: So I felt like things were going really well, and I really was enjoying having him in the role that he was playing in my life. He was this super outdoorsman, hunter, football coach, and I was just starting to figure out like who he was and at the same time, I’m in my mid 20’s. I’m also like getting to know myself. In that time I was starting to realize that I was gay. I really was pretty confident that this guy who came from a Southern Baptist family in Brokenbow, Oklahoma was not going to be happy that his only daughter was a lesbian. I was able to kind of like hide this evolution from him because I just I could, he didn’t live near me.
But I eventually met someone and we dated and then moved in together.
And I knew that I had to do something, I was going to have to let him know, but I didn’t let him know. I became kind of paralyzed with fear of telling him. I had a lot of shame and probably self hate about being gay myself, that I froze in the flight or freeze, I was definitely frozen and I did nothing. I just stopped communicating with him.
For the first, I don’t know, a few months he would call multiple times a week and I would have to like sit with his name on my phone. He would often leave voicemails.
NBW: What would he say?
ML: Telling me that he loved me and asking what he did wrong, begging me to let him make it right. So I just started like, not listening to them. It was kind of too much.
My biggest fear always was I kept telling myself, “Well, I don’t need him. He’s not my real dad, but he is my real dad,” but then ultimately, I just don’t think I could have handled him like openly rejecting me.
NBW: And so in a way, you just preemptively did that?
ML: Yeah. I just created the reality myself.
NBW: That you feared.
ML: Mmhm yeah. This went on for like a year and I remember in July seeing his name and number come up on my phone. I was standing at our patio door handing out popsicles to my daughter and the neighborhood friends. I felt this sense of contentment, like, “OK. I think I’ve done enough work myself.
I had recognized that I had this self-hate about being gay. And so I started doing a lot of reading and trying to work on that on my own. I felt I was in a place that I was ready to accept either way if he wanted to be a part of my life or not.
I am settled in my life enough that I’m willing to have this conversation with him. And I tried to get to the phone, but I didn’t get there in time. And so I waited and a voicemail came through, and he left this message from a softball game saying, “I’m in Northern California, Megan. I’m at this softball game and these athletes are incredible. I wish so much I would’ve been able to see you play. And I just wanted you to know I’m thinking about you.” And he hung up.
And so I made this conscious decision that when he got back home, I was going to reach out to him to get together to talk. I felt peace with that and good about that. A few days later, I had an unknown number missed call. A voicemail was left that I didn’t check until later in the day. I heard on that voicemail my aunt, his sister, I heard her voice for the first time telling me that there had been an accident.
And my dad had fallen off of a bicycle riding down a hill in Northern California, and it probably caused a blood clot that led to him having a heart attack early the next morning which killed him.
NBW: Oh my god.
ML: I listened to the message and all I could just think is this person, this man, my father, had only shown up for me with care and love and affection, and I let him die thinking that I didn’t even care.
NBW: The thing that really strikes me about your story is that it felt like you kept filling in the blanks for yourself and then determining a course of action as if it was fact.
ML: For sure. That’s fascinating. Yeah, I did.
NBW: Can you talk about that? How do you see it now?
ML: I think that I have never really considered that. I think I might need to do some work around that, because I’m not sure that I’m completely not that way still.
NBW: Yeah, you found those papers in your mom’s dresser, and you went, “Oh if my family knows this, then they will be distant from me or they won’t want to be my brothers anymore or they won’t love me anymore,” and then it felt like you acted as if that was true, and so you thought, “Well, then the best course of action is to not tell anyone and to be completely alone with this.” You know?
NBW: And then you thought, “Oh, well, if he knows that I’m gay, then this real love and affection that I feel from and towards my biological father will be taken away, and it would be too painful. I can’t afford that, so I have to act as if that’s true and be alone.
ML: Yeah … Very accurate.
ML: I created a situation to feel I had been rejected, and I didn’t allow myself to find out what that would really look because I created a scenario and executed it.
The guilt that I felt was that I had this very loving human who had been bringing only attention and care that I really wanted and needed. That’s how he always showed up for me. When he came to meet me for the first time in my apartment in college, he filled my apartment with a dozen dozen roses, like 144 of them in my apartment.
NBW: Oh my God, Megan. How long ago did Bill die?
ML: He died in 2008.
NBW: So it’s been a while.
NBW: How do you understand the story this many years later?
ML: I obviously had just a tremendous amount of guilt and anger at myself for how this unfolded.
I started therapy soon after that for the first time in my life. We should have been in therapy as kids. I’ve been doing a lot of work just around being worthy and trying to have some grace and compassion with decisions like that that I made at a time when there were a lot of unhealthy things guiding my perceptions. And to have compassion for just even making a phone call and being put in a situation that I have to find out who my dad is when I’m supposed to be starting my life in college. I think I still have a little bit of twinges here and there, just when you miss someone, you know? When you have losses, those things that come up unexpectedly that remind you of them. Those are the times where I’m like, “Ugh,” and I just have to do that self-talk of like, “It’s okay to miss him and I can miss him without also feeling guilty.”
NBW: Without massacring yourself again because ultimately, isn’t that– I don’t know him, but isn’t that probably the last thing he’d want you to do to yourself?
ML: Absolutely. I’m 100%.
NBW: Meg, tell me about your life now.
ML: I’m a middle school teacher. I was an English teacher for 20 years. I felt myself digressing into topics like mental health and bullying and self-esteem. And so I switched and became certified as a health and PE teacher. Now, I get to talk to middle school kids who are really at this very ripe and tender age about, I guess the things that I wish that someone had talked to me about in middle school. I find that that’s been really fulfilling to me is to get to talk to kids who might need to hear some of the things that I think we all needed to hear at that time.
NBW: I can’t tell you how many times there’s been a story like that. It’s like this weird spiritual physics or something where there is this stuff we might not have had that we really needed that put us on a path that wasn’t great. You can’t go back. and be 12 again and get the message you need to get or whatever, and so our only course of healing sometimes is providing for other people the thing that we’re pretty sure we needed and didn’t get.
ML: Yeah, I can definitely see how that played out in my life.
NBW: There’s so many different things we can do with our shit, with our pain or our trauma or our guilt. This guy, Richard Rohrs, he’s been one of my great teachers. And I love what he says is like, “You can tell a lot about someone by what they do with their pain. Do they just transmit it or do they transform it?” Some people take their pain and they just figure out ways to inflict more pain on themselves and other people, and then other people take their pain, and by pain I’m talking like the ways other people have harmed us, the guilt we feel for the way we’ve harmed others or ourselves or any of that cauldron of junk that we have and the transformation process that we can go through with that is really powerful, and then it can be somehow healing for other people.
That just feels magnificent to me, because you see so many examples in the world of how hurt people hurt people. I’m like, “Look, I get that we have stuff that we just have so much remorse about our worst moment or that one thing we wish we could take back, I get that, but also so often that’s like our superhero origin story on some level.”
NBW: What do you feel you learned about yourself since then?
ML: I learned that I had an issue with worthiness and with, I guess, feeling like I deserved that type of acceptance and love. Until then I had to work for it or be something to get it. That’s the work that I’ve been doing for the past 15 years of trying to be worthy and know that I am, not because of anything I’ve done, but just because I am.
NBW: Well, thank you so much for coming on and telling me this incredible story. Bill sounds incredible, actually, I love the sort of kindhearted good old boy types. I’m a sucker for them.
ML: It’s exactly who he was.
NBW: Oh, beautiful.
ML:Thank you for having me.
NBW: Yeah, thanks much, Megan. Take care.
A blessing for Meg,
I’ve been thinking about your mom. And how scared and alone she must have felt when she had you. The world isn’t kind to women in her situation, especially back then. So, I want to bless that young woman who felt she had to make your truth into a secret –. I grieve at how unfair it is that she died so young, and before she could make this right.
I bless you at 16 so scared and alone on the floor of your mom’s bedroom, finding this truth tucked in a manilla envelope. A truth that, once known, could not be undiscovered by closing it back into a bottom drawer.
I bless the 25 year-old you who felt you had to make your truth into a secret.
I bless the you who held another phone hearing your aunt’s voice for the first time, saying he too is gone as is your chance to tell him who you really are. I grieve at how unfair it is that he died so young and before you could make this right.
And I bless Bill and his tender tough guy heart.
I bless the you who he loved so fiercely.
There is still time to make it right with yourself, Meg
So may you honor Bill by loving yourself and loving yourself extravagantly.
Like a dozen dozen roses.