The Dance of Life, Death & Love
Chapter One: In the beginning, she was called, Brenda Jo
At the age of 8 months, I was adopted out of the foster home I was cared for in by my Mom and Dad. They, being white and from Indiana, named me “Brenda Jo”. I was the youngest in a siblingship of 4: my older sister – Indian and also adopted and two older brothers – biologically from my parents. My parents divorced when I was three and ultimately, we landed with my Dad and “step mom person”, Linda.
I grew -up in a white family, white town, white schools, white mind, white world. No one looked like me but I also did not know any different. My divorced parents got along. My Mom lived in Canada and remarried to a man who had two biological sons from a previous marriage and also, a middle son, bi-racial and adopted as well. My Mom and Kent, as he was called, raised his children and for the next 9 years, we would visit in Canada and my Mom would also visit us. When I turned 12, my Mom and Kent moved 2 miles up the street from us with my step siblings. We all got along. So to me, that all seemed normal. Never knew until much later that divorce could be so ugly! But anyway…
Around the age of 5, I started thinking about existence. It finally occurred to me, only in the past year or so, why it started then. My Dad’s father, my Grandpa Fred, passed away. And that was the first time I had ever seen my Dad cry. And I’m fairly certain, that is what started my seemingly innocent curiosity about life and death. As it was after that event that I would see an old man on a bench and wonder why he was sad and alone. Of course, I had no idea if he was really sad or alone…but I thought it anyway. And I wondered what kind of life did he have and was he going to die, too? And on and on it went…as the years progressed, I thought about life and death and what did it mean to be here on this earth and why did we exist and how did we get here…and …who in the world could I talk to about all these thoughts? No one I concluded. So I didn’t. And by not talking to anyone, I learned to not talk to anyone about anything, period!
Around age 11 or it could have been 10, so not sure. But, we had this neighbor boy. He was a few years older and he introduced me to “sexual touch” which I had no idea about. And while this was the start of inappropriate sexual experiences, it was not the last. There was incest which was vastly confusing for many reasons. But more significantly, I was touched by one of my sister’s girlfriends. This was a two night experience but it definitely had the most profound impact on me.
Again, I had already learned to tell no one anything at all. I was painfully shy to begin with but all of this was hidden by a very talented athlete and apparently, gifted actress. No one knew the emerging pain that swelled up within me. The anger I felt in being so alone, completely confused and invisible to the world around me. In spite of truly loving parents and the many accolades concerning my sports, no one knew that inside, I was dying.
I started cutting on myself in 7th grade or so. And I continued to hurt myself through intentional cutting acts as well as playing hard in my sports. I smacked in to people and I worked hard, often until I was breathless. No one was the wiser. No one knew because I said nothing, not even to the few close friends that I had.
I sailed through Junior High and High School, extremely depressed, feeling worthless and often, very alone. I did well enough in academics, I was a superb athlete and I was responsible enough to work and make money. But it was my high school years that I started to really long for my birth parents. I thought they were the answer to all this suffering. I wanted to find them so badly. I would dream about it, I would think about it constantly. One day, Oprah made an announcement that she had a “big secret” to tell. I convinced myself that I was the secret! She was going to reveal that she had a baby and had given her up for adoption. And that baby…was ME! Oh, I was seriously in pain when the show aired and she admitted to having tried cocaine! Really? I was so angry and that event further pushed me in to my deep, dark, secret hole. The answer to my prayers had not been answered!
Summer of my junior year, I was a camp counselor at a Christian Camp I had been attending for several summers prior. I loved this camp in New Hampshire. It was gorgeous and it was one place that I felt ok. No worries, no judgments, lots of love and hugs. So peaceful. But this particular summer, my demons got the best of me. The boyfriend I had been dating, broke up with me. So, at one point, I found some alcohol, had some pills and for some reason, had a 2 by 4…I don’t know how many pills I took or how I managed to bang my head but I did. I only remember waking up in the morning…not dead.
Summer of my senior year, I must of “dated” at least 8 older men. Thankfully, God protected me…I did not sleep with any of them but just the same, I was known as “the slut”. Some of them were married, some were not. But all of them could have been my father. It was also during this time that I did a lot of strange things that I did not understand. Once, in the middle of the night, I snuck out of the home and walked, in a slinky dress, bare foot mostly, two miles to reach downtown…had no idea why or what I was looking for. A mile and ¾ in, an 18 wheeler pulled up…and yes, I got in to this huge truck with a perfect stranger, in the middle of the night…thankfully, God was watching out for me. The man dropped me right downtown and said goodnight.
Then, off to college I went. I attended a private college called Skidmore in upper state NY, Saratoga Springs. There, I met many people from all nationalities. Freshman year was challenging. My behaviors were such that my roommate moved out, leaving me alone in a large dorm room. At one point, my depression became so vast that I skipped an entire day, repeatedly blasting Tracy Chapman on the radio so loud so that no one could hear as I tried to hang myself with an extension cord. I was not successful in hanging myself.
That summer, I came home and I hit a low like never before. I could not get out of bed. I was curled up in a ball for days on end. It was that summer that I finally told my father that I had tried to kill myself in high school and that I had been depressed most of my years growing up. That was the second time only that I had ever seen my father cry. My parents and I bridged some gaps and slowly, I began to come out of it. I got a part time job and my step mother, helped me begin the search for my birth mother.
Sophomore year, I went along ok. I was living in the Spanish house and met my friend, Victor. He was kind, safe, and a beautiful human being. March, 1991, I received a phone call…they had found her. I finally had a phone call from my birth mother and we talked for hours. What I failed to share is that earlier in the search, I had received non identifying information. In that information, my birth mother had reported that she had been gang raped and she did not know who the father was. Mind you, she was 14 when she became pregnant with me and 14 when she gave birth to me. So, for 8 months, I carried this idea of who I was until that infamous phone call. It was one of the first things she cleared up without me even asking. She shared that she had been scared and did not want to admit that she had been sleeping with boys. She kept the fact that she was pregnant with me until a week before she gave birth. December 1991, I met my birth mother, 1/2 sister a year younger, kid sister 19 years young and my auntie, a year older…overwhelming and traumatic barely describes the ordeal. She was poor, home was dirty and unkempt, she drank, she smoked…she was NOT Oprah!
Fast forward to 1993 graduating from college and off to Ghana I went. I submitted my application for Graduate school and hoped for the best. But in all honestly, I was going to Ghana to “have an accident” so that no one would be wiser. I was really done. I had reached a point of no return where I felt worthless and entirely unnecessary.
CHAPTER 2: Mentukwa – You did not come here by accident
I arrived to a sea of black faces – quite a stark contrast to the white world I had grown up in. Here, I was the minority in a different way. I stood out. I was overwhelmed.
I met my soon to be husband at the volunteer office of the program I had come to participate in. Little did I know that he had been working there for 14 years…he was an avid volunteer and loved people. But before I could even truly breathe and see this country, I was hit with Malaria. Mind you, I had never even stepped foot in a hospital for anything until this point. Here I am, in a foreign country, I don’t know anyone and because of my stupidity, I did not reach out for help. Literally, I was found on the ground, next to the toilet and had it not been for Brando’s friend, I likely would have died. He told the office that I needed to go to the hospital right away. I was taken by Brando and this friend and was in the hospital overnight. I was given IV and other things that I do not remember. Brando then took me to his home and took care of me. It was then that I realized I was in love with this man. My world changed.
After finally healing, we went to our first camp. We helped a village build a school/marketplace. It was during this trip that I said to him, “you know, if you asked me to marry you, I would say yes” to which he responded, “hold on to that thought”. 5 weeks later, we were indeed, married. And 5 weeks after that, I had to return home. I had been accepted into Portland State University’s MSW program.
I left my husband and returned to NY to my Mom’s as my parents were in Israel at the time. In those 2 weeks before I left for Portland, OR, I was a wreck. I cannot explain the insanity that was in my mind or the words that came out of my mouth. I can only imagine that the stress of it all…of going to Ghana with one intention and returning from Ghana married and now worried sick about my husband never joining me, took its toll.
I did leave off to Portland with 100 dollars to my name, no confirmation of where I was going to stay and no connections to a single person. I landed, took a shuttle from PDX to the Ondine building, walked in and explained my situation. Thankfully, they had a room for me to stay until my dorm room became available.
As soon as school opened up, I went to the health department because I did not feel well. What I failed to share is that I had been sick with malaria a second time. So, here I was in the US, not feeling well, and thought for sure, I had Malaria yet again. But that was not the case…I was informed that I was pregnant!!
So, the title of this chapter…Mentukwa…means something like “you did not come here by chance”. Rather fitting don’t you think? This was the camp name given to me and one that my husband often affectionately called me throughout our marriage.
CHAPTER 3: LILLY GLASS AKOTO
My full name story is a bit lengthy and I am happy to share it another time. But for this purpose, let me just say that I legally changed my name to Lilly Glass, already having the last name “Akoto” from my husband, before my first born so that my new name could be placed on the birth certificate!
I was a full time student, pregnant, fearful that my husband would not join me and barely knew anyone. My son was born in May 1994 and my husband did join us 3 weeks later. In the two years that followed, two significant events happened. First, I became pregnant soon after my husband’s arrival and I became someone I did not recognize. I was literally crawling out of my skin, I wanted to throw my child out of the window, I was a complete and utter mess. I could not focus on school, I was yelling at my husband and I wanted to end this madness in a serious way. So, that lead to me getting an abortion without his consent. The following year, I had a miscarriage. Those two events impacted my life in a phenomenal way. My depression continued. Not only did I feel worthless, stupid, pathetic and useless, I felt like a complete failure and was convinced that not only would my husband would be much better off without me but that there was no way that he could continue to love me. This was what was happening underneath…unknown to most…my unbearable secret.
To the outside world, I appeared ok. I appeared successful. I smiled, I laughed, my husband and I were great hosts, making me seem like some wonderful person. I also I returned to the Lord and was baptized in the Sandy River August 1995. At that time, it was just a show. I wanted to gain my husband’s love and I thought that was the way to do it. I graduated in 1996 and landed my first job all on my own. In this, I felt like I could contribute and again, gain respect from my husband.
And things went along well. I tried to better myself by getting some help by going through a Christian program called HEART – http://first-image.org/heart/ – healing after an abortion. While this program was very helpful in many ways, very difficult to get through, somewhat overwhelming, it also lead me to a determination to get pregnant and “redeem” myself. I tried for several years to no avail. The two prior procedures had ruined my tubes/ovaries and I was only ovulating on one side. In 1998, after what seemed to be the 100th failed pregnancy test, I was home alone, on a couch and had a knife, ready to impale. I mustered my strength, pushed my arms out, calculated the angle and where I wanted to place it…I started to pull it to me and literally, my hands stopped inches away and a burning sensation pulsed through my hands and arms. To this day, I still know that it was God’s hands that grabbed mine and stopped me!
Getting pregnant in 1999 was a true miracle. I ended up leaving my job in 2000 after giving birth to our second child. As I was determined to redeem myself, I spent 18 months, doing all the mommy things, happy, close to my children, seemingly depression free at long last.
But it did not last. I returned to work, stress came back in, my husband and I fought often and my life felt unbearable and I returned to feeling worthless, unlovable and a failure. Many years passed with this seemingly up and down pattern. Sometimes on the brink of divorce and other times, so in love. Some seasons feeling good about my life, working out and feeling strong, and other seasons, convinced that leaving this world would be the best thing to do for my husband and children.
And then the final attempt, 2007. I had thrown my husband a surprise birthday party. I had spent so much time, money and efforts to making this a special day for him. All of his friends came and we had what I thought was a great time. So, the following day, I asked him, “how did you like your party”? And his response…sent me into a tailspin. He was less than pleased. And I felt defeated.
When he left the home that evening, to go help someone else, as he always did, I fell apart. The children were asleep. Seyram, the oldest, was 14 at the time and had a room upstairs and Mawuto, the youngest was downstairs. I was crying in my room and found the belt to my robe and was determined. I made a noose, went to the stairs and tied it on the bars of the railing. I was very distraught and apparently, was very loud…as just when I was about to take the last foot off the step to hang, I heard a blood curdling scream, “Dad, Dad”! My 14 yr old had come down the steps to see his mother in the act of trying to hang herself. There are no words strong enough or clear enough to explain the guilt and shame I carried from this final desperate act of ending my life.
Chapter 4: God’s ways are not our ways
I have been told, many a time, that I should just pray about it and my depression would be gone. Well, if that was true, I should have been healed long ago! But that is not the way that it worked. Sometimes, yes, but not in my case. We are talking about years and years of repetitive negative self talk, of Satan’s relentless attacks, of feeling worthless, stupid and like a failure.
Instead, there was a very different way that God brought healing to my life. After this final attempt, I was ready to get help. In my purse, I had a card to see a therapist…had been carrying it in my purse for over a year. And this therapist did what’s called EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. I was able to start seeing her and my life completely changed. I was fortunate enough to be an extremely high responder. We tackled everything! We tackled the sex abuse, we tackled the “I don’t feel loved”, and we even tackled being adopted. Within 6 sessions, I was completely changed. I opened up private practice, I started working out, I started to live again! I learned what it meant to be happy. I learned to like me.
With my new found self, I was able to face many things through strength and with God’s grace. I battled a $150 thousand law suit without a physical lawyer, I battled cancer, and I battled back for my marriage that we nearly lost due to my poor choices. So desperate for love, I had two emotional affairs which broke my husband’s heart. He gave me 3 choices…I chose to try…to try and make this marriage work.
Chapter 5: Broken
I call the years between 2008 to 2013 learning to like me. In spite of continued poor choices which begged my depression to return, I maintained being depression free. However, in 2014, everything changed.
In 2014, my family’s life took a huge turn. We were kicked out of our Portland home of 13 years due to non payment. We ended up in Vancouver, moving on April 29th, my birth mother’s birthday. May, June, July and August seemed like a whirlwind, trying to settle in to our new environment.
My husband was given an invitation to visit Ghana with a dear friend who had started a non-profit called YoGhana! My husband had not been for 20 years so it seemed like a perfect thing for him to do. He and David took off to Ghana and were gone all of September. During that time, I hooked up with City Bible and took “Right/Wrong Thinking” with Robert and Pat Alvarado.
When they returned, I was soon invited to go to a medical appointment with my husband. Up until this point, I had no idea that my husband was struggling with any health issues…he did not share much with me, still hurt from my previous behaviors that had broken his heart. But all of a sudden, so it seemed, I was being pulled back in to his life. He was getting a procedure done and he needed a ride but at the same time, we began to talk and he started to share his health problems. Long story short, on November 12th, 2014, we were given the devastating news that my husband had stage 4 cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, cancer of the bile duct.
Our family was rocked, our marriage was rocked, our worlds had just been turned upside down. The group I was attending at City Bible was just ending…so they were the first people I informed about this news. I know, now, that truly, I would not have been able to enter the next season without this amazing group who started praying for me. Thank you, Robert and Pat, for your relentless prayer, care and love!
There are too many stories within the year that I could share but for the purpose of today, l will simplify. I took care of my husband for a year. I brought him to all his appointments, I worked from home, I organized his care, I cared for other people broken about his condition, I prayed often, I gained a lot of weight, I forgot about me. We also, fell back in love and had an amazing year of unshakable trust in each other. We forgave each other. We honored our wedding vows in the most honest way.
And then, the inevitable, he passed October 28, 2015. I died that day, too. After taking his body home and returning back from Ghana, there was a silence so painful that I truly thought I would die. But that is where my story of love and healing began.
After weeks of being home, wanting to die, giving up, unable to eat or breath or think, sleeping too much, scared of being alone but too frozen to move…I made a decision! I chose to live again.
I started back with City Bible Church, threw myself in to every group I could find, returned to the gym and began to create a new life. During this process, I met many great friends but I still struggled with “love”. I often thought that no one would ever love me again. I tried to get back with my former boyfriend. Nope, he closed the door. I tried to get with a new but former high school mate. No again. He did not want that. I felt rejected, defeated, lonely, and tired!
Chapter 6: Love rose up from the ashes
I don’t know when it really changed…It was a slow process, an incredible journey. Many were praying for me and as I shared my burden and my pain, even more people prayed for me. God brought important women and men in to my life to minister to me. And brought me through difficult situations to increase my trust in him. And slowly but surely, God began to change my heart, one broken piece at a time.
During this past 12 months, I made a choice to push myself in to life. I forced myself to be present, through all of it, even the intense tears and stomach cramps from crying to hard. I traveled to see my friends, I tried new things like piano lessons. I played soccer, I watched movies, I attended game nights, I changed the physicality of the home, and as each new thing popped up, I took care of it from the aftermath of my husband’s passing – things no one tells you about after a spouse dies. All along, I continued to work out and lose weight. Not going to lie, that made me feel super great! My body loved feeling like an athlete and responded well!
Slowly but surely, my countenance began to change. People started sharing that they see a light radiating from me. People started commenting on my smile and many were touched and inspired by my story, my testimonies, by witnessing the transformation right in front of their eyes.
In my artistic mind, it was as if God handled each broken piece of my heart and soul, gently cradled it and nursed me back to wholeness. He reminded me that He is always there for me, will never leave me, loves me always and has a perfect plan for me. I need not worry about being alone nor worry about never being loved by another man…just trust in Him and he will take care of all my needs!
And that is exactly what has happened…I found me and fell in love with her. My life forever transformed!