When the Day Brightens

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

| This is the 194th story of Our Life Logs |

I was born in 1992 at Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota as the youngest in my family. My dad worked at IBM as a programmer and was a protective, caring, and loving man. My mom was a professional pianist and the choir director at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. I have characteristics from both my parents—a mathematical mindset coupled with a love for piano, a thirst for outdoors, and a zeal for God.

With my mom when I was a baby.

I was a tomboy, a bit of a loner, and a very shy person in school, which led to a lot of teasing growing up. I never really fit in, but I also never really tried. I did the opposite of what people wanted and expected; when everyone was taking Spanish, I took German. Well, I had very few reasons to worry about not having friends, because I had my dad. He was always there to cheer me on. One of my favorite things to do with my dad was train chasing. I know what you’re thinking, but it isn’t as dangerous as it sounds! When a train went by, Dad called for us kids to run to the car, and we would chase it as far as we could on our tank of gas.

We always did fun outdoor activities like this. On July 2, 2007, my family and I went canoeing on a nearby river. It was a very memorable trip because we lost most of our stuff down the river after Mom’s purse had gone overboard. We all swam around trying to collect everything. After little luck, I got back into the canoe with my older brother. As we rowed further down the river, my brother lost control and our canoe flipped. I was propelled underwater. I don’t remember much of what happened after it was flipped back except that my dad had taken control of the canoe. I was shivering, and my dad said, “Come here.” I went over and sat on his lap for the remainder of the trip. That was my last memory of him before everything changed.

Our old family photo (I’m on the little girl sitting on my mom’s lap).

On July 3, the morning after our canoe trip, I woke up to two cop cars outside my house. One police officer sat in the living room next to my mom while another stood nearby. Mom had her head in her hands and was sobbing. She looked destroyed. They told us that my dad experienced a brain aneurysm at work and was found collapsed in the bathroom. My dad had a pacemaker, which stopped him from jogging, but that had just been for a heart murmur. We had never expected something like this.

The Fourth of July became a tragic holiday for me. That summer, I remember feeling really angry and suicidal. When my siblings cried or showed emotion, I would snap at them. I didn’t want them to cry because I didn’t allow myself to cry.

The days became dark and the nights became long. Our house turned into a quiet, lifeless and boring place. When I couldn’t stand the reality, I would leave the house and walk outside for hours. In my head, I would create stories to drown out the pain and put myself in another world. When I wasn’t walking, I was playing the piano for long hours. The music was soothing and therapeutic.

A family photo taken without Dad (I’m on the far right), 2002.

My mom had to become both mom and dad. She took on four jobs to make ends meet. Her motivation was us kids. She worked from 7am to 8pm every night, and unfortunately, that drained her out. She barely had time, or energy, to be with us, let alone to raise us properly. When I graduated from high school, none of my siblings had jobs and one by one, they stopped attending college and started living at home. It was as if Dad’s death had paralyzed our family and they were frozen in time.

I didn’t want to live my life like that. I knew I had to move forward.

In 2010, I began college nearby at Rochester Community and Technical College, and while I was there, I drifted into friendships with people around me, searching for comfort to fill the void in my heart left by my dad, only to find, in my third year, that my “friends” didn’t really care about me. They kept me around only to talk behind my back. What was wrong with me? I wondered. Maybe I was destined to be a loner or maybe I had a magnetic attraction to damaging relationships.

After this betrayal, I missed my dad more than ever. The stress took me to my piano most evenings. I would play for three to five hours straight, letting the keys absorb my feelings. As I leaned on music for comfort, I decided to transfer to a four-year school to professionally pursue music.

I moved an hour away to Minnesota State University in 2013. My mom was worried I would have a hard time finding a job as a music major, but I didn’t listen. I needed to move forward with my passion. I needed to venture out on my own, seeking to brighten my days.

I knew I had made the right decision when I blended into the music program naturally, although I was still having trouble making friends at first. I found myself tagging along with a group of music majors, but we didn’t seem to truly click. And, just when I began to believe I would never make any real friends, a classmate named Mary made the effort to get to know me. She played the violin, was Catholic and had a very blunt personality, which helped me get out of myself and out of my emotional pity parties. She started inviting me to come with her to the Catholic Newman Center on campus. Through her, I found a group of welcoming, genuine people that were happy to have me around.

While I was enjoying my new friendships, the darkness from my past still trickled into my life. My relationship with men continued to be strained as I tried to recover from the loss of my dad. I gave too much of my heart away to any man that was interested in me, and that brought poison into my love life. My grief finally got the best of me when one night, I gave in to drinking at a party and ended up throwing up. One of the guys from the group of music majors I hung out with approached me. I was too intoxicated to stop him from sexually assaulting me that night. Even sober, I couldn’t stop him from assaulting me on other occasions later.

At first, I felt helpless and alone, but the more I thought of Mary and all the other people I met through her, the more I regretted, “This is stupid. Why am I living this way? I have so many good friends! I don’t need these people.”

I finally confided everything to Mary, and we had a good cry. She told me over and over how she wished she had known how bad things were. She helped me to understand my sexual assault and deal with it appropriately, and I’m forever grateful to have had her in that difficult time.

Peace entered my life when I left that group of music majors and let true friends in. My apartment became a revolving door with many late-night fiddle and bluegrass jams, board game parties, snowball fights and deep, spirited discussions on faith and morals. The only difference between my new friends and I was that they were Catholic and I was not.

Raised as a staunch Lutheran, I was not to be persuaded by any debates we had about theology. I told myself that I was never going to become Catholic, but as I spoke to more people and learned about the religion, my mind began to change. I had my doubts along the way, but in the end, I decided that it was my destiny to take this monumental step. In my heart, I knew my dad was watching and that he was proud of me.

After getting officially confirmed, I felt like I had been born into a new family. Even better, one of the new friendships ended up blossoming into a romance. My friend Andrew, who was studying to be a pilot and had a deep love for Christ, would often hang around my apartment and cook dinner for our friends and me. We fell in love.

Andrew and me, 2018.

I completed my music degree in 2017 and moved back in with my family in Rochester, while Andrew and I dated long-distance as he tried to begin his pilot career. I began working a retail job, and through it, I jump-started my music career thanks to my manager’s connections to local churches. I landed an adult choir accompanist position and started spiritual direction with a priest at another parish. I feel confident about my future and where it is heading.

I don’t think I would be here today with peace of mind if it weren’t for the support of my friends and for praying the Rosary every day. I know that if I’m patient and trust in God, a path will carve itself just like He carved my path to Catholicism, and I know my dad is up there with God, watching me with prideful eyes.

 This is the story of Maria Benning

Maria currently lives in Rochester, Minnesota with her mom and siblings. After her dad died, she struggled to deal with her grief in healthy ways and know her own self-worth and value. She also felt alone in her journey to become an independent adult–the first child in her family to do so. When she met true friends and converted to Catholicism, she began to learn how to trust and confide in them, dealing with her grief in a healthy way. Her faith has given her purpose and direction in life. When she isn’t working at SAM’s Club and playing piano for her church, she is out on dates with Andrew or helping her Mom in whatever ways she can. She hopes to marry Andrew someday and begin their own family.

This story first touched our hearts on October 11, 2018.

| Writer: Mary Flanagan | Editor: Kristen Petronio; MJ |

#family #mentalhealth #loss #death #deathofdad #grief #depression #faith #movingon

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