Misconstrued by Karen DeBonis

In the beginning.

            My father married my mother and they begat six children, loving each of us unconditionally. Dad played the organ at church, Mom sang in the choir, and they raised me to be a good Catholic girl.

And God saw that it was good.

Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.

            My family donated generously to food pantries and clothing drives. We housed a teen mom and her baby, an impoverished seminary student, a Bosnian war refugee family. We invited black and immigrant friends to our blue-collar, white neighborhood home. Dad developed a network of individuals to help care for a homeless man named Joe.

I was eight the year our good friend Mrs. K., a widowed mother with five young children, lost her house in a Christmas morning fire. She had dutifully bundled her kids off to Mass, leaving the lights flickering on the tinseled tree. While they were gone, a spark ignited the dry branches, destroying the house and all that Santa had delivered.

“Will you share one of your presents with them?” Mom asked.

“Yes,” I answered, my heart aching for the kids who had lost their father, their home, their precious belongings. With a tender caress goodbye, I chose my purple-haired troll with the tie-dyed t-shirt. Then my family spent the rest of the day refurbishing our old toys, Mom and I mending and ironing doll clothes. It was the most meaningful Christmas of my childhood.


Thou shalt not steal.

When I was eleven, I stole, although it was an accident. My friend Lizzy and I had walked to a variety store in her neighborhood to kill some time on a summer afternoon. We gawked over make-up and stockings we were too young to wear and toys we were too young to ignore. I picked up some hot pink nail polish and wandered around the store with it, trying to decide whether to part with my allowance. Lizzy bought bubble gum and Silly Putty, and we walked out. About a block away, she offered me a piece of gum, and when I unfolded my hand to accept it, there was the hot polish, neatly hidden in my fist.

“Oh no!” I screamed. “Lizzy, I stole this! I forgot I had it.” I started to cry. “We have to go back.”

We hurried up the street to the storefront and sauntered through the doors, my knees ready to buckle, hands shaking. With Lizzy as my look-out, I placed the pink bottle back in the bin and apologized to God.

Thou shalt not kill

At twelve, I watched a story on TV one night about a local home invasion. “Dad, if someone came into our house and tried to attack us,” I asked, “would you fight them?” I wanted my father, who did sit-ups in his bedroom, chin-ups in the basement, and ate wheat germ and liver, to say, “I’d do anything to protect my family.” Or “I’d kill him if I had to.” Instead, Dad mumbled about peace and non-violence and God’s children. In my easily distressed, active imagination, I pictured my father calmly asking a masked man to please remove his knife from my mother’s neck.

Dad had no problem yelling at us kids when we forgot to take out the trash or didn’t keep our eyes on the ball when he pitched to us in the back yard. If we fooled around at the dinner table, he’d pound his fist and yell, “Mangia!”—the only Italian word he spoke. With a growing sense of unease, however, I realized I couldn’t count on Dad to defend me.

Judge not, that you be not judged. 

Racism, poverty, war, famine, and injustice were worthy of my family’s ire. It was okay to get mad at societal ills, but the sins of individuals were barely acknowledged and readily forgiven.

When I was engaged to be married, on a visit to my parents’ home, the news reported that a groom-to-be was killed the evening before his wedding by a drunk driver. The bride-to-be’s parents had to wake their daughter in the middle of the night with the devastating news.

“That idiot!” I exploded, leaning forward on the couch. “He deserves the electric chair!” Shaking, I fought back tears. In my mind, I was that bride-to-be waking to a nightmare. In my body, I felt my betrothed being dragged under the wheels as his spirit left this earth.

“Alcoholism is a disease,” Mom said calmly. “He needs treatment, not the death penalty.” She sat in the rocking chair where she had nursed me as an infant, her toes rhythmically pushing against the carpet, the corners of her mouth drooped in sadness. Yet she could not bring herself to condemn another child of God.

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

The mold was cast in childhood for the adult I would become. That adult was a married-to-my-college-sweetheart, working mother of two, holding a master’s degree and the high regard of my school counseling colleagues. That adult was also a compulsive people-pleaser whose guiding principle was “I don’t want her/him/them to feel bad.”

I didn’t tell my husband, Mike, when I felt ignored. I didn’t tell my friend I was mad that she kept standing me up. I didn’t tell my assistant her spending of grant money was out of line, even after being reprimanded by my boss. And I didn’t tell the grocery store clerk to dig the eggs out from the bottom of the bag and put them on top, no matter how many times it happened. I worked so hard to make sure no one felt bad that the only person left to feel bad was me.

The morning of my wedding, my bridesmaids and I got ready in my childhood bedroom. Soon after buttoning my white satin dress, I noticed red welts forming underneath the tulle mandarin collar.

“Omigod, I’m getting a rash!” I exclaimed, and my attendants swarmed around.

“Try Oil of Olay,” my soon-to-be sister-in-law said. “That always works for me.”

I knew from experience, having tried my mother’s runny pink lotion, that it irritated my skin. But I didn’t know Mike’s sister well, and I wanted her to feel valued, to feel she made a contribution. I couldn’t bring myself to reject her suggestion, and I was literally willing to put my neck on the line.

“Good idea,” I said. But before I could find the Olay, my sister, who hadn’t inherited the people-pleasing gene, intervened.

“Maybe you shouldn’t, Karen. That stuff bothers my skin.” My sister saved my neck, which cleared on its own.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

            Meek, fragile, deferential, wimpy, timid, passive—take your pick, but none of these descriptors made me feel blessed. All I inherited from my inability to stand up for myself were migraines, self-loathing, and binge-eating disorder. Had it just been me who suffered, I’d have felt I deserved it. But I had two children and it wasn’t their fault their mother had no backbone.

One day, I picked up Matthew, nine, from YMCA summer day camp, and when we got to the parking lot, he told me he had gotten trapped in the locker room.

“Whaaat?” I asked, stopping dead on the blacktop.

“After we went swimming,” he said, squinting up at me, “everybody left, and the door locked behind them.”

He said it without emotion, but I heard the defeat in his voice.

“Did someone come back for you?”

“No, I finally found another door.”

“I’m sorry Matthew,” I said, pulling him in for a side hug. “That must have been scary.”

I should have stormed back into the building to demand an explanation, but I lacked the words, the tone, the gestures for confrontation. And I knew I might have made the same mistake. Over the past year, Matthew–our “Little Einstein” –had become more and more forgetful, spacy, and immature. Sometimes, he couldn’t follow the simplest of directions. Had I been shepherding a crowd of wet, noisy children, I could easily have locked him out, too.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.

For the next two years, Matthew continued to botch school assignments, fall off bikes and rollerblades, lose interest in activities and the energy they required. I alternated between wanting to disappear and wishing Matthew would. Neither our pediatrician, my parents, nor Mike saw the floundering child I observed. Their Matthew was simply a little quirky, forgetful, and silly. He needed fresh air, exercise, and a winning attitude. He was developmentally right where he needed to be as a nine, ten, eleven-year-old. Full of self-doubt, I didn’t stand up to the naysayers, didn’t make them listen. I kept the peace.

Then my Good Housekeeping magazine ran an article about a boy with challenges like Matthew’s, except the other boy’s symptoms were caused by his rare and fatal disease. He regressed to the point that he sometimes forgot his own name. At least Matthew can remember his name, I thought. Then I sobbed at how low I’d set the bar.

My fear and frustration finally boiled over and I brought Matthew to a psychologist. That led to a psychiatrist, then a neurologist, then a second neurologist. Then the second psychiatrist listened–really listened—to what I had to say. He ordered a brain MRI. To rule out anything serious. To cover all his bases.

The MRI revealed a growth clinging to Matthew’s brainstem. It had trapped cerebrospinal fluid in the ventricles of my son’s brain, squishing his grey matter into a sliver against his skull.

Denial got me through the morning. Hours later, Mike took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye.

“Karen, you understand what the growth is, right?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. Where was he going with this?

“The growth is a tumor,” Karen. “Matthew has a brain tumor.”

Only then did my own head explode.

Blessed was Matthew for his tumor would be called benign.

Blessed were Mike and I for we would be called parents of a survivor.

Blessed was not the peacemaker who waited so long to speak up and would call herself weak for years to come.

Let there be light

            One day, I had an epiphany: I’m a child of God, too! If someone were being a jerk to me, and Jesus was around, I hope He would step in and tell them to knock it off.

But there was no miracle or laying on of hands to heal my past sins of omission. I had to do the hard work of admitting my flaws, outing my people-pleasing, trying and failing until I built my confidence.

In the height of the pre-vaccine pandemic, I needed physical therapy for my aging knees. Mike and I were both wary of Covid-19, ultra-cautious about masks and social distancing, especially because he has diabetes. In the small room at her practice, the therapist repeatedly pulled her mask down to give me instructions, and I repeatedly said nothing. The words that popped into my head seemed judgmental and whiny. They made me feel unlikeable, and all my old insecurities came rushing back. Driving home, my stomach hurt more than my knees. I felt like a traitor to my husband, a traitor to myself.

Two days later, I lay on the PT table again.

The therapist pulled down her mask to ask, “How was your knee since our session?”

“Pretty good,” I replied. “And would you mind keeping your mask up?”

“Of course not,” she replied, her neck turning red. “I’m so sorry.”

It was so simple. What had I been so afraid of?

Revelation—the triumph of good over evil.

I’ve retained the essence of the values my parents instilled in me. I’ve also learned that kindness and love must coexist with the ability to be outspoken, angry, even pushy when necessary. Sometimes I succeed; other times I fail. Each time, I learn. Unraveling how the messages of my childhood and my faith got so misconstrued in my sensitive adult head will be a lifelong process.

Since the world wasn’t created in a day, I try to be patient. I am human, after all, imperfect, fallible, and worthy in spite of it.

And God sees that it is good.


*Featured Image: Herstory by Carolyn Schlam


Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth. This entangled mix comes to life in her debut memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, released by Apprentice House Press in May 2023. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, HuffPost, Newsweek.comToday.com, and numerous literary journals. A happy empty-nester, Karen lives in upstate New York with her husband of forty years. You can see more of her work at www.karendebonis.com.

Carolyn Schlam is a figurative painter, sculptor, glass artist, and published author. In 2013, she was named one of the finalists in the Smithsonian Museum Portrait Competition, and her work, “Frances at 103” was exhibited at the Museum, and subsequently acquired by the Smithsonian. Carolyn's two published books on art include “The Creative Path: A View from the Studio on the Making of Art” and “The Joy of Art: How to Look at, Appreciate, and Talk About Art. She resides and has her studio in southern California. You may find her at www.carolynschlam.com and at www.carolynschlamstudiostore.com

Go ahead and Leave Feedback about this essay for a reply from the author.

Memoir Magazine