Everyone has a story. Each one of us has a past filled with mistakes, lessons and trials. Each of our stories is different and because of this, we each have a unique perspective on life. My story is one filled with peaks and valleys where I have deeply felt sorrow, anger, depression and grief; but I have also felt true joy, love, excitement and contentment. This is my story.
I was born in the small city of Diamond Bar in Orange County, California. I was born to Dr. Robert and Robin Bender in early December of 1996. I am the second youngest of 5 kiddos, but I am also the oldest. Confused? Let me clarify. I was born into a mixed family tree of sorts. You see, my parents had a 22-year age difference between them. Both had been married previously and my dad had been blessed with three children during his previous marriage. Therefore, I was blessed with three older siblings. Once my parents were married, they were given the little bundles of mischief that were my younger brother, Spencer, and I. So, I grew up with a lot of “adopted siblings” as my nieces and nephews were older or around the same ages as my brother and me. My family was close. We spent holidays and birthdays together as often as possible and as we grew up, we were left with many amazing memories. My family is my everything and it’s important that I mention and explain my family dynamic as they all play a huge part in my testimony.
My Parent’s Marriage
My parents were the ultimate example of what a marriage should look like. No, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t make mistakes or argue from time to time; but they adored each other. They were head over heels in love. I saw my parents walk through times of struggle and trial that could have easily overwhelmed them… but they stood steadfast. How? Christ. God was the center of their relationship and so through good times and bad, they relied on/trusted in Him and clung to each other. My parents not only verbally taught me what love, faith, trust, etc. was supposed to look like… they actively lived these things. They lived their lives daily seeking to serve the Lord in the small ways. It is because of my parents that I am who I am today and dang, I’m thankful for them.
Growing up, I only knew one of my grandparents – my Mimi. She was my mom’s mother and she was one of the biggest Christian influences in my life. All my other grandparents passed away before I turned 5 years old. I have no memories of any of them; but as sad as that sounds, it wasn’t so bad because my Mimi filled any possible void. She was kind, compassionate, funny, intelligent, beautiful and had the biggest heart for people. She loved Christ with her entire being and was able to love others in a way that I had never witnessed before and haven’t witnessed since. I have endless memories of snuggling in her bed with big bowls of ice cream and a movie playing for one of her “bed picnics” or building forts in her living room with a fold out table and a ton of blankets. We rarely ever had a babysitter because Mimi wanted us with her as much as possible. She was a rock in my life and in our family. She made my brother and my childhood’s beautiful and wonderful through her constant pouring into us.
Life began to change when my parents decided to move my family to the small town that I know as home - South Lake Tahoe. There were varying reasons and circumstances behind the move, but I don’t think any of us realized just how much of a blessing that decision would turn out to be. My Mimi moved to the same town just short of one year later and lived about 5 minutes away from us. My family enjoyed more time together than we had in a long while. My parents worked from home, home schooled us kids, and got to do just about everything together. We had always been incredibly active as a family, from snow skiing to 15-mile bike rides, we did it all. After settling into Tahoe, everything seemed peaceful for a while; until a day in early January of 2009.
We were skiing as a family that day and my dad, the man who had always been waiting for at least 10 minutes at the bottom of the run for the rest of us, was suddenly unable to keep up. He was experiencing shortness of breath and fatigue. Now keep in mind that my Dad was a doctor for many years, and if that wasn’t enough, he was also the most stubborn person I have ever known. He insisted that it was nothing more than pneumonia and prescribed an antibiotic to solve the problem. However, a few weeks later, there was no improvement. My mom finally put her foot down and forced my Dad to go and have some testing done. Looking back, I wonder if the reason that my Dad projected such confidence into his guess diagnosis of pneumonia was because deep down he knew that there was something more to how he was feeling. Someday, I’ll have to try to remember to ask him. Not long after that, we received the results from the testing… my Dad had cancer. My best friend, my hero, my person… had cancer. It didn’t seem possible. My family had served the Lord for the entirety of my life – serving in multiple ministries, serving as biblical counselors, leading bible studies and meeting needs in so many other areas. How was it that this is how God was repaying us.
Over the next year, my brother and I stayed with my Mimi quite a bit as my parents were in and out of the hospital while my Dad underwent Chemo treatment. There were a lot of ups and downs in that year, but we held strong, surrounded by a community of believers that we had come to love and cherish. That was where the unexpected blessing of the move to the small town of Tahoe really came into play. We had such a small community, but it was a strong community that loved, supported and cared for my family during an intense time of struggle. Over the summer of 2010, my family lived in a trailer in the parking lot of a Southern California hospital as my Dad received a specialized treatment that could potentially place him in a state of remission. I don’t have many memories from that time of life, and for that, I’m thankful. One afternoon in September, my brother and I were at my Mimi’s house and my parents had just arrived from a follow-up appointment with my Dad’s oncologist. It seemed that the procedure had been somewhat successful as we were told that my Dad was in partial remission. What amazing news! But it all came crashing down around us when my Mimi, my only grandmother, broke the news that three months earlier she had been diagnosed with cancer. She had decided not to tell us as she didn’t want to add to the burden or stress that my family already carried. I was angry and confused. Just as things seemed to get a bit better, it all fell apart once more.
The Hard Road
On June 22, 2011, my Mimi went home to be with Jesus. It was a very hard time for my family. There was so much that we had already walked through leading up to that point and when the end of her time on earth came, it was a combination of relief and sorrow. Comfort came from knowing exactly where she was going, but that didn’t take away the reality that it was going to be a long while before we got to see her again. At that point, I was too young to truly grasp the reality of what was happening and for the first time, I felt completely emotionless. I didn’t want to feel and so I didn’t. I lived in a state of being completely numb and I was okay with that.
During my Mimi’s downward spiral, my Dad had been doing well for someone who was so intensely battling cancer. As a doctor, I think that being able to focus on someone other than himself was a big help. But after she passed away, he started declining once more. I have memories of some days where he seemed completely himself – laughing, smiling, his sense of humor and good spirits seemingly restored; and then the next day, he would be weak and unable to hardly stand on his own. My brother and I bounced from friend’s house to friend’s house, living away from home sometimes for a week or two at a time while my parents spent time in and out of hospitals. We missed home, but then we didn’t really want to be home when we had the chance either. I don’t think that either my brother or I wanted to face the reality that we were losing our Dad. He wasn’t the same man that we had known… how could he be? Up to that point in my life, I had never seen my dad cry; yet, during the battle against cancer, I had seen him cry more than once, and that rocked my world more than I wanted to admit. I watched as the strongest man I had ever known withered away to nothing. I watched as he tried to be strong for my family but was reliant upon others for just about everything. He endured more pain and more suffering than I have ever witnessed in my life; and the other person to suffer right alongside him, was my mom. My mom endured so much – trying to raise two kids, work multiple jobs, take care of a household and take care of someone who was battling a life-threatening disease. My mom is my hero in every sense of the word. She was the ultimate spouse, mother and friend in times of incredible hardship. I do not and will not respect or admire anyone as much as I do my mother.
Then in January of 2013, we received devastating news. The diagnosis that my dad had received almost 4 years before had been incorrect. My Dad had what is called plasma cell Leukemia; a kind of cancer that is not curable. It was a miracle that my dad had survived as long as he had… but now he had two options. He could continue treatments that may or may not have any effect and might prolong his life, or he could simply try to enjoy what time he had left. Through many tears, a lot of contemplation and receiving much counsel, he chose the latter. It was probably one of the hardest decisions he ever had to make. I will never forget watching tears stream down his face as he said, “I’m not ready to say goodbye to my kids”. We all knew how much he loved us, and we knew that it was time for him to stop suffering for our sake, but that certainly didn’t make things any easier. It was a very rapid decline after that decision was made. On March 6, 2013, my dad slipped into a coma. My mom had called my sisters, telling them they needed to get to my dad’s side as quickly as possible. Within 24 hours, my family crowded into my house. We each had a chance to say our goodbyes, and by my dad’s twitching fingers, we knew that he could hear us. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. I held his hand in mine and through tears, tried to express how much I loved and adored him. Those few days were some of the hardest and yet happiest of my life. Even though my family was gathered for a less than joyful reason, there was joy because we were together. People slept on the floors and on the couches; we made enormous meals and we laughed together. Having my family together made such a hard thing, so much easier. Then, on the morning of March 8, at about 4 AM, my dad went to be with Jesus. My mom had held him in her arms through the night praying with him and assuring him that we, his family, would be okay. He fought with everything he had for so long, and it was finally time for him to go home.
I felt like I had lost everything that mattered. That wasn’t true, of course, but grief doesn’t exactly push logic and reason. I had watched two people that I deeply loved and cared about suffer to an extreme. I had watched my mom bear unbelievable weight and responsibility on her shoulders. I myself had to grow up much faster than most kids my age to try and help my family in any way that I could. I had seen too much brokenness and shed too many tears, and I was left asking the question, why? Why was this happening to my family? What could we possibly have done to deserve this kind of heartache? We had been faithful servants, giving to the Lord and following His will and this is where we ended up. What the hell was the point? If we served a God who was willing to destroy the lives of the people that he “loved”, then I wanted no part in that sick, twisted dynamic. I was done. At 16 years old, I made the decision to walk away from everything that I had ever known.
Year of Darkness
After I made the conscious decision to turn my back on God, I entered a year of darkness and depression worse than I know how to put into words. There were countless mornings that I would wake up sobbing, begging whatever being was out there to let me switch places with my dad, or worse, to just end my life. The hurt and heartache that I felt was intense and it seemed that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I could never escape it. I remember thinking that the world deserved and needed my dad, and I considered myself expendable. I also remember thinking and believing that loving people wasn’t worth it if the loss that came after was always this intense. I wanted it to just end. There were many moments that I sat on the floor of the bathroom, looking at a handful of pills, wondering how long it would take for them to take effect. But I hit rock bottom one afternoon in July. No one else was home, and I had a break. I had cried to a point that there were no tears left. I walked into my kitchen, took a knife out of the drawer and sat on the floor of the kitchen. I twirled it in my hands a few times, watching the sunlight glint off it and wondering how much it would hurt. I held the knife to my chest and willed myself to finally just end the pain that I had been feeling for so long. But in the end, not only could I not do it, but I realized how desperate and broken I was. That moment, as horrible as it was, was the moment that everything began to change.
Prodigal Daughter Returns
After that moment, I slowly began turning back to the Lord. I had still been attending church with my family (because there was no way that I was going to tell my mom that I wasn’t a Christian), but for the first time, I was hearing the messages that the pastor spoke. I had felt betrayed and abandoned when I had lost my dad; he was my whole world. My identity had not been found in Christ, but in my family; and when my family went through a drastic change, my identity was stripped from me and I was left with nothing. Or so I thought. I began to slowly understand that God doesn’t cause pain or grief; but He will allow it. I understood for the first time God’s intense love and perfect plan for me. I recognized that God not only saw my hurt… He understood it. He sympathized with me. He cared.
Then one Sunday morning, I reached the point of surrender. I can’t tell you what the message was about or what worship songs had been played, but in the middle of worship, my heart broke. I escaped to the bathroom, where I knelt on the tile floor and simply began to weep. I finally saw myself for what I was: a broken sinner with a desperate and constant need for a Savior. I was the prodigal daughter, who had been blessed with so much, only to turn my back on it all and try to run as far as I could go. Little did I know that God had been there, pursuing my heart, awaiting me with open arms and never giving up on me. I surrendered my life to Him that day and for the first time, I felt free. My faith, my relationship with Christ was finally mine. All mine. He had always been willing to claim me as His own, but I was finally claiming Him in return.
“I am my Beloved’s and He is mine.” – Song of Solomon 6:3
I love that current time is called the present. We may not always recognize it, but each moment is truly a gift. The Lord has used my story, as hard as it is, to mold me into the woman that I am today. I used to wish to change the past, and now, I am simply thankful that I was able to accept it and move forward in the journey that is life. After surrendering my life to the Lord, He has been faithful in pursuing me and showing me, one step at a time, His plan for my life. He has instilled in me a heart for worship and a deep love for uniting His people and leading them using the beauty of music. He has continued to grow in me a heart of compassion and love for others that I could never have on my own. He is growing my faith daily, reminding me that He is worthy of my trust, my love and my life. I am now serving in worship ministry and going to school to study the His Word with the goal of one day pursuing missionary ministry. I am not sure what my next steps in life are, but I know that if I continue to wait on the Lord’s will and pursue His plan for me, I have no need for worry. He is good.
I know this has been long, but I have one last thing to share. Recently, I got a tattoo. If you see the picture below, you will see that it is a small word marked on the inside of my wrist. It reads, “His Daughter”. I know that based off of that phrase, many would jump to the conclusion that I chose to get this in honor of my dad... but that is simply not the case. I know how my Dad felt about tattoos (#notafan), and so saying that I got it in his honor would be kind of laughable. And the blunt truth is, it wasn’t for him, it was for me; it is for me. The phrase “His Daughter” carries a double meaning for me personally.
First, it is a reminder that I am still Robert Bender’s Daughter. Whether or not he is here on this earth to claim me, I am still his child. It becomes very easy to accept the reality that I have one parent; so easy, in fact, that I begin to forget that I was raised by TWO parents. My Dad was, is, and always will be, a huge piece of my life and of who I am. This tattoo is a reminder that even though I don’t get to see my Dad on earth, I can still claim him as mine and I will always be “His Daughter”. It is a reminder not to forget.
Second, this is a reminder that ultimately I am my Heavenly Father’s daughter. During the darkest time of my life, I tried my absolute hardest to run as far from the Lord as I possible could... it didn’t work. I was the stubborn child trying to force my Father to let go of me and let me have my way; all the while, He was patient and clung tightly to me. I rejected Him, yet He still claimed me as His. I was angry and bitter; He was loving and forgiving. The Lord has held onto me, despite everything. What a remarkable statement of grace and unending love is His goodness in my life. He is my all. This tattoo reminds me of what He has done in my life everyday.
Lastly, it reminds me that I belong. I belong to a God who desires and loves me. I belong to a Dad who desired and loved me. I cannot physically see either of them, but I know that I am claimed by them both. I belong to them both. And what a blessing that is.