I feel like I need a quiet place to sit down and reflect on all that has happened in the short (yet so very long) 25 years I’ve been here. The truth is, a quiet place doesn’t stop the bombardment of memories, the instinct to protect myself, to protect those around me, and to stop looking for clues of abuse and trauma in those I meet.
There are a lot of gaps in my childhood, most of which I’m thankful for, but there are moments that are so drastically burned into my memory that I cannot erase them no matter how hard I try or fight.
I remember the drugs – being locked out of the house, beating against the locked front door, screaming as loud as I possibly could for my mother to let me in, while inside there were people doing drugs. Locking me outside was their way of “protecting” me.
I remember fights, words so explicit I could only imagine what they meant. I remember fists meeting walls and flesh; I remember locking myself in my bedroom trying to keep myself out of reach from the drunken and drug-fueled rages my stepfather would fly into. I remember so vividly the pot full of spaghetti sauce flung against a dining room wall, splattered red, the pot lying sideways on the carpet…it looked like blood.
I remember my mom’s screams every night for a year, protesting his advances. I remember wanting to turn on the small radio next to my bed so that I didn’t have to hear it, knowing his rage if he heard it. If I cried, I knew I had to stop, otherwise he would surely give me something TO cry about. I remember my mom disappearing for days on drug binges, leaving me with him. I remember wanting to escape, to run away.
I remember him trying to rape me. I remember fighting him off and telling him that I would tell my grandmother. I remember him being almost too drugged to care. I remember running and locking myself in my bedroom and hiding while he beat on the door. I remember him coming into the bathroom while I was showering, sneaking peeks behind the curtain.
I remember being touched and molested by a boy in the same apartment complex who said that we were playing doctor. His brother molested one of my friends at the same time. I was seven years old.
I also remember the sounds of the ferris wheel, the smell of the funnel cakes and cotton candy, and the laughter of those walking around the LA County Fair, one of maybe a handful of “good” memories. He promised that he would protect me, that he would be a shoulder and a guiding light in my life, a support structure. He should have been. Instead he took the trust of an impressionable little girl and twisted it and abused it, just like he did to his wife.
He turned the parts of my childhood that should have been filled with sugarplum fairy tales and gum drop play scenes into nightmares. Nightmares of beatings, threats and scars. Scars that, while not visible, lie under the surface causing trust and emotional issues in that once 8-year-old child who has grown into a 24-year-old woman. I sat there as he told my mother matter-of-factly that he was going to blow up her car while I was in it. I stood up for my mom and told him that he wasn’t allowed to threaten her anymore and if he didn’t leave I was going to call the police. I was 8 years old.
I heard a few months ago that he died. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I can only assume it is with the lifestyle that he lived.
My mom was afraid to tell me. She was afraid that I’d actually care, afraid that I may have actually cried at the news. To be completely honest, I was so incredibly relieved. No longer would I have to hope that some unexpected person or family would have to deal with the disaster that came along with him. Not another child would have to go through nearly being raped by him. Not another woman would be raped, beaten or threatened with murder. Not another little girl would have to spend a Halloween inside the house in her costume, peering out the front window at him screaming and yelling at her mom. Not another child would have to go through any of that, ever.
At the same time, I have to thank him for it. I’m not sure if I’d be the person I am today if those things hadn’t happened.
I hope he got what he deserved while he was in prison.
I remember living on the streets in my mom’s car. I remember sleeping on her friends’ couches, floors and empty bedrooms. I remember moving in with my grandparents, giving my mom yet another shot to get on her feet. I remember it not working, her disappearing for days, only to come home in the middle of the night strung out. I remember her moving out of the state with her disgusting, attempting-to-be-intimidating shell of a man who abused her emotionally, verbally and sexually. I remember telling a children’s lawyer that I wanted my grandparents to have custody of me and her willingly signing the papers. I was 9 years old.
I remember being trapped in a community pool bathroom – held against the cold tile wall. I hadn’t slept for days before this and was too weak to fight back, not able to scream loud enough. Not that the screams would have done any good – we were the only ones at the pool. I said no, I said stop, I said get off me, I said don’t do that, I said no. He didn’t care. He was older, a bad boy, a friend of a friend. I had already lost my virginity so I guess he thought he wouldn’t be taking much from me. I still cringe or turn around and swing when someone touches my back or grabs my shoulder. I was told he was murdered a year after, and I felt relief. I was 15 years old.
I try to find validation in every relationship. I try to fix the man that I’m with, try to make him see that he can be better than he is. I tell myself I deserved the shit I put myself through. It’s hard for me to trust people, to comprehend the way they function rather than the way that I function.
In two of my relationships, the men overstepped their boundaries and threw me into a completely defensive mode. I threw them into a wall. I question whether I am now becoming the abuser instead of taking the abuse, but then I feel that even though I did physical harm to them, I was put into a bad position and took the action necessary. I still don’t like being cornered or pinned against a wall with someone screaming in my face.
The doctors didn’t expect me to make it through the birth process, let alone actually live. But I lived. My whole life I’ve struggled so as not to become a statistic, not to follow in the footsteps of my mother – to beat the odds. I made it. I made it this far and I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up now. I have a child on the way; I am nearly 5 months pregnant and it’s a girl. Now I get to try my hardest to protect her from all of the things that happened me.
I’m excited … and absolutely terrified at the same time.
We met when we were twelve. My wife Kimmy was always healthy. She never smoked, only occasionally drank, she exercised and ate all the right foods. She hadn’t seen a doctor in six years, always joking, “I’m waiting for the big one!”
She went in for gall bladder surgery on 10/19/10. I assured her she’d be fine. My wife passed away fifty-five blurry days later on 12/13/2010.
When I realized how sick Kimmy really was, I told her, “Dammit Kimmy, why couldn’t you be a mean, bitchy woman? Then I could be rejoicing right now!” But she couldn’t be mean or bitchy. Not her nature. She was so sweet, so positive, right up until she died in my arms.
I miss her so much. I was a train wreck that she’d lovingly pulled out of the gutter, cleaned up, and helped exercise my demons. She made me what I am today.
And now, in my new, traumatic, bizarro world, I can no longer keep track of time or what day it is. I walk around feeling stoned. I question; I second guess myself. Did I kill Kimmy? I go back and forth, replaying this in my head.
St. Patrick’s Day last year, we lost our ten-year old Lab/Aussie pup, Zona. That dog was part of the family. Our kids adored her as much as she loved them. That dog allowed them to ride her, use her as a pillow; anything the kids wanted. We took her to the vet. She had to be put down. My children were inconsolable. Kim and I looked at each other and she said, “you go, you held Cajun while she passed on. I’ll stay with Zona.” An autopsy revealed wide-spread cancer. My stoic Zona never let on.
Now, looking back I wonder, did Zona’s cancer (in some crazy way) pass to Kimmy? What if I had stayed in that room?
I regret that I was so uptight about money and our financial situation. Kimmy would say, “I’d love to go to the beach.” I’d show her our bills, explaining that, “It’s not a good time.” Kimmy wanted a beach cruiser, and I’d nod, knowing we didn’t have the money. Kimmy wanted to replace the broken stereo in her car, and I explained that we could not afford that either.
Not right now.
When she died, the community helped with bills and groceries and medical expenses. Now we can go to the beach, only Kimmy’s not here to go with us. Dammit, I feel responsible for being so focused on money problems. I should have just taken her to the beach.
While Kimmy was so sick, I did everything I could to help: showers, dressing her, feeding her, doing the cleaning, even giving her a Lovenox injection twice a day; to combat the blood clotting issues caused by the demon cancer. She called me her knight in shining armor. She told me that I was saving her. But I wasn’t, I couldn’t; I wanted to believe I could.
I wonder, did the Lovenox help? Or was I making it worse?
I don’t know.
I do know that Kimmy was an incredible wife, mother and friend; the type of person you wanted to be around. Positive, upbeat, energetic. She was an excellent cook, such a nurturing mother – and I can’t help but think of how sad, how tragic this is for them. Cody 13, Autumn 10 and Antonio, especially Antonio, 7; all motherless.
What the hell happened?
Now, our family is closer than ever, although it’s out of necessity. Our glue, our mentor, the love of my life, the mother of my children, our motivator is gone – ripped from our lives so quickly – but we try to remember her positivity. We comfort each other because we know she believed she was going to Heaven. I tell the kids, “we need to smile and remember the wonderful times.” These little ones have responded so beautifully and remarkably, standing up for each other, and for me. They try to keep our morale up and her memory alive.
In the dark of night when I cannot sleep, I replay the whole nightmare, over and over:
What could I have done differently? I should have seen that she was sick. I should have. I could have…why didn’t I?
And, I cannot shake this feeling. I was not Kimmy’s knight…I did not ride off into the sunset. I did not save the girl.
It’s been a long time since you’ve asked me to comment on the book you wrote about your mom’s suicide. I think you are amazing to write about it and I’m glad that you did. I don’t enjoy bringing that chapter of life to mind, given the chaos of those years, but I’ve thought about it often. Especially when I think about what it means to be a mother and uncovering fresh layers of fucked up that we both learned from our mothers.
I know it’s not fair of me to judge them now — but it’s hard not to.
Talking about my relationship with your mom is hard for me because I admired her very much — I was flabbergasted by the way that she slipped back into drugs and addiction.
I was shocked that she abandoned you like that. I was just shocked.
I couldn’t believe your mom would die by suicide.
I still can’t.
I remember the first time I met your mom, I was playing in the front yard while she moved in across the street. She introduced herself from over the fence and told me that she had a daughter just my age, with my name: “I have a Sarah too.”
By the time you came to visit for the summer she had already arranged that we would be playmates. She even arranged a phone call between us before your visit.
When you showed up at my front door, I knew we would be lifelong friends.
My mom worked a lot and my dad was physically or mentally absent most of the time, so your home was like a second home to me.
During these years, your house felt like a Norman Rockwell to me, though now I see that it was far from it.
My mom remarried a man who was addicted to heroin, while at your house, your mom packed lunches, set up the tent in the backyard for us to “camp,” and made goody bags filled with candy. She took us to the zoo, the mall, and the flea market. She prescreened movies, took us for mint chocolate chip ice cream cones, and insisted that you wore a bike helmet. I remember going with her to an NA picnic in the park and how proud she was of her sober chips. We’d to admire the shiny metal coins she earned for racking up months and years of sobriety.
I envied the amount of time and attention that your mom spent with you when she was sober As a kid, I saw your mom as kind, fair, the type who would take the time to listen.
It was very late and your mom answered the phone and insisted that I tell her what was happening. My stepfather hadn’t started hitting my mom yet, but the yelling was really over the top. She gave me a speech about how adults sometimes argue and it can be scary for children to hear and explained that my mom and step dad would never want to do anything to scare me. She told me to go downstairs and tell them that they were scaring me and I couldn’t sleep. They told me to go back up to my room.
Many nights of fighting followed with growing intensity and I tried to call you but ended up talking to Beth.
Beth eventually called my mom and told her that she was concerned about me – I was in big trouble. I was forbidden to speak about “private family business.” It worked: I didn’t speak of the violence again until after his death.
The violence escalated and my stepfather began beating my mom and my brother when he was angry. We moved on several occasions to get away from him.
The emotional abuse from my stepfather became our new normal and we began spending school nights on random people’s sofas, hiding our car down the street.
I spent as much time as possible at friend’s houses and took up babysitting to get out of the house on weekends.
Beth was the only person who knew what was happening; I’d assumed that she would be the person to help me out of that situation. I’m no longer sure she understood how bad things had gotten. She provided me a safe place to go whenever I needed one and a reminder that there are kind people in the world. She told me that I should become one of them. She affirmed that there were a lot of fucked-up things in the world and they would probably never make sense.
Honestly, I don’t know how I would have turned out without Beth as a moral reference point during those years.
Beth became addicted to codeine cough syrup and her behavior changed: she didn’t take us on outings she slept all day everyday. One occasion when she woke up, I remember her running down the hallway singing “boo boop be boo.” This is when I learned that there was something wrong. I was pretty sure that people with bronchitis didn’t do that kind of thing normally.
I knew things were coming unhinged for you, but was too young to appreciate the full weight of what was happening.
I lived in Beth’s house twice, once for a short time when I ran away after my stepfather died and for the school term after that.
By the time I officially lived with Beth she was pretty far gone in her addiction. She slept or was gone most of the time.
It seemed that you were on your own, too.
I still cared what Beth thought of me. She seemed one of the few people who didn’t see me as a lost cause and so I didn’t see myself that way when I was around her.
On Fridays, Beth would take us to the grocery store. She taught us how to grocery shop and some very basic cooking skills.
Things went sour when my mom suspected Beth was using the money she gave her for things other than my upkeep. You and Beth were at odds more often than not. I decided it was best to move back home. Home was a sort of hell, but it was my own hell and I knew how to navigate it.
I didn’t see much of Beth after that.
I’d spend weekends at her apartment while she agreed to leave us totally unattended. The last time I saw her, she’d picked me up from my house to bring me back to your house for the weekend. I remember her being warm and chatting with me for the ride, though I can’t remember what about.
I remember her smiling and I remember that she mentioned that you were unhappy with her these days.
The next time I saw her she was in a coma.
Atrophied hands, hair cut short, dead to the world.
No warm smile, no more sun-kissed freckles, no more frizzy bun atop her head.
She was gone to the world and she couldn’t recover. That’s the last I saw her.
I couldn’t talk about her death with you. It didn’t seem like you wanted to and then you were gone I knew that she let you down and ultimately abandoned you with her suicide. You have every right to be angry with her; hell I was angry on your behalf.
I was just shocked and sad. I think I felt abandoned too.
The next few years were hard for us; the one person I saw as a safe adult had succumbed to drugs and took her own life. It didn’t add up.
Suicide was cruel and yet I remembered her as such a kind person.
There was nothing I could say that would lessen the pain for you so I said nothing.
You remind me of her because you look so much like her now. If you want to talk about what happened, I’d let you start.
What is there to say now, after all of these years?
That was fucked up. There is some fucked up bad shit in the world and it will never make sense, but there is some wonderful stuff too. I think that, despite it all, we both turned out to be people who contribute more to the good than to the uglyl.
I hold you close in my heart, my sister and my dear friend.
Every time I see the latest affront to human decency perpetrated by this administration and its dark legions of slavish devotees, I make a point of doing something kind for someone else. I practice kindness.
Anonymously, if possible.
Practicing kindness doesn’t have to be a big thing, or involve money, or even a lot of time. The point is not self-aggrandizement or warm fuzzies; the point is to pump an antidote and practice kindness to combat a pathological campaign of destruction, bigotry, and vile greed back into the body of this nation.
The point of practicing kindness is to actively resist an agenda that others women and minorities, strips hungry children of food, destroys families, and trades respect and decency for jingoistic greed and willful ignorance about our shared existence on this precious earth.
My kindness suggestions are always simple, but they are also effective:
Feed someone who’s hungry.
Help someone who’s struggling with work, their kids, with transportation.
Support artists, writers, and other creatives who are generating the beauty we need to combat fascist exploitation and dehumanization.
Refuse to leave unchallenged the propaganda and bigoted views you encounter on the daily, especially if they’re being used to actively attack, demean, or insult someone outside of the oligarchy’s CisHet Anglo Ubermensch paradigm.
Remember that you have far more in common with every day citizens of all races, sexual orientations, genders, and creeds than you will EVER have with a cadre of planet-crushing exploiters and fear-mongers eager to add more filthy lucre to the golden beds around which they coil like the dragons of old.
I used to agonize over who could possibly save us from this slide into brutish dystopian horror.
But I have come to realize that the light we need to banish the darkness comes from within each of us, and it is only by combining that light that we can combat the torrential flow of poison and bile.
So yes, absolutely call your elected officials. Definitely vote. Volunteer your time and resources to causes you care about. March, protest, resist.
But remember, too, the smallest acts; those tiny daily affirmations of our shared humanity, kindling a light to push back the dark.
I see the elderly woman approaching us from across the mall. She is looking past me and at my children with that smile. My kids are at the perfect age to attract these smiles. They are just at the dawn of human interaction. Their speech is still garbled; their language and actions both aped from adults. They, in their search for the right phrase or movement, are often accidentally adorable.
Children at this age still act as if nobody is watching, and adults love them for it. We are drawn to this innocence, I think, for the same reason we are interested in the behaviors of chimps or sleepwalkers. We want to see what it is that people do when they don’t realize they have an audience. We want to see what we would do if we didn’t think so much.
She walks carefully and slowly over to accept the imaginary ice cream cone my son offers up and wins my heart by pretending to eat it. Taking the interaction a step further, she asks him which flavor it was. He tells her it’s chock-lick and her smile deepens with amusement. I am scanning her face, watching her the same way I watch the face of every stranger who approaches my children. I am waiting for the clues that all humans throw off.
I’m waiting to see why she’s doing this.
And so it is that I observe her lined face slip gradually from delight to despair. A line grows deeper across her forehead and her milky eyes fill with tears. Her painted smile is the last to go, proof in my mind that she didn’t even see the sadness coming until it was already written on the rest of her face. I realize that I am moving closer to her as her expression shifts, so that when the tears start to roll down her cheeks I am all but cradling her. She leans against me, frail yet adult-sized. I am not in the habit, anymore, of being needed by people who are not my children. It takes me a minute. I don’t know why she is crying. I only know what she needs. And I have it to give. So I hold her.
She wipes the tears away and catches her breath. “My husband of 49 years passed away 7 months ago. Seeing your children makes it hurt more. Even though they are beautiful. The holidays make it hurt more. Even though I love them.” I hold her tightly, softly offering my condolences. My son asks me why the old woman is crying, and I stumble for a second. I don’t lie to my children, but I don’t throw around words like “death” either. I tell him simply that this woman will not be able to celebrate Christmas with someone she loves.
As I say the words, my voice shakes and my own eyes fill unexpectedly. I close my eyes against the tears, while granting myself one full minute to be overwhelmed with this unforeseen grief. The woman catches me with my emotions and apologizes for making me sad. I shake my head: clearing it, emptying it. “The holidays can be hard,” is what I say as I help her right herself.
They told me back then that I needed to grieve my brother as though he were dead, but to expect the process to take longer, since he is not, in fact, dead. And although I am the type of person to tear at her flesh in hopes of getting the pain on the outside, in order to move past it, I am shocked to find that some days it is as if time has not moved at all for me.
The woman shuffles off in one direction as we continue in another. We meet up later, at the fountain, as I am explaining to my children the concept of wishing on thrown pennies. I have a wallet full of potential wishes, and so I do not need to accept those that the woman offers us. But I do accept because I sense that it will give her something to be able to give to us. I bend down, tuck my children in close. The woman steps in, and we all throw our pennies at the count of three.
You can’t wish for people to come back. It doesn’t work that way. Pennies can’t move mountains. A wish is only a goal, a direction in which to focus your thoughts. In my world, you can only reasonably wish for the things that you have some control over. So I toss my penny in and I hope, for all of us, that the future brings fewer and fewer moments when we are brought to our knees by our pain. We will carry it with us forever, and we should, because it makes us who we are and it honors where we’re from. But more and more we will be able to live with it.
The holidays can be hard. I have always known this. I push myself off my knees, smile at the old woman and grasp her hand for a minute before exchanging it for my daughter’s. We walk out into the cold air and breathe in the last few breaths of 2010. Soon there is chatter and laughter and bickering and sunshine against the cold. I rub my hands together for warmth, raising my face to the sun.