Rise from the Ashes
Though my book, The Best Girl, is first and foremost about Domestic Violence, it is also about the dysfunction of a family, and even more specifically about the exposure of children to repeated violence. This is considered child trauma and, while some work has been done in this area, the full effect of repeated exposure to traumatic events is still unknown to researchers.
In my case, what I knew as a very young child was that somehow the whole situation was my fault. Not in the sense that the physical acts were my fault – I knew that my dad was responsible for the actual acts of violence. But more in the sense that the idea that he would do the things he did were a direct result of my being born. I felt unloved and unwanted, and therefore, in my child-mind I blamed everything on ME. When I became a teenager, I endured extreme bullying at school, which reinforced what I had been telling myself for years: the world would be a better place if I had never existed in the first place.
As I wrote the book, it became apparent how the moments when people reached out to help me/us were. These people: Mrs. Sawchuck, Bernice and Lawrence, Mrs. Somebody, The Kewatt family, Jack and Arlene and Mr. Hoffman, were the people trying to plant the seeds of hope in my life. They are the reason I have succeeded as an adult – as a wife, mother, nurse and more. When we hear the phrase: it just takes one adult to help a child, it is true. It could be something as simple as offering a smile, telling a child they did a great job on something. Or it could be something as DRAMATIC as providing shelter in time of danger. In addition, when we tell a child that what is happening in their lives is WRONG – even if we can’t fix it or take it away – we validate their experience. Ultimately this is how we come to realize that it is not our fault.
As a child, I had a lot of responsibility in my home. I worked hard to do everything I could to make life easier for my mom, and for my family. My mom was overwhelmed with her life for most of my childhood and only on rare occasions did she express affection or love for me. I thought that by doing everything as perfectly as I could – by being The Best Girl, I could convince her to love me. I also craved love from my dad even though I was terrified of him. He always called me his best girl, but he rarely showed me or told me he loved me.
When I was 12 years old, my mom took actions to end her marriage and hopefully end the violence. She forced Dad out of the house, filed for divorce and filed a restraining order. The danger we had lived with up until then was nothing compared to what transpired once the restraining order was in place. The protective measures we put into place to keep dad from breaking into the house were extreme. Besides breaking into the house my dad would call our house incessantly. At one point, my mom purchased equipment to record the phone calls with my dad. In the book I refer to this as the HIA – the Hicks Intelligence Agency. Dad called me almost every day after school, and it was during these phone conversations that I came to understand how ill Dad was in his mind. He made little sense during the conversations, and often was talking to people who I refer to as The Others – people who my dad thought were real, but weren’t. But I listened to him and hoped that by doing so, he would come to love me.
At this time, I’m going to share an excerpt from my book about the HIA that showcases how easily a child, in this case a preteen, is swept up in this quest for love from their parents, and how their naivete can lead to the utmost in disappointment, and even put their lives in danger.
I’ve been with the HIA for about two months now. I don’t know exactly what the purpose of my secret agent lifestyle is – the recorded tapes are simply stacked inside the cabinet under the end table – right next to the phone books. Mom has labeled each tape with the date and whether the conversation was with me or her. I have a bittersweet feeling about recording my dad’s calls – despite the destructive, despicable things he has done to us, I’m not sure it’s the right thing for me to be doing. It’s not something I can explain – it just doesn’t feel right. More than once I have thought about not pushing the record button; I try to reconcile my feelings by knowing that it may help Mom, and therefore the rest of us, in some way.
When Dad calls after school, it’s up to me whether I want to answer or not – and most of the time I do because I don’t want to listen to incessant ringing while I do my homework. Today, though, I have a lot of homework and my goal is to get caught up in Social Studies. Therefore, I’ve decided not to talk to Dad today.
As usual, the phone starts ringing soon after I walk through the door. I listen to it ring as I fix my snack, get settled at the table. There is a moment’s pause – no ringing – but it starts back up almost immediately. After a half hour, I accept the fact that I can’t concentrate and decide to answer the damn thing. So much for getting caught up in good old Social Studies.
“Hello?” I say, pressing down the record button as always.
“Well, well! Where have you been? I was starting to think you were trying to ignore your dear old dad!” Dad’s voice is different today. He doesn’t sound far away, and there is a lilting to his speech – cheerful, bouncy.
“I’m here, Dad. Doing some homework,” I say.
“Ah, well. Much ado about nothing . . .” Dad begins his ramble of the day. Where most of the time Dad’s voice fades in and out while he talks with The Others, today his speech is clear. Not making any sense, but clear. It seems like The Others have the day off or something; Dad is focused solely on me.
“So, homework?” Dad says suddenly. “How’s school going anyway?” I can’t believe what I’m hearing, Dad has never asked me a question about myself before. That Dad has asked me a normal question temporarily confuses me. I wonder – is it possible that whatever has been wrong with Dad is getting better? I tell him what my classes are, what I’m working on for Social Studies.
“I’m getting an A in Creative Writing,” I say, somewhat proudly.
“Oh, an A, ha?” Dad says. The hair on the back of my neck bristles as I note a change in his voice; the cheerful lilt is gone and has been replaced by a fast-paced speech pattern. “You think you’re just a little smarty-pants, don’t you? Sitting over there bragging about your A’s!”
“Dad, no, I . . .” I want to tell Dad that this is the only class I’m getting an A in, how I’m barely getting B’s in most of my other ones and have mastered a solid C- in gym.
“Well, well! What would you think if I came over there with a gun and blew your smart brains right out of your head?” Dad queries. His words pass through the phone and enter my ear like a lightning bolt, it feels like my ear canal is on fire. Did he say what I think he said? And Dad has a gun? “What would you think then? A quick blast right into your brain,” Dad continues, and I feel my eardrum light up as though it is part of the phone – the wires and recording equipment now a part of my internal anatomy. The words and equipment are taking up a lot of room in my ear – there isn’t a framework for it so it morphs into a searing pain. I squint my eyes, try to push the severe pain back into the stupid phone. Who invented this cruel device anyway?
My mind is in a state of uproar, a tornadic storm is whirling around the hills and valleys of my brain and I can’t make it stop. I need to say something, do something, but the pain in my ear is taking up every single ounce of my energy. Suddenly, a snap sound causes me to jump – the tape in the recorder has reached its end. With trembling fingers, I press eject to turn the tape over – if there is a conversation that needs to be recorded, it’s this one.
“What was that noise?” Dad’s voice booms into my already ravaged ear. I can’t believe it – Dad heard the click when I pressed the record button!
“Nothing, Dad – I just, um, I opened the frig, that’s all,” I try, holding back tears. But Dad is apparently having a moment of insane clarity and is onto me. What is his best girl up to?
“My God! You’re recording this call, aren’t you?” Dad says, incredulously. How in the world did he make that leap from a simple clicking sound? I am stunned at how clearly he’s talking, his speech is suddenly percussionistic, precise. “GODDAMN YOU AND YOUR MOTHER!” Dad screams. Standing in the family room, I’m temporarily stopped in motion – like I’m in a freeze frame cartoon or something. I hold the phone to my ear as Dad continues talking, screaming, yelling – but I’m no longer listening to his words. I want to pull the phone away from my ear, but I can’t make my arm move. I stare at the recorder, winding the brown ribbon from one side to the other; the cruelty that defines my dad is being permanently recorded and will be filed away in the HIA archives.
And then, sudden silence fills my burning ear canal. Dad has hung up the phone. I stand and stare at the recorder – the machine is still trying to put his voice on the tape.
My mind is whirling with questions. What the hell just happened? Did I dream it? Is Dad on his way over here, with a gun? Will I die today? But I have no answers, and no emotion. I’m not crying, my tear ducts are empty. All I do is stand and I stare.
The fire in my ear eases a little – my brain cells are activated again. What am I doing, just standing here? I’ve got to get out of here, and fast! I have no way of knowing where Dad is. How long will it take him to get to 509? I quickly hang-up the phone, click off the recorder. I fly out the back-door and start running to Bernice’s. I look around, figuring Dad is lurking nearby. Bernice has told me about deer hunting – about how she sits high up in a tree with her shotgun, and as I run under our apple tree – I peek up to be sure Dad’s not up there, snaked around a limb or something.
When I get to Bernice’s, I skip knocking on the door and run right in. “Bernice!” I scream. Her basement door is open, and in a wink she’s flying up the stairs.
“What? What’s going on?”
“Lock your doors!” I scream. “I don’t know where my dad is, and he told me he has a gun! Where’s my sister? Is she home from kindergarten yet?” Getting this out takes all my energy, and my legs suddenly wobble like a roly-poly Weeble toy. I fall, landing on the rough carpet in her kitchen. Bernice helps me up, gets me settled on one of her kitchen chairs and proceeds to shut and lock both of her doors. Returning to the kitchen, she pulls her chair close to mine.
“Okay, what happened?” Bernice asks. “Don’t worry about Gloria, she’s downstairs watching television.” My body is in full tremble now, and my ear hurts so bad I think there is hot lava forming inside of it. My ear, transformed into a volcano.
“I can’t stop shaking, Bernice,” I say, looking up into her steamy glasses.
“It’s okay,” she says, taking both of my hands into hers. “Tell me everything you can.” And so, I tell her – everything. By the time I finish, Bernice is calling my mom at work.
“Would he do it, Bernice? Do you think he would shoot me?” I can’t believe it – won’t believe it. I should cry – why aren’t I crying? A kid should cry over something like this, shouldn’t they? What’s wrong with me?
“Oh, sweetie. I just don’t know. Right now, I need you to breathe. Take some nice deep breaths. Once you calm down, I’ll fix you some milk and cookies – okay?”
Mom arrives on the scene quickly – left work early, something she never does. I repeat my story for Mom’s benefit. Mom calls the police, who agree with her that Dad has gone against the restraining order. Apparently. the order not only restricts him from coming to 509, but also calling us. The problem? The police have no way of knowing where he is. They offer to check the local establishments, but beyond that, there isn’t anything they can do until he shows up again.
“I guess we’ll head on home,” Mom says, which is the last thing I want to do. If I had my way, we’d never go back to 509. “If he shows up, we’ll call the police. I’m sure they’d take him in for this.”
But Bernice overrules – she insists we stay for dinner and discuss the whole thing with Lawrence. Minutes later, Lawrence comes home from work. He tries to come in the kitchen door but finds it locked. Bernice hops up and lets him in and I can see he has already sensed some sort of danger.
“What’s going on here?” Lawrence says in his gruff voice, glancing at the three of us. I am mostly silent as Mom and Bernice talk – they are the storytellers now. Occasionally, I add a sentence for clarification or nod my head to let Lawrence know that what they are saying is true.
“Harrumph,” Lawrence says once the full story is out. “I can’t imagine he’s got a gun. I mean, where would he get it from? But, Lyla, I think you and the girls should stay here tonight.” Thankfully, Mom agrees, and I breathe a deep sigh of relief. And, even though I’ve never so much as held Lawrence’s hand, I feel an urge to jump up and hug him.
Once Bernice has supper ready, I fix a plate for Gloria and myself and head down the stairs.
“Hey, there,” I greet my sister, who is engrossed in some little kids show.
“Is it time to go home?” Gloria asks.
“Nope. Bernice made us some supper. Mom’s here, too. We’re going to stay overnight,” I say, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible. Gloria looks up at me and, after we’ve stared into each other’s eyes for a minute or two, I can see that she knows something bad happened. I wonder if she can sense my body shaking and the fire burning inside my ear. “It’ll be okay,” I say. But since I can’t even convince myself, I’m not sure how effective I am at reassuring her.
At bedtime, as we fall asleep, I wrap my arms around Gloria, hold her close to me. She is such a beautiful little girl. When her breathing quiets, I slowly remove my arms from around her and roll over onto my right side. I’m hoping that if I press my ear into the pillow, it will stop burning, hurting. Maybe the pillow will somehow take in the words Dad said to me, so I won’t have to think about them again. Instead, the pillow acts like it’s hollow, a weird type of echo chamber – popping the words back into my ear over and over. The pillow does not absorb the words or the pain like I want it to, instead it seems to increase the internal pressure, causing me to wince. I don’t know what to do, so I roll back over to my left side, and let the pain and words float up into the air – up into Bernice’s basement ceiling. When I finally close my eyes, my mind once again ponders the paradox that is my dad. Was he ever capable of feeling love? Why is he like this? How did he become our enemy? My enemy? Why does he become more and more hurtful, more intent on causing us harm? How will we stay alive and out of harm’s way?
As I became an adult, graduated from college, got married and had my own children, my relationship with my mom finally developed into one that felt more loving. She was able to tell me that I was a good person, daughter, wife and mother. I knew she loved me, even though her expression of it was still somewhat guarded. Mom passed away in 2012 of pancreatic cancer.
The last time I saw my dad I was in high school. I pulled into our alley to park my car in the garage and saw him sitting in the driveway with a 12 pack of beer at his side. He didn’t look up as I drove by. I went to the nearest pay phone and called Mom to tell her he was there. She called the police and they came and took him away. In 1992, we found out that he had died as a homeless person in Los Angeles, California. I realized then that I’d lost my chance to find out if Dad loved me or not.
This past fall I became quite ill. I had been admitted overnight at Abbott Northwestern Hospital with a loss of hearing in one ear, splitting headache and increasing pressure inside my head. Despite my symptoms, I was discharged abruptly, told by the ENT MD that there was nothing wrong with me. Once home, my symptoms kept getting worse. I worked hard to get into the Mayo Clinic, and the doctor I saw ordered an MRI, telling me he was concerned about a brain tumor. At this point I could barely turn my head due to the excruciating pain and was certain there was a possibility I wasn’t going to make it. The MRI was to be at 8 am the next morning, but at 3 am the headache and head pressure increased astronomically. I tried to walk to the bathroom and found that my left leg wouldn’t cooperate. I called 911. Because of what had happened the last time, I didn’t want to go back to Abbott and requested that the paramedics take me to Rochester. They told me they could not as Rochester was too far away. As the ambulance raced towards Abbott, I tried not to panic and closed my eyes. It was then that I saw my mom’s face, and heard her voice: “Joan, you have to go. It’s going to be okay this time. I’m here.” As I was processing this, my dad came to me. “Joanie, it’s Dad. I’m here. Your mom and I are both here. You’re going to be okay.” And it was in that moment that I came to know my parents did love me, and that they would always be at my side. When the paramedics brought me into the ER, there was a female MD waiting for me. She sent me for an immediate MRI, and called in a team of doctors, all of whom took me seriously. It was the reverse opposite of my previous experience. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with a rare brain infection, still of great concern, but not a brain tumor.
And, so, my message is this: in our darkest moments we may feel lost and abandoned and left questioning our very existence, but we need to remember that the light that will bring us out of that darkness, the answers to our questions will come. But we have to be patient and wait. And sometimes we have to wait longer than we want to.