I remember the first time, the mug flying through the air. Dad’s favorite. Mom on the ground, she was pushed. I didn’t see the act, only the result. I was 10. Brother 8. Sister less than 1. We were sitting in the sun room, facing the dining room. It was night time and pitch dark outside. The night that our home changed.
The night before our home had felt like a safe place. This was the first time it didn’t feel safe, and never felt safe again.
I sat on the couch, holding my Sister, hugging my Brother. My entire body wanted to run out the door and into the woods. The forest was our safe place, but I wouldn’t leave my siblings to run into the dark. I looked behind me. Out the window and into the forest. Mom always said to stay where we could see the house. I wondered if we could sit at the edge of the grass where it met the trees. I couldn’t leave my Mom when she was sobbing on the floor. This was too much to bear. I don’t know how this night ends; I only remember waking up the next morning.
The sun was bright. I walked into the kitchen, hoping maybe it had been a bad dream. Mom was quiet. Usually she wakes me up by sweetly asking “do you want some cereal for breakfast and watch some cartoons?” while sweeping my hair away from my forehead. But that didn’t happen this morning. I had woken up with the quiet sunshine and gotten out of bed on my own. She didn’t look up when I walked close, and I saw a bruise on her arm. Brother was already awake; watching cartoons in the sunroom and waiting for breakfast. ‘Did he see the bruise?’ I wondered. He was sitting on the couch where we had been sitting the night before. I sat down next to him. Sister was playing quietly on the floor. She was quiet but smiled up at me. Mom brought us breakfast. We ate in silence and she drank her coffee. The world was shifting.
My Mom was amazing, she was like a superhero. She worked all night to come home in the morning and get us ready for school. She brought us to gymnastics and soccer. Mom took us to playdates, and made friends with our friends’ Moms. She always made sure our favorite foods were in the house, and taught us about eating healthy. She put up with us only eating the crusts of the Poptarts, and never eating the crusts of our sandwiches. Mom was a nurse and a volunteer firefighter. I was in awe of her strength. I would sit on the counter in her bathroom right next to the mirror. She would look at her reflection behind my head. I studied her as she would carefully comb her hair and apply mascara. I was convinced she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
My Dad was the superstar. We watched him play soccer and listened while others admired him. To watch him play so precisely was like watching a surgeon at work. Smart, quick, thoughtful and accurate. He had strong muscular legs that would pedal his bike for miles while pulling Brother and I in a trailer behind him. Dad and Mom took us on many hiking, camping and outdoor adventures. They showed us the beauty of the land and water. My Dad was an artist, a woodworker, a musician and an athlete. My favorite thing to do was sit in the recliner with him on Saturday morning. We would watch cartoons, read the paper and he would drink coffee. I loved nothing more than to show him my latest drawing. His praise made my heart soar. I loved when he was proud of me.
My parents were the pillar of strength in my mind, there was no doubt.
When a child sees a parent get abused, it is usually at the hands of an abusive spouse. I remember the cult leaders telling my Dad he needed to hit my Mom. He did, once, and I never saw him do it ever again. His refusal became his weakness. He sustained abuse from the leaders because he would not hit Mom. To watch the grown adults in authority at the church regularly beat my parents changed my brain. It altered things in a way that will never be the same. The light in my parents went dark.
The “church” had control of our entire lives: financial, housing, food.
I tried to do what my Dad did. If there was ever a chance I would choose getting in trouble; take the beating if only that meant that my siblings or parent would not. My plan only worked a few times. No one family member was out of reach because it was systematic. Our family was one unit in the larger body. I watched as other families went through the same system of abuse. Adults, children, able and disable bodied. All were beaten. All were spiritually and emotionally abused. All were stuck under the control of finances and housing.
I’ve watched as the effects of the pandemic have brought down people I have loved and admired. I’ve watched the light grow dim in some of the brightest people I know.
I’ve witnessed the fragility of life and being human.
I watched as my babysitter ran out of the church with blood flowing from her ear, into traffic.
I saw people get beaten over the head with 2x4s.
Stools thrown across the room into a crowd of children.
Babies being beaten and starved.
My idea of my parents was shattered, but somehow not broken. I’ve watched them come back to life. Our whole family grew back in a new and different way. No longer holding any roles of what a parent or a child should be. We are humbled and understand that this life is but a thin veil.
Because we are survivors, we understand that strength is an illusion. Yes, we are strong for persevering. While also understanding how little it takes to derail us in this life.
In this way, I am grateful.
Not for the experiences, but for the continued cycle of life and lessons learned. Our family dynamic is forever changed. I hope this culture we build will benefit our future generations. This pandemic is forever changing our society and communities.
May our collective experiences carry us forward.