Today, I’m a fighter, sporting a black eye and a lot of bruises. Sparring at Taekwondo was not pretty last night and my inexperience resulted in me being kicked in the face.
This morning at the grocery store, between a few curious, sympathetic looks from people, I felt inexplicable shame. It took me off guard. I cannot, at times, penetrate the inner workings of my brain. Then I looked in the mirror. I’ve seen this face before. Not my face, but the face of someone I have loved my whole life. I’ve seen her bruised and bleeding and crying. I, with my little clenched angry fists – absolutely powerless to protect my mother. This is a story of my rage and like my sparring, it is not pretty.
I was a witness, and sometimes a recipient, of domestic violence as a child. There was a lot of alcohol involved, followed by angry threats that the whole family would be killed. I try to see it through adult eyes. Was it bluster? Was it idle? It doesn’t matter. I believed we would die. I believed that I would be shot, strangled, or beaten senseless. I wanted more than anything to be invisible and all powerful. I went to church every week and I prayed first that he would stop drinking. Then I prayed that he would die. I was young and I believed.
The longest nights in the world were waiting for him to come home. I’d lay quiet, listening to the escalating drunken arguments downstairs. We’d all pretend to be asleep, hoping against all hope that he would not do what he had done so many nights. He’d roust us all from our beds, mocking us, yanking on our arms, sneering in our faces. The fear of what would happen was greater than what usually happened, which was that he’d get tired and pass out. One time he passed out over the gas stove, leaning on the knobs until the smell woke us.
On the nights when violence seemed imminent, I’d scoop up my younger siblings while he was distracted and load them in the car so that we could run. But I could never leave without my mother. Once, when I was 13, he started to come at me and I snatched up a cast iron frying pan, preparing to knock him straight into hell. She prevented him from reaching me, a fact that I bitterly held against her for a long time. The flame of adolescent rage had been lit. I began to plot the many ways in which I would kill him.
It was over before I managed to follow through on any plans, most of which involved shovels and shotguns. I hadn’t started my P.D. James English mystery phase or else I would have been all over poisoning him. We finally left one sunny afternoon while he was at work, after enough social service interventions and my mother had saved enough money to rent a place for us to live. I was beginning a new chapter in my life, but like ripples in a pond, the past continued to touch my present and my future.
It’s always a concern when I write family stories. I was supposed to wait until they were dead, before dredging up the past and ripping the family myths wide open. But it’s MY story, too and until I tell it, until it is exhaled out of me, I will not fully embrace a creative life. I am lucky enough to be able to tell it and to walk away with what I need to continue evolving as a person.