Such a beautiful day. The sun shining brilliantly, the morning dew glistening on the California poppies. The kids and I were running barefoot through the grass playing tag and hide and go seek. “Yay, they’re here!” I had been waiting three weeks to get the car back; so tired of washing laundry in the bath tub or carrying it the four miles to the laundromat. It was so humbling trying to pull laundry baskets on a snow sled up a dry, dirt hill. Kind of silly how something as simple as driving to the grocery store and laundromat in my car filled me with so much joy. But he had other plans and insisted I hand over the keys.
What? No! I need these. It’s my car. “Over my dead body” I joked. “O.K.” he grinned back at me. I stubbornly tightened my grip, determined to stand my ground. Even when he held me against the wall with his hands around my neck, I would not budge. Not when he ripped my clothes off and pushed me in the bath tub. Not after he smashed my face against the toilet. Those keys were held so tightly in my hands that even the metal cutting into my palms could not loosen my grip. It was about more than laundry now. That car was my lifeline. The only thing I had to get us as far away as possible.
You were playing outside with your baby brother; letting him play in the dirt while you tried digging to China. Or maybe you could hear everything inside and were strategically building a tunnel for our escape. Lord knows you heard it all before, awoken in the night by my terrified screams. The innocence of youthful play interrupted when he dragged me out to the porch by my hair. The neighbors, his drunk buddies, you and your brother, all bear witness to my bruised and bloody body. Nothing more than a ripped bra and some thong underwear to shield my shame. “You see Ted, Bitches are all the same, they give you nothing but trouble.” Those words swirled around my head as I lay frozen in shock. The neighbor looked directly into my eyes, then turned away pretending to be busy. Your one-year-old brother, still playing in the dirt, un-phased and conditioned by violence. I crawled back into the house on my hands and knees, taking advantage of the guys distracted with their crude jokes at my expense. It was the jingling of the keys on the floor that alerted him I had slipped away.
Before I knew it, his foot was kicking my side. I crawled up on the couch to avoid his steel toed strikes, but he just climbed up and began jumping on my chest. He wanted to get a better grip of my hands, still holding tight to hope; so he kneeled down, pressing the weight of his legs against my throat. He used one hand to tear at my fingers while the other bashed into my face repeatedly. That’s when I saw you, my little girl. I could have held out longer, my will not yet smothered; were it not for those terrifying words that chilled me to the bone. You were screaming “Stop, your killing my mommy!” Crying so dangerously close, a frightful look on your face certain, you were watching me die right before your eyes. So I just let go.
He had what he wanted and quickly left. The possibility of police sirens no doubt compelling him to flee in a hurry. But such calls were never made. What was the point? Last time the police told me that rape would be too difficult to prove in court since he was my boyfriend. No charges ever pressed worth taking the stand and risking retribution. And that silly restraining order, like a piece of paper could stop him. The neighbors were nice enough to let me call my dad. Your grandpa didn’t waste a minute driving the two hours to come get you. He didn’t hesitate to scold me either, for putting you in that position. He said I wasn’t fit to be a mother. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. You deserved so much more than I was ever able to give you. I was a terrible parent and grandpa had no sympathy for me. I was too stubborn to leave, too hurt. I wanted to stay behind just long enough to pack up your clothes and special toys, a small gesture to make it a little easier. A few more hours, that was all I needed. Then I could sneak away in the car after he passed out, like so many times before.
Just in case he was still angry, I started to safety proof the house. I put the knives in a drawer and all the glass and heavy objects in the cupboards. I stashed the house keys and my wallet in the mail box and hid our bags and the photo albums outside under the wood tarp. I stared at those rusty poles sticking up by the porch. I had often thought to myself that it would only take one little push in the wrong direction and my body could end up impaled on those metal spears. The chances of that happening felt all too real now, so I laid them out by the wood pile.
I should have listened to you. You begged me, “Don’t stay Mommy. Please just leave.” I’m so sorry. I was wrong to think this house held anything more important to you than me. I wish I could go back and do it all differently. I would have left with you and your brother and never looked back. But there are no do-overs in life. Sometimes you get lucky and others, you are just one mistake away from ending it all.
Sometimes I wonder if you still think of me. If you remember the sound of my voice or the silly way we danced in the rain. I pray that your memories are not overrun with the things you saw, and even worse, the things you didn’t. Are you still mad at me for not coming with you, abandoning you and your brother? I’m so sorry I left you alone; that I will never be able to hold you in my arms or help you with your homework. There is so much that I wish I could have told you. Explain to you that I made the choices I did because I was scared and thought they were the best way to protect you from more harm. I was a coward. In the end, my choices didn’t serve you, only hurt you. I hope you know that I will always be looking out for you. Even though I can’t be there physically, you can still hold me in your heart, as I will always keep you close to mine.
A few more hours was all I needed. I was almost completely packed when the car pulled up to the house. The headlights gave away my location and my plan, beaming at the packed boxes in my arms. I could still escape; I was ready for this. I ran as fast as I could, out the front door, my wallet and keys. Towards the wood pile for a bag of clothes and the pictures. But I had forgotten about those rusty old poles and the freshly dug hole. We were running so fast, by the time we got to the hole, there was no stopping either of us.
It’s really cold here. The metal bars against my skin, keeping me away from you.
They said I planned it when I stayed behind, a revenge killing. The attorney told a story of how I lured him right into a deadly trap. A cunning fem fatale, strategically hiding weapons around the house, the children conveniently gone, ready to flee the scene with personal effects. My depression, a mental illness exacerbated by years of abuse, was used to discount my credibility. The truth is, it was almost me stuck in those poles. If he had pushed instead of pulling me down, I don’t know if I would have been able to swerve out of their way. Makes no difference in the end. Those cold steel bars or these ones, either one keeping me away from you.*
Maybe you are still mad at me for leaving you, maybe you won’t ever even read this. But just in case you do, please know that I will always love you. That from the moment you were born, everything I ever did was for you. No one and nothing can ever take that away.
Oh, and thank you for digging that hole like I asked and keeping it our little secret.
*Don’t wait until it’s too late! Call someone today for help if you are living with domestic violence.
Andra Day, Rise Up off the album Cheers To The Fall, 2015
Header art is off the front cover of the album “Rise” by Skillet, 2013