The Tree Must Stand Tall

I wrote this post nearly one year ago on a day when memories from my past came, seemingly, out of nowhere and left me shaking and feeling helpless. While I’m not a fan of these emotional onslaughts they have taught me to appreciate the good days and to recognize the small victories in life.

Victory is not a glorious finale with cheering crowds. Victory is waking up. Victory is weakness acknowledged. Victory is laughter. Victory is a warm hand in mine at the end of the day. Victory is a heart full of love when bitterness and hatred threatened to take up residence. Victory is a thousand other things to me but, mostly, it’s about being able to write about the things that once brought me so much pain.

Warning: this post contains explicit language and recounts events from a violent relationship.

It’s my mom’s birthday. A day of smiles. A day of celebration. A day of life-affirming joy. It also happens to be the anniversary of the day when my already-teetering life went fully sideways and all that was inside me seeped out between the cracks opened by my fall. It was on this day nine years ago that I called my mother and wished her a happy birthday. I spoke the words just as I had in the years before and in all the years since. I delivered them with no indication that they were the only things with any familiarity on this day; April 27, 2009. My call to her was the last one of the day and there was some part of me that thought it would be the last one ever. I hung up and pulled into his sister’s drive.

He had threatened to take away my phone if I hung up on him again. I believed him. I also knew that I couldn’t endure one more rambling monologue and that phone was my lifeline to the rest of the world. So I did what made sense at the time and I left my phone with his sister for safekeeping until the morning. Nine years after the fact I can’t imagine why I thought it would be safe with her but I suppose that in the midst of a great storm you will hold onto anything if you believe it will provide a moment of respite from the wind and rain.

I drove the short distance home and waited for what would surely be another night of misery. After dinner, the nightly ritual began. He followed me through the house as I folded and put away laundry and made preparations for the next day. He alternately begged me to love him and berated me for being stupid and lazy. With his words he worshipped me as a mother and a woman and, being unmoved, he then scolded me for being a whore and an absent parent who worried more about a career than my small child. I was accustomed to the rhythm of his tirades and, as such, I was able to continue on with household chores while he tired himself out. If you have ever waited out a crying infant in a crib you are familiar with the tactic.

In the previous weeks he had faked a suicide attempt (complete with an empty pill bottle), threatened to stab himself in front of me, and asked me to shoot him. The shooting involved an elaborate plan where he would write a note to let everyone know that he asked me to do it and to please not convict me of a crime. When the threats against his own life were not effective, he began to threaten mine and he became increasingly aggressive and violent. He dragged me across the floor by my ankles. He shook me so hard that I sustained a neck injury. He sexually assaulted me. I never knew what would happen on a given evening but I was certain that whatever it was it would be bad.

On this night, he found me in the walk-in closet putting away laundry. He closed the door behind him and then blocked it with his body. He explained that I would not be able to leave until we talked for two minutes. He ranted and pleaded for thirty minutes until I asked to leave so that I could bathe my child. After multiple attempts for the door he lunged toward me, headbutted me, and left me dazed with a broken nose. His rage quickly turned apologetic and he begged for forgiveness. He begged me to love him. He begged me to stay with him. He begged me not to tell anyone.

There are moments when I let myself believe that the memories of that night and the months of nights before it are gone, forgotten. Then there are days, like this one, when the breaths come ragged and halting. My confused body attempts to both protect itself and shed the memories all at once which results in tears and numbness and shaking that appears to have no beginning and no end. I remember to keep my gaze forward lest I lose my balance, feet rooting into the earth below me, arms reaching into the sky above me. There are flashes of searing pain and feelings of chaos but the tree must stand tall.

I remember the words; so many words yelled, screamed, and whispered (love…together…forever…whore…stay with me…suck my dick…fucking cunt…just be with me…why won’t you love me…you don’t deserve to live). Words all spoken by the same man on the same night. I have never understood how so many emotions could be present in one human at the same time. I also don’t understand calculus. At this point in my life I have decided that it’s ok to leave some stones unturned.

I once thought about opening my arm to allow the terror flowing through my veins to escape to the surface. It was so mingled with the life left in me that it was not possible to rid myself of one without giving up both, so I gave my terror a blanket and banished it to a distant corner of my mind and asked it to please keep quiet.

Usually it doesn’t cause much trouble but today the terror feels big, bigger than me, and I don’t understand how the contents can be bigger than the vessel holding them but it turns out that I don’t understand physics either so I wait for it to tire itself out. And while I wait, I grab a pen and a notebook and then I eventually type on this keyboard because telling the story restores the balance of power. Telling the story reminds the world that I sometimes feel small but I am not small. Telling the story forces the terror back to its corner until the next time it gets restless.

And, after all that, it is my momma’s birthday. She was my first thought this morning. I reached for my phone to send her well wishes and I was flooded with so many memories that I couldn’t do anything else until I had sorted through them. She’ll understand. She always does.

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