My memories of childhood remind me of a collage: Little movie-like bits, torn apart and scattered in my brain. Sometimes, perhaps in an effort to restore the lost narratives, my trauma-damaged brain randomly serves up loose fragments of memory. I could be washing the dishes in the here-and-now, and the clink of a glass in the sink might summon the ghostly sound of my childhood doorbell. I might feel actual, decades-old dread stir within me. Who could be at the door? I might gaze into the darkness outside my kitchen window, remembering the sight of mom through the peephole. After a few beats, I’ll shake my head and return to the present, hands lathered with blue dish soap, not a single horror awaiting me behind any door in my home.
I know that each disjointed memory has a rightful place, but they’ve been snipped up and scattered, where they flutter in my mind until they catch my attention. Bits of laughter echo in my ears. And screams. And sometimes at night, I can still feel the familiar sobbing sadness I eventually learned to tamp way down in my gut. I can see myself curled up on a bare mattress in a room without curtains, the silvery moon the sole witness of my suffering.
As a child, I dreamed of being the daughter of a warm and nurturing mother. I used to sit by the living room window and watch the throngs of fresh-faced mothers walk their daughters to school, and I imagined what that must feel like. I imagined a soft, warm hand holding mine, leading me. I imagined the clean clothes she’d pick for me. I imagined the warm departing hug and the promise that she would come back when school let out. Those simple motherly gestures were an absolute fiction that I would never get to live.
Anyone who has spent time around children knows that they have an inborn sense of justice. It’s a protective mechanism that ensures survival. They’re hard-wired to seek their fair share of love, resources, or freedom, and they know when they’re not getting it. Kids have a keen – if obsessive – eye on whether someone else has gotten a bigger slice of cake, or whether their turn was skipped during a game of Monopoly. In an ideal situation, there’s a benevolent, judicious adult nearby, ready to quell their worries and set things right, which, hopefully, leads to the sense of security that allows children to grow and thrive.
Of course, some amount of unfairness is unavoidable, and even necessary in order to gain strength. We develop sympathy when we experience pain, and we develop empathy when we witness the pain of others. We build skill by pushing up against the rough edges of our limitations. But we are born needing a parent or two to ensure that life isn’t too hard on us while we’re still getting our legs under ourselves. A foal who isn’t protected by its mother cannot stand on its own, and if it doesn’t stand firm by the end of its first day, it dies.
My father left when I was eight months old, and my mother left and returned as a matter of habit throughout my infancy and early childhood. She was drawn to the streets of San Francisco where she drank and exchanged sex for money or booze, and although I recognized that she was profoundly sad, I watched her choose that life over being at home with me. I still haven’t found a word that captures what that’s like.
In the absence of mom and dad, I found myself (along with two sisters) cast into the care of our maternal grandmother, who cared for us much like she might have cared for a trio of stray dogs. We were fed on schedule, inoculated against life-threatening disease, given haircuts and Christmas presents, but we knew that we were the worst thing that had ever happened to her.
She was widowed fairly young at a time when women seldom worked outside the home, so she took a bookkeeping job and struggled to pay off her mortgage. Her “cup” had long been drained by caring for her only daughter – our mother. So, under the unbelievable pressure of raising three wild girls in what should have been her retirement, grandma scurried off to work every day in order to keep the lights on, leaving my sisters and me each with a shiny house key strung around our necks and the tenuous hope that somehow, we wouldn’t follow in our mother’s felonious footsteps.
Thus, the unfairness in my life went beyond slices of cake or turns at a game. We were either alone, or in the care of a mother who often lost track of reality and threatened to kill us. Any rational person would agree that it’s unfair for a child to live in that state, and yet, it happens every day. In fact, right now, there are hundreds of thousands of children in this country living in that state of brutal unfairness.
What I know to be true is that a child who dwells too long in injustice will start to believe that caring about the outcome of their life doesn’t matter, because whether they care or not, life will still be cruel to them. I know it hurt less to watch mom walk out the front door when I told myself that I didn’t care. But in the place in my soul where care is meant to exist, I started to feel a black void open up inside me. I couldn’t pick and choose what to care about – If I didn’t care about mom, I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t care about myself, or the birds, or the rain, or friendship, or love, or hope. When that lack of care inevitably began to transform into genuine apathy, I didn’t like who I saw myself becoming. I could be mean, cruel even. I was capable of hurting myself and others in ways that would get me into trouble.
That’s what it is to be at-risk.
I faced the risk of being like my mother, and I hated the very thought of it.
So, I chose to keep caring about her, even if that meant that my heart broke every time she walked out the door. I decided, for the time being, that a broken heart was better than a dead one.
I dragged myself through a lonely childhood and adolescence with a heart that had been broken and cobbled back together too many times to count, and when I scour my memory to figure out how I’m still here, I remember the first time a mysterious thing happened.
In the deafening silence after law enforcement dragged our mother out of the house for the final time, I stood alone in grandma’s room in a familiar dissociative state, my eyes seeing, yet not. My bleary gaze was set on the sheer curtains that separated me from the dimming daylight outside. Everything felt so irredeemably wrong, yet at that moment, a small, mysterious voice inside of me said, “Someday, things will be fair.”
I don’t know how or why, but I believed it with every fiber of my being.
That voice snapped me back into the present moment, filling my heart with a glimmer of hope, and that hope buoyed me up out of apathy long enough to take one life-affirming breath, which would have to be enough until the next breath came.