I’m hoping to enter this piece in a contest or submit it to one of the magazines that it’s my goal to get my work in this year. I recently received a devastating rejection from one magazine. The editor was wonderful about it and she gave me a connection to another editor. We’ll see what goes on from there.
I hope I don’t bore you too much with this one. In some ways, I’m telling the same story you’ve all heard before. I think every time, I hope every time, I’m telling it from a different angle, with a new perspective.
My life should have killed me but it didn’t. And though, I’ve always been told I’m brave and strong. I don’t think of myself that way.
Growing up I was very aware that other kids loved their mothers. I stopped loving my mother at eight years old. It was a self-preservation technique. I knew that if I continued to love my mother, it would kill me. So I squelched my natural desire to love her, I scolded myself for moments of weakness when I was affectionate towards her. I numbed away the pain. I redirected all my love to my father. Though he rarely called since separating from my mother, I made him a hero in my mind. But that made my mother the villain.
My mother was mentally ill, but I didn’t know that. Instead, I knew that my mother made my sister pick up dog feces on the way home from school, one of the many ingredients for the spells my mother cast at her altar. I knew my mother thought that spirits and angels spoke to her. She said they told her terrible things about me. They told her, for instance, that I was possessed by the devil. When I confessed to my mother that my sister B. and I were contemplating suicide, my mother accused me of possessing my sister. I was 16, B. was 13. I never thought to pray for a better mother, I had to learn to cope with the one I got.
My mother’s mood swings caused us to tiptoe around her warily. We spent most of our childhood in hiding, underneath the bed, inside closets, behind each other. But my mother always found us. As a teenager, I remember my mother’s corpulent body pressed against me as she punched me repeatedly in the face until she drew blood. I remember thanking God at that moment that the knives my mother had just thrown at me had missed. Later, I watched as my mother bludgeoned B. over the head with a pair of rollerblades because B. had worn makeup and a midriff-bearing top to school. “Slut!” my mother yelled. Her eyes were angry slits as she stalked out of the room. She threw my ten-year-old sister A. against the wall repeatedly just for standing in her way.
And in all that misery, my sisters and I banded together. We tried to become an impenetrable force. We rocked out to Nirvana and Gwen Stefani. We wrote plays, books and poems. A. and I earned straight As at school while B. escaped to the mall. We fell desperately in love with the stupidest boys. We did everything we could to nurture happiness in the midst of the total terror of our secret home life.
But the secret of what was really going on at home separated me from my friends. The friends I told about it were sworn to secrecy. I told them what I believed, what my mother had told me would happen if I told.
“My sisters and I would be put into foster homes. In the foster homes, we would be beaten and raped. It would be much worst for us if we told on my mother,” I said.
But there was another fear.
“If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you and I’ll kill your sisters before they come for you,” my mother warned. “And I’ll kill myself, too.”
So I prayed. I curled myself into a little ball under the dining room table on a daily basis and I prayed. I prayed that someone would save me. That my long lost father would uncover the truth. That my mother’s relatives who knew about the abuse would take care of us. That I would have the strength not to kill myself because my sisters promised to follow in my footsteps. I prayed because as long as I believed that there was something bigger than my mother, I could look forward to the next day.
When my prayers were answered, they came with a price. My mother’s youngest sister, eighteen-year-old L., who was only a year older than me, told me that I could come live with her and my grandmother.
“If your mother gets worst, you’ll come live with us. Don’t worry,” she said. L. stroked my long, puffy black hair as I cried in her arms.
I could finally leave. But I would have to leave my sisters behind. L. couldn’t convince my grandmother to take all of us. No one was interested in taking in someone else’s four kids. And the closer I got to my 18th birthday, the more my mother singled me out. I think she worried she was losing her hold over me.
The night before my last day of high school, my sisters found me strewn across my bed after an attack. My mother had thrown a metal cup at head and missed. But when it had connected with my exposed right elbow, a fleshy bruise the size of a hockey puck had pushed its way out of my arm. My mother had muffled my screams while she pushed the battered mass back into my arm. But my sisters heard the screams and after my mother fled from my room, they came for me.
“You have to leave,” B. said breaking the silence. Her unruly black hair was still wild and patchy from when my mother had attacked her with scissors.
Thin, fragile A. began to sob.
I shook my head crying. “I can’t leave. I can’t leave you.”
“Pack,” B. said. Her decisiveness made me feel like the younger sister.
The next morning we said our goodbyes. Our sweet-smelling two-year-old baby half-sister’s soft arms encircled my neck. She was the product of a boyfriend my mother had only introduced us to twice.
“K.,” I said whispering her name. She giggled, flashing her toothy smile. My mother rarely beat her but she was often a tiny witness.
“She’s still sleeping,” B. said stoically. “We’ll help you sneak the bags downstairs.”
On the phone the night before, my maternal grandmother had warned us not to call friends or write letters. “She listens to your calls. She goes through your things at night. Looking for things.”
A.’s long, spindly arms wove around me tightly. Her long black, braided pigtails scratched against my face. Quiet tears streamed down her face.
I looked at B.. “Come back for us,” she whispered huskily. “Come back for us.”
“I promise,” I nodded.
I remember reaching the doorframe and turning back to look at all three of them. Three tiny girls. I wondered who would protect them. It turned out to be someone I had overlooked.
My sisters endured the same nightmare for four more years. I attended college and bounced between the homes of different relatives. My grandmother had kicked me out in the middle of her divorce. Another aunt had asked me to come live with her and changed her mind. I was living with a roommate off-campus when a tearstained note arrived from B. and I staged an intervention. I was 21.
“You don’t have to do this,” a classmate told me. “You can’t be the only one who can do this. You should be taking care of yourself.”
But I ignored her, I helped eighteen-year-old B. leave and when she didn’t come home, my mother didn’t come looking for her. But my sister A. was only 14 when I kidnapped her two weeks later. My mother came looking for her the next day.
What ensued doesn’t sound real though I lived it. Children’s Services told me to petition for custody of A. or I would be arrested on kidnapping charges and my sister would be sent back home. My sisters and I wrote a 13-page manifesto detailing the abuse for them, hoping that that they would take our side. They didn’t. Instead, they left my defenseless seven-year-old sister K. in my mother’s custody while I waged war in court to keep A.. Thanks to my pro-bono lawyers I won temporary custody of A.. People ask why I didn’t get custody of K., too. But what they’re really asking? “Is the world fair?” The answer is no. Lawyers assured me that age my age, with not having seen her in four years, there was no chance of winning custody of K..
In the meantime, I worked two jobs to support us. I gave up my dreams of working for magazines like the glossy CosmoGIRL! where I interned part-time. Dreams were for people I saw on TV, I thought, not people like me. My mission in life was to save my sisters. To survive on a paycheck for one, I borrowed money from friends and from credit credits while my mother collected welfare checks in A.’s name. Meanwhile my relatives refused to testify against my mother, scared that she would “come after” them. Some of them had tangled with my mother in court before and had lived to regret it.
I walked through life those years irradiated by rage. It infected me like a toxic poison. I was certain that the world was an awful, worthless place. I spat at it with contempt. I found myself punching walls and imagining the faces of my parents and my useless relatives. Every breath I took I felt more like the Incredible Hulk in frenzy moments away from decimating an entire city.
After two years, it looked like my mother would finally agree to give up custody of A.. My father, deadbeat in the Dominican Republic, already had. But as she was asked to sign the papers, my mother flung them from her and started screaming in court.
“In the name of Jesus Christ, I never hurt my daughters!” my mother wailed.
So it would be another year before I would be awarded permanent custody of my sister A. and lose my sister K. forever. I didn’t know then that I would never see K. again. I was 24, broke and broken, too tired to fight anymore. But I will never forget that to save B. and A., I had to sacrifice K.. I will never forgive myself or the justice system.
The Baskin Robbins cake we celebrated with read, “Mom sucks.” The girl behind the counter looked at us with her mouth agape.
“Yes, that’s what we want the cake to say,” I insisted.
It felt like we laughed for months after that. The tension that riddled my shoulders finally seemed to abate.
But two years later, I was married and asking my husband why he loved me. I asked him this question so often it rankled. One time, he conceded, “I love you because you’re a real hero.”
I recoiled at the response. Every fiber of my being resisted his unconditional love. Everything I knew about love insisted that it was fleeting. I loved my sisters like they were my arms and legs, parts of my own body. But everything I had learned about unconditional love from my parents suggested that I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t feel like a hero.
I still don’t. But people remind me I was the only person in my family who was willing to step up, to fight. I was the only one willing to risk my emotional, physical and financial security to do what was right. I know now that I am like that dog who gets kicked but keeps on getting up again and again. I am made of some charged, unexplainable element that refuses to die…no matter how many times people have threatened to snuff it out. I know that I am proof that the human spirit can survive anything no matter the heavy cost.
I am a survivor, nothing more and nothing less.
But being a survivor has taught me nothing about how to live my life. How do I live with the scars and bruises that my mother left hidden just beneath the surface of my body and mind? How do I live with the chronic depression and chronic illness that now plagues my daily life? Is this the heavy price I have to pay to keep on living?
Sometimes, at 28, I feel like a cross between a little old lady and a newborn. In my bones, I feel the exhaustion of a long life lived. In my heart, I feel like a baby who has no idea how to navigate the simplest of everyday life. Every day I feel like more like Atlas, my shoulders burdened by all the baggage of my past. Every other day I contemplate slitting my wrists and checking out once and for all. And though, there is counseling, psychologists, psychiatrists and “happy” pills, I live in constant struggle. I live with the survivor’s guilt of desperately missing K. and a fear that I will turn on the television one day and learn my mother has ended K.’s life and her own.
And then there are the moments where I feel utterly weightless. After I’ve just finished a good book, after hearing my husband laugh, after hugging my sister close, there are those moments that feel so easy I wonder why I don’t have more of them. And I have become certain that I’m always going to have to fight for these moments. Every day I’m going to have to wage war, not against my mother, but against the darkest recesses of myself. I will always have to fight for that weightlessness and the pure untapped joy of happiness that feels so foreign to me. Today and tomorrow, I will continue to pray for the courage, the courage to choose life and the strength to continue raging against my inner demons.
I have survived and know I will have to learn to live with it.