The History of a Struggle

            After being yelled at once again, I flew into my bedroom and collapsed upon my army-regulation-taut bed.  Tears coursed down my cheeks as my fists pounded my pillow, the only allowable outlet for the rage rushing through my body.

            The offense?  I can’t recall.  It most likely had something to do with my sister.  I was seven years older but couldn’t see what difference age made in the realm of discipline.  She was practically perfect in the eyes of my parents while I was the demon child.  Her hair should have been Goldilocks’ yellow and the purity of her heart should have matched Sleeping Beauty’s.  I was the Ugly Duckling, the orphan in Dickens’ novel, the Cinderella of the evil stepsisters. 

            At the ripe old age of thirteen I decided that life at home was unfair and I should run away.  At that time, we lived in the small rural community of Beavercreek, Ohio, several miles outside of Dayton.  There were more farms than people and the population of cattle exceeded that of the entire town.  No buses came near and the closest pay phone was over a mile away at a Chevron gas station.

            I had very little money.  When I shook out the coins from my piggy bank it totaled almost three dollars.  Not enough to go anywhere.  Not enough to buy much more than a couple of meals at a burger joint.

            As darkness fell, I contemplated my options.  Once my parents were asleep, I could sneak out of the house and walk into the woods at the end of our lot.  I was confidant that I could find my way out to the main road about a half a mile away.  From there I was unsure where I would go, but anywhere had to be better than home.

Stealth would be critical.  I pictured myself following the road, hidden from view in the darkened recesses of the woods.  If I made it that far there was a major intersection. From there I could go north or south.

            If I turned south and could walk that far, I’d end up in Dayton.  That would be the logical way to go, except for the fact that I knew little of the city.  This was the 1960s, a time of racial unrest all across America.  There were parts of town that would be too dangerous for a naïve white girl, and so I ruled out the city.

North would take me deeper into farm country.  The land was flat and unbroken by stands of trees, culverts or any other form of natural hideout.  I imagined myself sleeping in barns and sheds by day, traveling by dark of night in order to avoid detection.  However, I was terrified of horses, cows, sheep, and goats, and so knew I could never share a stall with any of them.

If I continued west following the road that paralleled the forest, I would end up in the town of Beavercreek.  There was no Post Office, bank, fast food restaurant, or bus station.  There was a police station, but I believed that the police would only return me home without listening to my concerns.

My high school was miles outside of town, deep in farm country. There were some houses along that route that could offer hiding places under porches and behind bushes, but I was terrified of spiders and bugs.  I pictured myself dashing from house to house, hiding until the coast was clear.  Stealth was my new middle name and cleverness clung to my shoulders.  Until I remembered that I had no money.

That left turning around and heading east, back past the woods and my housing development.  Eventually I would reach the main road that went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Along that stretch was a gas station, A & W, Kroger’s, and a five and dime store. If I got that far, I figured I could get a job at Kroger’s in the produce section, as I knew about fruits and vegetables since we grew all that we ate.  But no, that was too close to home.

All night long I planned scenarios that I believed would never work.  I was too young, too naïve, too scared of my own shadow, and too paralyzed to take action.  My only recourse was to stay in a house where I felt unloved and to make the best of my situation.

As the morning sky lightened to a silvery gray my tears had long since dried and my heart had sealed itself from additional hurt.  I made several resolutions that I was determined to keep: never speak to my sister, avoid my mother and father, speak only when commanded to do so, save every penny, seek an escape route, and stay numb.  These were perhaps not the best options, but they were all I had.

They stood me well.  By not speaking to my sister, I avoided painful spankings.  When I was blamed for something she did, a regular occurrence, I took the punishment as bravely as possible. I complied with any orders given without protest even when I knew they were unfair. 

By avoiding my parents, I was able to stay out of arguments about preferential treatment.  I answered when questioned, in as few words as possible.  I did as told, even when my parents increased my list of chores. 

I saved money, forgoing new clothes (which I had to buy for myself while my sister’s were provided), no records which I loved and no teen magazines.  Slowly my pennies turned into dollars, building into a tidy nest egg.

I kept my grades up, especially once I was told we were moving to California, the land of community colleges.  With surprisingly mature long-range vision, I saw that my only way out of the house was through a college education.  I set my sights set on earning a scholarship. I chose the hardest classes and spent hours every night rereading text and memorizing facts.

The most challenging promise I had made was to keep my heart numb.  I cry way to easily, and my feelings can jump from ecstatic to miserable with the slightest provocation.  To keep myself on track I wrote reminders on my calendar.  I filled my school bag with notes to myself.  I taped signs on the head of my bed, inside my closet door, and on the book covers of my textbooks. Even so I slipped.  Over and over I allowed my family to break my heart with their lies, their cruel comments, their physical abuses, and then hated myself for forgoing my pledge.

The struggle was never-ending.  At no time could I let down my protective walls, for when I did, a knife slid in and cut my heart.  The walls got thicker and taller as I sealed myself into a prison of my own making.  I became an expert at repair work, for with each failure on my part, I had to plaster the holes and toughen the exterior of my heart.

After years of doing this, there was no “me.”  I was a student with no personality.  A friend to none and a silent force without power.  An emotional wreck inside, but inhumanly serene on the outside.  A plastic face masking tear-filled eyes. 

Because of my excellent grades I won a scholarship from the state of California.  My parents would not let me leave home that first year, so I enrolled in the local community college. The work was easy. In fact, I was frequently told to transfer out of the easy class into the next level. In this way I prepared myself for my sophomore year when I would be permitted to follow my brother to the University of Southern California, my yearned-for haven. 

Off and on I made a friend or two.  We partied, talked long into the night, and even studied together, until I discovered that most of these so-called friends were only interested in my brain.  I dated a few boys and got serious with two.  Both of them walked away when I respectfully declined to participate in recreational activities that required my sacrifice to their enjoyment.  I was sexually abused by my brother’s best friend, but didn’t report it for fear of being accused of lying.

During the summer before my senior year I applied for a position as a residence hall advisor.  I interviewed and was turned down.  When I inquired as to why, I was told that it was too negative, too hard on myself. I got angry.  Very, very angry.  I walked around with a furrowed brow until I admitted to myself it was true.

I had worked so hard to seal myself off from pain that I had also closed doors to enjoyment.  So with the same level of determination that I had applied to keeping myself numb, I turned to joy. 

I removed all my self-imposed boundaries and became a party-girl. There were lots of, late-night frivolity which sometimes caused me to take potentially life-threatening chances.  Determined to forge a fun-loving personality out of a rock, I took the high road and plunged off a cliff.

After years of trespassing into the land of fun and games, I realized this was not the path to success and freedom from home. In order to get back on track, I resurrected my defenses and kept them in place for many years. 

Unless you’ve lived the life of an abused child, you cannot understand the day-to-day struggle to stay safe and sane.  As a teacher I’ve come across damaged children who did not build defenses and who were consequently seriously hurt. 

I wanted so badly to heal them, there was little I could do to glue together the broken pieces of their lives.

There were times when I felt as if I was down in a deep, dark well, trying to scale the walls into the light.  I would get close to the top, make what I considered a friend, have some good conversations, and then slowly sink back into the depths when the friend did not act as an equal partner.

I am sure now that I was deep in the throes of depression. I might have benefited from psychiatric care, but where would the money come from? Time healed me.  Through work in a fulltime job I began to see myself as a person of intelligence, a person who succeeded, a person who survived. My defenses disappeared and I found true friends and true love.

My life was a struggle, one that is now thankfully behind me, locked in the recesses of my heart. The struggle made me stronger, more able to confront the difficulties of life.

My history is one of challenges. While I couldn’t overcome them all, I did climb out of the well into the light.

Night Terrors

            The large dun horse runs full tilt down a rock-strewn hill, its hooves sliding, slipping, searching for purchase which it finds, then loses then finds again as it runs harder, faster, its eyes huge, lather forming on its withers, its sides and foam dripping from its mouth, its tongue dangling to one side as its sides heave and heave. The headlong descent to the swiftly moving river below doesn’t slow its run, doesn’t ease its fears but rather amplifies them for the roar is deafening as the current bangs against tree limbs hanging so low their branches dip into the melee.

            She tries to stop, but her forward momentum is so strong, so impulsive, so rushed that her hooves slide through the muddy banks and into the river she jumps with a mighty splash. The water is too deep and she flails, legs trying valiantly to swim, to coordinate, to come up with a rhythm that will keep her afloat, but its all in vain as she is swept downriver along with branches and other debris.

            Her head is barely above water and her breathing is ragged but still she fights, her hooves hoping to touch bottom despite knowing that they will not, they cannot for the river is deep and the current keeps sucking her under. Downriver she goes, crashing against huge boulders that suck her breath away, that hurt her legs, her ribs, her neck.

            Kicking and kicking she never gives us, never succumbs to despair that would pull her under even when her mighty head dips below the surface and all she sees is a muddy swirl. Sides heaving she fights the fight of her life, not giving in for a minute, a second.

            In front of her, all around her a roar begins. Quiet at first if a roar could be called quiet but as she fights, it intensifies as she nears a bend in the river, a turn she hopes will allow her weary legs to strike mud, sand, gravel anything.

            No more boulders ahead. She has hope. Her spirits life, until she notices that the roar is so loud that she hears no bird, no insect, no bubble or quiet gurgle. Roar and more roar. Growing louder as the current pulls her forward toward an end. A drop-off. A precipice inot which she knows she will fall.

            And so she gives up. Her exhausted legs stop churning. Her head slumps. Her heart stills. She is prepared to die and million deaths for she knows what comes next. She’s seen if before. Heard it before. Lost companions before. But with one last burst of energy she screams signaling her acceptance of death as she plunges over the edge.

            Down and down she falls carried by the torrent, deep into the mist, the swirl, tossed over and under until she does not know which way is up or down or sideways. So deep that there is no sun, no light, no joy until there is peace. She quits fighting knowing that her life is no more.

            A sudden overwhelming peace fills her. A lightness of spirit. She has come to her afterlife. She will run with her ancestors. Romp across stubbly fields in joyous rapture.

            Until she opens her massive eyes and realizes the she is being carried along with a mild current, heading toward a sandy shore. She fights just enough to get her head out of the water, just enough to be able to breathe, to see a blue sky. To feel the sun on her shoulders, to hear birds singing softly overhead. In and out she breathes. In and out.

            With effort she struggles to her feet and stands for fear of collapse. She raises her weary head and sees grasses just a few steps ahead. She knows she must eat. Must restore energy lost and so she makes her way to the first patch and nibbles gingerly as if it might not be real. Nibbles more and more as she moves away from the river.

            Natural instincts take over and she grazes calmly, naturally as she’s done all her life. As her ancestors have done. Ripping out one nourishing morsel after another as the roar of the terrifying falls slowly recedes into the distance.

            Satisfied, she shakes her head removing the last of the water and she neighs calling for her kind. Nothing at first so she heads toward a sand dune, a tiny hill and makes her way to the top being careful, ever so careful where each hoof goes.

            At the crest a beam of light falls across her back and it warms her inside and out. With a sigh she plods forward, one step after another. She nibbles the choicest bits now that her hunger is satisfied. She neighs again and waits for something. She knows what it is, but will an answering call come?

            Far to the west she hears a faint call. With the sun going with her she heads toward what she hopes will be a welcome. Serenity fills her for she has survived. The tragedy will soon move to the recesses of her mind, but will never be forgotten. Not entirely. Not for many years.

More Than Just Surviving

These are trying times. Because of a coronavirus are lives have drastically changed. Workers aren’t working unless they are deemed “essential”. Roads which normally would be congested morning and evening are practically empty. Restaurants aren’t serving unless they can provide to-go meals.

Libraries aren’t open. We can’t go to the gym, theater or conferences. Families can’t see each other and teachers can’t provide one-to-one assistance to their students. Baseball and basketball aren’t happening.

Many parks are closed and those that are open have closed parking lots and imposed restrictions limiting how many people can gather in a given place at the same time.

How do you survive in these changed circumstances?

Technology has become the lifeline for most of us. Virtual meetings, family visits, classrooms, even yoga studios allow us to interact with others. Of course there’s the phone, but it can’t take the place of seeing a loved one’s face or interacting with cherished friends.

Because we are curious about when life can return to normal we feast on the news. We find ourselves spending too much time online, reading reports and studying statistics hoping to see the light at the end.

There are days when circumstances seem to be changing. We smile more, laugh more, feel lighter and brighter and happier overall. Then we hear of a new outbreak and we sink back into that dark hole.

We forget that there are things we can still do. If we have yards, we can go outside. Live in an apartment building? Go up on the roof. We can don masks and walk around the block, making sure to maintain social distancing when we encounter others.

We can still barbeque and sit on balconies or decks if we have them. We can listen to music and read good books. We can watch documentaries on television and play board games with those in our homes.

If we’re crafty, we can make something. Paint, knit, crochet, sew, build. Cut, fold, stamp.

If we have the physical ability we can tackle home-cleaning tasks that we’ve put off for years. The stuff in the garage might not be needed anymore. The garden that we’ve neglected now needs plants that can provide food as well as beauty. Clean windows, showers and tubs. Polish the wood floor and wipe down blinds.

When we’re feeling sad we can do something uplifting. Bake cookies to nourish, sew masks to give away, connect via email, phone or internet.

We have to change our mindset. Instead of dwelling on what we can’t do, think of all the blessings we’ve been given. Instead of moping about, rejoice in another day of life. Instead of carrying sorrow on our shoulders, find reasons to rejoice.

Things may not be wonderful right now, but an end will come. When it does, let’s not look back on these times with regret for what we didn’t do, but instead on all the things we did.

That’s the attitude needed to survive. We can do this. We can choose to walk alone or we can use what tools we have to pull others into our circle. We are children of survivors. We are survivors.

 

Survivor

Weather-wise, there was nothing special about the day. No rain. No snow. Or smog or fog. Or heat waves radiating over the road. Nothing but feathery clouds scattered across a bright blue sky.

Stan Ellis sat right behind his father who drove staring straight ahead, one arm draped on the armrest, the other loosely gripping the steering wheel. Stan was too young to understand the mechanics of driving. At eight all he cared about was getting there. Sometimes he paid attention to whatever was happening outside the car, but mostly he read or listened to his parents talk or followed along with whatever song came on the radio.

On this day, July 14, they were going camping at Hebgen Lake somewhere near Yellowstone. Stan’s family had never been there before, but that was what made it special. They loved to check out new places and this was one that they’d heard good things about.

Stan’s mom had planned out the details. Food. Campground. Packing the station wagon. She had given Stan a list of stuff to bring and he had packed all that and more.

One thing his mom loved was music. Their station wagon was old, so it didn’t have a CD player. Only a radio. So his mom was constantly searching for a station that came in loud and clear.

Whenever a news program came on, his parents rehashed every topic. Stan didn’t understand politics and didn’t really care. Instead he read. He was currently immersed in a Louis L’Amour book, Down the Long Hills, a story in which a wagon train is attacked, only two surviving. Two kids. A seven-year old and a three-year-old. He imagined himself being there, hiding during the attack, then trying to survive on his own.

Just like the kids in the book, he would have to keep moving, searching for help, building shelter, finding food. Stan thought he would be thoughtful like the older kid, for he had grown up camping and hiking. But would he be too terrified to think clearly? Hopefully he’d never have to find out.

The road climbed into the hills, twisting and turning. His father complained about his limited view, fearing that a careless driver would cross the dividing line or that something would jump out in front of the car or that something would go wrong mechanically and he would lose control. When his dad worried, things got quiet. So no radio, no conversation, just tension.

When it happened Stan wasn’t paying attention. He’d leaned back and closed his eyes, picturing himself alone in the wilderness, searching for berries, not afraid, but approaching each task in his usual logical manner.

When the car suddenly swerved to the right and the tires screeched, he sat up, instantly alert. The crash jolted him, sending him forward, banging his head against the back of his father’s seat, then flinging him backward into his own, hurting his neck and shoulder. Shattered glass flew everywhere.

When the noise stopped, Stan realized that they were jammed up against the hillside to the right, the front caved-in, the windshield spider-webbed. Stan leaned over the back of his father’s seat and saw blood pouring down his mom’s forehead, the funny angle of his father’s neck. Stan knew enough from watching television shows that his parents were in bad shape. Possibly even dead. The only hope for their survival was him.

He slid across the seat and climbed out on the right side, forcing the door open with his feet. Once he was free, he surveyed the situation. The other car, a silver Honda, was jammed against the left side of their car. That driver was immobile, just like his parents. Stan looked inside that car and noticed that the man’s legs were at funny angles. And blood was everywhere.

Knowing he needed to have a strategic plan, Stan found a good sized boulder and sat in the sun. His first thought was that his parents would wake up and tell him where to go and what to do. But as time passed and they didn’t wake up, Stan figured he was on his own.

He got his bag out of the back seat, then took off down the road, heading back where they had come from. As he walked he sipped from his canteen, but also kept an eye out for a fresh water source.

The road wound down and down, twisting around one hillside, then the other. He never saw any traffic. Stan got tired, but knew he couldn’t quit. Too much was at stake.

Night approached. Stan saw no lights of nearby buildings, no indication that anyone was about, so he turned into the woods to seek shelter. The kid in the book used low-hanging tree branches as shelter, so that’s what Stan looked for. He found none, but he did find a hollowed-out tree with an indentation just big enough for him to squeeze into.

Before it got completely dark, he gathered fallen leaves into a body-sized pile for him to sleep on. Then he carried more over to use as covering. Even though it was summer, it would get cold as the night progressed.

Stan was normally a brave kid. He stood up to bullies when a little kid was being picked on, he volunteered to go to the blackboard whenever he could, and he explored his neighborhood with friends, always the leader. But this was different. At home he knew his parents would be waiting for him, dinner cooked, a soft bed, a warm embrace.

Out here he was on his own, and as it became darker, Stan lost confidence in his ability to survive. Every sound terrified him. Every snap of a twig was a predator coming to eat him. Every grunt was a gun-toting killer. Stan shook from head to toe, and not just from the cold.

He pushed himself as deep into the tree as he could, then covered himself with leaves, only his face sticking out. He hoped that he was invisible to whatever evil forces were out there. And when he got cold, he curled up, trying to contain his body heat as best he could.

When the sky lightened, Stan stood and brushed off as many of the leaves as he could. He picked up his bag and headed downhill, moving as quickly as he could. He was hungry, thirsty and tired, but he kept moving, taking only the tiniest sips of water in order to make what he had last as long as possible.

The land flattened out, thankfully, and off to the left Stan saw a ranch. When he got to the dirt road that seemed to be its driveway, Stan picked up his pace. He listened for charging dogs, not wanting to be bitten before he could get help for his parents.

Laundry swung from a rope line stretching from a pole to the barn. The buildings were bright white with green trim and seemed to be in good repair. No rusted-out vehicles or appliances were visible. Flowers bloomed in trim gardens running along the driveway. There was nothing threatening, nothing that indicated danger, so Stan approached.

Just as he was about to go up the first step, the door opened. A grandmotherly woman smiled at him. “Whatcha doin’ out here, young man?”

Stan told her about the accident and about the condition of his parents and the other driver. He held back the tears that threatened to fall, but it was hard. He thought of the kids in the book and how brave they had been. He wanted to show this woman that he was also brave.

“Come in,” she said. “Would you like some lemonade?”

“No, thanks. Can I wait out here?”

She smiled. “You’re a smart boy. I wouldn’t go inside a stranger’s house either. How about you sit on the porch while I phone the sheriff and then bring you something to eat and drink?”

“Thanks, ma’am. That would be great.” Stan sat in a rocking chair to the right of the door. He thought that someday he’d want a chair like this one, out on a porch so that he could look out over his land.

The woman returned with a glass of lemonade and a tray of sandwiches and cookies. “The sheriff is on his way. He’ll go up the mountain first to check on your folks. The ambulance is also coming. And the doctor.” She sat in the chair next to Stan. “Is there anything I can get you? A blanket or a jacket?”

“A blanket would be nice,” he said. “And can I use your bathroom?”

“Sure.” The woman opened the door, saying, “It’s down the hall. Second door on the left. I’ll wait out here so you feel safe.”

After using the toilet, Stan looked in the mirror. He had a cut in his forehead, but it wasn’t deep and had already quit bleeding, but it was bruising. Purple and blue and red radiated out across his face. He looked as if he was wearing paint for Halloween. Stan wondered if he looked that bad, what did his parents look like?

Stan didn’t see the sheriff go by, but he did hear the siren of the ambulance. The wait for information was horrendous. He rocked, ate, maybe even slept after he wrapped the blanket around himself.

In time, in what felt like late afternoon, the sheriff drove up. He knelt before Stan. “Hi,” he said. “Were you in that accident?”

Stan nodded. “How are my parents?”

The sheriff sighed as he put his large hand on Stan’s shoulder. “I have bad news. Both of your parents are dead. The only consolation I can offer is that they most likely died right away, with very little pain.” He sat next to Stan. “Now, let’s figure out what we can do for you.”

“Okay.”

“Who should we call to come get you?”

Stan thought for a bit. He knew he had aunts and uncles somewhat nearby where they lived, but he seldom saw them. His mother’s parents were both dead. All that was left was his dad’s parents. “My Grandpa and Grandma Ellis live near Bozeman.” He dug in his bag and pulled out a spiral notebook. He opened it to the back cover. “Their phone number is right here.”

“Can I borrow this?” the sheriff asked. Stan handed it to him and then the sheriff went inside. After a few minutes he returned, a smile on his face. “Well, the good news is that they were home. They are leaving now to come get you. Mr. Ellis said it would take them a few hours, but they wouldn’t stop along the way.”

The sheriff looked at the woman. “Ma’am, thanks for taking care of the boy. I told his grandparents that he’d be at my office, so we’d better leave now.”

Stan smiled at the woman. “I never asked your name.”

“Mrs. Willoughby. My friends call me Norma.” She handed Stan a slip of paper. “That’s my number and address. If you need anything, no matter how small, send me a note or give me a call. You hear?”

“Thanks,” Stan said. He followed the sheriff down the stairs and got into the back seat. On the way into town, the reality of what had happened hit Stan. Tears poured down his cheeks. He mourned his mom and dad, his home, his friends, his school, all the things that were gone.

Life with his grandparents would be good because they were kind people. Whenever he visited them, he was allowed to roam the ranch at will, as if it was his. Now it will be.