Saturday, August 04, 2007

How Thick is My Armor?

This is a piece I'm workshopping with some other Northwest writers this weekend. Thought I'd share it with those of you who read my blog and couldn't be here with us.

I am standing in the corner of the living room but nobody notices me. The room is saturated with screams, the thick, anguished shrieks of a little girl who knows she is about to be punished. She has done something wrong and the wooden spoon has come out of the beige crock on the counter. My little sister’s hands tucked into the elastic waistband of her pants, covering her bottom to add a layer of protection. She is running away, little legs churning through the fog of terror that permeates the very air of this room. Nobody is chasing her. Her punisher stands sternly and larger-than-life in the doorway, spoon in hand, a pillar of quiet anger.

“NO NO NONONONONONONO,” over and over. She sounds as if she has had splinters shoved under her fingernails. She is walking on hot coals. She is tortured. I am frozen in place, horrified that her punishment will come to pass. I can’t let this happen.

“I did it. Spank me, please,” my voice breaks as I emerge from the safety of the corner. “It was my fault. She didn’t do anything. She’s too young. I’m the one who made her do it. Please, please, please. Spank me.” An avalanche of tears rolls down my face, picking up speed. I imagine them splashing to the floor one by one, carving out paths in the dense grey air of emotions. Anger, frustration, desperation.

I know that it is my job to protect her. From the first day she came to us, two months old and smaller than my favorite baby doll, I sat in the rocking chair and held her warm little body and felt her fragility. She weighed all of seven pounds and the hospital band she wore on her wrist was no larger than an inch in diameter. Her cornsilk black hair stood straight up on her head and I declared, “I like this baby. I think I’m going to keep her.”

We share everything. Our bedroom sports twin beds with matching Hollie Hobbie bedspreads and pillows. We play together, sleep together, stick together. Nobody loves her like I do. She makes me laugh and since I began realizing that the rest of my family is falling apart I understand that it’s up to us to make sure we stay together. She trusts me to protect her. I am her Don Corleone. For her, I would break someone’s kneecaps.

I feel the same way about C. He joined our family as damaged goods, too. Eight years old, blind in one eye from a boy’s game gone wrong. He had spent his entire life in an orphanage – waiting for someone to adopt him. He was timid, hung back, and instantly sparked the protective fire inside me. His smile channeled sunlight and the songs of angels. It is up to me to keep them safe.

I am strong and purposeful. My eyes scan the world for potential dangers waiting to ambush either of them. My armor is strong. Only behind it are there soft spots, vulnerabilities. Attempt to hurt K or C and I will loom larger than life. I will attack head-on and defend them with a ferocity seven-year-old girls shouldn’t have.

Succeed in harming either of them and I will be destroyed. I would have kept this secret under lock and key had I known about it. It would have been my greatest fear. As it was, I didn’t consider the possibility. I believed myself smarter, more vigilant, and capable of loving them so much that no harm could ever come to my ‘children’. To think that my own mind would betray me in one case and my age in another was impossible. Too traumatized to acknowledge that K needed to be protected, I failed to save her. Too young and powerless to stop the adults from taking C away, I failed in my duties again. I cannot be trusted to protect those in need.

The cars are lined up for the morning dropoff. Minivans, SUVs, a few fathers in their sports cars, eager kindergarteners strapped in to their carseats. I drive past them and park in a shady spot.

“E, get your school bag and your coat, please,” I speak over my shoulder as I unbuckle my seatbelt and wink at the baby. Walking around the car to her side I breathe deeply through widened nostrils and fill my chest to bursting. As I exhale in a loud ‘whoooooo’ I drop my shoulders and try to relax my neck muscles.

We walk E inside to PM Kindergarten every day. Her teachers smile as we swing the heavy door open and make our way past the children hanging their bags and coats up at the short hooks to her cubby. Bending down with the baby on my hip, I squeeze her to me tightly and firmly kiss the top of her head, swallowing against the lump in my throat. Other children greet her with smiles and some of her girlfriends run up to give her a hug. E squirms away from me, ready to giggle with her gang, all of them in dresses and hairclips hugging each other in a big moving mass.

Walking back down the hall toward the car I bounce the baby up and down, “What shall we do today, just you and me, huh? Shall we play with Play-Doh? How about some fingerpainting? Too cold for the park, I think, sweetie pie, but we’ll have some special time just you and me.”

I drive slowly the three miles home, sneaking glances at the mirror to see if she’s falling asleep. The music is low, my speed steady, I speak only when she forces me to. I want her to fall asleep. I feel so guilty. I should play with her – give her the focused attention her sister got before she came along. What I really want is to sleep. Sleeping makes the time go faster and before I know it, it will be time to get back in the car to pick E up from school. L hates it when she falls asleep on the way home only to wake up in time to get back in the car. She feels cheated and I understand.

I hate it when E is gone. She went to preschool last year and it was fine, but this year I am afraid. It’s silly. She’s perfectly safe. What could possibly happen to her? How many times did my mother ask herself that? Or did she not even think to ask it because she had no frame of reference to even fathom that dangerous people existed on our block? I can’t take any chances.

This fear is like a prickly ball churning around and around in my stomach, bumping up against the walls and sending shock waves of nerve pain through me. K was five when Clayton began molesting her. Molesting us. E is five. I feel jumpy, edgy, my clothes are sandpaper but I can’t change them. I don’t have time to take this fear out and examine it.

I drive home and construct puzzles, read board books, color with my youngest daughter. Living with the prickly ball makes my molars crunch against each other and my shoulders hover up around my earlobes. It makes me color inside the lines with a precision that is unreal. I watch the clock arms snail by until the moment I can scoop up the little one and fasten her into her car seat to pick up her sister.

We always arrive early. I like to spy on her in the classroom or the playground and see her smiling at the teachers or bending over her work with intense focus. Sometimes she sees me through the window and grins, waving us in. The little one is always eager to join the circle of older children and sit next to her sister, mimicking her to be a part of the group. As we all settle back in to the car for the ride home, I spray her with questions like buckshot, wanting to soak up every detail of her day. I want to know what she did, who she played with, what songs she sung and whether she’ll do the same tomorrow. She can never remember it all, but with each crumb she gives to me, the prickly ball is worn down and slows its frantic whirling.

I sometimes wonder how long I will watch her like this. Will there come a time when I stop expecting her to be abused? I am terrified that someone will hurt her and she will blame me for not having protected her. I will blame myself for not anticipating the danger and preventing it. The more time elapses with her safe and healthy, the easier it is to think she will be safe. But will it come when I least expect it?

How many times a day do they say men think about sex? Every seven seconds or so? That’s how often the fear of dying and abandoning my daughters appears in my mind. Now I know what kinds of horrible things can happen to children and if I don’t at least try to keep them safe, who will? I don’t think anyone else grasps the seriousness, the risk involved in being responsible for other people. I can’t abandon them like I abandoned K and C.


Eileen said...

An amazing, tearful, vivid and extremely well written piece. I am overwhelmed and inspired by your courage and honesty about horrific abuse of the past and the impact on today's world. Anxiety, panic, keeping our world and our children safe when our foundation was anything but safe. You put it all out there perfectly, what it is like to live, constantly, on the edge of disaster.
I am sorry you had to carry such an impossible responsibility when you were just a child yourself. I hate that you were hurt so deeply.
Healing is a process, and you are not alone. HUG. I am so glad you are in a Writing Group, keep on writing!!!
Your girls are very lucky to have such a wonderful mother! They will always know and have a safe foundation and unconditional love.
Wishing you peace.

Jerri said...

Good writing stirs emotions, and this piece gets me right where I live, kari. It makes me want to comfort the small child you were, hold her, rock her until she feels safe and knows the adults are responsible for keeping her safe along with the other kids.

Love to you. So much love to you.

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Oh, Kari. Wow. You sound like the little girl from the Indigo Girls song, the one with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Are you sure K & C were abandoned by you? Might you have been abandoned by you?

Jess said...

Kari, great great writing. So glad I popped over to read this one, and sorry I wasn't there to hear it. Interesting in light my own latest post, too... Funny how this group seems to have almost a kind of collective consciousness...

One little thing that occurs to me is that if you don't want to use their real names, you might make some up instead of just using initials. It takes me out of the story a little bit to be conscious of not being told their names.

Your daughters are lucky to have you, and I do look forward to meeting them sometime this fall. See you soon...

Miss Devylish said...

It hurts my heart sometimes to read all these things I've already heard and to know what kind of pressure you put on yourself when you were so tiny. I'm glad you have this gift to work it out and I hope that relieves that sense of guilt I know is there because you can't fix everything. You fix a lot.

Anyway, this was beautiful, tho tough for me to read. love you.

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