About Just Write
“What ends up revealing itself when free writing is that everything has meaning. That is a magnificent gift of writing. If we write from a free heart-gut place, our souls start speaking.”
[I just recently discovered Just Write on Heather’s The Extraordinary Ordinary blog, and I love the idea of having something to motivate me to write – about anything – on a regular basis. For a week now, I’ve been contemplating what I might write about my first time participating in this endeavor, and what I came up with was a dark memory from a long time ago. It’s something I’ve held onto for a very long time, a traumatic event in a long string of traumatic events from my “former life,” that still festers inside me like a sore after all these years. The idea of “free writing,” however, is to write freely in the moment without overthinking it, so I confess that I’m not even sure if writing about such an old memory fits the bill here. That said, I did finally, after all these years, just write it out – something I’ve thought about doing for a long, long time, but something always stopped me (fear? Repulsion at the memory? I really can’t say) So, here it is. Take from the reading of it what you will, and I’ll take from the writing of it what I can.]
More than 13 years later, I still look back on it as the worst night I’ve ever lived through.
It was the night of my dad’s funeral. He had died very suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 51 after a brief, unrelated illness that had landed him in the hospital for about a week. My big, burly, larger than life, seemingly invincible dad, taken down by a heart that finally stopped beating after a lifetime of hard living – the first person I was close to who I lost through death, and the last person in my family with whom I had a close relationship, so it was a double blow that left me feeling orphaned and so consumed by grief that I felt as if I were suffocating.
He lived with his wife in a house in the woods, up a steep, winding mountain road near the coast in Central California. My husband and I made the five- or six-hour drive up, with Kevin strapped into his toddler car seat, arriving the night before the funeral. Family I hadn’t seen in years gathered at the house from out of state. We checked into a rustic motel/lodge a few miles away – so rustic that there were no phones or televisions in the rooms. Several other family members were staying at the same motel.
The day of the funeral, a Saturday in December, dawned clear and bright. Everyone gathered in a church, which felt wrong, as my dad was openly agnostic and definitely not a churchgoer. He was to be cremated, so there was no graveside gathering, only a service in the chapel which I barely remember. I know that people spoke. I know that I got up on legs as weak as water to talk about my dad and how profoundly I felt his absence. I remember Kevin getting antsy during the service and my husband putting him out in the truck and leaving him there by himself. A red flag, to be sure – who locks a not-quite-two-year-old out in a car by himself for at least a half hour? But there were lots of red flags that had, over the years of our marriage, become flaming banners announcing danger – banners I had learned to live with.
The rest of the day is hazy in my memory. There was a reception after the service, and food was served, and we watched video clips of my dad over his lifetime. I remember that seeing him up there on the screen intensified my feelings of loss so much that I didn’t know how I was going to survive it. We visited with my dad’s parents and siblings, relatives I hadn’t seen in many years and barely knew. Old friends of my dad’s were there. People laughed and teared up and offered each other words of consolation.
Eventually my husband and I and Kevin made our way back to the motel in the woods. Measurements of time have slipped away from me, but I know that at some point in the evening, my husband, Kelly, left the motel, leaving Kevin and me behind in the motel room. I don’t even remember what he told me about his plans, where he was going. His leaving was routine, and being out of town didn’t make a difference. I crawled into bed with Kevin and my grief.
At some point in the night I woke up. Kevin slept beside me. It was very dark, and I sensed that some hours had passed. Kelly still wasn’t back. The hot stone of fear and panic began to settle in my stomach as I began filing through possibilities in my mind: car accident? DUI? Neither of those would have been firsts. He disappeared at home with some regularity, and I never knew where he went or when he would return. Sometimes he would call me in the middle of the night with some tale of a car broken down or a friend in need – stories we both knew I didn’t believe – but more often than not, there would be no call; he would just show up when he was finished with whatever it was that enticed him away, looking and smelling road worn.
There was no phone in the room. I did own a cell phone, but this was back in the days of having a cell phone only for emergencies. I didn’t even carry it in my purse – I left it in my truck, and that’s where it was, out with Kelly wherever he was. Who would I call, anyway? I was in a strange place, alone with my toddler son in a sparsely furnished motel room in the mountains – utterly alone. I sat with my growing panic for a long time.
Eventually he did make it back to the motel in the wee hours of the morning. He was clearly drunk. I was beside myself. He had pulled this countless times before, but on this of all nights – the night of my dad’s funeral? I probably should have just feigned sleep to avoid a scene, but my grief and rage completely took over, and I began screaming at him, demanding to know where he had been and how he could have left me all alone at a time when I most needed comfort and consolation. He screamed back at me – I had no right to tell him what to do! He had tracked down my brother (from whom I was mostly estranged) and they had gone to a bar to drink in my dad’s honor. How dare I be so selfish as to deny them that!
The fight escalated. By now Kevin was sitting up in bed crying. I tried to console him. Kelly went into the bathroom and I could hear the sharp cracking of porcelain as he slammed the lid of the toilet up and down, up and down, until suddenly with a shatter, it stopped – he had busted the toilet and now the bathroom was flooding.
It was inevitable that the motel management would get wind of the scene, as would probably most of the motel guests – relatives of mine among them. The police were called, and we were told to leave. To this day, it still boggles my mind that the police not only allowed, but demanded that a woman and small child leave with a belligerently inebriated man.
I could hardly breathe as I gathered Kevin’s and my things as quickly as I could, sobbing, in a state of utter panic. How could we leave with this man who was so dangerous and out of control? Where would we go?
I got Kevin strapped into the back seat in his little footie pajamas, crying and wide-eyed with fear. Clearly Kelly was in no shape to drive (though he had driven from wherever it was he had gotten drunk back to the motel), so I got in the driver’s seat and gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, tiny points of light flickering before my eyes with my rage. I felt like I was going to throw up and pass out, simultaneously. Somehow, I managed to pull the truck out onto the dark, winding mountain road, with Kelly next to me in the passenger seat, having absolutely no idea exactly where I was or where to go. As I drove, Kelly alternately screamed obscenities at me, spit at me, and pummeled the right side of my body with slaps and punches. “IF YOUR DAD WERE ALIVE, HE’D KICK YOUR FUCKING ASS FOR BEING SUCH A CUNT!” he screamed at me.
My dignity was gone. Any sense of safety or security I might have had was gone. My sense of my ability to protect my son was being frayed. And now, I was being robbed of my right – my need – to grieve my dad – the one person who had seen the best in me. I wanted to die, I truly wanted to die. The pain was just too much. I wanted to close my eyes and make this horrific nightmare end, and never wake up.
The towering pines of the forest whizzed by us as I drove with no destination in mind. Should I just make the several-hour drive home? I didn’t even know where we were or what direction we were heading in. Eventually a small roadside motel revealed itself. I pulled in and went inside. No vacancies. I was overcome by an impotence and hopelessness that threatened to take away the last shreds of self-preservation I had. Crying, I got back in the truck and continued on down the road.
After awhile, we came upon another motel. Yes, they had a room available. Ignoring Kelly, I opened the back door to take Kevin out of his car seat. Kelly was on me in a flash, trying to pull Kevin from my arms. A physical struggle over the baby ensued, till I was knocked to the ground with Kevin in my arms. I struggled to my feet and went to the motel office to check us in. “Are you alright?” the woman at the desk asked me. Clearly she had seen the physical altercation out in the parking lot. “Yes, I’m fine,” I struggled to say between sobs. “My dad died, and my husband is very distraught. We just need a room.” There I was, making excuses for him, handing what should have been my right to grieve my father over to him. Even now, all these years later, when I think back on that, I am filled with shame, and I have this wish so strong inside me that it’s a physical feeling, a wish that I could go back and ask that woman to call the police and have Kelly thrown in jail for battering me.
But that’s not what happened. Who can blame the woman for not wanting to get involved? Easier to ignore the red sting of palm prints on my face and accept the excuses I gave her. We checked into a room where I curled myself around Kevin in one of the beds, wondering how I had ended up here and how I could possibly survive and make my way out of this Hell.
I woke up to sunlight streaming through the window. Panicked, I realized Kevin was not in bed with me. I sprung up and looked about the small, shabby motel room. The door opened and Kelly walked in, announcing brusquely, “Kevin’s in the truck. You have five minutes to get your ass out there or we’re leaving without you.” Here came the tears again, and the quiet fury eating away at my insides. What could I do? He had my son.
We had left and I had not said goodbye to anyone. Later I would give some vague story about an emergency at home, and when asked if I knew anything about the scene at the motel with the cops and people screaming and yelling, I would feign ignorance. No, I didn’t hear anything. I have no idea. I wonder what it could have been.
The drive home was mostly silent, except for one gas/restroom stop during which Kelly laid into me and told me, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you for this.”
Mostly silent weeks followed, until I finally begged him to forgive me. It was all my fault. There was nothing wrong with him going out the night of my dad’s funeral to raise a few glasses in my dad’s honor. What right did I have to try to deprive him of that? I was just a bitch, a control freak. It was all my fault, that whole terrible, terrible night. I brought it all on myself.
Please forgive me. I’m sorry, so sorry. Please.
In the darkest part of my heart, I knew it wasn’t true, it wasn’t my fault, and hatred burned inside of me – hatred of him for making my life a living Hell, and hatred of myself for allowing him to. Begging for forgiveness, however, was the only way I could hope he might stop punishing me.
Roughly six months later, Kelly would be dead from a drug overdose, and I would finally be free of him.
That’s not my life anymore. But scraps of shame and bruises on my heart remain. The memories still haunt me.