The Light in Waiting
I’m fairly young — maybe five or six. We’re on our way home. The car is dark and I stare out the window of the passenger side, and count the shadows formed by the light posts as they pass over my lap through the window. I purposely look away from her. I avoid eye contact, and count. Not just the light-post shadows, but also the intervening space between each. The distances seem well measured. Consistent. Her face looks solemn; she seems distracted but grounded if that’s possible. I wonder what she’s thinking, but her thoughts are secondary. When we get home there will be a process.
For now it’s the stars, the moon, the deep blue, Oregon sky. It’s the lampposts. Swish, swish, swish, swish over my lap they go. I pass 120 then stop counting. I feel small in my seat, but no matter how I adjust I can’t disappear the way I’d like. I can’t disappear into the seat or the space between the seat and door. I’m stuck here, and I’m small — just me and the lampposts.
Eventually the lampposts disappear, and my stomach gets owlish. We’ve left the city and we’re in the country now, we’re nearing home. Certain plans must be made. I never feel safe, but sometimes I feel safer, and that’s enough to get me through the days. Even though I can’t disappear the way I want, I usually feel safer in the car. The constriction on my chest eases a bit. But I still dare not move too much or bump the cooler by my feet. I make sure not to brush against her purse or fog up the glass. I mind my surroundings.
It’s late. We pull in the drive; the gravel crunches beneath the Civic’s tires. Once the car comes to a halt I react immediately before she has the opportunty to tell me to do it. I open the door and begin migrating the contents of the car into the house. I ask her if she needs any help. She doesn’t. She has the rest of it. We’re in the house now. I gauge her. It’s been a tough day. We’re at risk of eviction. She’s between jobs. I ask if I should brush my teeth. She scolds me. “Just go to bed,” she instructs.
I’m worried. I think she means to brush my teeth first because she always makes me brush my teeth before bed, but she said, just go to bed. Bed is my freedom. She doesn’t do anything to me when I’m sleeping in bed. But now I have to decide what she meant, and I can’t ask. I tiptoe toward the threshold of the bedroom and hesitate there, loitering for a moment. I don’t want to loiter too long. She might yell, or worse, stand up and come to me. But if I hesitate just for a second or two…. if it looks natural, and it just seems like a small glitch in my decision then maybe she’ll look up and clarify what she meant, and I won’t have to ask, and then I can go to bed, and she won’t get upset or yell or hit me.
I’m so close to freedom.
I always hated coming home. I dreaded going anyplace where it was just the two of us. I would get physically sick from the anticipation of it. I’d begin running routines and drills through my head, my shoulders would tense up, ears would slip back, my near invisible hackles would rise. My stomach would twist and start into turmoil, goosebumps and chills and accelerated heartbeat. By the time I was six years-old I was well-trained. I had already learned how to negotiate her behavior; I had already learned to predict her moods, patterns, thoughts and reactions. I owe a great deal of my empathy and emotional awareness to her. I had to possess it to survive.
By the time I was eight I’d felt and heard most of what I’d eventually feel and hear. She would get angry and hit me over the head or face, and I would cow and take it. Interesting. I never ran from her. I always stood there and took it. She taught me to be tough. But the worst of it wasn’t the beatings. In time the beatings just made you indifferent. The worst of it was the unpredictability. It was never knowing for sure when she might go from cruising speed to Mach three. Living with a constant pit in your stomach, walking on eggshells, waiting for the next eruption is a fundamentally psychology-altering experience for a young person. She prepared me for the military.
The physical aspect of it all also didn’t begin to encroach upon the detriment caused by the verbal side of it. You’re worthless. You’re nothing. Why can’t I have a normal kid? You’re deaf and dumb. You’re a fucking mute. I wish you’d never been born. It’s funny how words stick with you. Whoever came up with that sticks and stones rigmarole was either never approached that way, never approached that way as a child, or was lying. It hurts. It plants seeds and those seeds grow into weeds and those weeds stay a long time. It all goes with you. Words. She taught me the power of them. She taught me compassion.
I remember the day she told me she wished she had a different kid. It was my first-grade Thanksgiving class performance. We had a small ensemble that the class had pulled together to perform in assembly for the parents. We’d made small cutout hats and shirts. Of course we had small Thanksgiving related props as well. To finish the performance we stood as a class in choral risers and sang a song. It seemed all the other students bobbed enthusiastically, grinning, playing with their hats, looking around for mom or dad, gesticulating with their hands. It seemed I was the only student doing none of those things. Neither the acting nor the moving, not the playing or smiling. Just a small break in my lips so that you could see I was singing if you searched for it.
I spent years believing I was introverted. Whenever we had those discussions in school I shared this proudly. I tied it to my love for writing. I wasn’t ashamed of it at all. I enjoyed keeping to myself and embracing my solidarity. Many years later, after college, I had a conversation with a classmate from high school. As we spoke and reflected over our school time together I made a remark about my quietude. She said something that stunned me. “Roman,” she said, “you were energetic. You were always happy and laughing and engaged in conversation.” This took me by surprise, but as I reflected I realized she was correct. I was only ever introverted at home. Everyday at school I brought my charisma and energy with me. My mother had taught me optimism, resilience.
In time I came to realize that every time she destroyed something inside me she also built my resilience. Every time she attacked my confidence she defended my will. Every time she made me cow in fear she strengthened my courage. She taught me nearly everything I know. She’s responsible for my drive, my inability to pass up people who are hurting. She made me empathetic, attentive, caring, and compassionate. She gave me the ability to see right through to the core of people, to understand people instantaneously, to feel deeply and be selfless. She taught me to be courageous, resilient, enduring and a force of will.
Tony Robbins said, “I’m not saying not to blame them. I’m saying blame elegantly, blame intelligently, blame effectively, blame at the level of your soul not the level of your fucking head… If you’re going to blame them for all the shit, if you’re going to blame them for everything that’s fucked up, you have to give them credit for everything that’s right too. Because life is not so simple, black-and-white.”
I carry pain all the time. It’s in there. It doesn’t just disappear. But I choose to water the garden of my gratitude. Gratitude builds relationships, gratitude gives life, and gratitude gives purpose and meaning. Gratitude gives meaningful perspective. I no longer spend time on the weeds.
I was once a light in waiting. Now I illuminate everything.
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