*All names have been changed or omitted for personal use as a portfolio sample
I no longer considered myself a religious man. I woke up on Sunday morning and made eggs and toast for Charlotte and myself. I cracked the eggs into the frying pan and she sat on the stool at the kitchen counter, weak and tired and huddled inside her blanket, watching me. I thought of what it would be like if she were healthy, bounding in and begging me to let her crack the eggs. I tried to never let these thoughts of what if into my mind, but sometimes they snuck in anyway. I banished them.I turned to Charlotte and I smiled.
“Does it smell yummy?” I whispered and she nodded sleepily.
Amy slept in on the weekends. She had never been a morning person. I often told Charlotte that we had to be quiet and let mommy sleep. She looked at me once, frightened, and said, “Is mommy sick?”
These were the little things that were different: My little girl understood what sickness meant and what dying meant and, as much as we tried to make these things less scary, she was afraid.She was much too young to know this, but it was beneficial to her that we were honest. That we told her about heaven and that we tried to give her reasons for the things we didn’t even understand ourselves; like why. Why? And while I was explaining these things to her I felt like a hypocrite, a fraud. Because I no longer knew if there was a God above who dispersed some universal truth. Charlotte was my only truth and she may or may not be in my life tomorrow.I knew that people often came to God in times of trouble, but I felt myself getting farther and farther away.
I slid the plate in front of Charlotte and sat down beside her. That morning, when she woke, there was a clump of hair on the pillow. I had become skilled at picking it up in one hand as I slid my arms underneath her to lift her from her bed so she did not see it lying there. She threw her arms around me and I carried her, and the fistful of her hair, and her blanket, downstairs. She saw herself in the mirror of course and knew that she was losing her hair.But I told her that the fairies took it during the night to spin it into golden yarn that they used to make the hammocks they slept in.I told her this is important because the fairies were at war against Cancer and they had to camp out while they fought to push Cancer out of their enchanted forest.
Amy said I was filling Charlotte’s head with rubbish, but as we sat there quietly eating our breakfast, Charlotte looked behind her and then whispered, “What are the fairies doing now, Daddy?”
“Oh, they’re eating breakfast just like you and me. Only their plates are tiny white daisy petals and they drink dewdrop from the leaves.”
“And what is Cancer doing?”
“Hiding. Cancer is afraid.It knows the fairies are strong.”
Charlotte giggled and took a nibble from her toast. Then her face fell and I could see that the small effort of sitting up and trying to chew a minimal amount of food had tired her.
“Not so hungry this morning?”
She shook her head.
“Come on.I guess we’ll just have to watch cartoons instead.”
In a few hours, Amy would be waking up and there would be the usual chaos. She would be frustrated at having slept late and she would be rushed trying to get herself ready. By that time her frustration would have mounted and she would take it out on Charlotte and myself if we were not fully prepared to walk out the door and head to church as soon as she came rushing down the stairs. That particular morning would be different.
That morning, Amy did not know that Charlotte wasn’t feeling well or that she soon threw up what little she had eaten for breakfast. Amy did not know that I was up at 2 a.m. cleaning Charlotte’s sweat-soaked sheets and rubbing her back as she heaved into the toilet, emptying the contents of her stomach again.
I soon heard Amy moving around upstairs and she called down to me asking that I get Charlotte dressed and ready to go. I did as I was asked but Charlotte had no clean stockings and someone had forgotten to turn on the dryer, so I found a pair of nice pants instead and a sweater that would keep her warm in the cold church and then we headed back downstairs to wait. Amy flew down the stairs, tucking in her blouse as she went. When she got to the bottom, she looked at us and froze.
“Oh no. Charlotte you are not wearing that. James, you might have at least put some matching clothes on her! I have to do everything, don’t I?”
Amy scooped Charlotte up and sighed heavily as she carried our daughter back upstairs muttering, “I wish you could walk on your own, you’re getting too heavy for mommy to carry you.”
While Amy was changing Charlotte, I went upstairs to get a sweater for myself. I was in our bedroom when I heard the crying.It started out as a whimper coming from Charlotte’s room, but it turned into full-fledged sobbing quickly. The door banged open and Charlotte came racing out of her room, calling for me between her sobs. Amy was hot on her heels.
“Oh, so now your legs work just fine!” she shouted at our daughter.
Charlotte ran at me, throwing herself against my legs and burying her face. I picked her up as Amy stormed into the room.
“Charlotte! Come here this instant! James, you are not helping. Put her down!”
Charlotte continued to cry and hide her face in my neck.
“Amy, calm down. What’s going on?”
“I will not calm down!You are not letting me discipline her the way she needs to be disciplined. You’re coddling her and making it okay for her to disobey me.”
“Well, what did she do Amy?”
“It’s none of your business! She’s my child and I will discipline her without your interference. Charlotte, come here right now. It is not okay for you to run to your daddy every time you are in trouble.”
I tried a different tactic.
“Charlotte, what happened?”
Amy stomped her foot like a petulant child, “Stop it! Just stop it, James! If you’d done what I asked you to, we wouldn’t be having this problem. She was whining and fussing about the tights I was trying to put on her. She was kicking and saying her legs hurt and she feels too sick to go to church. She uses it as an excuse to get her way and I’m tired of it. And I’m tired of you letting her get away with it!”
“She was up half the night with her head hanging over the toilet!” I yelled back at Amy. Charlotte’s grip tightened around my neck and she cried harder. “I’m sorry sweetheart,” I whispered to her, “I’m sorry I yelled. I’m not mad at you.”
“Why don’t you apologize to me, James? I’m the one you yelled at!”
I walked past Amy and she followed. I took Charlotte to her room and shut the door in Amy’s face. She was yelling again and threw the door open.
“Amy, stop!” I shouted, “Can we please not do this in front of Charlotte? Let me get her calmed down and then we can talk about this privately.”
Amy finally stormed off, yelling all the while about how we had to get to church and that it was no wonder Charlotte used excuses the way she did when I made them all the time just to avoid difficult situations. When she was gone, I shut the door. I talked quietly to Charlotte until she stopped crying and I told her I was going to go talk to her mommy while she stayed in the room. I got her some toys and books and I turned the little stereo on beside her bed to her favorite Disney Princess CD.
I went to find Amy. She was downstairs, sitting on the couch with her arms folded, looking murderous. She just shook her head in disgust when she saw me and started to cry.
“You undermine every parenting decision I ever make, James. All you do is worry about Charlotte and how you can make her more comfortable. Well what about me, huh? What about your wife? I should come first in this relationship, not her. And for all that you worry about pleasing her, I don’t think you realize the harm you are causing her by encouraging her to disrespect her mother.”
“Amy, she’s sick. And yes, I want to make her comfortable. She didn’t make her problems, so why should she have to bear the burden of them alone? We made our own problems, God knows, and it’s not my job to make you feel better about those.”
Amy stood up and pushed past me to the door. She grabbed her purse, “I’m going to church. You can stay here with her. It’s obviously more important to you to comfort her than to go to church, so go ahead. Stay here and love her more than you love God. God will punish you for that so I don’t have to.”
“But you do such a good job of it.”
She spun around and her face was contorted in rage. She moved so quickly I barely saw it coming. She palmed my face with her hand, pushing my head backwards as her fingers tightened over my forehead and my temples. I had to step back under the force of the blow and I thought she would just keep pushing until her grip finally loosened and I pushed her hand away, ducking out of her reach.In the midst of her fury she managed to look startled. I followed her gaze over my shoulder to where Charlotte was standing at the bottom of the stairs watching us, tears streaming down her face, hiccupping on her sobs.
Amy ran to her and picked her up. I went to the kitchen, picked up the phone and dialed 911. It was the first time I’d ever done so. I had never been angrier in my life than at that moment. I had taken Amy’s abuse before, but this time she had done it in front of Charlotte.
I remembered what Evan said. Document everything. I knew I had to. I had to let the record show what I hardly wanted to admit to myself—that I was the victim of domestic abuse. It made me feel cheap and pathetic and entirely disbelieving to even think it, but it was the truth. I had to start admitting it to myself and to others because now there was Charlotte to consider. I would not have her grow up in a house where there was physical use of force of any kind.
When the operator came on the line I told her what had happened. Then I apologized. I said I wished I hadn’t called. I told her that I was furious at my wife and I may have over-reacted. The phone rang a few moments later and an officer asked me if I called 911 and if everything was all right. I told him I did not wish to make a report. I could not go so far as that. And when it was all over I didn’t know if I’d done the right thing. Amy was loading Charlotte into the car, smoothing her hair and drying her tears. I stood there on the front porch watching and I was torn. Torn between the choice of staying in an abusive marriage or fighting to get out. It was a choice between bad and worse and I hardly know which was which. Both would surely damage Charlotte and take their toll on all of us. Both were fraught with untold risk. I thought of what Dr. Blaine had said: Is this the hill you want to die on?