I'd been running for the last hour. That's what I did when I was stressed, I ran and usually by the time I was done I was exhausted and whatever had been bothering me had been resolved or at least I had a plan in place to deal with whatever ailed me. This latest problem would have been easy to handle if it was only mine. I could have ignored it the way I always ignored anything that got to be too much for me. And here I'd thought this nightmare had only been mine.
I was soaked, my face drenched in sweat and my tank top and long shorts not much better. I took the towel from around my neck and patted myself as dry as possible before I headed to Patty's Healthy Foods Pub on York St.
I ordered myself a Chicken Salad with bean and alfalfa sprouts with lite Italian dressing on the side and one tilapia taco cooked in lemon with pico de gallo garnish and a huge glass of sugarless mango peach tea. This run had not helped at all and I needed to calm down. I pulled my iPod Nano out of my back pocket and listened to some soothing music as I ate my lunch.
I watched several children playing in the kid's corner. They were so carefree and I was slightly envious. I turned at the flash of red coming in the front door. A little girl was chuckling as she and her mother, who obviously had been playing dress up, walked in. "Mommy!" she squealed as she jumped away from her, "no more thtrawbewwieth on my thtomach!" They were both dressed in red with matching shoes and they were wearing tons of gaudy necklaces around their necks, plastic bracelets on their wrists and gigantic plastic rings. "Lithen mommy, you have to owder the tea and thome cookieth kay? I got my baby teapot hewe," she patted the little vinyl case at her side, "and thome mowe cookieth that gwandma made and we can have a tea pawty over thewe, kay? And pleathe don't fowget the thicken." She skipped off to play in the corner with the other children.
The young mother went up to order tea, cookies and grilled chicken tenders and grinned when she saw me looking at her. "I love playing dress up with my baby," she laughed, "It's so much fun."
Smiling back, "She's a lucky little girl to have a mom like you." I looked at her red dress and sat back to finish my lunch and I wondered where the other red dress had gone. Was someone else wearing it and did they think it was beautiful? They'd never know the tears that had been shed in that dress.
Three months ago, I'd gotten to the point that I felt safe enough to move out on my own. I'd searched until I'd found an apartment with high security and one that mom and dad approved of and two days later I'd had the keys. I'd just finished unpacking the rest of the boxes and putting all my pictures up on the walls and had finally positioned my multicolored jewel and earth tone rug right in the middle of my living room just the way I wanted it. I'd designed this rug myself and the chocolate brown, taupe, gold, burnt orange, burgundy and blood red overlapping circles all outlined in black had me standing back and sighing in satisfaction as I looked around at my chocolate sectional with dark red and gold throws. The telephone started ringing and I groaned in exasperation, because I just knew it had to be mom calling me for the fifteenth time to remind me not to forget to eat.
My mouth fell open in surprise, as I listened to the voice on the other end of the phone. This was quite an unexpected phone call from my brother Nate who hadn't voluntarily spoken to me in thirteen years. He rambled on for a while and then out of the blue asked me to pray for him, "I'm finally getting some help with my drinking problem. All the guys from work got together and helped me clean the house out. Man, you should have seen how they turned it upside down and inside out to make sure that I'd gotten rid of all the booze, you know?" He was quiet for a while, "Cessy, I really need prayer, because I know I can't do this on my own." He finished with, "I promise I'll never again do what I did at Christmas. I don't know what came over me, but I swear I didn't mean to hit you."
I'd been silent for most of the time he'd been talking and I'll admit I was teed off. I had given only my parents, my sister Lucy and my little brother Freddie my new phone number when I'd moved, with the instructions that they were not to give my number out to anyone without first speaking to me. "Why are you calling me Nate?" I asked. He'd barely been civil to me for the last thirteen years and most of that time he'd spent taunting or mocking me. By the age of sixteen I'd become accustomed to the complete disrespect he showed me. After repeated warnings, which he'd ignored, mom and dad had finally asked him to leave.
"I just thought you'd like to know that's all," he said quietly.
"Okay. I'll be praying for you. I'll put in a prayer request at church too. It always helps to have more than one person praying, right?" There was an awkward, uncomfortable silence.
"Well um, Cessy thank you for listening, even though you didn't have to," he said before hanging up. I stood there with the busy signal buzzing in my ear for a long time.
He hadn't called me again during these last three months. I don't what I'd expected, but maybe I'd hoped that we could somehow get whatever was bothering him out in the open. I knew that if he was in a program the twelve steps would eventually bring him back to me anyway, so I'd just left it alone. I knew he'd call when he was ready.
Quite unexpectedly Nate had called me last night and told me he didn't know whether he'd be able to keep from drinking. He said the nightmares were coming back and he didn't know if he could face them without the alcohol. He began to cry and kept saying, "I'm so sorry sis, I'm so sorry. Please forgive me!" I could hear him sobbing as he'd dropped the phone.
I hadn't known what to say, I hadn't realized this was the burden he'd been carrying all these years. All I could do was listen so I'd sat on the floor and held the phone to my ear until the sobbing had stopped, "You're still there, aren't you sis? I'm sorry. Go to bed and I'll talk to you later." After a long pause, "I do love you, you know?" I'd heard the crying start again before he'd gently hung the phone up.
I took another swallow of my mango peach tea and decided I needed something stronger, so I ordered a regular coffee. I added some vanilla nut creamer and two Truvia to it. I sat and stared out the window and wondered what I was supposed to do. I'd prayed last night after Nate's phone call and I knew that somehow, someway God would tell me what to do. I put the volume up on my iPod and heard God's answer in the song that came up next.
The Lord is My Shepherd
Let the pain in my life
Find it's healing in Your eyes
Every hurt, every loss
Pull me closer to Your heart
Let the wind and the waves
Bring a new, courage and a faith
I'm singing out, singing out…
The Lord is my Shepherd and I want for nothing
You lead me to water for You know I'm thirsting
And I, am only satisfied by You
Every day, I make a choice
To be led, only by Your voice
To be bold and unafraid
Knowing I am covered,
I am safe
For even now, in my need
You are proving yet again to me
You are there, You are there
I took a deep breath as the song ended and quickly swallowed the rest of my coffee. It was time for the crying to stop and to put all these memories and pain behind me, behind us once and for all. I called Nate and asked him to meet me at the park under my tree.
At seven thirty that evening, Nate and I met face to face after seven months, under the praying tree. I looked over at Old man Edwards' house expecting him to be sitting on his porch, but remembered with sadness that he'd passed away last year. I looked at Nate, but before I could speak he began quickly, "Don't say anything sis. Let me talk first, because I don't know if I'll ever be able to get it out otherwise!" He went back into my personal nightmare and the memories came tumbling down on me.
I always waited until the sun had started to go down before I went to the park two blocks over to sit and sing under the praying tree. I'd called it that because it looked as if the lowest branches were reaching up to heaven in supplication. For some reason that old tree had always brought me comfort and I would sit under it and watch the birds fly around their nests and listen to them talk about how their day had gone. I'd listen to the crickets or the katydids as they chirped and once in a while if I was lucky I'd hear a cicada sing a love song. The cicada's song had always been so soothing.
What I loved most about sitting under that tree was watching the sun go down. It was so beautiful, the tanzanite blue of the sky higher up and the light and deep orange shades below it that finally turned midnight blue as the sun dipped below the horizon. It had always felt like God was putting on a display of colors just for me.
Old man Edwards always came out and sat on his porch at the same time every night and would keep an eye on me until I went home. "Nice evening hey girlie?" he'd greet me. "Yeppers, sure is," I'd respond, then we'd both laugh.
My visits to the tree had always been relaxed, happy and peaceful, but that changed when dad's friend came to stay. After that my visits took on an air of desperation and I no longer came to the tree to relax or to enjoy the sky and the sounds. I came to escape and plead.
Dad's best friend, Eric Sullivan, had moved in with us two months before my tenth birthday. Dad told us that he'd offered him the use of the extra bedroom for the fourteen months before he was deployed. It had all seemed good at the time, but barely a week later I'd become very uncomfortable around him and had complained to my dad that Uncle Eric, as he wanted to be called, was always touching me or pulling my hair. Dad had said that Eric was just friendly and I was way too sensitive. He had mom talk to me about being friendlier and more understanding. They'd ignored my fears and things had gone on as before.
My fears had become reality on mom and dad's anniversary. Uncle Eric had volunteered to keep an eye on us so that they could go out and have a nice time. "Hey the kids and I will play games and watch movies and we'll keep each other company until you get home. So where are you going? Somewhere nice I hope," he'd laughed as he'd rubbed my shoulders.
Dad had decided to take mom to Naperville to this nice little restaurant that had just opened. "They have dancing too, so we'll be out late. Please make sure the kids brush their teeth and are in bed by 9:30, Eric. Thank you for giving us this evening."
I'd been scared, but I had been sure that if I could just make it to 9:30 I could get in my room and lock the door and everything would be just fine. At 9:15, I'd made my way to the bathroom, quickly brushed my teeth and hurried to my bedroom. With shaking fingers I'd locked my door and turned the light off and froze, "What a bad little girl. Did you think I didn't know what you were thinking?"
I fought so hard, but nothing worked. He hurt me and later as he was pulling his pants on he said, "Before you think of telling your mom and dad, don't. They'll just say it was your fault and that you were asking for it. You're bad and they'll be so ashamed of you, but go for it if you want," he laughed as he unlocked my door and walked out. Out in the hall I could hear him talking to Nate and I just lay there. I hurt so badly and I was afraid to move, but somehow I got up and walked on rubbery legs to the bathroom and climbed in the tub. I scrubbed my skin raw, but the smell wouldn't go away; I bent over the side and threw up. After my bath I walked back to my room and took all the bedding off the bed. The comforter and pillowcases I put down the laundry chute, but the sheets I hid in a bag in my closet. I knew mom and dad would be so ashamed of me and I didn't want to disappoint them.
The next day mom and dad raved about the wonderful time they'd had and how grateful they were for such a wonderful friend like Eric. "Hey did you guys have a good time last night?" mom asked us. Before either Nate or I could answer Uncle Eric said, "Oh it was an awesome time and one I'd like to repeat, if you don't mind?" I shuddered with fear and my pale face had mom asking if I was okay.
Remembering Uncle Eric's warning, "I'm not feeling very well, can I please lay down on your bed, mom?" I asked.
"Of course honey. Let me grab the thermometer so I can check your temperature, okay?"
The following eight months were a horrific nightmare for me. I endured a full out attack against my body, mind and emotions.
I began wetting my bed and would wake up crying in the middle of the night. I couldn't eat and started losing weight rapidly and mom began to threaten me with hospitalization if I didn't eat. I stopped doing my homework and withdrew into myself. My grades started dropping and after the third phone call from the school about my behavior dad tried talking to me and made the mistake of putting his hands on my shoulders. I panicked and pushed him away and when he tried to put his arms around me I started screaming and ran to my room. I didn't feel safe anywhere and I finally crawled into my closet and pulled the door shut. I woke up in a corner at the back of the closet covered in clothes. I guess I'd pulled them down when I'd come in here to hide. I crawled out and found Uncle Eric sitting on my bed with a beautiful red dress lying across the foot. "I brought you a present. Here try it on." He said he'd talked to mom and dad and told them that we'd gotten very close and he was certain I'd open up to him. Dad had been upset and willing to try anything. "They said they were going to pick up Nate and then hit the grocery store to buy you that yogurt that you like and then they'll pick up the pizza they asked me to order for them. I barely ordered it right now so we have some time to spend together." He pulled the dress across his legs "Do you like the dress?" he asked. I just stared back at him; I wanted to be anywhere but here right now. "I asked you a question! Do you like the dress? Answer me!" he'd barked at me.
I was shaking and I finally nodded my head. "Good, good. Now put it on," he commanded. I put the dress on and he made me walk around the room to show it off; then he pushed me down on the floor and he hurt me again. An eternity later we heard the car come in the driveway. "At least they didn't get here any earlier or they would have disturbed us." He pulled himself upright, "I'll tell your parents that some kid at school hurt your feelings and that you're feeling better now and fell asleep. You can eat your pizza in the morning."
I sat on my bed crying. I was so broken and nobody could see it. I had to talk to God, but I couldn't do it here in this room, in this house. I opened up my bedroom window and stepped out unto the tree and climbed down and hugging myself I walked to the park. Old Mr. Edwards came out to greet me, but I didn't respond. All of a sudden I felt an unbelievable exhaustion come over me and I stumbled, then fell as I passed the park bench. I knew I wouldn't be able to walk the rest of the way to the tree, so I crawled. I remember begging God to stop Uncle Eric from hurting me anymore; I begged Him to just let me die. I sat in front of that tree and rocked back and forth wanting the same comfort and peace I'd felt before and I remember screaming. I hadn't noticed Nate hiding in the trees and he hadn't noticed mom and dad behind him.
I wrapped my arms around the tree, the bark ripping the flesh of my arms and hands and I wept. I could hear Mr. Edwards saying, "It's gonna be okay girlie. Come on let go of the tree. Your mama's here to take you home."
I woke up the next day in mom and dad's bedroom. Dad was sleeping sitting up in his red leather chair by the bed his fists bloody; mom was sleeping with her head on my pillow. I quietly got out of bed and went into the kitchen to fix some toast. It seemed to be the only thing that I could keep down. I heard a sound behind me and froze. "It's okay honey, it's only me. He's gone. He left last night and he won't be coming back. I promise," said dad.
I refused to talk about it to anyone at first, but I never stopped talking to God. I hadn't been back to the tree since that day. I no longer felt any pleasure in my visits there. My parents had begun counseling with the pastor of my church, Pastor Norman. He hadn't given up on me and had finally talked me into counseling and together my parents and I had started to climb out of the dark valley we'd been in for so long. We were finally healing. Occasionally I could shake hands with men and look at red dresses without getting violently sick. Eventually I even started to visit my tree again and once again I was enjoying my old pleasures; the sky, the setting sun and the cicada's love song.
Four years ago, I'd come to the tree where Jesus was crucified and I'd given my life to Him and although the journey had been a long one I'd gotten to a place in the road where I could finally forgive.
Nate was still talking when I came back from remembering. I could see the anger and hatred on his face as he talked about Uncle Eric.
He'd told Nate that mom and dad would hate him for not protecting me and so Nate had kept quiet for the next eight months until Uncle Eric had been shipped out early.
When Uncle Eric had been killed 6 months before he was due to be shipped home Nate, then 18, had gone out and gotten stinking drunk because he was so thankful, then he'd gotten drunk again for being such an unfeeling monster.
"I knew what was going on and I never told mom and dad about it just so I could protect myself. I'm sorry!" The tears started flowing down his face and he scrubbed at his face with his sleeve, "I really didn't think they'd believe me, but I couldn't take the guilt so I started putting all the blame on you. I kept telling myself that maybe Uncle Eric was right when he said you were flirting with him. I ignored the fact that you were only ten years old."
His cheeks were flushed, his eyes swollen and he was crying like someone who'd just lost a loved one. He kept stopping because of the shuddering sobs and the lump in his throat.
"The last night Uncle Eric was here, I knew he'd hurt you really bad. I could hear you crying, but I didn't do anything. Later I heard you opening your window and I was afraid that you were going to do something dumb and I opened the door to your room and watched you disappear out the window."
Nate had followed me to the park and had watched as I had stumbled and fallen and then crawled the last few feet to my tree. He'd watched as I rocked back and forth in the red dress that Uncle Eric had forced me to wear. He'd listened to my cries and my pleas to God, "Please God don't let Uncle Eric hurt me anymore. Take me home now. I wanna go home!"
He'd seen old man Edwards run towards me and he'd taken off and gone to a friend's house. He'd tried to fight his guilt at not doing anything, but unfortunately his subconscious hadn't let him get away with it and he'd started having nightmares. "I'm still having the same nightmare sis. I'm behind that big evergreen at the edge of the park and I can see you so clearly. You're always in the same red dress under the tree and you're crying and screaming and then the dress turns into blood and it starts to run off of you, but you're still covered with it. It looks like you're in some kind of invisible container and it starts to fill up with you right in the middle of it, but you don't even try to get out. You look up and stare at me; you just stare and you're still crying, but now I can't hear you and pretty soon you disappear under all the blood." He'd woken himself up screaming several times and in an effort to escape the nightmares he'd started drinking. First he'd started with beer and when that hadn't been enough he'd looked for whatever was strongest and would knock him out the quickest.
I sat there quietly and looked at him, "I've known all along that you knew Nate," I whispered, tears running down my face, "but I never blamed you." He looked at me in disbelief. "Nate, he manipulated both of us. I didn't tell mom and dad either, because he said they'd be ashamed of me. He kept telling me I was bad and I believed him."
I finally told Nate about the ongoing counseling I was going through along with mom and dad and how I'd finally come to like myself again. "I'm not afraid to look in the mirror anymore and it took me a while, but I stopped blaming myself, because I know it wasn't my fault. And I don't hate anymore Nate. I'm free," a laugh of relief escaped me.
"But he got away with what he did to you!" he wept.
"No, he didn't," I replied and told him about dad's bloody fists. Dad and mom had followed him to the park and had heard everything. He had taken off and hadn't seen mom along with old Mr. Edwards rushing to me; dad in a rage had gone back to the house and beaten Eric until his fists were bloody and had thrown him out of the house.
"Nate it's time to let it go. He's gone and you're still letting him win. Please don't let him." I reached out hesitantly and heaved a sigh of relief when nothing happened. "You have to forgive him and yourself. That's the only way to start living again." There was always room in our counseling sessions for another, so I invited him to join us.
I looked up at the beauty of the sky and sighed. I knew it was going to be tough going, but the first step was to bring him to the cross and let Jesus do the rest.