“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Years ago I had a good friend whom I will call Jim, who was also a therapist, and I visited him as a patient for quite some time. I talked to him a lot about my dreams, heartaches, failures, sorrows, fears, and joys.
He was a good listener.
I remember one particular conversation where we discussed abandonment issues. I clearly had them. Much of my life had been spent chasing people as they ran out the door.
It began with my mom.
At the tender age of ten, my mother left my dad, my sister and me for another man. Not only did she leave us, but the way she took off was even more traumatic.
At that time, we lived in Columbus, GA where my dad was stationed at Ft. Benning. I was in fifth grade, and had just won the school district spelling bee and gone on to place third in the state spelling bee in Atlanta. Life was pretty good, or so I thought. Dad had bought a great house, Karen and I had our own rooms, we had a garden out back. I was happy.
Mom worked second shift and the usual routine was for Karen and me to come home and see her for a little while before she left for work. My mother had always been a hard sleeper, so I would go in and make sure she was up and then help get her lunch ready.
That day in May 1977, I walked in the house with a great deal of apprehension because I didn’t see her car in the driveway. It was a still and quiet house. The door to her room was closed, as usual, but I knocked anyway. I heard no movement, so I cracked the door open to peek inside.
The bed was empty, and made. I felt panic run through my body as I opened the door wide and saw a note addressed to my dad sitting on the dresser.
I closed the door, as Karen asked me over and over, “Where’s mom? Where is she?”
When I turned to face her she looked into my eyes and we both knew. She was gone. We didn’t understand where—or why—only that she had left.
“Karen, I’m sorry—.” I murmured.
My sister ran to her room, crying. I stood in the kitchen for a while looking out the back window at our yard where the large oak stood, the line of pine trees beyond it, and the sky so blue it looked as though a child painted it with a wide brush across the top of the trees.
After a while, I started cleaning the kitchen and doing the few dishes that were in the sink, getting ready for my dad to get home from work.
I heard Dad’s truck come to a stop in the driveway and his whistling as he walked into the garage. As was his daily routine, he walked straight out the back door to his garden to inspect it. The beans, onions and tomatoes were coming in nicely. Little sprouts of life were coming up all over that tiny space of dark soil, well-tended and growing up tall towards the sunlight. He took his hoe and did a little weeding here and there until he was satisfied his plants were safe for another day from the grass and weeds, and he began to water his garden. His whistling washed over the quiet back yard on the smoke of his Marlboros. If there was ever a time I could say my dad looked happy, it was at that moment. I watched him from the window and, drawing a deep breath, went to get the note and stepped outside.
Dad looked up and smiled, “Hey Kimmie, how was your day, girl?”
All I could do was look at him, my words sticking in the base of my throat, burning like bile. He stopped smiling and stared at me with his chameleon-like blue, then gray, then green eyes. They glanced over my face and followed my arm down to the note I held in my hand. When he saw it, he jerked imperceptibly but then regained his composure. When his eyes met mine again, I knew he knew what that note was all about.
Holding out his large, calloused hand he waited while I walked the distance between us and placed it in his palm. Dad then took the note, put it in the pocket of his Army BDU shirt, and turned slowly back towards his garden. The air was still and silent.
He had stopped whistling.
I turned with shoulders slumped and walked back into the house. I didn’t want to go back in there. It was hard to breathe and it was so dark, and I was afraid of those shadows.
When I closed the kitchen door behind me, I heard my sister sobbing in her room from the other end of the house. Unsure what to do next I rifled through the cabinets to get some things out for dinner. I didn’t know what I would make or how I would make it, but I tried to emulate what I had seen my parents do so many times before. My tears fell silently while I worked and once in a while I wiped them away with the back of my hand.
I felt my dad’s strong hand on my back and he said softly, “Honey, I’ll get this.”
Sniffling, I began to set the table. Dad told me to go get Karen, so I obeyed.
“Karen, supper is ready,” I said as I peeked inside her room.
She lay upon her bed, prostrate, shaking violently as she sobbed into her pillow. Somehow, I managed to gently extricate her from her place on the bed and lead her in the other room.
We all sat at the dining room table, the one I helped my dad make the winter before. He cut all the pieces and stained them, then let me help him varnish it after we put the pieces together.
The three of us hardly touched our food. I cleared the table and did the dishes as Karen went back into her room to cry some more. As I was drying the dishes, I could see the silhouette of my dad in his recliner in the den. The lights were off and the dim light from twilight was coming through the window behind him. I caught a spark of light coming from his face, and realized it was from his tears.
There was no talking. The only noise was from the water running in the sink, the occasional tinkling sound of dishes as I finished my task, and the muffled sobbing from my sister behind her bedroom door.
Those were some hard days. For three months my dad, sister and I were in some kind of purgatory. He got a general discharge from the Army so he could move with us back up to the Chattanooga area where we stayed with my grandparents in Fort Oglethorpe, GA. There was a lot of anger and bitterness. My Granny Marie had a special hatred for my mother for what she did—and she didn’t hesitate to say it. Most of what I can remember from that time is my Granny yelling about how bad a mother we had, my sister crying, my dad wandering around like a zombie, and me just watching everyone and not saying a word, not shedding anymore tears, not doing anything at all except the next task. Wash some dishes, make a bed, vacuum the carpets, rake leaves—whatever I could do to make it easier on everyone else.
My Granny kept remarking, “Look how strong Kim is! She just keeps on trucking.” No one knew that inside I was a whimpering wreck. No one knew that I cried myself to sleep at night and drenched my pillow but refused to let anyone hear me.
And so this became our family dynamic. Dad checked out. Granny bitched. Karen cried. Mom was gone. And me—I just tried to fix what I could from the broken mess, while inside I was screaming and crying, and seething.
Mom eventually came home. The four of us met at the Tennessee state line at the welcome center near Chattanooga and our parents told us we were moving to a new house not far from there, in Hixson, and things were going to be okay. I hugged them as I cried, and hoped for the best. Still, deep inside of me I knew that this broken family would never be whole again.
Sometimes we create a thorn in our sides, and in the sides of our children, when we make the wrong choices.
Looking back, my mom and dad certainly did this. Our move to Hixson turned out to be a life-altering one for me, one where I realized that there was no one in this world I could trust. Not only that, but I also learned there were some bad people disguised as nice folks.
We moved another time after that to Chickamauga, GA, and dad promised it would be the last time. I made him promise knowing he would not keep it.
I was thirteen the year he and mom broke that promise. Mom found someone else to give her attention to, and instead of trying to make something broken whole again, dad gave up and headed south to Florida. This time, though, Karen wasn’t crying in her room. Mom was there with her new guy.
Me, well, I was lost in the ozone. The one person I felt I could somewhat depend on had left—my dad. After what mom did and what happened to me in Hixson, I could only allow myself to trust him. Then he broke my heart, too.
So many times since then I have chased people out the door. I’ve watched them with their suitcases and their backs turned towards me, refusing to meet my eye.
One day, I decided to change that. I wouldn’t be the one being left anymore. I would be the leaver.
And this is where Jim comes in again. We were talking about abandonment, and how I felt everyone I had ever trusted and loved had left me.
Jim, not known to mince words, gently but firmly said, “Kim, everyone is going to leave you…one day. As a matter of fact, I will leave you, too. That is, if you don’t leave me first.”
I stared at him for a moment and realized that what he was saying was true.
There are no guarantees in this life. Everyone is left, and everyone leaves. Whether we just get in our car and drive away, get married and move to another city, get divorced and move back, kids go off to college, friends get new jobs, loved ones pass away….we all leave and there are those who are left behind.
As much as what my parents did sometimes still hurts, even to this day, I know that the situations I experienced then were preparing me for this life. I’m stronger now, and with each new loss and goodbye, there is also joy in knowing that despite the risks of losing—I have loved and been loved. I know I was well prepared for so many moments, including the past year of great loss for my husband. I am able to see with different eyes, past the seemingly endless pain, suffering and grief–because I’ve been there and gone through to the other side–more than once.
Today, I felt a weight of relief off my back and chest, and neck, as I let go of so much of that fear of abandonment. Whatever happened, or happens in the future, is part of the journey. I don’t have to be afraid of loss and I don’t have to run away. My life is here, in this moment, as long as I choose to embrace it.
Honestly, I’m tired of running after someone or something trying to garner approval and acceptance so I won’t be left behind again. I’m weary of running away so I don’t have to wait to find out if someone I trusted will let me down. There may be some cracks and broken places from my past and the pain I’ve either been given or doled out, but I can choose strength from it instead of dismay or shame.
I choose to be strong, as Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, at these broken places, and tell my stories so others may know that they are strong, too, despite their own brokenness.
Kim Bailey Deal
November 29, 2015