(* indicates that this name has been changed).
(In order for the full impact of this story to make sense, it is critical to start with a brief synopsis of my childhood).
My siblings and I were raised in Spokane, Washington, by a hard-working, divorced mom. She rose valiantly to the challenges of single motherhood . . . always at the ready with love, support, guidance and compassion whenever we needed it. She was a true champion of her kids, and a staunch cheerleader. She was also a strict disciplinarian when she needed to be.
Mama remarried when I was 7, and we moved to Tacoma, Washington. During the few months she stayed with my abusive stepfather, he molested me several times. When Mama found out about it, she obtained a restraining order. From the day she left him, she raised my brothers and me alone. Under her caring and supportive guidance, I grew to be an optimistic, outgoing teenager. Not once did I experience ridicule or guilt over what had happened in Tacoma. Rather, I was told repeatedly that I could do anything I set my mind to.
I learned about God, and about the story of Jesus, from Mama, and the Sunday school and Bible School classes I attended. Mama never pushed religion, because she felt that was a choice each person should make for themselves. But she taught us faith . . . and I never doubted the stories I’d heard about Christ’s life. What I didn’t learn – probably because I didn’t understand it at the time – was how to have a relationship with God. I had no idea how far faith could take a person.
About a year after high school graduation, I married a boy I’d known since 10th grade. He was in the Coast Guard, and we moved to Baltimore, Maryland – 3,000 miles away from home. I found out early that Eric’s* anger took the form of violence. Compounding the unpredictable nature of his outbursts was his increasing problem with alcohol.
For 8 years, I endured Eric’s alcoholism, and his intensifying physical, mental, and emotional abuse. As our 2 sons grew, his anger would be pointed to them as well. Of course, when I intervened to protect them, he focused it on me.
Things came to a dangerous and frightening head in 1981. I wanted to leave, and had known so for 2 months. But, Eric’s parents were coming for a visit, and I didn’t want to spoil it for them. So, I kept quiet and chose to wait until after their visit to tell Eric about the divorce. The anxiety of waiting to escape drove me deeper into despair.
My self-esteem was almost totally destroyed from years of abuse. My sense of self had all but completely disappeared. It was in this state of mind that I would await my chance to leave. In late July of 1981, the despair finally got the best of me. The day came that I found myself standing at the top of an 80-foot high granite cliff on the coast of Maine, where we were stationed at the time. Unable to bear the intense feeling of being trapped in a hopeless situation, I realized I wanted to simply fall forward . . . off the top of that cliff, to the rocks below.
For nearly 30 minutes, I fought the physical nature of that urge, as the image of Eric raising my sons danced through my mind. That image, along with the tear-filled plea of a valued friend – that I not give up – made me want to live. In exhausted shock that I was so close to suicide, I finally stepped back from the edge of that cliff. Three weeks later, Eric and I separated. In November, I left him and made the long journey back to Spokane.
In October, 1982, I married the friend who had begged me not to give up. He, too, was in the Coast Guard, and we moved to New York. Once there – at the behest of my oldest son – he began proceedings that would allow him to adopt my boys. Frank was a caring, compassionate partner who believed in team work. Each day of our lives, he worked to help me recover from the effects of Eric’s abuse. He also taught me how to have a “fair fight” with your spouse. The biggest change for me was living with a man I wasn’t afraid of. It sounds silly, but that’s hard to adjust to. Once you’ve been abused, you learn to expect the unexpected. When things are chugging along smoothly, you find yourself waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under you. To my surprise, that never happened with Frank. He was, in every aspect that mattered to me, a perfect partner.
Eight months after we got to New York, Frank invited my aging mother to come and live with us. Her extremely low income, and living alone, concerned him. He felt she’d be happier with us, and that would help her live longer. That was important to him, because he liked her, and because he knew she was important to me.
During the summer of 1984, we traveled to Spokane to sell Mama’s house and move her belongings back east. We also bought a house in northeast Pennsylvania, just 3 & ½ hours from the base Frank was stationed at. This would allow him to commute home on weekends.
Nestled on 7 acres in the northern Pocono Mountains, the old farmhouse was a peaceful, safe place to raise our family (which had grown with the birth of another son in October of 1983). Weaving through the middle of our land was thousands of feet of creek frontage. Here, we would spend the next 15 years. In this place . . . beside that creek . . . I learned the one thing I’d never known.
The creek made an idyllic place to pray and think things through. What I discovered there was that I could hear God’s Voice in the gently whispering water. Here, in this wondrous place, I learned how to have a relationship with God.
In 1999, Frank and I filed bankruptcy, and agreed to surrender the old farmhouse to the bank in that proceeding. We would move our family to South Dakota. Tony was married and had a family; Mike was 18 and had a girlfriend; so neither of them would be moving with us. Mother’s Day that year was wonderful and pleasant. The next day, tragedy struck.
Frank collapsed from a heart attack at 6:15 p.m. Kevin and I were not home yet, because he had a track meet after school. Mama found Frank on the kitchen floor and called 911. Nothing the emergency responders tried seemed to help. The doctor in the ER – 14 miles away – had no better luck and, at 7:19 p.m., he pronounced Frank dead.
Although stunned to the point where my mind said, “Crumple to the floor,” my legs would not follow the thought. The sensation of big, strong arms scooping under me held me erect. It felt as though God Himself were standing there with me, giving my legs the strength I needed.
Throughout the week that followed, there were dozens of little things that testified to God’s presence during my family’s darkest hour. It was clear to me that his angels were everywhere. And our children and I drew from each other the strength we needed to get through the ordeal. Not once did I doubt God’s involvement. I knew he was there . . . I could feel Him.
The oddest change came over me during that week, too. Although my faith had – in recent years – become stronger than it had ever been, I had still not become comfortable discussing it openly with others. Only when I knew they were people of faith did I discuss my beliefs. Yet, from the moment Frank died, my faith was right there . . . so close to the surface that it was nearly tangible. In every conversation I had – no matter who it was with – it felt natural to discuss my beliefs. I couldn’t NOT mention them. For the first time in my 45 years, I heard people comment on how strong my faith was.
That faith carried me through all the duties and details of that summer. It was all I had . . . the only thing I felt I could count on in my world. It was as though I were stranded on a raft in a fast-flowing river. Life is the river; the raft is God and the faith you have in Him. The only thing that felt safe was to lie back on my raft (in God’s arms) and let that raft carry me where ever I was supposed to go next. Despite all my sorrow and disbelief over what had happened, I knew I’d be okay.
Against the well-meant advice of many people, we left for South Dakota on the exact day that Frank and I had planned – August 6, 1999 – just 3 months after his death. The bankruptcy was finished; the house was cleared out; and our possessions were en route to South Dakota in a moving van. Mama had been flown to my sister’s house in Spokane, until we could get settled in our new home. At 83 years old, and on oxygen for Emphysema, the 1600-mile trip by car would’ve been too hard for her.
So, Kevin and I left on our new adventure . . . just the two of us. It felt so odd to be a family of 2 after so many years as a family of 6. Somehow, though, I felt hopeful and positive. I had begged God, during my long chats with him by the creek, to make SOMETHING good come out of the tragedy of Frank’s death. I think something inside me already knew that His answer to that prayer was a resounding “YES!”
We arrived in Rapid City August 11, at 11:00 p.m. We had no friends or relatives here; no motel reservation or place to live lined up; and I didn’t have a job waiting for me here. It was the middle of Sturgis Rally week – the busiest time of year in the Black Hills – and there wasn’t a room to be had. Still, we did sleep that night – in the car. By our 12th day here, we had a Post Office Box, bank accounts, and an address . . . a lovely rental house in North Rapid . . . and new friends. Our neighbors were wonderful, caring people.
Mama rejoined us September 10. By then, we had the house all set up to welcome her. Our new life began, and I quickly felt the sensation of putting down roots in South Dakota. It was as though I’d always been here, the sense of belonging was so great.
In November, 1999, Mama took ill and had to be hospitalized. She died December 23. Now, both my cheerleaders were gone. The voices I loved most to hear were both silenced. For the first time in all my 46 years, I was on my own . . . I was the one in charge of everything. Still, I knew that God was here with me. He made his Presence known to me in everything I did. His comfort was a constant, almost-physical sensation. However lost and scared and confused I felt, I knew I wasn’t alone.
Never believe, for one moment, that God doesn’t answer prayers. NO prayer goes unanswered. It may be ‘yes’ . . . ‘no’ . . . or ‘not now’ . . . but He always answers . . . I’d prayed for a home away from the rat race of the East Coast, and found Peace in South Dakota . . . I’d asked God to make some good arise from the horror of Frank’s death . . . today, I am stronger, smarter, and more confident than I have ever been. Plus, my life is AMAZING:
· I run my own business, doing the thing I love most: writing.
· I know, from a talk with God, that writing is what He created me for.
· I’ve written and self-published 5 books.
· I’m a Sociology major in college, due to graduate in May, 2009.
· I own a brand new house.
· My children all lead fulfilling lives, and have married wonderful women.
· My stepchildren and their children are still a big part of my life.
· I have 19 beautiful, healthy grandchildren.
· I have a wonderful new love, who openly accepts me as I am. He accepts our memories of Frank with no limitations or reservations. Rich never tries to change that. He’s a loving, caring partner who never lets my tears fall into empty air. And, if you ask the kids, he’s a really fun grandpa!!!
· I have a wonderful, supportive circle of friends.
· I found a church I’m very comfortable in. The people there make us feel like a part of God’s family. I was baptized there in 2007.
I’ve been in Hell 3 times in my life: once as a victimized child; once as an abused young adult; and once as a middle-aged widow. Each time, God’s incredible Love and Grace carried me through to brighter times. Even when I didn’t know enough to recognize His Hand in things, it was right there. Today, I know better. I see God’s Handiwork all around me, and His Love is as real to me as that of any human. Today, God is my dearest and most trusted friend.
I read once that ‘God never asks you to trade for less.’ I believe that with all my being. My life has proven it, over and over again. In our darkest hours, God is there. You have to be observant, and open-minded, to recognize how He manifests Himself. But, make no mistake: You are NEVER alone . . .