Last year for an assignment, I was asked to write about words that changed my life. They weren't my words but those of my son. I never shared this until now. With my donation to Project Safe in Athens (instead of the ice bucket challenge so many of you hoped to see) and the NFL debacle on domestic violence, I decided it was time. Although it's much shorter, I think the point is still made. Tell someone; then, listen to them. If it happens once, it will happen again. Believe in yourself in spite of what you're told. The reason you stay is not as important as the reason to leave. Simply, let go and walk away. #whyistayed
"Just go mom."
Not the three little words that I had been told all my life I wanted to hear. The expected and anticipated "I love you" had morphed into "Just go mom."
It was fall, a transforming time in the South, when the air is cooler and the ceiling converts to muted hues of red and yellows. The long, hot summer was over and with the new season's crispness, there came a time to slow down, to enjoy the wood-burning fires and accept its floating invitation to another time and place. The truth of the matter was that the paradox of fall, the dying of leaves and the shedding of life, was exactly what was happening to me; my life, as I knew it, was about to die.
I was 48. When I was a little girl, I thought that was old; by the time I reached my early 40s, I still thought it was old but with age would come conquered dreams and predicted stability. I was wrong. Normally out-going and gregarious, I was isolated and withdrawn. My husband of 24 years had transformed a decade earlier into a man that I didn't know and didn't love, one who relied on alcohol, drugs and abuse to make his life worth living.
"When are we going to leave," my children would ask. "Soon." I would respond knowing full well that soon could be years down the road.
"I do have a plan," I assured myself. Although I had no job and little self-respect, scraps of paper in agendas and scribbles on calendars validated the escape never far from my mind.
October 16, 2006, arrived with little fanfare, no signs of an imminent turning point. It was a replica of the day before, and surely the one to follow: sleeping late, coffee on the front porch swing, lunch, nap and TV. A lifestyle many craved, but it was killing me. My need for productive living had been stifled by my lack of love for my husband and for myself, and although my daughter pushed me for an outing every now and then, it was simply too hard. My son's uncanny savvy for laughter in almost every situation even proved too little, too late.
My best friend Cheri - the only one that remained after my husband scared all the others away - lived next door. She was 10 years younger, a blonde-haired beauty that made me wish I had half her looks and all her motivation. I watched as their family grew from two to four, loving the entire lot of them as my own. As a hairdresser, her schedule was flexible and most mornings were spent joining me for coffee on my front porch. I later realized she was watching and checking, making sure I was in one piece before she left for the day.
It was getting dark outside. I was visiting next door and finally decided to pick my feet up and journey home. Like she did most times, Cheri walked me every step of the way, through her yard, through the adjoining fence, up the porch steps, and into my house. It was quiet.
"You're back," he yelled from the darkness. "I've been waiting on you." The slur of his words and the sway of his body as he entered the room told his familiar drunken tale. My son and daughter appeared, as if on cue, as bitter words were spoken.
I walked past my husband as if he were a ghost when he suddenly grabbed my shoulders, turning my face towards his. "I said, I've been waiting on you." His fingers dug into my flesh, begging for attention, gaining more intensity as his knuckles grew whiter. I tried to back away, but the grip was too tight. At once, his hands released my arms and traveled towards my neck, reaching around and forming a choke hold with his entire arm. I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe. "You will answer me when I call you," he shouted as he sloppily slammed me against a doorway, indifferent to those who watched. He was twice my size, and his intoxication only made him stronger, more aggressive, and I was fixed.
From across the room, my son lunged forward, slamming into his father, tossing him off me and onto one wall, then another. It reminded me of his offensive line maneuvers on the football field, protecting his quarterback at all cost, then I realized his moves were meant to protect me. With his forearm, he held his father's body securely against a wall. He glanced around, and our eyes met.
"Just go mom," he screamed. I'm not sure whether his words or actions broke my heart first. I was frozen. From both sides, my daughter and my friend echoed the words. My eyes were transfixed on my son. Over and over, he demanded, "just go mom." And finally, "it's time to let go."
The night was filled with flashing lights, endless questions, and finally, arrests and restraining orders. My husband's attempt on my life was topped off by his attempt on his son's life. After quiet descended and disbelief set it, I walked the same worn path toward home that I had walked every day, but this time, it would be my last.
"You have to go." Cheri spoke first as my children nodded in silence. "It'll never get any better, you know that. They want you to go. They want you to be safe. We'll pack everything tonight, and you'll never have to come back."
Over the next few hours, I grabbed everything that meant anything to me. From photo albums to paintings, silverware to shoes, Christmas decorations to deeds and passports, I stuffed my vehicle with all it could hold and left the majority of 24 years behind.
Around midnight, my children and I stood in the front yard looking back at our home. I remembered when we would drag old quilts to the rise in the front yard, spread them out and plop down for hours watching the stars dance in the summer sky. We laughed about the endless family birthday parties on the deck with grandma and papa. I remembered carrying Ty through the front door for the very first time. And there, in the back yard, the place where we had buried Spot, our beautiful red dog with not a marking on his coat. What had happened to all those moments? Who was I then, and more importantly, who had I become?
I drove out of my driveway for the last time with nothing inside me but a belief that my children's love and conviction would be enough to rescue me. The next few months tested this notion with constant moves, little money, and feelings of inadequacy that were finally overturned by a good Samaritan who gave me a job based on his gut feeling.
Paths define people. Mine, like the one from Cheri's house to my front door, had become well-worn, crumpled into a singular route, with no promise of deviation. My life had become a passageway of self-doubt, verbal and physical abuse, and uncontrollable circumstances that I unwittingly allowed to take control. I forgot to see what possibilities lived just beyond my reach. I stopped listening, stopped dreaming, and lived within the barriers that I had built around me.
"What did you mean by 'let go'" I asked my son a few days later.
"It's like this," he began with his 16-year-old wisdom. "I miss you, mom. I have watched what dad has done to you for so long. All of us have tried to talk sense into you forever, but you wouldn't listen." I opened my mouth to speak which he quickly covered my lips with his fingertips. "You wouldn't listen," he said boldly. "We've all tried. Now, we're out of that mess, and you have to get over it."
The answer for all 16-year-olds - to simply get over something.
"Remember what you always tell me," he continued. "What you do from this point on can change everything. It's not what came before, it's what happens right now. So, there. There's your answer. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and figure out what comes next."
That night, I broke the decade-long cycle of domestic violence and took that first step, which as anyone who has ever lived this life will tell you, is the hardest. Over the next couple of months, with the help of Cheri and my children, I decided to take charge of the remains of my life and reconstruct my path. I had nothing to lose.
A month later, the four of us huddled around an outdoor coffee shop table in the cool November air, and I wrote on a scrap of paper three concrete goals to accomplish in the next three months - a job, a car, a home. By spring, I had all three including a new purpose for living.
I have always heard you have to hit rock bottom before you truly know the power that lives within. Releasing my past failures, as well as my successes, launched me toward the understanding of what was possible if I only start with a clean slate. It was incredibly hard, but I figured, my children and I were worth every ounce of sweat. I will admit that I haven't totally erased that night, or those troubled years, from my memory, for I often wonder what would have become of all of us if we had stayed. At that very moment, I remember those sage words of my 16-year-old - "it's time to let go"- and how his words changed the course of my life.
Whether it is exploring this amazing world or being content on my own piece of real estate near Athens, Georgia, I'm spinning stories and fashioning tales from a Southern perspective. As an editor and writer, I get to meet incredible people and share their stories. As a photographer, I get to cement these moments in time. As a wife and mother, I'm always excited to see what's around the next corner, For it's anything but ordinary.