This one is hard to write.
It features my niece. She’s an awesome young woman, studying to become a social worker. She is about to finish her undergraduate university program.
Let me take you back. I was there when she was born. I wasn’t sure why, because my sister and I hadn’t been overly close. Not distant, but when she asked me to be there, I did wonder why. The experience was immeasurable. I haven’t forgotten a second of it.
My sister’s husband was there too and he was, as he should have been, doing all the right things for a first-time dad. The days following her birth were as normal as they can be. Then, as she grew, and a brother was born, and I moved on with my life (with five children), things were fine. We had family get-togethers, the cousins played, my sister cared for my two eldest children while I worked. All was right in the world, except, in my judgmental way, I secretly thought my sister was a little (a lot) over protective of her two toddlers. No worries, I said. Every mom is different.
Things were fine. All was right in the world.
Then things got weird.
My sister didn’t seem to want to see me, and I seemed to not know the right things to say to her. I tried, even one Christmas, after a long drive, to visit. Her husband told me at the door that she didn’t want to see me.
I was sad. Heartbroken, actually. I didn’t really know what I had done wrong, but I assumed it was my fault and gave her the space she seemed to want. Eventually, I believed I’d never see her again. (We also lived in different towns at this point.)
One day, years later, in the midst of my own world falling apart, I got a call. It was her. Her husband had hurt her – not terribly, but badly enough. She’d called the police, and they had come, and she had to go to court the next day. I packed up and went to her and we went through the next bit together. She told me some stories, never broaching the lack of contact. Neither did I. The stories were unbelievable, and when I say unbelievable, I mean, I couldn’t believe them. MY picture of my sister didn’t include an abused woman. And my niece and nephew? Abused too? Violently? Impossible.
Of course, I didn’t say that. I listened. And I listened. I tried not to pass judgement. I made silent excuses for the husband, and weirdly mourned the loss of him, even as I watched my sister find her feet. It didn’t take long to mourn his loss, because I hadn’t been close to him, but it was a process. He was gone, and I’ve never seen him since. My sister found her feet – such an incredibly remarkable woman – and marched right through the court system and the kids did their part, and they have found some comfort in their small “tripod” family.
I never disbelieved my sister, but the information she told me was so incredible that it never jived with my understanding of the world. Despite the fact that I interview victims of abuse, I read their stories every day, I work with agencies such as the YWCA that helps women like my sister. I just didn’t get it. I was guilty – I am guilty – of missing the whole point. Even though it didn’t matter to me whether I was hearing the whole truth, even though I would stand by my sister regardless, I am guilty of missing the whole point.
Tonight, my niece found her voice. Her slam poetry will leave you breathless. If you’ve never experienced slam poetry, now’s the time. You will never forget it. It’s the first time she’s given public voice (outside her “tripod” family) to the relentless abuse her family suffered.
I am left with a hole in the pit of my stomach. It’s a hole of guilt, of missed opportunity, of confusion, of questioning everything I think and believe. I can’t fix it. But if I’d read this before that call came, I might have had a more open mind. Or perhaps a more realistic one. You never know another’s pain. When it comes to abuse, trust first.
Meet my special girl – the one who gave me the gift of that hole in the pit of my stomach that will always remind me to trust a call for help.