For GREY FOX

Last Night, I Was Breathing,
You Know, In And Out,  In And Out,
And Suddenly, I Realized That
What I Was Breathing Was You.

Two days home from the hospital.
I’m going to make it and I’ll have you to thank.

DON’T ASK – DON’T TELL

bran-black-eye-color-small2Thank you, a HUGE thank you to all who sent emails and asked what Bran Muffin is doing and why she’s been gone so long.

A year. I can’t believe its been a year since my last entry and all I can say is that between traveling and a couple of knee surgeries, a couple of oral surgeries, its been difficult to get thoughts and drawings to match. I’ve been completely immersed in a few other projects but best of all, we recently returned from a trip to London.

The London trip, including the plotting of our demise by the sheep and ravens at Stonehenge will be a future entry.  I loved the trip, loved my dear Grey Fox but the part I didn’t love is that I pretty much trashed my knee and had no choice but to wheel-chair through Heathrow and the rest of the way home.

My surgeon wanted to put off total knee replacement until I was “older” but now there’s really no choice. So – I’m scheduled for surgery tomorrow and we’ll stay at the lake for the summer. My plan (hope!) is to be mostly on my feet by the time our very much welcomed company of son, daughter in law and two gorgeous grand children arrive.

I’ll be hospitalized for 4-5 days with a morphine drip, home health nurse for several weeks as well as physical therapy at home for several weeks. I originally injured my knee 2 years ago and this surgery, the knee replacement,  will be the third surgery.

The first two surgeries were “arthroscopic” – no big incisions, and yet both hurt like the dickens. I mean, they were miserable.  Apparently, they were just a hint of what is to come. I don’t care. I’ll do whatever is necessary to get back on my feet for two trips we have planned – Christmas in Puerto Rico and two weeks in France next March.

Before the knee injury, I had already been off my feet for about two years year because of fractured bones and soft tissue injury to that same side ankle. The not so comical irony is that the torn meniscus in my knee happened because I wanted to get some exercise and fresh air. Yep. All I wanted was a walk in the beautiful country lanes around our lake house. But instead of exercise, I  added another injury and its now been three years that I’ve been unable to do anywhere near as much as I want.

I  cannot describe how I feel about my beloved husband, the man I call Grey Fox here.  Most of you know that I escaped from an abusive marriage, but I cannot imagine how I would ever have gotten through any of this if I were still with the man I left.  These past three years and now, the planning of this (hopefully) last surgery has made me remember the way my life used to be.

Grey Fox has a most loving and amazing way of seeing and knowing what will make it possible or easier for me to get around. He is never angry or abusive when I need to be in a wheelchair or when I need help with stairs or rough terrain. He has put grab bars in the shower, bought a shower chair and is always beside me with a strong arm to steady me. There are none of the endless sighs and dirty looks and he has never once used the incredibly foul language I heard almost every day for twenty five years. No pouting and no slammed doors, no blaming me for the injury I did not want and did not cause.

Grey Fox has changed my life completely. He would never dump me at a hospital with a life threatening illness. He would not lie to his friends that he was with me at the hospital when he was actually out with another woman. Grey Fox would not ignore me over Christmas or force me to have to find him to ask if he would mind taking me home two days after I had major surgery. He has been beside me, caring for me and helping me every inch of the way. And, I know he always will be.

My ex cheated on his first wife with his second and he cheated on her with me. He always said his first wife poisoned his children against him and that his children always had everything they wanted. He called his second wife “his Mexican princess” and said she was the only woman he had ever loved. And yet, he cheated on her. He always had an excuse for cheating on #1 and #2 and I suppose his excuse for cheating me is more or less the same.

Now he’s married to #4 who has the same name as his beloved “Mexican princess”.  For her sake, I hope that’s only a coincidence. My ex works with a woman who loves to gossip and loves to mix and stir. From her I learned that his new wife is not well and that he has told people she has “mental problems” and that she was recently hospitalized for a small stroke.

I’m disgusted that he would tell people these things about her and even more disgusted that his “friend” told me. But hey, this man is the Master of The Tall Tale. I have lost count of the fictional stories I’ve heard that he told about me. Maybe his new wife really does not have “mental problems” and a stroke. Maybe she’s completely healthy. Whatever the truth is, I don’t wish either of them hurt or heartache.

He wrote me so many emails – all asking me to come back, saying I “completed” him and asking for another chance to show me he could complete me. I’ve finally wised up – I no longer accept either his crazy emails or those of his gossiping “friend“. The last time I wrote him, I told him he needed to move on, get help for his anger issues – that this was surely his last chance to be happy. Maybe he’ll  take care of #4 and love her better than he loved his first three wives. Whatever he chooses, I’m just very glad I got away from him.

In an earlier entry, I told of a woman who had left her abusive husband of twenty five years.  Everyone knows that the woman I described is me. I can’t say whether or not there was ever a good reason for writing as though she was someone else but I had never before seen an adult behave like an out of control and very spoiled 2 year old, what a British friend calls “throwing his toys out of his pram”.  and that too, is related to why I am writing this. Old habits die hard and I’ve had a lot of experience in hiding the truth about him, as well as about myself.

In that earlier entry, that woman who was me described the day before her wedding, when he threw a terrifying, violent and childish tantrum. I told of the heart rending scene of his teenage daughter, shaking and crying as she feverishly cleaned up the pieces of the things he had broken before he came back. It was as if she believed if the mess was gone, his terrible temper fits would be gone as well. Forced to deal with her own father’s uncontrolled temper, she was also forced to be the adult to her father’s spoiled child. She was a child who had seen more than she should have and she told her future step mother that she would get used to his tantrums.

Through the not-so-rosy lens of 25 years, I have looked back on that day, remembered the broken litter on the living room floor and the shock of that terrifying tantrum – the first of many to come. I remembered a shaking and sobbing little child-woman who wanted and needed to be Daddy’s Little Girl but instead was daddy’s adult to his child. She and her brother both were forced to take on the duties and responsibilities of adults long before they should have.

I still have the image of her, on her knees, picking up his cigarettes and his pipe paraphernalia, looking up at me, ragged face, tears and fear, and telling me (telling herself?) that it would be okay, that I would get used to it. I was shaking and crying and needed comforting as much as she needed to be comforted. If I know nothing else, if I learned nothing else from living with him for all those years, I know that no one ever gets used to living with the constant, daily, ever-present threat of violence.

The fact is, it numbs your heart and chips big jagged holes from your soul and I can tell you the very moment I stopped crying for him and the moment when my heart began to freeze. My stark raving terror at his constant threats of leaving me, throwing me out, abandoning me kept me with him as much as my shredded love for him did but I really do remember the exact moment of the beginning of the end.

I recently told a friend that I was working on this entry and that it concerned spousal and childhood abuse. I considered talking with her about a therapy I’m involved in that addresses the life-long effect of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but thought better of it. Later, I received an email from her in which she wrote that if I wrote about certain people, others would be “very upset“.

“Upset”. That word hit me hard. Its been a while since I received the email but it had the effect of stopping me cold but leaving me standing on very familiar ground. Just as it has been my entire life, I must make a decision. Do I write honestly? Or do I protect the very people who have abused me? I am charged with Keeping The Secrets or continuing to work to heal my own wounds.  And, there’s always that bizarre and cruel notion that what the neighbors think is in the top three reasons why we should keep these secrets.

Although that’s not what I had already written about, while I was wrestling with what that question means to me, I ran smack into the other side of that very same moral dilemma.

Shopping

I despise Wal-Mart. I believe it personifies what has become the path to our country’s demise. But, I live in a small town and sometimes find I must shop there for something that none of the small, family owned businesses offer. Funny that I feel I must offer that disclaimer but damn – Wal-Mart, with the never-ending aisles of plastic junk made by under-paid and over-worked children and adults, sweatshops turning out crappy clothes for fat Americans and it‘s very public decision to cut food prices and their stated intention to drive local business into bankruptcy,  Wal-Mart represents everything that I hate about the faceless and gigantic corporation that the money-driven Republican party worships at the cost of their own souls and the livelihood of the  individual.

We’ve all seen the emails of the grotesque and cruel jokes about Wal-Mart shoppers and we all know there’s some truth to them.  Grey Fox and I, looking for a bird feeder, happy and laughing together, turned into the next aisle and there they were.

A young woman, surely not yet thirty years old, pushing her cart, two children in tow, another in the cart and a forth, apparently due any moment. Walking, no, swaggering, loose-hipped, jeans low slung, he walked with them and yet apart. He looked the quintessential redneck bum, billed cap, greasy enough that I‘d bet he slept in it, torn t-shirt with the confederate flag on the front, blue jeans and work boots. And tattoos. Of course, always tattoos.

This poor family looked like a sad caricature of Wal-Mart‘s target clientele. Rag tag clothes, dirty stringy hair, many more kids than money and then I really looked at her. The wife, mother, woman …

She was thin. Not fashionably slender. Thin. She had the kind of face you knew had once been cheerleader pretty. She wore a cotton blouse, faded and cheap looking. Jeans, not the faux faded “stonewashed” that costs a hundred bucks. Her jeans fit her when she was a size larger. Now her belt was pulled tightly enough that the old denim wrinkled and buckled at her waistline. Old worn cheap sneakers.  Dishwater blonde hair, stringy, no style and held back with children‘s barrettes.

The children didn’t behave as kids in stores so often do. They weren’t  bouncing and begging. There was no “Mommy, can I ..?“ Old clothes, cheap clothes, worn shoes and eyes cast down, they were more like zombies than pre-teenagers. I noticed a hard dark bruise on the little girl’s  arm. Later I would realize that bruise was about the right size to have been caused by a large strong man’s hand gripping her small arm but that didn’t register. Most of what I saw was a blur because of what I saw, what I knew about this young woman.

She wore no makeup and her pale skin seemed almost translucent. Her eyes seemed sunken and lifeless and her cheekbones were like shelves, jutting out from her face.  And, she had a shiner.

She had a fresh black eye but there were no dark glasses, no makeup, no attempt to cover it. She looked exhausted, beaten in more ways than one. Our eyes met for just a moment before she looked away. She looked older than she probably was but four kids and no future – except for more of the same. She was trapped.

I was stunned and then I was ashamed for staring at her. I saw her own shame and humiliation. Now, looking back, I’m angry that we shared the humiliation and shame for what was not her fault or mine. It was his, all of it, but one look told me he felt nothing at all.

His entire demeanor was that of a man who didn’t have a care in the world. I looked again at the children and her, with her list and the price comparing and the ever-watchful mother’s eye on the children. I knew without a doubt that she constantly ran interference between the children and their father. She would do that. She would have to be quick to stop him from hitting one of them – and most certainly she would take that hit herself.

Its been some weeks since seeing that woman but her eyes, her gaunt face, cheekbones and chin sharp and skin so very pale and her long skinny arms and her belly, swollen with his next victim.

I can’t help but compare her reality with the Barbie Doll vision young girls are grow up with. Did this young-but-old woman ever dream of a long diaphanous gown and a handsome young man holding his hand out to her, beckoning her to follow him into a future he could not give her … ?

I can’t think about that. Its just too painful.

A Neighborhood Picnic

Once or twice a year, we take some sort of covered dish and join our neighbors for a picnic.  Its pleasant enough but only because the conversation is light and pretty meaningless. Its like those dreaded family get-togethers that Billy Crystal described when he said that everything is fine … right up until someone asks, And just what did you mean by that?

At these picnics,  we all abide by that unspoken rule that conversations never approach anything more difficult or inflammatory than “Gee Marge, what did you put in this macaroni?” or “I’ve got just the thing for that waxy yellow buildup on your kitchen floor”.

Being vegetarian means we pick and choose and occasionally ask about ingredients but we’re quiet about it. We can’t stand the smell of cooking meat – Who knew that would become such a stomach churner? – so we sit downwind of the hamburgers and hot dogs and never once do either of us ask, “Are you sure you want your CHILD to eat that thing?”.

Its spring. The sun is warm, wildflowers carpet the meadows, the hummingbirds are back and we all share our eagle sightings. Almost everyone watches the same eagle nests and even though we know its to early to spot nestlings, we compare sightings of the parents.

We eat and talk and then I notice that the woman sitting across from me is ignoring every word from her husband. He’s solicitous, almost hovering, asking what he can get for her. She doesn’t even acknowledge his presence. She’s wearing huge dark glasses and she turns her head to answer something from the other end of the table.

And, then I saw the bruise that the dark glasses had hidden. Puffy and swollen and purple. A black eye.

They’re the complete opposite of the family in Wal-Mart. They’re house is huge, obviously expensive, they golf at the country club, they dress well and are well known in the village. We’ve heard their yelling and we know they drink heavily but this puts a whole different light on the yelling and drinking. I’m thinking there’s only one possible reason for her to be so dismissive and angry.

They’re making noises to leave and he reaches to pull her chair away from the table so she can stand. He gives his hand to her. She ignores it. He reaches for her hand. She very plainly slaps it away. He holds her car door open and puts his hand under her elbow. She furiously shrugs it away and gets into the car. He’s more than twice her size. I’m sad for what I’ve seen and I glance around at the other neighbors. I wonder if they know but they‘ve gone back to talking about the weather. If anyone else noticed, its just as likely that they would find other explanations for her black eye and her icy demeanor.  This is, after all, something that does not happen to decent people, or so we tell ourselves.

The Art Auction

My wonderfully talented Grey Wolf has designed the backdrop for an African Opera. Additionally, his paintings and rough drafts of the backdrop and the art for the advertising are offered in a silent auction. I paint too but his talent really is quite amazing and I’m proud of him.

The opera was truly wonderful, the timeless and sad story of the life of women in a male dominated culture. I liked the ending – the women were empowered and led into a brighter future by the one woman who found the courage to stand up against the customs that had kept her sisters subservient for so long. Even though I liked it, I thought of the Africa of wars and rape and genital mutilation and knew it was unrealistic. But, I’m always glad to hear a message of hope so I didn’t say what I was thinking.

At the predetermined time, the auction ended and a man asked me if he could make one final bid on one of the paintings in order to make a gift of it to the people who were responsible for bringing the opera to the United States.

I was struck by his good looks, by his JFK perfect hair and by his perfect navy blue suit. He was quite charming, the kind of man who puts you at ease. His demeanor and his clothing all spoke quietly of money and I really was put in mind of a politician. Or an insurance salesman.

What a really generous gesture, I said. He looked at the highest bid and wrote in a figure that was a couple of hundred dollars more. I handed the bid sheet to the person in charge and, since I had decided to forego the wheelchair and was walking with a cane, I felt very vulnerable in the crowd and inched over to join his wife against the wall.

I turned to make small talk and under her heavy makeup, there it was. An old bruise next to her eye. It was like a knife to my heart. In a horrible blinding flash, I was silently screaming that I don’t want to see this anymore. I don’t want to know about it. I want to pretend it doesn’t happen but damn –

I was trying to think of something to say instead of the compliment I was about to give her husband. Really shaken, looking around at people dressed in their bright and shiny clothes, I fumbled with my cane and she reached for it at the same moment I did and I saw diamonds on her fingers and wanted to cry.

We stood there against the wall, Mrs. Handsome Hail Fellow Well Met and me. There were photos, my husband with the very talented African woman who sang the lead in the opera.  Watching the man with the perfect politician hair and the perfect suit and I was struck by the incongruous clash between her bruise and the storyline of the opera.

One Man

I saw the bruise on his arm and when I asked, he avoided my eyes, shrugged it off and looked as though he wanted to escape any more questions. It took time but one day he told me of being stabbed with a pen, having things thrown at him and, in a fit of uncontrolled anger, of her trying to stab him with a kitchen knife.

The abuse of women by their men is sadly under-reported. We know and accept that as truth. But, I’ve learned that men are abused too and, difficult though it may be to believe, its possible that its just as common.

Women are often hit and worse by men who are bigger than they are. In a way, its almost worse for a man because he can never ever hit back.  Oh the other hand, I once read that men who kill their wives or girlfriends serve an average of seven years I prison. Almost all women who kill their abuser get a life sentence.

In the space of only a few weeks, I have seen three women and one man who have appeared to have been physically abused by their spouses. It’s a tiny microcosm of the worst in man/woman relationships, an unscientific sampling of anger and pain. I am haunted by these people. I could have found a way to ask if I could help. I could have let each of them know I understood and cared and was willing to help in whatever way they wanted.

But I didn’t say a word.

When I was a child, I remember that a friend of my mother’s asked me why I was limping and walking “that way“. I interpreted her question as sympathy, broke down in sobs and showed her the bruises on my legs. If I close my eyes, I can still see the disapproving scowl on her face but it was me that she disapproved of. She was rough, hurting my shoulders,  turning me around, yanking my dress down over the bruises and scolding me. She said I should be ashamed of being disloyal to the “mother who brought me into this world”. Like it was yesterday, I remember that it stung and hurt all over again when she hit the bruises on my bottom and sent me outside to play.

Another memory, a Sunday school teacher who wore too much makeup and always seemed to be angry at me. I must have been very young when I made up a story about a friend whose mother beat her and asked the Sunday school teacher what I should do. She told me that all children lie and that I should read the Bible and pray for my lying friend. From about the age of 13 or 14, I never again went to church and never will again.

I wised up as I got older and I learned how to hide my feelings and my bruises. Though it was not a conscious decision and I did not understand the consequences, I built a wall of anger against anyone and everyone. I have kept so many secrets and each secret was easier to keep than the one before. I thought I was keeping secrets to protect myself but really, the secrets only protected the people who hurt me.

Its easy to know that in an intellectual way but knowing does not automatically change everything else.

A pleasant surprise is that I’ve stopped cussing. All those years of my ex-husband’s nasty gutter mouth had me cussing too. Nothing like what he used to say to me but still, I had quite a mouth on me. I don’t blame him for that. Just because he’s got a trash mouth doesn’t mean it was okay for me to use foul language. But I did and it has been just one more real and true joy that I don’t have to listen to that any more.

Twenty five years of a marriage that was never a  marriage and I never told anyone until I was very close to being able to leave. When I told the one friend who I desperately needed to hear my voice, the one person I wanted to trust, she didn’t believe me. That will always hurt but now I know that’s not uncommon – abusers are usually very nice people on the outside. No one ever heard my ex’s horrible language or saw his tantrums. They never heard what he said about them behind their back.  All they saw was a great guy, personable and friendly. Ask most of our friends and they would have described us as Mr. & Mrs. Peachy Keen America.

All those years with him and what I remember is that I would have given anything for one person I could talk to. Just one person who knew and loved me anyway.

And yet, when I had the opportunity to hold my hand out to four different people who I knew were trapped in that same horribly lonely place, I was silent.

If I had been asked … If someone had seen through my brittle façade, its very likely that I would have brushed them aside. I would have denied his abuse.

If I had asked any of the three women about their black eyes, I have no doubt they would have glanced toward their husband, fearing he might hear and then, they would have denied the truth. They would have made some flimsy excuse about running into a door.

We don’t ask and we don’t tell. And the abusers win.