CHAPTER 16: THE TIN MAN

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I sat on the cool cement step, the sunny day dimmed grey by visions of tunnels with no doors, no way out. Wherever I went, whatever I did, the feelings of death, loss, and emptiness floated about and around me, a cloud of grief without exit. It was the only way. I tried others. I cried, but not much. Not enough for Raymond or the Dad I’d lost thirty years before him.

The warning had come several weeks beforehand; he wouldn’t leave without doing it properly.

Raymond explained, “We will be moving soon, to Louisiana.”

Somewhere in the blur that followed, I also heard him say, “Some folks have been coming for as long as I’ve practiced.”

The implication of imagine how hard it will be on them attempted to soften the blow, but my heart, needing resuscitation, only heard, “We’ve become friends. It will be hard to leave them.”

“What about me?” I screamed silently, and, “Your clients shouldn’t be friends. If they’ve been coming that long, you’re not doing your job, and neither are they,” also left unsaid. Anger strummed below, pounding at my chest, little fists wanting out. It took an igloo of solid ice to keep it in. Bleeding raw emotions simmered, permanently unexpressed; if allowed voice there’d be no end to the screeching, “Why do you keep fucking me?” to him, to abusive brothers, to the universe.

We discussed other therapists if the need arose, five or six he’d known professionally.

“Which one would you suggest?” I asked.

Hesitating, as if finding that question difficult, he finally said, “Maybe Matt.”

Some security crept in with the referral.

Before the end of the session, he said, “Come back. You need closure,” acutely aware of how I escaped by withdrawing. He sensed my emotions better than I did.

If he hadn’t said that, I wouldn’t have, but I returned, still tethered to him with some trust left. It’s good I did—it helped, but not much.

He read the handwritten note I offered to him that last day.  

3/18/95

Dear Raymond, 

Closure?

Will it help to express my feelings? Why should I share my feelings with the one who is hurting me so? Will the pain stop? It comes in waves, rolling over, on and through me. I weep. I am losing a father, again. My friends left to live in Texas. It did not hurt like this. I try to make sense of it. You are not my friend, father, brother, NOTHING, yet you have been all those and more: mentor, teacher, guide, but I pay you to see me. Our relationship is strictly professional. Why does it hurt? 

You have touched places secret inside, you feel my feelings. I have felt intimate with you but you are paid to do it. So why the PAIN, the loss? 

Reminders of you, shadows everywhere, my journal, my tape, my pine cones, nuts, my attempts at growth and stretching… 

Cause me pain.

Knowing you’re there, even if I wasn’t seeing you, was a comfort. You open me so I can feel, then squash your foot inside my chest. 

                                                                                                                       the Tin Man 

He did all the talking. “I learned a lot from you,” he said, along with so much more my frozen senses couldn’t take in.

I sat there as usual, but nothing was the same. As he talked, my eyes looked around at what I’d grown to love and find comfort from, feeling it already gone, lost, just an outline of what had been, colorless, lackluster, like a movie scene fading out.

He gave me a hefty prescription of Xanax, explaining how it can be written to last a long time, probably realizing I’d go to someone new only out of desperation. It would take a lot before getting to that point. The recommendations printed on letter paper stamped with his name were securely tucked away at home.

The little white pills were a poor substitute for the man who taught me I could love. They lasted well over a year, closer to two, about as long as it took to get over his leaving. I had lost a father again, but no tears flowed, not at first. Emotions, hard to reach anyway, became inaccessible, hidden under many layers like a Russian nesting doll. Raymond had found a way to open each one, finally discovering the heart at the center, all of it: good, bad, and indifferent. It didn’t matter to him; he accepted the entirety and helped me to do the same.

By the door, he hugged me, but my hands, stiff as my heart, stayed on the ends of my arms by my side. I stood there straight and cold. I didn’t reciprocate. I couldn’t, mummies can’t move their arms and mine were wrapped just as snugly by frigid powerlessness. No brewing Tana leaves guided me out of the office that day. I don’t know what did, but something made my body move, walk out the door, start the car, and drive away.

On the edge of panic, I asked Samuel, “What will I do?”

I still had the second year of nursing school to finish, how would I do it without him? In my mind, Scarlett O’Hara’s rendition, “If you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?” mimicked my own desolation.

“You’ll be okay,” Samuel said.

But after that last session, the expression “the world caved in” happened in real life. The tunnel vision of loss darkened everything. Who was the crazy woman who looked at my horse Misty, and pony Tony, and thought, “Hey, I’ll sell them. I don’t want to ride anymore.”

I contacted the horse farm where I had purchased Misty. The first buyer the woman located wanted Tony. “He’d be a sturdy little wagon puller, and the guy wants to train him,” she said.

I imagined the new owner twitching Shane’s sweet Shetland pony with a long crop, stinging him unnecessarily, hurting him. When the truck pulled away, so did my ripped-out heart. Misty chased the trailer as she screamed for her barn-mate and companion, racing back and forth along the pasture line near the road. I stood there, horror- struck, like an additional fence post, staring, not expecting the wild reaction. But I should have, I wished I had, because if I’d put one moment of thought into it, I never would have done it.

The next trailer came soon after; they were gone. We went camping as usual for our annual July vacation to the Adirondacks, the whole family. It must have been a trying week for Samuel. The normal reaction would be to cry but Ice Mountain didn’t melt. I couldn’t think or talk about anything else besides what I’d done, obsessing over it, blasting myself repeatedly for yet another mistake, another failure. My stomach had a gnome inside scraping paint off its walls. What had I done, why? Raymond’s leaving wasn’t enough? I had to, what, punish myself more? For what, because I’m such a loser that everyone leaves me? I said these things to myself, my only enemy. The empty barn mirrored my heart. The devastation after my father’s death, the chaos, the loss, the rape, repeated again now as if pain were all I had or wanted. It was too much.

I called the woman running the stable, “I want my horse and pony back,” I requested quietly. “I made a mistake.”

Sorrow, remorse, despair, all the feelings bubbling unfelt after Raymond left popped open, the unoccupied barn the shroud to mourn under.

There was silence, then, “Well, the pony has been sold, it’d be hard to get him back. I think I have a buyer for Misty but she’s still here. I’d have to charge you for boarding though,” she said, all business.

Relief flooded in along with the blood which seemed to have stopped flowing. “Okay,” I answered with no hesitation, hardly letting her finish the sentence in case she changed her mind. Misty was delivered the next day. I felt giddy with relief tempered only by Tony’s absence. Though Shane never rode anymore, Tony had become family. The other side of the little barn remained empty for almost two years, about the same amount of time it took to finish grieving Raymond.

Finally ready to move on, I decided Tony’s stall needed filling. The paper advertised baby Nubian goats. Nubian goats have ears like bunnies that lie flat and long, hanging down past their chin and jawbone. We all piled in the car to see the goats. “Billy,” my imaginative name for our new pet, came home with us riding in the back seat with the boys.

We put a bright blue dog collar around his neck that he quickly grew out of. Baby Billy poured sunshine into that small dark stall of the barn and the dry, crackly, barren room in my heart; it took that long to really smile again, a genuine smile, with warm, honest joy behind it. 

CHAPTER 15: RAYMOND

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I had it all worked out. Raymond sat opposite me, his gaze unblinking. I felt like a bug pinned to cardboard, wriggling, but sure of my ability to intelligently represent what “life as Patricia” was. Though he smiled, exuding warmth, something else filled in the lines of the smile, something I wouldn’t run from.

With unflappable courtesy, he began our first session. “Tell me about yourself,” he said, the grey-blue eyes focused. He had no notepad.

I jumped right in, ready to describe all of me in one sentence. “I’m an Adult Child of an Alcoholic, I attend Overeater’s Anonymous, and I’m a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse,” reducing myself to a bunch of abbreviations, ACOA, OA, and SCSA. A slight smirk lifted the edges of his smile, almost imperceptibly, yet I caught it because I had learned to study faces at an early age. He tried to put me at ease, but I looked beyond him to the door, an escape route.

Later, nearing the end of our time, he narrated a story, the first of many that captivated me. “My wife and I like to hike the Adirondacks. We backpacked into a favorite park carrying all supplies following a well-marked trail. But this time we veered off, taking one unmarked. The tangled thicket opened up to waterfalls splashing into a deep pool. We stripped off our clothes, swam, and then sunned afterwards on the rocks,” he watched me with riveting clarity.

Picturing him skinny-dipping naked reduced the godlike entity slightly. Still, the pedestal he perched upon soared through the stratosphere. But I had something to chew on. Like a cow with cud, enjoying the taste of sweet grass over and over. Take a different path.

We continued to chat till the time was up and he seemed satisfied. Then he said, “Okay, let’s get to work.”

I thought that was an odd thing to end with, but also encouraging. He took this seriously, he took me seriously.

The next week, Raymond said, “I’d like to prescribe Prozac. There aren’t any side effects,” he added quickly because my face must have registered shock. “It will help.”

I filled the prescription reluctantly, taking it for about a month, pissed off at the liar who said there weren’t side effects because changes took place in my body I couldn’t put my finger on. I wanted off and he didn’t fight me.

I tapered off, glad to be rid of it. Eventually, in nursing school, I learned that Prozac has many common side effects, like most drugs, and some that can be serious, even life-threatening. But it has been around a long time and serious side effects are rare. I didn’t know that then. I felt lied to and cheated, but couldn’t simply say, “You lied to me. There are side effects!” But my body language belied the nice, pleasing persona I attempted to put forth. It trumpeted resistance, bellowed rigidity, erect and wooden as the chair legs.

Uptight already, I became tighter, my muscles taut like coiled springs. Anger bubbled below with no way out. Why couldn’t I complain about something so minor? I had no voice, just buried feelings.

One day I arrived in a navy blue sweatshirt Mom had crafted with fabric balloons on it. He gentlemanly closed the door, noting every detail.

After we sat, exchanging a few words, he began, “Some of your parts are like balloons on your sweatshirt, larger, predominant and to the forefront. But there are other parts, like the ones in the background…”

I was quiet as usual, fascinated by his stories, soaking up every word, hope fluttering up through a crack in the darkness like a sunbeam.

We worked so fast my head spun. By fall he had me dreaming of who and what I could be, hairdresser or nurse? After explaining the pay for both, nursing won, enticed solely on the fatter paycheck, not the wish to heal the sick and wounded. I registered immediately for a few courses, one of which would complete the long lost Associates Degree dangling unfinished from almost twenty years before. There was a lengthy waiting list for entrance into the nursing program. The college looked at current curriculum to determine if one had the ability to complete its rigorous training.

I took Chemistry, a prerequisite. I had managed a final grade of forty in high school but dove in with zest this time around. One day the professor became livid; no one had answered a question correctly. He slammed the door, threw a pencil at the girl who had disgusted him, then turned towards me and through clamped teeth managed, “Patricia?”

I answered correctly. He seemed almost pleased and continued the lecture.

I discussed, or rather complained to Raymond about the incident, “He closed the door, told us we were all stupid and threw a pencil at a girl!”

Raymond inquired, “What is his name?”

“Dr. Payne,” I answered. We both snickered. Hard to believe, but perfect. And just as hard for me to believe as the knowledge that I, who had flunked three courses in tenth grade and took summer courses to catch up, was now being singled out to answer a question no one else could.

I earned A‟s in almost every course and the Dean’s List included my name a few times. All because Raymond had dared suggest one facet of my worth: intelligence, scholastic achievement the proof.

The work over the next four years was intense. Before coming to therapy, I’d gained back much of the weight lost after surgery. 

One day he asked, “Why are you fat?” Who was so dense, rude, and insensitive enough to ask that? I didn’t have an answer, just looked back mutely while my raised hackles created a hurricane in the room.

His inquiry hurt exquisitely, enough to do something about it. Humiliated into action, I joined a gym and Weight Watchers, dropping the excess pounds again. As weight disappeared, so did some self-hatred.

The beast of resistance was attacked on every front. His next objective would clear out the negative.

“I would like you take one half hour each day and make it your time. Create on the outside what you feel inside,” he said.

It took a while for me to understand what he was asking for, but over the next few weeks and months, I worked diligently.

A hunk of clay left over from pottery class became the first sculpture. It erupted from gut to hands, as I worked the clay a serpent formed, hideous and frightening. Alone in the house at the kitchen table, the room reeled. Though unsteady, my hands kept on as the second head of the snake appeared. I trapped the unholy anomaly in a cardboard box, fearing the rattling of its tail, or the bite of its fangs. The next form that appeared under my hands in clay was an oversized, ugly, bumpy penis, which also went quickly into the box.

After lighting a candle every morning after the bus left with Shane, the ritual half hour began. I drew page after page of how my tummy felt, hellish black swirls emanating outwards like volcanic explosions, splashed with watercolors and acrylics of red, red, red, the blood splatter of rage. Black also dominated, with pictures depicting gory ghoul hands reaching up for me. Other illustrations included my stick figure separated from the group, cheeks scarlet with shame. After piling in the fury and terror, I painted the cardboard box black, hoping the fermented rot in my belly was out of me. It was a start.

In the closet nearby, I felt afraid, imagining that shit inside slithering out. I asked Raymond if he would keep it for me rather than have it sit in my closet. It was his idea to have a ceremonial fire on his property in the spring during one of our sessions, and I readily agreed. Burning that vile box would be cleansing, and I looked forward to it. The contents of the box felt so real, and so scary, that even far away at Raymond’s house, I had nightmarish snapshots of the box’s contents creeping out for him too. But the thick-coated, pendulous penis, exposed when I was just a young girl, came only for me, so I reassured myself he’d be safe from it. 

Raymond never saw what was in the box. Spring came and we carried it out back behind his barn and lit it. 

He said, “Do you want to say anything?”

I shook my head no as we watched it burn. Then thinking I ought to cough something up, I squeezed out, “It’s as good as Dulcolax.”

He chuckled. Having managed the first semester of nursing school, I knew Dulcolax to be an effective laxative. I wished he’d seen some of the pieces. Though horrible creatures, they were surprisingly well done, but once I’d put them in the box, they stayed there. I didn’t look at them again, go near them, or touch the box till our ceremonial march to the fire pit.

Maybe ridding unwelcome spirits is as easy as lighting a match. But the beast of rage in my heart was extraordinary, so writhing and undulating that it encroached on all other feelings, even the physical ability to breath. Raymond tried to help with my high anxiety right from the beginning. At one session he handed me a paper he wrote covering the subject of diaphragmatic breathing.

Instantly noting suspicion, he questioned, “You don’t believe in such a thing?”

I didn’t. How could there such be a word as “diaphragmatic”? Did he make it up? I just looked at him, again unable to vocalize disagreement.

My inability to trust was, as always, paramount, its periscope of suspicion constantly scanning for threats. Mistrust had become a fervent religion. It’s not a religion that allows freedom. Locked up tightly, I was unable to feel my own center, a place guarded as if life depended on it. Breaking into a sealed, guarded vault would be easier than finding my heart.

But eventually he found a way through.

I devoted time each day to slow down my breathing and visualize soothing nature trails, listening to the meditation tape Raymond had recorded during a session. His voice, silky smooth like Dan’s had been, led me to gentle streams and quiet falls trickling over rocks, then a barebacked horse ride along a sun-dappled forest path.

And then there was that nut in my pocket. I paid ninety dollars for someone to tell me to rub my thumb over something smooth in my pocket when I felt stressed. I thought him loony for suggesting such a dumb, insubstantial little thing, but did it anyway. By the sidewalk in town, chestnuts had fallen. I gathered a basketful and always kept one in a pocket. Anything was better than taking that awful Prozac.

Then he said, “I’d like you try writing without stopping. Don’t stop to think, punctuate, or check spelling. Don’t stop at all, just keep going. It’s called “free association.”

I looked at him, perplexed. Another stupid idea. Journaling was one thing, but this? My disloyal head nodded agreeably though, as if attached to someone else’s body. I tried it at home, hating it even more than I thought I would. He read the letter handed over during the next visit after sitting down. I wrote out very courteously, sweetly really, how his idea of “free association” didn’t work too well.

“Ah, free ass,” he said, looking up at me, that smirk on his face again.

What the heck was he talking about, free ass? I had merely abbreviated “association.” I didn’t mean anything by it.

Or did I?

He went on unperturbed, “You didn’t find it helpful?” 

His tranquil smile both threatened and annoyed me. I squirmed in the chair, beginning to sweat as he waited for an answer. He wasn’t getting one. The struggle to disagree, or vocalize any feeling, was a lifelong endeavor. But he torpedoed past defenses others did not, doing so with precision. I was found out, with nowhere to hide or run from those gazing glittering eyes.

Through many starts and stops, I did make it through nursing school. I returned and re-bought the heavy massive books many times, once quitting for an entire year, once for three days. The lead nurse instructor showed great tolerance, allowing reentrance twice. The fear took its toll. Because of long ago trauma—untreated post- traumatic stress—any additional stress would shoot out chemicals designed to prepare the body for imminent danger. “Lions, tigers, and bears‟ were around every corner. Anyone standing nearby worried me. What were they talking about? I was sure it was me, even if I didn’t know them. Every human posed a threat. What would they do to me? How would they hurt me? What would they take from me? The more intelligent a person, the more threatening they were.

My immune system couldn’t take the constant beatings. I developed phobias of elevators and flying and had my first, and so far last, panic attack. It occurred after quitting the first time. The world crashed in. Suffocated by failure, I grasped at any lifeline. Shane, only twelve, got off the bus. My distress at the darkness drowning me pulled him into the fight for my life.

“Go outside, Mom” he said, knowing how I loved the outdoors.

I gasped for air outside too as he followed, worried.

I called Raymond, desperate for relief, crying, and tried to relay what was happening. “I feel like I can’t breathe, like I’m dying!”

He calmly replied, “Allow the feeling in.”

It wasn’t the first time I thought he didn’t understand. During our next meeting he prescribed Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, but had to persuade me to use it. I resisted taking in foreign objects and never really took enough the way it was prescribed. But just having it with me at all times after that first panic attack was the panacea I needed to prevent another one, a kind of security blanket. That and the fact that finally I succeeded and graduated.

But by that time, Raymond had gone.

Chapter 14: THERAPY

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I sat by the window and looked out its rain-whipped cellophane to the watery slate sky interrupted by dark grey cracks of clouds. The bus creaked along, stop after stop, and took far longer than driving, twice as long. I felt as bleak as the day. What was I doing?

But I also felt hope. Finally, at twenty, I was seeking help from outside the family. My roommate, Noelle, had suggested the therapy clinic. We moved to an apartment, leaving the dorm in our second year. I dropped out for a semester and worked at a discount store. The real world stumped me, overwhelming with its day-to-day difficulties. I needed help. After I got up the gumption to tell my boyfriend, Coke, that my brothers had abused me, he reacted with anger at what they had done. That surprised me. Nobody, not anyone in my family seemed to care or want to know. Coke’s reaction helped spur me further. I made the call, made the appointment, and took the bus which I picked up in my college town, Bristol, then bumped along on it through the various villages on the way to Providence.

I walked around the large complex and found the office. Luckily the young woman I worked with possessed qualities that included compassion and diligence. It would not be the time I could bring up my past, but taking that first step was huge. We worked on boyfriend issues, even sex was mentioned. Feelings and topics central to my life were being discussed and considered. The significance? In this place I mattered.

I soon moved from Bristol to Newport though and my initial taste of getting help ended. I ventured into therapy again about ten years later, while married and living in the Adirondacks, pregnant with my first son. But with the upcoming birth, I attended only a few sessions.

I didn’t try again or feel the need till a few years later after we moved back to our hometown. Despite the Jack debacle, I persevered. The director of a mental health clinic ought to know better; it was the 1980s, after all, not the 1880s. But his ignorance lit a fire under me. I found a group that specifically dealt with sexual abuse, led by two therapists, one of which I also saw each week on my own. Her name was Cathy, a sweet, plump, loving woman who capably handled the issues I needed to work on. She was a godsend.

Allowing her in close enough to help, I became immersed in “it,” the secret, and dared risk everything to save my life. By going against family, I broke unwritten rules and risked losing family, friends, social standing, acceptance, and a sense of self, though the existing one was a pretense, and the life history previously portrayed, a sham.

Group members became friendly and we often did things together but my friendships ended when the group came to a close. My difficulties didn’t magically disappear; the most significant help was yet to come.

I stumbled onto Raymond by way of my doctor in 1991. I was thirty-eight. I experience seasonal depression, but that spring, instead of the usual erratic rise up out of it, became stuck. After my appointment, I practically ran from the exam room to the bathroom in tears, not knowing why, just in pain, Raymond’s number clutched in my sweaty hand.

A big mailbox with a wooden sign below it touting “Eggs for Sale” flagged the residence. The long curving driveway led down a steep slope into a grassy lawn lined by pastures, fields and gardens. The tiny area to park between the grey-brown barn and creamy yellow home faced a meadow, fenced in with split rails and a horse. Beyond the horse other coops and huts housed chickens, ducks, some burros and a goat. Home, I had found home.

I parked and breathed in the sweet air listening to nothing but quiet, so close to the highway yet nestled into to its own little piece of countryside, the tip of the old house barely visible from the road. I slowly rotated, soaking up the peace and pretty view, evidence of care in the flower and vegetable gardens with freshly cultivated earth and no weeds. Then I walked towards the steps leading up to what had once been a mudroom attached to the farmhouse. It still looked like a mudroom but clean and neat with a small board hosting “the thought of the day” in white plastic letters that stuck to the black fabric background. One that became a favorite: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

I turned the handle feeling comfortable, or as comfortable as I could be on the first day of meeting someone new. Inside the little waiting room, sun splashed in through the big picture window, warming the cozy loveseat where one could watch the birds feeding outside. Magazines lay on a few rattan tables, all updated to the present month, and I liked that whoever put them there cared enough to spend the money and time to do that for their clients. Though I never picked one up, I was too jumpy to read.

I heard the fountain before seeing it, a decoration that became a great aid in my efforts to relax. I closed my eyes, pretending to be outside by a creek in the sun. Even the scent of a decaying forest drifted into my senses, soothing the internal ruckus. That scent finds me to this day, especially in fall when all the foliage drops and dries. It’s a scent that goes to the source, my core, and always reminds me of him, the man I was to meet.

I heard soft words through the walls but nothing intelligible. Finally the doorknob to the next room twisted and the voices grew louder as goodbyes were spoken. A man with a pleasant face smiled at me kindly. I felt him already studying me, his eyes looked deeply, too deep into me, and my anxiety heightened. He was older but only by about ten years. He invited me in cordially with a soft accent; he’d moved here from England twenty years prior. He extended his arm with a pleasant tilt towards a stuffed chair facing his.

The office looks normal except for a movie camera set up on a tripod. I wondered if it had been turned on. This was the real deal. The camera relieved concerns over the caliber of care I was going to receive, but was also daunting. I knew I would get the help I needed but it was not going to be easy; there wouldn’t be any fooling around. One wall was lined with books. One book laid open by the window overlooking the garden, so large it needed a stand of its own: a dictionary. He liked to learn one new word a day. The hues of the furniture and wood gave it a dark look, but not dreary. Fresh flowers were on the table next to me. Pleased with the touches of comfort, I sat down. He looked so relaxed, easing back in his chair while my adrenaline ratcheted into overdrive. I hoped I was good hands. He said, “Let’s get started.”

CHAPTER 13: THE HORSE AND PONY

 

199207_horsesThe little barn was finally built. Samuel had found time after working to dig countless holes and implant posts, sometimes during rainstorms, working past dusk into darkness. Then he lined the posts with two courses of wire, connecting them to the electric box in the barn, a term used loosely. It was really a shed with one large walk-in stall that could be closed by a door that rolled to the side. He managed to fit in a small area for storing hay with a loft above, and one more smaller stall with a Dutch door, the type where just the bottom half can be closed so the animal can look out. We painted it white with country blue trim to match our house. Large tuna cans tacked sideways onto the wall accommodated the bridles and a two- by-four apparatus held both saddles nicely, one for my horse, Misty, the other for Shane’s pony, Tony.

Once the hay was loaded and the stall filled with wood shavings, I leaned in through the sliding window from the tack room. I gazed at the area, immensely satisfied now that they could come home, breathing in the scent of sweet hay, dreaming of our first ride in the fields. Both animals were being boarded out till everything was ready and it was time to bring them home.

We thought they would be happy together going in and out of the large stall at will without a door. The pony immediately changed that, bossing out the horse in the first few minutes by a nasty bite to her rump that the vet had to dress and treat with antibiotics. We needed a new plan. Samuel wired up a smaller pasture for Tony outside the little stall. Now they were side by side but not together. It worked beautifully—that little bugger pony.

Though Tony demanded dominance with his horse-mate, he didn’t bite humans or have other bad habits that ponies often do. And my horse was fairly docile though jittery when first starting out, trotting rather than walking. With no place on our property to ride, I scouted out a place one road over, through the gravel pit, past the housing development, and across the next road into the farmer’s fields and forests. Ruby was retired and oddly had the same first name as my beloved Grandmother Ruby, and eventually he became a good friend and grandparent replacement. Grandma had died many years before.

His land went on and on, all cleared of rocks and cut down for hay every spring as if welcoming us, “Come and run, I’m ready!” And we did, happily loping along, the biggest threat, woodchuck holes. We found one, tripping the pony onto his knees with Shane flying over the top of his head because of the sudden stop, but neither Shane nor Tony suffered any damage.

Walking together, the saddles creaked, foamy sweat seeped out from the leather, the pungent odor radiating soothingly as the hot sun warmed our bodies and souls. We talked and laughed, then ran. Up the hill, then the next and into the woods, to where the path ended at a cliff-like point where we could look out and see for miles. We called it “The Top of the World.”

We rode those paths in every season but winter, and each season brought new sights, sounds, and smells. After moving steadily through the lower woods, we discovered another path that opened up to light and found a second gravel pit beyond. Turning back into the woods, the cool shade of trees blocked sunshine with a roof of vegetation; hooves clomped on soft wet earth, crunching leaves and twigs, making satisfying sounds. Sunbeams escaped leafy hands, and little pools of brightness appeared on the earthy floor where circular patterns of greenery and forest bits glowed.

Since we rode as a pair, the animals were less tense, comforted by the other’s presence. They rarely became spooked, though occasionally a squirrel or other creature would make a snapping sound in the distance, and one of the animals would startle and hop sideways. But both were mainly calm, and enjoyed the fresh air and exercise as much as we did. Little did I know that I needed to grab onto those few years as snapshots and memories to hold dear, because they didn’t last; but luckily the pleasures were so great they stuck to me. Once Shane turned thirteen, only things with motors interested him: a go-cart, motorcycle, even the riding lawnmower became more attractive than little Tony. The pony was left to chew grass, roll in dirt, and lay in the sun, contented.

I continued the pursuit as a solitary rider. On hot summer days, Misty nickered as I approached the barn. Her sorrel coat received a good brush down, the russet hair glossy, lighting up red and shiny in the sun, almost aglow. She loved it, stretching her neck in ecstasy as I curried, bumping her bony, hard head and soft nose against me with such strength that she pushed me off balance. Once tacked up, we headed out, but Misty screamed out for her trail-mate, sending shivers of shock through me with her shrill neigh. Tony neighed back with little effort, seemingly more interested in eating the sweet grass beneath him.

Once we were far enough away, in the fields loping circles, she quieted, but she became much harder to manage without a traveling partner, especially in spring after a long winter without being ridden. “Whoa, whoa,” I would plead repeatedly in a firm voice, trying to temper her tendency to trot instead of walking calmly.

On cool days her friskiness included bucking while running up hills. One time her joyful buck tossed me over her head where I hit the hill with such force, I wondered if anything had broken. She watched me get up slowly, and stood still as I sorely climbed back on. But I wouldn’t reprimand her joyful abandon, her emanation of pure happiness. I flew with her as she galloped, her muscles coursing as she thundered up to the top of the hill, her tail flying. Both out of breath, we turned and continued upwards as I reined her in to a soft lope.

On the hilltop, stillness. Only the rustling of leaves could be heard in the breeze. A dog barked, the echo drifting upwards. Misty seemed to know and tolerate my need to sit quietly, absorbing the view and beauty surrounding us. She nibbled on grass while I drank in the rolling hills stretching all the way to the city.

We trotted gaily along with adventures to come, past the thicket of berries and a meadow tall with swaying grass. We investigated a gangly tree stuck right in the middle of the meadow, then walked on and down a hill into a denser, darker wood. The scent of decaying matter centered my being; the rich potpourri of mossy wetness, rotting logs, leaves, nuts, and berries tingled my senses and made me feel at home in my body—a rare occurrence. I sucked it up as if I had never breathed before.

Misty picked her way along carefully, without much guidance. Wildflowers hid in patches. The woodsy coolness enveloped us. Finally we came to a clearing opening to sunshine, so we explored some more before turning back.       

Heading home, we were pleasantly spent, the sweat around her saddle drying into white crust. She received a hose down after the tack had been removed. Her neck extended to the fullest, arching as the water streamed down, washing the sweaty foam off like whipped cream, the strong jet of water soothing and cooling her warm muscles. I walked her till almost dry, and then let her loose to eat, roll, or drink. She nickered to Tony who nickered back. They were happily together again.

Chapter 12: BUTCHERED

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I found the hospital that stapled stomachs—the only one in the city, the procedure was still so new. I called. The operator connected me to the correct department.

A woman queried, “Hello, can I help you?” 

“I’m calling about the stomach stapling,” I stated, trying to hide the desperation I felt.

“How much do you weigh” she asked.

“What? How much do I weigh? Two hundred and thirty.”

“You are not heavy enough,” she replied, adding, “Morbid obesity in the amount of one hundred pounds over one’s normal weight is the rule we use in order to perform this surgery, and you have to be at least that much over for your insurance to cover it. The weight range for your height is one hundred twenty-five to one hundred forty pounds, so you’d have to weigh at least two hundred and forty pounds.”

No problem, I thought. Gain ten pounds? I didn’t have to think about it. I called back in a few months and easily booked an appointment because the weight requirements were now met. A quiet little voice spoke softly, “This is insane, illogical,” but I hadn’t learned to listen.

I went forward with the typical paperwork, physical exam, and testing. After that it went smoothly except for lying once again about depression on the paperwork. Some precautions were being taken; they didn’t want to operate on anyone unstable. Rearranging your internal organs is not for the faint-hearted. I knew an honest answer would ruin my chance at a normal life, and a slim body would make me “normal.” I wanted this transformation from fat to thin, abnormal to normal, more than anything else I had ever wanted. And though depression was my middle name, I quickly checked NO with little thought or reservation.

Yet the lie followed me like a shadow heaped on all other mistakes. My lie made my insides slip apart. I hate to lie, despise dishonesty, yet have lived a lifetime of it, never allowed the freedom to say what happened to me. After all the weight dropped off, I still thought of death, dying, and not being here; thought it’d be easier. Not until long after the surgery did I begin to realize just how major an operation it was, and what a total waste.

The layers of tissue I wished to be rid of protected me, a cocoon of darkness, a whirlwind of it. Without changing the internal messages of badness or dealing with the fear of others, I would continue to turn to food and fatness to feel safe. If you don’t love yourself fat, you won’t love yourself thin. The dark road I would travel, the new me, my new stomach, brought new agony that not only matched but surpassed my original pain. 

The surgery date came and, after being admitted the day prior to surgery, in between meals of Jell-O, broth, and popsicles, a compassionate nurse explained what to expect. She took me to a quiet area with stuffed chairs. Leaning in towards me, checking notes on her clipboard, she said softly, “You’ll wake with a tube down your nose to your stomach. It’s there to suction out blood and fluid. It will feel uncomfortable, but you will be able to breath and talk.”

She looked up, gauging my reaction. This didn’t dissuade me. I hardly heard her.

She continued, “After a few days it will come out and you’ll be on clear liquids here and at home for several weeks as the incision heals. You’ll be in pain but ring us for your pain meds before you start to hurt. If you have the pain relief medication regularly, on time, every four hours, especially the first week, you’ll do better. Too many patients have been in severe pain and don’t need to be, because they wait till the pain kicks in, and then ask for their medication. You are the first person I decided to sit down and explain this to. And I think I will begin to explain it regularly with others.”

She went further, “You won’t see stitches. You’ll have staples and the internal stitches will dissolve on their own.”

Her eyes searched mine to be sure I understood. I returned her gaze with a polite nod, some fear creeping in, but I felt more than ready.

I went to sleep that night grateful for her advice. When I awoke groggy from anesthesia the next day after the procedure, the tube she talked about caught in my throat. Because she had forewarned me, I remembered to breathe which quelled the automatic panic…but just barely. I kept repeating silently, “I’m all right, I’m all right,” for the next few days till the tube came out. Though hazy and still under the effects of anesthesia, I rang every four hours for pain meds, something I would have been too timid to do otherwise.

Staples ran from the middle of my breasts to my belly button, a significant wound. Samuel stayed at my side that first day but beyond that, I wanted the surgery kept private, my guts being rearranged. Maybe I felt ashamed for having the surgery, needing it, or maybe it was simply nobody’s business, or both. But one thing I adamantly told Mom, I do not want anyone to know, especially my brothers, and particularly the abusers among them; but I didn’t mention that last part, we didn’t talk about what her sons had done. Don knew, and I could accept that because he was Mom’s longtime adviser on all issues. She tried to respect my wishes for privacy but after seeing me so out of it afterwards, with tubes in every opening, her anxiety leaked out. She called them.

My secret became family news, but more than that, she needed the others to know and help carry the weight and gravity of what I had done. She could not cope with it alone. But I felt betrayed once again. This was my attempt, my effort to cut them away. A huge chunk of my stomach rendered useless via a guillotine called gastric stapling. I would be fresh, new and normal, transformed from fat to thin. My abusers weren’t going to be a part of me, they were the fat layers that would dissolve, a large portion of the stomach stapled off. But it didn’t work.

For eternity I cannot make what happened not to have happened. I cannot rid the fact that I have brothers who sought to attack instead of love me. I cannot be somebody else no matter how hard I try or how hard I wish it. It will not go away; what happened did happen. I can’t change it no matter how much I change me or how many parts I cut off. The surgery is the concrete part cut up; the parts that love and trust, already slaughtered, inaccessible even to me. If I am not worthy of love from those around me, how do I love me?

The phone rang in my room. I picked it up, still groggy from surgery the day before. “Hello,” I scratched out, my voice weak and hard to hear with the tube snaking from throat to belly.

“Hi, Patty,” a male voice answered. It was Chet.

I froze. She had told him. The reason I did it was because of THEM, and one of THEM called and knew.

The call didn’t go well; how could it have? I had my guts torn out, stapled, cut off from me, and one of them who had made me that way called to see how I was doing.

“Chet? Oh, hi,” I responded, my voice flat without enthusiasm, my rearranged raw, bleeding stomach knotted up even more with fear, rage, and revulsion.

“Yeah, so you’re in the hospital?” he stated. Was it wariness in his voice? He hesitated then added, “How do you feel?”

It took concentration to breathe with the stomach tube pressing against my windpipe, and the minuscule energy remaining was exhausted by anger towards Mom for divulging my predicament. Hearing his voice brought him into my sterile room, colder now with him in it, red rage obliterating the pastel walls. Struggling to cope, words failed me, clutched me, stymied me. Weak, vulnerable, and lost in the fog of anesthesia, feeling small and completely defenseless, like road kill, I barely managed a reply.

“Okay,” I said, and then nothing, my emotions were, as usual, locked tightly inside, a tornado of them. Breathe, I thought silently. Contain the rage, or burst with it.

“You’re quiet. Would you rather I hadn’t called?” he asked, seemingly agitated, incredulous even.

He waited for an answer, not getting one. He became livid. “You bitch!” he screamed. “I’m calling to see how you are and you act like that?”

He hung up, the click resounded as if he had crashed the phone down. I held out the receiver, looked at it curiously, in wonderment, astounded at what it had just delivered. Struggling, I returned the receiver to the cradle, wincing with the pain of even slight movement, hoping the long row of silver staples held. Though the minute turn sideways pulled at the tender skin, the fury I felt when hearing his voice hurt much more, deeper, down below the wound, in my spirit where I’d continue to carry hate and rage for years to come, fat or thin.

Don arrived later in the week, happily bringing a gift. It was a digital scale. I pretended to be happy and thankful, but a scale? He left it on the chair near my bed, a symbol of my failure as a woman, a scale, my judge and jury along with Don who gave it. My problems since childhood have not been my fatness though my family made it so. And so have I.

Mom picked me up from the hospital after a five-day stay. She gaily asked if I would be up to a quick stop. “I have a present for you ready to pick up from a jeweler who hand-crafts all her work.”

Surprised, I nodded.

I waited. She returned handing over a little box. I opened it finding a soft grey velvet pouch inside, and gently pulled out a delicate pair of long strands of gold, pounded flat, with a tiny pearl on the end of each. It’s a type of earring I’d never seen and surely only for the upper crust, richer women than me. The gold strand inserts into the piercing, the pearl catching at the lobe to hold it in place. They must have cost her plenty, too much for a widow living on a secretary’s salary.

I have used them a few times, but mostly they stay in that soft velvet pouch, too precious to use, costing more than any jewelry I own, perhaps even my wedding band. Or maybe I don’t use them because it feels like a reward for great stupidity caused by even greater desperation, not something I’m proud of. Even in my thirties I became easily swayed by others, especially Mom who I allowed to successfully persuade me to have the surgery. Why don’t you just put a gold ring through my nose and lead me around that way? The voices banging in my head are not kind. Still on liquids, Mom helped me make broth out of bones thick with marrow. It tasted disgusting. Later, once I was able to experiment with real food, I had mashed potatoes, even cheese curls. The cheese curls excited me: finally something that tasted good and didn’t hurt. I ate them guiltily, all five of them.

Humanly needs for contact, warmth, love—all the basics we crave which I couldn’t fulfill with humans because I feared and mistrusted them—were filled instead with food; fill the hole with food, food, and more food. I tried shopping and drinking, but food remained my main comfort and substance of abuse.

The soul resides near the stomach, maybe the solar plexus, or it floats around all organs, invisible but alive like flesh with as many needs. Food is the closest substitute place I found to fill basic emotional needs. Because it’s the wrong place, no amount of food will fill it. So the feelings and needs remained. I still felt bad, worthless, invisible, nonexistent, less than worthless, as if I weren’t real. And I still craved love, warmth, and closeness, and still ate to fill those needs and to blot out the rest, tiny pouch of a stomach or not; that didn’t stop me.  

More often than not, I ate in excess of the tablespoon or two my new stomach allowed. My new friend, the toilet bowl and I, became thoroughly acquainted, not a friend you want to know or keep. The pain became a way of life. You’d think one time lying next to the moist perspiring toilet on the cold tile floor for hours, hanging on to it, waiting to vomit, would be enough to cure me of eating for needs other than hunger, but it didn’t. I overate repeatedly. Overeating now meant one teaspoon too much. But still, I lost weight: eighty pounds. I looked different but felt the same.

With the pregnancy of my second child a few years later, the pain lessoned considerably. I don’t know why and guess it had to do with the weight of the baby pressing against the stomach doing something to the nerves. Whatever the reason, I felt lucky I could eat without pain, but then excess weight returned as the baby grew inside.

Chapter 11: JACK

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My tentative steps at therapy started in college when I dared go outside the family for help, and again after marriage when we lived in the Adirondacks, though just briefly for both. I didn’t try again until after Shane was born when we moved back into the area where I grew up. Fear almost kept me from trying. I needed to divulge secrets that rotted my core, yet would I be able to? Caring for Shane brought satisfaction, but I needed help for the blackness of recurring depression. Eventually pain overcame my paralyzing fear.

The mental health clinic employed an acquaintance of Chet’s. I worried relentlessly. How could I talk about what I needed to if his friend had access to the files, which I assumed he did, because he worked there as an intern in a career path for counseling? The secrets I carried were taboo, and I felt so guilty for the abuse, as if I were the abuser not the victim. What if he read what I talked about, what would he think of me? Certainly he wouldn’t think less of my brothers, just me. I sat in the waiting room, apprehensively imagining him poring through my records with disgust. I had taken on my family’s sins. The weight was killing me.

The therapist I worked with, Mary, wore two hats; she was also a nurse. I wondered if my problems made her nervous or were more serious than others, or maybe more interesting, because leaning towards me intently, she smoked as I talked. I smoked too. After a while I touched on what my brothers had done, but just barely. Then I stopped going, afraid at what I’d divulged. But eventually I went back.

When I returned the next time she had gone. I was now assigned to the director, Jack. I felt fortunate because of his prominent position, even though he was a man. Jack mentioned that he took my case specifically. I didn’t know what to make of that. Was it that sexual abuse case histories intrigued him? Challenged him? Were titillating? Or could only be handled by him because he was so great at his job?

He had no problem commenting bluntly on my weight and my lack of makeup, jewelry, or nice clothes. I responded by shopping for all three, enjoying the reward of his compliments. He encouraged me to pursue further education, so I enrolled in a nearby community college. He also encouraged me to take parenting classes offered on the premises. They became invaluable over the years raising our sons.

I sat across from his desk where he always remained seated, more like a businessman than a therapist. The expanse between us didn’t seem odd at the time; the space protected me from a larger person. I liked that.

But one day he leaned over and asked, “Are you attracted to me?”

Warning bells clanged in my head. I looked at him. Not unattractive, but far from handsome. “No,” I said without much pause.

He continued, “One woman began taking her clothes off in my office.”

His response jolted me and made me uncomfortable, but I censored that thought immediately, weighing his importance against mine. 

He won. I continued to see him.

One day I confided my mother’s plan about the operation, and with barely a breath, he responded, “Go ahead, if you want to butcher yourself that way.” 

His words hit like a slap, but didn’t deter my pursuit of what I thought would bring happiness. I went after Mom’s idea of a surgical solution to my problems like nothing I’d gone after before. I was going to have it no matter what.

When I put my mind to something I can be persistent. I gathered the courage to whisper softly to Jack about brothers and hint at what they had done. “Oh, so you were a precocious child,” he replied instantly. Not a question, a statement.

I remained still, as if iced to the seat. But I kept the maelstrom of emotions completely hidden behind an unblinking stare as if he had said something as mundane as, “It’s hot outside.” I didn’t know how to do anything else but act as if whatever anyone did or said was okay with me. But that final straw gave me the impetus to stop seeing him. I did pursue the butchering though, as any good girl would, to please her mother. I fell for it too, the idea of it, a magic cure. Jack won the prize for worst therapist, but his words struck the gold of truth. I volunteered for butchering, a lifelong regret, one I would permanently lament

Chapter 10: INSANITY

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At thirty, my weight hit a high point, two hundred thirty pounds. I felt extremely unhappy, lost, as if I didn’t have a center. Playing the “good daughter,” the “good sister,” and the “good wife” took too much, burying me more and more. Each day faked added more fat. Anxiety, high anxiety traveled upon me like an old ragged coat. Sometimes, as a child, it would hide away when I’d play, ride my bike, or spend time with my pony, but the years didn’t lessen its severity. It grew with me.

Now my friends were food, TV, and too much alcohol. My first son, Shane, then two-years old, kept me busy, the second not even a thought on the horizon. And though I had a sense of purpose caring for him, each day came and went just trying to get through it.

My confused, mixed-up world focused on Shane, my home, and husband. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that was all I had. Getting out among others scared me. I knew too well what people were capable of. Rather than chance destruction, I chose isolation. Or did it choose me? No grey area existed: intimacy meant annihilation. I could make a friend but not sustain the relationship. Unable to speak up about even minute disagreements, my feelings of being taken advantage of would escalate until anger bubbled up in the form of withdrawal and coldness. No one wanted to be friends with a porcupine.

One friend, Lisa, a daughter of one of Mom’s friends, had a son Shane’s age. At their house I’d help pick up after the kids. But when she offered at my house, my mouth said, “No, that’s okay.”

What? Why did I say that? After she left me with a mess that I told her she could leave me with, I felt enraged. It took only that to end the friendship, but not by my choice. She stopped calling. I never knew why, maybe she sensed my rage. It would have been hard not to. Because my voice had been gagged since childhood, learning not to speak up about the atrocities of brothers, I came out of childhood believing I was not worthy of protection, love, or acknowledgment. I learned to be abused and keep quiet. And because I felt guilty for it happening, further infractions or minor careless actions of others, along with my inability to speak up about them, mixed up the melting pot, increasing the heat of my emotions. I went underground, and that is where I raged, unable to forgive anyone, including myself. A victim in childhood, throughout adulthood I became a victim of rage.

That pattern, engraved into the soul-rock of my being, had long been a way of life. Mom had learned to silence me in order to maintain the image of a happy family, no matter what it took, or how far under I went. It wasn’t malicious on her part. I don’t believe she thought it over, or had a plan; she operated on instinct, as did I. To remain a family meant cooperating with the cover-up. I didn’t need to be told to stay silent; I just knew it was necessary for survival, unwittingly collaborating in the conspiracy.

Our new home, across town from Mom’s, needed a ton of work; septic, updated electric, a roof, walls, floors, and ceilings. Bare wood rafters needed covering. But we were happy to be out of her basement and into our first home, one that would shelter us comfortably for well over twenty years. I babysat and did crafts to sell at the local festival each fall, earning a little money in addition to our meager income.

Shane and I frequently visited Mom. During the summer months he could ride his toy car across the road at the school’s big blacktopped bus circle. Mom and I sat at the picnic table in her backyard, the warm air thick and heavy, a slight breeze making it just bearable. Shane played nearby, picking dandelions, a perfect picture in his powder blue terry sun suit matching the clear sky, his chubby little thighs poking out through the leg openings. Barefooted in the grass, he marveled at the white fluff, giggles erupting as he blew the seeded parachutes up and away. My cherub toddler touched me where no one else could.

But still my internal struggles manifested in physical heaviness. My weight issues began at age eight, after Dan’s attack; my scrawny eight-year old body quickly blowing up as if pumped full of air. I ate my mother’s food in the daytime and threw it up at night. Her love of cooking, and deep desire to see it all eaten, became my panacea. It seemed to be the most she could do for me after learning about Dan. I accepted her love in the form of food readily, with a voracious hunger that would haunt me for a lifetime, looking for her love—and mine. Food numbed out the painful nightly attacks and later became a tool to comfort all feelings. It solidified my ability to repress what he had done, though the memory flutters on the edge of consciousness, waiting like a bared-tooth tiger.

In tune with my unhappiness, believing weight loss to be the answer, Mom excitedly told me one day, “There’s an operation. You can lose weight.” She knew someone who had it done.

 Quickly dismissing initial reservations, brushing away that little voice of reason, I felt as excited as Mom. Lose weight by only having an operation? I listened attentively; she seemed so positive, hopeful, and encouraging, like this was the answer for me. I so wanted to believe in an answer, any answer. Hope like a cool breeze lifted the oppressive heat. It sounded so very appealing, irresistible.

CHAPTER 9: THE CABIN

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Over the second summer of living in the tent, we looked for and purchased a parcel of land on the upper border of Adirondack Park. We split the acreage with another couple who were friends of ours. Many warm summer evenings around the campfire, or during long rainy weekends in the tent, we dreamt, schemed, and planned our new home in the northern woods.

Money being tight, and the thought of it drained towards rent in the upcoming winter, caused enough concern for us to become even more creative with our living situation. We decided to build a tiny cabin and stay the winter over the same dirt foundation where the tent stood. We would then tear it down in the spring, reusing all the lumber for our future home on our new land, an ambitious plan, but we had youth on our side. Some lumber from the barn where the roof had collapsed was still usable. Samuel recycled it, ripping it down with a table saw to more modern building code specifications. All the pieces were labeled before erection in the cabin, marked with a big black felt pen so they could be refitted later. Awestruck by the building process, I watched construction of our winter cabin from the ground up.

“Hold this,” he said, handing over the measuring tape, plotting the floor plan where the joists would lie, the tape snapping shut after whizzing back to him once the measurement was taken.

“Hold this straight,” he said, out of breath as he hammered in the corner plate while my hands held it tight to the wood.

A frame, then the floor appeared, next two-by-fours to support plywood walls, rafters, more plywood for a roof, then tar paper over everything. A little black cabin emerged with one window over an old sink looking out to the pines. The cabin took a lot more work than the tent. Mostly I did little except stand, watch, carry, or hold something. It was slightly bigger than the previous space and needed a heat source. We found a small cast iron stove for sale in a newspaper ad. It fitted our needs perfectly, and for fifty bucks the price was right. Jack-Of-All-Trades Samuel built a red brick fire- protective layer atop the flooring in the corner. We easily kept toasty through what would be an exceedingly harsh winter. Due to very limited space, our bed was built on a platform so two dressers could be stored underneath, with a ladder tacked crossways onto one side of the bed frame.

The big, white, two-basined sink had a drain to the outdoors and gravity-fed water from a whiskey barrel elevated outside. Brushing teeth with the taste of whiskey in our mouths might not have been a preferred flavor, especially first thing in the morning, but we were thrilled with the novelty of running water in our rustic cabin. Once the rain turned to snow, the luxury of running liquor-flavored water ended till the spring thaw.

The outdoor john still consisted of a turned-over crate with a toilet seat tacked on, nestled among the same circle of pines a short walk downhill. A bathroom excursion in winter meant shivery snow down my nightgown as my shoulder accidently bumped a pine bough. The outer bathrobe offered no defense against the white stuff falling off the branch onto my neck, sitting upon the “throne” not exactly queenly.

The Coleman fridge and cook stove sat on a table at the end of the bed; ice and gas tanks were staples on the weekly grocery list. Often in the dead of winter, it was so hot inside we kept the door wide open for long periods. Watching the snow fly we snuggled up warm and cozy within. And what a winter!

Samuel had assumed I’d be home to tend the cabin fires by day. I instead began work at the town’s grade school as a teacher aide with special needs children, grades third, fourth, and fifth. Before dawn, after a night of ravaging hard snow, I’d listen eagerly to the radio for school closings. The snows that winter were intense blizzards. I had many days off from my job, but grocery stores never close due to snow conditions. So Samuel fought two commutes: the first just getting to his van through the frigid, icy drifts. On those blustery mornings, I’d watch him leave, glad not to be him. He braved the thigh-deep snow, battling his way down the hill past the barn, then traipsing even further before reaching the vehicles parked by the road at the end of the drive.

Those days I sometimes trudged over to Mom’s for a hot shower or to do laundry, pulling our trusty toboggan that carried an Army duffle bag stuffed with dirty clothes. The toboggan also helped bring in other supplies, like groceries, water, and wood for the fire, roping down the load so it wouldn’t slip off.

And we had visitors. Nelson, a mutual friend, played guitar by the woodstove while we fell asleep in our bunk listening to his raspy voice singing folksy blues. He didn’t seem to mind his meager sleeping arrangement by the fire in a sleeping bag; I suppose the novelty of it replaced any discomfort on the hard floor.

The money saved living this way caused our bank accounts to blossom. We competed to see who saved the most, though we would later burn though it quickly buying lumber for the new dwelling. In the spring, the cabin was carefully disassembled and each stick of lumber that had been specifically marked found its place in the new location, piece by piece. We traveled the five-hour drive on weekends while living again in the tent back home, and married that summer in ‟78.

When fall approached we found a cute little farmhouse to rent nearby for the upcoming winter. It would take three more years of weekends and vacations to build a dwelling that could safely shelter us from the even harsher elements of the upper Adirondacks. We built a gambrel-style home—well, the shell of half of one. We had lacked the foresight to think about the availability of employment in the area.

Reality, the one involving money, had not yet sunk in. But it did five months later. We moved to the new dwelling while pregnant with our first son. The red hand pump in the sink, bringing fresh water from the spring, along with the outhouse complete with a roof, felt like luxuries. But soon our finances depleted. Forced to return with our new baby, we lived at Mom’s until Samuel found steady work. The sale of our partially built house in the northern woods helped pay for our new home, a hundred-year-old dwelling in need of just about everything, including interior walls and ceilings. But that didn’t matter. We owned a home.

CHAPTER 8: THE ARMY

 

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The ground at night felt cold as I lay on it in prone position. The target stood somewhere downrange. I fumbled with the weapon, locked up from previous shooters. What had we been told about a jammed weapon? The lieutenant stood behind the line along with the drill sergeant, observing night-fire practice. I so wanted to hit the target to impress the lieutenant, but the gun wouldn’t work. Men were told a gun is what they had between their legs; the M-16 was to be called a weapon.

I opened the chamber, pretending to know what to do, wiggled its innards, aimed, and fired again. It worked! I didn’t know why or how, but felt tremendous relief. I focused on the red chaser intently because that’s all there was to aim at in the dark. The target only lit up when the bullet’s bright red chaser went over the top. I’d missed it.

Lowering the M-16 slightly, I fired again, it hit. I fired repeatedly, hitting the target every time. As hoped, affirmation came. “Good job!” the lieutenant offered before moving on.

It had been a blur; the flight and subsequent events leading up to lying in the dirt firing a gun. With Dad gone and one son dead, Mom had fallen apart. Don had plucked me from the wreckage at home, offering refuge. My bright cheery room at his house, with old-fashioned floor-length windows, brought sunlight and hope. After he and Pam took me under their wings to live with them, we worked out a plan. My father-like brother talked about goals, his gentleness soothing. We developed a purpose for my being there, something to look forward to and work towards. Along with the weight loss and job, I’d heard about what the Army had to offer and wanted to join. Maybe Don thought he’d lose me too; but he saved me.

There were a few glitches though. Finally meeting the weight requirement for entrance into the Army, I proceeded with the physical exam and accompanying paperwork. After the exam, the nurse led me to an empty conference room to complete the questionnaire. Check the box—yes if you have it, no if you don’t. They were all no’s except one: depression. Later, at home, I received a call to return to the recruitment center and discuss issues with depression.

I talked it over with Don, worried about the honest answer which was about to ruin my chance at a life.

“You should have checked No,” he advised in a quiet yet stern tone, adding, “They are only concerned about those with severe emotional problems.”

I felt relieved he didn’t think that applied to me, yet wondered at the clamoring inside, saying something quite different. Sitting again at the long conference table, a bit sweaty, the questioning began by a higher-up. He looked imposing in formal Army attire, a green suit with brass buttons and tie neatly clipped into place. I rehearsed the lie, softening it up after Don’s admonishment. Don seemed pure and clean. If he said I should have checked No, then I should have. He represented all I lacked. He appeared centered, grounded, rational, connected, and wise. He was the only father (and God) I had; whatever he said might as well have been bound with gold edging and labeled “Bible.” I held onto his sanity in my upset life, desperate for an anchor because my life depended on it.

“Do you just feel a little blue? How long does it last?” the interviewer asked, “More than a few days, or a couple of weeks?”

“I get down sometimes.” It fell easily from my mouth because I had practiced the story over and over, “But just for a few days. It doesn’t last.”

In truth, it was the other way around. I felt down most of the time, hardly knowing what anything else felt like.

But it worked. Signing on the dotted line, I enlisted for a three-year stint. The stiff packet of entrance paperwork felt official resting on my lap during the flight to South Carolina and Fort Jackson. After arriving on base and being directed towards the dingy brick barracks and my room, I sat on the cot-like bed. With my suitcase still at my feet, I listened to murmured echoes in the hallway as other girls found their rooms. Placid yellow paint peeling near the ceiling edges didn’t brighten the small area or my spirits. What had I gotten myself into? Maybe sitting on a turned-over bucket in Samuel’s garage, watching him work on car motors wasn’t so boring after all.

On the wall past the trunks at the foot of both beds were closets with built-in lockable cabinets—no frills, nothing more except two windows with venetian blinds on the opposite wall—bland, drab and dreary. My new roommate, Cathy, arrived dragging her suitcase, smiling. She was a large girl, big-boned; I liked her immediately. She exuded honesty with her clumsiness. We chatted briefly, and I learned her Dad was a bigwig somewhere on another base. She seemed to be following his footsteps.

With little time to get acquainted, we were bustled outside with a screech from the drill sergeant. The drill sergeant yelled, “Line up alphabetically in four rows!”

It was a fiasco from the start. He peered over at the platoon next to us, already doing a better job of it, and screamed louder, “Not like that, you fools, can’t you hear?”

Finally four rows formed. With a voice already hoarse, he shrieked out more orders, “Remember who’s on your right, who’s on your left. Line up this way every time.”

We practiced all the necessary steps and commands to get from one point to another. Certain unlucky soldiers-to-be, including Cathy, were singled out and harshly reprimanded, embarrassed and made fun of—all in a day’s work for the drill sergeant. He was to be called, “Drill Sergeant, not Sir; I work for a living.”

Marching with some semblance of order, all five platoons met at the lecture hall. After a long speech in a huge auditorium given by the Colonel heading the entire base, we shuffled off to various training rooms for more lectures. Then came the endless line for shots, with too much time to think of the needles to come. Next, clothing: green fatigues, dress uniform, hat, cap, helmet, socks, belt, duffle bag, black pumps, and lace-up field boots.

The following day, the Swine Flu injection took its toll. Fever, muscle aches, and general malaise matched my bewilderment. Like Dorothy lost in Oz, my body robotically moved with the flow of the group while my mind wandered back home to all that used to be familiar.

The cafeteria server in white apron and hair net plopped graying lumps of overcooked peas, green beans, or corn, along with unadorned meat onto my tray. At the coffee station I grabbed two cups, then ate fast, watching the others down sauce-topped meats, mashed potatoes, and various desserts along with butter, bread and sodas. While the thinner girls put on twenty pounds, I lost them.

Sometimes, instead of rushing out right after gulping down the self-imposed meager meal, I stared at them, gorging on cookies, fruit crisps, brownies, puddings, or thickly frosted cakes with ice cream cups that came with small pre-cut wooden spoons. I watched in earnest while they slurped and chomped, their licking accompanied by orgasmic grunts of pleasure as eager tongues cleaned off the little wooden spoons till they looked spotless. I became them, swallowing as they swallowed, feeling the sugary cream slide happily down my own throat, smooth, sweet, and cold.

At breakfast, my plate scarce with grits and coffee, tablemates downed stacks of syrup soaked pancakes, sausages, bacon, and gravy-topped everything. Even “shit on a shingle” looked tempting (creamed chipped beef on toast). I understood. The food helped, swapped hungrily as condolence for the harsh treatment dumped on us everywhere else. Here was one place to stuff the ragged holes left by all-day physical activity and constant reminders of our ineptitude, rasped loudly and repeatedly by a gaggle of brash Drill Sergeants. Even our dreams reverberated with voices that shrieked throughout the quiet of sleep. Marching didn’t stop because of rain, and backtalk got you fifty push-ups in the mud.

It was a revelation that platoon-mates used food for reasons besides nutrition. Before this, I thought I had to be the only human in the universe to do so. But I stuck to veggies, meat, grits, and coffee, veering off only two times: once when I lost my way to KP in the dark of morning, ending up with the wrong platoon, and the only job left was scrubbing pots and pans. Feeling sorry for myself, I succumbed to a thick, frosted, black brownie at lunch. The only other time a bread item landed on my plate was Thanksgiving. I yielded to the feast, yearning for home, food a sorry replacement.

Mostly though, the South Carolina woods held excitement and adventure. Standing out in the cold most of the day, I dreamed of lying on the beach with the warm sun beating down on my face amidst the tall pines, breathing in their pure sweet fragrance. The other girls moaned and complained. Previous experiences with tent life made the outdoors fun, and Pennsylvania winters brought snow, winds and much harsher temperatures than South Carolina. They had no reason to whine.

Weeks into training, I pulled on jeans fresh from the dryer for the first time since arriving. They hung loose off my hips. “Whose are these?” I wondered until it registered. They were mine!

At Christmas we were allowed a one-week leave. Samuel awaited my arrival at the airport, but looked at me curiously after our embrace, as if puzzled. In public, or while traveling until arriving home, we were required to wear our dress uniform, which meant hair off our shoulders. He scanned the drab attire, standing back a moment, gazing at me, with the stuffed duffle bag at my feet, knee- length straight skirt, tailored brass-buttoned matching jacket over a crisp white blouse, clunky black heels, long trench coat and, most unbecoming and strange to him, my long blonde hair pulled back tightly in a barrette under a dull, green, stiff-brimmed hat.

Once seated across from him in the car, he leaned over hesitatingly, and unclipped my hair pin, an unusual gesture on his part. As my hair spilled out around my shoulders and down my back, he smiled, then returned his hands and attention to the steering wheel as if satisfied and finally recognizing the woman he’d left at the airport only a few months before. We drove off to a week of families, fudge, Christmas trees, and partying with friends.

Then I returned to base, marching past the grandstand during graduation from basic training. During the last night before flying off to various parts of the country for our next assignments, we exchanged addresses with our fellow platoon mates, and drank beer or whatever alcohol we could get our hands on, smuggled in from the Post Exchange on base.

The next morning we said our goodbyes, sadly leaving newfound friends behind. I headed towards my next post, Washington, DC, for training as a veterinary specialist at Walter Reed Hospital. I’d learn to handle Army dogs, give injections, and even insert a feeding tube into a rhesus monkey, not something I dreamed of doing when signing on the dotted line. I became immersed in the intensive two-month course, returning home by springtime.

Samuel and I erected the tent once again.

 

 

Chapter 7: THE TENT

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With the gentle reassurance, guidance, and constant support of Don and his wife Pam, I made significant progress while living with them—a complete turnaround from where I had been headed. I lost weight, found full-time work and joined the Army Reserves, eventually moving to my own apartment not far from Don’s.

Then I met Samuel. He sat a few stools down the long wooden bar at the town pub where others our age gathered. He came back to my apartment that same night, and we remained a couple from then on. He helped do various things at my apartment, like adding fixtures around the bay windows so I could hang ropy macramé holders for large leafy plants. A guy who cared enough to help seemed like a good thing and I hung on to him.

By spring we talked of moving in together. Some friends he introduced me to pitched a tent for the summer in a meadow near a campground. It made us wonder, could we do it? The thought of free rent and the abandon of outdoor living became irresistible. Mom still owned a hundred acres of country land in the nearby town we had moved away from. She didn’t mind us using her land as long as we had permission from Lester, the farmer who rented the land. And Lester didn’t object as long as we stayed off the fields he cultivated, voicing the same parameters as he had when I rode my horse there in earlier years. We were on our way.

An old grassy dirt road, more like a tractor path, led to the barn where I had sheltered my first pony, and then back up a hill to the fields. We went off the path up the larger treed hillside, excitedly checking out terrain for the perfect spot to appear. And it did, halfway up, an empty area circled by a tall stand of pines, just right for a nine-by-twelve foot tent. We looked at each other and knew we had found the ideal location.

Of course the site would take some leveling, but Samuel knew about hard work; it came naturally to him. The dirt removed from the higher elevation helped raise up the lower two sides. Next he dug deep rain ditches which diverted any water downhill. I helped in other ways but not with the digging, though I mastered the skill just from observing. I put his method to use months later in boot camp when rain trenches had to be dug around the pup tent on a weekend field trip. My only army commitment that summer involved one weekend a month at the Reserve Unit and a two week stint off- base. Active duty would begin that fall.

We had already been to Tent Town, investing in top-of-the- line camping equipment made by Coleman, most importantly our tent. It would be our home for the summer, so quality counted. Other Coleman products included a gas lantern, cook stove, and metal plastic lined fridge, all three of which would last us for decades. My garage sale treasures completed the interior: a large thick area rug, double mattress, even a stuffed rocking chair. Another rare find included a compact wooden closet for Samuel’s white shirts, necessary for his job as a frozen foods manager at the local grocery store.

Tent life provided an idyllic setting. We existed in another land, one without roads, electricity, or modern conveniences other than a radio. We woke to the morning chorus of birds, as close to the elements as one could get. There is nothing like coffee perking in the woods, or bacon sizzling with eggs soon to follow in the greasy pan. Even washing dishes seemed like fun, the sudsy smell of dish-washing liquid out of place in the fresh air, thrown with a splash on the ground when finished, the long counter wiped clean with bits and pieces of food flying for the squirrels to feast on…no brooms needed!

After relaxing with dinner around the campfire, we’d gaze long into the evening at the hypnotic flickering before retiring to bed, lost in the light of ever-changing yellow, orange, and red cinders.

 Samuel hooked a car radio up to a battery for our entertainment pleasure. Our favorite show came on at ten p.m. The slow creaking door opened the broadcast of The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, then E.G. Marshall’s hauntingly deep voice began the story. Killer Crab struck most memorable with “suckers like silver dollars,” the bizarre tale coming to life as the fire crackled, casting shadows on the trees and high grass nearby.

Mesmerized by the golden glow of flames, our minds wandered into the ocean depths where monsters lay in waiting or elsewhere, into killers‟ psyches and other sinister, dangerous places throughout the world.

One tall pine close by made the ideal toiletry area. Samuel pounded a bathroom cabinet into it with a table underneath and I added an enameled water basin on top. The little mirrored door opened and we stored the normal hygiene accessories: Samuel’s razor and shaving cream because if he sported a beard it had to be wrapped in a hair net, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hair brushes, and other assorted items. Tree branches became towel racks. Olives came to the deli at the store where he worked in tall plastic containers with lids that screwed on tightly. They made excellent water containers that could be lugged down the hill to our vehicles for refilling elsewhere and dragged back without spilling.

One water jug sat under the table with Grandma’s long- handled dipper, no longer used to fill pitchers of holiday punch kept cold in her breezeway. Though Grandma had become too frail to host our big Christmas gatherings, she still lived at the base of the hill by the barn in the big farmhouse. And Don had to convince her to stop worrying about her granddaughter’s seemingly crazy scheme of living in a tent for months at a time right there on the big hill behind her house.

The other water container was tucked a few steps away, next to the longer table holding the cook stove and all other kitchen necessities. For bodily relief, one had only a short walk downhill into thicker pines where an upside down crate hosted a toilet seat over a big hole, another one of Samuel’s digging projects. The pine branches made a nice shroud of cover for privacy. He showered at a friend’s house; I did my bathing at Mom’s.

As summer began cooling into fall, my Army commitment— which included active duty—loomed closer. The new venture, all on my own, began in October at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Don sent me off with a proper farewell dinner at the local favorite restaurant. With Mom chipping in, they paid for a hotel near the airport that night after the celebration dinner. Samuel only had to drive me across the highway the next morning to catch the early flight.

Samuel continued living at the tent into November, until it became too frigid, then took everything down and moved to an apartment for the winter with the couple who had also tented that summer. I flew away from Samuel to something I did not know. My stomach swirled with excitement as I nervously fingered the large packet of Army entrance paperwork on my lap, riding atop the clouds.