67. It Takes a Village

67. It Takes a Village

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

It Takes a Village

We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.

~Herman Melville

Thirteen is an awkward age for anyone, but it proved to be an especially stressful time for me. My family life imploded, and we learned that keeping secrets could be a dangerous, even life-threatening, practice.

My father had always been a heavy drinker. That was nothing new. But when he lost his job, a downward spiral began, with threats of violence against my mother and us kids. I never thought I’d feel so helpless or so afraid. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning.

When my mother went back to work full-time, my father was left to care for my baby sister. The day I came home from school to find my father passed out on the couch and my sister crying in her crib, with a diaper that had obviously been full for hours, was the last straw. My father couldn’t be trusted to look after a child, so my mother paid our next-door neighbour to babysit. Of course, she wasn’t about to admit the real reason why. She pretended my dad couldn’t child-mind because he was looking for another job.

Violence escalated in our household until my mother found the courage to kick my father out and seek divorce. Sounds easy enough. It wasn’t. My father refused to leave our family home and my mother had no choice but to take out a restraining order against him. She did what she had to do to protect us.

The police escorted my father from our house, but that didn’t keep him away. He phoned so often that we stopped picking up. He filled tape after tape on the answering machine with death threats. He sent us pictures in the mail of all the guns he had access to. He sent photos of himself holding those guns, aiming them at the camera.

My mother took all this to the police, but they shrugged it off. Tapes of death threats and pictures of guns didn’t qualify as evidence, they said.

Still, we kids were too ashamed to tell anybody what was going on. My mother talked to our lawyer, the police, and a few family members, but my siblings and I? We had only each other. Keeping secrets is prevalent in households with rampant substance abuse. We were secretive to a heartbreaking degree.

After a while, it wasn’t enough for my father to threaten us by phone and through the post. He smashed a window and broke into our home, entering when my mother was at work and we kids were in school. When I came home that day, with my younger siblings in tow, I knew we needed the police. But, in a time before cell phones, how could we make an emergency call? In our suburban neighbourhood, no payphones were close by.

We had to break the silence.

My siblings and I went next door, to the neighbour who babysat our youngest sister. We told her everything — about my father’s drinking, his neglect, his death threats and his guns. She helped us call our mother, and Mom phoned the police. My father was taken away in handcuffs for violating his restraining order.

If only the ordeal had ended there.

But that was just the first of many times my father broke into our house. When we put bars on the windows, he broke down the door. We couldn’t hide what was going on from the neighbours anymore, not with the noticeable police presence at all hours of the morning. There comes a point where you can’t lie any longer. You can’t cover for a family member who has wronged you.

When we told our neighbours the truth, something incredible happened.

The next time my father came to “take back his house,” he gave us warning. He even gave us a date. My mother called the police right away, but they said he wasn’t in violation of his restraining order yet. There was nothing they could do in advance. She’d just have to call them when he got there.

We were all afraid, but my mother, in particular, was beside herself. She’d done everything she could to protect us kids. But if she waited for my father to arrive before calling the police, it could be too late.

This time, when she vented her concerns, it wasn’t to my grandmother — who often didn’t believe the things Mom told her — but rather to our next-door neighbour, the woman who cared for my baby sister during the day. My neighbour was a loud and opinionated woman, and when she called the neighbourhood to action, the neighbourhood listened.

If my father was afraid of one thing, it was exposure. He trusted us to keep quiet, to keep his secrets. He shouldn’t have. Because, on the day he said he’d take back the house, our neighbours came to our rescue. They all joined hands and formed a human barricade across our driveway.

My father drove up the street, and his car slowed almost to a halt when he saw us — the whole neighbourhood standing alongside his kids, showing him they were there to support us, that his threats and behaviours were unacceptable, that he needed to leave.

And he did.

When his car pulled away, my mother thanked the neighbours and told them we’d taken up enough of their time. They were adamant. He wouldn’t give up so easily. What if he came back and they were all gone? No, they would stay as long as it took. They’d camp out on our front lawn all night if they needed to. Now that they knew what we’d been through, the neighbours were going to protect us.

They were right, of course. My father circled by the house, again and again, until my mother called in the restraining order violation and the police apprehended him. The neighbourhood, which had never been terribly close or cohesive before that day, worked together to protect us kids and our mom.

Through the whole ordeal, the most terrifying obstacle we faced as a family was an internal one: the fear of admitting the truth, of worrying what others would think. The shame seemed insurmountable.

This horrendous situation was in no way my fault, but it sure didn’t feel that way at the time. I thought we were the only ones. I thought no one else could possibly understand.

It took an incredible strain before my mother, my siblings and I cracked the veneer of normalcy. When we told our secrets, we expected the neighbourhood to view our family with contempt. Instead, they became our shield. When the police failed us, our neighbours stepped up. They stood alongside our family, and we finally realized we were not alone.

~Foxglove Lee

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