45: The Escape

45: The Escape

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

The Escape

Courage is being scared to death . . .. and saddling up anyway.

~John Wayne

The wobble in my legs was so severe it was a struggle to press the gas pedal. No matter how hard I worked to push away the events of the last several hours, they kept creeping back. The gun, the screaming, the crying. Overwrought and numb, I pulled onto the interstate. I had no destination in mind besides going somewhere my husband could never find me. That meant not heading to friends or family. With my two girls in the back seat, I followed the freeway in the opposite direction, leaving the city as far behind as possible.

I pulled off in Council Bluffs, Iowa, searching for a place to settle for the night. The only things on this exit were a gas station and a church surrounded by cornfields. After a brief hesitation, I slid into a parking space in the crowded church parking lot. I remembered my friend Polly’s advice when we left Kansas City. “Go to the churches! They will help you!”

I scanned the parking lot for signs of danger. I swallowed hard, breathed a prayer for help, and said: “Come on, girls, let’s go.”

I stepped through the door with shaky legs as another wave of tremors coursed through me. A hand gripped my elbow before I succumbed to the panic. An elderly gentleman pulled me aside into an adjoining room, and I heard him tell someone to “go get Pam.”

By this point, I was feeling foolish for coming here, as I was incapable of uttering a simple sentence. A lady hurried into the room, swinging the door wide. She paused for a second, and then walked straight toward me. As she drew me into her arms, she proclaimed, “Someone has hurt your heart!” She radiated love, peace, and a sensation of calm, and at her encouragement, my story spilled out. I told her how my husband had held us at gunpoint for hours, terrorizing us, refusing to let us leave, threatening to shoot me first, then my daughters.

Bewildered and in disbelief, I strove to comprehend the personality change he’d undergone. The man I’d married would never act this way. Since he’d lost his job, he’d become a complete stranger.

I confessed that I had no particular destination and asked her to recommend an inexpensive motel. Pam leaned back and looked me square in the eye. “You’ll not spend the night in a motel room,” she declared. “You’re coming home with me!”

I blinked in astonishment and stammered, “But I have two daughters!”

“Don’t worry about space; we have plenty of room.” She turned and appealed to the man standing behind her. “Russ, tell her we have plenty of room.”

He stepped forward, extending his hand. “Hi, I’m Russ. I’m Pam’s husband, and I want you to know that you and your girls are welcome to stay with us. Don’t worry you’ll be putting someone out. You won’t. We have a huge house.”

Pam put her arm around my shoulders and steered me toward the door. “Why don’t we go find your girls, and we’ll go home so you can get settled in for the night. Have you eaten?”

“Yes, we stopped at Taco Bell earlier.”

“Okay. Are those your girls over there?” She pointed to my daughters sitting with two blond girls close in age.

“Yes, those are mine.”

Pam and I collected our children and went outside to meet Russ in the parking lot. I followed them to a sprawling two-story house. They provided me with a bedroom of my own, and my girls an alcove they used for TV watching. Soon, everyone settled in, and minutes later I was telling my girls goodnight. This resembled a dream. It surely couldn’t be real. People don’t open their doors to complete strangers and set them up in their houses, do they?

In the coming weeks, I found out they do. At least, some do. Over the next few days, Pam spent hours talking with me, listening as I relived the events of that night. I explained that my husband had always been an alcoholic, but he’d never been violent before. The man I once trusted with my life now terrified me. She shared her own stories of growing up with an alcoholic father.

There was an ease with Pam that I’d rarely had with anyone else. She instinctively seemed to know when I needed to be alone, yet was always available if I wanted to talk. She hugged me, laughed with me, and cried with me. One day, she laughed and said, “He has no idea where you are. He wouldn’t know where to search for you.”

Her confidence broke through the fog of trepidation, dread, and apprehension that surrounded me. The fear, anxiety, and tremors diminished, and I could turn my thoughts to the future. I turned my attentions back to the care of my daughters and providing them a home. Pam helped me navigate an unfamiliar town, enroll my girls in school, and locate a new job. Russ took me to shop for apartments. They took my girls swimming with them on the weekends. I stayed in Pam and Russ’s home over three weeks, and their generosity and support never flagged.

Moving day was momentous. I found the prospect of life as a single mother daunting. Life in the city had left me cynical and mistrustful. Most of the time, I didn’t even trust myself. I was nervous being on my own. What if I messed up? When I confided my fears to Pam, she gave me this advice: “Trust your gut. That little voice, that feeling you get . . . listen to it.” Could it be that simple?

It wasn’t easy those first few weeks. There were bumps and mishaps as we adjusted to our new life.

But due to the love and generosity of strangers, I was learning to trust again. Pam and Russ lived their life with such grace, and I became determined to emulate their example. I vowed to be more optimistic, courageous, and trusting. To extend my hand when I see a need. And to teach my daughters to do the same.

I took Pam’s advice and learned to trust my gut. I found that whatever situation I find myself in, it’s best to stop, take a breath, and listen. And it’s never steered me wrong. It’s something I might never have learned were it not for the kindness of strangers.

~Karen Cooper

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