It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Or not. It’s a lonely time. It’s a time of unfulfilled expectations. Of laughter that never reaches your heart. Because it’s supposed to be a time of families and close friends getting together, celebrating, sharing love, magic, joy. Perhaps for a lot of people, that’s what happens. But for many of us, it’s just another empty, disappointing day. One that feels even more empty than normal because it’s supposed to be full. And then, there is the dark side. I have a memory from when I was a young child. It’s Christmas break. My father was a teacher, so he was home with my brother and me. It was a few days before Christmas and it had snowed…a big, deep, delightful (when you’re a child) snow that turned the world into a wonderland. My father was born and raised in Michigan. It snowed a lot there. And while this wasn’t a major snow by Michigan standards, it was pretty significant for Missouri. The snow was thigh deep in the shallowest of places. It was almost waist deep in the drifts. We could barely contain ourselves, we were so excited. We bundled up and rushed outside to enjoy the miracle. My father didn’t often play with us. But even he seemed enchanted by the beautiful snow that shrouded the world in intense, frigid white, like icing on a cake. Being from a state where snow in the winter was an everyday affair, he knew lots of outside winter games. He asked us if we knew how to play fox and geese. We both shook our heads no, shivering with anticipation rather than with the cold. And so the fun began! He instructed us to clear a big circular path in the snow in an open area of our yard. We kicked and dug and packed and tramped, working up a sweat. Once the circle was complete, he had us make an “x” path through the circle, dividing it into 4 equal quadrants. He was the fox first. We were the geese being chased around and through the pathways we had created in the snow. The goal of the fox was to catch a goose, which would then become the fox. We ran for our lives! Laughing. Falling. Laughing some more. It was so much fun! We played until we were soaking wet and freezing cold and totally exhausted. Then we all tumbled back into the house to change into dry clothes and warm our runny noses, red ears, and stiff, numb fingers and toes. This is where the memory changes for me. I was in my room, having just opened the drawer to my dresser. I was trying to decide what sweater I wanted to wear. As I poked through the 4 or 5 sweaters I owned, I was startled when the door to my room opened and closed. My father entered my room and he was acting strangely. Playful daddy had turned into what I later labeled “sick daddy.” He sucked the air out of the room as he breathed heavily. I was enveloped by an overwhelming sense of dread.
“Let me make you warm,” he said quietly but firmly.
He removed my clothes as I hopelessly begged him not to. Kissing, fondling, groping, invading me. And when he was finished, he said, “There, now isn’t that better? Don’t you feel warm now? Get dressed and come on out to the kitchen. I’ll make us all some hot chocolate.”
I remember picking up my discarded clothes and placing them in a pile. I dressed quickly. I felt numb. Once dressed, I picked up my wet things to put them in the laundry and cast a glance back into the room before walking out the door. I wanted to make sure everything was in order. But what I most remember…vividly remember…is seeing myself still there behind me, hopelessly broken. I remember leaving that shattered little girl behind. I left her there, a pile of gore and broken bones, shattered spirit and heart, where my wet clothes had been laying, hideously destroyed, fractured beyond recognition. She wasn’t able to walk out of that room. She wasn’t capable of facing the monster that waited down the hall with hot chocolate and marshmallows. She couldn’t move; couldn’t stop screaming. She was in a million pieces and I left her there to fend for herself, half angry with her for leaving me, for making me go out into the world alone. I saw her body, ripped, torn, decimated. And instead of rushing to her side and comforting her, I turned away. I walked out of the room. Closed the door. And joined my brother and father as we sipped steaming mugs of freshly made cocoa. As if nothing had happened. As if nothing had changed.
Why do I remember this particular memory so clearly; so vividly? It wasn’t the first time my father sexually abused me. Nor was it the last. It wasn’t one of the worst memories I have. Certainly there are far more horrible memories of perverted things he did to me. So why is this one day, this one event, etched so deeply and perfectly in my mind? Why can I still see it as if it happened only yesterday?
Several things seem pertinent. For one thing, when my father started sexually abusing me, I was probably around 4 or 5 years old. The memories I have of that time are shrouded in fantasy. I didn’t have the maturity to understand what was happening. I didn’t like it. It scared me. It felt wrong. But I didn’t have the ability to grasp or process what he was doing. Because of this, I created a fantasy world and escaped into it. As an older child, this was becoming more difficult to execute. And I believe I had finally reached an age and a point of understanding where it was no longer possible to ignore, warp, or wrap what he was doing to me in a make-believe world. Secondly, having come to an age where I could no longer deny or shroud in fantasy what my father was doing to me, I shattered. Completely shattered. I believe the memory I have is of the day, the moment in time, when that horrible shattering took place. So even though what was done to me that day was not the vilest thing my father would ever do, it was a highly significant moment in time. It was the moment I was utterly obliterated.
I didn’t stop loving Christmas. Though I hate snow. But Christmas was never a carefree and magical time for me afterwards. I was always looking over my shoulder. Waiting for everything to morph into that other unspeakable reality. It was never again wonderful. There was a hidden razor’s edge, cutting into my deepest and most vulnerable parts and places. There was always pain mixed with the happiness. Fear mixed with the laughter. Terror mixed in with the carols that were sung. And I stopped expecting it to be special. Because everything that was special had been taken away from me.
Magic no longer existed. The lights were not as bright, the ornaments weren’t as shiny. A hideous monster hid behind the bows and colorful paper that covered the gifts under the tree. I knew the monster. The monster watched me, waiting, pouncing, taking. Christmas that year was when I finally understood what he was. And then, I closed the lid of the brightly wrapped box in which he hid and smiled, carried on, acting as if everything was as it seemed.
He is dead now, this ghost of Christmas past. But he haunts me still.