The morning I left him, I unrolled reams of toilet paper; it lay in soft defiance on the bathroom floor. He hated that. How many times do I have to tell you not to let the toilet paper touch the floor?
His sister, meanwhile, couldn’t believe it. What kind of woman leaves her husband after forty-six years of marriage?
A question unanswerable back then. I was too focused on leaving to answer questions.
Years before, I’d tried to leave him. This idea was not new; it festered for years. Practice runs, perhaps, like the training wheels before the two-wheeler; wobbly, lurching attempts at freedom. Years deep into that abusive marriage, I left for hotel weekends, sipping Irish whiskey, and trying to make sense of senselessness. I visited family alone, returning to his wrath. Once I fled to a Women’s Shelter for six weeks back in the 80’s, should I count that one? Twice I left for good, full of resolve; rented cheap basement apartments, cancelled them, lost the rent deposit, and went back home, still hoping for happiness and change, in a Don Quixote tilting-at-windmills kind of way.
But finally, on a crisp Tuesday in March, at sixty-nine, I vanished for good. Leaving a note about too much pain in the staying, I slammed the kitchen door.
The sun was bright, the air was cold, and tomorrow was a mystery. I felt like Wile E. Coyote—dropping off the edge of a cliff, legs whirling; fearing the future is a fierce destination.
But always, Murphy’s Law, my getaway car was leaking gasoline; drip-drip-drip; the fumes almost defeating me. Why now? But never mind. Just go, just start the car, just start the god-damned-flawed-car.
Feeling both fear and fearlessness, my foot attacked the gas pedal. Eyes fixed on the road, then veering to the rearview mirror. An old habit—watching for him, needing to see what was coming at me. Keep going, to my brother’s home, my safe refuge, keep going. Jann Arden on the radio: … I’m packing up my life so far …. got my hands on the wheel, got my foot on the pedal… Singing with Jann, off-key, a karaoke departure.
Why do we dream, and what do dreams tell us? My nighttime dreams are important and constant—sometimes a recurring nightmare infesting my sleep, sometimes a shadowy, illuminating dreamscape. One month after starting abuse counselling, I dreamed:
My husband and I are standing in a wedding buffet line. My husband asks urgently, “What kind of soup do you want?”
“Why, I, I don’t know,” I stammer, afraid I might choose the wrong soup.
He leans in close, “Well,” he glares at me, hissing, “people are waiting!”
I choose a soup, but we sit at different tables. My eyes watch him anxiously. I am not worthy of his company tonight.
I awoke sweating.
I’m my mother’s second daughter, a breech-birthed baby born after Christmas in a Lake Erie town famous for snow storms.
My red-haired mother filled her four children with a litany of Catholic rituals: Latin mass on Sundays; the boring torture of reciting the rosary after dinner, beads clicking on and on; and tuna casseroles on Fridays. Add in Irish superstitions about impending death if a bird flew in the house. I’m careful with that one.
Her daughters (but not her sons) could iron handkerchiefs and pillowcases; lightly misted first, using the homemade sprinkler bottle (a brown beer bottle with dented aluminum top) perched on the end of her ironing board, beside her ashtray and Old Gold cigarettes. No pop bottle sprinkler for my mother—her brother-in-law owned a brewery; beer was free and beer bottles plentiful.
Mother was a bold presence in our lives, our Commander in Chief. She spoke, we hopped.
A former school teacher, mother passed on her love of books to her children, but my two younger brothers were happier with comic books. I recall a slim maple bookcase: Phonics for Teachers, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, and a wine-coloured encyclopedia set bought from the local grocery store, one volume per week.
Once I saw mother and dad dancing to the Tennessee Waltz. After dinner. Mother still wore her apron.
One hot summer morning, I tore through an assortment of pots and pans until I found the old blue-speckled, dented enamel roaster. Mixing Epsom Salts and warm water, I sloshed it up to mother’s bedroom. She lay in bed, freckles pale, eyes closed. Her right hand on top of a wool blanket, a middle finger red, swollen, angry-looking, infected from a rose thorn. She gratefully slipped her hand into the soothing warmth.
I’m going to be a nurse someday; I can help. I was twelve.
Did we speak that morning, our heads bent, touching? The memory bittersweet, elusive. A mother-daughter still-life, but the mother was dying. Blood poisoning killed her, Dad told us later.
Her last words, “My love to my children.”
How to recall how her death affected me back then? Only gossamer memory threads, despite my longing and searching for them. She was my home, until someone closed the coffin. That fall I stopped looking forward to turning thirteen. How do children survive this most searing loss?
I met him in a Buffalo bar one summer night, when my classmates and I escaped the confines of a Catholic nursing school and watchful nuns to drink, dance, and hunt for husbands. The place was crowded, and we gave thanks for Friday night. I was nineteen.
He was sitting alone, feet resting on a tiny table, ripped white sneakers repaired with adhesive tape. Blond crew cut, hard muscled, with disinterested James Dean eyes. Soon we were dating and groping each other in parking lots.
I was twenty-two and he was twenty-four when we married in the mid ‘60s.
To have and to hold (control?), until death do us part.
I walked down the aisle six-weeks pregnant (We don’t need to use condoms anymore; we’re almost married, he said.), sweating in a satin gown on a hot summer day, worried about armpit stains.
The honeymoon resort was a four-hour drive. I watched him driving. I drank him in, entranced. The Ford Falcon smelled of Old Spice. High on love, I lit a cigarette, sighed, and leaned back into the hot stickiness of the vinyl seat.
After an hour’s drive, he pulled into a motel parking lot at the edge of a cow field.
Honey, why are we stopping here? Aren’t we driving to the resort today?
Don’t call me honey! I hate that! I want to catch the football game.
I pictured my cream satin peignoir set carefully wrapped in tissue paper.
Room #7 had that “yesterday feel” to it, with fake panelled walls, the smell of damp neglect, and flowered curtains clashing with a rough plaid bedspread.
Change the channel, okay? he asked, lounging on top of the bedspread. We had sex at half-time. In the morning, I stood at the window watching cows in a grassy field. An ink-splattered cow watched me calmly, massive bovine head shaking from side to side, her eyes as stupefied as mine.
For most of my marriage I’ve had a recurring nightmare:
I run in terror through a labyrinthine house with uneven floors, and never-ending hallways. It’s dark, with deceitful windows that fail to give promised light. There’s the smell of something evil, of fear. I think I hear something. I’m the prey, stalked by a faceless man in a flapping grey raincoat. I hear footsteps. I run. I find new rooms off old, familiar corridors. Why didn’t I ever see this room before? Can I get trapped in here? He’s coming for me, and I scream.
My screaming wakes me. Help!
Middle of the night. Second night of marriage. Sleep interrupted by hands around my neck, squeezing hard.
No words, no warning.
Chokehold, lungs protesting.
A shriek became a moan, as I struggled to tear his hands away. The first of many escaping efforts.
This bride, this unborn child, will die tonight.
Then it stopped, and he slept, like terror never happened.
I have made a terrible mistake, a terrible mistake, a terrible mistake …
Too shocked to wake him, I lay frozen and still until the birds sang outside; this warm body beside me now so treacherous.
“You choked me last night,” I sobbed when he woke, “Why?”
“I must have been sleepwalking, or you had a bad dream,” he said, “Are you ready for breakfast?”
“Oh.” I said.
So, he was sleepwalking. (My neck denied his dreaming rationale.) The beginning of my denial, starting on day three of marriage. The seed had been planted, and I watered it. Since that night, I panic if bedcovers creep too near my mouth.
Our red-headed daughter arrived eight months later. “Just like your grandmother,” I whispered, cuddling her closely as she nursed. The New Dad had rushed off (It’s my bowling night.), but I didn’t care. I had everything right there in my arms.
A year later I got roses because we had a boy, all spindly arms and legs. “Sweet darling, little monkey,” I whispered. Intense blue eyes watching me, listening.
The second daughter, born four years later, with a head of wild black curls, who settled into me like she would never leave, which was okay with me.
Not yet knowing these babies would become part of his arsenal, his war against me.
After the babies came, I was exhausted by motherhood, and exhausted by abuse. I was wrestling with a ghost I couldn’t see nor understand.
Our parish priest offered advice: “Just go home, dear, keep a clean house, and put a nice meal on the table. Your husband will be grateful.”
The priest was wrong. My husband wasn’t grateful.
One Sunday he wanted a nice roast beef dinner, but due to toddlers and diapers, he got hot dogs with canned sauerkraut.
He ranted, he raved; I called him a son of a bitch, and he didn’t speak to me for two days. Punishment or revenge?
Once, at suppertime, his bowling shirt wasn’t ironed. He watched me silently from the kitchen doorway as I scooped goulash onto plates.
He sighed, “I have bowling tonight. You don’t have my shirt ready.”
“In just a minute,” I said, carrying the kids’ food to the dinner table, when suddenly he lunged at me, ripped the plates from my hands, and dumped them in the kitchen sink.
This is how you can be punished; this is how you can be taught to do better; through hurting your children.
The routine of daily life frozen. The children, silent behind me.
“Why? Why? Let me feed them,” I begged. Reduced to begging.
“You’ll feed them when I say you can, and guess what? That’s not now,” he said.
How do you console your toddlers? How do you console yourself?
When you are young, tired and fear the man you married, when nothing in your life has prepared you for this, when you have never heard the word “abuse” before, how do you comprehend this?
How do you explain your gratefulness when abuse is not happening? Desperate for days with fewer cruelties; desperate for silences to end, accepting any crumbs of normalcy.
Some months later he locked us out of the house. It was early spring, damp and cold. We were in our socks, no shoes or boots. Thinking back, I wonder, why we out there without shoes? Did he shove us out, then lock the door? Did we go for the paper, and hear the click of the lock? That memory thing—slippery, elusive. I pleaded with him, pounding on the door, to let us in. The kids were crying, little hands holding tight to mine. I could see him in his chair, staring at the TV, pretending not to hear.
My mother, if she had lived to witness this, might have taken a hammer to his head. You didn’t mess with my mother. I hugged my children, and thought of leaving him when he unlocked the door.
In a desperate act of insurrection, I said, “I’m leaving you.”
Silence. No response. I walked away. I phoned my dad. Can I come home? Things are really bad here.
No, he said in a strange tone, you’ve made your bed…
Forsaken, I took the little ones up to bed, reading a favourite bedtime story, A. A. Milne’s Disobedience:
Weatherby George Dupree
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three….
I read with tears dripping. Kisses and hugs followed, along with making sure both Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy joined them in their beds.
As a mother, I knew there were limits to my ability to protect them now and my only choice was to leave. I went downstairs. Determined. I stopped. My husband…on the couch…a black pistol on his lap.
“I’ll kill myself if you leave me,” he said, his eyes scanning my face, his hand caressing the gun. An ultimatum.
I remember matchbox cars and a doll carriage forgotten in the corner of the living room, the smell of spaghetti on the stove, and my husband promising suicide.
A TV game show, people screeching about a BRAND-NEW REFRIGERATOR! And silence between us, this moment…this gamble…this gauntlet thrown down.
If he killed himself, it would be my fault. Capitulation.
“Oh, God. I’m sorry, please. Please don’t do this!” And so, he forgave me. He would forget it. He put the gun away and family life lurched on.
Later that night, at my bedroom window, I stared out at a bleak sky with no stars.
I’m trapped, my shoulders sagging, idly watching a fly hurl itself at the window in frantic, useless flight. Fly was buzzing, still fighting. I had surrendered.
So, the years passed by, and his methods of power and control took their toll. The daily effort of living with a cunning abuser was debilitating. Was he always nasty? Oh, no, that would be too obvious. There were good times, too … just enough.
He was only physically abusive when he needed to ramp things up a bit to stay in control. A few shoves, a few punches, blocking doorways; locked out of the house again, but only me this time. Looking back, the physical cruelties are the flesh wounds of abuse. But he years of psychological, emotional, and verbal abuse have scarred me the most. The head games of domestic violence.
My husband was the type of man who laid verbal traps before lobbing a complaint grenade your way. The bait and trap game. Who watched so carefully for opportunities to criticize. One day I counted thirteen complaints in thirteen hours.
“Can I ask you a question?” was a common trick. If I said yes, I opened myself up to an attack. If I said no, you may not, I was being insolent. Either way, I couldn’t win. A query disguised as a beguilingly-polite question that posed no harm, until the trap zinged shut, and I was in its grip. Should I gnaw my leg off now?
“Can I ask you a question? How many times must I tell you how to unpack the groceries? You never listen to me, do you? Just once, I would like a little respect around here.”
One time, I asked, “Can’t you ever say anything nice about me? A compliment? Just once?
“I’ll compliment you when there’s something to compliment you for.”
Three years before my final exit, a nasty nightmare:
In this dream, he was trying to kill me. I hid. Under desks in hospitals, in closets at home, in friend’s cellars. I saw him coming for me, intent on murder. In one hand, he had a bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. In another, a bottle of olive oil and a butane lighter. His plan was to set me on fire. I frantically punched 911 on my cell. “No,” the operator said, “that is not a true emergency.”
I woke up screeching, “Help me, help me!”
Someone came all right, but not to help. By now, I had left our shared bedroom for another bedroom down the hall. A small geographical escape. He crashed my bedroom door against the wall. I shuddered.
“Can you not see I’m trying to sleep? Must you yell out at all hours of the night?” he screamed.
My counsellor once said, “If you put D in front of anger, you get Danger.”
I wish I had a lock on that door.
One of my best escape routes was a 43-year-long nursing career. I could leave him by going to work. Full time, part time, any time. Then one day I retired. No day was free of him. Mad thoughts began to bubble up. Maybe he’ll get hit by a truck and die. But he didn’t get hit by a truck, and he didn’t die.
So, that guilty death fantasy drove me into therapy, asking,
What’s wrong with me?
You’re in an abusive marriage, my counsellor replied. I had questions, and experts in domestic violence had answers.
When I left him five years later, I stayed at my brother’s house, and my husband found me one day. I let him in, regretting it instantly. I could still be drawn in. Old habit.
“I just wanted to see your beautiful face again,” he said in a soft tone, eyes all puppy dog.
“You need to leave,” I said.
“Won’t you please change your mind and come home? I promise I’ll change. You’ll see. I miss you so. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I can’t live without you.” (Said the spider to the fly.)
“You need to leave,” I repeated. (The fly, by this time, was having none of it.)
“Can I at least call you on Skype or email you? Just to hear your voice?”
“No. Goodbye. Go,” I said. And he left. He and his truck rumbled away. Leaving. Then silence. It was the end of us.
I think about my three children, middle-aged now, and their childhood, how it was back then. A mother doing her best, with one hand tied behind her back; failing to fully protect them.
I tell them, I’m sorry I wasn’t a better mom. They find no fault with my mothering, and I am relieved.
They tell me, how’d we turn out, Mom, huh, how’d we turn out?
They are kids to make a mother proud. My mother would’ve cherished them. She might’ve recognized bits of herself in her grandchildren: their kindness and warmth, their wit, and above all, their strength. If you’d ask me, how should a person be? I would point to my kids.
After years of therapy, and three years gone from him, a poignant dream-ending:
Standing on an apartment balcony, I see him across the street on another balcony. He beckons to me, moving his finger. I step forward. He expects obedience. He urges me closer. I move towards the railing, then stop, putting my hand up: No! He sighs, then falls to the alleyway below. I run down and kneel by his side. I put his head in my lap; I know he is dying. I hear him, faintly: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I sob, “I’m sorry, too.” Then I walk away.
I woke, at peace. It was over.
I turn my head now, and look back on those yesterdays filled with the most painful complexity; choices I made both good and bad, when really there were so few choices. How profoundly I lost myself, but how my shackles loosened with years of kicking at them, and years of good therapy, until one day I could walk out that door. That’s the kind of woman that leaves a forty-six-year marriage.
Today I live alone. Solitude. A small apartment so lacking in storage that I shove boxes under the bed. It’s okay, small annoyances don’t bother me.
My life is filled with kids, grandkids, friends and writing at an old desk, slinging words together. Canadian geese honk a greeting at suppertime.
Recently, my five-year-old grandson came to visit.
“Weirdly good,” he announced, enjoying a bowl of tart blueberries sweetened with a splash of maple syrup.
“Grandma, are you ever lonely living here just by yourself?”
I hesitated, surprised a five-year-old would ask this, and knowing my answer would be important.
“No, darling, I’m not lonely here by myself. Sometimes you can be lonely when you live with somebody.”
Spoon in midair, sticky juices dripping down, he paused to think. The air was sweet with Ontario maple syrup. Then with a satisfied sigh, he nodded, spooning up more fruit.
That answer, aloneness-that-is-not-loneliness. Weirdly good.
Maureen Ott is a retired nurse who lives and writes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. She has co-authored Have Mercy: A Nursing Memoir, with two close friends and former classmates from Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. Her short essays have appeared in Revolution: The Journal Of Nurse Empowerment and From The Mouth Of The Lower Niagara River: Stories of Four Historic Communities. Her work was recently shortlisted for Memoir Magazine’s 2018 #MeToo Essay Award contest.