Fear was my father’s favorite game and one I learned to play at four years old. With gleaming green eyes and a wicked sense of humor, my father was a force. His family had always been trouble and trash, but he was equally handsome and charming. My mother met and married him in a whirlwind, oblivious to what lurked just below the surface. His real nature, combined with some after effects of serving in Vietnam, did not stay hidden for long.
The heavy drinking, drug use, and rage escalated after they wed and culminated with a combustion that, like the fireworks one Fourth of July evening, exploded and crackled down over my mother. She had dared to confront him for putting the moves on another woman during the holiday festivities and, before she knew it, was on the floor and at the mercy of his boots. She was four months pregnant with me.
Into the Heart of Fear
She left, but as many soon-to-be mamas might do, was lured back by his promise that it would never happen again and that they could and should be a family. He kept his word while she was carrying me, but the darkness in him crested again one winter night when I was eighteen months old. That fit of rage—over what my mother cannot remember—providentially ended when, groggy from sleep, I yelped, “Daddy!” from my crib as he tried to strangle her on the floor next to me. He released her throat from between his hands and as soon as my mother could muster her strength, she gathered what was left of our things and her dignity and we ran.
We moved in with my grandmother and enjoyed some semblance of peace for a time. However, despite my mother’s best efforts to have his rights revoked because of his history of violence, the court ordered that my father be allowed unsupervised visitation with me. The memories from those forced visits are thankfully few, but the damage was plenty.
Some of the details are blessedly fuzzy now, but I clearly remember the tiny little ramshackle house we lived in at the time. Nestled up on a southern Colorado hilltop, the house was a faded buttery yellow and had a driveway that banked steeply off the right side. By the tender age of four, I had already learned that speed and weed make for a wild teeter-totter of a man, and that his favorite way to terrorize me was with mind games. I learned hard and fast how to make myself scarce when the volume got a little louder and his eyes sparked with malice. But a child is only so savvy, and as anyone who has ever lived with an addict or an abuser knows, sometimes there simply isn’t enough time to hide. The day fear truly squeezed its fingers around my heart was on one of those unfortunate occasions.
The promise of a surprise trip (perhaps to the park or to the zoo) had served as bait. Whatever the lure, it must have been compelling enough for my excitement to ignore the warning flags flapping in the wind. In my eagerness, I scurried to the passenger side of our clunker, mindful of the steep drop off at the edge of the driveway.
I waited for him to open the heavy door so I could climb into the back seat, but was even more delighted when, in a saccharine voice he rarely used, he offered to let me ride in the front seat like a big girl. He opened the passenger door for me and I scrambled in and started trying to put my seat belt on (because even then I was a seatbelt and safety kind of girl). But as he leaned in over me and pulled the seat belt out of my sticky little hands, I smelled the liquor on his breath and the alarm bells began to clang.
My worst fears were confirmed when my eyes rose to meet that all-too-familiar glint in his. Suddenly all my excitement waned, my tummy plunged, and I knew. And as I sat momentarily paralyzed with fear, he ambled around the front of the car and folded himself into the driver’s side seat beside me. Like bile, panic rose and then peaked, and I began to yank at my seat belt and plead for him to close my still-open car door. But the trap had been set; without so much as looking at me, he calmly turned over the ignition, cranked up the radio, shifted into reverse, and slammed on the gas.
Thankfully, I have no memory of what happened next, but the vivid snaps of sound, smell and sensation from that moment remain. To this day, the feel of a warm seat leather under my bare thighs, Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, and the pungent odor of skunk spray lingering in the air transport me back to that betrayal, to that man that tried to cast me from his car like litter.
Out of the Frying Pan
Soon after that incident, my mom and I fled to the west Texas desert to start a new life entirely. But that day with the car—those years around my dad—hollowed away at my heart. And wounds from other men and experiences only continued to carve a canyon in me—one I was at a total loss to fill. My mother eventually remarried a man she hoped would be harmless to both of us, but the emotional safety he offered soon showed itself to be emotional forsaking.
Throughout the thirteen years they were married, I have only two happy memories of him and most of the rest don’t include him at all. He tolerated me on the best days and made his disgust known on the worst. When that marriage came to its inevitable end, he never so much as said hello after they said goodbye. Once again, I felt discarded—like one of the stray dogs people used to dump on our rural county road.
The canyon in my soul deepened and, in my need to numb the emotional vertigo, I buried myself in books, music, and writing. In my desperation to be wanted, I gave myself away. For years I lived a self-fulfilling prophecy where I expected men to hurt me and they were more than happy to oblige. By the time I turned twenty-five, all the men who had promised to love me had betrayed and abandoned me. The canyon in me yawned and I found myself at the bottom of it, where there was finally nowhere left to fall but to my knees. So I did.
Now mind you, I knew nothing of God then. Call it cliché, but my experiences with men had warped any comforting view of God I might have clung to. I knew only that if he were real, he would likely want no part of me. But it was there, with nothing but silence all around me and surrender within me, that I finally heard his voice. I recognized it instantly—his voice was so gentle and familiar, like an age-old song I knew all the words to but just couldn’t hear until the noise abruptly stopped at the party.
My Father’s Hands
God saw who I was and where I was, yet he offered me his hand not to strangle my soul but to soothe it. I was astounded. I had heard God described as arrogant, I had experienced God as apathetic, but I found that he was neither. The God I discovered in the pages of scripture and in the night when I whisper-wailed out to him responded with declarations of love. I ran words like grace and mercy over my tongue for the first time and found them honeysweet. He beckoned me to him and there was nothing left to do but arise and accept his hand in faith. So I did.
Those days of seeking him—of finding him and of being found—are some of the most precious in my life. They fall second only to the season I bask in now when I can look back on the nearly twenty years since and marvel at his goodness. His light has left no shadow even in the deepest crevices in my heart, his truth has dispelled so many lies, and his love has loosened the fingers of fear that clung on from so much trauma. Fear is finally becoming much more foreign to me than faith. I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and now, though perfectly satisfied in him, I hunger for him insatiably. I do believe that I will always need Jesus a little more than the average girl, but I also believe Jesus’s promise to bless those who acknowledge their need for him, so that suits me just fine.
Someone once asked me if I would take back all the damage I suffered and decisions I rendered in my “B.C.” days. Certainly, there are people I used to be that I grieve for and things I have done that I lament over. But if escaping those scars lessened my yearning for God as a result of them, I would choose the wounds. Yes, the world sought to make me weaker with them, but I am believing God’s promise that he is sufficient. The paradox of faith is this: the journey to becoming whole is both instant and always. But I trust the one I’m tethered to finish the good work he has started in me and redeem the brokenness for my good and his glory. I am not fully whole, but I am wholly his. And that is plenty.
Cover image by noor Younis.