On Waves

“There was a star riding through clouds one night, & I said to the star, ‘Consume me’.”
-Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Recovering from abuse is a lot like grief. Like grief, recovery from abuse is not a straight line. It is also not a circle. It is more like waves.

Some days, I think I’m doing great. Other days, I am carried away by waves. 

There were some events recently that triggered something in me–a shift–a bout of sadness, feelings of anger. What is anger but a terrible mixture of all other emotions? A terrible cocktail of sadness, hopelessness, frustration, and futility.

I’m not talking about triggers like the kind of triggers that require trigger warnings. I’m fortunate to rarely have those triggers anymore. I’m talking more about events that set off a wave of something. Of sadness. Or anger. Or grief. Or loss. Anything can be that trigger.

The song “Wonderwall” by Oasis is one of those triggers. Caleb sang that song to me at our wedding. It was our song. Hearing that song now can set off a wave, so I loaded that song into my iPhone so I would hear it all the time, so that it would be stripped of its power. And one night, when two of my favorite girlfriends were at my house, and I made lasagna and spinach salad, and they did the dishes, my son and my friend’s son ran around “battling,” and we put my iPhone in the docking station and danced, and that song came on. One friend stopped, “I love this song,” she said dreamily. 

“Caleb sang this song to me at our wedding,” I said. “It was our song. I don’t know why I make myself listen to it now.” 

And after they left, I sat down with my computer, and I did something foolish. I opened up Facebook, I typed in the name of Caleb’s new girlfriend. I snooped on her, and she had posted that she was at a gas station, and the song “Wonderwall” came on. She had tagged Caleb in the post. I thought, What kind of timing is this?

And I thought, Wow, he’s singing our song to her now. And I remembered him with the band at our wedding. He had taken off his tux jacket. He was playing his guitar. I sat in a chair in my wedding dress watching him while he sang. I felt so cherished, and so loved. I remembered the way his dad looked at me with such pride. We had just met, but he adored me. He raved about how much his mother would have loved me. He raved about how much his mother would had loved my red hair. He raved until my mother-in-law snipped that “She would have loved you because you have real red hair,” and it was apparent that she was feeling unappreciated, so he stopped saying that, but I still felt special.

And I remembered the way Caleb’s best friend drank too much and said, “You are so pretty. He told me how pretty you were, but you’re even prettier. You look like a redheaded Reese Witherspoon.” None of this was true. I looked nothing like Reese Witherspoon, and I have never been very pretty, but again, I felt cherished.

And I remembered the way Caleb’s best female friend said to me, “I couldn’t imagine anyone better for Caleb than you. He picked the perfect woman. He needs someone like you in his life.”

And all of those people hate me now, which is so hard for me.

It is hard to speak the truth. I could have been silent. I could have acted like the divorce was amicable. That is what Caleb wanted me to do. That is what I did in the beginning. There is a price for speaking out, but there is also a price for silence. I chose my price. I chose to be despised.

But that song, which I thought I had stripped of its power, carried me off on a wave. Still, with Caleb’s girlfriend’s post–and her eerie timing–the universe presented me with a gift. I blocked her on Facebook. I had never before felt the need to snoop on anyone on Facebook, and because of that, Facebook has generally brought me nothing but happiness and community. This was the first time I had experienced that notorious Facebook sadness, so I blocked her. I have no desire to know that he’s singing our song to her, or that she thinks “he’s amazing even when he’s just drinking his morning coffee.” That is between them. 

And then, there was another triggering moment. I had had a difficult day. I had ended a connection with someone I cared about because I felt that it was no longer a healthy connection for me. I am working to make the right decision, even when that decision is not what I want, but I don’t like endings; I like beginnings. This ending was difficult for me, and I was feeling sad, and then, I had to drive Reed to meet Caleb. Usually, Caleb and I don’t get out of our cars, but this night, he got out and stood outside my window. It became apparent that he wanted me to get out as well. He held a box in his hands. He told me, “I’m sorry. I’ve had this box. It has your letters in it.” He handed me the  box, and I didn’t think much of it. I had no idea what it contained.

But, when I got home, I opened it, and right at the top was an envelope, and it had my name written in the handwriting I recognize all too well. It was a song that he had written me for Valentine’s Day one year. He had typed it, and it was all about how he loved to wake up and feel me in the bed beside him, how he loved to see the sunlight reflected on my hair, how he hoped that things would never change. The final page had hand-written in large letters, “I love you, Kelly.” And the truth is that I didn’t even remember that song. I thought back, and then I realized he wrote me that song during a year when I wanted to leave him but didn’t feel I could. I had sat on the couch that Valentine’s morning, and he had sang me that song, and I had been unmoved. I remember thinking, If you feel this way, then why do you treat me the way you do? 

But, at the time, I had put those thoughts aside, and I stayed with him for two more years. For two more years, I was carried along on waves of intense affection alternating with ambivalence and terror.

But when Caleb gave me that box, and I was confronted with that song, the universe, again, offered me something else in return. There was another letter in the box. It was a letter from my first love–a man with whom I’d had an on and off again relationship throughout my twenties–a man I would have married, but also would have regretted. And his letter said, “You were a wonderful friend and lover. My life was pulled in so many different directions the last time we talked. I’m sorry I didn’t know how to appreciate a good woman with a kind heart who knew how to love.” 

And I needed that. I needed to hear that my love was worth something to someone.

And there was another triggering moment. (It has been a month full of moments.) This time, I was getting my hair cut. My hairstylist is chatty. She had asked me what my book was about, so I told her, but now, she knows my story. She started telling me about an experience she had with witnessing domestic violence. She told me about how the guy beat the woman, but he was so different when he was with his friends, so it was really hard for them not to like him, even though they love her. She said, “Besides, she’ll just bail him out when he gets arrested, so it’s not like she’s not a part of it.”

And I said nothing. I said nothing about how hopeless that woman must feel because their mutual friends don’t even care that she’s being abused. I said nothing about how important it is to take sides in cases of abuse. I said nothing about how hurtful it is to have the abuse minimized because “he’s not like that with me.“I said nothing about how the woman probably bails the man out because she loves him, but also because she’s been brainwashed, and she obviously isn’t supported if her friends are willing to think the problem is mutual.

I said nothing about that, and then, my hairstylist told me about another man she knew who was extremely abusive, and his son (who is her friend) had told her, “Well, any time you want to get away with beating a woman, you just have to do the hair punch.” She said that, and she paused for effect. She laughed. She held the scissors in her hand. “Can you believe that?” she said, head cocked.

My eyes met hers in the mirror. I was sick. “What does that mean?” I said. I had never heard that term before. And, then, she could no longer look at me. She looked back at my hair. 

“It means that they punch you in the hair because no one can see it there.” She looked back up. Her eyes met mine again.

“That’s what my husband did to me,” I said. I didn’t take my eyes away. 

“That’s what he did to me.” I probably shouldn’t have said it, but I did.

There was an awkward silence. I remembered the first time Caleb “hair punched” me. I had a hair appointment a couple of days later with a stylist who was very difficult to get into. This salon was fancy, and part of the service was a head massage. I kept my appointment. It was a terrible idea. My head was swollen and spongy. She massaged it, and the pain was so intense. I had to fight not to cry, and, despite my thick, curly hair, I think she felt the swelling. Her hands grew more gentle when she skimmed over the swollen parts. 

She was also the woman who cut off my hair after I left him. I didn’t tell her why, but she knew. I’m sure she knew.

Another wave. Those damn waves just keep coming.

And yesterday, Reed was the featured student in his class. He presented a book about himself and his family. The parents were invited to attend. Because I am Reed’s parental contact, Caleb doesn’t receive these communications, but I invited him to come anyway. I knew that it would mean a lot to Reed to have both parents there. But it was hard for me. It was the first time that Caleb and I had been in the same room since the day I left him. That day, I hurried around the apartment packing as quickly as I could while he followed me around yelling “You are provoking me to abuse you!” He had a no-contact order against him, and he would have been thrown in jail if he had abused me, so he kept shouting “You are provoking me to abuse you!” because he was so frustrated that he couldn’t abuse me.

It never occurred to him that I was actually leaving. He didn’t believe that I would actually leave him. But I left. I did leave that day, and I never went back, and it’s been over two years, and yesterday, for the first day since, we were in the same room as each other. Reed was so happy to have his dad there, but it must have been painful for Caleb, as it was for me. It was obvious that I’m the custodial parent, that I’m the one who is raising him. I know his teachers. I know his life. Caleb didn’t even know which classroom was his.

Reed wrote in his book that he has “two” family members because, as he said to me, “I just think of you and me as my family because I live with you.” And on the first page, he wrote his name as “Reed Dylan Sundberg Winters.” Caleb visibly winced when Reed read that out loud. I kept my maiden name when we married, and we didn’t give it to Reed, but Reed has chosen to unofficially give it to himself, and that makes me feel very cherished.

Still, after the presentation. I drove to a bakery, and I fought not to cry. I’m not going to lie. I did cry in the car a little bit, but I knew that if I went home, that I would really cry, and it wasn’t going to be a good, cathartic, and cleansing crying. So I drove to a bakery. And then, a few of my friends came to see me, and they got me through that wave. 

And Reed went with his dad for the weekend, and we are all getting along as best we can. 

I have an essay coming out in the next issue of Denver Quarterly. You can order a copy at the link if you’re so inclined, but in that essay, I write about watching the Salmon jump at Dagger Falls on the Salmon River while holding Reed in my arms when he was a baby. I write:

I wouldn’t let him go. I might jump, but I wouldn’t take him. I wouldn’t let him be swept into those waves with me.

This picture was taken at Boundary Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the same day that I held Reed above Dagger Falls.