I read a new blog yesterday that a friend of mine has just started. It made me remember a few situations from my childhood that I still carry with me, where I wish I had been able to be more proactive. I look back and wonder sometimes what might have been different in that person’s life, not to mention my own, if I had actually intervened by saying or doing something. I understand that as a kid I was pretty powerless, but I still chastise myself every once in a while for not doing more.
One winter evening when all was dark outside the windows of the sunroom of my family’s house, I sat watching TV as I waited for my father to come home and my mother to finish fixing dinner. The memory is fixed enough in my mind for me to know that I was still in elementary school, and that probably it was a week night. “Wednesday” comes to mind when I pin down a day. I answered the phone when it rang from its perch on the top of the radiator cover next to me. It was one of my dear friends, a girl whose house was catty-corner to mine, a short trip around behind a couple of garages and into her yard instead of a long trip around the block by sidewalk. She was distraught as I had never heard her before.
“Please, Chrisy,” she sobbed. “Please can I come and spend the night at your house tonight? I don’t want to stay at my house any longer.” I remember thinking that the call was odd, and that because it was a week night it would be unlikely she could spend the night, but something about the urgency of her voice made me brave the rejection of my mother to ask anyway.
“Absolutely not,” my mother replied when I told her my friend wanted to come spend the night. My mother used the tone of voice that let me know there was no negotiating her response. I went with a heavy heart back to the phone to tell my friend she couldn’t come over.
“Please,” she begged again. “My parents are drunk and they are fighting. Can you come over here and spend the night with me, then? If you are here they won’t come in my room and scream at me.” I understood her desperation, suddenly. I would convince my mother to relent, and either way my friend would be with me, or I would be with her. I went back to the kitchen.
“Mom,” I said. “Please can’t she come and spend the night or can’t I go over there? Her parents are drunk and fighting and she’s scared.” I thought for sure if my mother understood the gravity of the situation she’d relent. I told her the truth of what I’d heard so that my mother would get it, too. We knew these people. They were neighbors and friends, adults, too.
“No.” she said. I was stung by her response. How could she not help my friend, I wondered. I felt terrible going back to that phone yet again to tell my friend no. I just didn’t get it. My mother never did offer any explanation.
One morning maybe a year later, after I’d left to walk to school, there was a terrible fire. My friend’s mother was drunk and had been smoking in bed. She set the bed on fire. “I thought it was the black maid they were carrying out,” my mother said as she told me the scenario of watching the fire department pull my friend’s mother out of the master bedroom window.
My friend moved away right after that. Her parents got divorced, the house was sold.
I saw her mother some months later in the living room of another mutual friend. “Hello, Chrisy,” she said to me as I walked in. I stared at her. She had on a brown wig. I barely recognized her, and I was horrified when I realized who it was. She was the first person I ever saw whose face had been horribly burned. She wore a short sleeved blouse and her arms were every bit as scarred as her face. I remember her skin being remarkably smooth for having been so damaged. I was frightened and relieved at the same time. Somehow I hadn’t believed she was still alive.
I saw my friend a few times after that. Her father stayed in the area though her mother had moved west. My friend came to visit her father in the summers. I was invited to spend the day with them every once in a while when my friend came. I remember driving around in a fancy convertible to the nearby beach. The car was very expensive. Once we went to the yacht club for lunch. Visits were few and far between.
The last time I saw my friend we were freshmen in college. We met for lunch at an old and famous diner not far from where we used to live. I was into Tarot Cards. She was into Jesus. “Those cards are an instrument of Satan, you know,” she said to me. “Please put them away.”
I don’t know what ever happened to her. I hope she found solace somewhere, and hopefully a family of her own, as far from the emotional space of her family of origin as possible. Would being able to come to my house that night have made a difference? Would it have helped to think she had a safe haven somewhere, anywhere? To this day, I think it might.