WARNING: ADULTS ONLY. Readers are strongly cautioned. “Broken” portrays sensitive subject matters including animal abuse, torture, and graphic sexual violence. There is strong language, drug reference and is not suitable for some audiences. Please proceed with caution.
I stood staring out the window an hour later. William sat waiting as I took in a deep breath. The sun still bathed the green land in gold, but black clouds had rolled in from the Irish sea.
“How often do you have breakdowns like that?” he asked.
I watched the wind rustle the trees, paying no mind to his question before answering.
“Not often,” I said. “I can feel the anxiety long before I get to that point and know how to end the conversation or steer it off topic without others knowing. Most of the time, I don’t talk about myself. And people don’t ask. I never talk about myself. So long as the topic stays off my past, I’m good.”
With a sigh, I left the window and returned to the table. There, I settled myself back down in my chair.
“When I talk about this,” I said. “When I exhume these memories, there is no avoidance or curtailing the topic. The anxiety will arise. It’s why I warned you.”
He peered down at his notes. He looked uncertain of what to say if he should say anything at all.
“Ready to continue?” I asked.
* * *
The next two years passed with a steady amount of problems with my brother. He proceeded to torture the snakes and frogs and any other wildlife he could get his hands on. Six months after Patches died, we adopted two cats.
The cats were a whole other nightmare for me. For the first fifteen years of my life, they were the only physical contact I would have. For the first twenty two years of my life, they were the only pleasurable contact I would have. If I cried, I held a cat. If I was lonely, I held a cat. I virtually grew up without any human contact. It was so absent that I didn’t even know it was missing. I thought the lack of physical touch was normal and I wouldn’t question it or even notice it until I was well into my second marriage with three children.
The cats had their rabies shots, but the distemper shots and any spaying and neutering were considered financial luxuries we couldn’t afford. Nearly every kitten that was born into that house contracted distemper. Mucus builds up in their sinus cavity and respiratory system until the kitten suffocates on their own discharge. My cat would bear kittens and, one by one, I watched them die. More kittens were born and I too, watched them die.
When I found them, I couldn’t leave them, after all that they had done for me, holding them until they took their last breath was the least I could do for them. Alone, I grieved and alone I cried. Death and I became very close acquaintances.
Dinners continued as expected. I was carefully taught that I was selfish and worthless. By the time I associated food with rejection, my father added another layer to my value.
Back then, my father was a penny counter. Every spec of food, every drop of milk consumed launched a breakdown of how much we cost him. The financial expense didn’t end there. Every Christmas, every birthday, every article of clothing, everything we needed—school supplies and toiletries—was tallied up and the breakdown thrown back at us. By my fifteenth birthday, I had concluded that I was worth one dollar.
My brother had developed an odd sense of humor at the expense of others. Within those two years, he threw the cat down the stairs. She landed on me and shredded my back. He blew ground pepper in my eyes. He insisted he was trying to make me sneeze. Maybe he was, but Charles was apathetic and held himself above the law. If it was an honest mistake, there was too much in question to believe him. My mother reinforced my brother’s behaviors with her incessant reassurance that “boys will be boys.” And so life went on until the thirteenth day of September in 1990. I was ten years old.
The phone had rung at six o’clock that morning. I remember laying there thinking how odd it was to hear the phone ring so early. It was raining so I lay awake and listened to the rain. Seven o’clock came and went. We should have been up an hour ago. That morning, my mother did not come in to wake us. I climbed out of bed and made my way down the hall. She was in the kitchen crying. The school bus would be there soon.
“What’s wrong?” Charles asked.
My mother said nothing.
Eugene and Marie entered the kitchen. We stood there around my mother and waited.
“Mum,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
She sniffled and quietly sobbed into a tissue. After several moments where we all stood about pondering, she spoke.
“There’s been an accident,” she managed to say.
A sick feeling came over me. Something bad had happened and we stood waiting for the news.
“Last night…” My mother gulped down a mouthful of tears. “Your uncle was driving home from church when they were hit head-on by a semi-truck.”
* * *
I stared at my folded hands resting on the kitchen table.
“Why stop there?” William said. “What happened?”
I shook my head.
“I can not do this justice. That story belongs to my aunt and she needs to be the one to tell it.”
I stood and cleared the mugs from the table. When that was done, I took up a dish cloth and absentmindedly wiped down the counter.
“My aunt has a strength in her that I have seen in no other,” I said and threw the rag in the sink. “She wasn’t in that car accident…because she was home with son. My aunt buried three of her children and her husband while nursing her one week-old.”
William stared as I shook my head.
“I have no right to tell her story,” I said. I could feel another wave of tears building and I shoved them back down. “The grief and the hurt I felt was a fraction of the loss she suffered. I will not go on for hours reliving the agony and the grief of my loss when hers far outstrips mine.”
I sighed and ran my hands over my face before continuing.
“You need to know, aside from the cats, that this was my first real introduction to death. You need to know that we spent the next year in Pennsylvania. The lone survivor of that accident was my nine-year old cousin, Hannah.”
I sighed and, settling myself back to the table, I threw my head back and gazed out the window at the black clouds.
“Hannah walked away with brain damage and a broken leg that would never grow again. Her mind had been reset. She had to relearn how to walk, how to talk, how to read, how to write all at age nine. Today, she has a child of her own and to look at her, to talk to her…you can’t tell she ever had to start life over.
“My mother told me that the adults—my aunt, my grandparents, nurses, and doctors—hoped my exposure to Hannah would help her recovery because she and I had been close. This came from my mother. I don’t know if it’s true. I do know that I spent the next year at Hannah’s bedside.”
William scribbled his notes while I thought back to that year.
“Some things are harder to remember more than others,” I muttered. William looked up from his notes. “But that year, some memories are very clear.”
I sighed and turned my attention to William.
“I do not wish to overshadow my aunt’s suffering with my own,” I said. “So I will be brief. I walked away from my tenth year detesting the taste of Death’s bitter hand and I suffered it alone. After my mother told us that my cousins and uncle had died, my siblings and I stood in the kitchen and cried. Not one hug was exchanged among us. Not. One.”