When a Father Goes on the Run, What Happens to the Children Left Behind? What Becomes Normal?

It’s been hard to write the past few weeks. A few days ago, I spent around two hours discussing grief and trauma–what it means to carry a weary soul–with Philip. Everything feels harder in trauma–like we’re trying to run and keep up with life with weighted vests bearing down on our chests. We are struggling to pull oxygen into our lungs to give this vital life source to our blood, especially our injured brains.

After talking with him, I thought I would be able to get Arabella to bed because I was beyond exhaustion–my legs were beginning to feel arthritic from my Lyme’s Disease, and as I stared through my eyes, there was a fog emanating from my thinking. I wasn’t fully present in my body because it was shutting down as I pushed the adrenaline harder commanding all that is me to sit in her bed with a listening mind. As she finally fell asleep with her head in my lap, I slowly moved my legs to the floor to bear the painful weight of being upright and stumbled down the hall to my bed. My brain was begging me for rest.

The moment my legs were horizontal in my bed, I began to feel both the deep ache of angry inflammation through bone, muscle, and nerves, while at the same time, collapsing into a mental relief of  “I can stop now.” Stop moving. Stop thinking. Stop feeling. Stop pushing myself for today. Today is always another day to get up and fight, but at night, at least my body can stop. My mind and heart don’t. I’m not there yet, but the relief my body has been begging me for, I can finally grant it. 

Gavin came in to say goodnight to me and seemed a bit off, but I expect that on most days right now. He lingered in my room, slowly walking around both sides of my bed, and I finally asked, “Well, how was your day?”

“It was fine. I mean, I really enjoyed my honor’s music theory class, and I feel pretty good about exams next week” he said.

“That sounds really good. It’s nice to feel a little bit of normalcy some days.” I had a gentle smile on my face. I know normalcy is mainly just a moment here and there.

“Yeah, definitely. But, um, I actually had another panic attack in first period today.” His voice was calm as he moved to sit at the edge of my bed. His head was turning down, and I couldn’t see his eyes anymore.

Like I said, only moments.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.

“I mean, I guess so. I mean, I guess they’re just happening more often, and the weirdest things trigger it happening, and I’m figuring it out, you know. This time, I thought it was going to be okay. I could feel myself breathing faster and getting lightheaded, but I thought it was getting better. But, then, it just got worse. I couldn’t make it stop. So I snuck out of class to the bathroom,” he said.

“What happened in the bathroom?” I asked.

“I just scream and cry, and cry like I’m screaming, and I don’t know why it’s happening or what to do, and I guess that’s maybe why I just feel weird tonight….and just so tired, like eventually it stops, but it stays with me for a few days, just kind of hanging around me–these strange feelings.”

He continued, “But then this kid in class saw that I had left, and he came in, and he helped me calm down. I mean, I don’t know how he noticed that I had left, but he just helped me. He’s two years older than me, and he didn’t have to notice, but he did. And, I mean, I’m glad he found me in the bathroom.”

“I’m really glad that you weren’t alone love. It helps to not be alone when we’re dealing with the pain.” He didn’t say anything, so I decided to ask an uncomfortable question–because I know speaking the uncomfortable places into existence actually releases them and reminds all of us that we’re not strangers in our pain–that we all experience it–and that we are even connected to so many others in this world who go through the same things.

“Do you remember what happened to trigger you?” I was asking the part down the middle of his head because he was still talking to the comforter on my bed.

“My music teacher started singing a song, you know the one with the words, you gotta know when to hold them, and know when to fold them–Chris used to sing that around me all the time. I forgot that he used to sing that. It was like I heard his voice.”

It seems stupid, but it just….something inside me couldn’t hold back what I was feeling.” I finally catch a glimpse of his eyes, and I lock into the gentle hazel windows to his soul. 

As a mother, a piece of me dies inside when I hear his pain, and I hide it because I just want him to feel safe…to have an active listener who adores him on the other side of his hesitancy to tell his story. I remind him this is all normal, this is all hard, there will be hard days, and there might be some good days thrown in too–but that his life, his experience, his emotions are real. They matter–and they are his treacherous path towards healing.

We both agree that letting the tears have their way with us may be the best way to release the emotional toxins we hold inside.

I rub his back as I walk him into his bedroom calling his dog up onto the bed. As he lays down, I pull his comforter up to his chin, and push his silky blond hair back from his forehead, so that I can bend over and place my cheek on his cheek. In that closeness, I whisper how I adore him, I whisper that he is brave for talking about it, and I kiss his forehead.

I turn off his light and walk in darkness out of his room shutting the door behind me. 

As I walk back down the hall to my bedroom, I remember, and I don’t know if he does yet. But, I have looked through pictures many times over now and I have been reminded. Because at one point I forgot. I forgot that every night we stayed in the lakehouse after Chris left, Gavin slept on a mattress in my bedroom at the foot of my bed with his dog. He wouldn’t go to sleep unless I was in bed, he held his dog tightly throughout the night. He didn’t want to sleep. He didn’t want to feel. He was scared, but he never said it out loud. Never spoke of his grief. He just made sure I was there and quietly moved through life. His eyes, his voice, have been vacant more than they have been present this past year. 

I remember that the first time he slept on a mattress in our bedroom was after I had filed two police reports at the lakehouse. The first one someone had tried to break into the house two weeks after we moved in. The second one was only two days later.

 I went out to my car, and it had been keyed on every single panel with the word LIAR etched into the passenger side door. That night, Chris made us all sleep in the master bedroom. He pulled the boys’ mattresses downstairs into our bedroom, and pulled in a section of the couch from the living room that he sat in all night. 

Chris sat there awake all night holding a loaded gun while Gavin slept on the floor at the bottom of our bed. Arabella was in bed with me, and Philip was on the floor to the left of our bed.

Chris and Gavin have the same color eyes–that night Chris’ eyes looked just as lifeless as Gavin’s have looked throughout this past year–terrified, numb, confused, overwhelmed. I can’t help but think Gavin was very aware of Chris’ glazed condition those last few months, and in particular, that night in which we were somehow prisoners in our own home, none of us understanding why. 

Just because you are released from prison, doesn’t mean you don’t still feel locked up inside. We all do.

After tucking Gavin in, I crept into my bed, barely able to maneuver my body under the covers. During this last great effort of energy for the day, Arabella opened my bedroom door, her eyes were glazed over. 

“Sweetheart, I love you, I’m right here,” I said.

Her balled hands were instantly rubbing her eyes as she ran to climb up into my bed.

“I’m here, are you okay?” I asked.
Almost inaudibly she said, ‘I…I mean nightmare.”

“Do you want to talk about it? I”m right here, and you’re safe with Mommy,” I said.

“NO..it’–too…it’s scary,” she mumbled as she pulled herself into the fetal position inside my torso.

I can feel the heaving rhythm of her body, and I know the extreme breathing movements means she’s crying.

“Can you tell me why you’re crying? I love you, and you’re safe right now,” I whisper.

I wait for a response, but when she stays quiet, I decide that she will hopefully tell me in the morning. I allow my eyes to close and my mind to give in to the fatigue.

Without warning, she screams, “Mommy, I JUST ONLY FEEL SAFE AT HOME!!” 

“You are safe at home, and you are at home now. You are safe. I’m here; sleep in safety; I’m here” I said.

I know why she feels this way–a year ago, I had to let her know that if she ever saw her Dad, she wasn’t allowed to go with him. That it wouldn’t be safe. We have all sorts of weird habits in place to keep us safe (which I can’t even elaborate on–in order to keep us safe). She lives these habits, but it is not an ordinary childhood. Her bus driver has a picture of each person she is allowed to go to when she gets off the bus. Is she wrong in her assessment? Is the safest place for her at home? Or at the very least, is it the place where she worries the least about being unsafe? The other day, she told me she decided to memorize all our phone numbers. How does a six-year-old decide on her own that this is important information for her to know by heart– is it a skill that could be necessary, or are we creating a paranoid family?

But, I also know that she lived with me and a personal bodyguard for close to a year. We were never alone.

Many people have asked me why. I have the reasons Chris gave me, but I can’t say that I know why. I know that we lived in an emotional prison with someone always watching us, constantly feeling scared for our safety during that time against an unknown threat. That doesn’t just go away overnight for a child–we were never alone. The bodyguard followed wherever we went; we had someone constantly watching us whether we saw them or not. Eventually, I was shown that I had a tracker on my car. A child’s innocent intuition must pick up on the subconscious fears of all the adults around her. When did she decide to make them her own too?

Both kids are finally resting, and the exhaustion I felt has left my mind. Now, I begin to run a marathon, my body evading sleep, trying to figure out how to undo any portion of what my children have been exposed to as “normal.” Because nothing about any of this is normal.

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