- John and I August 1990
1990 was a summer of new hopes and possibilities, of a new relationship and the beginning of a new life. For the first time in years I was excited about my future and I what each day had to offer. My life was not that of a typical 15 year old, but I not only came to terms with my new life- I embraced it. It was incredible to not feel pain every single day. I worked hard at my jobs and at school, I worked hard to care for my sister and I worked hard to be the kind of young woman that resembled nothing of her mother.
John continued to call me every day after he got off work and we would talk for hours. He was a friend like I had never experienced before- I was able to talk to him about anything- openly and honestly- and I felt a connection with him that I thought only happened in fairy tales. He would listen to me when I told him of my fears and concerns he would reassure me that I could and would be okay. He was the first person to ever tell me I was strong or that I was beautiful or to have faith in me. John was like no one I had ever met before. He allowed me to take things with us at a snails pace- talking on the phone together for months before we finally reunited- seeing each other for the first time since the day we met. We went on walks, he would come for dinner and sometimes he would drop off his clothes in the morning and then after work he would come by to have dinner and then take his clean clothes back home with him. I asked him the first time he dropped off his clothes if I found any change in his pockets if I could keep it and he told me I could. Imagine my surprise when doing his laundry one day I found $78 in his pocket! It was a fortune to me who had very little money at all. I thought maybe he had left it there on purpose as a thank you for doing his laundry. So I took the money and went to the store and bought groceries that we desperately needed. John came by after work that day for dinner and his clothes and I had made a special dinner of spaghetti and garlic bread- simple but extravagant for my sister and I at that time. I told him about the money I found in his pocket all while trying to act nonchalantly as though I didn’t suspect he left the money on purpose. Little did I know at that time that he definitely did not leave the money on purpose- it was all the money he had to his name for two weeks until his next payday. I probably should have suspected something when he came for dinner every single night for two weeks but I was so happy to have him with me, I was blissfully ignorant.
The house where it all happened
Months had gone by and life had settled into a comfortable new normal for my sister and I that included John more and more. My sister adored him- perhaps its was the fact he was so incredibly handsome, perhaps it was the fact that he was the only stable and kind man in our lives, or perhaps it was because he would bring chocolate chip ice cream when he came to visit. Whatever the case, we were a happy family together the three of us. John was always the gentleman and never stayed overnight and always was respectful in front of my sister. It was more than I could have ever dreamed of, so when a knock came to the door one day and it was my mother on the other side- I felt as though the devil had come calling. She invited herself inside and with half accusing and half scoping eyes, she surveyed the clean house that was the home of my sister and I. Before I knew it, she was bringing her things in the house- telling me that she had split with Bret and that things would be different- that they changed this time- she really meant it this time- and without listening to any of my pleads for her to leave, she moved herself in. My new world had gone supernova and she was the black hole at the epicenter.
It took only four days before Bret was at the house when I came home from work one day- just to visit my mother swore- although I knew better. Over the next few days I would find a box labeled with his name in “my mothers room”, or I would find his cassette tapes in the living room by the stereo, or his dog in the backyard. I watched as one window at a time was shut, and the drapes were pulled closed and my life began to be filled with darkness once again.
I felt my world spiraling away from me and before I knew it- my mother and Bret were back, John had left halfway across the country, and my dreams were being replaced by nightmares. The only bit of reprieve was found in the still nightly phone calls I received from John to make sure I was okay. It was many times the only thing that kept me sane and impatiently I would sit in the kitchen, waiting for the clamor from the phone that held the deep loving voice that loved me from 1,500 miles away.
I tried to keep myself busy enough that I was not at home much- often going straight from work to my mother’s parents apartment that was just a few blocks from my secretarial job. My mother and I lived with them when I was just a toddler when she divorced from my biological father. Many weekends were spent at their home when I was growing up, and now with my world the chaotic mess that it was- I had distanced myself from them to keep them from being engulfed in the darkness that I felt I carried with me wherever I went. The year before though, my precious grandfather had been diagnosed with lung cancer- years of smoking and working in the coal mines in Pennsylvania when he was younger had taken a toll on his body. I would go to their apartment after work to help my grandmother with my grandfather because his illness was progressing to a point that she was unable to care for him herself. I would give him his pills, bathe him if he needed it, make sure he ate his dinner, and stay to watch a bit of TV with him before I would head back to the hell I called home.
The drug use with my mother and Bret was beyond what I ever thought a person could tolerate- physical fights broke out daily and new bruises were being added to the cache I already owned. The months of solitude that my sister and I experienced began to seem like a distant memory or dream that had faded to the edges of my mind.
I had returned home one Friday after visiting my grandparents after work to be met by my mother at the door demanding money so she and Bret could go out and “party”. I was exhausted and not about to give my hard earned money to my mother and her boyfriend so they could stick it in their nose or in their arm. I ignored her and walked into my room, closing the door behind me without saying a word. In a burst, the door flew open and my mother came at me with a large knife- screaming at me to give her money- all while she was bringing the knife closer to my chest that already had a scar from her previous attempt at slicing my throat. I laid on my back on my bed, and kicked her away from me- she let out a strange sound and dropped the knife and began to scream. “You broke my ribs! You broke my ribs!” she screamed, “You’re going to jail! I’ll have you arrested! You bitch!” she yelled. I closed the door and laid on my bed, praying that she did call the police and that I would be arrested so I could have a reprieve of the madness.
The house suddenly went quiet- very quiet- never a good sign when living in a constant hurricane because the eye’s stillness is only an illusion- the storm is far from over. Cautiously I opened my bedroom door to find I was home alone. My mother and Bret had taken his Camero and gone somewhere. I was nervous and uncertain if I wanted to know what was going on.
It was about 4 am the next morning that I was awoken my mother screaming for Bret to leave the house. As quiet as I could, I cracked open the door, and was able to see Bret in the living room, blood dripping from his nose, and my mother going into the kitchen. Through the slurs of drunken and drug induced speech I was able to decipher that Bret had had an accident and had crashed the Camero into a wall at Evergreen Washelli Cemetery. He was demanding my mother get him a new car- she was screaming “no!” “no!” “no!”, and he was throwing anything he could get his hands on. My mother had come out of the kitchen and into the living room and was just turning to face Bret when his keys hit her in her mouth.
Blood poured from her split lip and the sight of the blood put Bret in a frenzy. He grabbed my mother by the hair and pulled her into the kitchen towards their bedroom. I followed them as he dragged her away, and when the door shut, I called the police.
The Seattle Police were by this time so familiar with our house and our family that even the operators were getting to know us by voice. I told the woman on the other end that they were fighting again- send some help please- going through the customary speech that was always recited when dialing the three digit phone number that was dialed so frequently the 9 and 1 on the phone was beginning to wear, when from the kitchen window I saw my mother run from the backyard and to the house across the street where Bret’s brother lived.
This was new. She never ran away like that and suddenly I was very aware that I was alone in the house with a madman. I set the phone down and as fast as I could, I followed my mother to Tom and Janet’s house. Janet opened the door and let us inside where we hid in her basement- watching the entire time as Bret circled outside the house for some sign of where my mother had gone.
We were still waiting for the police to arrive when my mother began to panic because she had left her purse in the house. “You have to go get it!” she pleaded with me. “Please! Michelle! Go get it! Its in my bedroom and Bret can’t have it” and for a reason I will never understand why- I left the basement and went to get her purse.
I wanted to be quiet so I moved quickly through the gate that lead to the backyard and tiptoed to her bedroom door. It was quiet and I had no idea where Bret was- but I knew he had to be somewhere. The single window that would possibly give me an indication whether or not he was in the room was covered- the house of darkness always had the windows covered after all- so I couldn’t see if he was in the bedroom or not. I would have to carefully, quietly open the bedroom door and just hope…
My hand had just reached the handle when the door opened with Bret on the other side. Thankfully I was crouching behind the door as it opened towards me and I was hidden from his view. I watched as he walked around the side of the house towards the front yard and I carefully and quietly slipped into the bedroom.
The purse was exactly where I thought it was- God only knew what was in that thing that was so important for her to have- and I slung it over my shoulder as I tried to figure out how I was going to get out of the house without being seen. Getting in was only half the battle- getting out was the other.
I went through my mothers room and into the kitchen where I could see Janet’s house across the street. The police still hadn’t arrived- their response times were getting longer and longer it seemed- and not knowing if or when they would be arriving made me uncertain if I should hide with the purse and wait for them to come or if I should try and sneak out of the house and back to Janet’s. The thought had barely entered my mind when I heard Bret enter back into my mother’s room from the backyard.
I dashed across the kitchen and into the living room and had just opened the door when Bret heard me. I heard his footsteps racing behind me and suddenly I was in a dream- unable to move my feet from under me. I was propelling, pushing struggling to get across the street. My mother and Janet were screaming from the downstairs window for me to run and hurry “he’s right behind you Michelle! Run!” and somehow I made it, across the street and into Janet’s house with the door shut and Bret banging on the door demanding to be let in behind me.
My heart was racing, my feet felt as though they were made from an element that combined jell-o with concrete and my mother- my mother was giddy as she stood in Janet’s basement clutching her purse, smiling like a buffoon. Exhausted, I watched as the police finally arrived and put Bret into handcuffs. He would be back the next day I was sure- he always was. Let him sleep it off and sober up and out he would go. Every time. This time was different though- this time they were going to keep him for three days. Three days. The news sounded like a melody.
On the first day my mother again promised that it was over with Bret for good and we immediately got started with washing his clothes and packing up his things. She was looking for a place to go too- I told her that I couldn’t have her in the house anymore- and as soon as Bret came to get his things, she promised me she would be gone too.
Monday evening was the second day that he was gone. I had stayed home from school and work to help my mother and I had slipped into pajamas while we packed up the rest of Bret’s things. My sister was staying with our Dad until things hopefully calmed down again and I was beyond grateful she had not been witness to the scene that had happened over the weekend. I was sitting in the living room when there was a banging on the door and Bret’s voice yelled through the door to let him in. “No!” I yelled, “Come back tomorrow! We’re getting ready for bed.” The bangs got louder, the yelling got louder and I thought he might break the door down. My mother had dialed the police in the kitchen and was asking for an officer to be sent to remove Bret from the property. What happened to the three days? What was he doing out?
Whether or not the operator actually told my mother to let Bret in so she could talk to him I will never know, but before I could stop her, she had unlocked the front door and opened it, to hand him the receiver.
Bret walked in with a cocky smile and with the phone to his ear, walked into the kitchen talking to the operator. I was exhausted and had spent the entire day washing and packing his things- actions much kinder than he certainly deserved- and suddenly I heard him tell the operator, “I just came here to find them destroying my shit”. That was it. I lost it.
I knew better than to talk back. I knew better than to argue. I knew better than to say anything out of line. But hearing him say that I was destroying his things when I had spent the entire day washing, folding and packing his this neatly- that was too much- and before I could stop myself I yelled at him from the living room, “You’re a damn liar”. Twenty three years later I can still see him in slow motion set down the phone on the kitchen counter and move towards me from the kitchen into the living room. I can see my mother in slow motion run and pick up the phone and scream for help. I can see Bret grab me by the shoulders and in slow motion, I can still see him lift me up from where I was sitting on the floor, and I can still see him as he brought his head towards mine and made contact with his head against mine. I can still hear the snap of my neck as he hit me with his head and I can still see his fist come towards me- slowly- slowly. I cannot see when his fist made contact with my face and I cannot see the numerous other punches he landed time and time again.
In fact, I don’t remember anything for weeks afterward- it was a concussion I was told. I had suffered a broken nose, a broken jaw, a broken cheek bone, and the orbit of my eye was crushed. I looked as though I had been in a horrible car accident. Or a professional boxing match. Or both at the same time. There was no resemblance of the face I recognized as mine anymore- and in fact- I never saw that same face again.
Bret had been arrested and was facing numerous charges. I was going to need to testify against him when the time for his trial came. Social workers were finally aware of how we were living and now that I was awake and able to function, my mother needed to move on. She did quickly- on to another man no less- a friend of Bret’s. I didn’t care. She was gone. He was gone. My jaw was wired, my nose was taped, my face was swollen and unrecognizable, but if that was what it took to get my life back- then so be it.
I cleaned up my house and this time I not only opened the drapes- I took them down and burned them. I was more determined than ever. I knew what I wanted in my life- and the life I lived with my mother was not it. I was going to be the opposite of her in every way- and so I began to make decisions that were consciously the opposite of what she did. She didn’t cook- so I learned. She drank coffee so I drank tea. She used drugs- I never would. It seemed like a good way to live and in a way she would be helping me to be the best person I could by being her own horrible self.
I didn’t see my mother for nearly seven months when Bret’s trial came around. She was still with Bret’s friend and offered to drive me to the courthouse where she had also been subpoenaed to testify. I told her I would appreciate the ride, and together we went to face the demon of Seattle.
I arrived and waited nervously for my name to be called into the hallway where I was waiting. I wore a brown pant suit that my cousin had given me, and had my hair pulled back into a bun. The bruises were almost completely faded, and the bit that was still seen was covered by make up. My face was noticeably different from what it previously looked like- at least to me it was. When the time came for me to go and face Bret I was suddenly aware that despite my nice attire, despite my hair and make up looking nice and despite the bruises being hidden- I was still a scared 16 year old girl that was facing situations that no one of any age should have to.
I went to the stand and gave my testimony for what seemed like hours, but when I heard the words that Bret had been found guilty- I knew that my words had not fallen on deaf ears. Bret was sentenced to 18 months in jail for numerous counts and as he was lead out of the courtroom, I saw my mother watch him go.
I decided to take the bus back home so my mother didn’t have any reason to stop by and I wouldn’t have to talk to her, but instead of taking the bus home, I took the one to my grandparents so I could spend some time with the only family I knew that loved me. Since my sister was at our Dad’s house I decided to spend the weekend with my grandparents- just like I used to when I was a little girl- and to have a weekend of being 16. I curled up next to my sick grandfather and held his old, wrinkled hand and was grateful for his hands that were loving and kind. Four months later I held that same hand as my grandfather told me good-bye. “You are my beautiful granddaughter Michelle” he told me, “I want to see you happy. Find John. You should be with him”. Those were the last words he ever said to me. The nurse found my grandpa dead when she went to respond to the buzzer he had pressed at the moment he passed.
John did find his way to me- although it took him over a year of nightly phone calls before he did so. On July 2 John returned back to Seattle and back to me. By my 18th birthday that August 29th, he had proposed to me. By September I found out we would be having our first child and on November 28, 1992- we were married.
Today we have been married nearly 21 years, we have two remarkable sons who are 19 and 20 years old. I have beat many odds in my life, seen many things, lived many lives in my nearly 39 years- but honestly I would not trade anything I have experienced because all of it has brought me to where I am today and has made me the woman I now am. It may not have been a great life, or a perfect life, but it was my life- and this is my story- and I knew that no matter how bad things got- I would not let my story have that ending.