It started very subtly. Every night for two weeks, in my sleep, I felt the lightest of fingers, almost like a breeze on my skin.
I've always found it difficult to rise out of a sleep -- stumbling incoherently through my morning routine -- so it wasn't too far-fetched for me to feel like it was something I imagined.
Then my stepfather started walking around in shorts too short and too tight to contain his junk. Then one night, I was up late and he came to my room. He knocked on the door and said he saw my light on, he was concerned and he pulled me into a horrible creepy hug that felt wrong. It was nothing that my child’s brain could identify other than I didn't like it.
In the weeks (better yet, years) to come, I would come to experience change in such a drastic way that I would permanently change; my childhood would cease to exist as I knew it and I would find myself without one of the basic tenants every child is entitled to: "security and comfort in the fact that your parents are there to protect you by any means necessary."
My stepfather came into my life after a horrific separation and divorce. My father had cheated on my mother repeatedly and she was left devastated. I never took to my stepfather, but my mother seemed happy and healed and, at 10, to see your mother happy again is a big thing, so I accepted it.
Shortly after the creepy hug incident, I had a hard time falling asleep. I felt uneasy but my mother and I had just had a talk about "bed time" and how she needed me to get more sleep because of my hectic academic and athletic schedule. So it was lights off and no TV. He must have thought I was sleeping.
I was lying in my room, in the huge canopy bed that my grandmother had bought for me when I turned 5. The bed that she had made for me from pictures of Disney Princess beds to mark my coronation as the First Granddaughter, one that was meant to be cherished.
From that very bed, I watched my door creak open. I watched him, in his Hanes tighty-whities, creep to my bed. This was not a loving parent coming to check on a child. I sat straight up, and he ducked cartoonishly behind the headboard as if I couldn't see the 6'1" man in his underwear hiding by my bed.
I said, "What are you doing here?", and he jumped up and yelled, "Ta da!" Yes, you read that right. Ta fucking da. My instincts told me to run to the other side of the house to my mother, but he ran first.
For the next two weeks, I kept trying to get my mother alone to talk but I couldn't; he stayed close. Even when I pretended to wake up with a fever by putting the thermometer on the electric blanket, he stayed home with both of us. When my father made his weekly call, my stepfather stood by the phone. Nights became impossible and I took to falling asleep in the family room because my room was too far away from my mother. Somehow sleeping there made me feel safer. I wasn't.
One night, he ventured there, after a shower, in nothing but a robe and told me to shut off the TV and go to bed. I summoned all of my justified anger and said no. He slammed me down on the couch and started unbuttoning my pajamas, saying he was going to finally see "how much milk was there."
I grabbed his windpipe and squeezed as hard as I could until he screamed in pain and ran away. The next morning, we were at family breakfast reading the daily scripture when he announced that I would be on punishment for disobedience. That put me over the edge; I yelled out all of the things that had happened and watched the color drain from my mother's face.
The following weeks were a blur. We were Jehovah's Witnesses and my stepfather was an elder in the church. The Head Elder came to me after service and said I should be quiet about what had happened because the family "bread winner" would go away for a while if I told. I finally broke one night at a friend's and told her what had happened, only to be thwarted once again by the church. My mother and stepfather proudly told me one day that my very best friend had been told I was lying and not to worry about it.
Since my mother, the church and my stepfather had turned me into a liar, I became one in real life. Since they took away my security, I pledged I would never depend on anyone.
But I also was still a child with a need to be loved and cared for so I became "very good" on the surface. Last checked my IQ was clocked at 147; logistics and scheming were strong points. I excelled. I did everything that a person was supposed to do, while seething underneath. And I hurt my mother every time I could.
But, slowly, a subtle shift started to occur -- as subtle as the imagined breeze on your skin in the middle of the night.
As I learned more about my mother, I began to understand cycles of abuse. It turns out she suffered something very similar from one of my grandmother's boyfriends and she was blamed. It didn’t comfort me or lessen my resentment, but it gave me some empathy for my mother's 10-year-old self.
I graduated early from a prestigious university with a bachelor's degree and then from another one with a master's degree and the security I always promised for myself was pretty much guaranteed. I asked nothing from anyone. Many of the threats that I received about "telling" when I was younger were tied to the financial security of my family, so I started there in setting up a safe foundation for myself.
As I grew, my mother and stepfather became more burdened financially and then my stepfather's health started to decline. Seeing him in a hospital bed reduced him to the pathetic person I should have always seen him as. They are still together, but my life is good and theirs is crumbling.
On the eve of my wedding, I finally found the courage to ask my mother, Why? Her answer was humbling, sad, and releasing all at the same time.
"I don't know but I'm sorry and grateful that you were able to do for yourself what I couldn't as a mother." It wasn't an answer but it was her truth.
And these days, we are okay.
I still struggle with remnants of my experience. I have an extremely low tolerance for hypocrisy in people who proclaim to be followers of God. I'm not sure if I want to have kids because I worry about keeping them safe. If I do have children, my mother will never know what its like to have her grandchildren spend the night.
But as I've grown, I've developed some amazing gifts and talents other than my intellect as well as an undeniable beauty and smile. They came from my mother. So I choose to move toward forgiveness, to not prosecute her for what she wasn’t but rather to celebrate for what she is, and what she tried to be but couldn’t.