” … One girl told me that when her mom’s boyfriend got mad he dragged her into the backyard and turned on the hose and held her face up to the ice-cold running water until she almost drowned and then he locked her outside for two hours. It was November. Forty-some degrees. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this. Or the last. I told the girls that these sorts of things were not okay. That they were unacceptable. Illegal. That I would call someone and that someone would intervene and this would stop. I called the police. I called the state’s child protection services. I called them every day and no one did one thing. Not one person. Not one thing. Ever. No matter how many times that man almost drowned that little girl with a garden hose in the backyard or how many times the thirty-two-year-old picked up the thirteen-year-old with the great rack in the school parking lot or how many times the hooded girl with no face slept in the falling-down woodshed in the alley while her mother raged.
I had not lived a sheltered life. I’d had my share of hardships and sorrows. I thought I knew how the world worked, but this I could not believe. I thought that if it was known that bad things were happening to children, those bad things would be stopped. But that is not the sort of society we live in, I realized. There is no such society.
One day when I called child protective services I asked the woman who answered the phone to explain to me exactly why no one was protecting the children and she told me that there was no funding for teenagers who were not in imminent danger because the state was broke and so the thing the child protective services did was make priorities. They intervened quickly with kids under the age of twelve, but for those over twelve they wrote reports when people called and put the reports in a file and put the child’s name on a long list of children who someone would someday perhaps check up on when there was time and money, if there ever was time and money. The good thing about teens, she told me confidentially, was that if it got bad enough at home they usually ran away and there was more funding for runaways.
I hung up the phone feeling like my sternum had cracked open. Before I could even take a breath, in walked the girl whose mother’s boyfriend repeatedly almost drowned her with the garden hose in the backyard. She sat down in the chair near my desk where all the girls sat narrating their horrible stories and she told me another horrible story and I told her something different this time.
I told her it was not okay, that it was unacceptable, that it was illegal and that I would call and report this latest horrible thing. But I did not tell her it would stop. I did not promise that anyone would intervene. I told her it would likely go on and she’d have to survive it. That she’d have to find a way within herself to not only escape the shit, but to transcend it, and if she wasn’t able to do that, then her whole life would be shit, forever and ever and ever. I told her that escaping the shit would be hard, but that if she wanted to not make her mother’s life her destiny, she had to be the one to make it happen. She had to do more than hold on. She had to reach. She had to want it more than she’d ever wanted anything. She had to grab like a drowning girl for every good thing that came her way and she had to swim like fuck away from every bad thing. She had to count the years and let them roll by, to grow up and then run as far as she could in the direction of her best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by her own desire to heal.
She seemed to listen, in that desultory and dismissive way that teens do. I said it to every girl who came into my office and sat in the horrible-story chair. It became my gospel. It became the thing I said most because it was the thing that was most true.
It is also the most true for you, Stuck, and for anyone who has ever had anything truly horrible happen to them.
You will never stop loving your daughter. You will never forget her. You will always know her name. But she will always be dead. Nobody can intervene and make that right and nobody will. Nobody can take it back with silence or push it away with words. Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal. Therapists and friends and other people who live on Planet My Baby Died can help you along the way, but the healing—the genuine healing, the actual real deal down-on-your-knees-in-the-mud change—is entirely and absolutely up to you.
That job at the middle school was the best job I ever had, but I only stayed for a year. It was a heavy gig and I was a writer and so I left it for less emotionally taxing forms of employment so I could write. One day six years after I quit, I ate lunch at a Taco Bell not far from the school where I’d worked with the girls. Just as I was gathering my things to leave, a woman in a Taco Bell uniform approached and said my name. It was the faceless girl who’d lived in the falling-down shed. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail now. She was grown up. She was twenty and I was thirty-five.
“Is that you?” I exclaimed and we embraced.
We talked about how she was soon to be promoted to assistant manager at the Taco Bell, about which of the girls from our group she was still in touch with and what they were doing, about how I’d taken her rock climbing and to the ballet and to a poetry reading at an independent bookstore and how she hadn’t done any of those things again.
“I never forgot you, even after all these years,” she told me.
“I’m so proud of you,” I said, squeezing her shoulder.
“I made it,” she said. “Didn’t I?”
“You did,” I said. “You absolutely did.”
I never forgot her either. Her name was Desiré.”
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
* For WhiteLady In The Hood