I've wished to write this letter to you for a very long time. Years, as a matter of fact. I didn't know where to send it, so I am writing it now. You probably wouldn't recognize me. I guess I have grown up. Some may debate that, but I do have a little less hair, some lines around my eyes and some miles under my belt. This was one of those milestone years for me as I turned 50 and Cathy and I celebrated our 30th anniversary. I'm not sure you would remember Cathy. She was a Kirk, Doug and Audrey's daughter. I guess if I'm 50 that would make you 57; as I recall you were 7 years older than I.
It started when you were very young. I can't even imagine the horror you felt as night after night you would lay in your bed listening for the footsteps in the hallway. The sound of the doorknob turning made your skin crawl. When it was over, the knot in your tummy, lump in your throat, and hole in your heart made you want to scream. You had learned you couldn't do that, because the last time you did you had a bruise as big as a grapefruit on your face. Your Mom told the teachers you had the mumps and wouldn't be in school for the next two weeks. You would softly cry yourself to sleep wondering what you had done to deserve this kind of life. It seemed even more bizarre to you that he was a seemingly upstanding member of the church and community.
Your home was so strict . . . legalism on steroids. A complex labyrinth of rules. There seemed to be regulations for everything. A mind numbing system of do's and dont's. Don't wear make up . . . Do listen only to hymns . . . Don't cut your hair. . . Do always wear a dress, Don't ever wear jeans . . . Don't wear earrings . . . and on and on. Where was the joy, where was the freedom? How many times did you hear, "we don't want to give the devil any foothold in our lives, do we?" That never made any sense to you. You already knew the devil. He lived at your house. Of course, you realized later in life that these were all power moves, designed to intimidate and control and that abuse comes in many forms. I think maybe the saddest part was that your spirit was slowly being crushed.
Whenever I hear the haunting Suzanne Vega song, Luka, I always think of you. The following lines are particularly poignant.
Yes, I think I'm okay
I walked into the door again
If you ask that's what I'll say
And it's not your business anyway
I guess I'd like to be alone
With nothing broken, nothing thrown
You began to hate your Mom. If she really loved you, why didn't she protect you? Why didn't she speak up? Why didn't she tell someone? What you were too young to know, Holly, was that your Mother was a victim as well.
As a proud parent of three beautiful children that I love almost more than life itself, I just can't imagine what goes through a parent's mind that would abuse a child in any way. It is obviously a sickness, but it is an EVIL sickness. One that must not be allowed to be continued. The chains must be broken. No child should have to live that way.
My mother always had a huge place in her heart for the hurting. Her growing up years weren't exactly a picnic. Over the years dozens of woman shared all sorts of tragic events with my Mom. When she met you, Holly, she knew something was wrong, but she didn't know exactly what. She invited you to come over and babysit us boys when she and Dad would go out to various local events. She had hoped to get to know you more. She never got the chance.
We loved you as a babysitter. You knew us then as Stevie and Davie. You always wanted to do such fun things with us. We played ball hockey in the living room and made orange floats in the special tall glasses that Mom kept in the top cupboard. We played you some of our silly records and laughed, danced and sang along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the top of our lungs. Now as an adult looking back, I can see why, when we let you choose the books to read to us before we crawled into bed, you picked the ones you did. They were always adventure stories or books about faraway lands and and enchanting people. You read us Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island for Kids and you really enjoyed reading us Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel. Those were the times we really saw you come alive and those green eyes of yours would flash with moments of hope.
It was a cold, snowy night in November that you picked to leave, just one month before your 16th birthday. A birthday that should have been Sweet Sixteen. You couldn't take it any more. You were dying inside. The pain was just too much. You told your parents that you were going to the friday night youth group at the church and that you needed to leave at 7 to get a good seat. You had saved up 26 dollars from your babysitting money and a birthday gift that had arrived early from your Aunt Cecile in South Dakota. You knew that wouldn't get you very far, so just before you left the house you snuck over to the pantry, opened the door and took 100 dollars out of the jar your Mom kept for emergencies. If this wasn't an emergency, what was? Your Mom never told your Dad about the missing money. It was as if she knew you needed to escape and knowing the money was gone would just send him into another fit of rage.
You had packed one small duffel with some essentials and hidden it inside the garage. You stopped in at the motel washrooms where you quickly changed into the pair of jeans you had bought at the Tilly. You threw the dress straight into the dumpster and knew you would never have to see it again. The Greyhound arrived every night at the Pop Shoppe at 7:30. You got there just on time and bought your ticket. The student fare was 5.50 for a one way trip to Calgary. The clerk never even questioned you or asked for ID. I suppose with all the students coming and going it was normal for kids to take the bus into Calgary. You sat at the very back, your parka pulled up around your face. There was only a handful of people on the bus and no one paid any attention to you.
The bus arrived at the terminal about 10:30 and basically dumped you out on the street. There was no one there to meet you. No one knew you were coming. You were scared and shivering, but you also felt a degree of freedom and excitement. This was your new life. A genuine sense of hope burned in your soul. So many emotions rolled up into one. You asked a man standing on the corner where you could get something to eat. He told you that pretty much everything downtown was closed, but if you walked 2 blocks south and 5 blocks east, you would find The King Edward Hotel and you could get something there. This was all new to you, but the sidewalks looked pretty well lit and so off you went.
In the cold and wind the seven blocks seemed to take forever. You finally arrived and walked in the front door. The King Eddy as it was called, was built in 1906 and by the time you were there in 1969, it had turned into a run-down, seedy dump of a place. Pimps, dealers, prostitutes and all manner of rough characters found refuge in the decrepit building. Of course, you didn't know any of this and as you opened the door and set foot in the lobby all you could think of was how good it was to be warm. You asked the guy at the front desk where you could get something to eat and he pointed you to the side where there was a door leading into the bar. You made your way down the hall and entered the dimly lit room. You were only 15 - you had never been in a bar. Again, no one asked for any ID or even said boo. Through the smoky haze you could see and hear a band belting out some tunes. You were so sheltered you didn't even know it was the blues. You walked in and sat down at the first empty table and put your duffel on the chair beside you. Pretty soon a waitress came over, smiled, offered you a menu and above the din asked what you wanted to drink. She would have brought you anything you would have asked for. You were never allowed to drink coffee at home and so you asked for that. When she poured it and you took your first sip, it felt so warm and reassuring on a cold night. You were pretty tired and as you began to relax you started wondering where you would stay. The waitress came back and you ordered a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a side order of toast. The reality of all these things costing money began to set in. As you watched the lead singer of the band and started listening to the music you thought that this didn't seem nearly as bad as you had been told the "big bad world" would be.
You were just finishing up your food when a huge guy with a black leather jacket walked over to your table and sat down. The first thing you noticed was the ugly scar that went from the tip of his chin all the way up to his ear on one side of his face. The second thing was his eyes. It was if they looked right through you. The waitress called him Slash, which he seemed to acknowledge as a badge of honor. You didn't find out until months later the origins of his name. It seems like Slash had been in a nasty bar fight where he had been cut really bad with a knife. Later that same night, after he had been stitched up, he tracked down the other guy and killed him. He had held his head in a toilet until he drowned. But that night he seemed friendly enough. He asked you your name and when you told him it was Holly, he smiled and said that was a very pretty name. He asked where you were from and you told him a little prairie town and that you hated your parents and you were running away. Slash asked you what your plan was and pretty soon you had to admit that there really wasn't one. "Right", said Slash, "You can stay with us". "Who's us?", you replied, a little bit puzzled. "We have a little club that meets out of here in the winter", he said. "In the summer we ride our motor bikes." Well, that sounded pretty exciting! You had no idea what a motorcycle gang even was. The first night everyone was so accepting. You tried to memorize all the names and faces. There were about 22 guys and about 6 women in the gang. At 2:00, after the bar closed for the night, everyone went up to the rented rooms. The sex was no big deal. You were used to that. You knew how to mentally check out. Your feelings had been numbed long before. This was your new family after all and they had accepted you. Slash had even paid for your coffee and food and given you a place to sleep. You wondered if this is what all families were like as you finally drifted off to sleep. Well, at least you were warm and fed, you thought to yourself. But what you hoped and dreamt would lead to freedom, love and a real life would only get worse. You had no earthly idea.
It seems so tragic that no one reported you missing. No all points bulletins, no amber alerts, no posters up in the bus depots, grocery stores and airports. Not even a prayer request in the church bulletin. Rather, more lies, more cover up.
When my Mom called to see about getting you to come over for some more babysitting, your Mother lied and told her that her sister was very ill in Iowa and that you had moved down there to help out. Again, my Mom's radar wondered what was going on, but there was nothing she could do. It was weird. Your Mom was used to lying. It was her way of protecting herself and her children. If only she could have gotten help. The first big lie your Mom was forced to tell was to hide the fact that she was pregnant with you when she got married. You never knew that did you? You were born just after your Mom turned 16. She was just a child. Your Dad was 24. It seemed like the extra 20 dollars that was passed over during the handshake was all that was needed to grease the wheels and get the necessary documents. At some point, 3 years were added to her age, so things would seem on the up and up. Your parents were married by a Justice of the Peace in Iowa and immediately left for Canada. What better way to start a new life and blend in than to move to a small, highly religious community on the Alberta prairies where people wouldn't ask questions? Your Dad knew all the lingo, knew how to play the part. After you left, your family never spoke of you again. It was like you were never born. When your sisters would ask about you, they were told that you were gone and wouldn't be coming back and never to ask again or they would be punished.
The call came about 11:00 on a Monday night. 3 years had passed since you had left and I was now 11 and you were 18. We boys were in bed, but in our tiny house we could easily hear the phone ring. It was you on the other end of the line. You called collect and I have always been amazed that you remembered our number. Mom answered and accepted the charges. She was so surprised and relieved to hear from you. In less than 5 minutes you blurted out what Mom had suspected all along. In your short time on this earth you had lived more than your nine lives. You were calling from a pay phone outside the bathroom in a bar you thought was in New Mexico, but weren't really sure. You explained to Mom that once you realized you were in over your head with the gang, and were sick and tired of being passed around like a piece of meat, you tried to run away. Several of the guys hunted you down and returned you to the main camp. Branding you with a hot iron with the gang's insignia, you were told that if you ever ran away again things would be worse. You asked Mom if she knew how your two younger sisters were and I am sure it haunted you whether they were going through what you had experienced. We didn't have caller ID in those days and Mom had no idea where you were calling from. By the end of the call you were both crying. You said you couldn't talk anymore as they could be coming to look for you at anytime. Mom was so stunned, all she could think of to say was that she would pray for you. And she did.
She also went to the police. The next day, we bundled up and got in the little red Ford Falcon and drove to the police station. Mom left the car running as she went inside to meet with Sergeant Moller. When she came out she was fighting back the tears. Later that evening, when Dad came home from the office, we heard her telling him that although the Sergeant was understanding, there was little he could do. You were now 18, no one had ever reported you missing and if you were really in the United States when you called, they had no jurisdiction over that country. And besides, where would they even start looking for you? As to any allegations, what proof did she have? No one else had come forward. Mom was absolutely devastated and felt so hopeless. All she could do was pray you would call again. You never did.
Holly, I wish you had been able to tell my Mom what was going on when you first met her. You could have come and stayed at our house. We boys could have used a big sister. Mom and Dad weren't perfect, but there was a ton of love and fun in our house. You would have been safe, nurtured and loved. You could have begun to heal. It seems almost flippant and somewhat disrespectful for me to tell you that I feel so blessed to have had the home I had. Please don't take it that way. I think when someone has something right, it makes it even easier to recognize wrong.
He died 4 years ago. As far as I know, he was able to keep everything hidden until that day. I would like to think he died of a guilty conscience. Up until the day he died, he was still wearing those too tight, polyester suits from the 70's and still using that horrid smelling hair cream that you hated. He was coming home from a prayer meeting and just dropped dead in the driveway.
Your Mom is in the senior's home. She seems happy. She is getting the best of care. The nurses say that she really has no memory. Maybe that's for the best.
Last week, when you passed away, there was no funeral. No one came to say goodbye. I wish we had known; we would have sent flowers. If I could have picked the music, I would have chosen two songs. The first is one of my favorite Vince Gill songs, written when his friend, singer-songwriter Keith Whitley, died at the age of 35. He is joined by Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless on background vocals. When they hit the chorus, it never fails to send shivers down my spine. I have taken the liberty of inserting your name in the lyrics.
Vince sings in his clear tenor voice:
I know your life on earth was troubled
And only you could know the pain
You weren't afraid to face the devil
You were no stranger to the rain
Go rest high on that mountain
Holly your work on earth is done
Go to heaven a-shoutin'
Look for the Father and the Son
The other would have been one of my favorite Sarah McLachlan songs:
Arms Of An Angel
Spend all your time waiting for that second chance
For the break that will make it ok
There's always some reason to feel not good enough
And it's hard at the end of the day
I need some distraction, oh beautiful release
Memories seep from my veins
They may be empty and weightless, and maybe
I'll find some peace tonight
In the arms of an Angel, fly away from here
From this dark, cold hotel room, and the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage of your silent reverie
You're in the arms of an Angel; may you find some comfort here
So tired of the straight line, and everywhere you turn
There's vultures and thieves at your back
The storm keeps on twisting, you keep on building the lies
That you make up for all that you lack
It don't make no difference, escaping one last time
It's easier to believe
In this sweet madness, oh this glorious sadness
That brings me to my knees
In the arms of an Angel, far away from here
From this dark, cold hotel room, and the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage of your silent reverie
In the arms of an Angel; may you find some comfort here
Rest In Peace, Holly. I am so, so sorry.
Love, the little brother you never had,
Nobody, children or adult, should have to endure abuse of any kind.
If you or someone you know is being abused either sexually, physically,
mentally or emotionally, please, please speak up. There are people
who are prepared and want to help. Be a part of breaking the silence.
Be the voice of change.
Additional note: The story of "Holly" has haunted me for years. Let me offer a few words of explanation here if I may. Holly is obviously not the girls real name. The core story however is true. In order to protect and honor the real person and give some privacy to her family, I blended in parts of several other true stories that sadly I have become aware of in recent years. "Holly" was NOT a Prairie staff kid, but rather a local girl whom my mother knew. By the nature of my father pastoring at Bethel we were not always in the insulated bubble of Prairie that some were. The reasons I posted the story are multiple. Firstly, I wanted to stand with any and all victims of these horrible atrocities. Secondly, I wanted to do my small part to help create awareness especially in faith communities that these issues must be addressed, and the sooner the better so together we can begin to end this vicious cycle. Thirdly, I also wanted to do my part, however small, in helping victims begin to feel that they are not alone and do whatever I can to help on their journey towards restoration and wholeness. For those of you that think I have an active imagination and just made up an emotionally charged story for effect, you are sadly wrong. I actually left out some of the more horrible parts.
© 2011 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.