LEARNING TO FLY
I have decided to be brave and tell my story. It has set me free. Maybe it will set you free too.
Rainbows and Picket Fences...
I share a bedroom with my little sister. The room has colorful wallpaper with cheerful images of rainbows arched over cozy-looking houses with white picket fences. I am lying in my bed. My little sister is in her crib. It is a frigid, dark, Minnesota night and we are supposed to be asleep. But we are not sleeping. My little sister is standing up in her crib, crying and yelling and rattling the crib bars with her little hands. I don’t really know why she’s upset, but I think it’s because she wants to be picked up and go sleep in bed with my mom and dad. I am 6 years old. She is 2.
My mom and dad are in bed in the room next to ours. My dad is hollering from his room for my little sister to “Knock it off” and “Shut up.” He’s yelling in that scary voice that makes my body feel all frozen and trembly, like when you get really cold. It’s the voice that is scarier than any monster in my imagination because the monster is real. My heart is banging in my chest. I just wish my sister would stop crying and listen. Doesn’t she know bad things happen when you are bad and you don’t listen? I want to walk over to her crib and pick her up and put her in bed next to me, but I’m too terrified to move and too terrified of what would happen if I did so. So, I just lie there, like a corpse, and pretend like I’m asleep. I think about the rainbows and the happy families that live in the houses in the wallpaper all around me.
After several minutes, when the screaming and crying doesn’t stop, my dad comes erupting into the bedroom. There is a beam of moonlight shining through my window and I can see his shadowy figure charging toward her crib. He violently grabs my little sister and tears out of the room, carrying her like she is a piece of garbage. I hear him thunder down the hallway, open the living room door, and throw her outside in the black, freezing cold, subzero night. He slams the door shut. My sister is crying and screaming harder now and she is pounding on the door outside. In every shriek, I can hear her terror. My father is in a rage and returning each pound on the door with a scream of profanity. I have my eyes closed so tightly my head feels like a balloon. I am trying to hold myself completely still. If I am still, then maybe I am not really here. If I am still, then maybe I am invisible. If I am still, then maybe this incredible nightmare will end.
After what seems like forever, I hear my dad open the door, grab my sister, and bring her, still screaming and crying, back to her crib. I keep my eyes tightly shut. I keep my body rigid and stiff and I listen to my baby sister sob herself to sleep. When it’s finally quiet, I open my eyes. The moonlight is still shining through my window and onto my sister’s crib. She is asleep under the rainbows and picket fences. Rainbows and picket fences. Picket fences and rainbows. Sweet dreams aren’t real. And neither are rainbows and picket fences.
The Butterscotch Disc…
We are driving the county road, from our farm to town, in our blue, 1975, Buick Regal. It’s a four-door sedan, and it’s long and wide, like a boat. Me and my brothers are sitting in the back seat. I am in the center. My dad is driving and my mom and little sister are riding in front. It’s early spring and the snow is starting to melt. The ditches along the road are filled with water. We are about two miles from town. I am sucking on a butterscotch disc hard candy. The kind that come in cheap, plain, filmy-looking plastic bags at the supermarket. It tastes thick and chalky in my mouth, and I want to spit it out. I look around the car for a place to put it, but I don’t have the wrapper. Tossing it on the floor is not an option. I’m wearing a pair of thin, knitted mittens. I spit the candy onto one of them.
After doing so, I realize this is a bad decision, one that might get me in trouble. I suddenly, desperately feel that I need to get rid of the evidence. I whisper to my younger brother, who is seated beside me to the right, to crack open the car door so I can toss the candy out. I show him the candy disc sitting on my mitten. I am 7 and he is 6. He obliges and cracks his door slightly. I lean over him, hang the mitten out, and shake it. Despite my shaking, the candy will not come off. My saliva, mixed with the sugar, has glued it stubbornly to the mitten. I use my other hand to pull it off and release it. As this is happening, my dad is driving the Buick down the road, about 45 mph. I can see the pavement flying by underneath us. (Pause for reflection: Obviously, in hindsight, I realize my behavior was dangerous and unwise. But, when you’re 7, you don’t think about these things.)
Midway through my mitten shaking, my father realizes what we’re doing. He is enraged and starts screaming profanity. ¨What the hell are you doing, you stupid idiots!¨ ¨Shut the f%&*ing car door!¨ The moment we close the door, he turns around in the driver’s seat, one hand still on the wheel, and viciously throws his other fist at us. The car is swerving back and forth across the road as he reaches across the seat and hurls his arm in relentless, pile driving, blows. I’m in the center, in his path of least resistance. Four swings hit me in the shoulder and on the side of my head. The blows to my head make my ear start ringing. I pin myself back against the seat as far as I can go, trying to escape the attack. I’m pushing my back into the seat with all my might, making myself as thin as possible. Like Stretch Armstrong in the cartoons I see on TV on Saturday mornings. But I’m not brave and strong like Stretch Armstrong. I’m weak and pitiful.
I feel the familiar sensation of hot urine between my legs. I can’t stop it. It floods out like a river over a dam. It’s on the back seat now, underneath me. My father is still swinging and yelling. He is in a hot, oscillating rage. His fist also strikes my little brother and my older brother, who is seated behind him, and had nothing to do with the candy catastrophe. After several more strikes to myself and my brothers, my father aggressively turns the car around, in the middle of the road, and heads home. It’s seven excruciating miles back home. Inside the car, it’s like the doorway to hell. The silence is deafening, and burning with fury and wrath. In contrast, the urine in my pants has turned cold and quiet. I’m painfully aware of what I’ve done. I’m queasy with guilt for my actions and the consequences it had for everyone. I’m so scared my lips are trembling. I’m too terrified to cry. I can’t look up. My mind swings rapidly between the horror of what just happened, and the dread of what may happen still if my father discovers that I’ve peed all over the back seat. In that moment, I want to disappear. In that moment, like so many times before, I don’t want to be me.
When we get home, my father gets out of the car, slams the door, and says nothing to anyone. Everyone else slowly gets out, and sneaks off to hide, until he has cooled. I sit in the car, alone, for several minutes, unsure what to do about the urine that is on the seat beneath me. I think about how pathetic I am, peeing myself. I’m sick with shame. I think about how much I hate my father. I think about how much I hate his cruelty, his meanness, his unrelenting brutality. I think about how much I wish this wasn’t my life. But it is.
I am Colleen Ann Timmer. Farm girl. Plain girl. Stupid girl. Bad girl.
The girl with the father who scares her so much she pees her pants.
To Grandmother’s House I Go…
I am riding my bike to my Grammie’s house. She lives on a farm about a mile down the road from our house. My bike is white with blue and pink trim. It has a big, long banana-shaped seat with blue and pink fringe on the handle bars. I am 7 years old and I am so happy. I get to spend the night at Grammie’s house!
My Grammie’s house is my favorite place to visit. When I bike in the driveway she comes out to greet me and gives me one of her big hugs where she rocks her body from side to side with her arms around me. Her old dog, Smoky, comes loping out of the woods and he wags his tail to greet me, too. I feel so special.
When I get in her house I go straight to my favorite place, Grammie’s sewing room. Her sewing machine is in there. I love opening the drawers of the sewing table and looking at all the different colors of thread. So many shades of green and yellow and blue and pink and every color in the rainbow. Grammie makes quilts out of old clothes. She cuts the fabric into large squares and has them stacked in neat, tidy piles in boxes. There are so many different patterns. Circles, flowers, paisleys, stripes, denims. It’s fun to touch them and feel the different material. My most favorite thing in Grammie’s sewing room is the big tin can filled with buttons. Grammie lets me dump the buttons onto a cookie sheet so I can look at all of them. So many buttons! Big buttons, little buttons, spotted buttons, puffy buttons, skinny buttons, buttons that look like rhinestones, gold buttons, silver buttons. I like to pretend that they are jewels. Grammie helps me cut a pattern out of construction paper to make a crown. She lets me glue the buttons on the crown. I get to wear it around her house. I am a queen and I rule the kingdom!!
My other favorite thing about Grammie’s sewing room is all the books. One side of the room is shelves filled with books. My two favorite books are Aesop’s fables and The Velveteen Rabbit. I take the books down from the shelf and sit on the floor in the living room and look at the pictures and read the stories over and over and over. Grammie has an old record player that plays 45s. She has stacks and stacks of records! When I go to her house, I always play the same three records, and Grammie lets me play them as many times as I want. My very favorite is “Convoy.”It’s a song about a truck driver and I laugh and laugh every time I hear the singer pretend like he’s talking on a CB. Grammie laughs with me, even though she’s heard the song about a million times. My other two favorite records are, “It’s a small world after all”and “One day at a time, sweet Jesus.” I like that last song because it’s my Grammie’s favorite and when she hears it she sings along and smiles to herself. And no matter how many times we listen to it she says, “I love that song.”
Grammie is in the kitchen with her apron on. Her apron has two big pockets in the front and she always has things in them, like scissors and thimbles. We are making cookies. Monster cookies. The kind with chocolate chips and M & M’s! They are monster cookies because they are big and I get to eat as many as I want! I get to crack the eggs and help mix the dough. I also get to lick the spoon and sit on a stool in the kitchen. Grammie talks to me and it seems like we are always laughing. When my Grammie laughs, her eyes squint up and her cheeks get all crinkly. I love it when she laughs!
At night, before we go to bed, Grammie lets me come in the bathroom with her while she washes her face. She also lets me put her false teeth in a cup of water and drop a white disk in it that makes the water all fizzy. I get to sleep with Grammie in her big bed. When we get in, I beg her to suck in her cheeks and make fish lips with her toothless mouth. She does it for me until my side is sick from laughing. She also lets me push her cheeks in with my fingers and she repeats the silly words I ask her to say…”I am a member of the pudgy wudgy fan club.” Then I say, “Smile.” And she smiles while my fingers are still pressing into her cheeks. I just keep laughing. As I’m drifting off to sleep, Grammie tickles my arm and tells me stories about her childhood growing up in North Dakota. I fall asleep and feel so safe. When I am at Grammie’s I know nothing bad will happen and I am not scared.
The next morning, we get up early because Grammie always goes to church on Sundays. We both get ready. I think Grammie looks beautiful in her tan slacks and white blouse with a brown pullover sweater. She wears shoes that have a heel on them because I think they are fancy and I ask her to wear them. She drives us to town in her clunky, old car. When we get to church, I walk with Grammie up the aisle all the way to the front pew. As I do so, I see my brothers and little sister and mom and dad. My dad always makes us sit in the back row, so it’s exciting to go with Grammie and sit in the very front row. I sneak glances at my brothers as we walk by because I know they are jealous. We all take turns staying at Grammie’s house, but it’s still fun to rub it in when it’s your turn! I sit next to Grammie during church and try to soak in every moment next to her. I like to watch her face when she’s listening to the Priest and I try to be serious like her and say all the right things at the right time during the service. When it’s time to sign hymns, she shares her hymn book with me, and we sing along together. Grammie’s voice is low and sweet.
After church, I have to say goodbye to Grammie and go home with my mom and dad. She gives me another one of her big hugs where she rocks me back and forth while we are holding each other. Grammie is talking to my mom and dad now and we are all outside of the church. My brothers and I are running around the front of the churchyard as they are talking. When they are done, I climb in our big, blue Buick Regal with my family and we head home. I am still floating on a huge, button-shaped cloud. The sun is shining and I can feel it on my face as I look out the window and watch Grammie drive away in her car. I am 7 years old and I am so happy.
I can hear it
I can hear it first. I am walking through the tall grass along the path to the barn. I’m carrying something in a bucket. It doesn’t matter what it is. I can hear it. It comes into my peripheral vision. The brown and white pattern. It’s one of our cows. She is tethered tightly to the inside of the barn by a makeshift bridle around her face. I can hear her guttural, bellowing cries. She is in full view now, and I know why she’s wailing. My father is beating her with a heavy rope. He’s hitting her so hard I can hear the thick, sickening thud every time the rope connects with her hide. Each blow is followed by her long, painful moos. She is throwing her head around wildly, trying to free herself, but there is no escape. I watch transfixed for several seconds while my father delivers wallop after wallop to her flesh.
I am 7 years old. I’m wearing my navy blue terry cloth shorts with a stained t-shirt. I drop the bucket and start running. I cover my ears because I can’t stand to hear her pain. I’m afraid that if my father sees me he’ll be angry and punish me. I keep running until I reach my secret spot in the woods, behind our barn. There is a hollowed out tree stump there and sometimes I hide things in it, like magazines and candy. I sit in the woods and hug my knees to my chest and cry and cry and cry. I cry because I feel scared. I cry because I feel weak and small. I cry because I can’t help that poor, wretched cow any more than I can help myself. When I stop crying, I peel a scab off my knee and watch the blood slowly trickle down my leg. It feels good. I lick my open sore and taste the salt and dirt and pain on my tongue. I sit in the woods and hold myself for a long time. When I finally work up the courage to leave, I slink by the barn and peek in. The cow is gone. My father is no longer there. I search frantically, to no avail. She haunts my dreams for several nights. I never find her. I never make her feel better. I never save her. Never.
I am sitting at the breakfast table. On either side, sit my little sister and little brother. We are eating cold cereal. Cheerios. The box is sitting on the table next to the jug of milk. The school bus will be coming in 20 minutes. It’s just after 7 a.m. I’m wearing a white turtleneck with polka dots on it. I am 9 years old.
My older brother, 13, comes up the stairs from his bedroom in the basement. He is dressed and ready for school. He looks neat and tidy. He is wearing a gray sweater vest over a button up shirt. My dad is angry that he didn’t come upstairs immediately when he was called for breakfast. He has taken too long to get to the table.
It’s like an explosion.
My father punches him in the face. A hard, meaty jab. Despite the suddenness, watching it is like slow motion. I see my father’s fist strike his nose, I watch my brother’s head snap back. Blood squirts out. He is close to the table. Some of the blood lands in my cereal bowl. Three round, crimson drops in the white milk. Polka dots of blood. Like my shirt. My brother screams and grabs his nose. He runs to the bathroom. The whole thing is like a flash. One blinding moment. Three seconds? Four seconds? Ten seconds?
My sister, little brother and I keep our eyes down. We don’t look up. We stay silent. I keep my eyes locked on the blood in my milk. It’s raspberries. Christmas bulbs. Ladybugs. Cherry tomatoes. Roses. Blood. It’s blood. My dad hovers around the table and rants about my brother being disobedient. When he stops raving, my little sister starts to cry. She is 5. I’m trying not to, but I start to cry, too. We sit at the table and cry with our heads hung. Fat, swollen tear drops fall on my red corduroy pants. My father tells us to stop crying. We try to swallow our sobs.The bus will be here soon.
We put our coats and boots on and walk to the end of the snow-packed driveway. We don’t say anything to our older brother. We walk in silence. My brother has cleaned his face. His nose is no longer bleeding. His eyes are rimmed red from crying. I can feel his pain. It’s palpable and pressing and large, like a boulder. I want to hug him, but I’m afraid to.
We stand at the end of the driveway, staring like zombies, waiting for the bus. When the bus pulls up, we file on. I sit in the seat with my little sister and look out the window at nothing. I go to school and pretend everything is OK. I don’t say anything about it to anyone. None of us ever say a single word. Silent. Obedient. Fearful. Secrets. So many ugly secrets. Keep quiet. Don’t tell.
This movie title came out, I believe, in the 1980s, and starred Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek. I don’t recall much about the film with the exception of one scene that struck me like a stake through the heart. In the scene, a deer wanders into a factory. The deer does so accidentally and innocently, unaware of any danger. One by one, the workers start to notice it. As this happens, a mob begins to yell and chase it through the factory and out into a fenced yard area. Eventually, the mob corners the deer. Despite its wild jumping and running, the terrified creature has nowhere to escape. It scrambles to the top of a dirt pile. Once on top, completely surrounded by the factory workers, it looks around in panic-stricken horror, and freezes. It is quiet, and then…the deer urinates. I remember feeling the terror of that poor, desperate animal. I understood it so deeply and so completely it brought me to my knees. I am 6 six years old.
Several months prior, my parents had new curtains installed in our living room. I am in my bedroom playing and unaware that my father has discovered a stain on one of the curtain panels. He is yelling for me and my brothers to get our “f$&%ing asses” into the living room. I hesitantly exit my room, my heart pounding so hard I think it will break open. His wrath is dark and penetrating and heavy. I don’t have any air in my lungs. My hands and legs are noticeably trembling but I’m trying to hold myself still. I wish I could disappear. I know what is coming.
We are grabbed violently by our father as he forces us in front of him. One by one, he takes us by the hair and kicks us repeatedly in the backside with his steel toed work boots. I don’t know who sustains this punishment first because eventually it becomes a frenzy of his flailing fists. I feel my hair being pulled so hard I’m nearly lifted off the ground. I cry out when his boot connects with my tender, sensitive tail bone. Now, I am being shoved down the hallway toward my bedroom. I am thrown forward and I run into my bedroom and crouch down into a tiny ball in the farthest, darkest corner of my closet. I can still hear the screams of my brothers as the horror continues. My mother is begging for my father to stop. She is sustaining her own blows in the process of trying to stop him.
I can’t help it when the hot urine comes through my pants. There is a puddle on the closet floor. I am hugging my white, stuffed seal “Silky” to my chest. I bury my face in Silky’s head and try to muffle my sobs. I am the deer. I am doe-eyed. I am innocent. I am defenseless. I am trapped. I am frozen. I am filled with terror. The urine comes because I am powerless to stop it. I am so afraid and I am powerless.
My First Memory…
I am 4 years old. I know this because my mother is in the hospital after just giving birth to my little sister. I am home with my dad, and my two brothers. My dad has taken out the vacuum and asked us to help him clean the house. It is an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner. It is blue and the hose has an argyle pattern that reminds me of a pair of socks. I am gathering up some gum wrappers and I throw them in the path of the vacuum cleaner as my dad is rolling it across the floor. I can see the vacuum, still running, drop out of his hand. He yells something at me. I cannot specifically recall what he yells, but it is akin to “Idiot!” This is followed by a hard blow to the top of my head with his fist. For a few suspended seconds, I feel my brain rattling around. Then the immediate sensation of burning hot tears and an equally fiery hot lump in my throat. I force myself not to let the tears spill out because I am terrified my display of hurt will garner further punishment. In my shaking, lisping four-year-old voice I quickly say, “I’m sorry dad, I’m sorry!” I continue assisting with cleaning.
The feelings that overwhelm me are shame and fear, in equal parts. Shame for having, I thought, acted so stupidly. Why was I so bad? I deserved to be hit. And fear, because I know my father is capable of much worse if I don’t act in accordance with his expectations. The fear, is also never really knowing what those expectations are from one day to the next. There is a long, loud silence that follows, from myself and both of my brothers. Just seconds before we were laughing and goofing, as young children do. We keep our heads low and do our best to be dutiful and good. I so desperately want my mother. Where is my mother? I know that, at the very least, after helping with the chores (when we are alone), my mother will let me cry in her arms. My mother will rub my face with her hands and tell me to let it go. But she is not there. I am utterly alone. I am utterly terrified. I am profoundly changed. I am no longer innocent.
I got it in 4 sessions beginning in January of 2016. In the five years prior, I had gone through a series of extremely painful losses. In September of 2010, I lost my Grammie. The following year, in 2011, I lost my grandfather, an equally important person in my life. Then, in November of 2012, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly, at age 67. His death, for me, was complicated and painful and it broke me in unexpected ways. A year after my dad’s passing, we had to put down our German Shepherd, Moo. Moo had degenerative myelopathy, a disease that had steadily deteriorated her spine and eventually left her unable to walk. My partner and I carried her 70-pound body around for two years, helping her get around the house so she didn’t have to drag her hind quarters across the floor. When she was able, she used a custom wheelchair we had made for her. When we had to let her go, it felt like I lost my own limb. Moo’s death was followed, in February 2015, by the passing of my stepfather. He was also 67 years old and for months I watched him waste away from cancer. Between 2011 and 2015, I also lost three cats.
All of these beautiful souls meant so much to me and they all require their own story. But that is for a different day. So much loss in such a short period of time really broke me down. I felt like my life could not get any lower. The tattoo, for me, was a tribute to those I had loved and lost. A reminder that their souls would live on and rise again. While this was true, what I didn’t realize at that time was that the tattoo wasn’t really about them. It was about me. Somewhere deep inside,when I chose the symbolism that would be permanently carved into my back, I must have known that the worst was yet to come.
A short time before getting the tattoo, I had quit my position as an attorney for the government, a job that made me miserable. My partner of 13 years and I were getting married in Hawaii that February, surrounded by our closest friends. Finally, I believed, things in my life were making a turn for the better. Some light in the darkness! In late October 2016, just a few months after marrying my partner, my life truly fell apart. My relationship/marriage ended and I learned that the person I loved and trusted with my heart was in love with someone else. In that moment, my entire world was turned upside down. The security of my relationship, that I had clung to as though I was hanging off a cliff, that I believed I could always rely on, had been blasted away and I was left standing naked in the rubble. There was nothing left to cover me. The roof had been torn off. The walls had crumbled. The bottom had fallen out. I could rely on nothing. It was the final bolt of lightning from the universe and it cracked me wipe open. And, it was the greatest, most special gift.
I am not afraid anymore.
In those moments that I felt gutted and exposed, that I felt I had nothing, I was truly saved. I. Was. Set. Free. I was finally able to be honest with myself about who I am, what I am, and where I came from. I don’t have to hide anymore. The phoenix from the flame. I had to die in order to be reborn. In a profound and metamorphic way, I was transformed.
I have wings. I can fly.
So here I am. Telling my story now. Thank you for taking the journey with me.
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October 5, 2017