In January of 2010, we attended the birthday party of DH's young cousin. A word first, on this little girl, before I tackle the intricacies of the event. DH's cousin has a real spark about her, a brilliance, a light. When DH still lived at Naunt's apartment, I saw this little girl often, as she came over to visit us nearly every day. Prior to making our realizations about Naunt, I even babysat LC (Little Cousin) once, as a favor to her mother, the woman who would eventually betray us. LC is very much a little girl, excited about things that most eight-year-olds are excited about, eager to ask questions, always wanting to be a part of the bigger picture even though she doesn't yet understand how she fits in to it. It bothered DH and I tremendously to see the way LC was treated by her parents, and in turn, how her relatives were teaching her how to "be" in the world. If she walked into the room to share her enjoyment of a new game, her mother would say with disgust and scorn, "That is really annoying, take it into the other room. We're having an adult discussion here." Discard and dismiss. Dismiss and discard. It saddened me to see LC treated that way, because she didn't deserve it. I would never think to tell a child that her age-appropriate interests were "annoying" or "stupid" just because I am now an adult and those things no longer interest me.
I well remember being eight and I would have been crushed if my mother or aunt made it known that the things I enjoyed were stupid, childish, or insignificant. I think of cupcakes when I think of LC, and how she came over to help me bake some for DH as a "Welcome Home" snack after he returned from a business trip. Her mother told her not to bother me, and I told her that she wasn't bothering me and it was fine if she wanted to ice some cupcakes. I didn't criticize her for the icing that dripped off the edges of each one, I praised her for a job well done. When we were finished with that project, we made a "Welcome Home DH!" sign, and she drew the "O" as a doughnut. When DH made his choice to leave Naunt's apartment with me and begin our lives together, he told me that he wished we could bring his two cousins with us. It was such a sad moment that he and I shared, when we discovered that we could not save them from what would most likely be a life time of hurt. We could not take them with us, we could not fix their parents for them, we could not help them grow into healthy people, no matter how badly we wished for it. It is my hope that LC and her brother can escape the grasps of their dysfunctional FOO, just as DH has. I am sad that I can not take them away from the toxic place they live in, and hope against hope that the light inside of them will shine through when they need it.
We showed up to the party late because of DD's napping schedule, and we walked in to a room full of hatred, resentment, and disgust, though no "unkind" words were spoken at us. NMIL couldn't meet my eyes, and she didn't greet me. In place of a greeting, she said, "Oooh, can I hold the baby?" I told her she'd have to wait until I fed her first.
DH accompanied me while I nursed her in a private room because I had previously requested that he and I remain together during the party. The moment he closed the door, he turned to me and whispered, "I feel so uncomfortable here." For the first time, Dear Reader, I believed he was really picking up on the undercurrent of negativity that I've always felt around his FOO. Prior to this party, he had managed to ignore the darkness hidden under their disingenuous smiles. I asked him if he could pinpoint why he felt uncomfortable and he replied, "I feel like they were all talking about us before we walked into the room." I told him they probably had been and they most likely continued as soon as we left the room and closed the door. It was a surreal moment for me because I saw DH's eyes start to open, at least a little, about the dynamics in his FOO.
Those dynamics were obvious to me from day one, though, and this party was no exception. I stood perched in the archway between the kitchen and living room when DH got up to retrieve a snack and my daughter was being passed around from guest to guest. I swear, I very nearly had one eye on my baby and the other on my husband. I watched the both of them like a hawk, ready to swoop down and attack if any danger threatened them. I never ate, I was too busy protecting my family to engage in trivial things like eating.
The only people who spoke to me at the party, besides my husband, were the children and the handful of guests who didn't know me. In fact the woman who ended up renting DH's old apartment seemed to think I was quite the likable gal, and spent a good chunk of her time discussing babies and children with me.
When NMIL and SIL held DD, I made sure they only did so for a few moments before I swooped in and took her back. I gave NMIL a few "Look-I'm-pretending-to-be-a-grammy" moments before I decided enough was enough. SIL held DD for what would be the second and last time, as the next time she saw her would be a year later.
And now, Dear Reader, for the hard part.
My cowardice. My deficiency. My failure.
LC had a friend at this party, though it was obviously a family party. We'll just call her Friend, for the sake of clarity. Friend was a girl who had obviously overcome a serious physical handicap and didn't let the limitations of her body define her. Even at her young age, she seemed to have an inner strength about her, that was perhaps due in part to the lot she had drawn in life and refused to accept. But, in spite of her resilience, she was still a child. Innocent, unassuming, and near-defenseless. When she left the room for a moment, NMIL sharpened her blades. She started asking LC about Friend, seemingly innocent questions. She asked, "Does she have any nicknames? She has one of those names that gets shortened all the time."
LC said, "Most people call her [this name]." Then she paused and said honestly, "But some people call her [that name] and she hates that."
NMIL actually squirmed in what I can only assume was pleasure in having gained the knowledge of something so personal and perhaps painful for Friend. I swear, Dear Reader, I could see her wheels turning and it was so disgusting to watch. In the next few moments, she solidified the Evil image of her in my mind. She giggled. She oozed delight. She said, "Oh, that's so funny. That Name. I'm going to call her that."
My heart skipped a thousand beats, my brain shot arrows at my mouth. Do something, do something, do something. I could feel myself panicking, knowing I had only seconds to decide how I was going to act. My mind raced as I asked myself, "How can I head this off? What can I say? What if, as soon as she walks back into the room, I tell her I think she has a lovely name, before NMIL can say anything?" What I really wanted to do was stand up and get in NMIL's face. I wanted to say, "How dare you? You WILL NOT tease that little girl while I'm standing here. YOU WILL NOT." I wanted to, I knew that's what had to be done. But the seconds were passing, one by one, as Friend came back into the room. My own cowardice, my own fears kept me glued to the couch, watching the destruction unfold. I was afraid, Dear Reader, that if I stood up to NMIL, I would be attacked. In fact, I knew I would, and it would come from the one person in the room who was supposed to be on my side, the one who had only just begun to open his eyes. He had been trained to protect his NM, and had not yet fully broken those chains.
But this is not about shaking off the blame, Dear Reader, I am not placing the blame on my DH's shoulders. It was me, who let her take the hit. Me. The one person in that room who could have saved her. Who could have shown her that NMIL's behavior was unacceptable, in fact, that anyone who behaved that way was wrong. I didn't open my mouth, I didn't take the hit for her, I didn't stop the bullying. I was no better than the bully herself. Me. The adult. The one with the experience enough to understand what was happening and the skills enough to know how to deal with it. I let my cowardice rule the day and that little girl suffered the consequences for it.
I remember when Friend came back, and NMIL jumped on her, in a matter of seconds, sinking her viscous teeth in with her nasty, concealed torment. "Oh hello, That Name" she snickered. Friend cringed and cried out, and lightly slapped LC's arm, having known who gave away that secret. LC laughed with NMIL, thinking it was all okay, that this was how one should treat her friend, nay, this was how one should treat everyone, including those who are smaller and weaker. I passed up my opportunity to show Friend that she was not alone, to show LC that teasing people was not okay, to show NMIL that I knew what she was doing and I would cut her down at the knees in order to stop her. I thought of the fact that I had my own daughter to protect and I had failed her too. Even though she was just an infant and had no idea what was going on, I had failed her. It was my job, my responsibility to save Friend, in that moment, and I failed.
Dear Reader, I would never ask for forgiveness because I don't feel I deserve it. Thinking about this event still makes me cry. I will go to my grave knowing that I failed Friend. She needed me. And I failed her.