It was Christmas eve. I was a young 22 year old mom with an 18 month old toddler, my first baby. It was the first Christmas in which she was susceptible to the excitement of the season. Her father and I passed on the mythology and magic of Santa. It was my favorite holiday. The magic of it all always turned me into a little girl, memories of staying up all night with anticipation and joy filling my stomach with butterflies.
You see, as a young girl most weeks did not pass without my brother-in-law taking advantage of my innocence. I lived this secret, sick life of being forced to watch pornography, being forced to touch a grown man's body, and being touched by unwanted hands. This secret life was my shame and tied my normal life up in knots. I lived in a constant state of fear, a heightened state of fight or flight that often left me immobilized. Like a soldier on the battlefield, I walked carefully and in full alertness, knowing that at any moment I could be attacked.
But then there was Christmas. It was the last completely innocent part of my life. Christmas eve was the one night left in the year when I didn't fear that my brother-in-law's searching, hungry hands would startle me awake. The one night left that I didn't go to sleep with knots of fear enveloping my insides. Christmas was my bliss, and for me, it truly was magic. It was the only day I could just be a kid again. Even as an adult, I became that deliriously happy child again at Christmas. So when I had a child of my own, the magic of Christmas multiplied in my mind. Another innocent child to share in my arrested development that occurred every December 24th through the 25th.
We lived only 40 minutes away from my parents and the plan was that we'd bring our first-born child, our excited toddler, and spend the night at my parents' house. I wanted to share this with my parents. I knew they'd love to see a small child awake on Christmas morning and run toward their pile of gifts. It had been a long time since they'd seen their own tiny children do the same.
"Dad," I said into the phone, with my heart beating rapidly, "you're going to make sure Mike isn't going to be there, aren't you?" My sister, despite knowing of the sexual abuse her husband perpetrated on me, decided to save her marriage. She was desperate that everyone should forget about what happened and welcome her husband back as if nothing had happened, but my sister's desire to live in denial did not interest me. I needed to know that my Christmas would retain its innocence and not be marred by being forced to interact with that man.
"Yes, don't worry, Alyson. I'll make sure Mike won't be here," my dad answered.
"Ok," I said with trepidation. I decided to let go of my fear and to just enjoy my Christmas with my family. I didn't want to think about my brother-in-law and didn't want the flashbacks to start again.
On Christmas eve, Russ and I loaded our sweet, little daughter into her car seat. We turned up the Christmas music on the car stereo and I regaled my little girl with stories of Christmas magic and excitement. I wanted her to feel the same high I did as a child as I anticipated Santa's visit and presents being magically lit by sparkling Christmas tree lights.
We pulled into my parents' driveway. I saw my sister's van, but wasn't concerned. I knew that she planned to come with her children, but my dad had guaranteed that Mike wouldn't be there, so I wasn't concerned. The three of us stepped into my parents' home. As I looked around, my heart jumped into my throat and I couldn't swallow it back down. I felt as if I might choke on what my eyes saw, but mind said was impossible. There was Mike. Sitting on the living room sofa. Laughing and talking with others. There was the man that made my childhood a living hell. The man who turned me into a tiny soldier, fighting a secret, disgusting battle, that left me with a lifetime of flashbacks. I broke out of my frozen position and ran down the hall to my parents' bedroom. There was my father, sleeping, and I yelled, "you said he wouldn't be here!"
I ran back down the hall, took hold of my husband, who was holding our little girl, and we quickly escaped, buckling our girl back into her car seat. Her look of confusion and sadness sank my heart. I now regretted those moments of building her Christmas excitement. This would not be the Christmas I had dreamed of with my first toddler. My dad was running toward our car.
"Ok, why don't you guys drive around for awhile, and I'll get rid of him. Call me and I can tell you when you can come back."
"We don't have a cell phone!"
"Just call at a payphone. Give me about 20 minutes."
We left without another word. Tears began to streak through my carefully done makeup and all the fear, anger, and confusion I had ever felt swept over me in an intense tsunami of emotion. But we did as we were told. We drove around town for 20 minutes. Our daughter was now crying and desperately wanted to be let out, to see her cousins, and celebrate Christmas, as was every little girl's right.
I picked up the dirty phone at the dark AM/PM gas station that was near my parents' home, and called home. My dad picked up. "He's not gone yet."
"What? You told me you'd get rid of him! Why won't he leave?"
"Well, your sister won't let him leave."
"Excuse me? My sister won't let him leave! Does she not know what he did to me?"
"Now Alyson, you've got to understand. There are kids involved here. Mike's kids did nothing wrong. She doesn't want to have to explain to them why their dad has to leave. It's not fair to them. She wants to have her complete family here."
My chest began to heave with pain at the injustice and rejection. "Are you kidding me? It's not fair to them? What about me? What about my screaming baby in the car? We are being forced to drive aimlessly around on Christmas eve!"
"Give me another 30 minutes. She just wants Mike here to open gifts with his kids."
"Seriously? So we are stuck out on a cold, dark night with no place to go while he gets to open gifts with my family! We have to miss everything!"
"Just give me some time, Alyson. You've got to understand."
"Yeah, I understand that you made me promise and now we're stuck out here!" I slammed the phone down as I began to tremble. My whole family, all my siblings and their kids were there, knowing what was going on, knowing that we were rejected. No one wanted to stand up to my sister. No one wanted to do the right thing and stand up for me, the victim of extensive childhood abuse.
That dark Christmas eve, spent driving to nowhere continued. I wept. My baby wept. And my husband was angry. Several times we stopped at a sad and lonely gas station to call home, only to be rejected again. Only to be told how it wasn't fair to my sister and the kids to ask Mike to leave. My sense of worth plummeted. I didn't matter; not compared to them. Those kids were more important than me. My sister was more important than me. My role in the family was now to suck it up, get over it, and bring the family back together.
Finally, after two hours of driving around on a night that had started out so promising, so full of hope, we were told that it was now ok to come back. It was after 10 o'clock at night. I walked into my parents' home, my face swollen with spent tears. No one acknowledged my obvious pain. My sisters-in-law and brothers, my mother acted as if nothing had happened. We heard Merry Christmas from some, but mostly they had a hard time even making eye contact with me. I saw the wrapping paper strewn about the floor and the Christmas goodies gobbled up, evidence of the celebration I had missed. As I tried to lift my own spirits and save what was left of my Christmas eve, I saw that my brothers and their wives and kids were packing up. They were leaving. No one cared to stay to help me recover, to help my daughter recover. They just wanted to go, to flee. They just wanted to leave to their in-laws, to continue their own celebrations. I was abandoned. I felt small and insignificant.
Christmas would never be the same for me again. That tiny soldier inside me was now back on duty 365 days a year.