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The phone rang first thing in the morning. My children were just finishing their breakfast. “We’re ready whenever you are,” the caller said.
I checked my watch, looking at my four-year-old, Ryan, eating his Cheerios, and my six-year-old, Jennifer, sipping her juice, our babysitter putting the milk away as though it were a normal day and I’d be heading off to work any moment now.
Today, nothing would be normal, and part of me feared that nothing would ever be normal again. “I’m ready,” I said to the caller. As ready as I’ll ever be, I thought.
I called our babysitter out into the foyer. “I need you to take the children to the park this morning,” I said, keeping my voice low. “Stay there for an hour, then bring them home. I have a few friends coming over to help me pack. We have to leave. We’ll be driving all day to get far enough away.”
I explained more, trying to keep the edge of fear out of my voice, telling myself that she must have known. She’d been with us a year. She would have sensed the tension in the house, heard the raised voices, the irrational outbursts.
But what a terrible way to have to say goodbye. Once we were gone, really gone, who knew if we’d even see her again?
We hugged and she went to the playroom to get a few things for the kids. Moments later, they bounded out the door with her, having no idea their world was about to be turned upside down. I watched them go. I was really going to do this. It was time.
The house was eerily quiet. I’d picked this date because I knew my husband, Joe, would be away on business. He wouldn’t be here to stop me.
I looked out the front window. A small U-Haul truck was pulling into the driveway. A car pulled up behind it.
A few friends descended on the house like a SWAT team, putting things in boxes, wrapping up crystal, stacking books, filling up suitcases, packing toys. No one spoke much. They knew how urgent this was. We had to act fast.
I went through rooms and gathered every picture I could find of Jennifer and Ryan. Family photo albums, two-for-one specials still in their boxes, school portraits, envelopes full of negatives. It was wrenching, but we couldn’t risk leaving behind an image that Joe could post somewhere and use to track us down.
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The U-Haul was for the things we’d put in storage. What we’d need for the next few weeks—or months—went into our car. “That goes there...that there,” I told my team. “Thank you. I’m so grateful.” More than they could ever know. Then they vanished, the U-Haul disappearing down the street.
I stood in the kitchen, dreading telling the children. I hated uprooting them like this. I wished I could have warned them, but I had no choice. It was too big a secret for them to keep.
They bounced in from the park, their faces flushed. I had lunches made, and their favorite books were already in the backseat of the car. The babysitter and I exchanged glances, then she left me alone with them. She knew how hard this would be.
I knelt down, pulling Jennifer and Ryan close. “Things are going to be different today,” I said, “and for a long time. The car’s all packed. Mommy’s not going to work today. We’re going on a trip...”
I couldn’t believe we were actually doing this. But then, I couldn’t believe I had been trapped in an abusive marriage, a woman like me. I had a good job with a good company. Good education.
Joe had swept me off my feet with his flamboyant charm, flattering me, giving me presents, doting on me. It was only later, after we were married, that I discovered his other side. The drinking, the cruel verbal abuse, the threats, the affairs.
He had been abused as a child and I wanted to make excuses for him, but when he told me what he’d do to me if I left him, I was terrified. I couldn’t hide my tears from my children anymore.
My faith gave me the courage to seek a counselor and admit to her what was happening. I talked to an attorney and made an appointment with a private investigator.
On a lunch break I stayed in the office and found a website for domestic violence, looking over my shoulder as I read, as though Joe would be right behind me, staring at every word.
“Are you in an abusive relationship?” the site asked. “Does your spouse put you down?...Stop you from seeing your friends or family members?...Tell you that you’re a bad parent?...Act like the abuse is no big deal?...Threaten to kill you?”
I said yes to everything. With each answer, my denial crumbled. It was impossible to ignore what my life had become. I felt as though the site knew me, knew Joe, and knew the hell I was living. I clicked the header Get Help.
The site mapped out all the steps to take. How to escape. How to protect yourself. How to make a file with all the necessary documents: birth certificates, passports, tax returns.
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I created a folder at work and drew a purple ribbon on the upper right-hand corner, purple because that was the color of domestic-violence awareness.
I went to the private investigator and confided what Joe had said he’d do to me and how he’d get away with it all. The investigator took notes and promised to look into the threats. Two weeks later I returned and sat across the desk from him. He didn’t mince words.
“You are in serious danger for your life,” he told me. “You need to get away and you need to take your children with you.”
How would I do it? Where would I go? I prayed for wisdom, prayed for guidance, prayed for strength, a strength stronger than my fear.
I consulted the website. I would have to share my story with others in order to build a team, but I had to be very careful. Anybody who helped me would be taking big risks themselves. And some would probably not even believe me.
I called an associate who lived 1,000 miles away. We worked closely together in the same department, only in different cities, and we were often in touch. I knew she was a woman of faith and I felt I could take her into my confidence.
She listened patiently, then said, “Bring the kids here and stay with me as long as you like, as long as you need to. You’ll be safe here.” I was stunned. I never expected a reaction like that.
I had my destination and I’d gathered my team, angels who had worked in secret. All the documents were ready. I’d done it. Now it was just the three of us, Jennifer, Ryan and me. Leaving. Leaving for good. I couldn’t know what the future would hold, but I knew too well what it could have been if we had stayed.
I pulled out a stapled set of papers that had been tucked in my purse, my legal request for a divorce, and put it on the kitchen table.
I said a prayer for protection and prayed too that my children would understand. Then we headed out to the car. Jennifer pulled herself up into her car seat. Ryan sank into his, looking up at me with his big, brown, searching eyes. I buckled the belt around him with trembling hands.
How much did they really know? How much would they ever understand?
“Mommy,” Ryan said, “now you don’t have to cry anymore.”
I got into the front seat and pulled out of the driveway. I turned the corner and our house quickly disappeared from view.
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