“Hope deferred makes the heart sick…” Proverbs 13:12
From a very young age, my second-born son, Brett, was positively delightful. He had a contagious smile that could light up a room, bright, dancing eyes and a playful, charming, sensitive disposition. That is the image of Brett I prefer to remember.
But as the years passed, and my marriage began to crumble under the weight of abuse, neglect and drug and alcohol abuse, I saw my happy, fun-loving Brett begin to withdraw. The slow progression over time transformed Brett from his lively, fun-loving self into a young boy who was sullen and introverted. Brett struggled in school, spent long hours alone in his room, comforted himself with junk food, or escaped the tension of our home life by immersing himself in movies and video games.
I have to shamefully admit that I was too preoccupied with survival – believing that my prayers and faithfulness would ultimately restore our family – to see what was happening all around me. My life swirled around a hostile and unpredictable husband while I kept on doing what I had been told to do. I continually prayed for the father of our children and believed that I could single-handedly cobble together a sense of normalcy in our household in spite of my husband’s endless demands and frightening outbursts. I convinced myself that I could shield our children from what was really going on in our home.
How very wrong I was. Our family’s rapid descent into chaos began when Brett was about 6 years old. And in the years that followed, my sweet-natured Brett lived in a silent, separate world, cruelly held captive in a personal prison defined by loneliness and fear. He mostly kept to himself, trying to live under the radar, trusting no one for fear of being ridiculed for his feelings, and hiding from the risk of further rejection.
After our separation when Brett was 9, Brett saw his father suddenly take on a new role – that of the Disneyland dad – the grown-up weekend playmate. And Brett believed that he could now have the relationship with his dad he always dreamed possible. Although Brett’s father would drop just about anything to spend time with Brett’s older brother Kyle (the certain favorite among the four siblings), when it was Brett’s turn to have a day or a weekend with his dad, his father’s punctuality and interest seemed to falter.
On days when his father was scheduled to pick him up, Brett would sit stoically at the front room window, eager to see his father’s car pulling into the driveway. But quite often his father either arrived late or failed to show altogether. The minutes would tick slowly by, and sometimes an hour or more would pass after the arranged time before the phone would ring. On some occasions, Brett’s father would call and say he was going to be late, and Brett would graciously agree to wait. But then his dad might call again long after the newly scheduled time and say he wouldn’t make it after all. I would watch Brett’s countenance fall at the news, and I wanted to pick up the phone and let that man have it.
Sometimes his dad didn’t show or call. And, yet, with each new opportunity to have time with his father, Brett would return to the window once again – anxiously waiting, hoping, believing. I would see him there, and as the minutes or hours passed, I knew I was witnessing his very heart breaking – and mine broke along with his.
“Brett, you don’t have to do this,” I would tell him. “How about if I call your dad and tell him you have made other plans? You and I can go out together,” I would offer. But Brett’s hope was unbending. “No, Mom,” he would say, “He’s coming. I know he’s coming.”
Yet time after time, his father didn’t come. In the course of cleaning, doing laundry and cooking, I would pass by to see Brett in his solitary place – wholly committed to the possibility of some meaningful father-and-son time. And my soul vacillated between two consuming emotions – overwhelming sadness and a burning anger toward the man who would keep his young son waiting at the window, the son who was starving for the smallest measure of his attention and affection only to be left gazing out on our lonely street time and time again.
On those occasions when his father did come, Brett would leap from his place at the window and charge for the door, a hopeful light in his eyes. I knew he believed that maybe this would be the day his dad would reach out to him. Maybe this day they would connect and laugh and talk and be close. Their time together would be everything it was meant to be, everything he ever wanted. Their time would be special, it would be memorable, it would be perfect.
That day never came.
Even when they did spend time together, Brett’s father did not look for ways to connect with him or ask him about his life or his interests. And often Brett would return home, and the look he wore was almost always one of dejection or disappointment.
One particular day, I went into my upstairs bedroom to find Brett seated on his drum stool in front of the sliding glass door that overlooked our street, waiting as he had done so many times before. As I entered, the agonizing look on his face stopped me in my tracks. It was a look that defied words: the look of utter despair in the eyes of an 11-year-old boy – the look of a father’s son who had lost all hope, had finally given up. “What’s wrong, Honey?” I asked him. His hazel eyes met mine from across the room, and as the tears began to course down his cheeks, the words were spoken so softly and matter-of-factly, I felt sick.
“Dad doesn’t love me,” he almost whispered. And with that most heart-rending utterance, I quickly moved to him and held his little body against mine. Brett clung to me and wept and poured out all the anguish that he had been carrying all alone, while my heart broke for my little boy who should have never known such pain. All of the patience and hope and forgiveness he had offered, the confident certainty that he would one day find all of the love and acceptance he longed to receive from his father collapsed under the weight of years of unimaginable rejection.
Not long after Brett’s father stopped inviting him to spend time with him altogether.
Even these ten years later, Brett’s wounds remain. A couple of years ago, during an open discussion with his brother and sisters about their collective history, Brett revealed to his brother and sisters that his heart still aches for the love and acceptance he never received from his father. They recalled to him how patiently he used to wait at the window, and he responded how he felt like, even all these years later, he is still waiting there, waiting at the window, wondering if his father will ever truly miss him, come for him.
This mother’s heart breaks for her son, and I carry a huge burden of guilt for his pain. I was encouraged to do whatever was necessary to keep my family “whole.” But, we weren’t whole. We were broken and battered and living in a home bursting at the seams with daily turmoil and fear. My once happy, outgoing son suffered for it and is still recovering from my foolish lack of understanding. So yes, I blame myself.
I know God can heal Brett, and I pray that God uses even those very dark memories in his life – and mine – to reach others, to give him a heart of compassion for those in similarly lonely and painful situations. And I pray that Brett will become the kind of father he always wished he had.
But I can tell you that, knowing what I know now and seeing the collective magnitude of pain that my kids endured, if I had it to do over again, I would have left that toxic, abusive environment long before I did to give Brett – and Kyle and Charla and Amberly – something it is now much too late to give them – a happy childhood. But I can never repay that debt; I can never make it right.
There are those who say us that children are resilient, that they possess some unique ability to overcome that kind of pain. I believe that is a sentiment intended to free us from the burden of acknowledging how deeply they have truly been hurt. I also believe that if I knew then what I know now, I would have left with my children long before I did. I would have worked overtime to empower them to acknowledge what is right and true, to instill in them a sense of their own value from a young age, and I would have strived to make sure their home was a place where they would expect to find the greatest measure of stability and safety and acceptance I could possibly offer them.
Everyone told me that, as long as he wasn’t hitting me, I had to stay.
They were wrong.
Don’t listen to those people. If you are in an abusive environment, you don’t have to stay. And you shouldn’t.
I wouldn’t wish this depth of regret on anyone.
All Rights Reserved