Waiting At the Window

2013-05-09-17-09-51-150x150“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.

2013-05-09 17.09.51
Brett and me twenty years later

I wouldn’t wish this depth of regret on anyone.

Cindy Burrell

Copyright 2013

All Rights Reserved

14 thoughts on “Waiting At the Window”

  1. I am in shock after what I read. In shock because just today I was thinking on this regarding my own two sons and the abusive marriage I stayed in for twenty long years. And I still remember my oldest as a tow-headed little boy laughing and running and embracing life for everything that a small boy could…and then realizing one day that all that life was slowly draining out of him. I too wish I had not listened when so many said to me that the boys were better off with two parents and that God would protect them from the abuse and they were resilient enough to bounce back.
    Shame on those people! And shame on me. I cannot ever do it over again…what is done is done. Will my boys be okay? At 21 and 18, four years after their father walked out on us, but started being the Disneyland dad to them, they are surviving and making their way in this life. But thriving? No.
    Thank you for sharing your heart in this post…I cannot begin to tell you how much it spoke to me.

  2. Oh wow, Cindy. I can relate. I can do all sorts of emotional gymnastics to get around feeling sorry for myself but I cannot outrun the regret I carry for staying thirty years with an evolving monster. I’d do anything to make things better but I just can’t fix this one.

    1. Hello, Ida Mae. I admit that this was the most difficult piece I have ever written. But, Brett wanted his story told, and we spent time together recently working through his memories and hurts, and I thought it might just kill me. Brett and I agree that we cannot do anything about the past, but we can grieve it and learn from it and then move on. We – all of us – need to keep enjoying the good we have in our lives now and look ahead to the good God has for us in the future. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus…” Phil 3:14

      Thank you for taking the time to share. I hope you are doing well – and miss your writing something awful.

      Cindy

  3. My oldest said the other day that he was upset that he can’t remember what it was like to be a “real family”. How could I say, you can’t remember because it was never like that, never family that pulls together to love each other. Thank you Cindy for this wonderful article!

    1. Thank you for sharing. I know what you mean about the “real family.” Hard when it never really was. Strange that we can’t see it at the time.

      I hope you are doing well, Cindy.

      Cindy

  4. Hi, Cindy.

    My heart broke reading this, because this is exactly what I am going through with my son now. He desperately longs for the kind of father he has never had and never will have. His dad does see him regularly, but he is often late and unpredictable, and never takes him for the extended amounts of time that are allowed in the visitation schedule during summer break and other school breaks. He says he can’t get off of work, but he is able to get off for other things…hmm…

    My sweet little happy boy has turned into a moody, angry 13 year old. It is heartbreaking to witness. Sometimes I blame myself for staying as long as I did, and then honestly, sometimes I blame myself for leaving. I think, “Well, at least his dad would be physically present”. But I know that it would be hell living in the chaos we did before. Not better.

    I understand the Disneyland Dad thing too. In the beginning of our separation, he took the kids everywhere, bought them everything they wanted. Now his money has run out, and he is moody and depressed. He doesn’t really know how to just “be” with them. The kids come home disappointed and more lonely than before they visited him.

    It is hard to see played out. We, as mothers, can never fill that hole in their hearts that their dads left. But I just have to believe that our Heavenly Father can and will. I have to believe that.

    1. Hello, Julie.

      I am sorry that you are going through things similar to what I went through with Brett. Yes, it hurts something awful. And, yes, our God can bring incredible healing. But, there is a hole left by our earthly fathers that is always hard to fill.

      I think the best you can do is to just love your son well and look for some positive male role models. Strangely enough, before my husband, Doug (Brett’s stepdad) came along, Brett used to watch superhero movies. I think they inspired him – allowed him to see men who were strong and had integrity and courage to do the right thing. My husband is now Brett’s greatest hero – strong, wise and full of faith. Brett considers Doug his real father. Doug sees it as a blessing to be able to sow healing and faith into the lives of my kids – and he has given them a lot of both.

      Even if you are single, though, look for male role models – family members or friends, who can emulate genuine masculinity. That’s the best we can hope for.

      It may not be an easy road, but God will meet you where you are and be a source of strength and comfort while you heal and grow.

      Cindy

      1. Cindy,

        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to my comment.

        It is funny that you mentioned finding positive male role models. This is something I have attempted to do for the past 3 years with varying levels of success. Sometimes I would be hopeful, and then someone would end up not being a good fit, or actually promising things but then letting us down. NOT what we needed! 🙁 This past year, God has brought someone really special into my son’s life. He is an awesome, godly, strong, masculine man who works with my son’s special needs group that meets once a week. My son ADORES him – in his eyes, he IS a superhero!! LOL. My son talks about him all the time. It is the one bright spot in his life right now. I thank God every day for bringing this person into our lives.

        Yours and Dougs story is so encouraging to me. I pray for God to send a strong, godly husband into my life. I know no one can every completely replace my kids’ dad in their eyes, but I think a good stepfather can make a huge difference. And a protector and provider and companion sure would make a difference for me. I used to think I wanted to be alone the rest of my life, but God is changing my heart in that area.

        Blessings to you, Cindy, and again, thanks for answering my post.

        Julie

  5. Thanks for this Cindy! I also stayed too long with my ex husband. Who knows what damage this did to my kids. Fortunately (?), he did keep all his parenting time with them. I wished he would fade away, but after reading this, I am rethinking my opinion on it.

    1. Hello, Caroline.

      I was thinking on your post, and realize that every situation is unique. Our children’s lives are very different from ours, and each child’s relationship with his or her father will be colored by their own personalities and their father’s tendencies. I have come to believe that the only way to mitigate any damage is to give them a safe place to be, love and accept them with their wounds, give them the opportunity to witness the lives of other godly men, and point them to our perfect Father-God, the source of all truth and grace and healing.

      I wish there was an easy way to make everything right for our kids. On the other hand, I know our God causes all things to work together for good… as I’m sure you do, too.

      Thank you for sharing.

      All the best,

      Cindy

  6. My beautiful daughter sounds just like your son. Her dad finally moved out after six months of trying to get him out. He moved two doors down. She is so angry at him. She doesn’t want to see him at all. I’m trying to show her how to tell him this fact but she is scared of him. I think it has to come from her so I’m not accused of alienating him from her in court. She is 14 and can’t stand to be around him because all he does is complain how awful and mean her mother is to him. He plays the victim and she can see right through it. She is tired of it. I don’t know what to tell her.

    1. Hello, Katherine.

      I feel badly for your daughter. I can’t imagine how deeply she is hurting.

      If I can be so bold, I would not encourage her to speak to her dad. She is very young, and he may eat her alive. The important thing is that she knows the truth about him. She sees the abuse and is prepared to take care of herself and not try to fix the situation – or him. I commend her ability to see the truth and to stand firmly in it. She has every reason to be afraid of him. And he is still her dad. She doesn’t want to have that conversation with him – but may be strong enough to have it someday. I would encourage you to respect her wishes in this. If he attempts to talk to her or messes with her emotionally in any way, I would encourage you to step in on her behalf and tell him to get lost. Allow her to say ‘no’ to him and back her up. That’s what I think she needs from you right now.

      I would encourage you to simply stand by her decision to avoid him. You don’t need to badmouth the guy or convince her of anything. She gets it. Just give her the freedom to do whatever she must to feel safe, and do whatever you can to protect her and ensure that she does feel safe in her own home. That’s all. Just be there for her. Listen when she needs a listening ear and remind her that you are not going anywhere.

      I hope that helps.

      Cindy

      1. Thanks Cindy. She went to the movies with him last night and she told him that she was thinking of cutting her hair and he went off on her. She cried for 2.5 hours after she came home. I am going to tell him she doesn’t want to see him. I hope it goes well. I just finished your book Why is he so Mean to me?, it is helping me stay strong.

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