The Courage to Heal

Poem: Ellen Bass SCW©1998. Design Karen Kerney. Concept Dik Cool.

Text On Poster: The Courage To Heal

A TRIBUTE Ellen Bass

We were five in a plaid dress with a sash and a little white collar. We were nine, it was after school in the garage, the smell of motor oil and cut grass through the open window. We were twelve, fourteen, sixteen in our own beds, in seersucker pajamas, the rain pelting down and running through the gutters.

It was a neighbor, a priest, a stranger, our father, our mother. It was every day. It was when he got drunk. It was before our class trip to the state capitol. When our mother was in the hospital giving birth. Just once.

We were left for dead. We were barely scratched. We were found in a coal bin, so wild they couldn’t catch us to wash, to comb our hair. Nothing showed.

We lay at the bottom of the stairs. We found ourselves looking down from a corner of the ceiling. We found ourselves out in the limb of the maple tree, in the night sky, up in the stars, where it was cool and there was so much empty space. We found ourselves in our own beds. It was morning and our clothes were laid out neatly on the chair, our mothers prompting us to come for breakfast.

We told an English teacher with straight brown hair clasped at the nape with a silver barrette. We told our mother who slapped us once across the face and closed herself like a fist. We told by carving our skin like a pumpkin. We never told.

We slept clutching a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. By day, we couldn’t concentrate. The long division on the blackboard smeared in our minds. We memorized everything. Our handwriting an exact replica of Palmer cursive, only smaller.

We ate to erect a bulwark. We wouldn’t eat. We didn’t want bodies. We didn’t want to be part of the food chain ­eater or eaten. We took enough pills to kill a horse. We were in coma for a month. And emerged in rage. We smiled. We smiled. We were drunk the first six years of our daughter’s life. We held our son’s hand over a candle. We somehow knew how to mother. That gave us joy. Deciding to heal was a choice. The first one we ever clearly made. We didn’t decide. The alternatives just became too painful. We cried every day. We only cried once but it went on for a year. We never cried. We gave up and drove a motorcycle into a guard rail. We threw a chair through the window. We stood on the steps of the psychiatric unit weeping about something we couldn’t remember. We remembered everything it seemed, each detail etched into the soft organ of our minds.

We blamed ourselves because he gave us a bicycle. We blamed ourselves because we didn’t stop it. We blamed ourselves because our bodies responded.

We stopped blaming ourselves. We beat a hundred pillows and tore up a year’s worth of the Sunday Times. We filled forty notebooks with writing that dug through the pages like a plow. We said once in a quiet voice, I’m angry.

We told our stories and we were believed. We told our stories and our families denied it. Never were we left alone like that. It couldn’t have happened. We told our stories and the faces that listened told theirs.

Once, we held out one fingertip to a woman with kind eyes and she touched the pad of her finger to ours for a moment. Once, we were rocked in a safe lap and someone smoothed back our hair with a tenderness not even we could deny.

But that wasn’t the end of it. It went on and on beyond what we’d imagined, beyond what we’d signed up for. We sat in fear like in our own urine. Our hearts aching in our hollowed-out chests and down our empty arms. We thought we would not survive. Like stroke patients, we had to learn everything anew. We saw how it had seeped into the corners of our lives like smoke. Nothing was untainted, except the tough kernel we were born with, the seed of who we could have been, could still be.

We reclaimed our bodies, inch by precious inch. Feeling our own skin, astonished, like touching a newborn. We tried out trust, like experimenting with drugs. We went back to school. We took a vacation. We spoke the truth. We did what we wanted. We learned to sleep. We ate when we were hungry.

We woke in the morning, willing. We wanted to be alive. We were hungry for all we’d missed. We took it with eager, patient, or tentative hands but we took it. We made a cup of tea in our own kitchen and drank it at a blue table on which we’d set a small bouquet of daffodils.