Updated: Jun 25
| This is the 438th story of Our Life Logs |
“You’ll understand when you’re older.”
It’s a phrase that we have all heard growing up. Sometimes that was true. We would grow up, and things from our childhood would start making sense. But some things are always going to be beyond our comprehension; there will be some memories that we will look back on in 10, 15, even 20 years later and still wonder why it happened.
My family, which at the time consisted of my parents, myself, and my older sister Emma who was almost a teenager, moved to Gray Court, South Carolina, in the late 1990s when I was about eight. We moved from Simpsonville because my dad didn’t want us to live in the city anymore. He’s the kind of guy who likes peace and quiet, and since Gray Court consisted of two gas stations, a school, and one red light, it seemed like a reasonable choice. We didn’t realize that moving there was about to be the exact opposite of peace and quiet.
I knew my parents fought sometimes and I knew that my dad drank. But I was too young to understand what they were fighting about most of the time. I just knew that when they started screaming or my dad started throwing things, I would scamper to the safety of Emma’s room and she would let me play the Nintendo or we would play Barbies until there was silence or until my mom would come to tell us to get in the car so we could go to my grandpa’s house.
One particular day, there was a fight about a ring. I didn’t understand why my dad was so mad about a ring that he had found in my mother’s car the day before. I remember that he was screaming and crying and it frightened me. The fight escalated enough that my mom told me and my sister to get in the car and we left. I sat quietly in the backseat while Emma cried and asked my mom a bunch of questions. It was evident that she understood the magnitude of this ring. My mom pulled into a gas station and turned off the car. With a raised voice and tears streaming down her cheeks, she dropped the words that would alter the rest of our lives.
“Fine! Yes! I’m having an affair!”
If I thought Emma had been upset before, this phrase took her to an entirely different level of hysteria. I didn’t know what it meant to have an affair, but Emma obviously did. And now, Emma was angry at her too. I just knew that I idolized my mom. She was my best friend. She couldn’t be doing anything that was so bad. I just stayed quiet, unsure of what to say or do, and wondered how long it would be before we went back home. You’ll understand when you’re older.
Weeks passed with things getting worse. The fights that would send us fleeing to my grandpa’s house or a hotel were getting more and more frequent, and most of the time, it would be only myself and my mother leaving. Emma would stay behind with my dad, and that was the hardest thing for me. I wasn’t used to being away from my sister. And it would scare me that she was there alone with him when he was so angry, or drunk, or both. But my mother’s news had caused something between her and Emma to change. But she never explained to me why.
She was different with me too, but not in the angry way she was with our mother. She still let me play Nintendo. She had even begun to let me play with the Barbies she had inside the glass cabinet in her room, the ones still on their stands that she never touched. My favorite was the Native American that came with a tiny baby. She always got mad if I tried to play with it before. Now she never said anything. Even when I lost the baby that went with it.
Sometimes I would go to work with my mother if she had left my dad and there was no one to watch me because she was a breakfast manager at Burger King and had to be there at four in the morning. I didn’t mind going because I got free food and got to play on the playground and watch television in the office and the guy with the little braided beard always made her laugh. Emma didn’t like this man, even though he was always really nice to us. And my dad really didn’t like him. I knew all of these things, but I didn’t comprehend that this was the reason behind all of the pain that was going on. I thought it was nice that she had a friend. You’ll understand when you’re older.
There came a day that everything finally became too much, and the quiet way that I had been soaking everything in, pretending like it didn’t have any effect on me, was abruptly put to an end.
We had been staying with my grandpa for a few days, and Emma was with us this time. My dad called and begged my mom to bring me and Emma home for a little while because he wanted to see us. I’m not sure what my mom heard in his voice, if it was desperation or overwhelming brokenness, but whatever it was made her agree.
We got in the car and drove to Gray Court, to our quiet streets where we were virtually unknown. I didn’t really understand what I was seeing when I walked into our house, but it’s an image that I can never forget. There was a perfect pyramid of beer cans on the counter and an empty bottle of sleeping pills. Everything seemed to slow down. My mom and Emma started screaming for my dad and when they found him, he could barely speak.
Emma called 911, and I remember her screaming at my dad to try to throw up, but he refused. Emma was hysterical and ran outside to the top of the driveway to wait on the paramedics. I followed her, frightened that my mother was hiding all of the guns in the house under the back porch. My mom came to the front when she was finished, still yelling at my dad, who was quickly becoming more incoherent. He tried to follow us, but as I looked back at the porch, I saw him fall onto his side. I thought he was dead.
An ambulance came. Somehow my dad had pulled himself back to his feet, unsteady but clearly determined that he didn’t want anyone to help him. He wanted to talk to my mother. The police came. They instructed my mom to take me and Emma away from the house. We went to the top of the driveway and stood across the road so we could still see the house. More police came. There were cop cars lined up down our winding, dusty street, and people began venturing out of their homes and wandering towards us to see what was happening.
My dad stood on the porch, brandishing the broken-off barrel of a shotgun. Sheer adrenaline had to be the only thing keeping him on his feet. I stood huddled with Emma and my mom, watching in fear as the scene escalated. The police were keeping a safe distance away from my dad, trying to talk him down. He was screaming about what my mother had been doing to our family.
This lasted for four excruciating hours. The sun was beginning to set. My dad screamed that he just wanted his daughters. He never knew that we were only a few yards away, witnessing all of it unfold. An officer told him if he put down the weapon and walked to the driveway, he could get the phone that was lying on the trunk of his car and he could call us.
My dad relented and stumbled to the driveway. An officer appeared out of nowhere tackled him, sending him face-first into the gravel and pulled his hands behind his back, securing them with handcuffs. They were putting him in the back of one of the police cars and my mother tried to approach him. A female officer told her to get away from him, that all of this was her fault. Emma and I watched as they took him away. We became known on our street as the kids whose dad had tried to kill their mom, even though that wasn’t true. The only person he wanted to kill that day was himself.
He went to jail, and from there, rehab. I didn’t see him for months because I was too young to visit. Emma would go, and I would stay with my grandpa and cry.
After that, I began to understand the magnitude of what my mom was doing. It really sank in on Emma’s 13th birthday. My dad was still in rehab and sent her a handmade card telling her he was sorry and that he loved her and that things would get better. He had drawn a picture of a sparrow on the front. Emma cried when she read it.
My mom seemed indifferent, taking advantage of the freedom given to her while my dad was away. The man with the little braided beard came to our house. They went into the master bedroom and closed the door. Emma lost it and ran to her room. I followed her, thinking we could play and drown out the noises coming from the bedroom on the other end of the house. I went into her room and found her sitting on the edge of the bed with a kitchen knife in her hand, pressing it against the tender flesh of her wrist. I began to cry. I ran to my mom’s room and banged on the door and told her what Emma was doing.
The door never opened.
I ran back to Emma’s room. She was still holding the knife but clearly hadn’t used it. I begged her to stop. We were both crying, but she finally handed it to me. I was eight years old—almost nine—but when she pressed the handle of the blade into my tiny palm, I felt older than my big sister for the first time. I felt older than my mother, who had never even come to check on her. I felt anger and sadness pressing down on me like a crushing weight. She wouldn’t open the door for me. It was Emma’s birthday, and if I hadn’t been there, it could’ve been the last one she ever had. She never opened the door. You’ll understand when you’re older.
Time passed, the way it has a habit of doing. After everything that had happened, I turned to books. And food. I became pretty chubby and truly believed that real love could only be found in fiction.
The affair eventually came to an end. My dad never stopped drinking and he and my mother stayed together and had three more children. They grew up with a life entirely different than Emma and me, and we didn’t talk about the things my mother did. I was able to hold tight to the love I have always had for my mother, forgive her, and understand the deep, reckless love that my father had for my mother—through it all— and yet…I can also recognize that Emma and I grew up with more issues than either of us care to admit, manifested as mistrust, depression, anxiety, and, especially for myself, the tendency to seem cold-hearted and uncaring, and it’s the only defense mechanism I had. Emma teased me about what she would call my “black, black heart,” but she always said it with a smile, because she understood. She’s the only one who understood. And the saying, “You’ll understand when you’re older,” rang true for several things, for myself at least.
Emma and I grew up and began families of our own. I got married in 2012. When my husband started pursuing me, it took a very long time before I let him any closer than arm’s length. My defenses immediately went up and stayed there until I was sure of his intentions. Because love, to me, only meant terrible sorrow. Love meant changing your mind instead of keeping your vows. I was husky with my nose always stuck in a book and he was tall and charming. There was no way that it was real.
But after weeks, and then months, and then years passed by, my idea of love shifted. When I gave birth to my daughter, and then years later, my son, I loved them like nothing I had ever known. They depended on me. They didn’t ask to be brought into this world. It was our responsibility to give them a life that was worth something. To not traumatize them. I surrendered my life to Christ and spent every moment trying to make sure my kids were safe and happy.
When my daughter started school, she had a really hard time with it. It was a battle getting her ready in the mornings, and hoping she didn’t throw up on herself before we got her out the door. I spent days and nights praying for her and crying with her, anything to help her and assure her that her mother was right there and not going anywhere until she would finally let go of my hand and run to class with her friends without looking back.
It was when she was able to let go that I realized that I had helped her. I had assured her that I would be there every afternoon to pick her up and that she was safe and I was safe and she wouldn’t be forgotten. She felt safe. I had done that for her. Regardless of my past and my “black, black heart,” I had been there for my little girl and helped her through the biggest change she had ever experienced in her four years. It was then that I realized I could be the mother they deserved.
There are many things that I still don’t understand from that horrible year, but I try not to think about it much anymore. I look at my own children and think of how lucky I am to have them, knowing that I will never let them experience anything like I did. I will never put anyone before them. I will never not open a door when they knock on it. I tend to be a bit overprotective. I’m sure they will probably complain about it when they get older. But I won’t tell them about my past. They don’t need those memories of my parents, who have become pretty awesome grandparents. I think that the best answer I will be able to give them is you’ll understand when you’re older.
This is the story of Tina Sayward
Tina Sayward is 29 years old, still living in Gray Court, South Carolina, with her husband and two children. Growing up, Tina’s parents had a chaotic relationship. Her father had been an alcoholic, and her mother had an affair. The events from this led to years of confusion and lasting trauma for Tina and her older sister. Tina’s skewed understanding of love hurt her own self-image but was ultimately dissolved when she had kids of her own. Today, her life revolves around God, her family, and writing, and that’s the way she wants to keep it. She hopes to make a career out of writing and is currently working on a novel. She loves going to the beach and spending time with her family. Working on this story was difficult, bringing up a lot of emotions that had been suppressed for quite a while. But Tina feels as though if her story can help even just one person, it is worth re-telling, regardless of the pain.
This story first touched our hearts on August 22, 2019.
| Writer: Tina Sayward | Editor: Colleen Walker |