Truth To Tell. Would you confess your most secret sin?
Tell No One
~Nothing weighs on us so heavily as a secret ~ Jean de la Fontaine
There comes a time when children learn to keep secrets. Whether this is a good or questionable thing will be determined by the very nature of the secret.
I remember my mother reading Milly-Molly-Mandy stories to my sister, I listening on the fringes of the couch–it was a girl‘s book–and wondering at the goodness of young Milly. It confounded me that even in secret-keeping she validated her integrity, motivated to hide the truth in order to keep others ignorant of some kindness or pleasant thing she had prepared for them; never for naughty behaviour, willed or otherwise.
The thrill of surprising others with some benefit to them is most definitely a healthy and happy reason to keep a secret. There is no fear or sadness attached, no grievous consequence when discovered.
However, this was not my childhood experience. For myself, and most children I‘ve known, secrets were a symptom of fear; a calculated decision to conceal what, most assuredly, would invite miserable penalty if discovered.
Fear of being found out is a sensation most, I assume, can relate to. My earliest recollection of such emotion is as a boy of nine. I‘d entered into the forbidden garden shed, the one with all my Dad‘s tools and other man-stuff; dark, musty and cobwebbed—a boy‘s paradise. Forbidden because it was dangerous and I‘d get hurt or break something, so dad said. Never a truer word, though it was the magazines I found there that did more damage than any sharp point or blade have likely achieved. Dangerous on a level imperceptible to my child‘s heart. Yet it was that day, I think, that set me on such a path which now, forty-six years on, has me ruing the day I disobeyed my father.
Strangely, it was the broken glass jar in which my father kept his nails for which I feared being discovered; the pages I‘d spent fascinated hours groping through seeming the lesser crime. So I‘d hidden both jar and nails and, in my haste, left the shed with the magazines opened on the floor. Dad never said a word. To this day I reflect on that. I guess he, too, feared being found out.
Regrettably the images seen that day remain imprinted on my eyelids, recalled at will; jarred open windows to my carnal nature that will not close. So also remains the strange panic at the sound of breaking glass.
Yet that was a beginning and, for all that it would lead to, an innocent one; not innocent in that I disobeyed my father, but I speak of all the evil that would come into my life, and others, because of a new appetite. Quite normal in some aspects, but twisted by a hunger beyond my years and guided by a force opposed to anyone‘s best interests. That force whispered, "Tell no one”. That my father kept his secret hidden was reinforcement enough that I, too, must keep my hunger closeted, locked away in the secret shed of my soul—but not to die.
I kept my secret inside, as had my father, as did others. Hungers, though especially the dark ones, do not diminish when hidden. In fact I have a theory, that good and dark hungers are sustained and destroyed by quite opposite treatments. Whereas to advertise and reveal one would enliven it, so it would be an act of death to the other. Visa versa, to bottle and conceal the other would be like strangulation to the first. So in hiding my hunger, I fed it, and it became darker and stronger still.
Oh that I had confessed my actions then, as a child, when consequences would have yielded so light a sentence and plucked the dark seed from my heart before it had chance to fruit. Oh that the daunting weight of so many years never had opportunity to settle across me.
Now it is too late. For me to confess now? I tremble to think.
My name is Kerry Sutherland, fifty-five, happily married to the same woman for twenty-six of those years and the father of an adoring daughter. But for those last two truths I would not, possibly, be in the predicament I am, but, as Confucius say, Can there be a love which does not make demands on its object? And there is the rub, but not where my story begins.
I watched him grow from a young boy to the man, I being twenty-three when we first met; not that he would remember, being but a toddler of three. Little remained of the unsullied pre-shed boy in me, and few of my thoughts were innocent. Of course, had his mother known of the twisted nature of my passions, she never would have allowed me to move in, let alone mind her child. But as already said, mine was a dualistic life, one which I had become master at concealing. At some shallow level it could be said we were friends, if such can be based on mutual desperateness. I used her. Worse, I did so knowing she already grappled her own many and deep troubles; little did she know I had become one of them. Truth to tell I had no designs at the beginning, beyond making some needed money. She paid me to mind him.
It was my last year of university. The trio of campus-life, free wireless broadband and the inner-city red-light district had indulged me full experience with much the world offered to sate my ever ravenous lusts. I should have guessed, I suppose, from the progressions already made—I call them perversions now—that taboos whether socio-cultural, religious or parental, were small defence against my longing. One-by-one they toppled before it.
For that whole year I babysat the boy, every Thursday and Friday.
His name was Jeff.
I do not think of myself as a paedophile, just as I did not think of myself as homosexual when with men, or an adulterer when with married women. There was only my lust and a ready and willing means to satisfy it — Except for Jeff.
My crimes against him became the catalyst to what I’ve come to call my pig-pen experience. Like the prodigal of the parable it was the contrast that drew me, comparing my once innocence to what I had become. I had committed one of societies worst imaginable acts. I was despicable, irredeemable, less than human; a swine with the pigswill of my life’s course finally reaping its due. I remember feeling like an empty husk, eaten up and worthless.
With the utter desperateness of those who know they are wretched and damned, I searched about for something, anything. Anything other than my depraved passions, as solace. I was disgusted by them, at last recognising their lure for what they were; lies, upon a hook of death.
Then came the next stage of my life, as sudden and clamorous a shift from dark to light as the light to dark had been long and subtle. I became a Christian.
Isn’t it odd that we fill up so frenziedly upon the things that empty us? Like junk food, we crave what ultimately ails us, and why? Because on the surface it appears so satisfying.
Jesus called this walking by sight. In contrast, he said we should live by faith. From everything I’ve come to understand, faith comes very hard to the human psyche. To me, faith is like the pure deeper waters of a well, its depths reached by passing through all layers above. Through the flotsam and scum. Through the warm mosquito larvae infested layer below. Further, past all that would pretend itself as pure water, until one comes to true, deep, liberating faith. I’ve found there is a secret to living at such depth. Breathe. Odd, I know. Too often I think we treat faith like a dive, we hold our breath until it’s over and then return to the surface to breathe again, back through the lies. Off course, now the next act of faith requires another dive, through all the pretend options; tempted by each on the way.
I think Jesus breathed faith with the same reliance we do air; how else could he be sinless. Of course, like breathing water, I suspect there’s a supernatural element required to faith-breathing. Maybe this is why stories involving water figure so often in the bible. Possibly faith is as much a work of God as it is our own.
I think confession should be an act of faith; not therapy; not unloading, but faith.
God, please help me to breathe.
No doubt now you’re thinking, ‘What a worm’, or, ‘Wow! What a changed man’.
Don’t. For the story continues. Reserve your verdict. I promise you it will change.
Jeff was twenty-nine when he came back into my life; from a boy I had watched growing from a distance, now into the man. Of course, he was ignorant that I often watched as he travelled past my home; from the toddler to the kindergartner, school boy, high-school and then on to university. That was the end of it I had believed, he never to be seen again. It was to be expected, my friendship with his mother having dissolved soon after I moved from her apartment. I only saw her on the odd occasions, mainly when Jeff was younger; when she pushed his stroller or walked with him in the park opposite my house; or later, at the supermarket. The shallowness of our past was most evident then, for we said not a word to each other, I for shame, she, I’m not sure.
The next I saw of Jeff, he was attached to my daughter.
It was a Friday, early evening. Liz had been in the kitchen most of the afternoon preparing some gastronomic delight for Samantha’s return, and was now showering upstairs. I was reading the newspaper in the lounge, anticipatory of Sam’s arrival, though currently lost in the sports page; the NAB Cup, Sydney Swans vs. St Kilda, was later that evening.
On hearing the front door open, I hastily refolded the paper and was about to rise when she walked around the corner—with him.
As experiences go, few in my life have been as emotively diametric. My daughter’s smile was ear to ear. Mine had fallen off my face and shattered on the floor. It was as if judgement had walked into my lounge. Never slow to read even my subtle moods, Samantha’s smile faded in confusion at my palpable expression, while I, never the multitasker, could formulate no words while rebuilding the facade of a pleasant visage.
So it was that Jeff spoke first.
For him it was your less than typical meeting of the girlfriend’s family experience. He hid well whatever thought he had of my strange behaviour behind his own contrived smile.
“Mr Sutherland, it’s nice to meet you Sir. Samantha speaks very highly of you.”
It was evident that all memory of when and what I’d been in his life as a toddler was long faded from recollection. I was a stranger to him.
He was my most intimate shame.
It was Liz’s bounding arrival that saved me from my tongues paralysis, her sanguinity harnessing all attention.
Self composure is so much easier when other’s eyes are turned. With an effort none in that room comprehended, I managed it. Yet a door had reopened, only a crack, but fearful to me in that a gentle draught would swing it wide. It was the door to my shed, empty now of vice, though full still; of guilt, self-reproach and debilitating disgrace.
My sin is ever before me. This was the lament of King David, he who was said to be a man after God’s own heart. Easy it is to confess and forget a sin barely mourned, uncomplicated to move past iniquities that merely twinge us to repentance. But, I think, there are no few of us haunted by some great sin, such that, long after confession is made, it remains a threat still.
It was an uncomfortable meal for me that evening.
They had met at university, she a first year arts student, he finishing his last in a bachelor of mechatronic engineering. I had to look that one up. Seems Jeff was a bright spark; which from a prospective father-in-laws standpoint should have earned him considerable merit. Instead I was wishing he was at least mildly retarded; less a menace to my fearfulness. Yet as the evening passed I discovered his capacities also extended into the deeper, meaningful realms of wisdom and honesty. He shared with us his past.
Jeff spoke of having no father, though he remembered snatches of another man that lived with his mother from his earliest years.
Never have I breathed so shallow for so long.
As part of me listened, fascinated, another cringed in dread, while a third prayed for a miracle. However no divine extraction occurred that day, nor since, though sought-for earnestly many times.
Of his mother he spoke with fondness and respect, “she’s special”, “I wouldn’t be where I am without her”, but clarified it with a glimpse of his difficult years, as he put it. A time in which he’d been a bad son, befriended the wrong people, even managed to earn time in juvenile detention.
I was just swallowing a bite of potato when the cruncher came.
“Then I became a Christian”.
The potato made a slow and painful journey. It’s true, remorse felt for wrongs committed against a stranger amplify for those of a more cherished connection. For me, the link connecting us had just become sacred. All I felt was the need to escape into some dark and lonely place and pray.
You might be thinking that I’d be glad, glad that in spite of my crime, Jeff had turned out well. I was. The relief felt over any serious wound that heals. Yet, and the only way I can explain this is to say that when we sin against another, we sin against ourselves. I was guilty still of a crime against this man and his mother, and myself.
Sexual immorality, the bible declares it the only sin one commits against their own body, all others being outside the body. I won’t pretend to understand all that implies, but have experienced something of it. For, as it says, it has waged war against my soul. For so many years after becoming a Christian, I battled with temptation and failure in the arena of my transgression. Like that man who cut out his eye to prevent it sinning, so I removed from myself all that might so easily entangle me. I could not go to the beach for the fuel such sights provided, I cancelled my internet connection and, for some time, lived without TV. Anything that tempted me, this I withdrew from. Yet in one area I failed. Though confessing my battle with lust and the more ‘acceptable’ sins, other than to God, I have never confessed my crime; a truth that has gnawed at my heart for decades.
What is the acceptable Christian response to crimes committed before one became a Christian? Is the thief obligated to confess to the police after baptism? Is the fraudster obliged to spend the next twenty years of his life in an effort to repay those he has defrauded? Should the Pimp go to his girls and apologise? And what of the non-criminal sins? If there is such a thing in Gods eyes. Should liars front up to all they have lied to throughout the years? Or, is it, that along with forgiven and forgotten by God is annulled all rectifying requirements we might imagine necessary? Does true repentance demand I confess all to men as well as God? I’m not sure. Though, in truth, it is my fear of possible ramifications that deters as much as any doctrinal confusion. Man is not as merciful as God.
God, help me to breathe.
“What’s wrong dad, why were you acting so weird?”
This from Sam, the second she’d returned from kissing Jeff goodbye. There was a disconcerted expression on her face. Her complaint was quickly followed upon by Liz.
“Yes, Kerry, you were acting odd, is something the matter?”
But for these two people maybe I would have confessed years ago. Yet it is a tangled web that sin does weave; and I do not speak of my own sin here. Liz was herself a victim of child abuse. This I discovered a year into our marriage. It haunts us both.
My wife does not share my faith, though she respects it and has attended services and church events without quibble many times. She’s a tender, energising, and wonderfully supportive wife, but she hates what was done to her and harbours anger still. Ironically I am angry too. Sound hypocritical? Like a man concerned for his sisters virtue as he selfishly ruins another’s. So too, I imagine, you consider me. However, my love for Liz is deep & genuine, as is my concern for her soul. Both prevent me from confessing. For all this I am angry.
Fear upon fear, so the number of gates to my own confession increase, locked and guarded. I wasn’t going to lose my wife.
That was once my reasoning. I know better now.
Fear, like faith, is a deep well; more a vortex. Too easy it is to mistake fear for wisdom. However, faith and fear are different wells, and wisdom abides only at the depths of one.
It was fear that determined much of Samantha’s upbringing. Liz’s unresolved past perpetuating itself into our daughter’s future through stifling rules justified by exaggerated suspicions. From me, a father so guarded, so afraid of his past that he shared only half himself. In attempting to hide one great failing, I unwittingly appeared to hide all others, so projecting a facade that Samantha realised, as all children eventually do, was a lie. No parent can pretend perfection forever.
This also, I think, is the reason my daughter does not share my faith. In proliferating my father’s fault, I, by example, taught her that it is better to hide a failing then confess it, to conceal the past than offer it up accountably. No one turns to God with such a mindset, for it is founded in fears well; and fear is faiths foulest enemy. I question my own source of wisdom in this.
Time passed, as time does, stopping for neither need nor loss. I remember reading Raymond Feist’s Riftwar saga and envying Pug, the immortal magician. At will he could pass between worlds, entering the void in-between; a place of no time and in which nothing ever happened. I think if such a place was accessible to all, it would be an over populated corridor.
Seven months later they were married. Commenting on the wedding many said it was memorable. I must concur, it was. Of the things I do well, organising is one of them. Though I can’t take credit for the creativity and flair of the day, I will for the planning of it.
By this time Jeff and I had a working relationship, that is to say, I walked on broken glass in his presence and he mistook this as pleasant company.
In truth, I had come to like the man. My daughter had done well in landing with him. Such that I found myself happy for her in spite of the predicament it left me.
But I get too far ahead, I forget to mention Alice.
In some ways the panic of meeting Jeff paled besides meeting his mother. Although not as sudden an entry as that of the son, the advanced notice of her arrival did little to alleviate my churning anguish, to the point I tossed up whether to visit her in private before the formal meet. I decided against it; a path threatening detours down which I didn’t want to go. In hindsight, I wish I had.
Of course, Alice would have guessed who I was from my name alone. What I would have given to know her thoughts when she first heard her son announce it; did her jaw drop, did she swear, list my many faults—tell him about our seedy relationship?
Once again it was my wife and daughter through whom fear hung the nuance of menace, terrorising me with images of repulsion; their discovery of my past. If the first meal with Jeff had been uncomfortable, the meal with Alice was like sinking through shards of glass.
“Elizabeth, Kerry, this is my mum, Alice.” Jeff looked awkward.
That’s how it started.
Time changes people. When I had lived with her, Alice had been a shy, eyes averted teenager. The woman before me was a tiger. Not only did she look me in the eye, she communicated a very clear message in that look—don’t mess with me. I saw old anger in those tiger’s eyes... and something else.
We shook hands as strangers, though Liz, as Liz does, passed through the hand to embrace Alice in a womanly bear hug. This, I think, from her surprised though not unpleasant expression, threw Alice a little.
So there we were, pretending, and I happy to keep it that way. Alice, I was certain, was on a short leash held by her son; which she strained against throughout the evening. This I say because most of what came from her lips that night was clandestinely aimed to keep me on tottering edge, and Jeff, as much as I, looked most apprehensive whenever she spoke.
The fact she’d told him something about my past was obvious, making my relationship with him even more the see-saw. We shared it now, he and I on one end, his mother on the other, both afraid she would suddenly jump off while we were high, I afraid that he would when we were low. Our common dominator was Samantha. I had no illusions regarding Jeff’s concern for my reputation, but knew they were solid in regard to Samantha’s. But would he tell her?
God, help me to breathe.
“So Kerry, tell me, what’s your secret.”
Thankfully I wasn’t swallowing a potato. “Secret?” I replied, squeakily and past suddenly dry lips. Glimpsing Jeff, I noted a wary tightening of the mouth.
She smiled, a tiger, “yes, you’ve obviously done very well for yourself, what’s your secret?”
I am old enough now to know that sins do catch up with you in some form or another. You see, I left Alice after she’d lost her job. Already depressed, she was broke, and I owed her money. As a broken person myself, I didn’t hang around to help her, or honour my debt. It was selfish, I know, yet another of my regrets. Worse, shortly after leaving her, I started making good money. None of which made its way back to Alice.
That we’re wealthy is no secret. Our house, the consequence of my wife’s renovation addiction, is the polished diamond on a street of lack-lustre homes. It was luck more than anything, or blessing. I’m never sure when it comes to money, Old Nick as providential with the root of all kinds of evil as God is ever likely to be. I was a software programmer at the time, back when they made a good wage. But it was Apple stocks bought in the mid eighties that ultimately proved the windfall, shares I’d tenaciously held on to through the unprofitable years, buying up more whenever they hit lows, which were often; just a hunch, but a lucrative one.
“No secret”, I replied as naturally as my larynx allowed. “Lucky on the market, that’s all.”
I tried to change the subject, “what about yourself Alice, what do you do for a dollar?”
Ever said something inert only to have it ignite in your face?
Alice dropped her fork and swore under her breath. She looked up. Embarrassment was followed by a rapid gamut of silent facial expressions, yet none failed to hide her hurt; more than hurt, brokenness.
Liz looked at me. I aped her confusion, wishing I could hide.
Recovering somewhere between those two looks, Alice said, “Oh, this and that, I paint now, I sell them too, sometimes.”
I realised then that the angry tiger I’d seen was only the mask of a suffering woman, damaged emotionally, possibly mentally ill.
In a soft voice Alice added, “Life’s never easy is it?”
There was such a pain between the syllables of that statement; I was surprised she didn’t groan under the weight of it.
The sounds of eating became louder; cutlery beating an unpleasant rhythm against best porcelain.
“I’ve been through some difficult times”, said broken Alice, breaching the awkward silence. “When Jeff went away to study, it all got too much for a while.” Her eyes, scanning across the listening faces, came to rest meaningfully on mine. There was accusation there, like a curse. Averting her attentions, I glanced toward Liz, mimicking an expression of puzzlement, hoping she remained oblivious to the undertone of Alice’s words.
“My life's never been easy...”, continued Alice.
Here it comes, I thought.
“...I never got over your leaving-”
“Mum!” Jeff snatched away whatever his mother’s next words would have been. I chanced a glance back, thankful to find her eyes no longer on me.
Jeff's tone gentled, “Let’s talk about it later, ok, not now.”
I’m sorry. I wanted to apologise very much just then, but not here.
“I’m sorry,” Alice said with difficulty. She paused. Pushing her chair slowly back, she rose. “I think it’s best if I leave.”
“Don’t be silly,” Liz piped. “I have just the thing for a bad day”.
Oh Liz, no. She referred to her Frozen Chocolate-Covered Cappuccino Crunch Cake. The sugar content alone could lift a corpse from its hiatus it was true, but Alice’s blues were several shades too deep for a chocolate resolution; unlike my wife’s cursory episodes.
So Alice stayed. The evening progressed. My edginess abated infinitesimally until Jeff took her home. He returned not long after to find my wife and daughter in a guessing game on the topic of his mother.
I lied to them that night, and I rarely lie. Yet I felt cornered. Like Peter when accused of being acquainted with Christ.
“Do you know what was wrong with her, Kerry?”
”No, why would I know” A simple ‘No’ would have sufficed, but , as said, I’m not a practised liar.
The doorbell ringing was like a cock crow.
At Jeff’s entrance the guessing stopped, not from secrecy but expectancy, the girls sure he would shed light on Alice’s condition; that much they had surmised, that it was some sort of condition.
Jeff disappointed them.
“Kerry, can I have a word with you in private please?”
Liz and Sam’s eyes bored into me as I guided Jeff to the study.
As intrigued by trepidation as I was in what he had to say, I was already prepping for the dialogue to be had later with Liz. It would be a long night.
Closing the study door I turned, slowly, straining for some mollifying remark; the appeasing pre-emptive vindication to off-set his scorn... total mind blank.
“My mum has told me about you and her.”
I sat down, stomach tightening.
Jeff appeared neither angry nor hurt; a relief to me and in hindsight understandable. He wasn’t her husband after all. Just her son, in love with my daughter. A place based on ties he cherished and wished to nurture rather than any intimate knowledge of his mother’s pain. I got the impression she hid almost as much from Jeff as I had from Sam.
My mind-blank continued, though I rifled through its pages to find something, anything.
Awful silence can be an understatement.
Laughable how my mind, when left to guess, falls to assuming the worst. Like whenever Liz or Sam are later to arrive home than expected. Obviously due to a fatal accident. My subconscious presumes tragedy it seems. Fruits of a wicked past, maybe? Who knows? But there have been times I’ve broken down into convicted tears in my pessimistic fiction, only to have them walk through the door while I was contemplating funeral plans.
Was he going to blackmail me?
Watching him across the desk, seeing his nervous body language, I realised this wasn’t about me. His mention of my life with Alice was but the icebreaker to what he had to say next.
“I need your help.”
My help? Not what I’d expected. I found my voice, “In what way?”
Jeff sat, hands clasped in awkwardness. “My mother’s not well. She’s quite sick actually, mentally... and physically.”
I remained silent, nodding, though ignorant of what he was talking about and where it was leading.
“The problem is that I haven’t told Sam. I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. After tonight I have to tell her something.”
I was still at a loss, “I don’t understand. Respond to what, Alice’s mental state?”
“That too I suppose, but more-so her physical illness.”
Aids immediately came to mind, on a string of other STDs. The father in me joined the rest in worry.
“She has a cerebral aneurysm.”
I shook my head, confused. Jeff jumped ahead.
“I have one too.”
Nothing more was said of Alice and I for a long time.
For all his mother-love, Jeff had his own life, as we all do, comprising its own unique loves, quirks and fears. At this stage they had fallen into the following priorities: Samantha; his health; his mother’s well-being. As for Alice’s past, myself included, there was not the time, wisdom, nor motive for him to unravel it. So it remained off radar.
For my part, I kept low, ensuring the blimp stayed hidden.
That my zeal to help Jeff had ulterior motives is undeniable, but it was not my only motive. I liked him, my daughter loved him. It was the right thing to do. Yet it was the ulterior motive that spurred me hardest. If they could ever bottle fear, athletes might be a marketable demographic. Nothing makes you faster than a good adrenaline dosed panic. Jeff’s words had presented a track of escape, I took it; once again fear convincing me it was the wise thing to do.
I never get sick, though for no reason I can take credit for. Blessed constitution you might put it down to. However, unlike many of similar disposition who frown critically upon the ill, I have the greater sympathy. I have friends who eat better than I do, exercise often and are good people, yet have serious health problems. Why then should I boast? Part of me suspects payment will be required at a later date, having once used up all my health credit. When I finally get ill it will likely be something lethally quick; Ebola maybe. I joke. Alice though, ill Alice, for her I felt only pity and the shaming weight of my contribution to the burden of her life, a part-cause to where she now was. I could not but help her and her son.
Thinking of it, I wonder at myself. Would I rather repay than confess? What price can compensate for what I have done? Can the offender decide recompense without consulting the offended, seeking self-sanctification rather than allow the affronted to decide justice? Was there any valid avenue other than the confession of my sin? Or sin’s, now, in that hiding the first and constructing layered walls of self protection, they, like dominoes, had fallen upon others.
My guilt aside, Jeff and I bonded in that study. Bizarre isn’t it. He confiding in me, his abuser. I, for reasons unfathomable to him, determined to help.
A brain aneurysm, I learnt, is an abnormal bulging outward of one of the blood vessels in the brain. One in fifteen people are likely to develop such a thing during their lifetime. Jeff, unfortunately, was one of them, though fortunate and rare in that he was young when it was discovered; this due to research indicating genetic and congenital propensity to this type of malady, therefore Jeff was tested.
Whereas Alice had what is called a micro aneurysm, involving the smaller vessels of the brain, Jeff suffered from the saccular variety; the swelling of a larger artery. It was serious, requiring risky surgery, considerable cost and downtime from work. His fear, naturally, was that this would scare off Sam. After all, who wants to marry a sick, unemployed and possibly soon to die person? He didn’t know my daughter as well as he should... but then, neither did I, Liz.
Long story short, I assured Jeff things would be alright and helped him break his news to Samantha; like I told him, this only heightened her feelings for him. I paid for his surgery, as well as for Alice to see a psychiatrist, and supported them both during the post-op period.
After this I became, to borrow a phrase from my Scottish roots, Braw faither ay aw; most excellent father of all. Like the clever mouse, I’d rescued the cheese from the trap without setting it off. Triumphant, I marched with it back to the familiar boundaries of my comfy hideaway.
But, if the mouse is the present, then the cat is definitely the past, jumping forward when least expected to render with its claws.
It has no interest in the cheese though.
~If you must hold yourself up to your children as an object lesson, hold yourself up as a warning and not as an example ~ George Bernard Shaw
I’ve come to believe hindsight never feels more useless then when considering one’s childhood. Don’t get me wrong, there’s much to be learnt from dwelling on where we’ve come from, finding enlightenment and making self-amendments founded in reflection, if possible. But nothing can change what was, and the lesions of childhood are often too deeply scarred-over to penetrate through the lens of decades. No, I don’t think we should spend too much time looking back. The journey is forward.
The success of that journey is like a rail road trip involving numerous train changes. At the outset the baggage limit is limitless, mainly because as children we have no idea what baggage is (in the sense I speak of), let alone that we’re carrying it. I think this is why children of horrific circumstance seem to travel better than adults in similar position — ignorance. It may not be bliss, but it goes a long way as far as coping is concerned. At some point, though, we become aware of our baggage. We continue on in childlike naivety, until that train comes along with a baggage limit less than our load allows.
The stations of life are chock-full of people who can’t or won’t let go of their past. The journey for them is on hold until they do, if ever.
Someone once said the first half of our lives is ruined by our parents, and the second half by our children. Cynical, yes, but I can relate to it, at least to the first part. Nothing emphasises the truth of our fallen nature more than the baggage we pass on to our kids, as hard as we might try not to.
We still have them though.
Samantha got pregnant on their honeymoon, or shortly after. I’m unsure whether that was intentional, but I ain’t complain’n — I was going to be a grandfather!
Several other things changed during this interim period; perhaps because of it. Liz, for one, started therapy. I think it finally dawned on her, as aging does, that being in her forties (she’s seven years younger than I) and a soon to be grandmother, it was time to move past the repression of her childhood abuse. Some interesting things would come of this.
Alice was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, much to Jeff’s distress. Her doctor said she’d become psychotic. That in her delusional state she needed a level of specialist care that neither he, nor we, could provide. The hospital was several hours drive south. You may guess my response. It shames me that I was relieved to have the distance between us; I continue to fear her.
Jeff was given the all-clear in regards to his aneurysm, scans revealing the surgery was a lasting success. I noticed an instant change in Jeff after this. He reminded me more of Liz; bubbly and energetic. The weight of sudden-death-at-any-moment had evaporated, a heavy cloud blown from his mind.
We –read Liz- made another renovation to the house, an extension; a large one that swallowed the remaining lawn. The reason, or necessity I was told, was that Jeff had decided to pursue his doctorate. He hadn’t wanted to at first, deeming it irresponsible; with a pregnant wife, he soon to be the only breadwinner. However, I encouraged him to go for it. After all it was either now or possibly never. His life wasn’t going to slow down from this point on. He didn’t take much convincing.
Liz no sooner heard this than arranged to have them live with us, for all the reasons a mother would, to stay close to her daughter and grandchild without having to pass the front door — Á la renovation.
It was a noisy nine months.
Justin Reeve’s was born three kilograms exactly, and perfect as only a baby can be.
Cradling him in my arms, I confess coming as close as ever I had to open tears. Why? I’m not sure. I blame my wife’s influence, her weepy-tap connected to almost every emotion; bound to rub off on me eventually. But seriously, I think it was because my grandchild represented a milestone, a marker of where I’d come from as much as an arrow to better things ahead. Here was a new life. For me as much as he, it represented a fresh start; and this time with the wisdom of a lifetime behind me.
Three years later
That’s how much time passed from Justin’s birth until the unthinkable happened.
It was his birthday.
I remember it well; third birthdays in my observation being the most enjoyable. Children of that age are at last fully appreciative of what’s occurring and mesmerised by the wonderment of it all—all for them. First birthdays are the most boring for the opposite reason; pointless except for the pleasure it brings the parents.
The last of the children had just left with their mums or dads. I had retreated upstairs for a grandpa nap.
While lying there, I heard the escalating drama below.
“Mum, have you got Justin?” Sam called across the house.
“No darling, I thought you did.”
“That’s OK, Jeff must have him.”
“No, Jeff just left to take some of the children home, Justin wasn’t with him when he drove off.”
I lay there, eyes closed, listening. Our house was huge, with countless places a three year old could hide. As my wife and daughter searched ever more frantically, the natural male calmness in me deteriorated. Still I lay there while my mind played out the worst possibilities. Giving into it, I finally got up and joined them.
Our shouts for Justin where still ringing throughout the house when Jeff got back. Although male, calmness is not an apt description for Jeff; at least, not in this situation. Panic-button on legs, maybe. After a few minutes calming him down, I got him busy knocking the neighbour’s doors, having them check their yards. After this he did a quick circuit of the neighbouring streets by car.
By now Liz was in tears and unable to do anything bar add the urgency of her panic to our efforts. Sam was pure distress but, like me, of the delayed emotional response variety.
I rung around the parents of those who’d come to the party, asking them to check their vehicles in case Justin had climbed in.
It was shortly after this we called the police.
It’s surreal to be part of a TV-like-drama. Time and space suddenly bend into themselves and freeze at a point. I kept waiting for someone to call out, ‘CUT, that’s a take’. I remember thinking, surely this isn’t real.
Four hours later our garage had been converted into a command centre for several agencies; the police, as well as the local State Emergency Service, called in to assist with a search of the area –culverts, storm water drains, nearby parkland’s and the like– and members of the church I attended, there to keep the wheels of our life turning while we coped; meal making, tea and coffee and other comforts, those lesser routines of life we take for granted.
It was now late afternoon. Whatever fears of impending mischief one might have during daylight, rise with the suns ebbing. It would be dark soon and somewhere my grandchild would experience it for the first time without family around him. I felt his fear as my own. It choked me. I prayed almost every moment. Other possibilities I refused to contemplate.
Liz had taken a Seredyn tablet for her wrangled nerves, but would not leave Samantha’s side. So they sat on one of the couches stacked against the garage wall, along with other furniture large and small. We were in the process of moving.
Jeff and Sam had been in their own house for a year now; living an hour north from ours. So Liz and I had decided to sell up and move also, closer and into something that wasn’t so large that I lost count of bedrooms. We –read Liz- found such a place on the waterfront, a short eight minute drive from Sam and Jeff’s. Of course, a law of physics came into play then, being less than a third the size of our current home it wasn’t going to accommodate all our stuff; and we had lots of stuff. The solution: storage.
The removalists had worked the days leading up to the birthday alongside the packing people from the storage company. Now the house was mostly empty. Which was one of the reasons we decided to have the party there; children’s party food, a barbecue for the adults and lots of space for little feet to run and play without things getting broken. It was the perfect kids’ party from an adult perspective, including a farewell to the house and the neighbours. It had been a great day.
I say that in hindsight of course, for at that moment there was no lighter side, only dark and getting darker; how dark, I was yet to learn.
I don’t mind technology per se, though loathing elements of it. Edison's light bulb for example. Nothing disrupts life’s natural balance so understatedly; allowing us to stay up night after night well past the weary-alerts of our circadian rhythm. That said, technology remains a choice of the individual, a simple switch on the wall of decision. The telephone, however, is insidious. Leaving it off the hook invokes a sense of guilt; they might be trying to get through, or angst; I might miss an important call. And how many times have you been talking face to face only to be put on hold while your host answers the whining phone? Yet, like the light bulb, we embrace it, though it can ring at any time, be from anyone... about anything...
It had been eight hours since Justin’s disappearance, when the phone rang.
It was Samantha who answered. It was her reaction to the call that got everyone’s attention; alarm so intense she shook.
Staring at the receiver in mute disbelief, it was long seconds before she finally cradled it. It was when she turned her stunned stare upon those in the room that my heart began to flutter loudly in my ears.
Some time earlier the police had placed a recording device on our phone line. So, as the call was played back to us, we got to share Sam’s emotion.
It was a message, and one I will never forget. A voice now associated with the worst portents. Tinny in sound, reminding me of childhood play-phones, cans connected by string, yet crisp and clear; the production of some kind of software I guessed. The message was simply stated.
“Listen carefully. The closet has opened. The skeleton within must now be revealed. If you want to see the child again, then a sin concealed must be publicly confessed to the media. The owner of the closet knows who they are. They have eight hours to own up and tell all, or the boy dies.”
If not for my constitution, I would have heart-attacked that moment. Such a constriction gripped my chest that I couldn't breathe, crushed by pain at the effort. My physical agony was outmatched only by the fear that drove it, one that at its core still whispered, Tell no one. I marvel that I managed to look around the room with an expression as bewildered as the others; an act of innocence that hid a certainty of guilt.
Yet at least I did not speak, could not. To pretend in silence is one thing, to have voiced my pretence quite another. Instead it was the police officer who spoke first.
“Any idea what that was about?”
Liz was visibly shaken, her lips trembling. I stretched my arm across her, the action relieving some of my chest pain. Sam had at last begun to weep; gentle sobs that I knew echoed a far greater tide of anguish within. She was so much like me in that regard.
It was Jeff who replied. “I wouldn’t have a clue.” He spoke through palms pressed together near his mouth, as if in prayer. His next words were pleading, “What do we do? What do we do now?"
The police officer was already dialling, he answered as he tapped in the last numbers.
“This has just escalated from a missing child to abduction. I’m going to call in some help.”
Around the room our mirrored faces reflected the very antithesis of what was soon to be an Alice through the Looking Glass experience of the worst kind; from which there would be no waking.
I once read the account of a battle between ancient Greek warriors, their great spears bristling in unison as they charged at speed into the opposing phalanx. The story portrayed a blow by blow account of what, in reality, would have taken but moments. Yet in the book it spanned deliberated chapters, the reading of undoubtedly lengthier than the actual struggle. But I was transported in that story, seen through the eyes of a warrior whose last moments, so threatened, had slowed to heartbeats in time in which every crinkle of leather, every glimmer of bronze spear, every sandalled foot fall became a tangible experience; and death, in its final blow, an eternity.
My senses became retuned, hypersensitive. I was aware of everything in that room; every look, every comment, every sob. Captured, analysed and measured for risk. I was embattled. Yet unlike that warrior, I was alone. Counterpoint to this was my fear for Justin, the knowledge his welfare was in my hands.
I had eight hours... So I thought.
Eight hours to sum up the courage to confess.
I have never known greater fear before or after this.
To confess when the only consequence is forgiveness is a prospect far cried from what was required of me now. To be lowered into the symbolic baptismal grave of Christ’s sacrifice, to rise into the newness of his resurrection with all my sins left behind; sins only I and God, in his grace, knew the full extent of. That is easy. Easy compared to what I was now forced to do. To confess this sin, this crime, to my fellow man no less, would surely ruin me. So the pessimistic voices said. At the time, I saw no reason to disbelieve them.
Liz would be heartbroken. To learn her husband was of the ilk she had hated throughout life. Samantha would feel betrayed and deceived – disgusted. And Jeff, what would Jeff do?
Such thoughts crushed about me, seeking to slay my courage. Fear for myself and those I loved, fear for the pain and shame my past was about to bring open them... and me.
Like a pebble in a sea it would be but the first ripple, before the impending tsunami of consequence. For then I would be arrested, tried, as a paedophile imprisoned; everyone hates child molesters. Would I even live long after that?
God, help me to breathe!
I had Eight hours. Each one of those would prove astonishing.
© 2010 Richard Parr
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