BIRMINGHAM–Timothy lives in a modest, split-level home in the town of Huffman. Known in the community as “the Ticking Time-Bomb,” the 48 year old machinist has lived a life that many people in this town refer to as “just plain sad.”
When approaching the front door by way of a long, cobblestone sidewalk across the front lawn, one is drawn to a large picture window, tonight featuring a heart - warming sight. A family of five is laughing while straightening the kitchen and washing dinner dishes, creating a mood Norman Rockwell would have found inspiring.
When my knocks at their door are answered, I am welcomed by Timothy and his beautiful wife, Nora. Timothy’s wife of fifteen years excuses herself and their three young daughters from the front sitting room.
“To what do I owe this honor, Timothy?” I ask.
After handing me a mug of hot coffee, he explains, “Well, Nora was watching a talk-show the other day about the cycle of abuse through generations. What they kept repeating was the notion that if a kid is abused, they will become an abuser. There were stories backing up the claim. The guest speakers made it sound like once a child is mistreated, they’re doomed to abuse their own one day.”
Being familiar with the history of the Ticking Time-Bomb, I smile, knowing where this interview is going now, and happy to witness Tim finally speaking out against public scrutiny. I ask, “So, you wish to challenge their statements?”
“You bet I do.”
“What proof, if any, could you possibly have that would stand against the knowledge of therapists and doctors?”
“I’ve been doomed for about forty years now,” he smiled. His tension is visible.
“Tell me about your childhood, Tim.”
He nods his head in agreement, and though I am familiar with some of his lifelong plight, Timothy tells me about events that not only leave me in tears, but that form a new respect for this man who stopped the cycle of abuse in his own life, single-handedly. Some of the events will not be shared here.
“My father was a drunk. Nora says he was a monster, and I guess he really was. Aw, he worked hard enough, and the stress of feeding seven people and putting clothes on their backs was more than he could take. He would get off work about 4:30 or 5 in the evening and buy him a bottle of whiskey or hit the bars. About the time we were getting to sleep, he’d start in with my mother.
“He claimed she was sleeping around on him. Every man within fifty miles was a possible fling for her, he thought. He even accused her of sleeping with the minister of the Baptist Church we attended for Sunday school, so she had to stop going to church. She’d drop us off in front and just go back home – never get out of the car. We had to tell people she was tending to a sick aunt, but I think they knew better. Then he finally raised enough hell about the minister that she stopped taking us.”
“Why didn’t he just go with her – or drop the children off at church himself?”
“He was usually hung over. If he ever was up and awake on Sunday mornings, he’d make like he was going to help a buddy fix a car or some other excuse, then stake out the house and watch my mother all day. ‘Gathering evidence,’ he called it. If we went to the grocery store, he was a few aisles over, pretending to read a newspaper. I guess he figured we were too young to know the difference.”
“It seems as if it would have been easier to just ride everywhere with her,” I said.
“He was convinced that she would not do or say the same things or visit the same people if he were with her. His favorite thing to say was, ‘when the cat’s away, the mouse plays.’ He screamed that at her quite a bit. He thought he would be able to catch her breaking one of his rules if she didn’t know he was watching.”
“But she never broke his rules?”
“Never. She wasn’t anything he ever said she was. He didn’t really know her at all. None of us ever broke any of his rules. If he’d caught her with another man, he’d have killed them both.”
I asked Timothy, “Did your father ever realize she was not having an affair?”
“No, and that’s what was probably the worst part of his confusion. Since he could never figure out what was going on with my mother because nothing ever really was, he believed she was outsmarting him. When he found no evidence of anything going on, he assumed he missed something. He thought she was evil or vindictive. Maybe she was able to hide things from him because he was not as quick witted when he was drunk, he would say. Sometimes he thought everyone knew about it and was laughing at him behind his back.”
“Do you mean people in the community or his family?”
“Both. The worst beating I ever got was when he came home one night and my two younger brothers were outside in the back yard playing and laughing. He was ripped out the frame – drunkest I’d ever seen him. I guess he’d already been fighting with somebody because he was pretty beat up, himself - covered in blood. My mother had talked him into sitting down in the kitchen so she could tend to his wounds. He heard my brothers through an open window behind him. He thought they were laughing at him.”
Timothy pauses and the inner turmoil he is reliving inside the memories appears across his face in a grimace that I have never seen on anyone before now. I offer to do the interview in parts, and suggest a return visit. He declines the offer, explaining that he would not have the courage another time if he did not summon it then. I now understand why there is a box of tissue on the small coffee table between us, and retrieve a few from the box, more for the sake of busying myself so I do not have to look at his grief-stricken face for a few moments. When he begins to speak again, his voice is strained and sounds older.
“I had been lying on my bed reading a Batman comic book. I knew the moment he got quiet and my brothers’ laughter continued from the back yard what was about to happen. I had figured they knew he was home, but nobody warned them. My sisters were in the bathtub, and my youngest brother was asleep on the bed beside me, so I was the one who should have let them know. I opened my bedroom window and dropped the few feet down to the alley that ran alongside our house. I made it to the back yard about the time they started running.”
“How old were you, Tim?”
“Thirteen. He grabbed Samuel up and threw him into a pile of lumber. We had been trying to build a tree house on the weekends by ourselves, and I guess he resented us not asking him to help. He wouldn’t have anyway. I knew he would come back for Samuel once he caught Matthew, so I picked up a two-by-four that’d been cut in half. My mother took Samuel inside and screamed at me to come in, but I didn’t. When Matthew came running from around the back shed and passed me, I got myself ready to swing that two-by-four. I swung it hard as I could when he got near me, but he was solid back then. It hurt my hands so bad I was stunned for a second. I think I dropped to my knees before he got me. I was in the hospital for six weeks after that night.”
“And no one ever did anything? The Police?”
“Not back then. If my mother had pressed charges, I guess, he’d have killed us. He always said about as much. We knew what he meant to do whenever he set out to do anything. He was predictable.”
“How many times were you in the hospital because of your father, Tim?”
He stops and thinks for a moment, and then shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
“What different injuries did you sustain throughout your childhood?”
“Both arms have been broken. Three ribs. I had two concussions, knocked out teeth. I’ve had my face reconstructed once. Two hundred stitches in my back,” he trails off when he hears his wife use a tissue on her nose from the adjoining room. Timothy excuses himself for a moment and I am alone in the brightly painted sitting room. Clusters of family portraits decorate the cheerful room, posed in different sized frames. Smiles and laughs frozen in time depict a happy, trusting family who tell their own story, and one that is so very unlike the story of Timothy’s past life as a severely abused boy.
When Tim returns to the sitting room and explains that his wife insists that we continue the interview, I say, “Tell me about the day your father died, Tim.”
After a brief pause, he says, “I was fifteen and returning home from school on a Tuesday. I noticed the front door was ajar, about two inches, or so. My mother didn’t answer me. My father shouldn’t have been home from work that early. There was overturned furniture, scattered papers, pictures off the wall and nowhere to be seen. Then I saw my father’s lunch pail and knew he must’ve come home early. I knew something was bad wrong about the whole scene, but you just didn’t call the police in my father’s home. Even after I found them, I didn’t call the police.”
Timothy stopped speaking, his gaze distant, reliving the scene of his deceased parents. I interjected with what knowledge I had of the incident: “He had already called the police, anyway, hadn’t he, Tim?”
“Yes,” he answered, his attention returning once more to the interview. “He called the police himself, gave them his name and address, and told them to hurry up because he had just killed his wife, was about to kill himself, and his kids were about to be home from school.
“I rode home that day with a buddy of mine who’d just got a car for his sixteenth birthday. My brothers and sisters were riding the bus home. So, I guess it was a good thing that I decided to ride home with him because when the kids got off the bus a few minutes after I got home, I was there. On any other day, the high school bus was later than their bus. They would have found them instead of me.”
“It’s a fairly well-known truth that you took care of your younger siblings since you were very young,” I stated. “Most people would not have been thinking responsibly in that sort of circumstance, I would guess, Tim. Understandably, even.”
“No, I think many who live with an abuser set themselves up as a protector of their younger brothers and sisters.”
“Perhaps so.” I smile, an attempt to dismiss the uneasiness he is coping with due to my tearful sympathies, then, “One thing is for sure. You stopped the cycle of abuse in so many areas of your life. Do you ever find that your brutal past interferes in any manner with your present parenting abilities?”
“At first, I found myself comfortable being only the bread winner in the family. I have daughters, so it was just easier allowing Nora to be their prime parent, so to speak. I guess I believed that stopping the cycle of physical abuse was enough. Nora alerted me to the fact that I was very wrong. I went through parenting classes here in the area. I learned to communicate emotionally with my kids. I’m ten years older than my wife, and I think having kids at my age made a difference. But I knew when I was a just a boy that I didn’t ever want to be like my father. In any shape, form, or fashion.
“And I have never abused my wife or daughters, my pets, nieces, nephews, or neighborhood children. I’ve made mistakes parenting the same as you would. But the cycle ended with me. I make my own choices in life. The choice to hurt someone or not hurt someone is our own to make. The choices cannot be blamed on the generation that came before us. I am nothing like my parents.”
“I think you succeeded in being the exact opposite,” I rise from my seat and extend my hand to shake his. “Shall we diffuse this ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ rap once and for all?”
A half-hour later, I left Timothy to his loving family and crossed the front lawn by way of the same, handcrafted cobblestone walk I had admired earlier. As I neared the end of the path, a quiet tapping on glass could be heard behind me. Turning my attention to the source of the noise, I saw three young, smiling faces in a dimly lit window. The three beautiful girls waved as they apparently giggled behind the clear pane of glass, a sight, I realized, would probably never have been witnessed in Timothy’s childhood home.
*Note: The names in this article have been changed in order to protect interview subject’s siblings.
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