Tears brim in her eyes, spilling down her cheeks. Her left arm crosses her chest, as she lifts a cigarette, taking a quick drag. Her quivering lower lip makes it a difficult task. Self-consciously, she holds it in the air.
“I know. It’s a bad habit. I wanna quit… for the kids.”
She laughs sarcastically. “That’s funny. They’re the ones pushing me to the edge. These smokes keep me from jumping over.”
“Ya, I know. They need a mother that’s stable, someone they can depend on. I’m already losing it and now Taylor getting caught shoplifting is it. I…give…up...”
She takes another puff of her cigarette.
“I don’t get support from their father so I’ve gotta work. And I can’t pay a sitter, so Taylor’s gotta watch his sisters. I don’t have options.”
Fresh tears follow familiar lines to her chin. Despite the storm of emotions pulling at her lips, she attempts the cigarette again.
I hand her a Kleenex, then refill her coffee.
Propping the half-spent cigarette on the edge of an ashtray, she blows her nose, and wipes tear-stained cheeks. Taking a shaky breath, she continues.
“Someone told me you parent like you were parented…”
She lowers her eyes and shakes her head. “I swear I never beat my kids. God’s my witness.” Her hands are shaking. Coffee in one hand, cigarette back in the other, I wonder how she can hold either.
“I remember hiding in the closet when I was four, listening to my old man smacking my mom ‘cause his supper wasn’t ready...”
“And then when I was eight, running out of the house ‘cause I knew the pattern. It always started with swearing and name-calling while he sat in front of TV. Then he’d get up to yell in her face.” She pauses, clenching her teeth. “And then he’d start hitting…”
My heart aches as I listen to her story. Her childhood was so different than mine. Father give me your heart of compassion. Open my eyes to see her as you do.
Piercing blue eyes meet mine. I sense she’s searching for reassurance. Love her through me Lord.
Her voice is now a whisper. “He beat mom so often I kept track of the nights he didn’t. When I was ten I came up with a plan for us to get away - arranged it with my teacher. It woulda worked, too, ‘cept while I was on my way home after school he beat her so badly she went into a coma and died in the hospital that night. I never got the chance to tell her we were gonna be rescued.”
The frail woman, slightly younger than me, collapses in my arms. Her grief, held captive twenty-some years, is released as she sobs on my shoulder.
I recognize God’s provision for me, as I hold her without reserve. The odor of dirty clothes and nicotine, and my presumption of the hardness that kept her at arms-length, disappears, freeing me to show the Father’s compassion.
Settling back in her chair she goes on. “A neighbor called 911. My dad was arrested as paramedics worked on mom. I’ve never seen him since.”
“I lived in a foster home until I turned sixteen and found myself pregnant. I married the guy. Had three more kids, took exactly that many beatings, finally kicking him out when I realized my mom’s life was being relived through mine.”
What should I say, Lord? I wait.
As she lights another cigarette I notice she’s sitting taller in her seat, as if the release of emotions was the physical removal of a heavy knapsack. One she’d carried her entire life.
“You told me once about the greatest parent you’ve ever known. You said your mom and dad were great but you learned the most about parenting from God.”
“I’ll be honest. Your talk about God kinda wierds me out. He’s never helped me much… that I know about, anyway.”
Her lower lip is quivering again, tears filling her eyes, but determination has replaced the look of hopelessness and despair.
A soft breeze moves across my face though no windows are open. Is that you, Lord?
“I need help. I think I need your God. Even if he’s half of what you’ve been telling me, he can help me be a better mom.” Tears of a different kind, tears of hope well up in her eyes. “Who knows? Maybe he’ll end up being the dad I’ve always wanted.”
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