Dear Heart:

When I was little, I used to have this thing with paper napkins.  If there was one in front of me, it couldn’t be allowed to just lie there.  Instead, I was strongly compelled to lay it out flat and then run my palm over it, again and again, until it was totally smooth.  No ripples at all.  I did the same thing with bed sheets.  Every night before I climbed between the sheets, I had to take my hand and smooth it out.  There couldn’t be a wrinkle at all.  Not in the paper napkins and not in the bedsheets.  They had to be smooth, clean.  I was usually too uptight at bedtime to really think about the reasons but, during the day, I pretended the napkins were hurt and I was erasing the pain by smoothing the wrinkles out.  I’ve never really stopped, actually.  Even today, when someone gives me a napkin, my first impulse is to smooth it out.  Every night, before I slide between the cool sheets of the bed, I run my hand over them, careful not to lay on any wrinkles.

I have a character in my head.  She’s young with an Indian-like complexion.  Her nearly black hair slides over her cheek and she keeps her head down.  When she raises her eyes to look at me, they are beautiful—but dark and shuttered.  She is wearing a simple, dirty, white, cotton dress.  I don’t know why yet but I know she is traumatized.  Traumatized to the point of silence.  She doesn’t speak, I have no idea what her name is.  I don’t know her story, either, although I have a dismal inkling.  What I do know is that she makes me very, very sad.  Usually, the presence of a new character excites me and fills my every core with anticipation.  I am excited to see this new girl—but she makes you hurt.

You’ve known the breathless agony of gut-wrenching pain for nigh on twenty-seven years.  The start of the school year is a “trigger” for us, if ever there was one.  Children starting school, bright faces showcasing eager minds.   New backpacks, pencils, paper, colorful crayons and markers, folders with cute pictures.  Hope.  Hope for the future so clearly defined in the shining eyes of youth.   I remember being excited about going “back to school” shopping.  But the first day of school inevitably terrified me.  Instead of rejoicing in hope for new friends and bright beginnings,  it was a time when you squeezed painfully inside my chest.   While others were learning to share secrets with their peers, I was learning to build walls around you because I knew time was limited.  I couldn’t afford to let you get close to friends we were going to leave in a few months’ time because another loss would have broke you again.

I remember that first terrible, terrible night.  It’s ironic that I can write about it in fiction so eloquently and yet, here, in this personal space of a journal, I hesitate.  Sometimes…. sometimes, I would lie there and pretend it wasn’t me at all,  I was just watching the life of the current character unfold.  Your beating would become labored because I wouldn’t breathe right;  breathe in and hold it…. hold it… hold it….. exhale slowly… repeat.  Controlling my breathing forced me to focus on you.  I could feel you beat….thump….thump…thump.  That first terror-provoking night, what I remember the most is a series of violent actions, which is funny, because he wasn’t violent that first night.  He was calm and quiet; soothing even, almost, in a demented sort of way.  His hands bothered you the most.  

Hands are supposed to be gentle.  Hands are supposed to soothe.  But they didn’t.  And then, by the time it was over, pain racked my body.  I was crying ,of course.  I cried at the drop of a hat those days. But you… you were beating so fast, almost as thought you were trying to catch up with the thoughts in my head.   The tears were making me hiccup and choke. I think it was the fights I’d heard before, I’m not sure, but somehow I knew to focus on my breathing.  I did that and you slowed down.  I don’t remember what I did the rest of that night, frankly.  I don’t remember if I prayed, if I went to the bathroom or if I just cried myself to sleep.  After the sheets were gone, everything is a hazy, uncertain fog.

But you were never the same.

It’s been twenty-seven years since you’ve taken a rest.  It’s been twenty-seven years since you’ve beat normally.  Doctors say your erratic; they diagnose me with tachycardia.   Then they found a hole in you;  a hole that caused two TIAs—mini strokes.  A hole that was quite literally endangering my very life.   They wanted to bandage it—in essence, they put a band-aid on you.  For weeks after that surgery, I sobbed.   You had been through so much and I had spent so long trying to keep you safe.  But, somehow, a hole, a literal one, punctured our walls.  I remember laughing with the pre-op nurses as I took the pre-surgery tests. But then, as I was rolled into the operating room, I got nervous.  They injected some “sleep medicine” into my hand and I went to sleep.  But I awoke a few minutes later, when they had such trouble finding a vein they were seeking one in my neck.  I was crying, but I didn’t know why, and a nurse patted my hand, said, “It’s okay” and the next thing I knew, I was out again.  When I awoke, I had twelve holes in my neck and a band-aid on you.

I was “healed.”

And even though that wasn’t really true, I tried so hard to make it so.  I jumped headfirst into the daytime and, at night, I left a bathroom light on and counting my breaths until I went to sleep.  I’ve tried to shield you with walls. I’m pretty good at blocking emotion from truly hitting you.  I cry more because I’m exhausted than because of emotional pain these days.   But sometimes I find a crack in the wall.  Like when school starts and I remember that, once upon a time, there was a five-year-old starting Kindergarten whose name was Tiffini.  Sometimes I think of when our lives were in danger and only the grace of God got us all out.  Sometimes a character comes along, like Anna or Taya or this new, as-of-yet-unnamed girl, that strikes right where the crack in our defense is.  This woman I talked to at a signing recently said to me with tears in her eyes,  “I feel like I know you.”  And my face flushed;  I stammered the point where she tried to apologize. But I shook my head and admitted, “You do know me.  And I am so sorry.”   This perfect stranger and I hugged and, for just a second, I wasn’t the Advocate and Author;  I was the little girl again.

Sometimes, dear Heart, what I wish is that I could take you and hold you in my hands and really, really look at you in a way that very precious few people have ever done.  When I did, I’d see the wrinkle caused by the hurt that came every time he gave me a gift.  When I did, I’d see the wrinkle caused by the hurt that came every time he kissed me.  When I did, I’d see the wrinkle caused by the hurt that came every time I left potential friends.  When I did, I’d see the wrinkle caused by the loss of fire.  When I did, I’d see the wrinkle the loss of family caused.  When I did, I’d see the wrinkle caused by every terrifying reason I can’t sleep.  When I did, I’d see the wrinkle of torment caused by learning he told other inmates his daughter was his girlfriend.  

And, ever so gently, I’d use my fingers to smooth each wrinkle.    I’d use the memory of the birth of each of my daughters to smooth out two lines of hurt.  I’d use the softness of a rose petal to smooth the wrinkle created by a rough hand and body.  I’d use the snapshots of beauty taken at Cade’s Cove and Georgia to smooth the hurt of the interstate.  I’d use the warm conversations with genuine friends to smooth the hurt caused by neglect.  I’d use the verses of Scripture that lulled me to sleep as a child to smooth the hurt caused by words.  One by one, I’d ever so gently smooth your wrinkles just like I did on the napkins and the bedsheets.  I’d finally see all the places you’ve been crumpled and torn and would smooth the hurt with a gentle touch.  No, I couldn’t erase it.  The wrinkles don’t really disappear, they just move.  I know.  But I’d wager a hefty sum that a genuine touch of love, one free from obligation and expectation, would go a long way to making you feel whole again.  You’ve been in a state of breathless agony for a long time.  At first, you were waiting on a knight in shining armor.  Then you were waiting on an instantaneous miracle from God. Then you stopped waiting on others and started waiting on me.

I know you are.

I’m not so far disconnected that I don’t understand that that’s what this nameless character, and all the others like Anna and Taya and Abrielle, have been about.  I know that’s what the dreams are about;  your way of trying to push me into action.  I just don’t know what action that is, as of yet.  To tear down the walls.  The thought paralyzes me;  after so long spent guarding you, what would I do if some idiot ripped you apart?  Still, I know you’re waiting.

And I guess I’m writing because I wanted you to know I’m trying.

Frankly, the thought of writing whatever story this new character wants me to write is mind-numbing in its terror.  I have an inkling of what it is.  I’ve been goaded into enough research that I’m pretty sure I know the general direction she’s going to take.  And I don’t want to write it, for whatever its worth.  But I will.  Because, once upon a time, I made you a promise.  A promise to protect you from here on out.  A promise to never let anything hurt you like that again….  not even memory.

God’s not done with me–or you, dear Heart–yet.  And sometimes the journey to “heart-happiness” is filled with bumpy dirt roads and mountains of dangerous terrain.  Sometimes it’s filled with dead-ends, too.  But, truly, once and for all,  know that you can rest assured.  You can trust;  that’s not been stolen.  You can love;  nothing proves that as beautifully as what you feel when you look at Breathe and Alight.   You are not broken; you prove that every time you get excited about something that’s yet to happen, like last night when you bought the first two Christmas presents in August.   And you can heal;  you do every time you speak to other survivors, every time you pray, every time you play with the girls and every time you write.