I fear that someday I will fail her as a parent and she will fail herself as a person and think that it is OK to hurt someone else to a grave extent, and with intent.
It was summer. They were girls I had considered friends.
A boy liked me, wanted to date me in the awkward way of teenagers, and I said yes. The boy was unattached, but one of the girls was mad. She liked the boy, too.
I made friends easily, but I was self-conscious and never quite sure of what I was doing or where I was going. Being liked felt bright and shiny. I knew he was perhaps not the best choice for a boyfriend, but he was kind to me. That held a lot of weight for me then, as it still does today.
That summer I worked at the local newspaper office, answering the phones and emails, walking up Main Street to the post office to check the mail once a day, and occasionally going out into town to take photographs of nearby happenings or the fancy yachts that sometimes tied up at the town dock. One of the girls, the one who also liked the boy, came to the newspaper office one morning when I was the only one there.
I sat for what felt like hours in a grey office chair while she detailed all of the terrible things they were going to do to me: pull my hair out, drag me behind her truck, that the other girl had a knife. I sat, my face wet with tears, but she did not stop. Though I had done no more than kiss this boy, this girl told me I was a whore, that I was worthless, and that they hated me.
The two girls and I had played soccer, suffered through high school gym class, and had sleepovers together. Violence was still a relatively foreign concept to me, so I don’t know whether I actually believed the girls would physically hurt me, but I had never been threatened before and it was exceedingly effective.
I shut down. I didn’t get out of bed for three days. A shock had descended and taken over my body, inch by inch, until I could not will it to move. At first, I would not tell my parents what was wrong, but eventually I confessed.
The remainder of the summer is a blur. I know I ended things quickly with the boy, because nothing was worth that kind of retaliation, but I can’t remember anything beyond that.
I don’t know if my parents talked to the girls’ parents. I don’t remember telling any of my other friends, though maybe I did. I don’t remember ever speaking to either girl again.
It’s been over 15 years since that summer day, yet it all came flooding back one morning while I was lying in bed watching the winter dawn arrive. My daughter was snuggled close, radiating heat and small sleeping noises. The snow was falling slowly from the sky in fat, puffy flakes.
I still don’t know why exactly those girls chose to terrorize me.
As horrific as the experience was, and as unbelievably cruel as those girls were, I realized lying in bed that morning that I had forgiven them a long time ago. We were young. That fact does not in any way excuse their actions, but it does give me hope for who they might have become in the intervening years.
I know that at least one of them is now a mother.
Perhaps they are kinder, gentler people now. Perhaps they experienced suffering of their own at the hands of another, and it changed the way they thought about their own actions. Or perhaps their memories of that summer are fuzzy and they barely remember the incident at all. I can’t say, and I don’t need to know.
I could be angry and bitter toward them, and justifiably so, but I don’t have that kind of space in my heart or mind anymore. I just don’t have it in me—and not because of weakness, but because of strength—because I have lived through too much to not know exactly how and what to let go.
In an ultimately fruitless effort to reduce stress, I remember trying to meditate during the months while my husband was dying. Though I ended up being terrible at the practice, the mantra I came up with to repeat in my head was: “Be kind. Be true. Be love.” In addition to having a nice repetition to it, it’s how I try to live my life.
By nature, I am not a fearful or anxious parent. Even if I had the time, energy, or inclination to hover around my daughter, to always worry about what might happen, and to attempt to constantly protect her from all the harm in the world, I would not. None of us escapes this life unscathed.
In my mind, other than laying down ground rules for safety (always wear a helmet, walk against traffic, learn to swim, your body is your own, trust your gut, and so on) and common sense, there is not a whole lot to be done to avoid the tragedies, accidents, and harrowing events that befall our lives. It’s mostly out of our hands, and the rest is what you do with it when you come out on the other side.
I know that relatively benign childhood and adolescent (and adult, for that matter) activities can frequently result in mental and physical trauma. People die from diseases, infections, and accidents. Misfortune strikes. People hurt one another. Bad things happen to good people: I learned this last one unequivocally when my 31-year-old husband died in my arms.
We still need to live our lives.
I refuse to worry all of the time, or even much of it at all. And yet, the thing that is still unsettling to me, which manifests itself as a small tightness coiled in the center of my diaphragm, is a specific fear I have for my daughter. It is a fear also rooted in other moments, certainly, but especially in that summer morning years ago.
I not only fear that my daughter will be subject to cruelty and bullying at some point in her life, which seems inevitable these days, but more than that, I fear that the opposite may come true. I fear that someday I will fail her as a parent and she will fail herself as a person and think that it is OK to hurt someone else to a grave extent, and with intent.
With that fear tucked quietly in the back of my mind, I raise my daughter.
That said, I also raise her with the belief that there is so much good in the world and that despite all of our faults and vulnerabilities and all of the challenges we face, we are remarkable, resilient beings. I raise her with the hope that we can always strive to be better, to be kinder, and I raise her to know that forgiveness does not equate to weakness.
All the while, I whisper those words in my head: Be kind. Be true. Be love.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer, brain injury advocate, and homemade-caramel aficionado living in central Maine. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.