For a time during my childhood, my closest friend was a next-door neighbor who was continually abused by her parents. Her mother was astonishingly ignorant and shrill, and her father was a vice-principal at a Seattle middle school. My friend -- who I'll call D. -- had suffered a damaging fever as an infant and was rendered partially deaf and brain damaged, with recurring seizures. And she wasn't a particularly attractive child, which, I think, only made life more difficult for her as she approached her teens.
I recall, during biting winter rain, seeing her pushed screaming out the front door shoeless, coatless. She pounded the door and wailed. For hours. These were the days when we didn't "interfere" -- child abuse, at least in my child's vocabulary, didn't even have a name. No one called Protective Services or the police. No one knocked on these neighbors' door and called them on their inhuman treatment of their daughter. But we took her in, often at dinner, one more always welcome at our crowded table of eight or nine.
An instinct in me sent out a protective wing against other children who sought to bully D. She contained an innocent sweetness, a gentleness, a desire to learn when the dangers of her daily dangers were held at bay. We roamed the woods behind our houses for hours, searching for salamanders under mossy logs. We climbed all the Big Leaf Maples, ventured into The Deep Woods where salal ruckled at our ankles, found robins' nests with clutches of tender blue. There was a light-headed magic in our summer days which we believed would go on safely forever.
At adolescence, I turned away from D., in my own bewildered confrontation with a changing body. Friendships often shift and turn at this age; I think it's a common part of the transformation from child to the child-bearing state of possibilities. There is a consciousness that the former child is lost forever at this point, and that was when I lost the child's-bond with D. I felt as if I didn't know how to be her friend anymore, so I walked away. And if I thought my adolescence was painful, I can't even begin, when I think back on it, how painful I know it was for her. Acne took over her face, she bathed infrequently, she gained weight and managed to grow vertically very little. She endured, I am certain, unspeakable cruelties, from her family and from the larger world.
I will be forever grateful to my mother, who continued to welcome her. Each December my mom went into gift-mode for our ever-expanding family, and with great glee, she and D. spent much of the week before Christmas closed-up in our spare bedroom, in a wrapping frenzy. And I pranced by, I know it, with my fashionable friends, my straight-A report card. I hang my head in shame.
As an adult, I know that D. cut off all contact with her family. We reconnected about 15 years ago, by mail, and her letter to me was written on handmade paper flecked with whispery bits of leaves and flower petals. She completed some college, she embraced religion, a radical surgery easy the seizures -- she has a life of her own. I saw a photo of her on facebook -- multi-colored hair and a toughened expression which says to me that she won't take any more shit, from anyone.
There is guilt, and regret, on my part, that I turned away from her. I hold myself accountable for this fact of my childhood. I bless my mother for her generous spirit.
I wonder if D. ever thinks of those afternoons we wandered the fern glens and sheltered woods of rural Renton, pockets filled with cookies, in search of a particular happiness, which we often found.