I'm the kind of person who skips to the conversation when reading a book.
My mother was always a compassionate woman. My father, as a physician, always tended to “the least of these.” Maybe that was why we ended up in the situation we were in some 35 or 40 years ago.
This memory came flooding back to me when a friend had said something about an abusive relationship and about the woman trapped in it.
One day, when I was in high school, I came home from school and my mother met me at the door. “There’s someone staying your sister’s room,” she told me.
“Who?” I asked.
“It’s not anyone you know,” she said. I looked at her questioningly and she went on, “She needed a place to stay. Her husband beats her.”
“Oh,” was all I could say. Really, what do you say to that?
A little while later, I came into the kitchen and saw our long coiled phone cord stretching from the wall where the phone hung into another room where the door closed. I could hear a woman’s voice, first speaking in a low voice, then raised in anger, and then dropping again. I heard her slump against the door, leaning on it heavily. I busied myself in the kitchen finding an after-school snack of some sort.
A young blonde-haired woman wearing jeans and and old flannel shirt emerged from behind the closed door. She slammed the phone down onto the receiver and then realized she wasn’t alone in the kitchen. With a quick glance at me, and without a word, she quickly retreated to the upstairs.
She didn’t join us for dinner, but I know my mother had gone up to speak with her.
After dinner, in low voices in the kitchen, my parents had a serious discussion. I know I wasn’t supposed to listen, but I did.
“She called him,” my mother said.
“I thought she wasn’t allowed to do that,” my father returned.
“It’s against the rules, and I had spoken with her about that when I picked her up,” my mother whispered back. It was a stage whisper. They were trying to clean up the dinner stuff while they talked.
“She can’t stay,” my father said matter-of-factly.
“I know, but where will she go?” my mother asked.
“Our first priority is to our own children,” he said, “and it’s not safe if he comes here. Did she tell him where she was?”
“She said she didn’t, but I don’t know if I can believe her,” my mother said.
I must have made a noise or something, because at this point they both stopped talking and walked into the dining room.
“Sarah, go upstairs and work on your homework,” my father said, in a voice that also said, obey me immediately and don’t ask any questions.
I went to my room, did my homework, and went to bed. I don’t know all the details of what happened next, but I do know that in the morning she wasn’t there.
I have, over the years, revisited that scene in my mind. My mother, in her compassion, put us at risk, but I don’t think she was wrong. If we don’t reach out to people in need, what kind of people are we?
But I also don’t think my father was wrong. A parent’s first priority is his or her own children.
So, what is the right action in a situation like this? How can we help those in abusive relationships if they refuse to break their ties?