observations and opinion
A half hour drive from child to refugee
They were an unhappy couple, raising an unhappy couple of boys; the sons more than a decade apart in age, the husband and wife twenty years separated from when they might have been happy together. Now they just drank together – and apart – trapped in a small, hot house, an old cottage, insulated against winter, stifling in summer.
The elder son was gone, having escaped as a teen; the younger was eight, living in the weird purgatory of his parents’ collapsing world. They would bicker about old details, arguments and rages rising up with shouting voices. Stupid with self-pity, they pleaded their cases to him – a little boy – literally standing on opposite sides of his bed, explaining why it was he or she who was wrong or wronged. It was like having the walls close in upon him from both sides; crushed in a vice.
I was that boy, caught in that vice. With no instruction or advice other than my instinct, I knew that the way we lived was wrong. I knew there was a better life somewhere else. I would draw it for hours, mapping out a crayon world. My Lego blocks got built into ranch style houses. “This is where we will go” I would promise myself. To a better house.
But then mum got sick, and almost died. After heart surgery and months away she came home – thin, fragile and (crucially) sober. She did not divulge her thinking then or ever, but the woman who had survived the floating, boozy circus of our chaotic home knew she wanted out. Maybe she wanted that Lego house I built for her.
So when one hot July night my mother chose to leave – well, I was all for it, if I could go too. My father was not a bad man. Indeed, he had a warmer and softer heart than mum. But he was a shipwreck, hopeless, flailing angrily against his circumstances. I would drown if I stayed on board. I grabbed the lifeline.
It was late. It was steaming. The house was lit up, like someone had stolen all the lampshades. Mum and dad shouted at each other. You’d think the little cottage would split open from the sound. There was a pounding on the front door, and a voice – “Cathy? Cathy?” It was my Aunt Ina, come to the rescue. Mum must have called her. Ina’s husband Larry was at work so a neighbour, a man I did not know, had driven Ina to our house to retrieve us. The man stayed outside, watchful, by his car. The getaway car. He was the getaway car driver.
We hurried out. I don’t think we had a single thing in our hands. (I didn’t know it then but we were about to become “homeless.” We would soon be in a shelter, and then nomads shifting from flat to flat. But like all refugees, when you set out on the journey, all you’re thinking about is escape.)
We got into the big car on the street, mum and I in the back seat. Ina in the front. The getaway driver behind the wheel. But it wasn’t going to be that easy.
Dad came out too, shouting and pleading and begging and yelling. He was a big man – a very big man, once a coalminer now a steelworker. He told us not to go. He asked us not to go. He grabbed the rear handle of the back passenger door, nearest me. Dad was desperate to pull me free from the car. But somehow, the doors were locked. Were there power locks back then? How did it get locked?
The car lurched forward, Dad kept his fingers clenched around the outside door handle; the car jerked ahead a few more feet, but he held on. I believed in that moment he was strong enough to stop us. I threw my head down in my mother’s lap – I didn’t want to see any of this. I just wanted to get away.
We broke free. The car tore up our short street and swung right – that much I know, because I know the route from that old house to where my Aunt lived. I kept my head down in mum’s lap. I felt dizzy – almost like I could breathe now. I did breathe. Did I sob? I don’t know. What I remember was the dark, and the moving car, and the overwhelming sense of relief that we had escaped.
The man driving must have looked back at me. His voice, strong and calm, floated into the back seat. He spoke, directly to me.
“It’s alright son,” he said. “It’s a terrible thing to leave your father.”
The words landed on me. I understood that he was being kind. I understood that he was telling me how he would feel, to be torn apart from his father. Or perhaps, to have his child taken from him.
Of course, I knew something else too: he was wrong. He was wrong about me, anyway. It was not a terrible thing for me to leave my father.
But in that moment I knew – discovered – a most important truth: we see things from where we stand. We judge things as they touch us, as we would feel them, not always as they really are felt by someone else.
The driver of the getaway car liberated me, that night, from the awful overheated, hopeless trap of our house. I knew it even before we had driven away, that’s what was happening. But he liberated me from something else too: myself.
In a sentence, that man – whose name I do not know – taught me that we each of us are always trapped in our own experience and feelings. It is natural, although it can produce impossibly wrong beliefs and decisions. And in that moment when I heard him, being so kind to me and yet so utterly mistaken about what was happening, I was moved. His kindness deserved respect; his wrongness (if that’s a word) deserved forgiveness.
The man was kind, and actually quite brave when you think about it to come and get us. He didn’t know us. When he spoke to me, with such earnest inaccuracy, “it’s a terrible thing” I knew that he had no idea what he was talking about. But I also knew to be quiet, to accept his kindness and not to argue the point. He felt it strongly. It was the truth for him. I stayed quiet in the backseat.
We drove. It was dark and silent. No one spoke. My mind was alight. People judge things from their own perspective. I knew it. It was wordless then – knowledge without a formula – an insight. Had I known to, I might have shouted “eureka!” (although that would have been quite rude.)
The truth of it pushed into me, like a sudden cool breeze shifting through tree branches. I felt different. This drive wasn’t just about getting away anymore. I knew that.
We drove on. I was half an hour older when the car reached my Aunt Ina’s house, but I was not the same eight year old boy when I got out. I was that night, and am this evening, grateful to the getaway car driver. He set us free from a life that had no future life, and he set me free – by accident – from the kind of certainty that almost always makes you wrong.