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payphone with graffiti written on the handset "tell her you love her"
From Surviving to Living
(12) LAST CALL: Abuse, Alienation, and Spiritual Growth

“Mommy? Do you still love us?” Vivi’s little voice sang out across the phone lines. Summer 2014. Timmy, under supervision of Child Protective Services, was in foster care. My heart ached as each month new reports from Social Services arrived documenting their life.

“Absolutely I do, Vivi!” I answered, surprised at her question.

“I thought so,” she mused. “Brian visited and said you didn’t love us anymore, but I thought, ‘That can’t be true, or why would you send me new bracelets you made every week?'”

Brian was Timmy’s social worker. Pride over Vivi’s critical thinking skills was drowned by outrage at Brian. How could any adult tell children their mother doesn’t love them anymore? I was shocked.

“Vivi, I am so proud of you! You are so smart honey! I love you so much yes I do, and your brothers too. Thank you for asking me that question,” I reassured her. Privately I wondered how to stick it to Brian.

Have you ever been confronted with uncomfortable questions at an unexpected moment? Have you ever wanted to resolve a painful issue but felt unsure how to proceed? Do you struggle with conflict in relationships today?

I’d been incarcerated for 3 years and called my children daily. I also wrote and sent packages. My children wrote me too.

“Do you know why I answer the phone for you?” My husband snarled one afternoon. I did not know. We rarely spoke. My husband’s phone was my only connection to our young children. I called and usually they would answer. Occasionally my husband would answer silently, passing the phone over.

I paid for all phone calls, so money was not on his mind. He didn’t wait for my response as he rushed on, “I answer this phone for you because our sons are old enough to remember you. They would be mad at me if I didn’t.” He sucked in a breath. “They want to talk to you,” he spit out angrily.

Eerily his voice dropped, a man finding control. His next question was almost sing song, “But you know what?” This time he waited for my response. Frozen, I didn’t answer. I was almost afraid to. He snickered into the silence. Feeling more powerful he pressed, “Vivi was only 4 years old when you went to prison. Too young to remember you. It’s my mission to make her hate you as much as I do!” His voice had risen in volume as he spoke, ending at a near shout, shaking with hatred.

I listened horrified, disbelieving. He swallowed a hysteric, manic giggle, continuing. “If I can’t make her hate you, I’ll make her forget you completely!!” He erupted into laughter.

My husband was expressing intentional harm, describing a world without gravity, earth without a sun, things that do not happen. I said something stupid, “But that’s wrong!”

Laughter roared out of the phone. “I know! It’s great!” He waited for me to respond. Speechless again I said nothing. A minute then, instantly calm he hissed, “And no one’s going to stop me.” Click.

Lonely, in foster care 6 months, Tim replied – “Mom, write me more letters, write me three times a week. Three times a week!”

Prior to incarceration my family attended church together occasionally. I remember one sermon the pastor told this story: “I asked my wife to name something I could do to make her feel more loved. She answered, ‘Say I love you more.’

“For the next year I said ‘I love you,’ more often. The following year I asked her again, ‘Name one thing I can do to make you feel more loved.’

She responded again, ‘Say I love you more.’ I was flabbergasted! I knew I had already said ‘I love you’ more than she had. Yet she still wanted it more.”

This stuck with me. I determined to ask my children this question often. They would answer with a shrug or a smile. In June 2014 Tim’s answer was specific. Lonely, in foster care 6 months, he replied – “Mom, write me more letters, write me three times a week. Three times a week!”

I shared how a church was helping me afford the calls to Tim, and I had a better job!

Tim’s foster care status made phone calls to him expensive. I now struggled to afford 2 or 3 calls a month. I agonized over this situation. I worked as a janitor and wanted a better paying job but feared failure. I was learning that consequences here for even minor things were serious. Guards joked to each other about subjecting inmates to “shock and awe.”

My parents were sympathetic. They discussed the matter with their church. The end of July my hopes soared. I was offered a more flexible job with slightly better pay and my parent’s church also agreed to help me afford more phone calls with Tim.

Relief and happiness flooded through me as I shared this good news with Tim’s caseworker Brian. I wished to arrange weekly calls with Tim, perhaps twice weekly. I shared how a church was helping me afford the calls to Tim, and I had a better job!

I’ve learned that “What it is about, is never really what it is about.”

Tim’s foster family responded by immediately terminating all visits with me. They just stopped answering the phone. Next they petitioned the court to remove my right to visitation altogether.

I cannot say why any of what happened next…really happened. I’ve learned that “What it is about, is never really what it is about.” I only know what was reported to me. I’ve tried very hard in writing my story to write only facts I can personally confirm, and write those objectively at that. Sometimes we must come to our own conclusions.

In the court petition I was described as a mother who’s had little contact with her son all his life, a dangerous pedophile. My recent request for more frequent phone calls was attributed not to new financial resources (or a wish to fix the break in our communication that foster care had caused) but rather to my crime.

I don’t know why I was shocked, but I was. I thought at the time they were misguided but sincere. Timmy told me many years later that this was an abusive home, stuffed with foster kids. I cannot confirm. I do know that Tim was almost 12 years old and made to go bed at 5pm. Perhaps they were afraid of what else he’d say if allowed more phone time with me.

I felt I had the necessary evidence to refute. I compiled all of Tim’s letters to me. I gathered my programming certificates – parenting classes, sex offender treatment, trauma therapy, and so on. I evidenced my daily calls with my kids, including Tim (prior to foster care). I mailed it to my attorney and prepared for court.

Court was held without me. An oversight I’m sure. None of my documents were submitted. I was labeled a “no show,” an uninterested parent who “didn’t care.” My attorney apologized later for giving me the wrong court date. My visits were suspended until the matter could be resolved.

“Dad says you are not my mom anymore,” Vivi responded.

I continued to call my other children. In November I spoke again with Vivi. “Hi Holly!” Vivi greeted me. One of my favorite things about Vivi was her enthusiasm. When she said, “Hi Mooooom!!!” you felt she’d been waiting for you all day. Her gusto felt so good I’d taken a lesson from her and modeled it, greeting my kids with spirit. The use of my name brought me up short. “Why did you call me ‘Holly’?” I asked.

“Dad says you are not my mom anymore,” Vivi responded. “He says Carey is my mom now. I’m supposed to call her mom, not you.” Carey was a woman who’d had an affair with my husband. While they weren’t together anymore, my husband no longer wanted my daughter, either. He’d sent Vivi away to live with Carey full-time. I was not consulted. I did not know Carey, was not allowed her contact information.

Vivianne was now 8 years old. I took a breath and told her, “No, I’m mom. Call me mom, please.” Sweetly she agreed. That settled I smiled asking if she had received my letters.

“Yes,” she answered slowly, “But dad decided I couldn’t have them. He said they were…” Vivi paused and struggled to remember the word. “He said they were inappropriate. That’s what he said.” She remembered proudly.

Surprised, I was stunned into silence. I could not imagine what for. I searched my mind, found nothing. “Can you remember the reason?” I dared to ask.

“Yes.” Vivi answered, proud to know. “In the letters you called yourself my mom. Dad says that’s disgusting. Dad says you are not a mom. You do not deserve to be a mom. I should not read letters from you. That’s what he said.” Vivi trailed off slowly, suddenly quiet.

‘I should end this call,’ I thought desperately, ‘I’m a wreck!’ I couldn’t leave my daughter.

I had begun to cry, utterly shocked. Tears pouring down my face, I couldn’t manage a word. I felt strangled. These days I rarely had the opportunity to talk with Vivianne. She was rarely with my husband, and when she was, he rarely put her on the phone. I missed her so much!

My head began to pound, the room spinning. ‘I should end this call,’ I thought desperately, ‘I’m a wreck!’ I couldn’t leave my daughter. My hand squeezed the phone, fingers bloodless. Sobs ripped out of my throat. I bit my lip, blubbering.

Vivi, hearing my distress, attempted to sooth me. I rambled, trying to calm her, calm myself, make this better. I do not remember what I said, what she said, but Vivi began to cry in sympathy. Suddenly the phone was ripped from her tiny hand and a loud voice screamed in my ear, “What did you say to her! Why did you make her cry!” My husband’s angry voice demanded answers. The phone slammed down with a click.

November changed to December, then January rang in the New Year of 2015. Again depression had me in a tight grip. My mental health medications were increased again, so high I developed facial spasms. I slept months away, struggling to perform simple work.

That was the last time I spoke with Vivi. I didn’t know that then. My understanding was that we would talk again soon.

Finally “supervised” visits were established for me and Tim, and phone calls resumed. This involved a designated adult listening to the phone call while Tim and I spoke. As I was in prison, all of my phone calls were recorded by the DOC, so I found this odd. At this point who ISN’T listening to and recording our calls? Tim had now been in foster care for more than 1 year, in his 4th foster home.

I also called my other children regularly, and hoped to speak to Vivi again. In February my husband said he would allow me to apologize to her. I was in fact sorry for upsetting her. I was sorry for so many things. Vivi agreed to talk with me and came to the phone. Carefully I started the conversation. I felt like I was blind navigating a mine field. It seemed ok. She sounded fine. Perhaps she was fine. Maybe it was ok.

I don’t know for sure. That was the last time I spoke with Vivi. I didn’t know that then. My understanding was that we would talk again soon. I asked for her whenever I called. In May I learned the truth.

“She’s not here,” my husband spat gleefully. “Even if she was, I’d wouldn’t put her on the phone. You’ll never talk to her again! She hates you.”

Confused, I didn’t answer. This felt like a trick. I wondered what to say.

I am responsible for my actions, not his response. If I want to communicate, I will. I did.

Power making him feel generous he spoke into the silence, “I guess you can continue to write letters.” Fog lifted, I almost argued. I’d been so depressed I had written the kids less often lately. In fact I hadn’t written in awhile. Guilt slammed into me as he continued, “I can’t STOP you from writing letters, I suppose. Do whatever you want.”

Lights flashed in my head. Something clicked. I realized the truth of his words, this man turned unwitting prophet. That’s right, he can’t stop me! I am responsible for my actions, not his response. If I want to communicate, I will. I did.

I began writing to Vivi every week, making copies of every letter. I kept one, mailed one. I did that every week for the next 5 years.

Determination settled in. I’d passed the halfway mark of my incarceration – four years down. Amazing things were coming. I had no idea.

17 And You have bereaved my soul and cast it off far from peace; I have forgotten what good and happiness are.18 And I say, Perished is my strength and my expectation from the Lord.19 [O Lord] remember [earnestly] my affliction and my misery, my wandering and my outcast state, the wormwood and the gall.20 My soul has them continually in remembrance and is bowed down within me.

21 But this I recall and therefore have I hope and expectation:22 It is because of the Lord’s mercy and loving-kindness that we are not consumed, because His [tender] compassions fail not.23 They are new every morning; great and abundant is Your stability and faithfulness.

24 The Lord is my portion or share, says my living being (my inner self); therefore will I hope in Him and wait expectantly for Him.25 The Lord is good to those who wait hopefully and expectantly for Him, to those who seek Him [inquire of and for Him and require Him by right of necessity and on the authority of God’s word].26 It is good that one should hope in and wait quietly for the salvation (the safety and ease) of the Lord.

27 It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke [of divine disciplinary dealings] in his youth.28 Let him sit alone uncomplaining and keeping silent [in hope], because [God] has laid [the yoke] upon him [for his benefit]. 29 Let him put his mouth in the dust [in abject recognition of his unworthiness]—there may yet be hope.30 Let him give his cheek to the One Who smites him [even through His human agents]; let him be filled [full] with [men’s] reproach [in meekness].31 For the Lord will not cast off forever!

32 But though He causes grief, yet will He be moved to compassion according to the multitude of His loving-kindness and tender mercy.33 For He does not willingly and from His heart afflict or grieve the children of men.34 To trample and crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth,35To turn aside and deprive a man of his rights before the face of the Most High or a superior [acting as God’s representative],36 To subvert a man in his cause—[of these things] the Lord does not approve.

37 Who is he who speaks and it comes to pass, if the Lord has not authorized and commanded it? 38 Is it not out of the mouth of the Most High that evil and good both proceed [adversity and prosperity, physical evil or misfortune and physical good or happiness]? 39 Why does a living man sigh [one who is still in this life’s school of discipline]? [And why does] a man complain for the punishment of his sins? 40 Let us test and examine our ways, and let us return to the Lord! Lamentations 3:17-40 AMPC

Discussion Questions:

  1. Holly mentions attending church and a sermon about expressing love through words. How do you perceive the importance of verbal expressions of love in relationships, and have you ever faced challenges in effectively communicating love to others?
  2. Holly mentions the impact of depression on her mental health and the struggle to maintain communication with her children. How do mental health challenges affect relationships and communication? Can you relate to situations where mental health impacted your ability to connect with others? Do you need help with this today?
  3. The passage touches on the importance of maintaining contact through letters and phone calls. How crucial do you think consistent communication is in preserving relationships, especially during challenging circumstances? Have you ever faced obstacles in maintaining contact with loved ones?
  4. Holly’s determination to continue writing letters to Vivi despite obstacles reflects resilience. How does resilience play a role in facing challenges and maintaining connections? Can you share instances where you or someone you know demonstrated resilience in difficult times?
  5. The passage ends with Holly expressing determination and the anticipation of positive changes in the future. How important a role does hope play to overcoming challenges? Have you experienced moments where hope or spiritual beliefs helped you navigate difficult situations?


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