By Keith Harrison —
Words are powerful. They are rich and colorful and have the ability to enhance our lives. They can describe love, joy, heartache, and sadness. Despite their capacity to help us communicate with others, there are times when words are woefully inadequate to express the depths of the human soul. This is one of those times. I will tell you right now that this is a difficult story to read. Trust me, it was a difficult story to write. Before we go any further, I want to encourage you to read this story through to the end. In parts, I will describe unbelievable abuse, but in the end, you will see the triumph of the human spirit. You will certainly shed some tears along the way, but will emerge on the other side with a deeper compassion for those who face abuse. This is the story of Bethany.
It was early March 1985, and Coloradans where looking forward to springtime. It was an unusually warm day for that part of the country and most everyone was unaware of Bethany’s premature birth. It was not really that surprising because her mother was a meth addict, a heavy smoker, and an alcoholic. As you might imagine, her mother’s addictions took a heavy toll on Bethany’s development. She weighed only one pound at birth and since her eyes had not fully developed, Bethany was born blind. To make matters worse, the poison in her body caused permanent brain damage. Sadly, Bethany’s nightmare was only beginning.
Her mother was only twenty-four years old when she had Bethany, the third of three children by different men. Bethany’s father already had five children by three different women. One of her mother’s children had been put up for adoption at birth. “She never got to know my mother,” Bethany recalled. “It was a blessing.” Her mother and father had only been together for three months when she told him that she was pregnant. Not wanting to accept responsibility for the child, he left.
Not getting the psychological and medical assistance that she needed was the least of Bethany’s problems. She had to endure horrible physical and emotional abuse. “She wouldn’t feed me,” Bethany said with an eerie edge to her voice. “She would make me beg for food. She would cook something for the others, but wouldn’t give any to me. I would go for days at a time without anything to eat.” Listening to her, I was heartbroken by the pain in her voice. It was still raw. “She would finally give me an apple and I would cry for joy just to have something to eat,” Bethany continued. After a brief pause – almost as an afterthought, she slowly whispered, “The joy of an apple.” Although she did not know it, I was watching Bethany’s face. To my surprise, there was no expression. As I sat in front of her, trying to jot down a few notes, I did not understand the depth of her emotions. Anger. Sadness. Betrayal. Detachment. They were all there, but none of them were there. What had this woman done to Bethany?
When she was only seven years old, Bethany confided in a teacher at school, telling her of how her mother would starve her. “She called my mother!” Bethany told me with anger in her voice. “How could she have done that?” Of course her mother denied the allegations and the teacher dismissed the issue. That night when Bethany got home from school, her mother force fed her. “I cried and begged her to stop, but she kept forcing food down my throat,” Bethany recalled with that same chilling calm in her voice. “The next day at school, the teacher laughed at me. I knew then that there was something horribly wrong with me.”
Bethany’s mother continued to abuse drugs and alcohol. “I hate the smell of alcohol,” she told me, “It reminds me of my mother.” When Bethany was ten years old, her brother joined in on the abuse. “One day when he hit me, Mom told him to stop. I hoped that she was changing. Maybe she really did love me,” Bethany said. “I don’t want to spend all night in the f—ing ER,” her mother scolded her brother. At that point, Bethany realized that there was no love and that her mother cared only for herself. Then with a sigh, she told me, “There went my hope.”
“School was a refuge from my mother and brother. I knew no one would hurt me there, at least they wouldn’t hurt me physically,” Bethany said. “In the sixth grade, I told one of my teachers that I didn’t want to live anymore. She pleaded with me not to do anything to hurt myself. She called Social Services, but I guess I was just one of those kids who fell through the cracks.” Each time social services would show up at their house, Bethany’s brother would back up her mother’s story. “I was so upset with my teacher,” Bethany said. “The secret was out in the open again and that caused the abuse to get even worse.”
“When I was twelve years old, I went to school with bruises on my neck,” Bethany recalled. “The school counselor demanded that I tell her what happened last night, but I was afraid to tell her because I knew that I would suffer the consequences.I was so terrified,” Brittany confessed. “At that point, another teacher stepped in. She reported the abuse and I was removed from our home and placed with a foster family. I haven’t seen my mother since that day.” Then there was a moment of silence and I sat waiting for Bethany to continue. Seeing the pain that she was in broke my heart. I wanted to say something to encourage her, but the words were not there. Finally, Bethany broke the silence and said, “I wish I could tell her [the teacher] what a positive impact she made on my life.”
“I was so excited to go and live with my foster family,” Bethany said. “I wanted to believe that they loved me. As it turned out, they just wanted the money.” After seven months in foster care, Bethany’s mother gave the social workers the name of her father. When they contacted him, he denied that she was his daughter. The state ordered a paternity test and when the results showed that he was indeed her father, he accepted Bethany into his home. “My step mom was a saint,” Bethany said. “I was one of six kids. He just expected me to know how to act with a family, but I had never been a part of a real family. I was not abused or neglected, but I was not cared for emotionally. I desperately wanted to please them, but I wasn’t okay.” Then she added, “I’m still not okay…but I’m working on it.”
Bethany was allowed to join gymnastics and play the flute in the school band. “Gym class was interesting,” Bethany said with a hint of amusement in her voice. “I couldn’t see to play volleyball, so I just jumped rope. Band was nice because I liked the sound of the flute.” Music has the ability to transcend the human soul. In Bethany’s case, it provided beauty in such an ugly world. Then I noticed that the expression on her face began to change. “I also sang!” Bethany told me. As it turned out, she had a talent for singing. “Choir was my escape. The choir kids were so kind to me and I was finally part of a group. There had to be something good about me. After all, I had to audition for the choir and I made it! For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged.” Bethany went on to graduate high school with honors. “Well, I didn’t have a social life,” she joked. “So I made good grades.”
Something that Bethany said sparked a question in my mind. “Tell me about your faith,” I asked her. “I learned about God through alcoholics and my abusive family members, so I was confused about God,” Bethany replied. “I told God, ‘I’ve tried cutting and overdosing, but I can’t seem to kill myself. I don’t have a purpose, so why can’t I kill myself? Are you even there?’,” she recalled. “Somehow, God found me there. I still struggle with figuring out who God is. It’s all still so painful.”
I could not help but smile at the vulnerability I now sensed in Bethany’s voice. Her entire countenance had changed. “I hope that God accepts me where I am. I trust that He knows my heart and that I am sincere in seeking Him. I truly want to know who He is. David made a lot of mistakes, but he was the apple of God’s eye…even with all of his faults.” There it was again. An apple. Bethany’s symbol of joy and hope. Then there was another silence, but this time it was different. It was more introspective in nature. I sensed an uneasy peace about her. Again, Bethany broke the silence by saying, “I still don’t understand my worth, but I’m working on my mental and spiritual health. Healing is extremely important to me.”
After graduating high school, Bethany started having health issues and was diagnosed with lupus. She also continues to struggle with fibromyalgia and asthma. Four years ago, Bethany moved to a small apartment in Fort Worth. Due to all of the challenges in her life, she has been unable to work. She does not have a television and has very little contact with the outside world. Thankfully, a local church group would bring her a bag of groceries every few weeks. They would leave the groceries outside of her front door late at night, but she never saw any of those kind people.
Bethany told me that before becoming a Meals On Wheels client, she did not see or speak to another human being for three full months. “I sat here day after day wondering if anyone on the planet even knew that I was alive,” Bethany told me. “I am so thankful for the meals, but what really changed my life is that every day someone knocks on my door and says, ‘Hi, Bethany, how are you today?’ and I know that even for a few minutes, I matter to someone.”
“Tell me about the future,” I asked Bethany. “I’m working on it one day at a time,” she said. “It’s overwhelming to look into the future.” She went on to say, “I’d like to find a part-time job someday. That’s a big goal. I would love to help others. I want to give back.” Wow, that caught me off guard. I was still reeling from the story I had just heard. Here was a young lady who had suffered so much abuse. All she ever wanted was to be loved, but what she received was unimaginable abuse. Now she wants to give back. She wants to help others who have been abused.
I was suddenly beaming with pride. I saw a strength in Bethany that I am not sure she sees in herself. Where I thought that I would find fear and pain, I found strength… and courage… and love… and compassion. The dark parts are still there, but Bethany is trying not to let those things define who she is as a person. I think Bethany is right. Looking too far into the future probably overwhelms her, but from where I stand, I see hope. My mind started to race at the possibilities of how Bethany could encourage others by sharing her story.
That is why I wanted you to come along on this journey. We have all been given so much in our lives, yet we tend to complain about the traffic and the way the supermarket clerk treated us. It is human nature, I suppose, to be inwardly focused. Then along comes Bethany, like the soft melody of her flute, and reminds us that we are here to serve others.
On behalf of Bethany and countless others who benefit from our services, thank you for supporting Meals On Wheels. Your generosity has changed the lives of deserving people all across Tarrant County and has helped Bethany see something that cannot be observed with our human eyes — self-worth. As part of a nutritious meal, we often serve apples to our clients. The next time you eat an apple, take a moment to remember Bethany and think of how it brought hope and joy into her life.