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Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Unbreakable Heart

The Unbreakable Heart
By Kimberly Kinrade
#In Honor of October: Domestic Violence Awareness Month

There are moments in life so profound, so heart-wrenching, that there is no perspective beyond the pain. Only time reshapes these events into something meaningful.

Kassandra sat legs folded in front of the fire, letting the lapping flames caress her naked flesh. The full moon above her lit the small pile of treasures in her hands. This was a rebirth into the life of her choosing. She hoped. If Samantha was right. If she could walk away from the last eight years.

Kassandra was not prepared for this journey, and often thought fondly of ignorance. Then she would think of him. And she knew this pain had to be better than his path of numbing blindness found at the bottom of a bottle. No matter how afraid she might be.

“Slaughtered Hope”
I walk the minefield of our broken dreams
Navigating to the other side of fear

An invisible body bag has moved into our home
Hiding the remnants of who you were

They returned to me your body
But your empty eyes reveal your slaughtered soul

I bleed out on the battlefield of our marriage
Wondering what awaits me on the other side of death

I cock my gun and take aim
How do I kill the empty spaces left in you?

She had written this poem when she still thought there might be hope, though she imagined no one would know that by reading it.

Here we go, she thought, trying to ignore the flickering fear in her gut, and laid the small piece of paper in the fire. As she watched the fire dance with the paper, she felt the burn in the deepest part of her soul.

She choked back a sob at the picture she held. They looked so happy. So in love. So beautiful. It was a day of fear and hate transformed into love by their one act of defiance against terrorism.

September 11, 2001

“Marry me?” he begged, his eyes so sincere and adoring.

Kassandra sat on the edge of his bed still reeling from the cinematic horror she had just witnessed. If she hadn’t known better, she wouldn’t have believed what she’d seen. How could the two towers be gone? All those people? All those lives? People she knew. She was supposed to be in New York right now. She could have been in those towers.

“Kass?” his voice pulled her back to him.


“Marry me,” He repeated.

“We are getting married,” she reminded him, holding up his dog tags around her neck. Her engagement ring. His pay and their whirl wind courtship didn’t allow for fancy jewelry. She didn’t mind. It was romantic. Exciting. Just like him. Their chemistry was nothing she’d ever imagined, let alone had. Soul mates.

Her friends and family questioned her sanity. She was more educated, worldly, liberal. He did manual labor and was in the National Guard.

But she saw things they didn’t. He was well-read, brilliant in his own way. He was kind and sexy and made her laugh. When she looked in his eyes she saw her future.

They’d been inseparable since the night they’d met in a bar, while on her summer break from college. She wasn’t much of a drinker. She didn’t think he was either, despite his recent DUI. It was a fluke. Besides, he’d promised to cut back if she didn’t like it, and he had. He adored her, looked at her as if she was the only woman on earth. Worshiped her body with every inch of his. She felt her face flush at the thought of just how that worship had made her feel last night.

“Kass, I just got the call,” he said and her heart stopped. “I’m on two hour alert. I could be deployed to Iraq at any moment. Marry me today. I want to know you’re mine when I board that plane.”

Deployed? Leaving her? Iraq?

“No…” she muttered under her breath, tears leaking out of her eyes.

“No, you won’t marry me?” he asked thickly.

“No, I mean yes, I’ll marry you, but I don’t want you to leave. I’ve given up New York and the best college to be with you. You can’t leave me now.”

She felt pathetic. Desperate. Unlike herself entirely.

Her wedding day was not what she had expected. It was planned in six hours and took place in a small chapel. She had a dress, a cake, roses, and shoes. Her husband-to-be spent their wedding day buying bullets and polishing guns.
That all disappeared the moment they stood face to face at the altar. Her bright blue eyes met his chocolate brown, forever committing to love, honor and cherish him, and he her. Their kiss made the world disappear.
Kassandra ignored the tears as she placed the picture in the fire. It curled around the edges and then caught flame, causing their features to turn into a macabre version of their true selves.

The next picture was harder. This was the reason she could never truly be free of him. And the reason she fought so hard to stay alive and retrieve her right to life. Unlike the last picture, in this one she looked tired and worn out, wearing a hospital gown. She’d just been through 40 hours of labor and an emergency C-Section. But she was holding the bundle of love that made it all worth it. Leo had his arm around her and their daughter, Kali.

October 31, 2002

Kassandra didn’t know what was happening. Everything was moving too fast. Something was wrong with the baby. They were wheeling her out, to surgery. NO! She cried. This was supposed to be a natural birth. No one listened to her pleas. She endured the drugs, the epidural. The vomiting that would have choked her had Leo not intervened. He saved her. In that moment she forgave him for all the pain. The frequent drinking binges leaving her alone and pregnant for days at a time. She forgave his violence when he was drunk. The way he’d choke her until she couldn’t breathe. The way his arms that held her in love would suddenly turn into weapons aimed at hurting her. She forgave him for everything. They’d created a life. He was saving her life. The baby would change it all. They were a family now.

Then she heard it. A cry. One little cry. Their eyes locked as they both heard their first born daughter make her first sound of life.

The staff bundled her and brought the baby to Kassandra. They wouldn’t let her hold her baby. Kali was covered from head to toe, revealing only her small elfin face. Her big brown eyes were wide and open. They connected. She saw God in those eyes. Eternity. Life. Pure Love. Then they took her away. She choked back tears. Don’t take my baby, she said. They didn’t listen. The drugs took hold of her. She couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer. She drifted to sleep as she remembered her baby’s eyes, as her heart, no longer beating in her chest but now wrapped in a pink blanket, wandered the halls of the hospital in the hands of strangers.


This one was harder to let go. They're safe, she reminded herself. They're in bed, just a few feet away. It's the memory you've got to let go, not them.

She would never be free of him; they had created three lives together. She would not trade those amazing beings for anything. Not even to retrieve the eight years she had allowed her soul to die as he abused her body and manipulated her mind until she almost lost herself entirely. Almost. It was done so subtly she didn’t even see it happening. Like the frog boiling in a pot of water. The temperature rose so slowly that she was dying before she even knew she was wet. She had followed the pattern cut for her by society and ended up wearing a life ill-fitted for her soul.

Samantha's face appeared before her, and she swallowed. Remember, she thought. The journey is not yet done. You can do this.

She stared at a picture of a beautiful house lit by Christmas lights with a happy family of five on the porch. The girls sported glowing faces, giddy in anticipation of Santa. The promise of a spring garden lay covered in snow and danced with lighted reindeer. A postcard moment. It was her last picture for her purging fire. This was the moment for which her heart had feared and eagerly anticipated in equal measure. She remembered the strawberries that grew in the backyard in the summer. The mud pools the children would dig and play in on hot days. They’d finally achieved everything they’d wanted in life.

She made herself cast it into the flames. Letting her “perfect” house burn.
February 2007

They finally felt at home, not just in their new house, but in Olympia, Washington. It was everything they wanted in a community. Food co-ops, alternative schools, close to the military base where Leo was receiving never-ending medical treatment for the injuries he’d sustained in Iraq, nice neighbors, and gorgeously green surroundings.

Kassandra was a rising star at her insurance company. Her bonuses kept growing almost in proportion to their lifestyle. Even without Leo’s income, it was the most they’d ever made.

Leo was off of alcohol and cigarettes. They were in counseling together and he went privately to work through the rage and anger that he’d always had and that had been fed as if on steroids since his time in the “sandbox.”

Kassandra was optimistic. She was more in love with him than ever. He had potential untapped but incredible and beautiful to behold. She had been the most faithful, supportive wife while he was off fighting the war. While other wives left their husbands, breaking under the pressure, she held steady. Loving him, praying for him, sending letters, pictures, care packages, even a birthday party in a box for him and his friends, party favors included. She’d done everything but fly out to see him. She would have done that if she could have.

Now, they were finally together again. They planted trees and berry bushes and created play areas for the children. Leo built Kassandra a custom office with floor to ceiling bookshelves. She loved it, and loved him all the more for it.

But, there were times. Oh, there were times.

The night Leo came home so drunk he was throwing up and crawling, Kassandra’s heart landed somewhere in her gut, if the pain was any indication. She stayed up all night to keep Leo from choking on his own vomit. For her good deeds, he puked all over her. Still, she told herself that maybe it was an aberrant one time fall. Certainly he wasn’t going back to his binge drinking? She couldn’t survive that again.

The lies continued, and she stayed blind, hoping that her faith would be enough to reverse the truth of their failing family. She worked harder and harder as the economy started taking chunks out of her previously fat checks. Bills were no longer easy to pay. Their debts piled up. They lost their new mini-van with the built in DVD player and heated seats. Everything was falling apart. Her dedication to the book “The Power of a Praying Wife” didn’t seem to be yielding the promised results.

Kassandra was on the edge of hysteria. Her carefully crafted dreams were turning and twisting on her, becoming desperation. It seemed the harder she held on, the more out of control her life became. She began to get very sick; her body was in pain all the time. She was diagnosed with various incurable conditions and put on pain medications. She took more and more pills just to get through her long work day, trying to keep their lives intact. She came home exhausted and tired. Leo’s night walks got longer and longer, until he was gone for most of the night nearly every night. Coming home from his “walks” only after the bars had closed. Then he would sleep all day while their children bleakly endured daycare.

The war on terrorism had finally come to her home. He terrorized her with death threats in front of their children, he’d have flashbacks that led him to choking her into near unconsciousness with their children in the next room, and one night he attacked their middle child, shaking her so hard her head bobbed back and forth while screaming at her inches from her face. Kassandra had to pry loose his fingers from Rose and lock him out as she consoled all their terrified children.

Her life was dying without her permission. The coaching and counseling were not helping because Leo didn’t want help. She created a plan and one night approached him with it. Would he agree? She doubted it.

What would she do then? She didn't know. But she had to try.

“Leo, we need to talk.”

“Ok,” he said, giving her half his attention as he continued playing on his X-Box.

“Please pause the game, I need your attention.”

“One sec, I just need to get to the next stopping point or I’ll lose my spot.”

She waited impatiently. Finally he turned to her, looking eager to get back to his game.

“This isn’t working. We’re not working.” She fought the tears that started to cloud her vision. She didn’t want to be one of those women who used tears to manipulate an argument. But she couldn’t help it. She had become a lot of things she didn’t want to be in this marriage. Bitchy, pushy, controlling. Anything in an attempt to keep order and maintain their lives.

“So, what do you want to do?” he asked.

“Leo, our house is being foreclosed." Was she getting through? Was he listening? Or was the siren song of the stupid game too loud for him to hear her?

"We owe the kids’ school thousands of dollars. We can’t maintain this lifestyle. Not only that, but my health is getting worse and you’re out of control. I can’t live like this. Something has to change or…or we can’t be together.”

He stayed very still and very quiet for so long Kassandra wondered if he’d heard her or if he’d fallen asleep with his eyes open. She despaired. There'd never been any real hope of getting through to him.

“I don’t want to lose you.” he said.

She couldn’t hold the tears back anymore.

“I don’t want to lose you either, but you need help. Help I can’t give you. And we have to find a way to live on the income you’ll be getting on disability. I can’t work until I get better; we’re way over our heads.”

“So, what do you want me to do?” he asked.

Hope flared. “Get help. Real help. In house rehab treatment for PTSD, anger and alcoholism. I’ll wait for you. Help you. Go to the classes for the families. Anything. But you need a sponsor, someone besides me who will keep you accountable and sober. We’ll move to Lake County, California where we have friends. The cost of living is much lower and it’s away from any military influence. It’s a fresh start. When you’ve completed your treatment, then we’ll rebuild our lives. I’ll do everything I can to support you. I want this to work. I’ll do my part, but you have to do yours.”

“But our house…” he said sadly. This house was everything to him.

“I know. But we’re going to lose it no matter what. The place I’ve picked is more affordable and there’s a local charter school that will provide the children a great education for free. We need free right now.”

He surprised her by kissing and hugging her, whispering the word she didn’t dare believe she’d hear from him.

“Ok.” He kissed her again. “We’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’ll do anything to make this work. I don’t want to lose you. I can’t live without you.”

I can't live without you. Words she'd longed to hear, begged to hear, thought she'd never hear again. The house burned in the fire. Her house. Her prison of lies and of denial. Her American dream. Her American turned nightmare.

Burn it all. And what will be left when it's gone? She suddenly couldn't remember why she was doing this in the first place. All she could remember was ...


May 14, 2008

“I thought you weren’t going to email her anymore? Now you’re encouraging it?” Kassandra accused in a voice she hated. A voice cultivated after years of marriage to this man.

“It’s just an email, it’s nothing,” Leo lied.

“Nothing. Right. Your ex-wife contacts you and makes comments about the great orgasms you gave her and how much she misses you and it’s nothing. I assume your membership to the online dating club is nothing too,” she asked, her voice thick with sarcasm and pain. “Leo, we had an agreement about this.”

“Well, I’m changing it,” he said in defiance.

Kassandra sighed.

“Leo, this place is perfect for us. I picked this house for you. I know it’s not as green and lush as Washington, but it’s beautiful, and cleansing. And it has all the small town charm that leads to real community, which is what we wanted. Plus, we can afford it.”

There was a magical energy here that enlivened Kassandra. It seemed to irritate Leo. He hadn’t even feigned happiness since the move.

“Leo, you can’t have it both ways. We talked about this in counseling. You’re either in or out. You’ve already turned down at least one opportunity for treatment. When are you going to get help?”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Kassandra knew she had just pulled the grenade and thrown it.

“I’m not going to treatment. When I leave, I’m not coming back.”

A grenade, indeed, and it had just exploded. Kassandra froze. Despite everything, she realized she'd never believed he'd actually say it. She pulled at her long, curly brown hair as if it might offer some insights. She looked down at her body. A body once much sexier, but which had been reshaped by pregnancy and pain. A body she was trying to heal, but couldn’t. Not when all of her time and attention was devoted to Leo and the children. How could he possibly choose alcohol over their marriage and children?

“You’re not coming back, ever?”

“No, we’re done. I can’t do this anymore.”

“You mean you’d rather drink than be a man and a father.”

“I can’t be who you want me to be,” he shot back in exploding anger.

She sobbed.

“Where will you go?” she asked.

“Back to Washington. I’m going to stay in our house and try to delay the foreclosure for awhile, and then I’ll figure something out.”

He was more delusional than she’d imagined.

“What about the kids?” she asked. What about me, she thought to herself.

“I’ll visit as often as I can.”

So, that was that. Eight years, and he was walking out, leaving her with three little girls to raise on an income that was dependent on him. Her life felt over.

“When will you leave?”

“Soon,” he said as he began to pack.

Soon. Soon she would be a single mom. What was she to do now?

That night she took out her notebook and through tears wrote out her desperation.

Wishing on a Star
Breathing in the Stillness of the Night
I let go of the nightmares of my life
You used to be my world

Taking in the magic of the stars
I make my wish and hope and pray
I used to have more dreams

Moving toward the moonbeams of my memory
I shut my heart and lock it up
I used to want to live

Now, I wait for the final promise of death

Then she cried herself to sleep. Alone.
Kassandra’s vision cleared as she watched the symbol of her house burn in the fire, as she said goodbye to the life that wasn’t a life. It's done now, she thought. She had been cocooned in that house. Insulated from reality. From her own vision. Living for others as they fed off her strength and life blood. Like the Phoenix of legends, she had to burn to ashes before she could be reborn. Born as a new person. Her own person. Someone she didn’t know, but very much wanted to know.

As the embers of her fire died down, the smoke took her pain into the ethers, to the gods and goddesses of rebirth and renewal. Kassandra slowly rose and let the coolness of the night embrace her slender body. She began dismantling her small ceremonial circle.

Three sacred symbols of her new life lay around the fire. These she would not burn. These represented her present and her future. The new life she was creating with her children.

She looked at them as she thought about life. About needs verses wants. About how much we can learn to live without when we realize how little, and how much, we need to survive and thrive. When she first began this journey, she thought the climax of it would be in learning to live without Leo. To survive the loss, the heart break. She was learning an entirely different lesson.

She held up an almond. An ordinary almond. But raw. Alive with the power of growth. If planted, this almond could grow into a tree, producing almonds for the duration of its life. Sustenance. The very essence of need. She needed food for herself and her children. She needed shelter from the elements. She needed transportation. Leo had kept his word for about a month after he left, sending her enough money to provide for their children in their oversized rental.

The next month he cut that support in half. And then again the next month. Never with any warning or explanation. Never with any consideration for how she was to care for their children. So she purged. Sold everything she could. Realized she needed very little in terms of “stuff” in order to be happy. She found a small duplex, and with 75% of her belongings now gone from her life, it suited them quite nicely. Their previous 4 bedrooms, 2 living rooms and 3 bathrooms now neatly fit into a small 2 bedroom. And yet it didn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. It was liberating. Not to mention easier to clean.

The almond also represented all the support she’d received from her new village. Local friends with farms gave her fresh produce. Samantha helped her find government resources to get food, money and childcare. Friends came when she needed to move, twice. Gary the tire guy gave her two new tires when she was down to $11 and stuck an hour from home with blown tires. All her needs were being met.

Providing for her family had been her greatest fear, and it was now her greatest triumph. There were many times she was tempted to go back to work she hated, to take the easy way, the way she knew, in order to make ends meet.

“Kassandra,” her doctor had said, “if you go back to that life, you’ll be hospitalized within three months, then how will you take care of your children? And if you don’t change your path now, this will kill you eventually.”

That sobered her. Made her realize she couldn’t afford to go back to who she was, even to make money. She had to find other ways. She called her best friend crying.

“I don’t know what to do. I can’t rely on Leo. Even when the court orders come in, he could lose it all if he’s arrested, which means we would lose it all. I have to be able to take care of my kids.”

“Kass,” Samatha has said, “stop thinking like the old you. There are other ways. I have some ideas.”

And she did indeed have some ideas. Ideas that utilized Kassandra’s gifts without taxing her empty reserves.

She was able to sustain her life and thrive with or without him or his money. When they divorced she thought she’d always be his prisoner, always under his thumb because he could kill her with one withdrawal. But she had triumphed. Her sources of passive income were starting to flourish. Without working for someone else. Without risking her physical and mental well-being. Without stress. With only joy and faith. And real results.

She picked up the sage and smelled it’s earthy sent. It smelled of health to her. Just as death and decay and sickness has a scent, so too did health and vitality. She now understood what being healthy meant. It had taken a year after their separation for her to get to a basic state of health. Two doctor’s visits a month, weekly acupuncture, monthly massages and a daily health regimen that included exercises, deep breathing, baths, herbs, supplements, naps and more. It was a full time job, but she had finally gotten off a three year dependency on pain pills and was pain free. She looked down at herself and thought about how far she’d come. Her once unhealthy body was now thin and toned, strong and sleek. And it was sexy.

To make this transition also required an entire overhaul in her diet. To go from a mac and cheese diet to one of strange health drinks with seaweed and blended kale had required a shift to viewing food as physical nourishment verses emotional comfort. It had been a hard, long struggle, but her body, health and energy were testament to the importance of persevering. She could now keep up with her children. She would now live long enough to enjoy their children, should they choose to have them.

She held the last symbol in her palm, a heart made of rose quartz, a crystal that represented healing, self-love and love of others. It is a stone said to help one attune to the spiritual energy of love.

When Kassandra lost Leo, she felt her heart had been crushed into tiny pieces. She thought the process of healing would be to somehow heal her heart of its broken, mutilated state. She was wrong. She didn’t understand love. Or her heart. Or much of anything at that time except pain. She recalled the conversation that first began to change her perception of love.

“Sam, I just don’t think my heart’s gonna get through this. Every time he’s around, all the progress I think I’ve made falls apart. He tries to control me, he makes fun of me, and I feel small and weak. My heart will never heal, will never be free of him.”

Samantha paused for a second. “Are you ready to hear the truth?” she asked in her ever patient way.

“Umm…I think so,” Kassandra said, hoping she was. Desperately wanting to be.

“This is the time for strength of heart and not indulgence in reactivity and weakness. Whatever the experiences of the past, the heart is not even the slightest bit touched by them.”

Her words struck Kassandra so powerfully she dropped the phone. She meditated on those words for weeks, really letting them into her “broken” heart. Understanding in a feeling way what they could mean. The implications were staggering. She was not capable of being broken? Nothing in the past could hurt her, or even had hurt the real Her? Just her ego, her personality had been wounded. She could live with that. After all, her ego was the thing that was causing all this drama and pain in the first place.
She held the heart and thought about how dramatically that gut-realization altered her life. From that moment forward, Leo never again bothered her, despite his efforts. Her reactivity was gone, replaced by sympathy and Love, as one Loves a friend who has chosen a very sad path. She was free! And in this freedom she found a love she never imagined. Love not spoken of in songs and books. Love that had liberated her from the burning house and cookie-cutter life. This allowed her to break down the walls of her prison, to see the village of the Universe there for her, and to slough off the suit of the enabler in order to embrace her True Self. She was free to fly away from the ashes and into a new world of her own creation. She smiled, shivered in the chill of the night, and realized she'd been standing so long the fire had mostly died.

Let it, she thought. She'd done what she needed to do.

She stretched, feeling free, and went to meet her new life.

Note From author: This is a work of fiction based on true events.

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