When you grow up listening to words cutting, doors breaking, plaster cracking, dishes shattering and fists flying, you learn when and how and for how long you can escape. Sometimes it was a silent gym; the glistening lines of a basketball court whispering an endless need for the deafening sound of squeaking sneakers and skinned knees and intrusive whistles. Sometimes, it was the warm comfort of a friend's house; their seemingly perfect, healthy and functional family's shared meals were dangerously and often cruelly close to feeling like my own.
But always, always, it was reading.
While my father yelled obscenities at my mother, ignorantly accusing her of sleeping with the latest fixation of his unabashed rage, I would turn page after page after inviting page and successfully - if only for a moment - transport myself to another world where another life was unfolding in another, healthier, more understandable way. I would dive into the psyche of a complete stranger; some talented author who provided a string of words that seemed to wash the burning bruises from my arms and sides and sometimes, my cheeks. I may not have been able to understand why my father insisted on hitting his wife and children, but I could understand the writer who backpacked through Europe or that character that couldn't find the bottom of a liquor bottle.
Sure, sometimes paragraphs came with the background music of my father's terrifying voice, or the contents of my mother's dresser drawers being thrown down our stairs, or my brother's truck engine as he ran away from home for the third time. And yes, sometimes, even the most profound storytelling couldn't keep me from inserting my adolescent body between my mother's face and my father's fist. But more often than not, reading was my escape; my plane ticket to another country where another wife and her two children were being loved and cared for and nurtured, instead of yelled at and manipulated and made to be the victims domestic violence. While I was acutely and painfully aware that my reality was one that a reported seven million U.S. children live with and, sadly, are forced to grow accustomed to, I was also blissfully thankful for my ability to escape that reality, one paperback at a time. I knew that self love and financial freedom and complete, unapologetic body ownership - all things my mother had stripped away from her by a vindictive man who wanted to own, not love - is vital, and I knew that writing and reading and stepping into another human's life via perfectly prepared paragraphs was how I could learn to obtain those things.
And now, at 29, I can say I have them.
Now, when I read, I read with a 1 and 1/2 year old on my lap. Now, I'm learning about Grover and his latest Sesame Street adventure, as my wide-eyed son excitedly turns page after page after brightly colored page. Now, each paragraph comes with the background music of toddler giggles and excited screeches and a sincere question, meant to teach my son what "that" is or "this" is or which color is undeniably which. And sure, sometimes, even the most intriguing story about Elmo and his bedtime routine can't keep me from changing a dirty diaper or preparing a semi-healthy yet wonderfully convenient meal or answering a work email that absolutely cannot wait, but always, my son and I have reading. The daily stresses associated with motherhood and a career and a romantic relationship and important friendships do not disappear with the turn of a page, just like my father's violence never truly disappeared until my mother left him, but at the end of the day - when my son begins to rub his eyes and fights inevitable sleep with adorable futility - we sit on the couch and read a book.
Now, I get to watch my partner sound out words with my son as he smiles and points, assured that my son will never feel the fear I spent the majority of my childhood navigating. My partner's hands will turn pages, not hit innocent faces, and never will my son be forced to put down his book and put his adolescent body in between his mother and father out of some misplaced sense of duty and protection and obligation.
Now, I get to see my mother - a true survivor - place her wild grandson on her lap as she whisks him to a far away land where puffins howl at the moon and velvet rabbits come to life and a button-less bear finds friendship and love. She is safe and happy and vibrant; a mother I didn't know for over 25 years but one I am truly enjoying learning about now, as she is undeniably teaching me how to the best mother I can be, too.
Now, these moments filled with books and reading and learning are cherished, and not a painful necessity. Now, I can say that I don't read to escape, I read so that I can smell my son's hair or feel his head rested up against my shoulder or watch my partner share a book. Now, I read to simply stop and appreciate a home that is warm and safe and so full of love.
I used to read so that I could escape, but my son will never have to. When he reads, he will read to simply enjoy.