Trigger warning: family violence
I was four years old. We lived in a little bungalow with a huge garden full of neatly trimmed roses. Mum is good at maintaining roses. I don’t remember a lot about that day. Christchurch airport had its 80s decor carpet patterned into almost-squares and I would jump from one square to another. There was the hum clatter of the great metal escalator. We walked upstairs to farewell dad. Nothing was explained to us. He just said goodbye, see you soon – something along those lines. My brother, two years my senior, might have understood what was happening. I was carried away weeping.
“Where’s dad going?” I asked.
“Let’s go get some fish ‘n’ chips at grandma and granddad’s house,” she replied.
I had just turned five years old. We had moved to Wellington to be close to my dad. We lived in a small brick house in Porirua with dad’s brother and his wife, and two of their six kids. My brother and I strolled the couple hundred metres up the road to school every day. Upon return one day, my cousins ushered us into the living room. We were inundated with food so we’d have everything we’d need to not leave that room. While I love food, my curiosity is stronger than my desire for it. Hearing muffled cries and screams coming from my parent’s room, I bolted down the hall and opened the door. Mum was lying on the floor battered, bruised, face swollen, eyes barely open, nightie bloodied, tear-stained face. They yelled at me to leave. Dad walked into the corner, picked up a sapelu and slowly walked towards mum towering over her lifeless body. This was the first I’d ever seen the power of a man really diminish, demean, destroy a woman’s worth and autonomy. I darted into the room, lay down in front of my mum and screamed at him to leave. He walked out and went to the TAB. I struggled to leave home to go to school every day that week knowing no one would protect her. No one.
“I don’t want to go to school,” I said.
“I’ll be ok,” she replied.
I was five years old. Housing New Zealand helped us move out of aunt and uncle’s house and into a cool new one with stairs. We had a lovely elderly neighbour with an amazing garden. She and mum became quick friends. We liked to play with her dog. One day, dad came home angry. He set fire to all of mum’s things in the back garden: passports, birth certificates, bills, identification, independence, autonomy. Another time, he came home, got angry and pushed mum down the stairs. He threw a mug of hot coffee at her; I stood in front and copped most of the burn to my chest. Mum grabbed my brother and me, and we walked out the door towards my older cousin’s house. Dad grabbed my arm and tried to pull me back to stay with him. I screamed at him and he let go. We continued walking up the street.
“Why don’t you call the police?” I asked.
“Because I still love him,” she replied.
I was five years old. We moved to Samoa to get away from him. Here mum had her own family to help her, instead of the bystanding relatives of dad’s. We settled into school and life with grandparents, eating twisties, ice blocks and dry salted peas from their shop. Dad drove up and down the country looking for us until finally my aunt, who had helped us relocate, told him where we were. He called every day begging for us to return home. I loved life in Samoa, despite the mosquitoes. I did not want to go home. But home we went. Mum was pregnant with my sister. Did we have to? I don’t know. I was five.
“Do we have to leave, granddad?” I asked.
“It’s up to your mum,” he replied.
I was ten years old. We were back in Christchurch. There had been no more physical violence, just verbal violence. I don’t know which was worse. Mum started her battle with gambling demons. They constantly told her she’d win if she just gave it one more shot. And each time, she’d lose more money. She implored me to take her cards and not give them to her even if she begged. My role changed from protective shield to counsellor. But I also became the victim of verbal abuse when I didn’t hand them over. I was shit at my job if I gave in. I was shit at my job if I didn’t. The gambling demons told her she would get more money if she told WINZ that her marriage had failed. Dad got shitty when he found out and moved out. My younger sister cried. Inside I felt glee, joy, ecstasy. This is what I had prayed for. Then mum found out she was pregnant and dad came back.
“Do you remember that time you saved me when dad beat me?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
I was 18 years old. I had moved out of home and into a flat. I looked back maybe a couple of times, but my resentment was strong, my self-esteem was low, and my mental wellness was nil. Mum and dad’s marriage was taking its toll on my younger sisters. I helped my parents to help my sisters. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have cared. I was dead tired. I attempted suicide for the fourth time in my existence taking every pill I could find, then being dragged out of bed by my friend to go to the hospital. Dad eventually moved out and back up to Wellington. I told mum that if she followed him, I would never speak to her again. Then I got a text the following day that dad’s mum had died and we’d need to go up to Wellington for the funeral. Fuck.
“Are we ok back there?” mum asked on our road trip to Wellington.
I was about 23 when mum finally followed dad to Wellington. My brother started having kids. Her mokopuna were her only reasons for moving she says. She moved in with dad and they’ve been living together on and off ever since. When people, particularly family, ask me why I don’t move up there too, I quietly laugh. It’s hard to tell people that you’re still unpacking years of stones and boulders you’ve had to carry on account of the people who should be carrying their own damn shit.
I am tired and I have not cried for either parent since I was four.