Saturday, February 16, 2008


Kayla is blind and paralyzed on one side. She is lying in her bed in pediatric ICU, slowly turning her head to the left, where she grimaces, shivers and then repeats. Over and over she does this, a pained writhing, the sole outward manifestation of her swelling brain and spinal cord trauma.

Head injury. Blunt force trauma. These dreadful things would seem mysterious ~ what happened to this little girl? ~ were she not also covered with bruises, bite marks, pinches, red scrapes and abrasions. The injuries are technicolor shades of yellow, green, blue, purple. They span days and days, but the worst, the most recent, are near black.

Enormous brown eyes, wide open eyes, she looks and sees nothing. She cannot respond to my voice. I tell her she is safe, that no one can hurt her and I will keep her safe from those who did this. But who, who did this? I desperately need her to tell me who did this. She cannot talk and it's too early to tell what's permanent, if she will recover at all. Six years old, a Native American child from near where I grew up. She is very thin, so pale, her long black hair missing in patches where it was ripped out from the roots.

The detective beckons me from the hall. We huddle with the doctor, with the uniformed cops who were first to the hospital after the ambulance brought her in. Who did this? Which one of them, stepmother? father? Who could do this to her, this systematic destruction of a tiny little girl's body, of her mind?

We have no answers, any of us, and so they leave and I return to my task. My job is to keep her safe, to determine if she goes home again, what happens to her if she does not. That Kayla can't talk is driving me mad. I don't know who to protect her from. Who did this to her? Who could have hurt this little girl so terribly?

I talk to stepmom who denies ever seeing anything amiss, no bruises, nothing. She was gone from Saturday evening to Sunday noon, at work. It was 2:00 a.m. Monday morning when the ambulance was called because Kayla was struggling to breathe. Stepmom says that Kayla was sleepy and stayed in her room all of Sunday evening. Didn't eat. Never came out. No, she did not think that odd. No, she did not think to check on her. No, she did not see any injuries. No. No. No. I hate her.

I talk to dad who denies ever seeing anything amiss, no bruises, nothing. He was home from Saturday evening to Sunday noon, caring for Kayla and her half siblings. Dad says that Kayla was sleepy and stayed in her room all of Sunday evening. Didn't eat. Never came out. No, he did not think that odd. No, he did not think to check on her. No, he did not see any injuries. No. No. No. I hate him too.

Both clamor to see Kayla. They are concerned, so very concerned. One at a time, I tell them, and I take stepmom to the room. I tell Kayla who is here to see her and there is no response. Stepmom's voice sounds wrong to me. Her comforting words seem stiff and they don't ring true. She leaves quickly and I follow her out, asking her how she could not see these injuries. She tells me Kayla falls a lot. I despise her.

I take Dad to the room. I tell Kayla he is here and he says Kayla, baby? Her agitation is immediate and extreme. He says how are you, baby? and she thrashes like a wild thing, pulling the IV from her arm, moaning. Sudden tears unlike any I've ever seen, she is soaked, instantly soaked, and still she can't talk and she's moaning with her mouth in an agonized grimace and the phrase rictus of fear comes from nowhere and runs through my mind and the moaning, the tortured moaning, is a godforsaken, dreadful sound.

She needs to get away, away from that voice, but half her body won't work and she can't see, she doesn't know where to go, she is trapped in her blindness and her terror and this is happening in moments, between his Kayla, baby? and how are you? In an instant I am moving toward him but it feels like slow motion and I can see in his eyes a sheen of pleasure and I know that he is a monster and I am at last across the room shoving him out the door, get out get out get out of here get the fuck out, go now, get out.

Kayla has spoken in the only way she can. It is hours before she stabilizes. Every footstep in the hallway spikes her heart rate. I whisper over and over you are safe, he cannot come back, I will not let him, you are safe, safe, safe, really, believe me this time even though I have let you down, I am so, so sorry.

Grandmother is here and when Kayla is better, I let her in the room. Grandmother is crying, but trying to be brave. She whispers to Kayla of grandpa and the chickens on the farm and Kayla's dog, the one Dad would not allow her to keep when he took her from grandmother's home. Kayla's heart rate drops even more and it steadies. Her writhing is less intense, though it continues at the same appallingly rhythmic pace, a wretched harbinger of a brain ruined by clotting and pressure and brute force.

I walk grandmother out and she tells me that Kayla was not abused. I am stunned and enraged, my head hot with an explosion of disbelief and a high voltage urge to slap her senseless, how could she? We argue and I know I am on the line, too close to losing control as I did with dad, but I get it, finally, of course, I know this stuff but everything I know has vanished in the face of my horror that I let the monster into Kayla's room.

Grandmother feels responsible for letting Kayla live with her dad and this gives me hope, so we agree to meet at my office next day because this one may be workable if that is why she denies. If she is guilt stricken and hating herself for her failure and so cannot admit the truth, there is hope. If she denies to protect the adults, Kayla has no one.

It is late and this endless day is at a close because I can't stand anymore of it and everyone is gone but the nurses and Kayla, who lies wide-eyed in her bed, writhing, turning, listening to the soft plop of the IV fluids and the mechanical beat of her six year old heart on the monitor next to her bed.

On the dot next morning, grandmother arrives and I bring her coffee and we discuss what happened to Kayla. Grandmother thinks she must have fallen. She's been on the phone all night with dad's local kin and there are vague reports circulating among family members that Kayla fell off a bike, or the curb, maybe the porch, oops, yeah, she was climbing on the dresser and fell, another kid hit her and it's bullshit and I know and they know and now this grandmother, the good grandmother, is saying the same thing.

I have pictures. I have doctor's reports, exam results, tests. I have seen every inch of this tiny little girl's body and the harm that has been done her, the hideous violence of slapping and pinching and pounding and kicking and the inconceivable atrocity of bite marks on her inner thighs and her labia and her buttocks and breasts and this woman tells me she must have fallen. I feel the electric hum of rage in my muscles and my head is hot with it again and I can't detach from this one, can't do it.

I slide a picture of torn flesh across the table and I ask is that from falling? Another picture of deep bruises, falling? Another, and another, and then I'm around the table and next to her, fanning every photo of this child's living hell in front of her, the brutality of it evident in every shot and then the last image of Kayla, the blank stare of this baby girl now blind and paralyzed, did she fall? Did she fall?? Is that FROM FALLING????

I've made her cry. I've hurt another human being while trying to protect a little girl. She is weeping, doubled over with her head in her hands, saying no, no, no, she did not fall, I know it and it is my fault I should have kept her, I should have kept her, why did I let him take her.

Now we are sisters, this grandmother and I, because I am not over, will not get over, having taken the architect of this nightmare into the room where Kayla lay blind and paralyzed, infinitely vulnerable, safe for the first time in months.
And this grandmother will never get over having let him take Kayla away from her. We are sisters in guilt.

We are bit players in the wretched script of Kayla's life of torment, but our shared guilt is the foundation of our commitment that she will never return to him. Never. And in that we succeed and I am able at last to say to this violated child, now you are safe. Now you are safe.

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