The door to my grandma’s house always signified comfort and tuna fish sandwiches. I only associated the place with good memories. When I was a kid, we used to go there every New Year’s Eve, and eat junk food until we passed out.
On a cool April afternoon when I was in grade 11, the door loomed menacingly over me. The duffel bag cut into my shoulder slightly; I had been standing out there for a while. It was Thursday, and I had left school early. My friend Taylor, standing beside me in one of her sets of colourful stockings, gave me an encouraging nudge. I walked up the steps with a heavy stomach.
Next to the door was a statue of a bunny, hanging from a swing. My cousin always pushed it, maintaining that it was good luck. For some reason, I was fixated on that statue. I stared at it for several minutes before opening the door: I didn’t think to push it myself. My grandma came to the door immediately. She wasn’t expecting me to be there.
“Oh, well it’s good to see you! Why are you here?”
I set my duffle bag on the floor, and in a shaky voice asked, “Could I stay here for a while?”
All my plans evaporated in that moment. I felt liberated. I was free to tell her everything I had been keeping secret for the past two years. She just sat and listened. I told her that ever since my mom had started dating her girlfriend, life had been hell. I told her about how their “creative parenting” included putting us down daily, chores until midnight, no breaks whatsoever. One of the first things my mother’s girlfriend did was isolate us from the rest of the family. My extended family later told me that before my confession, they had no idea things were that bad.
My grandma assured me that everything would be all right, and then acted. A flurry of phone calls took place while I sat in the living room and tried to pretend I was anywhere else. Plans were cancelled and, shortly after, my entire extended family pushed themselves into my grandma’s tiny apartment. I attempted to eat something while I told them about my life for the past two years. I never realized how much I missed them until I was in that room, spilling out family secrets.
Then, my phone started ringing. I was getting the call I hoped wouldn’t come. I retreated to my grandma’s bedroom and answered slowly.
“Why did I just get a call from Nanny saying you asked to stay there?”
“I can’t go back,” I whispered.
“If you don’t come home right now, I’m kicking you out.”
My mom broke off crying, and it snapped something inside me. At 17, I had no idea how to process what was happening. Sitting on my grandma’s bed, I balled the sheets up into my mouth to keep from howling. I don’t remember going to sleep that night. Despite being surrounded by people, I felt completely alone.
The weekend was devoted to putting my life back together. I had only packed what I could think to grab right away, so I was quickly running out of clothes. With money gathered by my aunt, uncle, and other family members, I was whisked away to the mall in one of the stranger shopping trips of my life. Going from store to store, I was able to completely rebuild my style. Determined to separate myself from the person I was the week before, I shopped like it was my mission.
That night my aunt asked me to move in with her, my uncle, and my cousin. I hadn’t seen them for years, and seeing my chance to rebuild my relationships, I accepted. After moving what little I had, as well as what I had bought that day, I focused on resuming my life. I played video games, read as much as I could — anything that I could lose myself in for a while. I later found out that my brother, who still lived at my mother’s, was forbidden from bringing me any clothes I left behind. They would be selling them.
I went back to high school on Monday, and found myself face to face with new hurdles, but also new support. My friends and teachers were behind me, and I started seeing a therapist provided by the school. My uncle drove me to and from classes until I figured out the bus route. After two years of isolation and abuse at the hands of a step-parent, I had no idea how to react to sudden kindness.
I began to slowly gain confidence and, though it would haunt me for years, I started to feel like I made the right decision. However, people from my old life continued to hound me. My mom and her girlfriend arranged to meet with the rest of my family to talk about the situation. While I sat at home anxiously, they tried to tell their side of the story. I had no idea what that would be.
Hours later, the rest of the family told me what happened. Over the course of the night, my mother tried to get me kicked out of my aunt’s by any means possible. They exposed my sexuality, trying to play to my family’s non-existent homophobia. When that didn’t work, they resorted to lying. They said I stole money from them; that I had instigated every fight, and that the abuse never happened.
My aunt told them, in no uncertain terms, that she didn’t believe any of it. Even though it would forever divide them and my mother, my aunts told them to leave me alone, unless they apologized. Somehow, these people were willing to stand up for me. The feeling was unnatural, something I hadn’t experienced living with my mother, but I cherished it. I felt like I could breathe for the first time in weeks.
Easter dinner rolled around shortly after, and it was the first major family event that I wasn’t spending with my mother and brother. Since I was still shaky from the events of the past week, the dinner was hosted at my aunt’s. As we ate and laughed, each of us teasing the other, I was finally a part of something.
When I ran away from who I thought was my family, I thought I was condemning myself to be alone. My mother’s girlfriend used to repeat that to us if we ever made them mad, it would be easy for them to cut us off forever. I used to think it would be the end of my world if that happened.
At my new home, I felt like I was a part of something. It was as if through all their actions my family was saying, “you won’t be alone.”
Writing this, I thought it might help to call my aunt, and ask her what I was like at that point in my life. It was an emotional conversation. We talked about everything that had happened. She told me that when I got to my grandma’s that day, I was a mixture of absolute relief and terror.
“You walked on eggshells for a long time. It was like you were never sure if you were actually part of the family.”
“I remember that.”
“Do you remember the day it finally came together?” She asked.
“No, those weeks were a blur.”
She laughed. “We were all cleaning one day. I think we were having a family barbecue. You were vacuuming, when suddenly you turned off the vacuum, and started to cry. I ran over quickly. You composed yourself, and told me that you didn’t remember what it was like for families to have fun together, that we could all be doing chores and still have fun.”
As the memories resurfaced, I found it difficult to speak. She spoke again, quietly, “You also helped us in so many ways, Ashton. It wasn’t just one-sided. You gave your cousin an older brother. You gave us a second child. No matter what happened, I knew I had my nephew back.”
I felt so out of place, standing in line to accept my university degree. My marks from the first two years of high school were abysmal. Living with my aunt did wonders for my grades. My family, even after practically funding my new life, donated enough to help me pay for my tuition. The family that I found, the family I fell into, gave me opportunities that I thought I would never have. Most importantly, they taught me to value myself. I worked so hard to get to this point. It was an incredibly difficult task, one that took years to learn (I’m still mastering it now), but eventually, I stopped hating the person I was. He stopped being a victim and he started being me.
After the ceremony, my grandma said, “I remember the day you showed up at my apartment, eyes huge, shaking in your shoes, and asked me if you could stay.”
“Me too,” I replied. It was hard remembering who I had been then. I always looked at him as someone I could never be again.
“Well, you’ve come a long way since then,” she declared.
“I have, haven’t I?”
After graduating from Carleton University with a B.A in Political Science, Ashton Heaps found himself without direction. With a passion for writing, the Professional Writing program has allowed him to explore the different careers that he could pursue. With an interest in fantasy fiction and communications, he is excited to hit the ground running and discover what he can do.