I met her at work, answered when she called our hotline and, later that day, welcomed her at our shelter door. She came soon after Christmas. I remember her telling me how the trouble started on Christmas day when her husband thought she did not show sufficient gratitude for the expensive fur coat he had bought her. "I told him it was beautiful and thanked him," she said. "But I’d asked for exercise equipment, so he knew I wasn’t really thrilled." It seemed clear to me that this husband was unwilling to allow for an increasingly strong, healthy, independent wife, one he couldn’t control with luxurious gifts.
In the dozen years I’ve worked at our county’s Domestic Abuse Safehouse—mostly on weekends, sometimes 24 hours at a stretch—I have met hundreds of women remarkable in courage, faith, energy, and even good humor. They come with their children to stay a month or so at the shelter while finding housing and jobs in order to begin a new life.
One of the first things I learned working there was that everyone comes. No category of people escapes domestic abuse, including men. One weekend most of my hotline calls were from men, one of them barricaded in his bedroom against an abusive and, he said, armed wife. But all of the residents at the shelter are women. They are the daughters or wives or girlfriends of policemen and college professors, of drug runners and lawyers, businessmen, preachers, and politicians. They come from every religion, from white families, black families, and all nationalities. Some come from generations of abuse; others, such as foreign brides, are on new ground, stunned and disoriented. There are women who haven’t completed eighth grade, handicapped women, nurses, social workers. We’ve had a fashion designer and some with advanced degrees. They come from every social class, though less of them from wealthy and prominent familes since those women can usually afford to escape to somewhere other than our humble shelter. Many are young and have small children with them, but there are childless women, pregnant women, women still in their teens, and mothers with teenagers. There are lesbians and vegetarians and great-grandmothers. Everyone.
When Patricia arrived, her injuries made walking painful. She was a successful, middle-aged woman from a prosperous family nearby. I had wished we had a bedroom on the first floor. But from the start, she never complained. Before long she was cooking a big pot of something from our government-surplus supplies to share with the others. Generosity seemed to come naturally to her, with no hint of self-righteousness. Later she would help children with homework, bake cakes, listen supportively to tales of woe. I remember seeing her once from my desk, keeping pain out of her face, minimizing her limp, and having a cheerful conversation, as she climbed the steep stairs to clean them for a woman whose chore it really was, someone Patricia wanted to help out.
By the next weekend there were noticeable changes at the house. One meal every day—an ample one with which the other women helped Patricia, in a humming kitchen—was now eaten together at the big dining room table, rather than in independent family groups. If there wasn’t room at the table, Patricia would serve all the children first, then send them off to play while their mothers gathered to eat in festive sisterhood.
Women and children coming from violent situations often recreate at the shelter what is familiar: top-volume shrieks, barely veiled threats, and accusations. They turn the television on loud, invariably to scenes of brutality and bloodshed. But under what was indisputably Patricia’s benign influence, voices softened; a child might be spoken to in a whisper to save him from embarrassment, and when the children were in bed, all the women gathered around Patricia for prayer and Bible reading with the television off.
Like everyone else, I found I related to Patricia easily. We both liked cooking for large groups, were both trying to lose some weight, both had eight grandchildren to talk about, both came from religious families, and both of us had visions of doing what we could to change the world.
Patricia dreamed of establishing a refuge. She owned land in North Carolina, and with sufficient money and her children now on their own, her plan was to open a small community of welcome with relevant education and training for women and children escaping abuse. The ground work was already done. Watching her in action, I had no doubt it would come to pass.
When I arrived at 6 am the next weekend, it was snowing, windy, and cold. Patricia, already downstairs, came into the office to tell me that her elderly father, who was perhaps in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, had called her repeatedly through the night wanting her to come to him, so she was leaving to check on him. She looked tired but, before going, did her Saturday chore, then swept a path through the snow. Standing at the door as she left, I thanked her for the extra work. She wished she could have done a better job, she said, but there was no shovel. Before the storm swallowed her up, she shouted back, "I’ll bring a shovel back from my father’s house and clear off the walk."
That afternoon, I got a phone call. Patricia, the voice said, had been killed, shot by her husband, who had then shot himself. Inadvertently or not, her father had cooperated with her abuser. His cry for help had been a ruse; her angry husband was waiting for her at her father’s house.
I can no longer remember the rest of that cold afternoon or night, but a few days later I drove across town in the agency van with others who wanted to attend her funeral. Larger than any I had ever attended, the church was more like an amphitheater, its sloping seats almost circling the pulpit and Patricia’s open casket. A large crowd, fine music, and many speakers honored Patricia for her work in her church and community, for her womanly and Christian virtues. I waited in vain for any acknowledgement of trouble in her life. It sounded as if she had died peacefully in bed at just the time God scheduled.
After the service, angry at the omission of straight talk honoring the Patricia I knew, I pressed through the crowd until I reached a woman relative, and told her of Patricia’s beautiful gifts to our lives at the safehouse. I realized from her polite response that what I brought seemed to her better forgotten, only a minor and regrettable chapter in an otherwise good and proper life.
Back at home, I wrote to the church, lauding Patricia and suggesting that they could memorialize her life by remembering her death as well. Why not provide a women’s support group? Extra "godparents" for children caught in abusive situations? A speaker or educational program? A men’s group focused on learning to be better husbands? I offered to make a contribution in Patricia’s memory toward any such program. There was never any acknowledgement of my letter.
But it was not the end of Patricia’s life for me, or at the shelter. After our own small memorial meeting in the TV room with tears and truth and memories, the kindness in the house went on and on, almost as if Patricia were still there watching over us. Other women remembered her recipes as best they could, fed the children together, helped each other with assigned chores, and gathered in the TV room for prayers after supper.
I felt Patricia with me even when I was at home. For weeks, maybe months, keeping to my diet was no problem, her presence was so real. And it wasn’t just at the table. This fine woman I had known only a few weeks and had been with only a few days was somehow alive in me, bringing her own hope and vision and energy to my life. It gave me a new understanding of resurrection.
As I write this now, almost seven years later, I have in front of me the funeral program from the huge church. On its cover is a picture of Patricia, a widely smiling, handsome black woman looking a decade or so younger than the Patricia I knew. Inside, opposite the Order of Service, is an obituary. After reviewing her degrees, it credits her with devotion to excellence, creativity, love of and service to youth, and notes that she had been sowing seeds for her new work in North Carolina, Touch of Faith and Love Ministries.
Rereading the Scriptures in the program that seemed so hollow or ironic to me at the time, I wonder if they were chosen as known favorites of Patricia’s. Among them is Psalm 91, with the assurance: "No disaster shall befall you, no calamity shall come upon your home. For he has charged his angels to guard you wherever you go, to lift you on their hands lest you strike your foot against a stone."