“Do you have your ‘go’ bag ready?” my therapist in Istanbul asked me during our last session before I left my husband. For weeks, we had gone over what to put in it, what I could secretly take from our house that my husband wouldn’t miss, the important things my son and I would need in the upcoming difficult months in my new, secret home.
Months before, I had taken passports, birth certificates, visas, and other important documents and given them to a trusted friend in Istanbul for safekeeping. While I mostly loved and embraced my expat life and living abroad, leaving an abusive marriage overseas presented unique challenges. My “go” bag had photocopies of important documents. Cash I had been squirreling away for weeks. Some wedding jewelry. Changes of clothes for my son and me, even though I had already bought some new clothes and left them in the new apartment. Travel toiletries. As my leave date approached, I wandered my house picking up knickknacks, touching paintings, patting furniture. Saying good-bye to things I couldn’t take, things that if I did take, would give away my plan.
In therapy, we had gone over every scenario. What if I told him I just wanted to leave? Told him about the secret freelance job I had taken that was able to finance my way out? Our anger towards each other had boiled over too much as the years passed, each fight becoming worse and worse.
He wouldn’t let me leave, I knew it. Statistics knew it, too, and friends, my therapist, and my lawyer showed these figures to me every time I questioned whether I was doing the “right” thing. “80% of the women I work with go back to their husbands at least once, if not more,” my lawyer told me. A helpful friend read that according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, a nice average was seven times. I couldn’t do seven times. I couldn’t survive twice. If I was going to leave, it needed to be for good.
“I have never had a woman tell me she felt too ‘safe,’” my therapist told me when I questioned whether I was overreacting, thinking too much of worst-case scenarios. Another friend showed me some pictures I had sent her after the most recent fight with my husband. So, I took a freelance writing job without telling my husband, had my checks deposited into an account he didn’t know about, and secretly began buying items to set up house somewhere else. Towels, sheets, etc. I found the perfect little flat, less than two miles from my house, and rented it within the day. My leave date was set, just three weeks before Christmas.
Thus began a new Advent countdown as I tried to keep up a semblance that life was normal, so my husband wouldn’t know I was leaving until we were safely hidden. I didn’t tell my therapist that in the trunk of my car, next to my “go” bag was my artificial Christmas tree and our box of ornaments. I put up the other Christmas decorations around the house, but not the tree, and surprisingly, he hadn’t questioned nor noticed its absence.
The day I left was as dramatic as predicted. My five-year-old son wrapped himself in his blankie in the car, listening to me on the phone with the police, and a light in his brown eyes left that day and never returned. “I can help translate for you, Mommy,” he told me from the backseat, as I stumbled over some Turkish words. The police took down my call, offered to send a car to patrol around my new house for that night. I thanked them, and waited for guidance from my lawyer.
“You are not to leave your new apartment, you are not to even breathe unless you hear from me,” my lawyer told me over the phone. He was also one of my best friends, and this advice came in his surrogate-older brother voice. I hid my bright red car in the nearby cemetery, go-bag on my back, Christmas tree under one arm, holding the hand of a heartbroken five-year-old in the other.
One bedroom had an Ikea mattress on the floor and my desktop computer loaded with a week’s worth of movies. The fridge was stocked, the freezer loaded with meals I had been pre-making for weeks. Uno, card games, books, and coloring supplies to pass time. Outside of the Christmas tree, we had nothing else while we waited for the lawyers to handle things behind the scenes. Was a restraining order necessary? When would we get a court order that I could get my things from the house? When would I be able leave my flat safely for groceries and to take my son to the park?
I hadn’t told friends where my new place was, per both my lawyer and therapist’s orders. “You don’t really know who your friends are in this situation,” they had cautioned. My lawyer told me later that the first week most women bow to social and family pressure to go back to their spouses, and indeed, the phone calls I received reflected that.
It was almost Christmas, and the only thing keeping me from throwing in the towel was remembering our last Christmas together. The broken dishes, the broken hearts, all of us wounded, me sleeping curled next to my son in his bed. I had vowed never again. I had promised us both this. I turned my phone to silent and only checked texts from my lawyer. Tucked my son in with his tattered blankie, on our shared mattress, watched his eyelashes flutter in his sleep.
The tree hadn’t made it unscathed, but it was the only décor or piece of furniture we had. The top part was bent, so I improvised by finding a chopstick in a takeout container, taping it to hold semi-upright. It made the tree lopsided when we put the star on top, but was fitting. Okay, and still standing.
Every year my son and I put this tree up, and I remember family and friends that faded away. Custody fights, alimony, moving back to the U.S. New friends, new relationships with family. The celebration of a new beginning. How my now ex-husband and I continue to help each other heal, turning a volatile situation into a safe and amicable one. How we learned to co-parent without the anger that had destroyed our marriage. Now with new partners, new lives, scarred, and always in the process of healing, we have all come so far.
When people see my lopsided Christmas tree, and make fun of the taped chopstick that holds the operation together, I just smile. I don’t want a new tree. This one suits me.