I hate feeling vulnerable. Hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it. But I toughen up. Deployments do that to military spouses, after all.
It seems like my skin is at its thickest whenever my husband has been gone for a while – maybe a few months into a deployment, once the familiar shock of his absence has set in and I’ve found my solo-parenting rhythm again.
Still, even with that rhythm, I am cautious. I don’t go out at night. I call my friends and family to let them know that I am okay. I don’t let strangers know that my husband is deployed.
But what are you supposed to do if you are accosted at mass? Isn’t that holy ground? Aren’t you supposed to be at your safest there? I wasn’t.
I loved our church. Loved it, loved it, loved it. It was (and still is) the oldest catholic church in San Diego. I loved the old architecture. I loved the five bells at the front. I loved the old tiled floors that were pitched at different angles. I loved the high timber ceilings. I loved the crucifix that held the symbol (missing arms) that we are supposed to be Jesus’ arms and his acts. I loved how close it was to my home. I loved that there was a 7 a.m. mass. Mostly, I loved the beautiful homilies that were so gently delivered by the priests.
It was a comfort to go there with my son once my husband deployed. Not only did it fulfill me spiritually, it served as a milestone that reminded me that another week of my husband’s absence had passed.
But then one day, it changed.
I think that the parishioner built up his courage to accost me. I’d noticed the older man stare at me during mass before (when my husband had been on duty). It made me uncomfortable. It made something inside of me tell me that he was doing more than just admiring me. During masses where I could count on my husband’s attendance, I’d point him out. The parishioner wouldn’t glance at me even once when my large, forbidding sailor was around. Still, the parishioner found ways to creep me out, even when my husband was around.
A 7/11 that was catty-corned to the church was my favorite after mass destination. From there, I would get chips for my son and my husband (if he was with us); for myself, I would purchase powdered sugared mini-donuts and kettle fried sour cream and onion potato chips. I wasn’t the only one who went to the convenience store for a post mass treat- the parishioner would be there too. He’d get whatever he would get (I never looked him in the eye) and would then stand outside. Once I entered my vehicle, he’d stop and stare as I drove away.
I didn’t like him. Not one bit. But that didn’t deter me from attending services. Everyone should go to mass, right? Killers, thieves, jerks, and creeps. God’s word is for everyone.
In retrospect, maybe I could have complained. But what would I have said? “Hi Father Jamison! This man gives me the heebie jeebies.” “No, he hasn’t said anything to me.” “No, he hasn’t tried to do anything either.” Who in their right mind would have given credence to my gut feeling?
So, I kept going. Even after my husband left on deployment. One Sunday, the parishoner escalated. I’d arrived early to mass like I always did. My son was next to me. The pews all around me were empty. But then, the parishioner entered. He took a look around and sat right next to me. I didn’t know what to do. I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. So, I fell back on my catholic teachings. Mass is for everyone. I stayed put.
The parishioner stared at me all through mass. It was awful. I wondered if I should have left with my son. But I didn’t. I’d like to say that it was out of devotion to services, but the truth was that I felt scared and trapped. So I stayed.
Then it happened – the passing of the Sign of Peace. The parishioner turned to me. I had to turn to him. I had to! He nearly pushed my then five year old out of the way to get to me. Once he did, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it – so hard. So very hard. He held it for so long.
I don’t remember what happened after that part of mass that particular day. All I remember was rushing out of there with my son and locking myself in my house with him. I remember shaking. I remember crying. I called everyone I knew. I didn’t leave my house for two entire days. I even called home security companies, as we lived VERY close to the church.
My fear finally subsided and was replaced with anger. I became angry with men. I became angry with church. But probably at my most unfair, I became angry with my husband. I was a married woman. I was a good, faithful, loving wife. I was not supposed to be accosted by horrible men.
I was mad at my husband because he wasn’t home. I was mad at him because he didn’t understand what it was like to be a vulnerable woman. Still, he was as supportive as he could have been from as far away as he was.
The fear and need to protect myself gave me permission to do whatever I had to do in order to feel safe. I stopped going to mass at that wonderful church. As a matter of fact, I did not return to mass until my husband came home. Once he returned, we tried out different parishes. They didn’t fit. One day, I suggested that we returned to the old church. My husband asked if I was sure. I told him that I didn’t want one bad man to drive me away from the church I so loved. However, I couldn’t leave our vehicle, though, as I broke down in tears. My husband quickly drove us away.
So, I let that church go. The wonderful homilies are with me in my heart, though. Unfortunately, so is the knowledge that no matter how strong my “deployment armor” is, that I am still vulnerable woman. Also living within me now is the knowledge that there are people out there who would prey upon that weakness.