When I entered therapy at age 32, I learned the first task for the trauma survivor is to establish a sense of safety. Healing cannot begin until an inner sanctuary is established, one where gradually the survivor begins to distinguish between past and present, between safety and danger.
“When was a time you felt safe?” My therapist asked.
I stared at her blankly. A time? I couldn’t think of a whole period. Moments, sure. There had been a moment in a guest room at a university. A hotel room on Whidbey Island when I was 20. All of them had been moments when I was alone.
“How about this,” she tried again. “There must have been a person. Someone with whom you felt safe.”
I flipped through the Rolodex of memory, searching for a face back in the darkness, someone who had been a source of comfort. Someone whose soul had been a hearth-fire at which I had warmed my hands on the darkest nights.
It took only a moment, and I knew.
* * *
To look at her, you wouldn’t have ever guessed what she could do. You would have thought she was just like every other white suburban mom in my neighborhood, frying cannoli in her kitchen, sewing Halloween costumes for her son John, carving pumpkins and decorating her porch with hay bales every Halloween. Diana always wore a T-shirt and comfortable jeans and sneakers. She looked sensible. No-nonsense.
When I met her, she was a large woman in her mid-thirties with shoulder-length brown hair that she did in that Farrah Fawcett-style, bangs parted like bloused silk drapes and ribbons of hair swooping upward. She loved Elizabeth Peters novels and particularly recommended Crocodile on the Sandbank. She adored her husband Mike, a soft-spoken computer programmer and competitive bodybuilder who was gentle-tempered and whom I never saw without a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes she lifted weights, too. She loved hiking best of all. But at other times, she was stuck on bed rest with chronic back problems. She took what life offered and made the best of it. There was never a day, no matter how bad the pain was, when I didn’t see her crack a joke.
Still, like every comedienne, she rubbed some of our neighbors the wrong way. She was always loud. She talked so much that it could be hard to get a word in. Her jokes were sometimes, for the other suburban moms, too vulgar. Too rough around the edges. Her sense of humor was, after all, a little dark.
So most of them never really got to know her. They never found out she had an ability very few people do.
She could heal. The deep-down-in-the-dark broken stuff. She could take it out, shake it off, spray it down, and put it back inside you. And it wouldn’t hurt so much anymore. In fact, the things she found and fixed, they didn’t hurt at all anymore. When I first met her, I had knocked on her door in order to help her son John. He had been bullied by the other neighborhood kids, so I was going to be his friend. In all my 13 or 14-year-old naïveté, I was sure this would make things right.
But in the end, I was the one who received help. By Diana. I came to her with a phobia of dogs and a social anxiety that ran so deep I couldn’t speak at school.
Within a couple years of hiking the Big Four Ice Caves together, shopping Half Price Books after school, learning to tat bookmarks with her, and being taught the family cannoli recipe, I was a different kid. I adored dogs, and I started making friends at Tae Kwon Do. I had gone from a kid who wouldn’t speak to a girl who would not shut up. I freely lectured my physics classmates on ethics, I questioned a classmate’s sex life (“But do you really love him?”), and I engaged a little too zealously with international students on questions of geopolitics.
To this day, I am convinced that the confidence I found in high school was thanks to Diana and her calming, gentle presence across the street—her door always open to me. Her hearth-fire forever roaring.
It sounded like laughter, the kind that bubbles straight up from joy.
* * *
Along with her husband and son, she adopted broken-down, traumatized dogs who had been rescued from abusive homes. And then, right across the street in her pastel-blue rambler, she performed miracles. She calmed their hot-wired brains, she gradually stilled the shivering terror, and the cowering and whining faded. She righted their sinking ships until those dogs, too, became instruments of healing. Some of her dogs she eventually trained as therapy dogs. To this day, her dogs were the best behaved of any I have ever seen. They went to their beds when asked. They waited patiently. They trusted her completely.
Sometimes, she explained the process to me. Consistency is key, she said. And you have to be in charge. They need to know that you will take care of them. You will be the one to protect them. That it isn’t their job to protect you or anyone else.
The real problem, she said, is that these dogs think they’re responsible for everything that’s going on around them. They’re not. You are. And you have to help them realize that. Once they learn that, they can begin to understand that they’re safe. And when that happens, it’s a beautiful thing. You end up with a completely different dog. You finally get to see their personality.
I nodded, my hands wet with saliva as we picked up the grayed tennis balls and threw them, again and again, to the dogs. My heart swelling with warmth and gratitude and love. She could have been describing me.
* * *
Diana, too, had survived trauma. She never went into detail. Even when I was older, all she told me was that she had been born abroad and had traveled around with her parents before she was old enough to remember all the countries she had seen. Her parents had been unkind, there had been abuse, and she did not speak to them anymore. But she had this brass Moroccan tea set from that time. She treasured it. I think it may have been one of the few things from her past that she had kept.
Now, she said, she had her husband and John and her husband’s family. “They’re Italian,” she leaned forward as if this was just between us. “And a whole Italian family is enough family for anyone.”
I smiled. It sounded nice.
I thought her whole life was nice, from the dog-hair covered sofas to the homemade curtains she had sewn with little green ropes of ivy printed on the cotton. On top of the television, she had placed a ceramic statue of two pigs, one in a top hat and one in a bridal veil, both holding hooves and smiling in bliss. Between them, they held a little plaque. “Happiness is being married to your best friend.”
It was a lived-in life that she had built for herself. One where people laughed loudly, where dogs slept on laps, where husbands and wives could be best friends.
It was everything I’d ever wanted.
* * *
Her son John was a drama kid who introduced my brother and me to the greatest lines of our generation. He ranged from Monty Python’s “I fart in your general direction” to the immortal “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” a line he would much later deliver in a high school play, my heart swelling with sisterly pride.
For, really, I began to think of John as my brother. He embraced this role, slinging comic lines at me until I collapsed in giggles.
One day he was on a Monty Python kick. He had already delivered a line twice, but he was going for a third. “Your mother is a hamster!”
“John,” Diana said, her voice raised in warning. “It was funny the first time.”
But I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe.
“And your father smells of elderberries!”
“If you say that one more time,” she said, flipping a dish towel over her shoulder and acting now, too, delivering a line every bit as much as he was, “I’m going to rip your arms off and beat you with them.”
He grinned. “No, you won’t,” and he ambled back to the computer for more MechWarrior or Star Wars.
I stood there in shock. The expression, first off. Rip your arms off and beat you with them. I pictured an armless torso, blood spurting from the empty shoulder sockets. So violent. So cartoonish. But more shocking still, that Diana could threaten such violence, and it meant nothing. His grin. The way he swaggered away. His absolute and total certainty that his mother would never beat him.
“Look at her,” Diana said, giggling a little. She gently elbowed me. “She’s so shocked.”
Well, I was. Violence in this home wasn’t real. Even the threat of it wasn’t real. John and his mom were a comedy duo, and the threat of being beaten was just a shtick.
I almost fell to my knees and proposed to the whole family then and there: all of them, Mike, Diana, and John, CeCe the retriever, and the cats Mac and Jules. Pick me! Pick me! I wanted to say.
Make me your family, too.
I had not known this kind of safety was possible. And here I was, having simply stumbled into it. I could have cried with happiness.
* * *
For years, I longed to hear her say, You’re the daughter I never had.
Diana made me beautiful gifts, always purple for my favorite color. She taught me to make all her desserts. We often sat on her sofa tatting together. But she never said the magic words.
* * *
I didn’t understand yet that you can’t just waltz into your favorite family, fill out an application, and join the ranks. Only marriage can do that, and even then, it doesn’t always take.
The last time I saw Diana was at Thanksgiving when I was 23 or 24, ten years after we first met. She had invited my brother Allan and me, along with my boyfriend at the time, for a make-your-own pizza night. I was thrilled. It was a lovely, comfortable holiday with her and Mike and John, but she talked more than usual. So much so that no one else got a word in edgewise. She seemed nervous. Uncomfortable, even. My first thought was that perhaps she was still in contact with my parents and felt that having me over was a betrayal. Or perhaps it was because of Top, my Thai boyfriend, or maybe because—and this only occurred to me much later—she was able to sense that something was deeply wrong in my relationship with him.
Afterwards, I mailed her a thank you note for the delicious dinner and the company, and that was how things had ended. Top insisted that she had been rude and that he didn’t like her because she wouldn’t stop talking, and though I had tried to defend her, I stopped making an effort to stay in touch. And so, from what I remember, did Diana.
So many relationships don’t survive that leap into adulthood. But I have never stopped thinking about Diana and her gift to heal. When she and her home became my lodestar in the early stages of therapy, it was the most natural thing in the world. I had carried my memories of her like a stone in my pocket, a talisman, and when I pulled it out and looked at it for the first time when I was 32, I realized I had never let go of it. Through the darkest years of my life, running their course right alongside death and depression from ages 18 to 31, that hope had been tucked into my palm the whole time.
I lost my faith in many things, but never in Diana
Last I heard, she is still training therapy dogs for the Reading with Rover program. She fought fiercely for her own son who had been shuttled off into Special Education, gifted though he was and must still be, and I like to imagine her continuing that fight for other children, other dogs who also deserve the possibilities that only she can give. Just as she did for me. She believed in healing the way a drowning man believes in god—she believed because she had to. She knew the darkness and had come through it, and she had to believe that other living things could, too. Maybe it was for this that I instantly and lastingly loved her.
That day I had knocked on her door to invite her son out to play, I had meant to save someone else. Yet I had ended up the one saved.
She had shown me what is possible. The home, the family, the life that can be had after the abuse and trauma and violence are left behind.
Now I share a home with a remarkable man. Our cats nap beside us on the couch while we watch movies. We play video games together.
Josh is my best friend.
We make each other laugh, and when he gets me good and I laugh a little too loudly, so uproariously it bounces off the walls, I hear Diana’s laugh and know the circle is completed. I have come home.
She was the one who laid the bread crumbs for me. She led me here. Diana. Goddess of animals and the wild. Trainer of children and dogs. Patroness of families. Diana, granter of asylum. Diana, the Light-Bearer.