Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew in me a steadfast spirit. Psalm 51:10 (NKJV)
Years after it had happened, when the magnitude of her sacrifice began to hit me, when I wondered if I would have had the same strength and courage, I asked my grandmother what was she thinking as she silently endured rape and mutilation by the stranger who had entered our apartment with a knife and intent to kill. In those dark early hours of the morning after he had broken in and found his target, my beautiful mother, missing, he could have, in his rage at being denied what he sought, easily killed each of us, my grandmother, a petite woman in her fifties, my five year old sister, and myself, a wise for my age nine year old.
He had entered the bedroom window at the side of the apartment stealthily, my grandmother awaking to hands on her body, her first thought to protect my sister, Rosie, who lay beside her, her second to wonder if he had already discovered me in the other bedroom. Not knowing what would happen, she still led him to the living room and as far away from us as possible.
Rosie must have awakened and missed grandmother because she somehow wandered into the living room and upon seeing the stranger ran behind the little black and white TV sitting on a rolling stand in the corner of the living room. It was her screams that finally penetrated my deep sleep and sent me flying out of the bedroom to see what was wrong.
Expecting something wrong was not a new experience for me at the age of nine. I was used to waking up to fighting and yelling but it usually came from my parents. Because my dad wasn’t living with us at this time the screaming couldn’t be explained away so that I could go back to sleep, but as I entered the living room with no light except the moon that entered in the sliver of opening left when the apartment’s olive colored heavy drapes were closed, I saw a man bent over near the couch and made an assumption. I launched myself at him, throwing my arms around his neck and joyfully saying, “Daddy!” when the glint of the knife against my grandmother’s throat stopped all thought.
This wasn’t my Daddy.
My eyes skimmed my grandmother’s naked body and that her hands seemed bound. Rosie’s screams reverberated in the small room, filling the cold space with a surreal sound. I don’t recall the many questions that tumbled from my mouth as I stared at the man, burning his image in my mind, wondering what I could do, but my grandmother’s voice, calm, assuring, firm, and gentle instructed me to take my sister to the bedroom and lock the door, not to open the door no matter what and to keep her quiet. I balked. The man reeked of liquor and was sweating, I could see the sweat from the moonlight shining in. I didn’t want to leave her there with this man. I protested and continued to ask questions that my grandmother answered. Who is he? A friend. Why is he holding a knife? It’s okay, he’s not going to hurt anybody. Where is your nightgown? It’s over there. Why are your hands like that? They were hurting. What is he going to do? We’re going to talk. What are you going to talk about? Jesus. Because the man was getting agitated, she then begged me to take Rosie, go the bedroom, lock the door, don’t open it, keep Rosie quiet, go now, hurry.
Rosie grabbed onto me and I took her to the bedroom where we tried to figure out what to do. The bedroom window had a screen that I couldn’t get loose and I was afraid to make a noise by busting it out. I quietly called for help a few times but there was no one to hear. I knew the upstairs neighbors and threw some toys at the ceiling until my grandmother warned me to stop. Not knowing what else to do, Rosie and I quietly sang, prayed, played games and told stories until she fell asleep.
But I couldn’t. I put my ear to the door and heard no sounds. I called for grandmother several times and she would answer me and tell me not to call for her, that everything was okay, to keep the door locked. At some point the bathroom fan was turned on, probably to drown the noise, its rattling whir adding to this night’s terror.
The reports show he tortured her for hours but I never heard her make another sound though my body was fast against the door, listening for anything to tell me she was okay.
When her voice came to the door and she told me to open it, he was gone but we needed to hurry, I felt relief. He was gone. Little did I realize he could have been lurking still. Battered, bruised and bleeding, she picked up Rosie and led us to the tiny apartment bathroom where she told me to climb on to the toilet and open the window and scream loudly for help. “Thank you, Lord, we’re alive,” Grandmother said. “Thank you, Jesus, for keeping my girl’s safe.”
Amid the trials and suffering she underwent that night, my grandmother witnessed to this man, again and again and again. Though fearful, she talked to him quietly, calmly and without a word submitted to the atrocities of his depraved mind. She later said she felt if she had said no, he would have come after me because he asked my age and made statements that led to her think I was his next intended victim. At some point she offered him water and managed to stash the glass between the cushions, securing his fingerprints. I wondered how she was able to even think, much less plan a strategy that would identify him.
Our ordeal wasn’t over with our rescue. The reason my mother wasn’t home and my grandmother was staying with us girls, was my mother was in the hospital having a difficult labor and the night after the rape she gave birth to a stillborn baby girl.
To answer my question about what she was thinking during this, my grandmother reached for her Bible which sat next to her chair in her own living room in her own house in Alabama where I strained to understand what had happened and how she endured it. She turned to Psalm 51:10 and read. I immediately asked why she would need a clean heart. She told me it was so she could witness to this man, to see him not as the man who was doing these terrible things to her but as a child of God who had hurts and fears of his own. “And the steadfast spirit,” she said, “to trust that even in this, God was with me and would give me the strength to go through it.”
In my mind what happened that night was both incomprehensible and horrific. Every now and then I get a whiff of alcohol that takes me there. Certain musty apartment smells remind me of that apartment, that night. I can’t stand noisy bathroom fans. I can’t imagine the strength and courage and sacrifice of my grandmother to keep us girls safe. I can’t fathom the depth of loss my mother experienced.
What I do know is that in this most fearful, painful, horrendous time, my grandmother’s spirit was immovable. Her faith did not waver in the midst of something she didn’t ask for, didn’t deserve, couldn’t control, and that immensely hurt her both emotionally and physically. She was not shaken by the evil carried out. That humbles me. That inspires me. That makes me cry with gratitude, thank God for my grandmother.
Though she passed the year after Rosie died, Psalm 51:10 is marked in my Bible and read often as a reminder that God has given all believers a steadfast spirit; we just have to choose to use it, like she did.
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