Sally stands a demure 5’1” tall, quietly filling the room with her unassuming, tender smile. We first met through a mutual friend and I quickly knew we’d be good friends. The kind of lady you just need to hug, whose smile travels to her eyes, she carries one beautiful soul. Over several visits, I would learn of her story and become amazed at how one person could experience so much heartache and emerge cheerful, still positive…a true Silver Lining Girl.
She came from a Christian home…one where happiness reigned and any conflict was carried on behind closed doors. At a very young age, she was courted by a seemingly adoring man. Showing up unexpectedly, showering her with gifts, what seemed attentive over time became controlling. His first burst of anger and consequent physical abuse began on their wedding night. Quickly learning how to move quietly and carefully around him, days would pass without event. Then, without warning from what seemed neutral, he would snap. Maintaining a perfect persona, no friends to communicate her pain, and tactically placed bruises, her sole joy would be found in their two girls, Chelsea and Ashley. Every happy moment focused on them…not her job, not her husband.
Then in 1991, her precious 3-year-old Chelsea, developed a cancerous tumor on her brain stem, the life center of all nervous systems…frighteningly called Ependymoma. A mouthful of a diagnosis for someone so small. Surgery ensued while prayer teams gathered in 15-minute shifts. Hours dripped by and finally, the surgeons emerged elated. One doctor reported that the tumor, perched precariously among life giving nerves simply popped out as in childbirth! Later, a prayer team member reported that her 6-year-old son’s very specific prayer was that the tumor would just pop right out! The innocence of babes…confident that God’s hand was over Chelsea, they navigated thru radiation and she became well again! However, she lost the ability to swallow, having to receive all nutrients through a stomach tube. Sally tried to maintain normalcy and would allow her to chew the food she missed so much and spit the balance into a cup just so she could enjoy the sensation. After several months, when her swallowing reflex did not return, doctors were sure she’d always rely on the stomach tube. Then, on Christmas Eve over a year later, while Sally was reading the Christmas story from the Bible, Chelsea swallowed an entire serving of oatmeal! Her ability to resume swallowing was ultimately featured in medical journals…truly a Christmas miracle!
Throughout the trauma with her daughter, the abuse from her husband continued. Feeling so inconvenienced by her illness, he could sense a shift in Sally…a strength rising. Her defining moment came when their oldest daughter, Ashley rounded the corner late one evening and witnessed what typically happened in private…he had Sally pinned to the couch, knee in her gut, hands at her throat. Instantly collecting himself, he rose and walked away. No words passed, but she knew a change had to occur as this was not acceptable for her daughters. Mentioning divorce, he would threaten to steal the girls away and worse. So as to not raise suspicion, she visited a lawyer in her office building who sent her for a restraining order. The order was refused by the judge for lack of proof…no pictures, no previous police records, no charges filed.
Returning home, her husband surprised her with a secret trip to Mexico. Another opportunity to continue the facade, she resigned herself to be the wife he wanted for this final trip. Enjoying the in-room jacuzzi, he became enraged when she turned on the jets before completely filled. The floor soaked, his verbal and physical tirade began….”how could she be so stupid”! Continuing to secure his place in her life, he set up a surprise renewal of vows. However, the overlooked ingestion of Mexican ice left her ill on the shower floor. She vaguely remembers being carted to the hospital to receive an unknown shot. Afterwards, she discovered his renewal plans and was so grateful not to speak the vows once again…words of commitment.
Regrouping, she decided on a timeline….it would be a sign to leave if Chelsea’s follow-up MRI was clear, showing no new Cancer growth. In March 2000, her reports were clear. Time to move. Finally, she confessed her 14 plus years of abuse to her mother and a close work friend. She broke the news to the girls that she wanted a divorce from their father. Her oldest, Ashley was shocked…probably still is. His family was shocked because it had remained a secret for so long. One evening, well before official interventions occurred, the family gathered to support her announcement. Guns were removed from the home. When he finally returned home from work, she told him she wanted a divorce. She needed family present because he wouldn’t otherwise allow her to leave. He transitioned from anger, to screaming, bawling, to verbally abusing her with spiteful, embarrassing, and accusing words. Finally resigning himself to the situation, he agreed to leave. House clearing except for her sister, she tucked the girls into bed and turned on the house alarm. Soon after, he returned. Enraged. Throwing the 911 dialed phone to her sister, he lunged into her and the barrage ensued. Fists into face, one after another. In and out of consciousness, she heard her sister screaming into the phone to come quickly as he was going to kill her. Without warning, he stopped. Through swollen, oozing eyes, she watched him walk into the kitchen. Knowing he was going for a knife, she screamed to her sister, “don’t let him kill me”! Instead, with steely resolve, he handed her an ice pack. He urged the awakened and screaming girls back to bed. The cops came quickly, he greeted them at the door and confessed to the beating. As they arrested him, the ambulance swiftly carried her to the hospital.
Things moved quickly afterwards. X-rays revealed a dislocated jaw and cheekbones, stitches were administered. There were concerns of brain trauma. When the girls were finally allowed in, they burst into tears together..each of them overcome at her appearance. Protective services intervened and moved her and the girls from the hospital to a safe house. That night, they slept tightly cuddled in one small bed. The next morning, everything hurt…she was filled with pain and could barely move. The police arrived and took her to obtain a restraining order…seeing the same judge that denied her previously. She made sure he remembered and hoped he never made that mistake again.
Protective services found a safe house in Denton, Md where she had to park her car hidden from view and walked to the store or library with a police car secretly following behind. They stayed there a month…the girls went to school and her job allowed her to take as much time as needed. She had to learn new skills…how to budget, how to live on her own for the very first time. She was angry as a victim…why was she the one hiding, why did she have to give up so much? While he crafted rumors that she had left and was having an affair, claiming he had proof that never materialized, she had nothing. The judge allowed her to take a box truck back to her home, and with the help of her brothers, she took very little. Leaving her bedroom set, her patio furniture…too many horrible memories tied to them.
On a shoe string budget, the homes she could afford with two girls wouldn’t house an animal. But while touring a townhouse community in Kent Island, she met a neighbor that knew of a nearby house soon up for rent. Contacting the owner, he reported that his previous tenants had damaged the interior and it would take roughly a month until the unit was ready for rental. Desperate, she pleaded that she would arrange repairs if he would allow her to move in. Sharing portions of her story, he was a God-send…letting them move in quickly and charging them almost nothing. The kindness of strangers.
On April 5th, while on a school supply trip, Ashley desperately wanted an expensive set of gel pens for which she just didn’t have the funds. Still carrying black eyes and a damaged jaw, from behind her a deep voice teased, “Oh Mom, let her have them”. She wanted to ignore him. Still super cautious and protective, but his smile was so big, so honest. The stranger asked her point-blank where she got her black eyes…that he was a fire-fighter and had seen everything. She began to share parts of her story right there in the school supply section of the local Kmart. Noticing that his sweatshirt read Swain Construction, she mentioned that she had some repair work to complete. His phone number, on a ripped portion of paper, sat dormant in her side table drawer for days. She desperately needed help with repairs, so one day, she called that number. Eddie came to look at the scope of work….her girls were there and she remembers being so nervous with a man in the house. Noticing she had a big pile of boxes, he offered to take them to the dump. And each visit followed the same pace…he’d visit to complete the next repair and end up talking long hours, eventually, she found him playing Nintendo with the girls. She was beginning to feel safe again. He would follow her and park nearby when she’d meet to exchange the girls for their visit. When he couldn’t attend, he’d send the local fire service to park nearby. It was odd and wonderful to feel protected. A beautiful friendship had started.
In June, after Chelsea’s follow-up MRI at Hopkins, she didn’t receive the typical quick return call. She was blown off by nurses and physicians assistants twice. Finally, the doctor delivered the news…spots had returned. Things were about to get very real and she had to know if her new friend would be there for support. He had no idea of the roller coaster he was about to begin…he didn’t leave and he hasn’t left since. Her husband began to break his restraining order and would be sent to jail each time. He became delusional, accusing, and threatening towards the girls. Finally, the judge granted full custody and no contact with their father. Relief…now she could fully focus on Chelsea. Doctors reported that she had maxed out on chemo, radiation and that surgery was no longer an option. Not possible. Disbelief. Doctors had searched far and wide for a viable option but there were none to be found. Hard questions began…”are you telling me she will die”? Then the dreaded word…terminal. How long? Hard to say. It was September…she may make it to Christmas but a February birthday was not guaranteed. Frantic disbelief ensued…there had to be another answer. There were no other options. Doctors would keep her pain-free as they tried to maintain a normal life. Sally agreed to continue steroids but decided against chemo as it was simply a band-aid that would make her feel worse. She had to pull up her bootstraps and make some hard choices. She told Ashley what was happening, but simply could not bring herself to tell her 9 year old that she was going to die. They decided to keep it a secret….they didn’t want to scare her. Instead, they talked about Heaven and Jesus. Meeting privately with teachers and her principal, she had to set protocol in case she seized at school. She signed DNR paperwork. The steroids made her gain weight so Sally could no longer carry her upstairs. She started getting headaches so she couldn’t attend school full days. Teachers agreed no bad grades…giving her an A for everything, but she didn’t attend much longer. Make-A-Wish Foundation granted her a Disney cruise the day after Christmas, but by then she was so ill she couldn’t enjoy it.
In and out of Hopkins, she agreed one day to tell her the truth…that indeed she was dying. It was just the two of them…quiet voices…snuggled in bed together. Sally held her close and told her she had to tell her something. Deep breath. Busy hospital rooms show no privacy and guests arrived in that moment, ending a conversation that never returned. She didn’t want her to be afraid but achingly shared that she may regret those missed words or the rest of her days.
Back home and feeling like the end was nearing, she began to pace and pray. Unsure whether to take her yet again to Hopkins or just stay in the comfort of their home, she called Eddie. It was early, the sun barely up when he arrived. She moved to make a fresh pot of coffee while he raised the blinds. The clap of slats followed by a sudden inhale. What he saw beyond the glass was the answer to her prayer…the entire creek was filled with swans, gracefully floating white wings and long necks…21 of them! Such peace washed over Sally and she knew God was right there with her. Relieved at her answer to let her remain comfortable at home, not having to worry about coverage for Ashley, and no more time spent in a sterile hospital.
Chelsea was bed-ridden and feverish. She was in and out of sleep for days…no eating or drinking. Sally’s biggest prayer was that she not suffer or begin to exhibit neurological symptoms. She had a baby monitor in her room and one evening she heard a small voice call out, “Mom, where are my clothes?”. Instantly awake, Sally had removed Chelsea’s clothes because she was drenched in sweat. She wanted to eat and seemed better for a few days. The swans stayed and became the talk of the neighborhood…each day they’d count and recount 21. Never before had such a huge flock of swans gathered there…geese surely, but never swans.
Saturday morning, she awoke hungry…steroids making her ravenous. She wanted pancakes and mashed potatoes. Chelsea was surprised that she said mashed potatoes. Sally’s heart began to race as she feared the beginnings of confusion. She ate the pancakes and became tired afterwards. When her hospice nurse arrived, alarmed by her breathing, she decided to stay and watch over her. Chelsea laid on the couch with her head in Sally’s lap. Her breathing became so labored. Knowing what was coming, she began to tell Chelsea how much she loved her. Calls to family were made, her sister arrived with spice cake…a special request by Chelsea. The Hopkins doctor made the commute down. Soothing Chelsea…it’s ok…you’ll be fine…she opened her eyes once and tender words between mother and daughter were offered…if you see Jesus, go with Him. She closed her eyes and smiled. The nurse dripped Morphine into her mouth, keeping her comfortable. Her breathing became heavier and heavier. She knew she wouldn’t open her eyes again. She would stop breathing for unbearably long moments then sharply inhale. Still stroking her hair, she inhaled and then didn’t inhale again.
The doctors suggested they go for a walk…that the coroner would arrive soon and no parent should see them taking a daughter away. Sally reached down, kissed her, gathering her hair in her hands, and breathed in her scent so she could keep it locked in her memory. They left for a walk, somehow placing one foot in front of the other and when they returned, her body was gone.
The following days were a blur of choices, words, comfort. It was an achingly long week. She was buried on a Friday, February16…her 10th birthday would have been February 25. The doctors were right, she hadn’t made it to another birthday. It was 11 months from the time she escaped her husband to the time Chelsea took her last breath. The swans left shortly afterwards…they looked for them everywhere, but they had gone. She felt peace with their departure knowing they were Chelsea’s angels and had taken her to Heaven.
Sally shared that she was raised to deal with what you are given. She was often plenty mad at God. She distanced herself from Him for a time…she knew He loved her, but she didn’t like Him very much and wanted her space. She stopped going to church in efforts to avoid the pitiful glances. She has since learned that you can’t have joy without sadness…one does not exist without the other. Sadness allows you to appreciate joy all the more. Sadness gives others the opportunity to show compassion.
Weeks later, the house now quiet, she settled in Chelsea’s bedroom along with all of the funeral plants. Overcome, she laid on her bed and wept. Needing fresh air, she walked alone to the pier, dangling her feet over the edge letting her tears fall down. Hearing a noise, a distant squawking, she lifted her gaze and rounding the creek bend came a single swan, then another and another heading in her direction. In the habit of counting them, this time, however, she counted 22. Feeling as if God had wrapped His arms around her, saying, “I’ve got her, she’s fine’. Such peace…indeed a gift.
On this side of tragedy, Sally was able to impart some hindsight wisdom. She believes you have to choose happiness, deciding each day to make it a life worth living. She feels God supported each step…when she was in deep she simply went thru the motions, not thinking too far ahead. She had many crash and burns…with each diagnosis she would regress into helpless infancy in the safe arms of her mother…lasting a few weeks and eventually snapping out of it. Certain people were strategically placed in her life to help maintain focus. She keeps her eye on the prize knowing she’ll see her daughter again and can’t imagine how others move through pain without Faith.
Eddie and Sally married in 2002. In 2003, Ethan was born followed in 2005 by Charlotte…freckled images of their parents. February 10 still weighs heavy. Every year on Chelsea’s birthday Sally and her family float balloons heavenward in memory. Only recently did she make the difficult decision to no longer hang her Christmas stocking and store her ornaments separately. Her family keeps several pictures of her and often talk of her in efforts of keeping her memory alive.
Sally speaks publicly to raise awareness of domestic abuse and encourages those in that situation to communicate…reach out for help from a friend or family member.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or thehotline.org
The Compassionate Friends: 1-877-969-0010 compassionatefriends.org