People With Bodies: A Letter to My Mouth
You wait for and love the feel of the girls’ kisses. Your tongue can make funky shapes. You absolutely love peaches. You don’t say much, but you smile constantly. You love reading stories out loud. You are never adorned. You love the taste of chocolate on your lips and the act of singing. You’re my mouth… but you’re so much more too.
I’ve never really known how to handle you. I’ve never really known how to protect you. I’ve never really learned how to use you. I don’t remember worrying about you when I was very, very young. Remember when we went with Papa and Grandmama to the Bahamas and you told them a funny story that Papa repeated for years and years? And, on that same trip, remember how, in the airplane, you asked Grandmama if our hands could open the window and grab a star to bring back to Mama? These are really the first memories I have of you. Probably because you were never used very much. Not nearly as much as you should have been. I don’t know why, I think I was trying to keep all of us safe even before there was any real danger. And then It came. We were five years old and although I remember a lot of horrific things about that time, things that still make my insides swim and heart race, one of the most terrifying was what happened to you. Every part of you, from your lips to your tongue to your tastebuds, were affected. His mouth on you. It was wet and hard and scratchy. I jerked my head away, I remember that, but it didn’t work. I remember using blankets to swipe over you so as to get the slobber off when I couldn’t use my hands. Nobody ever thinks about the violence that happens to a mouth, do they? But when something is covering you, it affects the entire body’s ability to breathe, and it can keep all of me still like nothing else can. You’ve always been a part of my body that I think of as…. special and…. fragile…. tender. You had to work so hard, for so long. I know it was hard on you, keeping still, not spewing out words that my self-control wouldn’t let you say. I trained myself to breathe through you—small, short bursts of air that would keep the tears from falling. And you never said a word. I tried to protect you—I wouldn’t even wear lip or chapstick because I knew you didn’t want anything at all on you. People always talk about the affect abuse has on the rest of a body. I remember being utterly terrified all parts of my body were so damaged that I wouldn’t be able to have children. All of those terrors and fears were real and valid. But even I overlooked and took for granted you. I thought, “It’s just a mouth: it’s there for eating.” I never really imagined the kind of power you have. I never really gave you the credit you deserve.
Until one day….
One day, you were set free. Words I never thought you’d say spilled from you. You put truth into the air and changed my whole life dramatically. I was safe, finally, because of you. Because, when I thought I wouldn’t have the words I needed, you said them anyway. When I thought I would stumble and trip and get choked up, you calmly acknowledged the past. I was afraid, and felt ashamed, but you spoke up. I used to look in mirrors while I sang. I was fascinated by how you form words. I wanted to see the shape of words. I wanted to know how you made sound. I thought of you as magical in a way—-but I had never really believed you could help heal the heart. I expected a knight in shining armor to do that or maybe another pair of eyes that would see and race to save. Maybe, I thought, it would be a book that would somehow, someday, act as a saving grace. I thought I would just move out one day and everything would be forgotten. If I could just get us to adulthood, I thought, something supernatural and divine would then keep us safe. Funny, I never thought the power was on me the whole time. I never really believed anything you might say would stop it. But it did. You did. And not only did you tell it once, you’ve spoken in front of others too. Today, I think of how often you help me teach children at church and how often you say “I love you” to the girls. You’re not just a part of my face; you’ve been an integral part of my life. Thank you for saying what needed to be said. Thank you for reassuring my girls of how much I love them, and am in awe of them.
I know you still aren’t completely healed.
I still feel the need to tightly control what touches you, or what you’re asked to hold or swallow. I still don’t put make-up on you—no lipstick, no chapstick—because it makes you feel used and uncomfortable. That kiss, the one as a little girl, totally marked you and made you reluctant. Even today, a kiss is never simply a kiss. Fear starts knocking when anyone gets close enough to touch you. Maybe it always will. But….you have given me reason to hope, too, because of the time when a kiss didn’t threaten my safety; when the touch of someone’s mouth on you didn’t make me jerk away or want nothing more than to wipe all evidence of touch off of you. Despite all the trauma you’ve ever endured, you can still feel warmth and sweetness and goodness. How strong are you…. you’ve known violence and shame, yet you’ve spoken out and retained the hope that whispers not all is lost. I used to fear I was broken. I used to fear you were broken. But if that was true, you’d never have been able to experience anything positive. The sweet taste of peach juice on the lip, the refreshing taste of water tickling your nerves, the healing balm of needed truth and the reassurance of a safe yet passionate, soft kiss…. all of these, you’d never have allowed yourself to feel if the pain still had you numbed. You’ve given me hope because you’ve shown me that you can be used as a tool for grace and compassion. You’ve reminded me that real beauty is natural. You’ve reminded me that words are all the more powerful when spoken instead of just being written. When you spoke up, I gained an entire support system I never would have known otherwise. My family and perfect strangers alike how used their mouths to tell their stories and you’ve been used to share mine. You’ve whispered prayers, you’ve laughed, you’ve shouted out “why?” and you’ve been still because you know there’s a time for everything: a talk to time and a time to listen.
You hold a lot of memories. Good ones and terrifying ones alike. When I touch my fingers to you, the nerve endings jump because you are so rarely touched at all anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing. Confidence, or the lack thereof, seeps into every pore of our skin. My hands are still cautious about touching anything. My muscles are still too fearful of danger to relax at night, even alone. And, sometimes, words still get stuck in the back of the throat, unable to find their way to the tongue and out of you.This is your time to how to speak whatever you want, without having to hold back. I’ve taken you for granted. I’ve thought of you as little more than a picture that’s been pasted on with glue to make my face complete. In fact, I’ve sometimes tried to hide you by brushing my hair over the cheek until it almost covers you up. The smile you wear every day is also a form of cover-up. You know it because I can feel the muscles straining now when I couldn’t before. You’re tired. But know… This is your time to rest. This is your time to learn to trust touch again. This is your time to say what needs to be said, and the ears’ turn to hear what needs to be said. I don’t know what you’ll say tomorrow or five years from now. I don’t know what you’ll have to feel, or what you may want to feel. But I do know that you are an essential part of my overrall healing and happiness. I know you are special. Did you know that the average kid laughs 400 times a day while the average adult only laughs about 15 times a day? But you… you have a special opportunity. When you were new, in my childhood, you laughed maybe fifteen times a day but today, as an adult, you are laughing much more—maybe as much as the average kid! Our days are full of so much adventure and I have learned so much about beauty and gratefulness and it all makes me want to smile and laugh more. That’s a special thing; it means the danger is over. You can stop worrying about negative words and painful touch and instead start learning how to respond to positive words and positive touch. Your first instinct upon hearing praise of any kind is to dismiss it. How many times have you said, “Oh, you’d be surprised” with a self-deprecating laugh when someone complimented you? How many times have you muttered, “Oh, I’m fine” when I’m asked how I am? It’s habit — I don’t think about it anymore, it’s just what comes out of you automatically. But the automatic words have an impact on my heart. Truth isn’t only important about the big things—it’s important about the little things too.
You’ve grown and matured so much these past 32 years. You’re not nearly as frightened anymore—not of touch and not of truth. And I am proud of you.