Thursday, November 17, 2011

Interview with Krissi Cox 11.12.11

The first time I ever laid eyes on Miss Krissi Cox was at my brother Devin’s church, Vantage Point, while I was visiting the family in Missouri. She was warming up with the worship team before the service while her children played in the first row of seats. We didn’t get a chance to really get to know each other until later when we were all sitting on the Martin deck (different Martins) eating barbeque and watching all our kids swim in the pool. Little did I realize then what an inspiring story Krissi has and the kind of chutzpah she shows up with every day to her life. She is a powerful woman. A mother. A victor. A friend. An advocate. A pillar. And when we look into her life, we realize that we all have the capacity to overcome tremendous obstacles and come out of that adversity more empowered than before and better prepared for all that lies ahead.

Our conversation began with talk of perceptions. We all have them. And we all perpetuate them.


Did people on the outside looking in assume all was well with you and your children’s father?

Yes. Yeah, they did because I would never have told them anything different. And I was so far away from everybody that nobody would think there was anything amiss. No one could see.

Why didn’t you let anybody know?

Because I wanted everyone to think that my life was perfect. We got pregnant right when we met. We weren’t married, and then we had a second child, and I remember my dad saying to me one time, “It isn’t so easy playing house anymore, is it?” That made me feel kind of like that old saying, “You’ve made your bed—now sleep in it.”

Did you love him?

Yes.

How long did it take for the initial disappointment set in?

When I was about 6 months pregnant with my first. He wanted to go out drinking at some ridiculous hour with some friends. We got into an argument and he said to me, “You’re not my boss, you’re not my mother.” And he began to yell. He punched a huge, gaping hole through the wall in the kitchen that ran about 6 feet up down to his mid-section. He said that I was basically responsible for what he did. I pushed him to the brink and wasn’t I lucky that that wall wasn’t me.

Suffice to say, it got worse from there.

He never had to physically punch me. He could shove me, spit in my mouth, and threaten me. I was ‘good’. I ‘behaved’ enough to where he wouldn’t have to ‘go there’. I was always able to appease him before I got really hurt.

Was there anyone you could trust that you could confide what was going on behind closed doors?

I felt that I could trust his mother.

Hmm? Interesting.

[Chuckles in acknowledgment] She would attempt to have these fake interventions with him at times, but near the end her final answer was, “You’ve got to stay with him. How are you going to buy shampoo? You don’t have a job.”

She was the only person you told?

At first. I’d say, “Has he always been like this?” She would say yes, that she even had to kick him out at one point. At first I felt like she understood. As it turns out, she only understood because HER ex-husband was abusive. She told me, “He’s never been this bad, but he loves you. You need to stay with him.” Now I know it’s because she didn’t want to take care of him.

When did you finally confide in someone who was actually capable of giving you an objective opinion? Was there anybody?

My very best friend in the world I’ve known since kindergarten, Jill, about a month before I left, and in the middle of it being really, really horribly bad… unbearable. She came into Ft. Lauderdale for a conference for her work and somehow he allowed me to drive down there [from Orlando—about 4 hours away]. I told her kind of what was going on, but I didn’t really tell her everything. I remember it clear as day—she looked at me and said, “We are not going to come and find you anymore—‘we’ meaning her and our friend Olivia—You HAVE to tell us what’s going on. You do not have to live like this.”

Did you spill it all then?

Oh, yeah. I spilled it. She said again, “You do not have to live like this.” I remember those words being so clear. It was like she “tapped the glass” It was like I was in this glass bubble and she cracked it with a hammer—she cracked it gently enough, though, that it didn’t feel like my whole life washed away. That was the beginning.

Was that the moment you knew you had to get out?

Uhhhh…. NO! You’re gonna think this is weird and funny—and it is. My friend Natalie, who is UBER-spiritual, had four kids then… Natalie was visiting Disneyworld with her family. I was an atheist at this time, which is funny to me now, and I think this is kind of where if God was going to create a climax in a movie? This is it. Right here. I went to go visit Natalie and I knew that I needed to talk to her. Again I spilled my guts. I mean, I even told her I DID believe in God—that I didn’t even know why I was standing around acting like I didn’t. We were in the pool and I said, “Why would God care about me? Why?” I said it laughingly… not like in a pitiful, woe-is-me kind of a way. I had just finished telling Him that I hated Him [laughing out loud at the irony] and told a million people that I didn’t believe in Him. So, just being flippant, I said, “Why would God care about me?” And she told me this story of the woman at the well. And when she told me how Jesus told that woman at the well that He knew her… He knew her! He didn’t strike her down or punch her… He still offered Himself to her. He just offered. At this point, I’m sure God was going, “YES! YES!” but it felt like she took a sledgehammer to my glass bowl and went BOOM!

And then I went home where K was still being K. Being mean, doing drugs in the house, passing out from his pills and his drinking, and the kids and I would have to get him into bed. I don’t know why I allowed my children to experience that. Looking back, I guess I was trying to pretend that it was a normal thing to do.

I finally told my mom what my life had become. My mom wanted to “go slow.” She wanted me to have enough money to leave. We concocted this plan to slowly funnel money into a savings, but I decided to pick up what I call the “red phone” which is my dad, and you only do that in emergencies. Dad wanted to send three plane tickets. One way. He didn’t want us to ever go back, and he didn’t trust me to leave K permanently—and he ended up being right about that.

Because they were so supportive, did you question as to why you didn’t trust your family sooner?

I wanted them to think that I was normal—that I had this.

How did you get out of the house?

I had a crap car and I loaded enough of our belongings for a week. I was going home “temporarily” just to get some distance between us and get my head straight and be with my family. But we did call the sheriff to watch me, because I knew that if K came home for lunch or came home early for some reason, there would be a problem.

So, K didn’t know that you were leaving?

No! Not until I got to St. Louis. I want to say here that I regret doing it that way because that ignited a whole custody battle, and I don’t want women thinking that’s a great way to do it—it’s really not as it turns out. Then he proceeded to do what all abusers do when they’re suddenly not in control: verbally abuse me over the phone, cut off my funds, threaten me. That’s when I got a restraining order. I got two, actually: one was in Illinois where my dad lives and one that I transferred to Missouri.

Did you end up going back?

Yeah, I had to. He came for the first hearing.

And how did that go?

I fainted.

[Shocked] In court you fainted?

Not in court. I was outside the courtroom. My dad happens to be friends with the captain of the sheriff’s department. And thank you Jesus that he was because after court, K was told to stay 500 feet away from me, but he still followed me. He tried to serve me with papers from Florida and I didn’t know any better—I had an awful attorney. My attorney said, “You’re going to have to go back to Florida. There’s no other way you can do this.” He said, “I’ve found a safe house for you.” My mother and I drove for two days with the kids down to Florida. You can’t just drop somebody off at a safe house. You have to get into a police car. My mom, and this is sad, had to drop me off at a gas station with a police officer. She had to leave me there and drive two more days back home. She didn’t have any idea where I was going with my children—and neither did I. She had to leave all three of us standing there and drive away. We went to this safe house and two days later, the safe house got a fax. It’s what’s called an emergency order of pickup. The safe house said, “We do not house fugitives, so you either have to give your children to K like the judge says—and we’ll help you—or you have to leave.”

What did you do?

Well, my advocate said, “Do you believe in God?” I said, “Yeah, I guess.” She said, “It’s time to get on your knees.” I didn’t pray right then because I had to get into a police car with the kids, and the children had to be dropped off at another gas station, and the police officer looked back at me, and she said, “Honey, if I could turn this car around and take you someplace else, I would.” I stood there stoically as my children were screaming, and the director of the safe house, who had watched two women have to do this exact same thing in the past three months, got angry.

And I got a new lawyer.

How long did he have your children?

A month and a half.

Did you happen to hit your knees in that month and a half?

I got saved in that month and a half, so yes. I did.

What kind of things did you pray?

I wish I were a better Baptist here so I could find the verse—I’ll have to find it again—but it’s in Isaiah. [Isaiah 49:18] It’s the one where your children will come back to you. And the David and Goliath story for obvious reasons. I prayed that I would get to see my children, and then I got brave and prayed that I would get them BACK!

And did you?

Yeah. OH, yeah! Forever.

I love this story...

And that’s the reaction I want people to have when they hear this story. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. What I went through was what I had to go through to come out on the other side. We have a saying in our family: “Whatever got me here…”

How did you make the leap from living in the safe house to becoming self-reliant and self-sustaining?

It started in the safe house. They ask you for a couple of things when you’re there: Wake up at nine in the morning, do your chores, attend group, and get a job. The one thing that my family is really, really great at is GETTING A JOB! We can get jobs! The first job I applied for was some call center. I was numb in those days, so I just plopped the paperwork on the desk of the lady at the safe house, and I said, “I got a job.” She was surprised and said, “Nobody ever does what I ask.”

She was shocked?

She was. Then I just worked my way up from there. I would babysit other people’s kids, which isn’t as painful as it sounds. I thought it would be painful. After that I always had a job. Somehow the lawyers talked and I got my car back. My new lawyer’s name was Sly. [Laughs]

Sly was better?

Oh, yes!

How did you get your kids back?

On the day that I was baptized, it was part of my first overnight visit because I was now the “non-custodial” parent. During the baptism, the lady took me by my shoulders…

A chick baptized you?

Yes.

Oh, now I really love this story!

She took me by the shoulders and said, “Now you get off the treadmill of life!”

Was that it?

That was it! And then she slammed me into the water. It was a mega-church, and I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. There were five of us getting baptized sort of like a conveyor belt—I mean, it was still SPECIAL! [Laughs and slaps her leg] As it turns out, her “other” big ministry besides baptizing people was working with victims of domestic abuse. I didn’t know that until later.

So, the Sunday I got baptized was part of my first overnight weekend visit with my kids. After that, I phoned my sister and said, “I don’t think I can give these children back. I just don’t think I can do it.” She tried to encourage me, “You can do it! You’ve gotten this far. You’ve had a great weekend. You can do it!” To give the kids back, I had to go to a place called Family Focus—a place that facilitates the safe exchange of children. The parents are not allowed to see each other, the children can play, and then they go with the other parent. I get there, and I get a phone call. It’s K and he says, “I’ve just been in an accident.”

It’s so hard not to be really sarcastic right now.

I know, right? I said, “Yeah, what does that have to do with me? Are you going to be late again?” He said, “No, I’m in traction right now.”

Oh, this just gets better and better.

[Grins and nods] He says, “I need you to tell the case worker I’m not going to be there.” So I tell the case worker, and she says, “You’re not allowed to tell me that.” I mean, if you think about it, that would be a good way to kidnap a kid, right? One parent shows up and says, Hey, my ex says he/she can’t make it… I guess I’ll be taking the kids! The lady told me, “He’s going to need to call me directly.” So, I relayed this over the phone to him and honestly, I’ve never been so giddy in my life. Never. And then five minutes later, the lady shakes her head at me—the caseworker—and she says, “You’re free to go.” I said, “With the children?” And she said, “Yeah! We’re not taking them.”

Once his car wrapped itself around a pole, all in one swift motion, he inevitably changed the lives of four people. Forever. In Florida, because we weren’t married and had no custody agreement, at that moment, I had custody. Family Focus would not have another available weekend for two weeks. Within that two weeks, I had a hearing. I never entered that safe house more joyous than I did when I walked through those doors with my children in my arms. All the women were screaming and clapping and hugging and cheering… Safe House at Seminole has never had a party like that. Not a lot of hope walks through there. You’re not hopeful in a place like that.

How much longer were you in the safe house?

That was August 10th, 2008. I was there until April 28th, 2009.

How did you get out?


K called me up two weeks before that—homeless, penniless. He said, “I think I’m gonna let you guys go back. I’ll sign whatever I need to sign to let you guys go back to Missouri.” He’d lost. He’d been in and out of, at that time, eight different mental/rehab facilities. We were about to just crush him legally, and he had no money. Plus, the month before, my attorney said that our trial was going to be in June. You only have a year in the safe house, and it was cutting it really close. So, I hit my knees again and said, “God, I trust You. But I am going to promise You that if You will get me back home, I will tell ANYONE and EVERYONE who will listen what You did for me.” And that was it. That was in March. A month later, K just gave up.

Where did you go?

First of all, I called my mom while I was still in my attorney’s office. She dropped the phone. She couldn’t believe it. Like everybody else, she wouldn’t believe that K would just let us go. I told Jill and Olivia—it turned out I was going to be able to live in a house when I got back home. Olivia bought my plane tickets. We were on the phone together as she was booking our flight. I remember she said, “I’m clicking SEND!” She clicked the button and broke down sobbing. When we touched down in St. Louis, it was wonderful. And, really, that’s such a condensed version of the story. Those are all just bookends. There are so many people in the middle of all this. So many people who showed me the love of God—women who spoon-fed me when I didn’t have my children. One girl sat with me and made me eat all three meals no matter how long it took. Some guy at work who was a Jehovah’s Witness who couldn’t hug me because he wasn’t supposed to touch me, hugged me in different ways. He sat across from me at his desk and knew I was going through something really big, but he didn’t know what. He knew it had something to do with my kids. He would share his lunch with me like we were in kindergarten or something. He was very sweet.

And then you were home.

Then I was home. And just so people don’t get mad at me for not mentioning them here, I have to say that there were MANY, MANY, MANY people who saved my life every day. My family formed “Team Krissi” and tapped out when they were overwhelmed with all that it took to keep me… functional… and then somebody else would have to take over.

How did the job as a legal aid open up for you?

I was laid off from my job as a provider-relations rep for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, but I had interviewed months before that for the legal assistant job I have now. I hadn’t been their first pick. The girl they did pick quit, and I was their second choice. I had always wanted to help people—just anybody—but mainly people who were victims. In fact, I’ve always wanted to be an attorney. When the law firm called me, I actually had two jobs to pick from. Because, as I said, I always have a job. One made a lot more money and was easy. The other was the legal assistant job. And it had no benefits, no nothing. So, of course, I took it. [Laughs out loud] I’ve never been more rewarded. Daily. Yet, I’ve never worked so hard. Never. Never have I worked so hard. Ever, ever, ever, ever. I’m the first face people see. I’m the one helping them with their paperwork. I’m the lady who calls and gives bad news or good news. But my main focus is making it easier for people who are going through hard times. That’s what I do for every client.

I should write a book.

Ha! I should write a book too!

I think you already have, Miss Daisy!

What are some of the ways you help women who are now where you’ve been?

There are not very many of them who will come in and flat out say what’s happening to them. I’m a stranger. But sometimes I’m lucky and my attorney will point me in the right direction. And sometimes I just know. Sometimes it’s obvious, like when I know someone is wondering whether or not they'll end up in the hospital before they're able to get free. I definitely bring those stories home with me. There’s nothing I can do for those people but work harder.

This is very personal for you.

Right. I mean, I’ve been known to go stomping into my attorney’s office, demanding to know why he’s not doing something right now that I think he should be doing.

[Laughing] How does that usually go?

He lets me rant. He sits with his hand under his chin and listens until I’ve worn myself out. Then he explains to me why we follow the protocol we do and quotes statutes like they’re scripture.

What I ask some of the clients is if they have a safety plan. I tell them to get a bag, put in it a pay-as-you-go phone, copies of legal documents, identification, a change of clothes for everybody, extra keys, money… and then put it in a spot where it’s accessible but not obvious, out in the open. And then you have to tell your kids what you’re doing: “This is the bag. When I tell you, ‘Go get the bag,’ this is what you grab.” And with that, you have to know where you’re going. You can’t just leave—you have to know where you’re going. You have to have a place. You have to engage other people in this. You have to know all the exits in your house. It’s almost like a fire-escape plan…

And this is when you’ve already left? If you’re in danger?

It’s both. It’s before you leave and after.

Even when you’re in a safe place?

I’m never gonna be safe.

Never.

I’m the only mom that I know of at my kids’ school who has to say to my kids, “If Daddy ever comes to school, you have to scream and run…” just like you would a stranger.

Wow.

Right.

Where are you going from here?

[Suddenly silent…] That’s sort of a loaded question because I have always gone from one place to the next and had a plan about how my life would be better if I was doing this or that… but honestly, I don’t know what God has for me or what he wants me to do. I’m going to school and I have a few ideas, but we’ll see. I’m content. I guess He’ll let me know when He’s ready. He always does.

So many women believe they are trapped—that they’ve “made their bed”—or they’re staying for the sake of their children. What are your thoughts on that?


Hmm. I left because my son was starting to emulate his father. My son at four years old, and I do not fault him for this, would call me names and be horrible to me. But he was four. I knew it wasn’t his fault. One night when K was smashing walls, punching walls and door jams with his fists, my children sat in the same room and quietly ate their food and watched TV like nothing unusual was going on in the background. Women may FEEL trapped, but they are NOT trapped. Physically. There is always a time to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and just go. There is a quote by Ani DiFranco from a poem called Platforms:

"Life knocked me off my platforms
so I pulled out my first pair of boots
bought on the street at Astor Place
before New York was run by suits
and I suited up for the long walk
back to myself
closer to the ground now
with sorrow
and stealth"

I feel like that’s what my journey was. I just got up and I walked—back to myself. I’m just a little different now. Women may see themselves as broken. But the other people in your life who work with you, sit with you, go to school with you, or pass you at the bank, don’t see you as broken. I want to tell women, God does not see you as broken either. He’s the glue. He’s it. You’re not broken. God rescues.

God heals.

* * * * *

Krissi wrote to me after the interview was over:

This was great! I left most of it the way it was because I believe in purity. I believe that I was saying those things because God wanted me to say them. Every time I share my story, I find out something about myself. This used to define me, but it does not anymore, and I also think that’s a good message. I am still the girl who rocks out to Backstreet Boys and thinks it’s funny to put clipboards on my germaphobe boss’s desk, but I’m also the girl who knows that she is stronger than evil, and better than all that “stuff” that happened. God opened up doors, gave people to me, and made these children for me so that I would know His Glory and share it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Elmer "Ben" Bennett

When my grandfather was born, there were places on this earth called Siam, Saxony, and the Ottoman Empire. Women could not vote. Movies did not have sound. He was older than television—older than hair spray—older than sliced bread. He was twenty years old before there was ever such a thing as a ballpoint pen. In his 92 years, he saw the world reinvent itself a thousand times over. Wars. Trans-Atlantic flights. Prohibition. (I think he was happy THAT whole thing got straightened out.) Social Security. Rockets. Spaceships. Hippies. He saw the Berlin Wall go up, and he saw it come down. Civil Rights. The Beatles. Star Wars. The Internet. In 2004, he was alive to see the Red Sox win the World Series. He was also alive the time they won before that…

And he had an opinion about every single thing that I just named.

How does a man, whose birth precedes plastic, remain so germane, so connected, so relevant—his whole life? He certainly figured out how to hold his respective place in a moving world. I was continually mesmerized at how forward thinking he was in regard to politics, culture, current events, philosophy, social dynamics, and the human spirit. He had much to say. He was ingenious and is one of those rare individuals who is truly timeless.

He was not the sort of man who needed anyone to agree with him on any issue. No validation necessary. He could stand on his side of the fence all by himself, thank you very much. If you heard the words, “Clam up!” the conversation was pretty well over.

Ben had a work ethic that was staggering. His hands were never idle. His wit and his willingness to venture into so many endeavors filled his life with experiences that were so rich. Few of us ever even imagine finding ourselves in the places and situations he’s been. He earned a Soldiers’ Medal for that same ‘wit and willingness’ that prompted him to put out a fire that had ignited on an airplane in WWII. Not long ago, we talked about that day. I asked him, “What exactly did you get that medal for, Grandpa?”

He told me, “That medal was for not having all the necessary information. There was a row of planes all lined up on the tarmac, and one of them had caught fire. Everybody ran the other way, but I grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran straight for it. I put the fire out.”

“So, what information were you missing?” I asked him.

He said, “Nobody told me that every single one of those planes, sitting side by side, on that tarmac had been fueled up. If I’d known that, I would’ve run the opposite direction like everybody else.”

I told him, “It sounds pretty brave to me.”

“Brave?” he said. “When they told me that all those planes were filled with gasoline, I almost passed out. There’s bravery for ya. I got that medal for not having adequate information—and that’s it!”

When an officer suggested to him that he could have a long and successful career in the military and that he should go over to the next building and re-enlist, he said to the man, “Now, which way do I go to talk to those people?”

The officer smiled and replied, “You go THAT way!”

My grandfather looked at the building he was pointing to and said, “Then I’m going THIS way!”

He came home from the war a man who was content with simplicity. The happiest years of his life were spent in a space that was 12 x 28 feet, with the woman he cherished. He kept the same tee-time every Saturday of his life for over 40 years. All he needed was the air in his lungs, the woman at his side, and the little Smokey Joe charcoal grill on his front porch. This is the man who taught me how to be happy—because the best years of my childhood were spent in that little olive-green, singlewide trailer, eating barbequed chicken legs, watching MASH, and listening to him play the guitar. Or at my Grandma Jean’s house during the summers when we swam in the pool that he kept sparkling clean for us. Or spending the holidays there, waiting for Grandpa and Grandma Polly to take the turkey out of the oven. Or the parties that my Grandma Jean threw, when my grandfather would stand at the big BBQ grill with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand and a big metal spatula in the other.

My favorite memories of my grandfather: His little sayings and rhymes—none of which can be repeated here. I loved all his stories. The best is probably the one where he was a little boy of about 6 or 7, sitting in church and a rather large woman—we’ll call her ‘a woman of substance’—was sitting in front of him. When the congregation stood up to sing the hymn, he noticed from his view that her dress was stuck in the… uh… well, the middle of her rear end. He thought he’d be helpful, so he yanked it on out. She turned around and clocked him right in the head. Those were the days you could not only smack your OWN children in public—you could smack other people’s children! She turned back around and started singing again. He was feeling badly that he had taken her dress out and made her so upset so he went ahead and just put it right back. That’s the best story ever. And I don’t care what anybody says—I believe it with all my heart!

Most of all, I loved how he loved our Polly. I loved the way he laughed and wiggled his eyebrows whenever she told HIM to clam up! I loved how he protected her whenever I took them out to the store or to doctor’s appointments—they looked like two little birds in the storm—he always cradled her right under his arm. He never left her side in her final days.

When his precious Polly passed away, we all worried that he would not be far behind her. But he rallied. It was because he believed with all his heart that, no matter what, life is precious and life is a gift from God, and not one minute of it should ever be squandered. I knew he was so grieved when Grandma Polly died, but the day I stopped being worried about him was the day he said to me, “Maybe I should buy a laptop computer?”

He was 84.

He said, “Well, I don’t really know how to work one, but you know, a person should never, ever stop learning.”

He never stopped learning, and he took every chance he was given to live. The evolution of Elmer Bennett never lost momentum—not for one second of his life. He kept learning until the very day he died. He learned to forgive. He learned the power of surrender. And he learned to say, “I love you.” I was blessed to hear that often.

I believe this is why he has remained ever so germane and connected and relevant for the entirety of his life: Forgiveness, surrender, and love. He never lost his wit. Even when the nurses in the hospital during his final days were asking him questions to see if any senility had crept into his mind, he set them straight.

When one asked him, “Ben, do you know what day this is?”

He said, “Why? Do I have some place to be?”

And you know what? He did have some place to be. He needed to go be with his dear Polly—in the place where she has been waiting for him. The emptiness that we feel now is filled up with the knowledge that this is so.

Erma Bombeck said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything You gave me.’”

Surely, this man we honor today, has already looked God straight in the eye and said those very words: “I used everything You gave me.” And I can only imagine that our Heavenly Father threw His head back and laughed, rested His hand upon his servant’s shoulder, and agreed, “You certainly did, Ben. Well done. Well done.”

There are the words we all long to hear at the end of our journey: “Well done.” Those two little words hold so much. They are the validation for how we’ve used the sacred, precious life God gave us. Grandpa Ben loved life so much that he could not waste it—nor should we. I think that’s the message he would want us to have today: Don’t squander one precious moment of the life that you have—live it to the fullest. Don’t miss the humor in life—find it! Or better yet, create it. And most of all, love well. Cherish those around you. Learn to BBQ. And be grateful for every moment you are given.