The morning I turned 40 years old, I woke up in a makeshift bed set up in a laundry room in a house I’d never been in before. It took me a minute, but I remembered that I’d spent the night in a domestic violence shelter. As I was orienting myself, a woman came into my “room” and put her laundry in the dryer. I’d never seen her before since I’d gotten there late the night before when everyone was sleeping.
I took the opportunity to grab my shower things and head for the bathroom only to find the door locked, so I waited until a second woman came out and then locked the door behind me. Who knew how many women were in the house waiting to use it?
There was a mirror in the bathroom, and I stood before it to see if I looked any different now that I’d just turned 40. Other than dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep and a few frown lines, I decided I looked the same as I always did. I’d hoped to see someone fresh and new looking back at me to start out my new decade, especially with my newfound freedom since leaving my abusive husband.
The second woman was back again, standing in front of the bathroom door when I tried to open it. She looked half-asleep and groggy, but she offered me a weak smile and nod.
“Hi, my name is Emily,” she whispered. I told her mine, and she mumbled something about needing to wake up her kids. I hadn’t realized there were kids living in the house along with women, and the thought of it made me sad. What must they have been through?
By the time I finally took a shower, all I could hear was noise. It turned out Emily had three kids, all under the age of seven. They almost knocked me over as I made my way back to the laundry room. They jumped on the couches and shouted at the top of their lungs. Poor Emily was completely outnumbered. I felt a little selfish for shutting the door to my “room” and trying to block it all out. My senses were already on overload.
My husband had been at work when I left him the day before. I loaded everything of mine that would fit in my Ford Escape. There were things I left behind, but I was willing to trade it all for a life with no pushing, shoving, insults, cheating, or screaming. Five years of abuse had left me not knowing which end was up. By then, I believed the truth was whatever he told me it was and not what I really felt inside.
He called me a loser and crazy so many times I started to believe it. He’d accuse me of nonsensical things that I’d never think of doing, but after his gaslighting, I was left unsure whether I’d done them or not. He betrayed me hundreds of times and told me it was my fault so he wouldn’t have to take responsibility. It worked, at least for a while.
Still, there was something left in me that wanted to fight despite my depression and confusion. I knew nothing good would ever come of my marriage, and I was afraid he might hurt me badly or get me to hurt myself. I remembered what kind of woman I used to be, the kind who would never put up with being called stupid or ugly. I’d claimed to love him, but his love was toxic and an illusion. I had been ashamed of myself for so long that I was ready to feel pride again.
My suspicions about the strictness of the women’s shelter turned out to be true. When I’d arrived the night before, I was given a two-page list of rules that I’d been too sleepy to read. Looking over them, I saw that I had to tell somebody when I was going somewhere and how long I would be gone. I was prohibited from telling anyone where the shelter was or let anyone follow us back there. It was for my own protection and that of the other women, so I completely understood even though it was strange to be living under so many rules.
I walked up to the front office where they took me to a back room loaded to the ceiling with groceries. I gratefully gathered up a few things, then they took me to another room where they offered me some donated clothes to sort through. All my clothes and cosmetics were packed in my car, so I didn’t really need anything else. Looking at all the ways they had to help women made me a little teary. It was hard to imagine that some women had escaped with only the clothes on their backs with no money for anything to feed themselves or their children.
I spent the rest of my birthday making plans. I still had a job, and the shelter was free, so maybe I could save up for my own apartment. I reached out to friends I hadn’t talked to in years who had been unable to stand watching my marriage burn to the ground. I created a budget and worked on getting my affairs in order, excited to get my new life started. It would surely take a lot of climbing to get out of the mess I was in, but I held onto the symbol of starting a new decade with new determination.
I still wasn’t sure how I was going to manage life in the shelter even temporarily. The property consisted of several rows of small houses like mine. All of them were filled to the brim with women and children. Emily had mentioned we were getting yet another family in our house to squeeze into the cramped quarters. I was already anxious and overstimulated with all the noise going on, and I worried I might not be able to handle it.
As the night began, I started to feel lonely and sorry for myself. Turning 40 was taking its toll on me already. I sat in my bed and thought about my prior birthdays with surprise parties and presents and all my friends around me. As far as the shelter was concerned, it was merely Friday. I hadn’t told anyone at the shelter about my birthday since I was trying to keep a low profile, but I missed the good wishes. At that moment, anything seemed preferable to sleeping in a laundry room on a compound where not a single person cared about me.
Before bedtime, I stepped out front for a minute and let the night air touch my skin and cool it down. That’s when I saw Emily was outside with me, sitting in a folding chair with her three kids cross-legged at her feet. For the first time since I’d met them, they were utterly silent. The four of them were staring into the sky with their mouths agape.
Emily finally looked at me and broke out in a giant smile. “God is with us,” she announced as she pointed a finger up into the dark.
I looked up to see what she was talking about. All I could see was the same old universe just like every night, but Emily kept insisting that she’d seen God in the sky. Her children seemed to agree wholeheartedly.
After a few more seconds, there it was. A bright star shot across the wide expanse, big enough so I couldn’t miss it. Emily told me they had seen shooting stars like that all night, at least five or ten of them, and it was a sign to everybody.
“God is with us,” she repeated with tears in her eyes.
Finally, I realized that I was truly in the right place at the right time. Emily reminded me that even when all was lost, there was always the grace of God to carry me through. I sat down on the front lawn with the kids and looked for more hope in the sky. I knew then that it was not just my strength that brought me to the shelter, but God’s, and He would see me all the way through.
It was the best birthday I’ve ever had.