A Family Therapist Intervenes
By Mary M. Lansing

March 25, 2000

Carson Hot Springs in Washington boasts a rickety hotel with "1897" forged above the screened front door. I was standing at the inside counter of its lobby paying for a much-needed hot soak and massage when the front door banged shut behind me. The few people standing around the tiny lobby turned toward the noise. A young father walked rapidly in, pulling his son by the arm and muttering, "You're gonna get it for this, just you wait!" He scowled, seeing no one, staring straight ahead. The boy, who looked about four years old, swung from his father's hand like a rag doll, his small feet hardly touching the floor. His tear-smudged face was punctuated by a mouth opened to an "O" but soundless.

They disappeared around a corner into the men's room. In the lobby people looked at each other as time and talk were suspended. Then the whack, whack, whack began. As the boy cried out, his father's voice came through the thin wall, harsh and unforgiving. "I'll give you something to cry about!" Whack, whack, whack.

By the time they came back to the lobby and headed for the restaurant, I had collected my massage ticket. I turned from the counter, knees quivering, my throat closed against a sob. The people in the lobby had returned to their conversations except for an older woman whose eyes met mine in understanding. I looked down, knowing my face showed my feelings.

I took a deep breath and headed for the restaurant. There at a table against one wall sat the father next to his boy. Across from them was a young woman. A little girl of about three sat next to her. A photograph taken at that moment would have revealed the father studying the menu, his wife looking worriedly at her son, the boy digging his chin into his jacket, and the little girl weeping silently. I took a moment to calm myself, then walked behind the father's chair. I knelt down and spoke in his ear, just loud enough for those at the table to hear.

"I know this is none of my business," I started. "I was in the lobby when you and your boy came through to the men's room." Taking another deep breath, "I need to tell you how I felt when I heard you hitting him." Here I looked at the young mother. Her eyes were stricken with pain. When she saw me glance at her, she looked away. The little girl leaned into her, hugging her arm with one hand, wiping her nose with the other.

My words were coming out jumbled as they tripped over each other. "I stopped breathing and felt my knees start to buckle. In an instant I remembered all the times when someone bigger and stronger than I was hurt me in the same way your boy sounded hurt. And then made me ashamed for crying."

The boy looked at me for the first time. He seemed startled, as if not expecting to have a stranger on his side. I saw the importance of the moment register on his face.

"It's none of your business," the father said gruffly, bringing us all back to reality

"I know. You're right. I also know I couldn't live with myself unless I told you how I was affected by what you did." I stood up, touched him on the shoulder and smiled at the young wife. Then I purposely turned my back and retraced my steps to the lobby. The people who had been standing around were gone. Perhaps they were getting on with their lives.

Once out in the cold mountain air, I heard the sob finally escape my throat. The tightness left my chest. I took another deep breath and headed for my hot tub and massage, feeling remarkably stronger.


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