BY TAVA HOAG

I met Ashlee when she signed up for gymnastics at our gym, she was five years old. This girl walked through our gym’s doors with little muscles bulging on her arms and these piercing blue-gray eyes. Sometimes I caught myself staring at those eyes and thinking they looked too grown up to be on a sweet little girl’s face, I was right. Those eyes had seen some hard things in her short life, her father going to prison, her mother popping pill after pill to retain any sort of high, and getting beaten by new boyfriends. I didn’t know any of this at the time, all I knew was that she looked like she needed a family and the home she found at Clinton Turner’s was a perfect fit.

Ashlee was broken, she needed to be put back together. Like a puzzle she had so many different pieces for such a little girl. My family spent a majority of our time solving the mystery that was Ashlee and putting her back the way she should be, whole and beautiful. She was so innocent. We took her under our wing, and then all of a sudden she became part of our family, a part that we couldn’t imagine living without.

The first time I noticed Ashlee was having problems at home was when she threw a temper tantrum about leaving our house. You see, she would sleep over a lot because her mother couldn’t always drive her to the gym on Saturday mornings. That first weekend that she slept over, she was a little shy, didn’t want to talk to anyone, and spent most of her time taking in our family. She stayed for two nights. For a five year old this was a long time to be away from home without being homesick, but when her mom came to pick her up she refused to go. She ran from our kitchen screaming and crying that she wanted to stay. My mother, my sister and I tried with no avail to calm her down, she just kept saying she wanted to live with us.

Finally her mom coaxed her outside, but she took one look into the car where her mom’s new boyfriend was sitting and she booked it the other way. My dad and Ashlee’s mother spent about a half hour chasing her around the neighborhood, they finally trapped her after she climbed a tree-like a little monkey- and had no choice but to come down into my dad’s outstretched arms. It was a beautiful April day and the whole scene would have looked comical to any outsider, but something nagged at me that this wasn’t normal. I remember telling her before she left that she had a family who loved her at her house and that they would miss her so much if she didn’t go home. Then I watched in defeat as her own mother yelled profanities and berating things at her, and in that moment I knew I was so wrong.

Those aren’t the only problems that Ashlee had, she also couldn’t stand to be touched physically in any affectionate way. This continued to grow worse as she got older. Whenever my family would see Ashlee we would hug her, or try to anyway. Anytime my arms encircled her little body she would grow stiff as a board, she would turn her face away from me, and you could feel how uncomfortable she was being that close to you. This broke my heart, every child I had met up to that point loved to be cuddled and held, they would climb all over you for attention because they thrived off of it. Not Ashlee, she couldn’t be close to you, it seemed that space was the only thing that kept her from falling apart.

A few years went by, and Ashlee became a bigger part of my family’s life with each one. We now automatically assumed she would be with us on weekends, and over the summer during our trips to the lake house. She was there, like a library book, we could check her out as many times as we wanted, but she never fully belonged to us. Things kept getting worse for her at home, her mom lost her job as a hairdresser for giving topless haircuts after hours so she could afford her choice of pain meds. Ashlee would show up to practice starving sometimes or sleep deprived. My own mother started bringing up the possibility of adopting her. Then something happened, Ash’s mother called me.

It was a warm summer night in August. I was at the lake house with my family building a bonfire and preparing to enjoy dozens of burnt s’mores when my phone rang, echoing across the calm waters. I picked up, “Hello”

“Tava, its Ashlee’s mom…I need to talk to you about something.”

“Okay, sure what’s up?” At this time my back started prickling with sweat even though it was a chilly kind of night. Why would she be calling me?

“Has Ashlee been acting strange at gym this summer or when she is at your house?”

I racked my brain trying to answer her question. Ashlee had been a little reserved with us the past month but it wasn’t unusual, especially in regards to what she dealt with at home on a daily basis. I decided to tell this woman what she wanted to hear.

“Yea, now that you mention it she has been a little off lately.”

“Oh Shit! How could I have missed this and been so stupid!?”

Inside I thought, it’s because you’re always messed up on pills, but I kept listening.

“Tava I’m just going to be honest with you. You remember Jay right? My boyfriend?”

I remembered him all right, he had pushed Tina down their apartment stairs two months ago and she had fractured a few ribs, at least that’s what Ashlee told my family at dinner one night. We had been eating spaghetti and out of the blue she told us Jay pushed her mom. Outbursts like that were common and my family had perfected the act of staying calm in front of Ashlee. We acted as if it didn’t faze us, when on the inside we were appalled.

“Yea I remember him, why?” I asked.

“He’s been touching Ashlee, I guess it’s been happening for a while, I finally got her to admit to me tonight. That sick bastard, he’s been tormenting my baby for weeks!”

I couldn’t formulate a complete sentence, my mind was all jumbled up and my heart was racing a million miles a second. This is what it feels like to fall apart. I thought. She gave me more gruesome details of Ashlee’s assault and asked if she could talk to my mother, I barely heard what she was saying as I crumpled to the ground beneath me and started bawling. My sister, came running over asking what happened and what was wrong but how could I tell her? I felt like such a failure, all the times we could have done something to take her away from that terrible woman we should have. All our support and love was pointless because she wasn’t safe where she was, and now how could she ever move past this?

My mother got off the phone and immediately started comforting my sister and I. She told us that Jay had molested Ashlee and her mother would be filing a police report against him, and would be taking Ashlee to the doctors to get an examination done. After that Ashlee would be staying with us for a few days and we were not to talk to her about the incident. Through my tears and heaving sobs, I asked my mother why.

“I don’t know sweetie, but I do know that I will fight my hardest to adopt her.”

After Ashlee received the examination by the doctor things became clear. Everything had been a lie. The doctor found no evidence that Ashlee had been touched physically and Ashlee wouldn’t talk about it to anyone, so they had nothing to go on. The police didn’t believe the accusations and the whole situation was turned around on Ash’s mother. The whole story had fabricated to try and get a cheating boyfriend arrested. This woman made a nine year old believe she had been touched and forced her to go through all sorts of invasive examinations for her own sick, selfish benefit!

We tried to adopt her after that. My mom was interviewed as Ashlee’s gymnastics coach and she calmly explained the whole situation from our perspective, but nothing was done. We were never allowed to adopt Ashlee.

I was bitter, so bitter but not for myself, it was on someone else’s behalf. I was bitter towards Ashlee’s mother and the person she was. She had stopped caring and stopped trying to be a good mother for her child. Ashlee deserved so much more than she received, anyone could see that, but not the one woman who gave birth to her. I was frustrated and tormented with what to do and eventually I grew exhausted with hating this woman. Hating her, after all would not change what Ashlee had endured, it would not give her a bigger house, bigger dreams, or more love. I had to move on and let this woman slip from my mind. So I focused all my attention on Ashlee’s happiness and well-being and I pretended her mother never existed.

As a family we felt helpless to this little girl, there was only so much we could do. So we continued to support her and be her number one fans in everything she did. We taught her how to love and be open with people and gave her a happy place to turn to when her world at home was shattered. My parents raised her as their own and Nina and I treated her as our baby sister.

Then something good happened, her grandmother came back from California. Ashlee was no longer always at her house. She spent time with other girls her age. We would still see her more often than not, whether it was at gymnastics or when she came on family vacations with us. However, everything was different and I found myself feeling sad because I wasn’t needed anymore. I was relieved that this little girl would grow up with her grandmother, who was exactly what Ashlee needed. Yet I was still kind of jealous. I made myself feel better by remembering all that my family had done to make Ashlee’s childhood happy and memorable. Then a couple weeks ago my mom, Nina and I took Ashlee to her State meet for gymnastics, and she told me something that I will cherish forever.

At 13 years old she is just as vibrant and free spirited as she was at age 5, but she is stronger now she can take care of herself, and she finally knows how to open up. I watched her compete and do amazing on all four events. She placed 10th in the state on vault, something she had hoped to achieve all year long. I was beaming at her as she jumped off of the stage and ran to me with her trophy in hand. Honestly, I felt like I was watching her move through time as she got closer. She had come so far since I met her, a completely different person, but those eyes were the same. They were sparkling with pride as she rushed at me and wrapped her arms around me in what would become the greatest hug I had ever received. She squeezed me and took a step back and her voice was strong as she said,

“Tava, I love you. You have been the best role model in my life. Someday I want to do college gymnastics and then you, your mom, dad and Nina can come see me and have a reason to be proud of me.”

My breath caught in my throat and my heart swelled with love.

“We’re already proud of you Ash, you’re the most amazing person we know.”

“Thank you, for everything” she said.

Then I looked at her, right into those deep blue-gray eyes as they filled with happy tears. So much has changed over the years, Ashlee has grown up, become stronger, but those eyes will always be the same one’s I looked into the day I met her. Gazing into them I knew that she had finally been unbroken.

Suddenly, I realized why this girl was so important to me, why she was someone I couldn’t live without. All these years I thought I was saving her and giving her the family she needed when in reality Ashlee has made me a better person. She’s opened me up to what a world of love and support can do for a person. She has changed my life.

I smiled at her and pulled her close to me, no words needed to be said. We pulled apart and I realized I was crying, she looked at me confused and I just shook my head.  Someday when she can understand I’ll tell her how she saved me, but for now I put my arm around her and together we walked outside to meet our family.

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