It’s Never Too Late to Learn to Show Love
“Mom, why don’t you ever hug me?” The question came from Irma’s firstborn child, a son she had brought into the world when she was still a child herself.
The reason, Irma came to realize, was that she had never been shown any love herself—not from her mother, who abandoned the family when she was a young girl, nor from her emotionally and physically abusive father, who pawned her off at the tender age of fourteen to the violent man who would become her first husband.
Irma was one of nine children born into an impoverished family in Guadalajara, Mexico. She was taught to be obedient, to do as she was told, and never to ask questions. So she did not protest when she had to leave school after sixth grade. She did not argue when she was sent to live with a family friend and forced into a marriage with a man she did not love and could not trust. And she did not question her husband when he told her that they were moving to California, a place she knew nothing about, never dreaming that she was about to drag her two young children on a harrowing and dangerous journey, sneaking into a foreign country to escape prosecution for a violent crime her husband and his brother had committed.
For Irma, her new home, known for its sunny skies and beautiful beaches, was one of confinement and terror. She spoke no English and had never driven a car, but the real barrier between Irma and the world around her was fear. Her husband warned that if she left the house, the police would find and arrest her. When he was away from home, he locked the door, keeping Irma and the children trapped inside, only allowing her to go out with him on the occasional trip to buy groceries or return videos. He controlled Irma with his fist, marking her with cuts and bruises and scars she bears to this day.
After one especially brutal beating, Irma ended up in the hospital, where the doctors told her she was at risk of losing her children to social services if she did not get them out of that violent home. Irma fled with her two young children and new baby to a shelter, but later returned to her husband, too afraid to survive on her own. Soon after, pregnant with her fourth child, she wound up in the hospital again. Again, she fled to the shelter, this time making it all the way to court, where she was given food stamps and a small stipend to set out on her own. But once again, her husband found her and, fearing he would kill her if she did not return, she went back.
During this time, a clerk at the video rental shop she frequented had noticed her bruises and, having been a victim of domestic violence herself, approached Irma to offer her help. Irma started saving money, squirreling away a few dollars here and there from the grocery budget. The clerk taught Irma to drive, even sold her a car for next to nothing so she had a means to make her escape. She had family in Colorado, the clerk told her; if Irma could get there, they would help her start a new life.
After months of preparation, Irma piled her four kids into the car and headed out of state. Once in Colorado, the clerk’s sister offered what help she could, but there was nowhere to house a family of five. Irma found work temporarily, but when that job suddenly ended, she was forced into homelessness, living out of her car when she could not make enough to get a motel room for the night. She accepted whatever meager employment she could find. Given her limited English and lack of legal working status, the options were few and the pay was insulting, but she had to take what she could get. Irma had promised her children a better life, but instead she was forced to leave her little ones alone for hours on end while she tried to earn the money to house and feed them.
Eventually, against incredible odds, Irma made those promises a reality. She found steady work and housing. She became close to a kind man, a “beautiful person” she met at work, who helped her learn English and later became her husband. The two now share two children together, children who have never had to ask for a hug because they get hugged all the time. Irma has learned to show all of her children how much she loves them, a love that was never lacking but was once something she did not know how to express.
“I’ve learned so much from every person in my life,” Irma says without bitterness. “I only look at now. Never back.” That resilience allows her to focus on the beauty she has created in her life—a loving marriage, healthy and strong bonds with her children, pride in her work, the gratitude of her employers, and enough peace and stability to savor a walk in the woods in the place she now calls home.
Irma did not grow up with love, and her scars are a visible reminder of all that she was forced to endure, but what she has chosen to keep from that time is what she refers to as the reward for all her pain, the love that was born inside her with each of her children.
It’s never too late to learn to show love.