By: Melissa Danielle Cook-Crate
I could never figure out my purpose, to this day at 41 years old, I still question my self- worth. I’ve been lent beautiful gifts; my angels my family.
I’ve been allowed to survive my living, sleeping and dying nightmares. Simply, the clarity that comes with reaching this milestone of being able to tell my story to try to help others is monumental to me. There is still something missing and there always will be. Understanding what and why is up to me. There is no easy way. I have tried. With much resolve I make a choice to move forward regardless. This is the tragedy: that most of the damage to my soul is irreparable. I was born into tragedy. I had no choice. I am not guilty, and I shouldn’t be ashamed anymore. I do hope that at the end of this journey my image of myself will change for the better. Part of my survival has taught me that I am strong, spiritual, I have a voice and now I know that I have a choice. I will tell myself that I can overcome almost anything.
This is the story of how my life and the lives of those around me have been affected by colonialism and the residential school system in Canada. It is about how I survived colonialism and the effects of the residential school system on myself and my family. Unfortunately, my father did not survive and part of his story will also be shared in this book. This is the story of my reconciliation, my insatiable need to not give up but to instead look back, to dig deep, and to discover – to understand. I need to understand who I am really am, where I really come from and I need to go where I am really meant to be. I am on my journey to find my true identity, in the hope that I may have peace in life, unlike my father who died in vain.
My grandfather Walter Cook from my dream (Mom’s dad)
I’m calling on those gone before us, my ancestors, for guidance, strength, and a pure heart and mind as I share my story. Even if it only helps one person, they will be one not lost. I’m calling on them to help me move forward, and to watch over me but mostly to help me understand who I really am so that I may be able to help others who still struggle. I want to wash away the loss and tragedy and I want to seek out and be filled with blood memories. Most of all, I want to tell my story to help someone who may understand what I’ve been through, and by doing this, find my true identity. Not the girl who is confused, hates herself and wants to self-destruct – not the damaged me.
If I do this, my children might do this. If I learn who I am, then they will know who they are. If I can show them how, they will learn. If I can be strong now for them, they will survive being born into tragedy – just like me. Before it is too late I must go back for one last look, to find my own reconciliation my own closure, my hope is to also help someone – anyone. In order to do this I must take the time to find and share my memories, I will write down and share with you my own blood memories…..
One of my earliest “memories” or pieces of information that was shared with me was the story of how when I was only a year old, my dad had been drinking.
My mom, him and me and were at home at our apartment in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My dad had been drinking and was drunk sitting in his lazy boy recliner. I was told that I had tried to stand (learning to walk I suppose), that I leaned against his leg and tried to pull myself up, at which point he kicked me very hard and “I went flying”. In response, my mother who had been washing dishes behind him, used the cast iron frying pan that she was washing and knocked him upside the back of the head. Growing up this was supposed to be a humorous story. I mean, when I was telling it I thought people would find it funny. This one instance alone is a very good example of how violence was so normal for me, how I was normalized and conditioned to violence and abuse. Since I never heard anything about my dad going to jail or being charged for this, I guess life carried on for a little while, but not for long. My mother left my father around this time and moved over 700 kms North of Winnipeg. Years later I realize that this was physical abuse, as an infant – what happened after this? I may never really know. What I do know is that 29 years later I would find myself living beside this apartment with a man who was very abusive when he drank. My own daughter was there also and this man was not her father. Four long and violent years later, this relationship would end. His own parents attended residential school and he never seemed to get over being put into care at a young age. He also suffered a lot of loss and trauma. Perhaps in another life we would have stayed together, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
My Grandmother Nora Cook (Her relations her great grandfather, my relations built the Seven Oaks Museum in Winnipeg. I am an Inkster as in Inkster Boulevard.
Shortly after moving North, where my aunt lived (my mom’s sister), my mother met a man who had a daughter of his own. She was the same age as my oldest brother. I have some fond memories of running, playing, and laughing, but most of all, fond memories of my mother’s amazing greenhouse. I would slip away and sit in the corner of the greenhouse with the sugar bowl and pick fresh rhubarb. I would pick the snap peas and the tomatoes. One of my favorite smells today is garden fresh tomato leaves. It is in times of hardship I will reach back to these sunny memories, a trick that I learned and have practiced when dealing with trauma. These good thoughts are an “out” for me, however temporary. Although he was a big, strong man who cared for me as his own when my own father had been abusive to me, this did not last. I was saved and then it ended when he, as a recovering alcoholic began drinking again. His own parents and grandparents had attended residential schools here in Manitoba. He had been abused all his childhood, and like my biological father, he also became the abuser.
I recall being awoken at night my screams, yelling, terrifying fights – my sister and I hiding in a closet waiting for it to end – waiting in the dark trying to be as silent as possible. In the end, I remember packing in the middle of the night while my mom holds a loaded shot gun.
She stood on the step as all of the kids loaded up what we could of our belongings in the middle of the night. We were fighting, fighting to leave and get to safety. Our lives, as always, disrupted and ripped apart by violence and dysfunction. Later on in life I would go back to him as an adult, and until his death last year we remained in touch. I needed him, I needed a father figure. As he grew older he realized everything, and when I did show up or call he was there for me, but now he too is gone.
When we left, we moved to where my mother is from and years earlier as a child had attended the community Missionary Day school that was run by Mennonite Missionaries. There, she had been forced to learn to write with her right hand. She was left handed. Being left handed, according to the nuns, was evil and had to be unlearned, changed, forbidden. Also forbidden was speaking her language – Cree. If you did not obey, you were strapped. This was normal punishment, and to this day, my mother is ambidextrous. As a child I was not taught Cree, and this is why – she had been taught it was wrong, it was unnecessary, it was lost.
Some of my fondest memories are of times spent with my grandparents who lived down the road from us. These were precious times. My grandmother was always in the kitchen, or helping my grandfather who was a commercial fisherman, hunter and a trapper. He was an amazing man. He knew that I was fatherless and he always took me under his wing. Later on in life, when I asked myself, “Who am I? Who is my father?”, it was him that I knew had been my real father, who had loved me like his own and unconditionally. I took his name as my own, and I have it to this day. He passed away from cancer when I was 14 years old and I miss him dearly to this day. One time when I was deep into my cocaine addiction, I had been attending college and had reconciled with an old boyfriend. He always worked and always had money. He always wanted me to find him drugs and I mean a lot of drugs. We were using together at night and I attended college courses during the day. I eventually began dealing, using too much and lost control. My marks went from B’s to F’s within two months of being with him again. When school was over and the drugs and money were gone so was he. He left me there after losing almost everything. I was abandoned, coming down hard and alone. This was the only time in my life I seriously thought of suicide, I wanted to die. I was alone in a trailer in the small Northern town where I lived, and I had dozed off while crying. I had been thinking of killing myself all evening, and into the night. I had a dream. In my dream I was in the same place and I left the bedroom and walked in to the kitchen. There is only an island with between the kitchen and the living room, walk through the kitchen to get to the living room. When I walked out my grandfather was sitting in a wicker chair in the living room, beside this island. He said nothing. He looked at me, smiled, and that is all. In an instant, every single bad feeling I had inside was swept away. There was no more sadness, no more inner turmoil. It all just disappeared. His smile said to me, “It’s ok, you’re ok. Things aren’t that bad. Just slow down. There is nothing that you have done that means you need to give your life”. And in his mischievous little smile, the way he used to look at me, he always called me “kekepatis” or “kekepatiskwew” meaning “crazy old lady”. He saved me that day. I can see him plain as day. He watches over me, I know this.
We remained in my mother’s community for a year or so living in the “mission house”. It was the home built for priests and our yard was shared with the graveyard and the church. It was while living in this home that my night terrors began, at least this is when I have memories of them. My most vivid nightmare is still so clear to this day. It is it like I am watching a movie. I am sleeping on the living room couch with my mom (which I did often), and two men wearing long coats, hats, and suits enter the room. They seem tall and well-dressed to me, with light skin. The stand over me. I had tried to wake up my mom but she didn’t respond. I don’t remember them saying anything but they do force an orange powder up my nose. I am paralyzed with fear. That is all I remember and this nightmare haunts me to this day. At that time I was only five years old.
During our stay in my mom’s community I was allowed to just be a kid. Thinking back, I must have felt safe with my grandfather so close. I had close cousins. Some still lived there and we explored, played, laughed, built forts and got dirty. It was awesome, but unfortunately short lived too.
My mother applied for and was accepted into university in the city and I started grade two in the South end of the city. We moved into a housing complex walking distance to a school. The complex had a centralized playground and a little lawn area. I met many friends during this time and we lived there for about 4 years.
There are fond memories that I have from this time, playing in the playground, biking around the complex, listening to eighties hits, and most of all those of my mother.
When it was bed time, my mom would sit in the foyer area, on the floor, with her guitar and sing all to sleep. She would place herself in the middle of all of our bedrooms and sing. I miss that. I grieve for that…
Life was not perfect but it was good for a while. I made some close friends in the complex where we lived and at my elementary school. I spent a lot of time playing at the park and in the surrounding green spaces – I “cartwheeled” everywhere. These feelings of peace and being allowed to just be a kid and feel safe didn’t last, however. It began with a man who chose to target children and was waiting for me on our isolated fitness trail between my home and my elementary school one fall day. When I came around a corner and was ready to walk the balance beam that was part of the trail, there he was sitting with his legs wide open and his private area exposed. Shocked, my instincts kicked in and I ran. I ran as fast as I could and it seemed like the trail back out from where I had just come had grown. I didn’t know if he was behind me but I did not stop. I found the first block parent sign, banged on the door and when they opened it I began crying. The police were called and a short article warning parents was posted in the Winnipeg Free Press. It was shortly after this that my mom met a man who she would later marry. Meeting this man changed my whole life and me as a person forever.
He was a student at the same university my mother attended and was in Canada on a student Visa. He was very charming (so they say) and my mom who spent most of her nights at home alone, was swept off of her feet. She was completing her own. Education during the day and singing us to sleep every night, all five of us kids. They moved quickly into a relationship and he insisted on marriage, he became my step-father.
There are bits and pieces of memories of him, but for the next four years he would sexually abuse me, even when my mother was in the next room. One memory, I was 9 or ten years old and it was daytime. I remember the lace curtains and the bright sunlight trying to peek into the room. I blacked out – next thing I remember is reaching for the door knob and exiting the room. Without the leaving the details here, I still struggle with these memories today. I tried to have him charged when I was 24. When I finally told someone, but the prosecutor declined to have him brought back to my province to charge him. “Too costly”, he said. My step-father, who had tried to get custody of me during the divorce, had moved to the East Coast and was living with a woman with twin daughters. Based on current laws, he wouldn’t be brought back, he wouldn’t be charged and the woman and children that he was living with could not be warned or told what was going on. I was devastated and it rocked my broken world even more.
I vaguely remember the horrible assault by him on my mother, which involved him chasing her out the front door with a box cutter knife, trying to stab her in the back – burying their wedding photo in the snow in our front yard. I remember the same traumatic feeling, hiding, being scared. He was gone a few nights, if that, and then back at home, once again my mom made changes which would eventually remove us from the city. My brothers went to their fathers’, and my sister, my mother and I moved to an isolated community where she would have her first teaching job. My birthday is in September, after school starts. I was turning 11 and I had a slumber party with my brand new friends. To my horror, my mother allowed him there and I remember him unpacking bananas, bars, other “treats” for me on my birthday. I spent the entire night sitting on the basement steps as my new friends slept in the make shift fort in the basement. There was no way he was getting to them too…that was a long night.
During my childhood I was also molested by two very close family members. Somewhere deep inside, I still blame myself. It’s so ingrained. Through my years of counselling, trauma therapy, and treatment I have been taught this message to myself is “oh so wrong”. Funny how the mind works…
Throughout the years I have few memories of my father, my real father. He drank heavily and had numerous surgeries to repair damage done to his stomach from the alcohol. I would go to him here and there over the years. He never came to me. Well, there was once. I was about nine or ten and he came to take me to buy a birthday gift. We went to Canadian Tire and he bought me a gold five speed. He was drunk and I remember his slurred speech and his wobbly walk. I also remember the sadness in his eyes. He was ashamed to be drunk. I took him anyway. I was very proud of my new bike, besides I had no idea what “normal” was. During this time I would have already been victim to my step-dad, as an adult looking back what must that have been like? This was my father who is supposed to be my protector. This anger resonated with me and still lingers somewhere to this day. I abused myself over many, many years. Drugs, drinking, abusive relationships, putting myself at risk, being reckless……If no one cared why should I care? I exist to be abused. I am only good for one thing. I can control my pain. I can make it go away. I need more when the pain gets stronger. All my abusers are right. These messages and more I told myself over and over, and over.
I was 24 when I had had the suicidal behavior (when my ex left me after barely finishing college and binging on and selling the cocaine). I asked my mother and my best friend to come get me, after the dream of my grandfather. I had reached out to them and they drove the seven hours to get me and the seven hours back, with me, my dog and her puppies, and all my belongings in tow. Within a week I was sent to Alberta, by my own request to a seven week long detox program in the middle of the Northern Alberta forest. I basically never unpacked my bag from college.
So my self-discovery journey begins – it wasn’t until this time that I even knew my father was removed at a young age from his home and forced into residential school. He was badly abused to this day I don’t know the details, do I need to know? I haven’t decided, let me get stronger first.
I would spend years in various in patient, out-patient, residential, day program, shared care, trauma abuse centers, one on one psychiatrists, psychologists, using, falling, failing, bad relationships, gang involvement, self-harm, I even died once….The whole while I knew it was wrong I knew I deserved better and so did my first true love my daughter who was born when I was 24 years old. The year after I tried to press charges against my step father but my plan had failed which I now know wasn’t my fault.
By the age of 30 I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and an anxiety disorder. Night terrors, heavy drug and alcohol abuse, flashbacks, physical illness due to stress, violent outbursts, extreme depression. This was me in a nutshell, however I was a mother now and I never loved anyone so much as I loved my daughter.
Being born to suffer was my life not hers! How can I knowingly sacrifice her to my own demons? I may have deserved this life as I was “born bad”, as I had always been shown and told…but not her no way! I couldn’t make the connection between my negative self-talk, the abuse I had endured and how I was repeating the cycle including her now. It just became unacceptable and I faltered and failed her over and over but I just HAD to keep getting up, I had to keep going, I had to save “her”…..When no one came to save us I knew it was my job to save us, which meant letting go of my negative self-image, my hatred toward my mom and dad, my shame. I needed to learn about WHY, HOW, why did this happen? Why has my life been cursed? It took a long time and a lot of tears, a lot of anguish but through learning about my father’s struggles, he was only five when he was sent away and my mother’s struggles (she had no choice this was her life dealt to her). I began to understand to accept, and to forgive. It was not his fault and he didn’t CHOOSE to be so hurt that he drank heavily to avoid his own trauma. One day I just understood and before he died three years ago we made our peace. We just didn’t have enough time. I knew he was ashamed of not being there for me, but I loved him anyway. I forgave him he needed peace in death if not in life, I tried to give him what I could and I hope it helped. I hope writing this story helps all of us, or even one person.
Today I am a part time college instructor and I have graduated college three times. I am an aspiring Aboriginal writer, my daughter lives with me and so does my son who will be three in two months. I struggle daily with self-image but I fought my demons and won and I will keep going. Through knowledge I have gained power. The power of empathy, forgiveness and understanding….My two step-fathers, my real father and my grandfather are all deceased. I call them my army of guardian angels who are watching over me and my kids until we meet again.
I have a few health concerns from all the damage and trauma from the self-abuse and abuse from others, and I address them daily. I may never be completely healed, and that is okay I am grateful for my life.
At the end of my story I know now what my purpose is. It is to be here for my children, stop the cycles of violence, end my “curse”, love them and cherish them and tell them 500 times a day how much I love them and need them. As I write, speak in classes, volunteer, work in groups that I get to meet, speak to youth who want to give up, I plead “Please don’t take your life, there is nothing you have done that is worth sacrificing your precious life….please don’t give up just try to understand.” I cry daily, I fight daily to keep my demons, their demons at bay. How can I help? I can share my story – I won, I am here, I am alive, I made it!
If I could take all the pain away I would, my gift to you. My real gift is to promote learning about your own IDENTITY. This might mean reaching out, asking for help, always getting back up, not believing the negative messages people tell us, working toward reducing harm to yourself and harm by others, and having empathy for people who have affected you (no not all). It’s time to let go of other peoples’ shame because that energy it takes to carry someone else’s shame is energy you need to save yourself. It will be painful, but surviving the pain of blood memories is better than being numb and feeling nothing until it is too late, or living a life of regret. Always remember the words of my grandfather who saved me from my own suicide his spirit said to me…
“It’s ok, you’re ok. Things aren’t that bad, just slow down. There is nothing that you have done that means you need to give your life.” Today, I thank the Creator every day that I listened. I just had to fight and it was so worth it.
I share with you, my Blood Memories….
Miss Melissa Cook