When your home no longer feels safe

Editor’s note: The following story explores feelings of safety and sacrifice. A version of this piece was performed at Off-Script, the Texas Medical Center’s storytelling hour, sponsored by Baylor College of Medicine’s Narrative Medicine Program.

My notion of home was shattered the minute a stranger broke into my house.

And that is why “home” is a place I can never go back to.

I wanted to tell you a story about a comforting space, a safe place. But after the break-in, my feeling of home was never quite the same.

We used to call my home the “oatmeal house,” because when you wake up, there is a bowl of steaming hot oatmeal with carefully sliced fruit on the dining room table, ready for you to eat before you go to school. I had always joked to my parents that I’d never leave the nest, that I’d move back in after college. They laughed, but I had always felt like it would come true.

I was 20 years old when it happened, having come home from college for the summer. I wouldn’t learn what had happened until later, but looking back on it now, I can see it all: a tall stranger scaling the balcony to the master bedroom, quietly twisting the doorknob, shining a flashlight into the room, heavy feet advancing on creaking floorboards.

It happened at 3 a.m., after everyone had gone to sleep. I remember the moment my dad came into the room to gently wake my mom. I woke up too, as I was in the top bunk above her. I had always loved the top bunk, without really knowing why it made me feel safer to be higher up.

“Rachel,” my dad whispered, “someone broke into the house.”

“Call the police,” my mom whispered back.

“He’s gone now,” my dad said.

There was a slight pause—some combination of relief and anxiety. I was scared to think about the many scenarios that flooded into my mind.

“How did he get in?” My mom asked.

“Through the balcony door,” my dad replied.

“I thought it was locked.”

As I listened to their hushed conversation, my blankets suddenly felt cold. Oops, I thought silently to myself. Despite my dad’s reminder that night, I forgot to lock the car door after getting the groceries. In the car, was a spare key to the house. I should have listened. I stayed quiet.

“Did he take anything?” my mom asked.

“No. I woke up when he entered. Must have startled him.”

My parents left the room, quietly closing the bedroom door behind them. Through the closed door, I could hear my mom on the phone with the police. I could hear the swoosh of wind as my dad opened the balcony door.

“I found a key.” He announced to my mom.

“How does he have a key?” my mom asked.

As I lay there, I quietly dug my fingernails into the meat of my palms. I shut my eyes until they started to hurt. I felt like causing myself pain would somehow release the pressure of deep guilt I had built up inside myself.

I climbed down the ladder and walked outside to the car with them. The car lights were still on. Tissues, mints, a bridge pass and a random assortment of chargers were strewn on the ground. My mom and dad went around the car to the glove compartment, which was hanging open. I knew from the silence that both my dad and mom knew that I messed up. I kept my eyes on my fuzzy pink slippers and I didn’t dare look up.

When the police arrived, he gave my parents a case number.

These things happen all the time in the city.” He told them, as if it were supposed to be comforting.

My parents never blamed me for what happened that night. They never even told me not to do it again. Somehow that felt even worse. I found myself wishing that they would just blame me already. We all went back to our rooms, but none of us slept.

After that, I was relieved to go back to college to start a new semester. To be honest, I was ashamed to find that I felt safer at school, where the anonymity behind a row of identical white doors meant that anyone had an equally fair chance of having their room broken into. I found myself wondering: why did it have to be mine? It felt so unfair.

While lying on the bed in my dorm, I would turn my head toward the door, so that I could see the hallway light that filters in. The sounds of chatter in the hallway or shouts of drunk students at 3 a.m. that used to bother me so much, I now found comforting. Because no matter how late it was, someone was always keeping an eye out.

At times like these, I often worried about my parents’ safety in the city. I was safe, but I wasn’t sure if they were. Disturbing thoughts came to mind. I reached for my phone and texted them reminders: “Get a camera. Get a security system. He might come back,” I told them. But I knew these texts would do not good.

As an ER doctor and a principal scientist, my parents were too busy giving themselves to other people to worry about themselves. And what left they had, they always gave to me. Because according to them, nothing made them happier than to see me happy, whether it be staying up to help me with my homework or giving me the best slice of meat.

“I just want you to be safe,” I pleaded with them.

“If you have extra time, worry about your studying,” my dad reminded.

“And do some dancing,” my mom chimed in.

I tried to find other places to put the blame to relieve it from myself. I told myself that if my parents had just gotten a security camera, we would have heard the intruder and stopped him before he came in. I blamed the intruder as if it were his own fault that he didn’t have his own home to live in.

But I’m not very good at deceiving myself. Deep down, I knew that it was my fault. I was the one who neglected to lock the car door that day, and the guilt has stayed with me. If I had just listened to my parents that night instead of brushing them off, I would have locked the car door. That man would not have come into the house. And I could have kept believing that my home was an impenetrable fortress.

I just feel grateful that my carelessness did not lead to something more serious and that at the very least, my family is safe.

By Katherine Wu, a junior at Rice University

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