Day 29: The Break-In

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  

Also, this 30-day challenge is to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

Google Maps screenshot of our house, with the tree mentioned in this post, before it was cut down
Google Maps screenshot of our house, with the tree mentioned in this post, before it was cut down

When I began this month of writing, I knew at least one of my major Plainfield stories had to make an appearance during the final week.  But I have been dreading it.  The picture above is a huge step for me, it is a mixing of my two realities–now and then.   It makes me stomach churn to look at it, but it proves to me that nothing bad happens when the two realities come together.

There are the main stories though, the ones that significantly shifted our lives, that–as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts–are less likely to ever end up in a blog.  But there is one story I can now write about that I couldn’t talk about for years–not because anyone in my family was physically injured, but more so because it was the jumping off point for years of anxiety that still shape the way I see the world.  It was the event that broke the false idea that my small world was protected from “things that happened to other people.”  I’ve told Ben about my lottery theory.  The whole “it could happen to you” idea with winning a million dollars, can also go the other direction.  When something bad happens, you have the same eye-opening reaction.  As in, oh, it can happen to me.

Anyway, here we go.

Quick note as of 1:30pm: After chatting with my parents after this went up, a few details have been clarified below.

It’s important to remember that each traumatic event usually involves several realities occurring at once.  In this case, there were three.

It was a June evening in 1994 and my mom was arriving home late from a rehearsal.  This was our normal deal when my mom was directing a show.  At this point, my sister and I were already asleep.  As it is with most of this story, many of the details are pieced together from memories of stories passed from my parents.  Anyway, my dad waited up for my mom and they spent an hour or so futzing around the 1st floor, eating a late night dinner, having a drink, getting ready for bed.  I had grown accustomed to late night sounds coming from my parents in this old house. If it was’t coming from them, it was coming from one of the many cats jumping off counters or causing mayhem up and down the stairs.

Meanwhile, somewhere across town, a man begins an infuriated fight with his girlfriend’s father, the fight gets violent.  The young man flees the scene and several other men begin to chase him down the street of the Plainfield neighborhood.

My parents head up to bed, feed the cats, turn off the lights, and lock the doors.

The man down the road, still fleeing the rest, turns onto our street and goes from door to door, banging and screaming for help.  Remember, there are no cell phones.  I’ve thought a lot about what I would have done if I were being chased, if my life was in danger.  I, too, would have banged on people’s doors. But remember, I only have childhood details of this story.

My neighbors briefly open the door to him, realize he’s being pursued by a group of violent men, and sends him back outside.   He heads to our front door and wildly bangs on the porch, yelling and screaming in Spanish.  To my knowledge, this is the first time my parents realize something is wrong.  I don’t know what happened at this time, as I was still asleep.

Now, the man gets desperate.  He goes to our back porch, picks up a chair, and throws it through the kitchen window.  I wake up to the sound of crashing glass.

A bit about the layout of my old house.  There are two floors, both rather small, with a bathroom at the top of the stairs–the only room that locks.  The kitchen is at the base of the stairs with a telephone.  In a rush of color and sound, my mother grabs me out of bed and pushes me into the bathroom.  In my moment of passing by the stairway, I mistakenly see the image of a man coming up the stairs.  I now write this off as a panicked hallucination.

Still dazed, my mother rips the tape off the bathroom door lock (the tape was there after my sister accidentally locked herself in the room when she was little), and she tells us to get on our knees and pray for our father.  Thanks for preparing me for this moment, Catholic school.  My dad, who we were praying for, was downstairs on the landline with the police.  If you’d never had the grand pleasure of calling 911, it’s a startling process as it is, without a man trying to pull himself through a window still framed in broken glass.  As the story was told to me, my dad went between yelling to the police and hitting the man over the head with the phone receiver.  The man was crazed at this point, unable to communicate why he was trying to get into the house.

Here’s the thing about the kitchen window–it sits about six feet off the ground, with a large shrubbery blocking it.  So it isn’t the easiest window to get through–keeping the man from just jumping into the house.  And thus enters the third reality of this story–the man behind him.  Though at the time we thought it was his pursuer, in reality it was Mr. Hill, coming to assist.  Mr. Hill was a hero of the neighborhood, an army veteran in his 70s, who very sadly had begun to fall into senility.  On any given afternoon, we would find him smiling and waving in our direction as he mowed down our vegetable garden.  He and his wife were deeply kind, and remained close friends until both of their passings years later.

Mr. Hill, having heard the crash, came running.  And so, he began grabbing the man from behind.  Certain stories include him stabbing him the man in the legs–I forget if this is true.

At this point, my mom, sister and I are looking at the distance from the 2nd floor bathroom window to the ground outside.  If you’ve ever waited for emergency vehicles to arrive in a panicked situation, you’ll know that the seconds feel like hours.  I remember running through my head how long it would take a police officer to get into his car, turn it on, and get to our house without traffic.  The whole experience probably only last several minutes, but felt like eons.

Here is where I have a memory lapse.  I have no memory between looking out the bathroom window and sitting on the living room couch laughing–yes, laughing–with the police officer. The man who came through the window was arrested, and the officer was calmly explaining to us the situation of him being chased.  I, strangely, was cracking jokes.  Go figure.  For years, the name Officer Plum stuck in my memory, but I wrote this off assuming I had made it up.  It sounds like a character from Clue.  Lo and behold, I googled the name in the Plainfield police list, and there he was.  Officer Plum to the rescue.

This break-in was one of four (the others of varying degrees and situations) that occurred in our final four years of living there.  Our house went on the market weeks later but we didn’t manage to sell the house until 1998.  The four years that followed is the time period I will spend many more years trying to wrap my head around.  It’s strange how one event, one that left us relatively unscathed, would be the catalyst for a curse that would take over a decade to shake.  It would take me years to feel comfortable in a house by myself, even during the day.  The cats jumping off the counters no longer sounded like cats.  I walked down the steps with a pencil in my hand at every creak in the house’s old wooden frame.  I still check the doors several times before falling asleep.

Years later, at the height of the gun control debate, the frequent reasoning used by gun enthusiasts was home invasion.  I kept my mouth shut, because there is no arguing with these people, but take a minute to think about our situation.  My father was raised a responsible hunter in rural Pennsylvania.  He got his hunting license at a young age, went to hunting camp, and was of the school that you do not hunt for trophies or sport.  Marrying an animal lover and having two sensitive daughters ended his hunting hobby, but nonetheless, we were all raised to respect gun safety.  I have never, and hope that I will never, have to fire or even hold a gun.  Many can justify their paranoia for a gun’s existence all they like.  I cannot, and will not, do this.

Imagine, as many of these gun enthusiasts tout, that my father–or anyone in the family–had grabbed my dad’s hunting rifle and shot the man coming through the window.  This man was running for his safety.  Whether he was in his right mind or not, is besides the point.  To our knowledge, his intention was not harm, but self-protection.  But in the heat of the moment, we did not know that, nor did anyone along the block.  So you “protect” yourself by killing a man.  And not only will that moment hang like a terrible dark cloud over your conscious and family’s conscious for the rest of all your lives, but this man, stuck in a terrible situation, dies.

I imagine him somewhere, working the story of having to go through someone’s window into the fabric of his own life’s journey.  I hope that things have improved for him.

We are all existing in our own realities, hoping that ours never collides head-on with someone else’s path.  But if they do, we cannot meet that collision with rash decisions before getting the whole story.  Our paranoia and assumptions about one another are fueled by a lifetime of personal biases and experiences.  These cannot be the driving force for gut reactions.  A man coming through your kitchen window is still a man, and realizing this, allowed me to move on.


Note on this story:  Everyone have been incredibly supportive and loving during my several weeks of telling these stories for my birthday.  Since this one is so personal, I request that you do not comment on the gun aspect of this post.  It is an opinion of mine, and more just food for thought opposed to a place to begin a gun discussion.  I respect different opinions, but ask if they are left off this forum.  Thank you:)

2 responses to “Day 29: The Break-In”

  1. Wow. What a story – and I love that you are empathetic enough to consider how the incident of climbing through the window fit into this man’s journey. Thank you for your bravery, Ginny!


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