Learning to Sing in the Dark

A true story of unspeakable abuse and unexpected redemption.

“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.
Paul Lawrence Dunbar, from the poem “Sympathy”

My name was Patti. That was back when my life was a living hell. I was a child, completely innocent. And my father was evil incarnate.  

I don’t remember a single day of my childhood when I wasn’t afraid. A tomboy at heart, I found joy in climbing trees in my favorite dresses or swimming in the freezing waters of the Puget Sound. My backyard was beautiful, full of frogs and trees dripping with sap. But whatever happiness I managed to find on any given day was stripped from me and replaced by sheer terror the moment I heard my father’s motorcycle coming up our gravel driveway.

He was a quiet man, never much of a talker. He was more a man of action. The dinner table stood out as a particularly tense and terrible place. Unusually quiet for a family with four small children, the meals played out like a silent movie. Then someone, typically a child, broke the silence. I remember the chuckle, small and stifled, that ignited the fuse one night. My sibling, barely eight at the time, clapped a hand over their mouth. It took my father mere seconds to overturn the table, cross the space between them and hurl the child through the sliding glass door behind them.

Whenever my father walked into a room, I began to wonder which of us was going to get hurt.

When he crept into my bedroom in the middle of the night, I didn’t have to wonder. By the time I was old enough to form memories of being raped, it had already been happening for years. There is no telling how early his sexual abuse started. The man I call my father entered my life as my stepfather when I was 2 years old. He adopted my siblings and me when he married my mother, and he terrorized our home for the next eight years.

No one ever told me things were different at other houses. I had no clue the family next door ate dinners warmed by conversation and laughter. I did not understand that other fathers met their daughters’ innocent desires for affection with a gentle, loving touch rather than the horrific, inappropriate acts I endured in the dark. My mother certainly never indicated that our family was anything but normal.

She too feared my father. Yet she never once attempted to protect her children from him. Instead, she worked nights and slept through most days, leaving us mostly to care for and entertain ourselves. Instead, an older sibling became my mother for all intents and purposes. When they discovered the cuts and bruises my father had left, they treated them. They provided the love and nurturing I so desperately needed, and in return, I worshipped the ground they walked on.  

Still, even the speck of light my sibling radiated could not overcome the darkness that followed my father. He was a thing to be feared, something you could never turn your back on. For a long time after I left home, I found it easiest to label him as severely mentally ill. In truth, he’d simply given the devil a little extra room.

Dark as my reality was, cracks of light broke through in unexpected places. Music became a lifeline, particularly Christian music. My voice rose loudest in my church’s children’s choir. My room was always humming or thumping with Amy Grant and other artists, their songs a salve for my wounded heart. Through music I found my voice and my escape, though it would be years yet before I found my reason for singing.

I was 10 when I finally told a sibling about my father’s midnight visits to my room. Shortly after, the police forced him to leave our home for good. An investigation resulted in nothing more than a deferred sentence and a restraining order. My mother continued to see him outside the house.

The rage that boiled within me in the months and years after was directed at my mother. I questioned how she could have allowed his torment to continue for so long.

Heartbroken and scarred to my core, I lived a shame-based existence. The only message I’d ever received was that I was utterly worthless. And I believed it. The anger and pain I felt manifested in self-inflicted violence — first in a deep, unshakable depression beginning at age 10, then a barbarous eating disorder by age 12. Finally, somewhere between the age of 12 and 14, I made my first serious attempt at suicide, landing me in the hospital and on the radar of the state. I had run away from home after a particularly nasty fight with my mother and was hopping from couch to couch. I had no home and no one who wanted me. I did not want to live.

I went straight from the hospital into foster care, but nothing stuck. I was angry and difficult. In each new family I saw the life I should have had, and I raged with envy. Eventually I landed in a group home. I was told that was where they sent “troubled kids.” Primarily surrounded by other rageful, traumatized teens, I somehow thrived in that environment. The structure, with clear rules and a reward system, made sense. I made straight As that year.

Still my depression continued to haunt me, penetrating even into the sanctuary I found in my church’s youth group. There, a boy, who was about four years my senior, was the first to really see me. He offered me a lifeline, encouraging me to call him should I ever be tempted to harm myself. Not long after, I did hurt myself. And I called him. He saved my life.

Soon after, I met and befriended his brother, who was closer to my age. He wrote me letters every few weeks the entire time I lived in the group home — letters of encouragement filled with brotherly love.

I was sitting next to him in church one Sunday when the Lord opened a door. The pastor told the congregation to greet each other by sharing how the church had blessed us recently. Angry and sullen, I turned to my friend and spat out that the church had most definitely not blessed me. Multiple families there knew I was in foster care and had considered taking me in. However, one after the other, I told him, had backed down in fear.

Little did I know that that same day, that boy went home and told his parents my story. Days later, they informed me that they had started the process to get licensed to foster. For me. I had never met them before. That was my first time receiving the opposite message I got as a child.

Their new message to me was life changing.

“We will go to any lengths to have you and care for you. You are worth it.”

I wish I could say I changed completely after entering the home of Ruth and Rich, but sadly, years of trauma do not heal quickly. They never gave up. I became part of their family, like any of their other children. I, however, did not act like any of their other children. I smoked. I drank. I got into trouble.

Nevertheless, I came home each time to a family that never shamed me or judged me. My foster mother, Ruth, put an ashtray out on the porch for me and taught me to drive. While my own mother had left basic meals out on the counter for us as children, Ruth made homemade cookies without occasion just for me.

My foster father, Rich, shared my love for music and would slip new cassettes under my locked bedroom door. He would coax me out to watch TV and talk baseball. He seemed to actually like my high-spiritedness, and he prayed for me without ceasing.

Slowly, I began to see who these people were. They weren’t perfect by any means, but they were following Christ. They were showing me how to do the same. These were real Christians.

I tested them at every turn, but they were determined to love me like Jesus, without condition and without limit.

Slowly, I learned to trust them, even in the hard moments.  

Ruth and I were in the middle of a heated argument when my story came spilling out of me. In a rush of anger, I vomited the details of my past: the abuse, the fear, the betrayal.

As I spoke, I watched Ruth’s expression transform from one of anger to one of deep sadness and pain. When I had finished, she said only three words. “I’m so sorry.” And she meant it. This, I realized, was compassion. These words cracked opened a door for me. I glimpsed a light at the end of my anger-darkened tunnel — a possibility of forgiveness.

The remainder of my teenage years were filled with inner conflict. Thanks to my new family, I got my first taste of safety and genuine, Christ-like love. Yet my childhood had planted deep roots of distrust and self-hatred.

Then, at 24 years old, I met my husband. This was God’s second miraculous gift to me. Here was a man who was patient and kind. He saw me through my brokenness and treated me with tender respect. He married me without reservation or condition. He loved me with a love that turned me from my darkness. I never made another suicide attempt.

God’s third and greatest gift came years later. I was 37 when I found out I was pregnant. The gender reveal was anything but a joyous occasion. I screamed in anger, shaking my fist at heaven.

“Why is she a girl? I don’t want a girl,” I told God. The deepest parts of me feared what her young life would look like, what she might have to endure as I did.  

But God spoke to my heart as I knelt on the floor in tears.

“I want to show you how a father loves his daughter.”

My daughter was born, and the impact was instant. My husband doted on her with a devotion I’d never seen. He would have fought a bear for her without hesitation. Suddenly, a father was no longer someone to be feared or avoided. He was a comforter, a friend, a selfless servant and a fearless defender. This was the picture of God I had been missing. This was how he had always loved me. He was the one who had taught my heart to sing through my darkness.

Six months after my daughter’s birth, I accepted Christ into my heart as my Father and Savior.  

This transformation was only the beginning. When my daughter was 4 years old, I realized that God was not done redeeming my traumatic backstory. A woman who came to speak at our church about foster care broke my heart. Through tears, I asked my husband if we should talk to her about foster care. “Duh,” he said. And that was it. A few months later, we had our foster license.

The child that entered our home changed my life and our family. She was 2 years old, the same age I was when my stepfather entered my life. Three years later we were able to adopt her. She was 5, the same age I was when he adopted me. Her short life had been filled with horror, and there she was, starting over with our family. A new life and a new name.

When we adopted her, she got a new birth certificate. On it, we gave our new daughter the middle name RuthAnn, combining her birth-given middle name with that of the fearless foster mother who changed my life.  

This was the cycle-breaking redemptive power of Christ and the loving family that stepped in for me. Not only did I beat the odds of continuing the cycle of foster care with my own children, I was given the opportunity to bring another child out of that cycle too.

I believe almost every family should foster. What an amazing chance to change a life, and as a Christian, potentially an eternity. I credit my foster parents with my eternity. Though they may not have been present the day I turned to Christ, they changed the course of my life and showed me my value.

Today, I go by Tricia. I am the Director of Missional Impact at Child Bridge, and I get to fight on behalf of children who have suffered the same abuse and neglect I did.

God did not waste my pain. He gave me a purpose, a story and a family.

You have the potential to change not just one life but generations to come through foster care. By choosing to see the children like me who so desperately need to be shown the love of Christ, you could alter an eternity. Every child deserves a family. Why not yours?

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