When her husband of five years punched her in the face for the first time, she was shaken enough but called 911. Weeks later, he hit her in the head against the side of a table, she called again. Officers would arrive, and despite her obvious injuries — a blackened eye, a cut upper lip — they would turn and leave when her husband, who was a prison guard at the local correction center, would flash his own badge.
Over the coming days, the violence continued. He hit her at an increasing frequency and a more brutal pace, until Dianna Stanley, barely 24 years of age and 19 weeks pregnant, finally moved out of their home with her two young children, hiding out in a hotel nearby. It was October 2010. Several days passed before she realized she needed the birth certificate for her older son’s school admission, and she returned to the house. Her husband, Brandon, was waiting — with a firearm sitting on the kitchen table.
“You are dead, bitch,” he said as he looked her in her eye and fired — Straight in her belly, four rounds in close range before he stopped. He went looking for another clip and the neighbors pulled her out and bolted the door from outside before that happened.
There were two things that accompanied the events from that day.
First, Dianna lived to tell her story. The doctors removed two of the bullets they could without causing more damage, leaving one inside her. She left the hospital months later strapped to a wheelchair.
Second, Her 19 weeks unborn child did not survive although it lived for three hours. It was the girl she always wanted.
I met Dianna at a homeless shelter volunteering over a summer where she worked as a supervisor. Over the weeks as we work together, her story tumbles out in spurts from each of the caseworkers and even some of the residents who know her. One evening as we were stocking shelves her top rides up a bit and I notice the black scar through and through. I am about to chalk it up to maybe a cesarean until I realize it was way above her belly button to be that. She sees me watching it and I immediately avert my eyes lest she labels me as a creep. Our conversation opens up much later when she finds out I have two girls myself.
“She is a lucky lady you know?. Someone who is so kind to an almost stranger….You would definitely take care of her way better”.
I ask her about her ex — If anything to switch the topic.
She recalls him as a kind partner at first. That changed. “Five years of raping, torturing, locking me in closets,” she says looking up at me with a degree of sadness. “Where was I going to go? When you’re abused and you’re battered, it’s normal.” She had no family to turn to in Connecticut and no other options.
I ask her about her life after she recovered from the gunshots.
“I was paralyzed from the waist down,” she said. Her life as she’d known it seemed over. A series of surgeries followed: “Gall bladder, colon, and bladder surgeries,” she said. “Partial hysterectomy. Hip.”
Released from the hospital in a wheelchair, she went to the only place she knew — Brandon’s mother’s house, which was still empty. She was assigned a physical therapist to whom she vowed she would get out of the wheelchair.
“If you give me a chance, I will give you everything I’ve got”, she told him on the first day they started.
You’re going to walk again,” he told her without any hesitation.
It worked. In about 3 months, Dianna had strengthened her legs and hips enough so that she was able to rise out of the chair and lean on a walker. Soon after, the walker was replaced with a cane. On a cold winter morning, she went into the therapy room, set the cane aside, and walked five steps before falling ahead. She never went back to the cane.
But fate had more in store for her. When she refused to pull back her complaint, Brandon’s mother threw her out of the house where she had been recovering, her life took another turn. He was sentenced to five to eight years in prison. Over his time in prison, he was denied parole at least twice.
As for Dianna, she moved into a homeless shelter. “I would go to a McDonald’s and bathe,” she said. “Me and the kids.”
The trial behind her, it was time to start over. She cleaned houses as a maid and worked as a portable toilet cleaner for a while. Both options ran out. One night sitting in her empty subsidized housing apartment where drug addicts shot up just outside her door, she furiously looked through the job advertisements in the local newspaper when the landlord knocked on her door to collect rent. It was 10.00 PM.
She asked for a week. He offered to give it if she slept with him.
“I immediately said no out of instinct, but then I looked at the sleeping boys and wondered where I would go that night”, she says scratching her arm looking in the other direction — the perpetual shame still written all over her face.
She found the job the next week.
At Crossroads, the homeless shelter that had just started in Portsmouth, she thrived and so did her kids. The building was nothing to speak of: tired, worn, badly in need of updating but she never looked back. She worked twelve-hour shifts and took care of her residents even if she was woken up at two am in the morning. Her sons walked to the Portsmouth elementary school a mile away every day to receive an education that she never had a chance to get.
“I was insistent on that one thing. They eat only if they finished their study”. She did not want history to repeat itself.
Three years later she was promoted as the supervisor in charge of the entire center — In charge of looking after the same victims, she was labeled once.
Days later when I am about to wrap up my volunteer work at the shelter and head to my yearly vacation in India, I pick her up one day as she is walking back over the bridge heading away from town. “Would you be OK dropping me at Exeter?” she asks. There is a senior care center and she wants to head there. It’s not a long drive. Probably twenty minutes.
“Are you going to visit one of your parents?”, I ask. It’s a benign question and I ask it just as a filler during a lull in the conversation.
She hesitates for a second, probably more.
“I am going to see Brandon”, she says haltingly.
I look at Dianna for any sign of sarcasm but see none. She is nodding.
His story during and after the prison stint had been linear. He served time, got out after 6 years for good behavior, and was hospitalized within eight months — metastatic adenocarcinoma, commonly termed as stomach cancer. The irony of him shooting her in the stomach and his condition lingers between us, unsaid.
I leave her at the center and tell her I would come back to drop her back home after visiting a friend in that area. I have none. Instead, I wait in the parking lot.
An hour passes as I scroll through my phone watching the news, responding to emails, and watching the trees before I decide to walk in. The main hall is large, covered with small wicker chairs with tables interspersed between them. The TV runs silently on the opposite wall.
I see her immediately in the upper left corner standing above a big man in a wheelchair. He seems lost, a week’s worth of stubble, wearing a bib. She holds the spoon near his mouth feeding him soup from the white bowl as she patiently cleans up the corners of his mouth after each turn. He looks up at her and down at his belly before turning his face towards the TV.
I walk out and sit back in my car wondering what it takes for a human being to care for someone with a bullet shot by him still lodged within.
As we drive back into Portsmouth the sun is setting behind me and the traffic has picked up considerably. I finally ask the question that has been bubbling inside me for the entire time since that evening that I saw her with him.
“Why did you go back?” I asked perplexed.
She turns around, looks at me, her face a kaleidoscope of emotions.
“You underestimate companionship, Z.”
“The only thing worse than being with someone who hurts you, is being alone”