By Brian Shimer
Dedicated to Karen, who taught me to see in color
My wife, Karen and I, grew up in difficult home environments. Although, each neither of us experienced divorce in our families of origin, both of us were also abused by others outside our families. I’ll write of those experiences in other books. But this book emerged from those experiences because of a deep conviction that every kid deserves safe adults.
The abuse Karen experienced, shattered her soul. Each soul fragment, a hidden aspect of her personality, was named. As she walked through 20 plus years of recovery, I began to meet the “kids on the inside,” one after another. One of the first I met was Phillip, a 6-year-old little guy, on the spectrum, who rocked and said colors to calm himself.
I loved Phillip, this part of Karen. He was artistic, humorous, intelligent, and the holder of so much faith and joy.
He became for me a picture of a kid who had endured too much for his young years and who at last had found healing.
While in a class I was teaching a couple years ago, when I completed one of the assignments, I made a discovery I never expected. The assignment was to identify something I needed to proclaim, tell what it was and how I would share it. My deep desire to protect and rescue kids from tough environments emerged as a desire to tell a story and help kids in the process.
In that preparation, I saw this picture of a little boy in a dark closet. He sat there with his service animal. He was rocking, and rocking and saying his colors. And, I heard the start of his story, as he said, “Hello, my name is Phillip.”
I began to write.
Over the next year, I wrote about 15000 words. A friend encouraged me with it, so with the lockdown, I began to get up at 5 am to write daily. The thirty-chapter story flowed forth as this child described his world.
As I wrote, I realized the story went deep. It accessed deep healing in my own heart as character after character emerged in the story. Sometimes, as I wrote, I wept. Other times, I laughed out loud, almost forgetting I had written it. Still others, knowing what was yet to happen, I didn’t want to write for I feared “writing about that!” So, if you stick with me for the next 30 weeks on Fridays, I want you to know, part of the little boy you’ll meet in this book is me emerging from the dark closets of my own past finally finding his voice. And part of the little boy is the other “Phillip,” I first met in Karen. Both of these alongside of the story which write itself about a child who is not either of us, but rather, himself.
Jesus figured into this story for both my wife and I have experienced His immense mercy, power and grace in our own healings and so, it made sense when suddenly, He quietly, powerfully entered Phillip’s story. The Lion of the tribe of Judah surprised me as He ushered in such powerful forgiveness.
I know there are children out there growing up in tough environments who need to know there is hope. To them I say. “The scary adults around you are not the only adults out there. There are people, real people, who will see you for the wonderful human beings you are and will love you. May Phillip’s story bring you hope, for in Jesus there is always hope.”
I awoke last night with this conviction to “get Phillip’s story out there.” As I wrote above, I will share the story in 30 installments, like Charles Dickens and others from the 19th Century. I ask this — try reading it aloud or inviting the 10-15 year olds you know to read it. And share it with others besides. And let me know, how Phillip’s story speaks into your own.
And Phillip—I’m grateful to have known and loved you, and to know you still. You have changed my life for the better. B.E.S.
Thank you, Jesus. You are the One who brought me here. Thank you for showing me safety, healing, hope and pointing out safe people. Thank you, Beth Fleisher, you believed I had a book in me. Indeed, you have called me to write more than one. Thank you, too, for being the first one to fall in love with Phillip and help edit the first 15 pages. Thank you to Melody Cosgrove, Pam Robbins, and Marilyn Gatica for persevering in reading and editing and re-editing the whole manuscript. Thank you, also, to all of you for reading and sharing Phillip’s story.
My name is Phillip.
Okay. It is Phillip James Smythe.
Most people call me Phillip, but I’d like it if you call me James, or maybe Phillip James. I guess it makes me remember I can be different. Perhaps life can be different than it has felt as Phillip.
People tell me I’m “special.”
But they say it with a strange kind of smile that makes me wonder what “special” really means to them. To me, I’m just me. Inside, I see in pictures. Pictures come first. Then, after a long time, the words come.
I don’t talk—out loud that is—except for when I am alone. And then, only in one place and only saying certain words. It’s not that I can’t talk, obviously I’m talking with you, but it is really hard to make words come out my mouth.
Right now, I’m sitting on the floor in my closet. It’s dark in here. It’s not as scary as it might sound to you. It would be worse if I were out in the house. So, don’t feel bad for me.
The closet feels safe. The floor is hard wood. There’s this round rug on it made of multi-colored strips of rags. You know, the braided rope-like ones? I’m sitting on that. My shoes are on the built-in wooden shelves at one end of the closet. The shoes are all together in pairs and organized with the same colors next to each other. I like them that way. I have two pairs of blue deck shoes, one pair of red, canvas tennis shoes, one pair of multi-colored flip flops, one pair of brown sandals, one pair of white slip-ons, and my fuzzy slippers with a dog’s face on them. Then I have two pairs of brown shoes and, unfortunately, two pairs of black ones, which I hardly ever wear. The brown shoes are for church. The lady here makes me wear black shoes for funerals. You may have counted, but I have eleven pairs of shoes.
The shelves are sturdy, so I can climb them to reach the clothes hanging above me. I have some suits, button-up shirts, jackets, sweaters and some nice pants. Most of my other clothes, along with my favorite blue and green t-shirts and shorts, jeans, socks and underwear are in my solid oak dresser out in the room.
Out there is my single bed with the big posts on all four corners, the rocking horse to the left of the dresser, and my toy box with my blue Tonka truck, my blue and green earth ball, my raggedy Andy, my Lincoln logs, my Tinker Toys set, and my little kid toys, which I don’t play with anymore. And there’s a window above the toy chest. When I climb on the chest, I can look through the window at our back lawn, the swing set, and the wooden fence at the end of the yard. The hard wood floor in the room is covered with a big round brown and orange and blue throw rug that takes up most of the floor space.
So, back to where I am and why I’m in the closet.
You see, when the lady in the white house and the man with the car are home together, they fight. All. The. Time. Like now. And when they fight, I hurt inside, and it scares me. A kind of blind panic comes over me, so that I can’t even see straight. And when that happens, I run to the closet in my room. It may sound strange that I call the people here those names, the lady and the man, but I have my reasons. Maybe I’ll tell you sometime.
My closet has a big, single, brown door. When I get to my room, I reach up, turn the brass doorknob with the embossed lion on it, and let myself in. I close the door behind me after I let in Big Skye. He’s a Goldendoodle, and he’s what other people call my service dog. But I just call him my best friend. He doesn’t like the sounds of the fighting either, I guess, and he likes being with me, so he always tags along me when I come here.
In the closet, there’s silence. The yells sound far away. Skye puts his big paws up on my leg so I will sit down on the floor, and then he sits with me, curled up with his feet on my leg and his big head in my lap.
I don’t mind the dark.
Besides Skye, MC Bear is always here, in the closet, waiting for me. She is a big, fluffy used-to-be-white bear I have. And it’s okay if I squeeze her really, really tight. She doesn’t mind. In fact, I think she likes it, like right now.
When I first get here, I put MC between my knees, and I put my hands over my ears. Then I rock forward and back, forward and back, and say my colors. Those are some of the only words I speak, and this is where I say them:
Blue is my favorite color. That’s why I say blue first. Do you like blue too? I love the sky when it is that color, and water in pools, rivers, and streams when it is clear and sparkly. I guess it isn’t really blue, but it does look blue. I know about how it reflects the colors from the sky. My teacher talked about it in Sunday school.
And I guess black is a real color, isn’t it? I can make it with my crayons when I mix all the colors one on top of the other, but who’d want to? I sometimes use the black crayon, but only by itself. Like yesterday, when I pressed and pressed the crayon into the paper, harder and harder. I scribbled it back and forth making that deep, dark color that seems to be what the air feels like when the lady and the man argue and fight.
I feel like there’s a black cloud in this big, two-story, white house then, and a big black cloud inside my heart, too. I run away from black. But I still name it as a color when I say my colors because it feels so big.
And after rocking, and rocking, and rocking, and saying the colors again and again for a long time, I feel better. The black inside goes away. And I feel safe. Then my heart, which was beating really fast, slows down. And my breathing doesn’t feel so raggedy. And then I just hold MC, and put my hand down on Skye’s soft fur, and cry.
Sometimes instead of colors I will count:
I always say just those five in order. Other times I repeat the number eleven. Again, and again.
And other than my colors and those numbers, the only other thing I’ll say when I’m really, really upset, and scared, and lonely, and lost, because I wish someone would do it, is this:
As I rock, and cry, and hurt, oh it hurts lots, and try to make the black go away, tears burn my eyes, and I rub some fabric, or sometimes Skye’s soft hair, between my fingers.
Why do they have to fight?I wonder to myself. MC and Skye don’t ever answer when I think that question and other questions, probably because I say them just inside my head, but maybe because there are no answers. MC just catches my tears, instead.
After the black inside goes away, I can stop rocking, and I can think. My head stops hurting. I put my hand on Skye, who then usually has his big paws on my leg and places his head in my lap, and I stroke his fur some more. That always feels so good. And lots of time I remember the first day I met him.