Mummy's last cuddle

As little Tom stood in the doorway, he saw things no four-year-old should see...

Published by: Louie Matthews & Sharon Ward
Published on: 18th July 2011

What a relief! Plonking down the last box, I looked at the heap of bags, teddies, shoes and computer games surrounding me – we’d done it!
I looked over at my sister Beth, 34, hoping to see her smiling, too. But her trademark beam was gone and her big brown eyes were teary.
‘Oh Beth,’ I said, pulling her in for a hug. ‘Trust me, you’re going to be just fine.’
Any house move’s stressful, but this one was particularly tough. After seven years of marriage, Beth’s husband Mike Stayer, 32, had filed for divorce. Beth hadn’t wanted to split up, wanted to work on things for the sake of their two kids Tom, then four, and Samantha, two.
But Mike had pushed the divorce through anyway. And judging by Beth’s worn-out face, he hadn’t been too friendly about it either.
‘I can’t believe it’s come to this,’ Beth said, sinking down on one of the suitcases.
‘It’s a lovely house,’ I said. ‘You and the kids are going to be happy here.’ What I really wanted to say was: ‘You’re better off without him, Beth! This is a fresh start, a chance to meet someone who really deserves you.’
Truth was, she should have divorced him years ago. I’d never liked Mike, found him arrogant and cold, even when I tried my best to be friendly.
He had to control everything – once I suggested he run a half-marathon with me, and he said he’d only do that if he could win the whole thing!
Sounds crazy, but even this divorce had been about manipulating Beth and making her suffer, rather than giving her freedom. Over the years, he’d made all the decisions, made her feel like her opinion didn’t count. This time his plan had backfired, my lovely sister was going to make a new life without him.
So, although it had been Mike’s decision, I was glad they’d finally split up. Shame she’d still have to see him, as he had joint custody of Tom and Samantha.
Just then, Mike swept into the new house, his eyes narrowing as he surveyed the room.
‘Nice place,’ he grunted. ‘Are the kids ready to go?’
From behind Beth, two cheeky little faces peeped out. Tom was tall for his age, with his mum’s dark hair and big toothy smile. Samantha had chubby little cheeks and a gorgeous giggle.
I expected them to go running over to their dad but, instead, they clung to Beth, their little faces crumpled with worry.
‘I don’t want to go with Daddy,’ whispered Tom. ‘I want to stay here instead.’
Beth didn’t say a word as Mike picked up Samantha and took Tom firmly by the hand.
‘We’re spending time at the old house,’ he ordered. ‘Come on.’
Most little boys would be glad to see their dad, but Tom had looked, well, a bit scared. Was there more to Mike I didn’t know about?
He might have been an arrogant bully, but he’d never been violent towards Beth and the kids.
Never mind, I told myself – the marriage was over, that was the main thing. Life could only get better for Beth now.
She was the complete opposite of her ex-hubby – sweet and kind. As a nurse on a post-natal ward, she even cared for people as a living.
Over the next two weeks, she was in touch constantly, telling me about her new life. ‘It’s so strange to be able to decide everything myself,’ she admitted.
A few days later, I was commuting to work when I logged on to Facebook. There was a message from Susie, who worked with Beth at the hospital.
Then I read the message. Read it again, and again, hoping I’d read it wrong. Beth’s in hospital. There’s been an incident with Mike.
What the hell had happened? Had there been an accident, or something more sinister?
Fingers shaking, I rang the hospital phone number that Susie had given me. A receptionist answered, polite and breezy.
‘It’s Becky Risch,’ I said, the words tumbling out. ‘Apparently, my sister Beth’s been brought in.’
The receptionist’s tone of voice changed. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, sympathetically. ‘I’m afraid your sister’s very badly hurt.’
She wouldn’t give me any more information over the phone, though.
I rushed round to my dad Eddie’s house. He and my mum Pamela Muench had divorced years ago. Together we drove the 50-odd miles from Lafayette to the Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
The silence was deafening, both of us lost in our own horrified thoughts. Only when we ran into the emergency room did dad speak.
‘What’s happened to my daughter?
A policeman took us into a side room.
‘Mike Stayer called us
to your sister’s house this morning,’ he began. ‘He said Beth had attacked him – but there was only a little cut on his hand.’
Police hadn’t been able to figure out why he was covered in blood from such a tiny cut…
‘We searched the house and found your sister in the third floor bathroom,’ he said. ‘There’s no easy way to say this… Beth’s face was smashed in.’
I gripped Dad’s hand, willing myself not to faint as words flew past me. Hammer… paramedics revived Beth… not looking good…
Beth’s beautiful, caring face flashed into my mind. Now it was smashed, bloody. Was Mike really capable of that?
‘Where is he now?’ I asked.
‘We’ve arrested him.’
Suddenly, a horrible thought popped into my head.
The kids!
‘What about Tom and Samantha?’ I asked.
‘They’ve been taken into temporary foster care,’ he replied. ‘We think Tom witnessed some of the attack.’
Tom was only four, what had he seen? It didn’t bear thinking about.
Still stunned, I spoke to Beth’s neurosurgeon on the phone. ‘We’re still running tests,’ he told me. ‘They’ll tell us if your sister’s brain is still working.’
I hardly dared ask the next question. ‘Is she… is she going to make it?’ I stammered.
‘I don’t want to give you any false hope at the moment,’ the surgeon replied.
On auto-pilot, I rang Mum and my brother David, 36, to tell them the news. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Beth had been moved to the critical care unit and we were allowed to see her.
Together, we all tiptoed in, terrified about what we would see.
It was worse than I could have ever imagined. Beth’s beautiful face was twice its normal size. Her right ear was nearly torn away from her face and still bleeding. Six or seven large gashes covered her face, each about two inches long. Both her eyes were swollen and purple.
She was beaten to a pulp. If I hadn’t known it was Beth, I wouldn’t have recognised her.
I was numb with shock, but there was no time to waste. A preliminary hearing was going on at the local courthouse about what would happen to Tom and Samantha. Who would look after them if Beth died? I was single, didn’t earn enough to look after two children, but I’d do it…
‘I want to take care of them,’ Dad told me, as if he was reading my mind.
That afternoon, 24 hours after I’d arrived at the hospital, a nurse took us all aside.
‘Beth isn’t responding to tests,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry but she’s brain dead, there’s no hope of recovery now.’
No! ‘I-I want to say goodbye,’ I said, voice raw. Gathering all my strength, I walked into the room to see my sister for the last time. ‘Goodbye Beth, I love you,’ I said, holding her hands – hands that had cared for so many people.
I’d have given anything for a sign that she was okay. A flutter of eyelids, a twitch of her fingers. But the only movement was a green line beeping across a screen, the only sound the constant whoosh whoosh of the machine keeping her alive. And even that was about to be made silent.
Back at my dad’s house, with two children to look after, we hardly had time to grieve.
‘Mummy, Mummy,’ Samantha kept saying. Just a toddler, she was too young to understand. It was heartbreaking.
As for Tom, he was quiet, his cheeky grin gone. We wanted him to be left alone, but the police had to interview him. Gradually, snatches of information came out.
Tom had walked in on Beth and Mike arguing in the bathroom and seen everything.
‘There was a thump, boom, crash and Mummy was screaming,’ he told the police. ‘There was red stuff everywhere. Daddy saw me watching, and told me to go downstairs again.’
He was four-years-old, and had seen his daddy killing mummy.
Then one day, completely out of the blue, he told me: ‘Daddy’s a bad man.’
He wouldn’t say any more, but
it was enough.
We knew he’d seen things no child should ever have to see.
But why? Mike had divorced Beth, got what he wanted.
Following her death, he’d been charged with murder. But there was a problem. Mike was saying it had all happened in the heat of the moment, even claimed Beth had hit him, too.
The only person who could say otherwise was Tom.
‘We need to prove Mike meant to kill her,’ a prosecutor told us. ‘To make a murder charge stick, Tom would have to give evidence.’
That poor boy had been through enough, we couldn’t make him take the stand in front of a whole court. But if we didn’t, Mike wouldn’t be convicted of murder, only manslaughter.
In the end, it was up to the lawyers to decide.
Meanwhile, we tried to look after the kids as best we could. Tom was having regular counselling sessions, but he still had nightmares.
‘He woke up screaming for his mum again last night,’ Dad told me. ‘I’m trying my best, but I don’t know if it’s good enough.’
Six months after Beth died, I got a phone call from our lawyer. ‘We’ve reached a plea deal,’ he said. ‘Mike’s pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. He’s also pleading guilty to neglect of a dependant for doing it in front of Tom. It means the boy won’t have to give evidence.’
Angry? Relieved? I was a bit of both – but at least this was the best thing for Tom.
Sentencing was set for two months’ time.
On the day, I put on my smartest clothes, determined to show Mike I wasn’t scared of him.
As he walked into the court, he was talking to his lawyer, then his face broke into a smile and he actually laughed!
I’d always thought of him as cold, but this was unbelievable.
The judge called Mike a man without remorse and a coward.
For a man who prided himself on being in control, Mike wouldn’t like that.
Sure enough, his face went red and he went to say something. The prison guard stopped him, though.
You’re not in control now, I thought. And he wouldn’t be for a long time. The judge sentenced him to 43 years in jail. Yes!
It was the best we could have hoped for without the murder charge. Even with parole, Mike won’t be released until Tom and Samantha are adults.
That was last year. Tom’s six now and Samantha, four. They’re still living with Dad, and I visit often. We’re trying to help them lead normal, happy lives.
Meanwhile, Mike hasn’t apologised, or even tried to explain. Our lawyer reckons that he was jealous that Beth had moved on after the divorce.
The other day, I asked Tom if he remembered his mum, and he said no. Part of me was relieved that he doesn’t have bad memories torturing him all the time, but the other part of me was sad.
Beth was such a wonderful person and I want her kids to know that. I’ll try and make sure they do.
Becky Risch, 37, Lafayette, Indiana, USA