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It was a secret that he never felt he could share

We were best friends, deeply in love and happily married for 17 years. Like most couples, we shared our hopes and dreams. Our secret desires and our fears.

Or so I thought.

We'd fought Bill's cancer together and won — at least the first time. Multiple surgeries and several courses of chemo left many scars on his body. One ran in a half-circle from below his hip to just under his heart. I gently traced my fingers across the jagged pink line. He joked he should come with a label "parts missing."

Bill's remark made me laugh, and also want to cry.

"You have all the best parts left," I said. "You still have your heart. And mine."

But as courageous as Bill was about life's challenges, there was one horrible scar my seemingly happy-go-lucky husband simply couldn't share with me. With anyone.

Bill had been sexually abused as a young boy.

I found out almost accidently — after we'd been married for seven years. After the first bout with cancer. After we'd moved five times. After his secret had begun to take a toll on our marriage and my self-esteem.

The fallout of child sexual abuse affects not only the victim. The damage is widespread and generational.

I knew Bill's sister had been sexually abused. And his mother. They were both very candid about the trauma and its after-effects in their lives.

But I was stunned beyond words when Bill's younger sister dropped the bomb one day. The teenage boy who had repeatedly abused her as a young child also had molested Bill.

"You mean he didn't tell you?" she asked.

No. Bill hadn't told me. But why? We shared everything. Or so I thought.

Just hours later, I was peppering Bill with questions.

"Is it true?" I asked. "What happened? When did it happen? Did you tell anyone?"

Bill turned white as a ghost. A blank mask descended over his face, separating us like a thick sheet of ice.

"It only happened once," he said. "I don't want to talk about it. I can't."

Becoming a freaked out — albeit loving — grand inquisitor was probably the worst possible approach. But I had had no experience dealing with post-traumatic stress victims. I simply wanted to get this out in the open so we could "fix it." Together.

Bill gave me no answers. Or so I thought.

"You don't understand," he said. "I can't talk about it. It's not that I won't. I can't. It all goes blank."

Statistics show that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday, according to local social service workers.

Bill was the bravest man I have ever known. But for whatever reason, he never found the courage to face his abuse. And his dark secret cast shadows over us in ways that are too complicated to explain in a single column.

Ten years after his death, I have come to understand that, as a rule, boys do not tell. Even after they are grown. Some will not. Some cannot. Not without the right kind of help. Bill never got that help. And then he ran out of time.

In Monday's Mail Tribune, we will feature a story about a local man who also was a victim of child sexual abuse. But after 40 years of silence, this man found the courage to face his demons. He got the support of a good therapist and now is working to heal himself, his family and fellow victims of child sexual abuse.

I wish Bill could have met him. I wish they could be working together as advocates, protecting other young boys and girls.

Each of us has a role to play in protecting our community's children. Last year, 662 children in Jackson County were confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect.

On Wednesday, April 14, you can take a stand against these preventable tragedies by attending the noon rally in Vogel Plaza sponsored by the Jackson County Child Abuse Network.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.