Darkness Is a Cannibal

I remember walking up the stairs to Robert’s apartment, determined to end the hateful stalemate that was immoveable, static, a mountain or a moon, and I walked up the stairs trembling and I would end it. I would end it if I died.

I remember most of it like snapshots, the way you remember things that happened when you were a very small child.

I remember the police walking up to our door, and why? Could it have been just because my daughter Abbie was at my house and her dad, Robert, was angry about that? It seems unreasonable, but then everything was unreasonable.

I remember opening the door to them, the way they stood back, one on each side of the door, hands hovering over their holstered guns. One officer asked, “Do you have any weapons?” and I answered, “We’re Mennonite,” a ridiculous answer for what felt like a ridiculous question.

I remember my stepson taking his little brother into his room, trying to protect him from seeing police in the house, and is that a memory, or is it a hope? The police said we may not close any doors, and that may be invention, too. I was underwater, breath held, heart paused, and one officer asked Abbie, “Are you OK to be here? Are you safe here?” and she glared (did she?) over his shoulder and said yes, yes, she was safe, she was fine, and they asked to see papers. They wanted to look at papers with signatures and official seals: is she mine? Is this girl flesh of my flesh? Is she my heart, my soul, my waking and dreaming life and all the hopes and heartaches I have lived? Did a judge, a lawyer, some official person declare her to be so?

Many days or weeks before, but maybe after, I called my son Jacob. It was December, his 18th birthday. “I never have to see you again, Mom. I’m never going to talk to you again. I don’t have to anymore and you can’t make me,” and the world was flat and I was flat and you were flat, too, and the phone burned to dust and someone was there, but who? Who was there? Someone held the parts together because the parts stay together and life goes and we are not flat, except we are. We are flat and so very, very sad.

Later, but not much later because I was leaning against the window in my bedroom and the window was very cold, and I rested my forehead against it and felt the coldness and the coldness kept me tethered to the flat, flat world, and Jacob was on the phone, in my ear, and his voice came out to me but it was carrying his father’s words. I don’t know most of the words anymore. I heard them 1,000, or 10,000, or maybe 1,000,000 times, if you count how often I heard them while I slept and when I made dinner and while I drove, but I don’t remember all of them. I heard them on a little silver flip-phone, and over a Palm Centro, and on a Droid X, and on a Samsung Note and occasionally even face to face. I heard them and they stabbed me all over, each one a tiny piercing needle and I cried until I was a husk of corn, stripped, withered, ugly. Wasted. Useless.

I remember walking up the stairs to Robert’s apartment, determined to end the hateful stalemate that was immoveable, static, a mountain or a moon, and I walked up the stairs trembling and I would end it. I would end it if I died. I would end it if he killed me. I hoped he would kill me. I hoped he would kill me 9 times and burn me down, flat me on the flat earth in the emptiness of life without them. I would die, I would hurt and I would die and it would be so right, so holy, a most perfect thing. I would not live without them anymore. I would not look outside to see some official person with a weapon or a clipboard come to decide about me. I would not watch for the cars with the official seals on them because he hoped I would lose not just the two children we shared, but my other children as well. I would not cry myself to sleep Jacob Abbie I want you I miss you life is empty everything hurts come home come home come home to me I love you so much and I’m flat and everything is burning and still I go to the grocery and pay the gas bill and watch cartoons with your brothers and where is the ground? Why does it buck and curl under my feet this way? I can’t love you this way. I can’t. I can’t. I’m flat. We’re all so flat; there’s nothing but the hate he cultivated and the hate has made us all flat.

I remember hearing my husband murmur to our youngest son, “Stay here with me. Mommy has to cry for awhile, but she’ll be OK,” and our little boy’s voice, angry, asking, “Why are they so mean? Why don’t they come back? Don’t they love us?” and I covered my head with pillows.

I remember walking up those apartment stairs the most. Crumbling concrete stairs, itchy gray wool socks on my feet, and a mild Albuquerque winter day, and I knocked on the door. Robert came to the door and I was ready. I would push my way in, force an end, stop the stalemate and surely one of us would die or sleep that night in a jail cell, but I would end it. I would breech this unbreechable thing with a broken jaw or a pair of handcuffs. Finally, I would see it through to the end.

All those times when he sent official people to my door: nod, nod, no sir, no weapons, yes ma’am, we have food in the kitchen, see? No sir, we don’t spank, yes ma’am we have a pediatrician. We are good, do you have that in your official papers? I am their mother, do you see here where the judge signed? Do you see where some official person with an important title said that these are people I have permission to love? Do you see this seal? This date stamp? This envelope, this name, this signature? I have no weapons, nothing useful except this phone, this hateful phone and these ears to hear and these eyes to see and my regret to keep me awake at night.

But the memories. I remember opening the door, so many times. I remember answering the phone. I remember mistakes, recriminations, allegations, and the cold, cold window against my forehead, and the world dark on the other side, and darkness is a cannibal and hate is a ravenous monster and they ate connection, cohesion, coherence, and left me with these snapshots. I moved the mountain. I breeched the unbreechable, and when I celebrate, I also cry, and I am more whole and more broken, both. I read and sleep and walk and wish that Robert could hurt, and pray to forgive. Forgive him, forgive them, forgive the nameless others, forgive me.

Because I always opened the door.

The Transcendent Familiar 8: Guilt Stricken Sobbing

There are no conclusions to draw here from the story of my divorce, no larger lesson. This is a story, and it is mine, and as of today, it is truth.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

I was in class on a sweltering June day in 1997 when Jacob’s preschool teacher noticed a blister on his chest and called to tell me that he had chicken pox. Abbie had her first blisters by evening.  Late June and early July are the hottest weeks of a New Mexico summer, and that day, the third Monday in June of the year when I was 26 years and not quite 3 months old, was a day to sit poolside, not a day for statistics lectures.

For all the heat and misery in that classroom, I was loathe to be called away. That spring, in our final effort to save our marriage (or to find our way out), Robert and I had started marriage counseling, and when the therapist looked at me and asked, “What do you want to do with your life?”, the answer tumbled out of my mouth with no warning, no forethought, a total surprise. “I want to go back to college,” I said, and although I’d had no inkling that school was a thing I’d wanted even five minutes before I said it, I needed no time to consider. I registered Jacob and Abbie for daycare for the first time, filled out my financial aid forms, and picked up my education where I’d left it the year I fell pregnant with Jacob.

I remember the final weeks and months of my first marriage as if they happened in snapshots instead of real time. A bitter word here, a despairing moment there, and giving my scabbed, spotty children tepid oatmeal baths between stolen minutes of studying. I remember the last time Robert and I found each other’s hands under the covers, seeking comfort in what had been familiar. There were the moments when my fear for our kids made my heart thunder and my breath catch.

I hung on, even though I knew the thing was dead. If it had been broken and ugly from the beginning, it had, however briefly, been a marriage, but not anymore. By the fall of 1996, it hung, limp and breathless. By summer 1997, it had begun to smell, and we waited.

My motivations for waiting were complex and largely unconscious, but one reason I allowed it to linger as long as it did was for Abbie. She was very much my baby, and while she adored her dad, I feared that if he moved out while she was so young, she would never really bond with him.

I wanted out. In every moment, I wished for it to be over, but my fear for Jacob and Abbie knocked the breath out of me. While I knew the marriage was doomed, I couldn’t quite take that last step and ask Robert to leave. For a year, he waited for me to leave, and I waited for him to leave, and together, separately, we waited.

So it was that a marriage, long dead, ultimately ended on an impulse of anger on July 4, 1997.

I don’t remember before. I don’t remember waking, or making coffee, or changing Abbie’s diaper, or any of the first-of-the-morning activities. My memory begins in media res. I was wearing pink shorts. Jacob was naked. I was holding Abbie, my left arm wrapped around her, my left hand on her juicy thigh, and was I plugging in a fan to cool us all off? Perhaps, or maybe I was putting The Land Before Time tape into the VCR for Jacob. We had plans to go to my parents’ house in the afternoon to barbecue.

Robert (Had he been sleeping? Did I say something first?) screamed, “How can you expect to fix this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? How can you be married to me if you won’t have sex with me?”

“Why would I have sex with someone who hates me?” I screamed back.

“You know what? You’re right. I don’t love you. I don’t love you. I’m leaving. I don’t love you,” and he seemed to be testing the words and the sounds they made, and he picked up a pencil and a pad of paper, and he left.

That argument is Jacob’s sole memory of his parents marriage.

Robert came back an hour later and sat down on the couch. “Were you looking for an apartment?” I asked.

“Yes, as soon as I find a place, I’m out of here.”

“Fine,” I said, “but if you’re leaving, go now. Couch surf or something.”

He put a few things in his backpack and rode away on his motorcycle, and as soon as he was gone I took off my wedding ring and put it in my jewelry box. When our final decree of divorce was granted almost a year later, it was nothing but the punctuation. I got divorced on July 4, 1997, whatever the court records may say.

I had lost almost everything—dignity, integrity, hope, even my voice. What I had left, what I clung to as the ground under me rocked and shifted, was my love for Jacob and Abbie. I wanted nothing for myself (and oh, is that not the great mistake, that we can hope nothing for ourselves and everything for our children?) and all things for them. That they should feel secure, loved, and safe was the rock in front of me, and could I scale it? Could I climb that thing, with my fear and my shame weighing me down, holding me fast to the ground?

Sort of.

A little.

Not really.

Eventually, not at all.

If I am clear-eyed, if I look into the past, no matter how dark that glass may be, I see that I failed.

Which is not to say that I didn’t do the best I could. I did.

Oh, how I want to flagellate myself some more. I could stay awake for a week—a month—a year, even, and whip myself raw. I could bang my head against every wall, cut myself with every available sharp thing, starve myself until I am flesh stretched over angles of bone and eat until I am immobile, and no punishment, not even my death, would change the past.

I can stay awake as many nights as I want, hurt and punish myself in all possible ways, and I will still have married a man who hurt me, and I will have hurt him. I will still have had children with that man, and we will still have hurt those children. That happened.

I did that.

In some space of my heart, I will never lay down that burden. The weight of it belongs to me and I would be faithless, even treacherous, if I cast it aside.

There is a time for everything, as the saying is, and the two years after Robert and I broke up were a time for all things. I wept, and I laughed. I broke down, and I built up. I embraced some of the wrong men, but I eventually got around to refraining from such embraces.

Not quite two years after Robert moved out, my close friends had a baby, and watching them with their sweet, wonderful new daughter, I remembered the day we brought Jacob home from the hospital. I lay our baby in his Moses basket, swaddled tight, and Robert stood over him, rubbing his hands together. “I’m so proud, I just can’t stand it. Look at him! He’s too perfect. I’m so proud,” he said, over and over.

Someone told me once that in Italian, there is a word for a person you once loved but don’t anymore. I wish there was a word in English for such a person. My relationship with Robert was never, will never be, simple or clean or easy. We were wrong together.

But.

There was good. There was some happy. There are those two extraordinary people who would not be, had we not done our damage with each other. In that terrible, terrifying, impossible-to-reconcile juxtaposition of two realities, each true, but completely at odds with the other, I learned to live balanced atop a fence. I regret; I celebrate. I hate; I love.

For those two, for my children, those enchanting people who are flesh of my flesh, who are living their own lives and bearing their own witness to the ways their parents have succeeded and failed, for those two, I stay here, in reality. I will not hide in bitterness or fantasy. I will not blame their dad, nor will I blame myself. I claim my part; I release to Robert his, and if it lays on the ground unclaimed, so be it. I do this imperfectly, with almost no finesse or style (no points for such things, anyhow).

There are no conclusions to draw here, no larger lesson. This is a story, and it is mine, and as of today, it is truth.

Midmorning on the day after Robert moved out, I was kneeling in the hall, folding sheets and putting them away in the cabinet. The kids were there, playing and goofing, giggling at each other, and we were singing that little song about the hole in the lake, and the log in the hole, and the frog. All of a sudden, relief poured over me like water. He’s not coming back. I’m not married to him. We are not married anymore. I will sleep alone tonight.

For just one minute, maybe 2, surely no more, it was almost too wonderful to bear. I grabbed those two kids up and we three rolled together on the carpet and laughed.

 

We’ve tried to wash our hands of all of this.
We never talk of our lacking relationships,
and how we’re guilt stricken sobbing with our
heads on the floor.

The Success of Love

Parental Alienation Syndrome creates a world in which the ground under our feet shifts and rolls without notice.

The success of love is in the loving. —Mother Teresa

A few days ago I read the first post I ever wrote about my two eldest children, Jacob and Abbie, and how they came to live full-time with their dad. I sat at my computer, eyes goggling half-out of my head, unable to believe I had accomplished the mental-gymnastics necessary to believe what I wrote.

Better?

Better?!?

Like hell it was better, but I definitely believed it at the time, at least at the top of my consciousness. I was mostly (sort of? who knows) convinced that Jacob and Abbie’s dad was a better parent than I; that I was, if not abusive, at least profoundly deficient.

Truth? Yes, I’ll tell the truth: in some ways, in the very beginning, it was a relief to have them gone. I missed them terribly, but at the same time, Carter was so sick that I was living far beyond the limits of my emotional and physical resources and I was stretched much too thin.

More truth? In spite of all that I believe now, and all that I am about to say, I was at my low point as a parent when Jacob and Abbie left. The things other people did and said can’t absolve me of my responsibility, and I am responsible. I did the best I could under terrible circumstances, but that isn’t the same as being innocent.

When they moved out, I never imagined for one minute that they would go away and stay away. I assumed that, given the freedom to choose, they would spend most nights at their dad’s house and just one or two (as opposed to four, as it had always been)  per week at mine. I thought they would come around a few days a week after school, or hang out with us sometimes on Saturdays.

When I didn’t see them for a few weeks, I thought they needed some breathing room, a chance to decompress from the difficulties of life at chez Jones, and so I gave it to them. This was not a decision I made lightly. I prayed and pondered and agonized, staying up late at night writing and crying. Ultimately, though, I decided to live by the credo, “This is a family. We take volunteers, not hostages.”

So while I continued to invite my kids to dinner and other family events, and kept calling them several times a week, and texted them every night to say goodnight and tell them I loved them, I didn’t push or force. I stepped back, focused my energy on Carter and helping him get stable, and I waited.

As carefully as I made that decision, it was absolutely the wrong one. What I didn’t see, the giant piece of the puzzle that I didn’t even know I was missing, was this: my kids’ dad and other members of my family were actively working to keep my kids away from me. That, combined with their anger at my genuine shortcomings, stewed in a broth of early-adolescence, created a case of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) that I didn’t recognize until it was two years entrenched.

The kids’ resentments against me grew and deepened both because adults they love and care about encouraged (in overt and covert ways) those resentments, and because they saw me so rarely (we didn’t see each other for months at a stretch sometimes), I didn’t have enough time to show them that I wasn’t the person they had created in their minds.

Starting in the summer of 2011, when I began to push hard in any way I could to have more time with my kids, I watched it happen: when they were with me more, they started to soften. Their defenses began to relax as they let the reality-mom impact idea-mom. Then, something would happen (something always happened), I would see the kids less, and the fierce, hateful, horrible words would come from the kids’ mouths to my heart again. The same words that their dad and other people spoke to them about me.

Never, ever, ever underestimate the power of a good story.

My family’s experience of parental alienation syndrome is unusual in that the alienation began long after the divorce itself. In fact, Robert and I co-parented fairly peacefully for quite a few years. Or so I believed; I know now that he wanted our kids all to himself long before he got them, and when the opportunity presented itself, he took it. If my kids’ PAS had been more typical (that is, happening during the immediate post-divorce months or years), someone probably would have identified it sooner. As it was, I flew blind for a long, long time before I knew what was happening.

My 18-year-old son and I remain fairly alienated (though I see signs of progress), but my daughter has been home with me now for several months and, while PAS will always be one of the most painful experiences of my life, I’m healing.

Having my beautiful, brilliant daughter, with her heart wide open and her mind searching for her truth, doesn’t hurt one tiny bit.

For other alienated parents, this is what I know:

When you doubt yourself, breathe deep and remember that you don’t deserve this; what they say isn’t true. Oh, I know. I know that you weren’t perfect; that you made mistakes; that you were weak and broken and you failed in ways large and small. Still, you don’t deserve this.

Don’t give up.

Don’t let them (your kids, their other parent, and any other people involved in your children’s alienation) define you. You define you. There is no solution to PAS, no sure way to save our kids or our relationships with them, but I know that living our own lives with integrity is the start.

Never live down to their expectations. Live up to your own.

You are living in the vast darkness and hope is a tiny, flickering flame, almost invisible. Oh, I know, and my heart is broken because you are in the darkness and I remember the darkness and it is so large. So endless. So damn heavy. My grief was like being chained to a line of cinderblocks that I dragged behind me.

Find love. Find as much love as you can, because you deserve love. You deserve people and kindness and togetherness and a whole, fulfilling life, in spite of the terrible hole that won’t be filled by anyone but your children. Still, surround yourself with people who care about you and who see you as you are—gifts, flaws, and all. Those people who assume that only a terrible parent could ever be alienated from his or her children should be tossed overboard immediately.

Don’t give up.

Nourish your spirit, whatever that means for you. Read good books (or trashy ones), go to church, spend time with friends, write a blog, write a journal, pray, go dancing, learn to knit, grow a garden, or take up painting, but find something that feeds your soul.

PAS creates a world in which the ground under our feet shifts and rolls without notice; we need nurturing and support and a strong spirit to survive.

Your kids do need you. No matter how loudly they say they don’t, they do. No matter what they say you did, they need you. They may not hear your words of love (though you should never stop speaking them) but they see you. That bedroom you dust and vacuum every week for your son is not wasted space; it’s an invitation. That bicycle in the garage, with its oiled chain and inflated tires, is a love note that your daughter notices every time she sees it. The phone calls they ignore, the texts they don’t answer, the gifts they return, all speak their own language.

As long as our children are alive, there is hope.

Don’t give up.

Behind My Eyes

I start a load of laundry, take the boy to school, pour a cup of coffee, put the dogs out, answer email.

I fold a load of laundry, make some phone calls, drink another cup of coffee, sit at my desk and write a few listless words that won’t go where I want them to go.

I drink more coffee, let the plumber into the house, fold more laundry, stare at the listless words.

I have little notes on my desk, reminders of the things that, if I could do them, would make me happier, or so I believe…

Tell the truth no matter what.

Give yourself a fucking break.

To thine own self be true.

I breathe.

What is the story, the first story, the one right behind my eyes, the one clogging up all the other stories?

The not-an-answer comes back: I’m tired. So tired.

On the heels of the not-an-answer comes the familiar diatribe: Other people survive. Other people live with worse traumas, larger griefs, more pain. They get the fuck on with it. They create. They work. They move on.

I breathe again.

Give yourself a fucking break.

Do something new, something that will rattle the script and force a change, anything to break the stalemate.

I walk the dogs, call a friend, eat a bowl of rice, say a prayer.

I sit at my desk and the story right behind my eyes is the same as it ever was:

I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids.

I want my fucking kids.

I want them.

But here is the terrible truth: no matter what he did, no matter how terrible it was, he wins.

He has my children.

I don’t kiss my integrity goodnight, or drive it to school in the morning. I didn’t buy my integrity a prom dress or teach it how to drive.

My integrity is a cold and heavy stone when my kids’ beds are empty. Not something in which I take pride, but something I drag behind me everywhere I go.

I’m OK. Really and truly, I am mostly OK. I sing, sometimes, when I do the laundry, and I enjoy the coffee, and the little boy and the less-little boy and the husband and the dogs are lovely and warm and they make me so happy and grateful that I sometimes weep.

Until I sit down to write and the story right behind my eyes is the same as it ever was:

I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids.

I want my fucking kids.

I want them.

The Transcendent Familiar 7: Choking on the Ashes

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
If you haven’t read parts 1-6, that’s OK. This one stands pretty well all by itself.

Peek with me into a house and observe the family therein.

There’s the dad, young and handsome, laughing at two tiny children who are splashing and playing in the bath.

There’s the mom, also young, and she would be pretty if she didn’t look so tired and puffy, getting small jammies out of dresser drawers.

The dad lifts the older of the two children out of the bath and towels him off. The boy runs across the hall and into the bedroom where the mom is waiting. He flings his tiny body onto his bed, howling, “To infinity…and beyond!”

“Silly boy!” the mom says, and she reaches for him, pajamas at the ready, and he grabs her arms, pulling her to the bed with him.

“Read Sam, Mommy! Can we read Sam?”

“Again? Jacob, we have tons of books! Let’s read a different book, OK?”

“No,” and the little boy shakes his head firmly. “Read Sam.”

“OK,” the mom sighs, “but jammies first.”

The little girl comes in then, all pink pudge and halo of ginger hair. She climbs onto her brothers bed, imitating his shouts with her own, “Ifity! To ifity!”

They are beautiful children—healthy and exuberant and sweet. The mom puts a diaper on the little girl and helps both children with their pajamas. She reads Green Eggs and Ham while the boy sucks on two of his fingers and the girl sucks on her binky.

The mom tucks the little boy into his bed while the dad tucks the little girl into hers. They pass each other in the hall, switching rooms so that she can kiss the little girl and he can kiss the little boy.

The dad goes to the couch in the living room and turns on the television. The mom moves past him, to a desk in the den where she turns on a computer. She connects to the internet and spends an hour on UseNet, reading and responding to messages on boards about depression, marriage, politics, and parenting.

At 8:00, her husband appears in the doorway. “Hey, you wanna get it on?” he asks, and she turns to him, fear and disgust plain on her face.

“I…” she begins, but he interrupts her.

“God, you make me sick. How do you think we’ll save this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? Why the fuck would I want to touch you, anyway? Look at yourself! Look at you!”

She does. She looks down at her stained shorts and sloppy t-shirt and her face is desperate and despondent for a moment. She slumps in her chair.

“Jesus, you don’t even try,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s a good thing the people in that goddamn computer can’t see you or they’d tell you to go fuck yourself.”

“Like you’re any better,” she says, standing and moving toward him. “What the hell is that? Wanna get it on? Is that… what? Romance? Love? You haven’t said two words to me since you came home from work!”

“Whatever. I’m sick of talking to you. Why don’t you just get the fuck out? If you won’t have sex with me there’s no point. Just go away.”

“Fine,” she says. “I’ll get the kids.”

“Like hell you will! You won’t take my kids out of this house!” he shouts, and one of the children cries out. He blocks the woman’s path so that she can’t go down the hall to the bedrooms.

“I’m taking the kids!” she screams at him. “Move!”

He laughs at her, shoves her backwards into a bookshelf. She looks stunned as books and photos thump to the floor. He is nearly nose to nose with her, shouting, “Those kids are mine. I’ll tell the judge you’ve been in the nut hatch and you’ll never see them again! You could just kill yourself right now and no one would give a shit. You’re crazy! Fat and crazy! You disgust me!”

There is another cry from one of the children. The woman makes another attempt to push her way past her husband and he shoves her again. This time she lands on the floor atop the books and photos.

She sees the phone amid the clutter and grabs it, running for the back door as she dials. “Dad?” she says into the phone, stepping onto the back patio. “I need you to come over right now.”

She waits on the back patio until she hears her dad’s truck in the driveway. Walking through the house she sees her husband, still standing sentry near the opening to the hallway. “My dad is here,” she says.

He shakes his head and smirks at her a little, then sits down on the couch and turns on the TV.

When her dad comes into the house, the mom picks up the children, one in each arm, and takes them to the car. She buckles them into their seats and drives the six blocks to her parents’ house. She sings the children back to sleep then lays, listening to her babies’ breath, until dawn. She does not cry.

At breakfast, her parents ask her, “What happened?”

“Just a fight,” she says.

“You should go home after we eat,” her mom says, “before it turns into a big deal.”

“Yeah,” says her dad, “the longer you wait the more uncomfortable it will be.”

And so she does.


What else could I write?
I don’t have the right.
What else should I be?
All apologies.