Friday, October 22, 2010

Prepare to Meet Your Maker

{photo by erica}

I closed the door behind me and locked it.

I lit a few votive candles and placed them around the edge of the bathtub, which was filling with water.  I squeezed the oversized bottle of Dawn dishwashing liquid that I had grabbed from under the kitchen sink over the tub, and watched the stream of blue-green gel magically transform to bubbles under the hot stream of water.  It was either dishwashing soap or bubble gum-scented Mr. Bubble bubble bath, a gift from Barbara (their grandmother) to Claire last Valentine’s Day.

I huffed as I bent over my protruding belly in an effort to shimmy off the navy blue leggings that I’d worn all day.  The legging knees were thin and faded, attesting to the fact that I spent much of my day on the ground reading, conducting “story time,” and collecting stray toys.    I turned off the light.  I was too scared and self-conscious to look at my body in the harsh and unforgiving glare that the 100-watt bulbs flanking the bathroom mirror would have bathed me in.  My bra was enormous.  “Body armor for the pregnant woman,” I thought to myself.  As the tub filled, I finally snuck a peek at my reflection in the mirror.  Shit.  I’d read about men who found pregnant women’s bodies beautiful -- a turn-on even -- testimony to her femininity and reproductive power.  But I just saw Shamu.  I was big, and white.  One blue vein that stretched across my stomach caused me to wonder momentarily if one of the daycare kids had dragged a marker across it without me noticing.

I carefully dipped my foot into the hot water.  The Dawn dishwashing liquid was doing its thing rather successfully.  Mounds of glistening white bubbles beckoned, and I was happy to take warm refuge under them.

The bubbles crackled and popped as I slowly swished around before sinking below the top layer.  Using my foot, I turned the water off and closed my eyes, reveling in the sudden quiet.  I could hear Claire playing in the room next to the kitchen that had been turned into a playroom.  She was announcing her costume, one piece at a time.  She must be using the costumes in the dress-up basket.  In the background the TV droned on, and I was pretty sure that I heard “Walker Texas Ranger,” Mike’s favorite show.  I pictured him and my stepson, Ryan sitting on the couch, one at each end, a pillow held to their stomachs, as they became engrossed in the take-no-prisoners action/drama.  They spent most of their “quality” time either in front of the television or on a baseball field.  On a field or court seemed to be the only forum in which they could communicate and bond.  Maybe that’s how most fathers and sons connected -- I wasn’t sure.  I just knew that there had also been times that Mike had tried to teach Ryan how to wash the car or mow the lawn properly, but those had been brief lessons that usually ended with Mike yelling and Ryan sulking in his room.

Tomorrow, Ryan would be going to his Grandmother’s house.  I wasn’t quite sure about the turmoil of emotions I was feeling, but the overwhelming sense of relief knowing there was one less thing to worry about had unquestionably buoyed my spirits.

I looked over the mountain of breasts and stomach bobbing amidst the glittering dish soap bubbles that filled the tub.  At the end of the bathtub, stacked like an awkward, plastic orgy, were five naked Barbie dolls with stiff matted hair that stood straight up.  Their long limbs and nipple-less breasts made me laugh, as I silently compared my real body to the toy female icon.  The candles flickered and outlined the shadow of my belly on the wall in the bathroom, and I couldn’t help but think about how I felt more like a bomb-shelter than a bombshell.

There was a knock on the bathroom door.


It was Claire.

“Mommy’s taking a bath sweetheart!” 

“I know.  But…Mommy?”

“Yes Sweetie?”

“Can I have a glass of milk?”

I briefly wondered why she hadn’t asked Mike.  She knew he was in the living room.  There must be a commercial break.  That stupid show was probably even a re-run.


“Honey, can you go ask your Daddy?  He can pour you a glass of milk.”

There was a pause, a short silence followed by the patter of little feet disappearing into the living room, then shortly reappearing.

“Mommy?  Daddy’s show is on.  Can you get it?”

I sighed and lifted my heavy body out of the tub, rivulets of soapy water cascading down my swollen bosom and belly.

“Just a minute, Honey, I’m coming."

As I pulled my fortress of a body from my bubbly sanctuary, I mentally raised my fist at “Walker, Texas Ranger.”  A round-house kick to the face from Chuck Norris would apparently defeat half the hardened criminals in the Texas dustbowl, but I would pay to see him come face to face with a naked, pissed-off, hormonal, pregnant woman.  Picturing this showdown, in what would be the last episode ever, was my only revenge on Bill for his absentee parenting.  My heroine rose from the tub, blood boiling, and uttered the last words Chuck Norris would ever hear:  “Prepare to meet your maker.”

“What, Mommy?”

“Nothing, Honey.  I’m coming.” 

{Excerpt from Before the Light}

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Promise Keepers

By definition, “Promise Keepers,” or “PK,” as the legion of members refer to it, is a group of Christian men, mostly husbands and fathers, who subscribe to a set of Christian-based rules rooted in the conservative and old-fashioned notions of family, in which the father and husband is the ultimate authority.  They meet often, sometimes in church, sometimes at each other’s houses during Bible study and ““Men’s Accountability Group”” sessions, sometimes in hoards – large numbers of them filing into conference rooms or convention centers.

I’ve seen them -- I’ve been to one of those gatherings, one of the few where they allow wives and girlfriends to attend.  Usually, women are not allowed into the auditorium or to the seminars at all.  Women are, however, allowed to sell PK t-shirts and key chains in the booths at the front entrance.  At the large gatherings, the men of Promise Keepers can be seen holding their Bibles in one hand, gripping them like footballs.  They file in, one after the other, into the stadium-like convention hall wearing Dockers, golf shirts bought at Costco, white tube socks, and the latest high-top Nike's.  The outer layer is usually a navy blue or forest green waist-length jacket, or sometimes an NFL windbreaker or Old Navy jersey.  Or, as in my husband’s case, a Big Dog dark purple sweatshirt.

No matter what the attire, everyone has the same stoic looks on their faces of born-again certitude.  It is the sort of look that surely adorned the same faces during the halftime speeches of their high school football coaches.  The soldiers listen in rapt attention, soaking up the words of wisdom like loyal, earnest puppy dogs.

The PK army I witnessed cheered a lot.  Staring intently from the multi-layered bleachers, they focused on the massive drop-down screen to absorb the impassioned words of the righteous speakers -- Suburban Prophets preaching about the honor and integrity involved with leading a promise-keeping sort of life.

“Put your wives on pedestals.”
“Be there for your children.”
“Lead your family with strength, courage, faithfulness, and integrity.”

Admirable messages, really.

On the third day of the Portland PK convention, I stood silently observing my comrades on the light-rail train into town.  We stood, packed like sardines, into the train after parking several blocks away due to the sheer number of devoted Christian followers attending the gathering on this Sunday afternoon.  I looked into the smiling, proud faces of the other predominantly white and well-dressed suburban women on this particular train car.  One woman tightly clutched her husband’s hand into her own as her huge purse dangled from her shoulder.  A pastel, calico, quilted book cover on her Bible peeked out of the top of her bag as she looked out the window of the train.  She stared blankly out the window past the homeless man in a floral skirt rifling through a garbage can, then turned her face up to project an endearing grin of pride at her square-jawed husband with the crew-cut hair.  Without even looking down at her, he squeezed her hand, gained eye contact with a fellow retirement-aged high school linebacker in pleated acid washed jeans and issued a respectful, manly half-nod at him.

I caught myself thinking that men are always looking for some sort of clubhouse, some kind of fraternity.  Promise Keepers certainly fit the bill, and it was Christian-sanctioned.  Like a modern day Elks Club, but more acceptable, respected even, by the wives who give their husbands unquestioning permission to meet and bond with other Jesus-loving jocks.

I am jaded now.  Back then, I considered myself a good Christian suburban wife and mother and felt a huge sense of confidence and security in the fact that my husband, rather than playing poker or visiting bars with his buddies, was meeting with other Christian men, reading scripture and discussing how to become a better husband and father through the word of God.

I followed my husband, grabbing his thick, meaty hand as we moved en masse with the parade of pious PK couples.  It had been a weekend event for Mike and most of the men from our church.  The PK convention was a well-planned and advertised gathering at the Rose Garden arena, beginning with a Friday night meet-and-greet and evening service.  Saturday was a day-long event, complete with individual seminars, like “Help with Marriage and Family” and “Help with Sexual Purity,” ending again with a ground prayer and something akin to saying “good game,” but more Jesus-like than smacking each other on the butt or punching each other in the shoulder.  Embracing your neighbor and giving him the strong one-pump handshake was the PK way to end a huddle.

We stood about 50 rows up.  Sunday’s events were to be the icing on the cake of the retreat, and all the men had brought their wives to share with them not only the gospel, but to participate in a mass renewal of vows.  We were surrounded by a sea of fellow PK couples numbering in the thousands, all of us there to benefit from their refresher course in Promise Keepers official instructions on how to conduct our marriages in the approved PK way.

We looked ahead dutifully, our eyes fixed on the big-screen version of the little man dressed in a suit and tie on the stage far below us.  We’d have looked with duty and reverence into his real eyes if he hadn’t been so tiny and far away.  The massive television version of him floating in the sky above the stage commanded our attention anyway.

“Dearly beloved,” he began.  In my mind, I giggled like a dorky 14-year old girl remembering my favorite Prince song that began the exact same way, but quickly collected myself and stared intently ahead again, rejoining my humorless brothers and sisters.

We chanted in a monotone hum, repeating obediently the words belted out with conviction by the little PK man on stage.  He had brought his own wife on stage with him, her head down in prayer, also repeating his pious poem of marital vows.

When it was over, there was a moment of silence, except for a few mumbled “Amens” and sighs.  Almost everyone’s head was down, and one could feel reverence lingering in the air, like a thick cloud of holy smoke.  Soon, everyone looked up again, and, with permission from the suit onstage, the men quietly shook hands of the fellow Promise Keepers next to him, the vice-grip-one-bump-shake that looked like the secret handshake of the PK; then the men turned afterwards to their wives to hug them.  No passionate kisses here, or lascivious looks of desire or longing that would indicate that wild sex would follow in the back of the minivan or the church parking lot after the service was over.  Instead, there were lukewarm, lingering hugs between dutiful husbands and wives, followed by a sigh of collective relief to have gotten through this particular string of words one more time. 

Marriage vows had been resealed, like Tupperware. 
We had renewed them as a herd.

We filed out again through the cold metal turnstiles one couple at a time, slowly escaping the group vow renewal.  I felt like a part of a herd of silent and God-fearing cattle, waiting for the slightly numbing effects of the whole ordeal to either sink in or wear off.  Ranks of golf-shirted PK volunteers flanked the exits, holding mass quantities of 18” x 24” cardboard-backed, vacuum-sealed, cellophane copies of large diploma-like certificates to testify and remind our friends and family that we had renewed our vows on this day.  I wondered for a moment if I were supposed to frame it.  If I did, where was I supposed to hang it?  Over the fireplace?  Over my bed?  I wanted to say “What the hell?” when the PK guy looked over my head as he handed it to me, but I was afraid of being inappropriate and violating the orderliness of our parade to the exit.

Back on the train to the suburbs, each woman gripped her shiny cellophane-wrapped diploma tightly, and stared out the window next to her husband.

Only a few months later, one of Mike’s friends from the “Men’s Accountability Group” was helping Mike move his bedroom furniture from our house.  Mike was moving out after what I now refer to as "The Big Bang", and he'd enlisted a fellow Promise Keeper to help him deconstruct our home and belongings.  Matt looked into the garage to take inventory of which items needed to be loaded into the back of his red pick-up truck. 

There, against the wall, were the disassembled remnants of our bedroom -- the headboard, dresser, mirror, and nightstand -- the furniture I’d shared with my husband for almost 17 years.

I’d washed and folded the sheets and packed them in a box.  Matt silently loaded everything into the car along with Mike’s golf clubs, camping equipment, boxes of miscellaneous items, and some tools.  When almost everything was out of the garage, he asked me if there was anything else that belonged to Mike.  I quietly eyed the almost empty room. 

The huge Promise Keeper diploma announcing our renewed vows leaned against the wall, flanked by a stray dust bunny.

“Just one more thing,” I said, as I handed him the still cellophane-wrapped certificate.

{ exerpt from upcoming E-book, Before the Light }

Monday, October 18, 2010

Solomon in a Nutshell

                                                                                                            {photo by Angelhead}

In my old life, the life I led with my children’s father, I was deeply involved in our church.  Our family belonged to our neighborhood’s New Methodist congregation.  I filled in as the pre-school Sunday teaching assistant sometimes while my husband ushered or attended the Men’s Accountability Group sessions.  One particular Sunday, I was asked to read a storybook version of “King Solomon’s Judgment.”

I sat criss-cross-applesauce on the floor in the circle of children with my then, seven year old daughter Claire, resting her head on my knee.  The kids snuggled into the faded calico floor pillows while I read.  That Sunday morning, I didn’t have any idea how intimately I would come to know the theme of this parable.
I didn’t realize then that, soon, I would face a similar choice to the mother in the story.
The story goes something like this…

Two women, each of whom had young sons of the same age, lived in the same village.  One night, one of the women woke to find that her son had died in his sleep.  Devastated and desperate, the weeping mother crept in the middle of the night to the other woman’s home and silently stole the sleeping child to replace her own.

In the morning, the woman whose son had been stolen was panicked.  She wailed and cried and thought she had lost her son until she saw him in the arms of her neighbor.  She demanded that the woman return her child to her, but the woman whose son had died refused.  She insisted that the child’s mother was lying.  Both women were taken, along with the child, to the royal court for King Solomon to decide who the rightful mother was.

The wise king ordered the child to be placed in front of him.  He beckoned for a guard to bring his sword.  He raised his sword over the child and shouted “Since there is no clear way of knowing who the mother is, we will split him between the two of them.”  He raised his sword, as if to divide the crying child with it.

“No!  Let him go to that woman!” The real mother shouted once she saw her son in danger.  She begged Solomon to give her son to the woman who posed as her child’s mother.  “She can have him!”

King Solomon however, had never meant to harm the child, and lowered his sword and pointed to the woman who had been so willing to give her son away to the other woman.  Wise Solomon knew that only the boy’s real mother would love her son so deeply that she would quickly forfeit him to another person rather than risk him being harmed.

A real mother always chooses what is best for her child.  Even when it is not what is best for her.

My three children are my heart and soul.  I think all parents feel this way, like there is an invisible cord wrapped tightly around you, tugging at your very core, always attaching you to your children, no matter how old or far away they are.  I tell my children how much I love them all the time.   Sometimes they roll their eyes and think I’m being corny, but for all they’ve already been through, they are amazingly well adjusted and positive.  They radiate intelligence and happiness and sometimes roll with the punches better than any of the parent figures in our little family drama.  I feel lucky they remain relatively unscathed.

But not long ago, on our drive to Book Fair night at her school, my youngest daughter Faith, dressed in her “Fancy Nancy” costume, told me that her stepmom Wanda had told her that day that I didn’t love her as much as she did.  Wanda had told my daughter that the reason I was not the full time mom was because I did not “fight” for her.

My heart lurched.

I took a deep breath and explained to Faith that I did love her…  VERY much.  I measured my voice to stay calm and positive, and assured her that I decided back when I thought I had no other choice, that for her to spend most of the week with her father and stepmother was better for her because of their neighborhood, their large house, the school she would be able to attend and because of all of our work schedules.  I tried to explain that I had wanted what would be best for her without having to “fight.”

Faith took my answer in stride.  Once we arrived at the Book Fair, she hugged me around the neck and held my hand as she skipped down the hall in her boa and glittery ensemble to join her class in the library.  I watched Faith giggling with her friends, examining paperbacks and bookmarks for sale at the costume party/book fair and I realized she’d probably already forgotten her stepmother’s words.  But those words resonated within me and coiled themselves around my throat and heart.  That night especially, I wanted to hate Wanda for saying that to my daughter.  I wanted to confront her and set her straight -- but I couldn’t.

Because Wanda was right.

I didn’t “fight” for my children.  For many reasons.  That night, I had to remind myself of those reasons over and over.  After what happened with my husband, I didn’t know how to fight.  Back then, I was too stunned, haunted, and worn down.  I didn’t have the confidence or the energy to fight, and I couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer.  I often wonder if there are other women who go through things like I did, then just crumble… in so many ways.

But the biggest reason I didn’t “fight” was because I thought I was doing what was best for my children.

I watched Faith move confidently around the library with her friends, smiling and laughing, and it gave me comfort.  I miss my children every day that they are not with me, and I often wish often that I had been able to do things differently back then.  There is no King Solomon in my story to return my children to me.  But I know they are healthy and happy, and there is no distance long enough to disconnect the invisible tether between us. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010


                                                                                                      {photo by Cassie Kammerzell}

Years later (15 to be exact) I sat at the top of the stairs in my Lake Oswego townhouse, looking down at the cold, white, entry tiles on the floor.  Their simple, straightforward pattern, with the predictable line of caulking in between momentarily fascinated me.  Little things like this are reassuring when the rest of your world is turned upside down.

It was the first week of August.  I had been in the Lake Oswego townhouse for one year exactly.  It had served as a safe-haven, the perfect landing pad for the children and me after the Big Bang, because it was an in between place -- purgatory.  It wasn’t Beaverton, where Mike lived.  Staying there held too many painful memories.  It wasn’t Wilsonville either, where I’d grown up and my parents still lived.  If I’d moved back to Wilsonville and lived in an apartment near them, I would have felt like I’d taken a big step backwards.  Because I drove from home to my job downtown, then to Bill’s, then back home on a daily basis, living in Wilsonville would have made the daily commute untenable.  The townhouse in Lake Oswego was comfortable and safe.  I was near Jenny, Beth, and RJ, my friends who had helped me and provided support throughout the changes and challenges I had been through.

Once Mike and I agreed it was in the kids’ best interest to change our parenting time and their residence, I gave two-weeks notice at the townhouse.  Since I’d have the children each Friday through Monday, I could move closer to my job downtown.  I no longer had to consider the school district I lived in.  Mike and his new girlfriend lived within the boundaries of the Evergreen school district, which was considered one of the best in the region.

I boxed up the last of the children’s books from the shelves in their bedroom.  Goodnight Elmo was the last thin paperback, and I looked at the worn edges and bright red cover before slipping it into the box for my son Jackson.  I’d read it to him every night before bed until he was four, back in our old life when I had the time and energy to read to my children.  Tears welled up in my eyes, and my heart lodged itself in my throat.  Was I making the right decision?  I kept asking myself the question.  Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough.  I doubted myself.  I worried and wondered what I was doing, if it really was the right thing for my children.  Logically, it seemed the best thing for them, but I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of loss and dread, like I’d given up in some way.  Why wasn’t I stronger?  I felt like a bad and weak mother.  I had never imagined not having my children in my custody all the time, and now the house and my life was too quiet without them.  But they were with their Dad now.  They would get back the sense of routine and comfort that they used to have, and that they needed, I told myself.

Exhausted from emotional turmoil and a lack of sleep, I was on the edge of breaking down and crying on the floor, right there at the top of the stairs -- again.  But instead, I pushed the nagging worry aside and got back to work.  I assured myself that this was the best thing -- the only thing -- that I could do for now, and it would be good for all of us.  I told myself that it would be okay; the children would be safe and happy and have more time for playing sports after school and not being chauffeured back and forth between their dad and me every single night.   This is only temporary, I thought, the means to an end until I put things back together for us.

I put the lid on the box and carried it downstairs, then set it onto the white tiles in the entry.  The townhouse was almost empty, except for the garage.  I’d been avoiding that area completely.  Boxes of receipts, files, and documents from my life with Mike were stacked along the wall.  The children’s bicycles, Jackson’s basketball, Claire’s soccer ball, and our unopened crate of Christmas ornaments all sat covered in dust in the cool, damp, darkness of the tiny concrete garage.  I’d found a home for our dog through one of my coworkers at the school, and although I’d dropped her with a her new owner a few days earlier, piles of dried dog poop still littered the cement floor here and there, creating a minefield of hardened shit between the outdoor toys and boxes of paperwork.

I pressed the button to open the garage door from the inside and turned on the light.  Sunlight streamed in and revealed the thin layer of dirt and dust frosting the abandoned contents in the garage, making them look more forlorn, used, and unappealing than ever.  The minivan was backed up to the garage.  I started clearing out the last boxes, then setting them into the trunk.  Once the final mesh bag of sand toys was loaded, I glanced around one last time to make sure I’d gotten everything.  A few stray papers remained in the corner, along with another pile of dried dog poop.

I grabbed one of the papers and carefully scooped and scraped the little, brown, petrified pile onto it.  The paper was an Ambulance Paramedic Training Diploma.  Mike had spent countless hours in school and training programs when we were together.  He’d attempted many times to return to college, and our family’s money had been spent on pre-nursing textbooks and business administration classes from Mt Hood, Clackamas, and P.C.C. Community Colleges.  We’d spent much of our family budget on his college registration fees and tuition.  For a while, he had aspirations of joining the fire department, and had spent a lot of time volunteering at the local branch in Beaverton.  He studied for hours for the pre-firefighter exam, which he failed more than once.

This slip of paper was proof of one that he’d actually completed and passed, then decided it was not the right career for him.  I thought about all of the Sallie Mae student loans, and the multiple times I’d called to ask for payment deferments on Bill’s various different student loans because of his irregular employment history.  I remembered the many hours I’d spent watching my stepson Ryan while he attended classes, and wondered if he’d had affairs with college classmates while I was at home, juggling the cooking, cleaning, and children.

I looked down at the hardened fecal matter covering the raised, gold lettering on the 5x7 diploma and thought about how finally, today, the end result of at least one of Mike’s scholastic endeavors was proving useful.  How appropriate, I thought to myself – abandoned poop from the abandoned dog collected by the abandoned diploma.

I walked out of the garage to the side of the house to deposit the petrified turd into the garbage can.  It slid off the paper, bouncing off the refuse below.  I held Mike’s hard-won diploma in my hand, and after wondering very briefly if I should return it to him, I let it drop into the barrel with the rest of the abandoned reminders of the past.

Exerpt from ILLUMINATION: How One Woman Made Light of Darkness to be released as an E-Book in November 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In The Beginning

Originally uploaded by Hanna L.
I got married on my 21st birthday.

Back then, I thought it would be clever and romantic to have a wedding cake as a birthday cake.  At that age, you think a lot of things are clever and romantic that turn out to be nothing of the sort.

When I was young, I lived the way my parents expected me to live.  I didn’t stay out late, and I didn’t drink or party or sleep around.  I got decent grades, had a lot of friends, and was on the cheerleading squad and volleyball team.  I was even chosen as the Homecoming Princess in high school.  I was one of the square characters from a John Hughes movie.

Looking back, my father once said that he grieved when I started dating Mike.  My father was a Lieutenant Colonel Marine from German stock, and not one to use a word like “grieve” flippantly.  He said that he blamed it mostly on the fact that I had seen the movie “Flash Dance.” He was convinced that it had somehow etched itself into my psyche.  I’d be lying if I said that he was dead wrong.  I was intrigued by the fact that the heroine in the flick lived in a very cool warehouse and fell tragically in love with an older man, but that was the only thing that resembled what I was looking for in my young-adult life.  Back then, I knew I was not interested in the typical college life, including the sororities that so many of my high school friends seemed to be joining.  I wanted to be independent, to live downtown after having grown up in the country.  I wanted to take a few risks and not “play it safe,” like I had the majority of my life.

I enrolled at Portland State University and roomed with a woman I met while waitressing at the Good Earth restaurant.  The free staff meals and tips from customers supported and sustained me while I was in school.  I rode the bus everywhere, late at night and downtown, subconsciously courting danger and thumbing my nose at it, since I’d never tried that before.  I felt like a grown-up – a real life grown up.

A few months after moving into a tiny little house in Milwaukie with Jane, she introduced me to an old high school friend of hers.  I was intrigued for a few reasons.  First, Jane was nine years older than me, so I figured that her high school friend would be about 27 years old. “Worldly” and “mature” were qualities that appealed to me, so my interest was piqued. Second, he had a two-year-old son.  You would think this would have scared me off, but for some reason, it had the opposite effect.  Third, my parents would hate it, and that was part of the appeal.  It is not your average pairing -- an 18-year-old girl fresh out of high school and a guy who is a full-time single dad -- and that also appealed to me.  I was curious, challenged, and mentally putting on my hero cape.  I was a rescuer, and this was someone who needed my rescuing.

Mike met me at the restaurant where I was working.  I waited on him and Jane.  They told me I was coming with them to the Mt. Hood “Pray for Snow” party after my shift.  I sat in the backseat of Mike’s classic yellow Volkswagen bug (I found out later it actually belonged to his brother), and we headed up to the party on the mountain.  I couldn’t stop smiling.

Every bar in Government Camp pulsed with music.  Mike took my hand, led me through the crowd, and ordered me my first alcoholic drink ever.  I was three years from the legal drinking age, but I played along.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that he had no idea that I wasn’t 21.  As the alcohol (quickly) took effect on me, I began interviewing him about his life -- about Ryan, about his graveyard-shift job at the Fred Meyer warehouse, even about his taste in women.  I was fascinated at how his life, his reality, was so vastly different from mine.  I was buzzing at the prospect of having a “grown-up” boyfriend in my grown-up life.

Jane found a ride home with someone else and disappeared into the night.  Not long after my interrogation of Mike ended, he escorted me back to the VW and we headed back down the mountain.  He pulled into Joe’s Doughnuts in Sandy, and we sat across from each other in the booth until three in the morning, drinking coffee and talking about his life.  He had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.  I decided that he was brave and heroic, being a single dad.

Within the week, I met his son Ryan, whose eyes were every bit as blue as his dad’s.  I spent as much time as I could with them and found myself babysitting Ryan anytime Mike worked or couldn’t find someone else. Within a couple months of meeting Mike, I moved in with him and Ryan.

Life was completely different than anything I’d ever known.  The tiny house I moved into was sparse, to say the least.  Wood paneling, circa 1970, lined the walls of every room.  An inescapable mildew smell permeated the house, giving the dwelling a distinctly dungeon-like quality.  The brown, shag carpeting was oddly firm and crunchy and stretched from wall to wall, except for the kitchen, where torn linoleum covered parts of the slanted floor.  Nonetheless, I felt needed.  Ryan needed a Mom and babysitter, Mike needed a companion, and they both needed a cook and cleaning lady.

It took some months, but we finally moved into a slightly bigger house in the nearby Sellwood neighborhood, before moving back again to Milwaukie, into a home owned by one of Mike’s former stepdads.  With every passing day, my college classes and the future I’d once dreamed of in journalism became less and less a part of my immediate reality.  Just shy of the last credits I needed to graduate with a degree in English, I quit school.  I applied for and accepted a full-time job at the local daycare Ryan attended so that we could receive free tuition and childcare for him.

Shortly after my big decision, we moved to yet another location.  The neighbor at our apartment complex in Clackamas, a recently widowed young woman took an abnormal interest in Mike and his son.  I responded by demanding that Mike make a commitment to me.  I told him that I had lived with him and had taken care of Ryan for the past two years and was still “just a girlfriend.”  I told him he should marry me or I would leave. He told me that he had always hoped to remain a Bachelor Dad.  So I moved out.

The freedom from one month of living alone again was suffocating, and I went back to Mike.  I felt lost without taking care of him and Ryan, and I missed what I considered our family.  He took me back with what amounted to an emotional shrug of the shoulders, and I assumed he had succumbed to my plea of getting married.  In retrospect, I think he accepted my condition if it meant that he could return to watching TV.

I planned my wedding carefully.  I invited friends and family and proceeded with a budget of zero dollars. My best friend and mentor Sharon helped.  The wedding would be at her house, with a makeshift altar in front of the fireplace.  I would wear her wedding dress, which we adorned with a beautiful ribbon sash in the colors of cream and evergreen.  The food would be a cooperative buffet.  I bought my own sapphire ring on credit at the mall jewelry store and pushed forward.  I asked my parents if they were glad for me.  My father refused to answer.  My mother sighed and nodded yes, but her body language told me otherwise.

Nobody tried to talk me out of my decision.
The day of our wedding was also my 21st birthday.  I had it in my mind that anything younger than 21 was much too young to get married.  After all, marriage is the ultimate commitment.  You can’t change your mind. Loyalty and commitment, I confirmed to myself, were the most honorable traits humans possessed, right up there with honesty, love and responsibility for family.  I was ready for all of those things and wanted to give them to this man and his son.  I had made up my mind.

Mike spent the day golfing.  I spent the day at Sharon’s getting the house and meal and myself ready for our vows.  My mother, Sharon, and my sister Bridgette helped me into my dress, curled my hair, and powdered my nose.  I felt beautiful and ready for this next step.

My father walked me down the aisle, which was a short ten feet, most of it in the dining room.  We reached the far end of the living room, in front of the fireplace, and I looked up, expecting to see the assuring and loving blue eyes of my love and soon-to-be-husband. There he was, eyes glazed and red and mouth slightly open.  He was drunk.  Ryan, now five, our ring-bearer, sat on the fireplace behind him looking up at the ceiling and picking his nose. I was on the threshold of my future.  I had made a choice, and I just assumed the little voices of doubt getting louder in my head were normal, so I shushed them and when asked, responded dutifully.

“I do.”

{Excerpt from Before the Light a prequel to ILLUMINATION}

Monday, October 11, 2010

What Kind of Mother?

I used to think it myself.

I used to judge any woman, any mother who admitted she'd "left" her kids or "let her kids go to their dad"-- as a VERY bad mother.  Crack addict.  Whore.  Felon.  Irresponsible.  Maybe she was crazy, clinically depressed, mentally or emotionally incompetent and unfit in the worst of ways.  Selfish at the least.

Then, about 6 years ago, I joined the ranks of those women. 
THOSE women.  The women I had automatically, without knowing their story,  labelled Bad Mother.

I'm not what used to come to mind when I heard a mother did not have custody of her children... but those judgements haunt me everyday and I question myself and my choices all the time. 

I imagine other people look at me like I used to look at a woman who did not have physical custody of her children.  And whether real or imagined, phantom critics are harsh.  There is guilt at every turn, even when I know that my choices, at the time, were the best and only choices I had.   I don't know if that part will ever change.

I am finding out though, that I am not the only one.  I am not the only woman who is neither crack-whore nor child abuser/neglecter/mis-fit who does not have physical custody of her children.  I am not the only woman who either on purpose, of by default, does not have her children full time.

Society is changing.  Women are not automatically opting to be the stay at home parent, and we are making as much money, sometimes more, than our husbands.  It's a natural progression then, to assume that families are changing as a result, and more dads are staying home to care for the kids if mom is the higher earning bread winner.  If divorce occurs, the old standard rule of the kids automatically going full time with mom is also changing.

One thing that hasn't quite changed though, is that a father with physical custody is considered a saint and a hero. (were single moms ever thought of as such things?)  Whereas mothers without physical custody are viewed with doubt --- "What did she do or not do right?"

Sometimes, to avoid questions and to shield myself from raised eyebrows, I simply say that I am "The Divorced Dad" in my families situation.  At least this partially explains how I can be thought of... I pay child support, I see my kids on the weekend, I work a lot so I don't make every baseball game or bake sale.  It's my ex husband who chooses to do the day to day maintenance, and I support him and my children financially.  He's Mr. Mom and I'm more like Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada.
(not exactly, but you get the picture).

Sometimes I tell myself that maybe I'm some sort of trailblazer.  I'm an example of another way of doing things, a new breed of divorced woman. If it were simply the fact that my husband makes far less than I do and has a flexible work schedule and we were amicably doing what worked best for our children, well then, that would be the end of it.  Simple and ideal.  No drama.   Just a matter of fact, cut and dry example of a changing social dynamic.

But exactly how I found myself a non custodial mother is not the least bit simple or cut and dry.  It is quite the opposite.  A twist of fate that has been tragic and illuminating all at once.

Next post:  The Beginning