But Wait It Gets Better

As the fall turned from the warmth of October to the cold gray of November, things felt a little off in our house.  My mother had been under the weather for several days now.  Finally, on a Saturday afternoon when the doctors office wasn’t open (no such thing as Urgent Care in our town in 1991) she asked me to take her to the Emergency Room to figure out what exactly was wrong.  I dropped Zach off at my sister’s and headed to our local community hospital.

We’d been here several times before; once, when Z had a high fever and was diagnosed with a severe ear infection.  Once for my mother’s severe headaches, years ago.  So I headed in again with her this time, ready to wait out the many hours that I anticipated that lay ahead for both of us.

My mother and I had an easy relationship at this point.  She was the best kind of supportive but non intrusive parent, considering our strange roles.  She allowed me to mother my son without any sort of unwanted advice or unwarranted concern.  She stepped back and allowed me to parent him and pitched in to do whatever I asked, but only when I asked.  She held her tongue on my sadness about Ray other than to ask if I wanted to go hang out with my friends after Zach went to sleep.   She worked hard, and I worked hard, and we had worked out all of the nuances of who did what in our household.  It was a much more adult relationship than it was anything else, and I was proud of how well it was all working out.

So when she  asked for help that Saturday, it never occurred to me to be alarmed.  She often asked for help with this or that when she got busy.  I figured she’d just been working too hard these days.  Often she would arrive home after 7 or even 8, even though she left the house like clockwork before 7am to beat the traffic going into the city.

When she finally saw a doctor, he took her history, and his eyebrows went up at the news that she smoked three packs a day.  It wasn’t news to me; it was who she was.  My mother was defined by her cigarette smoking; every photo of her shows a cigarette in her hand.  She kept an ashtray on her bedside table because she smoked first thing in the morning, before ever getting up out of bed.  It was the first thing she did in the morning and the last thing she did at night, and if she woke up for more than a few minutes in the middle of the night, I could hear her lamp click on and then the click of the cigarette lighter next.  It was just who she was. So as part of the doctor’s routine screening for her, he ordered a chest x ray even though her symptoms did not seem to merit it.

It was therefore more of a shock than it should have been to hear that the radiologist wanted to speak to my mother about her x ray.

While my mother was suffering from a strange stomach bug, totally unrelated to her chest x ray, the doctor informed us that he saw some “abnormalities” on her chest x ray.  He was recommending a follow up with her general practitioner next week, the sooner the better.  He described it as a “shadow” on her lung.

She and I looked at each other.  You don’t mention a shadow on the lung of a three pack a day smoker without sending up alarm bells.


Black and White and Gray

“Well, I think it is time for a road trip.”

Of course Jewel would say that.  She was always the one up for a challenge, and she was indignant that I should have to even bother with such a thing anyway.  But she was up for it.

I had filed my suit for paternity back in the winter, in the hopes of establishing Joe as the legal father of my son.  Unfortunately, things were just not that simple.  Apparently, since we had no idea where Joe was living, there was no way of “serving” him, or giving him legal notice, of the proceedings against him.  Without giving him legal notice, the lawsuit couldn’t go forward.

We had just filed an extension of the lawsuit, otherwise it would have expired after six months of filing, without being able to serve Joe with notice of the proceedings.   The friend of my mother’s that was doing all of this legal work for me as a favor to her advised me that I had two options at this point; to try and serve him myself, or to post notices in local newspapers in his last known address area.  The latter would serve as legal notice, in which case a court date could be set and matters could start moving forward.  However, without Joe a part of the whole thing, I didn’t really see much of a point.  All I really wanted was Joe to be a part of my child’s life, and no notice in the newspaper was going to bring that about.

So Jewel, Karen and I decided it was time for a road trip.  I had a vague memory of where Joe’s mother was living in secret (his mother was avoiding the financial aftermath of a disastrous divorce), so we hit the road with Z in his carseat in the back and decided to serve Joe ourselves with the lawsuit.

It was a fun three hour ride up to Mt. Pleasant, with us talking and singing along to the radio and generally behaving like twenty year olds, but as we grew closer, the task at hand grew heavy in the air.  I grew quiet in the back as I fed Zachary crackers and helped him with his pacifier.  Finally, we turned down the street that I remembered from my one visit, towards the split level home divided into two apartments.  But I couldn’t do it.  I sent Jewel up to the door with the blue folded papers in her hands, because I was shaking and sweating and couldn’t stand not knowing how he would react.

Only I never got to find out.  There was no answer at the basement apartment door, and Jewel came back to the car with her hands up in a “I have no idea, but there is no answer there,” pantomime.  I couldn’t possibly think of turning around just because Joe or his mom might be out getting some milk, so we sat in the air conditioning for a few minutes trying to regroup.  Finally, Jewel and Karen offered to knock on the upstairs apartment door, just as if they’d knocked on the wrong door by mistake, and see what information they could find out.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of them as they knocked and the second door slowly opened.  I couldn’t see much, but I could see plainly that they were talking to a woman that was clearly not Joe’s mother (she was very overweight and this woman was slim).  They traded a few comments before my friends came back to the car, the blue papers still in hand, with strange faces.

“They moved.  They moved out just last week,” Karen offered.  “The woman said they had been friendly with them and all, but that all of the sudden, out of the blue last week they just packed up everything and left.”

They left?  “They’re…gone?”  I looked over at Z in his car seat, sleeping quietly through the entire proceeding.

“They’re gone.  She had no idea where they’ve gone.  They didn’t leave any information with her, no forwarding address, nothing.  She said it was just like they…disappeared.”

Indeed.  Karen passed back the blue papers of the lawsuit.  I looked down at the official papers with a sense of bewilderment.  Everything was so clear in these papers, black and white:  here are the facts, this is it, let’s just wrap this up so we can all move on.

And apparently, I thought, one of us has.

I wondered aloud:  “Now what?”

The car was silent except for the sound of Jewel putting the car in gear and heading back to the highway.  None of us knew.

Pins and Needles

My mother convinced me that we needed to do something about my son’s birth certificate.

In the hospital, when I’d filled out all of the forms, I listed Joe’s name in the area for the father.  I knew his birthdate:  1-27-1970, I knew his middle name, I knew his legal address (his grandparents’ house).  What I didn’t have was his social security number.  I had hoped that the rest of the information, being complete and verifiable, would be enough.

I was horrified when I finally received a copy of Zachary’s birth certificate to see the information regarding Father left completely blank, as if I didn’t know who it was or had left it intentionally blank.  This rankled me.  I didn’t want my son to see that document one day and feel unwanted.  I knew what it was like to feel like your father didn’t care about you, and I’d had mine around sometimes.  I didn’t want him to ever feel one ounce of shame or hurt based on his parentage.

My mother told me that if I filed to establish paternity a new birth certificate would be reissued.  I just couldn’t imagine going on like this; at some point wasn’t Joe going to come around?  It was starting to feel maybe like he wasn’t.  I knew that things had been awful last winter, but enough was enough.  Z was here, and life was moving on.  He was growing, quickly.  Before we knew it he would be three, and four, and five, and there would be school paperwork to fill out.  Was Joe really going to just pretend that this didn’t happen?  Was he really going to walk around living his life like Zachary didn’t exist?

Every time I asked Dean, Joe’s one friend who still kept in touch with me, he was evasive.  I asked after my letter came back and he confirmed that Joe planned on living with his mother and going to school there this year.  Why didn’t he tell me before, I asked.  Why was this a secret?  Didn’t he care about us anymore?  Was our whole relationship something other than what I remembered?  I was so confused.  I wanted this all to be resolved.  I wanted my son to be able to know his father.  I loved my son; Joe would too if he would just come around.  My mother told me that often absent fathers, once paternity is established, often started wanting to see the child and be a part of their lives.  I couldn’t imagine Joe wouldn’t want that too.

When I told Dean what I was doing, he told me that Joe was expecting it.  Apparently one time last winter when Joe had called my house for me, my mother asked him point blank if he planned on being a part of our lives, financially and otherwise.  He had all suspected that at some point I would indeed file for paternity.  This surprised me, but it shouldn’t have.  I felt uncomfortable knowing that Joe was indeed discussing me and our baby with Dean, or anyone, rather than with me.  But what made me more uncomfortable was what he told me was Joe’s response.

“She’ll have to come after me with a needle if she wants to get anything from me.”


Early Riser

Now that I had two boys to look good for, and a Prom dress to shop for, I decided it was time to get in shape (again).

I wasn’t actually displeased with how I looked overall.  I remember thinking at the time that in the right clothes “you can’t tell I’m fat”.  Which for me and my insecure frame of mind, was a good outlook.

But my mother asked me if I would get up with her in the mornings and work out.  She had started Weight Watchers some months back, and had lost about twenty pounds.  She was looking fantastic, a long way from the day I went with her to TJ Maxx and helped her pick out size 18 jeans.  She was starting to get her figure back, and thus be able to feel up to par when she went to the bars with her girlfriends on Friday nights.  She wanted to step up the pace so she’d keep losing.

We’d discovered that an exercise program started on one of our local channels at 6 am.  This time frame worked for both of us.  If I showered right after the show was done, I would still get out the door in time to pick up Dawn and get to school by 7:10 or so, which gave me one of the better parking spots in the student lot.  While I showered, my mom had a cigarette and some coffee, and then she was ready for her shower while I got dressed and blew dry my hair in my bedroom.

I liked that my mother had asked me to do this with her.  We didn’t spend a lot of time together these days, and it was nice that she wanted to share this with me. Plus, it would keep us both motivated to do the work when we heard the other one getting up at 5:55 am.

And it did.  Every morning, we would both stumble out of bed, get ourselves a plastic tumbler of water, and position ourselves in front of the TV, ready for torture. But it wasn’t torture at all.  In between breathless sets, we’d chat about what each of us had planned that day, the challenges she was up against at work, my two boyfriend dilemma.  She was funny, and sympathetic, and most of all, interested.

I never minded getting up at 5:55 am in those days.

The Car

The CarOne of the things that caused me to come to blows with my brother when I visited my siblings earlier this summer was the discussion of The Car.

All three of us kids in the family were given cars as teenagers.  I chuckle at this today as my eldest son never had that gift.  Many of his friends did, and while I felt badly about not being able to give him that freedom.  But, I also knew that the life I’d set up for him was so vastly different than the one I had when I was his age, and therefore the teenage car was more of a necessity than the luxury it would have been for him.

My brother was angry, on this particular night as we sat watching our children swim together in my sister’s pool, because of the three children, he was the “only one” who was made to pay anything for the car he was finally allowed to drive at age nearly seventeen.  My father had given him that car, and asked him to pay $500 for it.  It was a Ford Escort, probably seven or eight years old, and the whole exercise was supposed to demonstrate a certain level of commitment and responsibility, and teach the value of work and a dollar and all of that.

I of course chuckled.  My brother had of course demonstrated a clear lack of knowledge of any of those sorts of things up until that point in his life, so of course my father thought a gift like that shouldn’t necessarily be free for him.  But my brother couldn’t see any of the extenuating circumstances around the situation; as he often does, he saw the situation in black and white.  He paid my father for a car, my sister and I didn’t pay our mother for the cars she gave us.

My mother gave my sister her car at age sixteen to help drive me and my brother around to fun things like othodontist appointments, doctors appointments, after school activities, etcetera.  She wasn’t made to pay because of course she was working for my mother, helping her out with things that my mother would have had to pay someone else to do while she was busy lawyering all day.

My mother gave me a car at age sixteen for less sensible reasons.  Part of it was a reward for my good grades and hard work, and the level of responsibility I’d demonstrated doing whatever I was asked around the house.  I’m sure the secondary reason had something to do with feeling badly that she hadn’t protected me more from my brother’s violent moods and all of the ensuing family drama that came out of them.  I was the only one in the family that bore the physical scars in addition to the emotional ones we all had, and so I’m sure on some level she was trying to make me feel better.

On my sixteenth birthday, my mother took a half day off and marched me over to the Secretary of State and signed the forms that allowed me to drive my used Plymouth Turismo wherever I wanted.  We both were sure that this would help me move beyond the four walls of my house and all of the history contained in them.   And I loved her for it.

I found it amusing that so many years later my brother is still holding a grudge about The Car, especially since I thought I’d long since gotten past all of the things he’d done prior to me getting it.  But the angry conversation that followed his comment showed us both that sometimes your past is still very much a part of your present…often without you even realizing it.

Grape Leaves and Conversation

My mother’s friend Janice had her baby. Tiny Matthew was born that spring, just a year after my friend B’s daughter was born and given up for adoption.

I craved seeing the tiny little boy with blond hair that looked nothing like his Lebanese mother. I wanted to hold him and play with him and explore why this baby was lucky enough to know his biological mother and B’s little girl wasn’t. Janice wasn’t married to the father, same as B. The father wasn’t really interested in the responsibility of a child, the same as B. Janice even had to go move back in with her own father to save money to pay for little Matthew’s daycare. B too would have had to live with her parents.

At the end of the day, the differences were as great as they were inconsequential. Janice was a successful woman with a career and all of her schooling behind her. She didn’t have to rely on welfare or even the kindness of her father to make ends meet; she could do it regardless. Her father offered a safety net that she needed as a single mother in the mid 1980s. There just weren’t too many of them around and she needed all of the help she could get.

My mother and I went out to Janice’s tiny townhouse she shared with her father a month or two after Matthew was born. She made a Lebanese feast for us: homemade hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves. Food that I had never experienced in my own small corner of the suburban universe. I played with the baby while all three of us chatted about their jobs, being a single working mother, being a later in life mother (Janice was 35), and how she had options available to her that my mother, just ten years older than her, had not even thought about.

I loved that evening. I loved the stimulating conversation, the trust my mother and Janice put in me to understand their conversation on an adult level, the food that pushed my palate to a new level, the sweet baby that interrupted everything in the most pleasant of ways. Things weren’t perfect for Janice, not by a longshot, but she was making the best of a situation that could have gone a completely different way.

I felt proud that my mother wanted to share her friend with me. In contrast to my feelings about my father and his inattention, it was powerful to think that my mother was willing to give me the gift of not only her own experience, but that of her friends.

My Brother, My Pain

It was winter, I remember that.

I came home from school that day and wondered where everyone was. Where was everyone? It wasn’t that unusual to find no one home when I came home from school; and I never saw my brother on the bus coming home from school. It didn’t occur to me to be that upset about having the house to myself as I made myself a snack, set myself up on the loveseat with my Honors History homework and turned on “Another World” and then later, “General Hospital”. Homework took up hours these days what with my Honors History and Geometry classes. I didn’t have English or Science right now which made the load lighter, but French 2 with the new teacher was also kicking my rear. Plus there was practicing…in order to do well in band and hold a respectable place in the flute section I was having to put in time pretty much every day practicing.

The level work meant that for several hours that day, I had no idea that my life was about to change dramatically.

Finally, my mother came home. A little earlier than usual, which always aroused suspicion on my part. My mother was hardly ever home before 7 or 8 pm on a weeknight. She generally decided now to wait out rush hour and get more work done, which led to a shorter commute. We never had a family dinner unless it was on the weekends.

She wasn’t carrying her briefcase, which also put up my dander. Her heavy shoulder briefcase was part of the headache and back trouble she was plagued with, because it was always present there on her shoulder. But it was missing.

“Your brother is back in the hospital,” she told me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. My brother was hardly ever present at home, and when he was, he was holed up in his room, nicknamed “The Cave”. The last time he went, he had threatened to kill himself. This time, they’d found drugs at school, and then again in his room. I stared at her blankly, feeling little except relief that I was going to breathe easier in my own home over the next few days.

“How long?” I asked.

“He won’t be coming back here to live,” she replied slowly. “Your father has agreed to take custody of him.”

Whoa. This was huge. My father, whose presence had dwindled greatly in our lives as my brother’s issues escalated, had always maintained that he couldn’t possibly assume custody of my brother. “Why? What’s changed? The fourth time is the charm?” I bitterly asked. I wasn’t exactly impressed with my father’s altruism at this point. I’d been sent away last summer to save me from my brother’s outbursts. He’d broken my wrist, hit me more times than I could count, put holes in walls and doors and stolen from all of us to the point of putting our whole house under lock and key.

“I guess he decided enough was enough. He’s going to send him to a boarding school.”

Ah, there it was. He wouldn’t have him live in the house he shared with his life partner in the upscale part of suburbia. That made more sense. I had lots of questions, but they all vanished when I looked at my mom’s face.

She wasn’t crying, but she was as close as I’d seen her throughout all of this. “I’m sorry, Mom.” At the end of the day, through it all, this was her kid. Despite everything he’d done to her, done to our family, she still loved him and she was heartbroken that it had come to this. It wasn’t going to get fixed, it wasn’t going to get better. She had to admit defeat.

“So am I,” she answered. “For everything.”

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