I get it. I hated the questions, the innuendos, the assumptions about what kind of mother I was or wasn't when I came back from treatment in August of 2008. I had to endure narrow-eyed clucks of disapproval when I spoke honestly about the choices that I'd made. I was humiliated and ashamed every day of that first year. I felt guilty and at times I felt unworthy. Sometimes I believed what they said, that I'd let my family down, that I'd failed both my marriage and my children.
In October of that same year, I happened upon two acquaintances whispering excitedly about some woman who'd just come back from rehab and destroyed her marriage.
"What kind of mother does that?" said one with her back to me. "Isn't anyone thinking about those poor kids?"
The one facing me got quiet and cast her eyes downward with a slight head nod toward me.
Instantly, the air became unflavored gelatin. Every gesture and blink of the eye looked almost comedically slow. I was suddenly overcome by the cloyingly sweet smell of the patchouli oil that was the signature scent of the woman facing me.
I can still see the expression on her face. It still makes my heart wince. It still hurts to breathe.
I'm the kind of mother that does that. They're talking about me....
But the crazy part is that before they were alerted to my presence, I kind of felt myself nodding with them.
Yeah, for real? What kind of mother does do that? Those poor kids...
We are a society that says it believes that people are capable of change (prisons are supposed to be correctional or rehabilitation facilities, right?) We are a society that boasts of tolerance and inclusion. We say, "Yes! — Your life matters," We say, "Yes! You were born that way, We say "Yes! "Families come in all shapes and sizes." But when the rubber meets the road, do we really mean it? It seems to me that my family structure just the way it is now is seen by some "happily married" folk as a cautionary tale — something to be avoided at all costs. Do people really not only accept but applaud parents who bravely go the unconventional route when it comes to raising their families? Or do they secretly judge the parents who have to make those hard choices?
Robert, (it feels funny to call you Robert. Remember I used to always call you Archie and you called me Veronica?) But anyway, Robert, you never met my ex-husband, Brian, but you heard me talk about him. You know how hard he and I work to keep our promise to our kids that we would remain a family after our divorce. But there's no getting around the fact that our family changed after he moved out. Okay, so yes — our kids have to do the dreaded "transition" from one household to another every week. And Miles and Justin had to get used to Brian and I each loving other people. Those were and are the facts of our lives. But those facts didn't and don't make it tragic. If you ask me, divorce doesn't have to be the end of a family. It can be (in some cases) an opportunity to create a new and improved family unit. Mine looks like this:
Household one: Me, Scottie, Miles, Justin (and Venus and Serena)
Household two: Brian, Tracy, Stella (Brooklyn and his soon-to-be-here little brother, Pork chop)
Household three: Scottie's daughters, Lily and Nora
So, Robert, It took a while, but I think we've figured out something that works for us.
I know that you and Scottie were grateful to have found each other in 2009. You bonded over the fact that you were both in early recovery and you were both newly divorced. But mainly you bonded over your desire to spend more time with your daughters (his two and your one). Earlier that year, Scottie had discovered that his ex-wife was looking at rental properties in Stowe, Vermont, (for she and Lily and Nora) so that she could be closer to her boyfriend who lives there. And while your ex-wife was here in Los Angeles, she wasn't too keen on your ideas about co-parenting. I remember how painful that was for you.
But remember those summers in Manhattan Beach? Scottie would rent that beach house so that Lily and Nora could build sunny, sandy, salt-water memories of "summers with dad." You and your daughter were woven into the fabric of those days. The photographs you took of Lily, Nora and your daughter on that beach during those summers are still some of our favorites.
It was partly due to those discussions with you on the deck of that house (and by the pool of The Sportsmen's Lodge where all you guys all hung out when Scottie didn't have the beach house), that led Scottie to the conclusion that he couldn't uproot himself from his recovery community in order to chase his kids to Stowe - no matter how much it pained him to say goodbye to them at the airport in August every year. He knew that his job was to take care of himself first and then make sure his kids knew how much he loved them so he could be that SAFE place for them. And he was that safe place then, just as he is that safe place now.
You and I both understood that by putting his recovery first, Scottie could be the kind of dad that his daughter's deserved. But just like I felt listening to that conversation (when I returned from my shameful 28 days "away" that August), Scottie felt and feels the pressure from society to be a different kind of dad. People have actually said to his face that they "resented him" for not moving to Stowe to be closer to his kids. After a meeting one time, a man huffed away from a conversation with Scottie declaring loudly that, "You are NOT the kind of dad I want to be."
To say that Scottie was devastated is an understatement. Like me, he questioned all of his decisions those first couple of years. He was honest about the choices he had made, and in my opinion, society penalized him for it.
Why would it be better for Scottie to leave his foundation and go live in a small ski town with a couple of "program meetings" per week and no career prospects -- just to be geographically closer to his daughters? Why would that assure people that he was more invested in being a father than the path he chose? Which is, by the way, the same path my own father chose. My dad and I have lived thousands of miles away from each other most of my life and I have never seen a man more dedicated to making his daughter feel loved, secure and adored — that is, until I met Scottie.
Before I started writing this, I found dozens of articles on what makes a good father. Each one of them assumed that the father lived with full-time with his children. They were mostly things like "changing diapers," "reading bedtime stories," or being the "snack-dad." But not one of them mentioned sacrifice. Like, "A good daddy makes the sacrifice of actually living apart from his kids IF it might makes things easier for his kids."
Lord knows divorce is painful enough. But I find that a lot of parents will force their ideals on the family during a divorce so they (the parent) can look good or feel better about themselves. But is that what's always better for the family? Is that what's always better for the children? I know a few moms and dads who have made the painful sacrifice of stepping away from their families when it seemed like staying would do their kids more harm than good. Not one of the articles I read mention how much love is required for parents like Scottie to put his kids on plane after one of those month-long visits with a smile on his face. Or for you to drop your daughter back at her mother's place and cheerfully wave goodbye from the bottom of the steps.
I guess we're not there yet, where families can look like, "Dad lives 3000 miles away but he's still a great dad!" or a mother's contribution can be important and valued even when they don't live with their children. Not just because of how they contribute to raising their children, but because of what they sacrificed by not being the primary care-giver. Don't get me wrong (or send me angry comments — please!) I'm not saying that all non-custodial parents are making a sacrifice by not being with their kids full-time -- but Scottie is and Robert, you were too. And I don't know if you knew this, but Scottie took Lily on her first college interview here in Los Angeles this summer (can you believe she's already a senior?!?) . And Nora, (who's now in 7th grade) flew out here by herself for the first time this July and traveled up the coast with him to meet us in Oregon for our annual Robbins/Slaughter family vacation.
Whatever anyone else thought or thinks - Scottie's relationship with his daughters is truly inspirational. He waited, he did the work and as a result, he is that safe place for them. They know they are loved. And conversely, it fills me with sharp, bitter, sorrow to think that your contribution to your daughter's life could have be seen by some as "expendable".
It wasn't. Your contribution to her life was essential. Everyone who knew you knew how much you loved her. And because you had to give up so much (your home, your beloved career in music, your recovery and finally your visitations with your daughter) you let some family court judge, your ex-wife or perhaps even society at large take away the one thing that you did NOT have to give up, Robert - HOPE. Hope that no matter how bleak things looked, you could stay steady in your recovery and continue to grow and evolve so you could be that safe place for your daughter when the time came. She is 15-year's old now. In three years she would have been able to decide for herself whether or not she wanted to be part of your life. But now she'll never have that choice. Maybe you feel like "they" put the gun in your hand that day almost two-week's ago, but it was you who made the decision to pull the trigger. A wise woman once told me there's never only one way. I wish that you'd known then that there were solutions to your suffering. But I know that you couldn't see any other option when you made that fateful decision. I believe that you believed yourself to making the ultimate sacrifice -- for her. And I know, as you said, that you were very, very tired.
Well, we are all the worse for your absence, Robert. What ever you felt, what ever you thought — what ever told you that your daughter would be better off without you was an abomination of the truth. You are missed. And I for one, am sickened by the notion that had you found more compassion from our "society at large," then you and I might be having this conversation in person, instead of me writing you an open letter. I know that you tried, Robert. I know that you wanted to be that safe place for her. You once shared with me that all you ever wanted was to be a better father to her. But I would have known that without you ever having to say a word. We all knew what she meant to you -- and the people who loved you will do our best to make sure that's what we remember about you. Not how you died, but the kind of father that were to your daughter.
Rest in peace, Archie.
Footnote: A women named Allison Ellis wrote a beautiful blog entitled, Why My Dad Committed Suicide. I think it tells the story exquisitely of the daughter who is left behind. Please read it if you're able. It might help put some of this tragedy in perspective.