Wednesday, November 30, 2016

For Medical Use Only...

The day after Justin turned 17 last week, my brother Kenji brought over a some home videos.  One of the videos was of Justin and Miles in 2008.  In the video, I'm sitting at the kitchen table in our old house, unpacking a giant box of Legos, handing them each the tiny pieces one-by-one.  Justin is sitting next to me and Miles is sitting across from the two of us. As they fit the pieces together, they had an extremely cute conversation about Miles's birthday.  Kenji must have been next to me filming them. I don't have any memory of that afternoon.  But I haven't been able to stop thinking about how little they both looked.  Justin was 8 and Miles had just turned 10 (according to their conversation).  Justin was a third-grader at The Buckley School and Miles was about to transition out of Buckley and go to another school for 5th grade.

It was also the year that I entered in to treatment for a drug and alcohol dependency and the year that Brian and I got divorced.

They couldn't have been that little then!  Weren't they older?  Didn't they sound older?  That's what they looked and sounded like at 8 and 10?  How could that be...?

Yes, divorce is hard on families.  It's hard on friends.  It's hard on the kids.  That's probably the most heart-wrenching part.  
It was certainly the heart-wrenching for me.  But sitting there watching that video last week, I was transported back to the winter of 2008. Back to the moment where I realized that one of the many results of my divorce was that I would no longer get to be with my children all of the time.  

How can I be away from them — ever?  How can I not put them to bed every night and kiss them awake every morning?

The legalities of the divorce proceedings lived up to the hype.  It was a nightmarish "Groundhog's Day" of waking up with a pit on my stomach (if I slept at all) , smiling for the kids, getting them to school, going to the lawyers's office, going to a meeting and then picking up the kids from school with a fresh smile.   But thank God Brian and I were actually able to avoid the nasty court battle and figure things out in mediation (see my blog posts "Our unconventional arrangement" and "The Saxophone Solo").  
But the day it became real, the Friday that I realized I was facing my first few days and nights in my home alone without them-
I didn't think I could get through it.  My panic was visceral.  Grief filled my body like lead.  

It's here.  It's happening. This is a huge mistake.  I can't be away from my babies.  They can't be away from me...

I don't remember Brian picking them up that evening, but I do remember crumpling up into a ball on the cold, marble floor by the front door after they left and crying silently until my eyes were red and swollen.

I should have done better.  I should have been a better mother, a better wife.  I should have kept my mouth shut.  I should have wanted less.  I should have tried harder.

My soul was hemorrhaging.  I carried myself up stairs, gripping the bronze railing with both hands.  The 600-foot hallway was dark and seemed to be longer than it had been when they I was screaming for them to stop running up and down it hours earlier.  I stood in the doorway of Miles's room and his motion-sensor night-light kicked on, bathing his room in blue light.   I sat down on the smooth,  dark-wood hallway floor and willed myself to stop crying.   

I have to get through these next few days.  I have to get through them sober.  I need to be okay when they come home on Sunday.  I have a second chance to be the kind of mother they deserve.  I have to figure something out.

Around the same time of year in 2008, Scottie was trying to be figure out how to be a dad to then-9-year-old Lily and 4-year-old Nora.  He was dealing with some gnarly legal issues and had been counseled by the judge who presided over one of them, to relocate out of state as soon as possible. He had already planned to visit Los Angeles, but now it looked as though he might stay for good.  The days that he spent alone, adjusting to life here without his support system, were as harsh as the unusually gray LA winter.   Here, he was one of thousand guys in early recovery with no visible means of support.  He was a displaced Park City skier and fly fishing guide without snow or a river.  We would sit next to each other at recovery meetings and sometimes go to breakfast or lunch afterward.  On paper, this newly sober, outdoorsman was about as unlikely a match for me as one could be.  And in any case,  I had no energy or desire to enter into another relationship.  I truly didn't want to be around anyone but my kids.  I was in what felt like the darkest days of my life, and I was too scabbed over to let anyone in to help me.  My family and friends who loved me so, had watched from the sidelines for the past few years while I tried to pull myself out of the mire that had consumed me.  Once I was out, I was too ashamed of my journey to ask anyone for help.  

"Do you want me to come by?"
It was the second weekend without my kids.  I had gotten through that first weekend, but it was one of the hardest three day-stretches of my life.  My kids arrived back that Sunday evening to find me smiling and cooking dinner, but inside I think I had died a little.  I felt myself shutting down.  
No, Scott, I don't want you to come by.  I don't want to see anyone.  What I want is to put my kids to bed tonight.
"I don't think so," I said forcefully.  I hated the sound of my own self-pity.
"Okay, then a meeting," his voice was cheerful,  as though he'd misunderstood the rejection in my voice.
"And Menchie's afterward?"
I wanted to stay home and make more photo albums.  The weekend before I had organized their baby boxes.
Justin's curls from his first hair cut!  Miles's baby teeth!
"Oh, " I sighed.  "I'm sorry, but I don't think I'm up to it."
"Okay, no Menchie's, then?  Just the meeting?"
I was annoyed with the corners of my mouth for smiling.  

Later on at Menchies, eating my chocolate frozen yogurt with marshmallows, brownie bits and rainbow sprinkles, I found myself laughing at Scottie's imitation of someone we had run into earlier that evening.  I was surprised to find that the agony which had my constant companion had dissipated a little.
Just a little...
I found that I almost unwilling to admit it to myself.  Did it mean that I loved them less if I wasn't consumed my the grief of their absence?

"This is good for you," said Shelly later on.  "Like medicine!" she laughed.  "It's okay that you have a life outside of taking care of your kids your kids 24/7.  Enjoy your time with that man!"
"But I miss my kids so much."
"Okay," she ventured.  "Miss them, but that doesn't mean you can't do both.  It's not healthy for you to just sit around missing them.  Scottie is a good guy.  I really like him.  He REALLY likes you.  Enjoy this time."

The following weekend we went to meetings both Friday and Saturday night.   Eventually, Sunday started with an early morning meeting and breakfast afterward.  More than once, I felt myself on the verge of asking my friends to meet me for dinner or a movie, but the request for help stuck in my throat.  But with Scottie I didn't have to ask.  He was just there.  I couldn't really metabolize or explain what was going on with he and I.  There was just something about the way he looked at me.  Something about the way he made me laugh when no one else got the joke.  He didn't seem to be after anything, there was this innocence about his curiosity.  When he first met me he told me that all he wanted was to be near me.  Without any further evidence, than his words and a feeling, I began to believe him.

I don't envy people who have to do what I did without their "medicine."  Scottie, for me, is that "just right" elixir that blended with my recovery-work and helped me to heal.  I am filled with gratitude for all of those days he spent patiently next to me, while I was tight with worry and anxiety.  I honestly don't know what how I would have gotten through it without him.  Shelly was right.  He is good medicine.

Monday, November 21, 2016


"I should just leave the country, right?  A lot of people spend Thanksgiving in the Caribbean."
"Now you're crazy," Bailey laughed.  "And what about Justin's birthday?  Isn't it right around Thanksgiving this year?"
"Yes, — it's on Thanksgiving this year.  That's what this whole things is about!"
"Wait - didn't you guys figure out that whole situation over the summer?" (see my blogpost "And The Survey Says" from August 2016)
"Yeah," I sighed.  "We did talk about splitting the day between the two of us.  But honestly, I thought that maybe things would have changed by now and we wouldn't have to actually do it."
"What would have changed?  That Tracy wouldn't still be there?" Her tone with sharp with sarcasm.  
"Possibly," my voice sounded small.
"Well, maybe she won't be there," she said in softer voice.   "And you can just do what you normally do."
I could hear something sizzling in the background.  I pictured her cooking chicken meatballs or something in her work clothes and heels.  
"Doesn't she have all of that family up north?" She said hopefully.
"No, she'll be here," I tried to keep the exasperation out of my voice.  "I told you this is her first Thanksgiving in her new home - Brian's home.  She's hosting for sure."
I lowered my voice to a confidential tone, "She's making everyone personalized napkin holders."
"Really?" Bailey sounded genuinely interested for the first time in the conversation.  "How do you know?"
"Miles told me."
"Girl, that sounds exhausting," she laughed.
"Yeah..." I heard the flat, far away tone in my voice.  I was irritated with her for not being more helpful.
"Well, if you don't want to go alone, maybe you can go with Scott?"
"Girl, it's not about going alone or not. I haven't been invited!  And I'm pretty sure if I did just show up, there'd be no napkin holder with my name on it!"
"Ha!" she laughed. "You got that right!"
"Also, remember, Scottie, Lily and Nora always go to Virginia to spend Thanksgiving with his mom."
"Always?  Wasn't he here last Thanksgiving?"
"No, my dad and my brother, Chris always come here.  Scottie and the girls always go to Virginia."
"Really?" For a moment she sounded as though she wanted to challenge my memory.  
"Huh! Well, if you say so," she said finally.  "So, who do you spend Thanksgiving with when you don't go to Brian's?"
"It's NEVER happened before!  That's what I'm trying to tell you.  The boys have always spent Thanksgiving with Brian and me."
"Look..." she stopped speaking abruptly  - I could hear one of the twins talking to her.
"How long until dinner, Mom?"
"15 minutes," Bailey's voice had turned sharp and authoritative. "Go do your homework until I call you in."
"Look," she hissed into the phone. "Maybe it's time you guys start doing what most divorced couples do —  you get them Thanksgiving and he gets them Christmas and call it a day.  You can't always be all together all the time.  You've both moved on, they live together now.  Things have changed.  Just tell him you want Justin to spend his birthday at your house.  He can have him the next day or something.  Then he can have them for Christmas."
"But Brian's whole family comes from everywhere," I lamented.  "All of their cousins, their aunts and uncles — everyone comes.  I don't want to make them miss that."
"Okay, then let them go to Brian's for his birthday."
"But Justin and I had never been apart on his birthday since the day he was born!"
Her loud exhale had a faint whistling sound.
"I think you're going to have to make a choice, girl.  I don't think you can have it both ways.  And I got to get this dinner on the table."

I sighed after we'd hung up.  I stared at the phone in my hand for a long time before I dialed Brian's number.  I didn't know what I was going to say.

After some more back and forth, Brian and I decided that instead of splitting up the holidays (as Bailey had suggested) that we would stick to our August plan and "split the day."  I would get them Thanksgiving morning and he would get them in the afternoon.  It was far from ideal, but we figured it was the only way we could both spend time with Justin on his birthday. 

"It works out perfect," I was conscious of my smile.  Miles and Justin and I were waiting for my dad and Chris to arrive from the airport.  Their plane had landed an hour late.  A cold, large, Mulberry Street pizza sat uneaten in the box on the table.
"So, about Thanksgiving," I said looking at Justin.  I fought to keep my voice light.
"The plan is that we'll all get up..."
"I'm hungry," said Miles peeking into the box.  "Can I have some pizza?"
"Not yet," I shut the box while I maintained eye contact with Justin.
"So Justin, you'll open all of your presents..."
"My presents?!? Where are they?" Justin's eyes darted around the room.
"We'll open presents," I continued, pulling his face back toward mine with my hand.  "Then we'll all go to Dupars for pancakes!"
"Grandpa never gets pancakes," said Miles with a grin.  "He always gets the omelette."  
He affected a deeper voice and squinted his eyes.  "I'll have an omelet — soft.  With extra,  cheddar cheese."
Justin laughed.  "He gets the same thing every time!"
"Okay, okay," I laughed with them for a moment.  
"Anyway, after Dupars I'll take you to your dad's for Thanksgiving dinner so he can spend some time with you guys too!"
The laughter stopped suddenly and Justin's eyes grew big as he began to understand what I was proposing.
"You mean you're not going to spend my birthday with me?" It was almost a shriek.
"Well, yes I am," I said with as much confidence as I could muster.  "The morning part of your birthday.  And then your dad gets you in the afternoon, okay?"
"No!  Not okay!"  Justin was on his feet now, as if to head for the door.
"Mom, You always spend my birthday with me!  How can you not be with me on my birthday?!?"
"Yeah mom!" Miles joined in.  "You can't NOT be with Justin on his birthday!!"

But you guys don't understand.  I don't have another option.  I don't know what to do...

I looked at their anguished faces and felt defeat rising up through my chest.
I grabbed Justin by the shoulders and cradled his curly head in my hands as he opened his mouth to voice more outrage.
"Shhhh, shhh," I soothed him, rocking back and forth slightly.  "Okay, okay.  We'll figure it out."
"Promise?" He looked up at me with round, brown eyes.
"Sure..." I said.  Although, I was further away from "sure" than I'd ever been in recent memory.

I called Brian the next evening after trying to come up with some other way for this to happen.  

"I'm so sorry," I told him.  I was shaking my head even though we were on the phone.
"I don't know what to do.  Justin really wants my dad and I to come.  He doesn't want to celebrate his birthday without me."
There was a long pause, but when he finally spoke, his tone was calm and kind,  "So come," he said.  
"We won't stay long," I assured him quickly.  "Just an hour.  We'll come right when it's time to eat."
"It's fine," he laughed.  "We'll eat at three.  You can come whenever you want, stay for as long as you want."
"Okay, then --  thank you.  My dad and I will drop them off after breakfast, ok?  And then we'll come back again at dinner time?"
"Sure that's fine."
There was a modicum of relief in knowing that I'd be able to keep my promise to Justin.  
But moments later panic set in

I have to go there now.  I'll have to eat Thanksgiving dinner at their table.  How am I going to do that?!?
I'll never forget the walk up Brian and Tracy's driveway.   It looked a mile long from the bottom.  I could see my breath, but I felt feverish underneath my sweater.  My dad trudged along next to me, looking straight ahead with his hands jammed into the pockets of his Miami Heat starter jacket.  He didn't seem to notice my panic (or if he did he was kind enough not to mention it).  
I stopped halfway up as I was suddenly filled with terror about the candle that I'd brought as hostess-gift.

What were you thinking?!?  A candle? A candle is a terrible gift! You should have brought the wine!

I had just decided to tell my dad to go inside while I ran to the store for a bottle of wine, when Miles appeared in the picture window that overlooked the driveway.  He burst into a smile and grabbed his brother (who must have been sitting down out of sight on the sofa).  
Together, I watched them race toward the front door.  The rest of Brian's family (with drinks in hand) gathered around the window and peered out at us.  Miles flung the front door open and grabbed my hand.
"Hey Mom - what took you so long?"
He fast-walked me into the kitchen.
"You gotta see Justin's cake, Mom."
There were 30 or so people milling around the house (some of whom I didn't know).  I quickly air-kissed  Brian's mom, Rochelle and his brother, Marc "hello" as Miles dragged me by them at top-speed.  
When we got to the kitchen I stopped in my tracks at the sight of the big, red and white cake that read "Happy Birthday JR!"

Red velvet cake.  Justin's favorite...

I fought back tears and forced a smile onto my face.  

This is the first time in his life that I didn't order his birthday cake...

"Wow! It looks delicious!" I said out loud.  I swallowed hard, proud of myself for keeping my composure (and my smile).
"Where's Tracy?"

Tracy looked like she was taking a break from a Elle Magazine photo shoot, with her shoulder length-hair pulled into a bun and her dark, cashmere wrap.  I watched her laughing and playing (tag?) with a little, brunette girl on the patio outside the living room.  She opened the heavy, glass door when saw me standing there.
"Hi," her voice was breathless.  A gust of cold air followed her in, ruffling her slip-dress around her knees.
We hugged awkwardly — briefly.  Suddenly, I felt matronly and over-dressed in my wool pants and black turtleneck.
"Have you ever met my dad?" I asked her abruptly, needing to fill the silence.
I watched them as they said hello to each other.   In a nervous burst, I interrupted them and handed her the gift box I held in my right hand with the dreaded candle inside.
"Oh and this is for you," I eyed the hallway off of the kitchen.  
Maybe I can excuse myself and call Bailey from the powder room.  

My eyes widened with horror as she immediately began to tear open the wrapping paper.
"Oh!  You don't have to open it now," I blurted. My hand shot out automatically to take it back.
But it was too late, she had the box unwrapped and was already pulling out the lilac-scented candle.
"Thank you, she said with a wide, generous smile.  I'll put it right over here," she walked over to a side table filled with framed photographs of her and Brian.
"Um, thank you," I said, remembering what I'd practiced in front of the mirror that morning.  
I cleared my throat.
"Thank you for including us today."
"You're always welcome," she smiled.   
"Come on," she said, as she put her hand on the back of my shoulder blade, steering me toward the dining room.
"Are you hungry?  You guys are sitting right over here."

I saw everyone else was also taking their seats.  My dad and I sat down alone one the end of the beautifully set table.  
Seconds later, Miles plopped into the seat next to mine.  He was holding his personalized napkin holder.
"I'm trading with Aunt Iris," he said matter of factly.  "So I can sit next you and Grandpa, Mom."
I was flooded with gratitude.  I placed my head against his for a moment.
"Thank you, Miles."
"Hey look," said my dad, holding up his napkin holder.  "It has my name on it!"
Slowly I looked at the napkin holder on the plate in front of me, I picked it up and saw my name in beautiful silver script on the black, disc that held the napkin.  
I glanced over at Tracy.  She was looking over in our direction.
"Thank you," I mouthed, pointing at the napkin ring.
She nodded, smiling at me.
"You're welcome," she said, it was barely audible against the chatter and laughter in the room, but to me it sounded loud and clear.

Five Year Later...

"Scott won't be going to Virginia this year, right?"
It had only been 4-months since Nancy had passed.  It was still hard to imagine that she wasn't in Richmond, in front of her television in her arm-chair, clipping coupons.
"No, he'll be here.  The girls are coming here for the first time."
Brian paused.  
It was the first week of November, 2016.  Our Justin was to turn 17-year's old on Thanksgiving Day this year and we hadn't yet talked about how we were going to spend the day.  I knew the girls wanted to come and be with their Dad.  Scottie had spent the last 7 Thanksgivings with them and Nancy in Richmond.  But I thought perhaps they'd spend a quiet Thanksgiving at our house while my dad, Chris the boys and I went to Brian and Tracy's, then we could hook up for a movie later on in the day.
"I just wanted to get a count," he said finally.  "Your dad and Chris will be here too, right? So, it's you, Scott, his girls, your dad and Chris?"
I felt tears well up momentarily in my eyes.
They're inviting all of us!
Of course, everyone who knows me knows that on that Thanksgiving Day five years ago, we started a tradition.  A tradition in which my dad, and I had gone to their house every year for Thanksgiving dinner.  
But I never assume.  I am always braced for the year where they want to do something different, which means that I'll have to do something different.
Thank you, I said.  "Thank you, that's amazing that you're inviting all of us."
"Of course!" he almost sounded insulted.  "Of course...