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|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
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By Michele Weldon
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Michele Weldon
All rights reserved.
Weldon hurled a new copper-bottomed teakettle into the kitchen trash with a twanging thud.
"Couldn't we just keep it and not think about it as his?" I asked.
"It is his," he insisted.
It was a Saturday morning in June 2005, and the eldest of my three sons, Weldon, had already spent hours ripping through everything in the house that had once belonged to his father; shoving the old clothes, photos, artwork, letters, blankets, a sleeping bag, and a worn blue comforter into trash bags he took outside and dumped into the garbage cans near the garage.
As a sixteen-year-old high school junior, Weldon did many things that puzzled me. Most of the time I didn't know what bothered him, but he would usually tell me eventually.
It had been a year and a half since my sons' father moved to Europe, eight years since our divorce. Ours was not one of those amicable, let's-stay-friends divorces. It was tumultuous, painful, contentious, expensive. Three weeks after I filed for an order of protection that required my husband to move out of our house in 1995, he filed for divorce and never came back.
To the surprise of everyone who thought they knew the handsome, charming attorney who lived happily with his smiling family in the neat brick Tudor home on the quiet street, my former husband had been physically and emotionally abusive to me over a nine-year marriage. I grew tired of apologies, roses, and promises delivered in counseling offices and at home. There would be no second, third, fourth, tenth chances. I lost the will to try.
I would start over, as a single mother, determined to make a life without fear or uncertainty for myself and my boys, without the unpredictability of a man who could be either the most charismatic person in the room or — to me — the most terrifying.
After full psychiatric evaluations of both of us, and an evaluation by a court-appointed legal guardian, the judge granted me sole custody of our sons, Weldon, Brendan, and Colin, who at the start of divorce proceedings were six, four, and one.
The years following the divorce were not easy but also pretty good considering the complications. I worked hard to stay above water — moving from an adjunct lecturer to lecturer to senior lecturer to assistant professor at Northwestern, contributing columns to newspapers, websites, and magazines; writing books; giving speeches and workshops; and editing other writers' work. I never said no to any offer of freelance employment for pay.
The acrimony between my former husband and me lessened but never disappeared. There was an undulation of empathy, then curt cruelty. I could never predict either. I considered him to be erratic in his attention to our sons; I learned never to count on him for anything related to the boys. He remarried within a few months of our divorce, had a daughter, a half sister to my boys, and in three years was divorced from his second wife.
After that, my ex-husband lived in three Chicago apartments in three years; the boys called the second one the "submarine" because it was a basement apartment with huge pipes across the ceiling. Over the years, I felt as if his presence in the boys' lives was disintegrating incrementally, like a Polaroid photo that extinguishes itself in a closed drawer, the colors fading into greenish-yellow until the image is gone. I could not imagine the long term; it felt obscure, out of reach. His connection appeared to me to be an abandonment, slowly accumulating momentum until, in 2004, he abruptly left the country with a Dutch woman I'll call Ingrid, another one who seemed bedazzled by him. I recognized the signs.
During an otherwise unremarkable weekend visit with the boys in January 2004, their father announced he was moving to Amsterdam in two weeks. The boys were fifteen, thirteen, and ten. I had no hint of his intentions and didn't know what he would be doing, only that Ingrid lived in the Netherlands and had a landscape business. There was some talk about her being involved in seminars on spirituality, but in the months they had been together and the few times I had met her, I admit I paid little attention. Months earlier I had even gone to dinner with her — alone — in an attempt to be cordial. I thought it might make the visits with the boys and their father go well if she was there.
Apparently, the day their father announced he was leaving the country, he loaded his pale gray Chevy van with trash bags filled with most everything the boys had ever given him — the Father's Day presents from kindergarten, their homemade paintings, cards and photos of themselves. He told the boys to keep it all for him in case he came back.
Then he dropped them off at home with all his leftover reminders of their childhoods thrown into plastic bags. I was not home to catch them in this latest freefall; I had gone to dinner with a friend. That Sunday night I walked in the door and saw piles of boxes and trash bags stacked in the front hall. The house was quiet. The boys were in their rooms.
"Whose stuff is this?" I asked when I reached the second floor. Knowing they would never go on a cleaning binge without several months of daily prodding, I was confused.
"Dad's," Colin said.
According to Colin, their father had said that the reason he was moving to Amsterdam was because all he did every other weekend was watch their wrestling tournaments, football, basketball, and baseball games, and help with homework. His life was much bigger than that, he told the boys.
Mine is bigger because of that, I thought.
I walked downstairs, my heart pounding, furious. I called my former husband on his cell. "What did you do?" I shrieked.
He told me he was building a better life for himself. He was no longer a practicing litigating attorney, having left the large firm in Chicago years earlier. He became a salesman for energy products, then a salesman for something else, I never really knew. I only knew he paid less in child support every year, until he paid nothing at all.
Whatever he did offer was never enough to cover the child care for the boys while I worked — the string of a dozen women over eighteen years to be my backup before and after school, 6:30–8:30 in the mornings, and 3:00–6:00 in the evenings. They would walk out the front door when I walked in the back door; sometimes they made dinner. Sometimes they made the beds. Sometimes they took laundry soap in plastic bags for their own laundry, and sometimes they forgot to pick up a child at practice. Sometimes they made chicken noodle soup that made the whole house smell like heaven.
My former husband had sold the blue striped couch I lent him for his apartment, the one that my mother had given us when we moved back to Chicago. He kept the $200.
This move to Amsterdam was all for our sons, he told me on the phone, though he offered no specifics about how that would work or how it would include their school and sports, their friends, or any part of their lives. It was like I was listening to a random caller to a radio talk show spouting off claims that I knew were improbable. He said he was giving them the opportunity of a life in Europe.
"They have a life here," I said.
How in the world would I pay for them to have a jaunt in Europe? I was able once to eke out a trip to Disney World with the boys, but that was because I signed up for a junket where I had to sit through hours of sales pitches for Disney time-shares that I had no intention or wherewithal to purchase. A European adventure was not a priority. Getting them through high school and college was higher on my list.
Even though Weldon's first year of college was more than two years away, I had an instinct my ex-husband would not honor college payments from our divorce decree. I just knew it, the way I know how a movie — especially a Lifetime movie — will end a half hour into it. That is why I worked for a university — for the portable tuition payments, among other things. I had worked at Northwestern for ten years before Weldon went to college. I qualified and my boys would reap the benefits: 40 percent of tuition paid to any university for twelve years of college for the three of them.
"You needed to let me know, to prepare them. This is a lot for them to take in so suddenly," I said.
How would I make up for this? How would I spin it so the boys wouldn't feel their father was leaving them? All their gifts in trash bags. Once again, it was up to me to absorb the aftershocks.
I never could have foreseen his choice. Not from the man who was effusive and gregarious when we'd married in 1986. Not the man my friends said was a real catch. I know that it sounds absurd, but how he behaved, who he appeared to be, his abuse — it surprised me.
Four months after our wedding, he struck me for the first time, on the chest. We went to a marriage counselor, and I believed my husband when he said that all he needed to do was calm down before he came home from work. For the next nine years I believed what he said to the three therapists in three cities we lived in — Dallas, South Bend, and Chicago. The first move was for my career; I was recruited to be a feature writer and columnist at the Dallas Times Herald. The second move was for his decision to go to law school; the final move was coming home to raise our children near our families. I bolstered my faith in the in-betweens — the times between the episodes of physical abuse — when he professed devotion and sincerity, the times we worked to create a family. But the in-betweens were as consequential as vapor, as amorphous and illogical as an ill-conceived wish. That was a lifetime ago.
The summer after his father left for Europe, I agreed to let Weldon visit him there for three weeks. I was careful to be supportive; I helped Weldon pack, gave him a credit card for emergencies, and bought him a leather photo album for all his photos of the trip after he returned. I would not obstruct a relationship with his father.
Two weeks into the trip, Weldon called from Florence, Italy.
"Where is the David?" he asked.
"The Michelangelo statue?"
"Yes." His voice sounded odd.
"It's in a museum." I couldn't offer more concrete help just then; I'd last seen the iconic statue of a young, naked David, arm poised to sling a rock against Goliath, when I was twenty-three and on a three-week Italian tour with my friend Mariann.
"We are trying to find it. Can you tell me how to get there?" Weldon asked.
"It's been more than twenty-five years; I can't remember. It's on a side street in a small museum, but everyone will know. Just ask, or look it up online." I couldn't look it up for him right then because I was away from my laptop. I didn't know whether to laugh or worry even more. Of course, I worried more.
We chatted a little and he said he was fine. But the call was so strange; his voice was hesitant. I had given him a credit card in his name on my account — so I could track where he was. Of course, my ex-husband offered no itinerary. I didn't know where they were going, when, or for how long. Weldon was only fifteen. But I could call my credit card company and check on recent charges he had made and where. Luckily, he used the card almost every day — for food and incidentals. If I didn't see a charge, I worried. There were several days without charges when I was extremely anxious and imagined the worst.
"If something happens to Weldon, you will hear," my sister Madeleine assured me.
As far as I knew, not finding the David was as difficult as it got.
Weldon returned home on the prearranged flight days later. Brendan, Colin, and I picked him up at the international terminal at O'Hare. We held welcome signs and a balloon. Weldon brought home gifts for each of us — a small bud vase from Delft, Netherlands, for me, T-shirts for his brothers.
It took Weldon three years to tell me how strange and hurtful the trip had been for him. He said his mission had been to convince his father to come home — if not for him, then for Colin, who was ten years old at the time. It took him even longer to tell me that his father had left him for two days in Italy with a stranger because he needed to go back to Ingrid.
Weldon told me much later that the trip made him feel he was capable of solving problems and managing on his own — that if he could be fifteen and left alone in Europe by his father, he would always be fine. This is not a lesson you want your children to have to learn.
"Why did you get rid of everything that was your dad's?" I asked Weldon after the clearing out episode. "And why now?"
"I don't want anything that was his," he said. "When I asked him why he ignored Brendan's graduation, Dad said, 'What does that have to do with me?'"
For Brendan's Roosevelt Middle School graduation a few weeks earlier, the boys and I went to dinner in Old Town to celebrate. When we got home, there was no phone message waiting, no e-mail, no congratulations card in the mail from Brendan's father. His aunts and uncles on his father's side sent checks. I bought Brendan a new suit, plus a battery-powered stuffed dog wearing a mortar board and a sash that said GRADUATE. The dog danced to the verse, "The future's so bright, I have to wear shades" when you pressed the button on his chest.
In 2002, the boys' father was still living in town and seeing them mostly every other weekend. I was visiting my mother in her small room at Kindred Hospital, just a few miles west of our house down North Avenue. The boys were at home with a sitter I had paid to spend the night, the same one who stayed the night when I traveled for work about once a month.
My five brothers and sisters and their spouses, and the hospice nurse, were at the hospital too. We had been there all night. We didn't want to watch our mother die. But we stayed.
As we sat or stood near her bed, next to which were small resin statues of Mary and Joseph on the nightstand, my mother took a loud, labored, rattling breath; opened her eyes wide; and looked off to the left. A huge smile engulfed her face, as if she was seeing something or someone. She closed her eyes. We waited for her next breath, but it never arrived. The nurse came in the room; they were monitoring Mom from the nurse's station.
"Your mother has passed."
We all stayed in the room for a while, said the Rosary together one more time, and cried. I looked over at my mother lying in her bed, her arms quickly turning an odd slightly bluish tint, until a nurse covered her with a sheet.
After another hour, my brothers and sisters hugged and kissed each other good-bye and we all left the hospital. I walked to the parking lot with my sisters Maureen and Madeleine and Madeleine's husband, Mike, feeling that helplessness I felt when my father died in 1988, as if I'd been dropped from the roof of a building without a net below.
"Are we orphans?" Maureen asked.
"I don't think adults can be orphans," Madeleine answered. "Only children can be orphans."
The boys were already at their schools; the sitter who had spent the night got them ready, packed their lunches, and drove them. I went home and called my ex-husband from the phone in the breakfast room where I had painted on the wall the Chinese proverb, "Govern a family as you would cook a small fish — very gently."
"The boys will need to go to the wake tomorrow and the funeral the next day," I said. "They can't go to Wednesday night dinner with you; they have to be at the funeral home."
I felt like I was on autopilot; I hadn't slept. I guess I hoped that he'd respond with compassion and kindness. My mom had just died, a woman he'd known his whole life who had been friends with his parents since they went to college together. So I let my guard down, pictured myself speaking to a friend, to the man I wished he was. I said something stupid, something I didn't really mean. I was tired. I was scared.
"When I am ninety-five, I am going to spare the boys what I just witnessed and step in front of a moving train so they don't have to watch me die."
He laughed. "Don't worry, Michele, I will shoot you long before then."
Excerpted from Escape Points by Michele Weldon. Copyright © 2015 Michele Weldon. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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