Memoir Chapter One

It was August 2009 when I had to give my daughters away. By court order they were going to live with their father. In another city. Across the state.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m afraid it’s what many thought about me at the time. She must be a loser of a mother, must have done some bad stuff, neglected her children, something. Maybe she drinks too much. The judge must know something about her that we don’t know. I’m sure my family was even wondering—what is going on that we don’t know about? I mean, why else would the kids be taken away from her? It’s unorthodox to order preteen daughters to go live with their father, especially a father who had little interest in them at all for the past twelve years.

I won’t tell you otherwise. That I was a good mom, one of the best. It’s not something I can say and therefore it is. I know a lot of women who don’t have it together but still believe they’re good mothers. They don’t get that it takes more than extreme love for your children. I could be one of those moms for all you know. But those who knew me before—those you watched me raise my babies—would tell you otherwise. My colleagues, other moms, the girls’ teachers and coaches, my mother, my sister, my brother, my aunts, my mother-in-law for God’s sake. They all knew. And it didn’t go unnoticed by Dave either. I wanted to relay all the positive feedback I’d gotten about my parenting and my kids to the judge. I especially wanted to tell him what a teacher friend of mine had just said to me, upon the birth of her second child. “You need to stop writing books about teaching and start writing books about parenting. I’ve watched you over the years; you make it look so easy. Plus, I want my kids to turn out like yours—smart, independent, courteous…” But that’s not how it works. I learned that I wouldn’t necessarily get to tell the judge what he really needed to know. Or that he’d take it into account.

And there are those who came after who can attest to the time, energy, and love that I have dedicated to the girls since the divorce. I did not quit parenting once I lost them. I thought about it. Don’t get me wrong. I even considered relinquishing life altogether. But my girls needed me now more than ever. Who knew what they were headed for. Absurd as it seemed, my role may have just become more vital, more valuable than it ever was before. How I conducted myself, how I came out of this situation, was going to have a bigger impact on who these girls became, as women, than any further day-to-day parenting I was no longer privileged to provide.

I turned the girls, and their belongings, over to Dave in a convenience store parking lot in the small mountain town that the court had declared to be the midway point between our residences. This is where we would meet once or twice a month for the next six years until the girls were out of high school. I handed box after box to Dave and he loaded them, slack-jawed, astonished at how much his daughters had acquired over the past decade, into the shell of his F350. I noticed, as I always did, that the tailgate hit him mid-chest. Why he had to buy the largest truck possible I never understood, though I, and others, speculated that its grandiosity and power represented something he longed for in himself.

When we had passed the last of the boxes, careful not to accidently brush hands in the process, he looked at me with raised eyebrows. He hadn’t spoken to me in over a year. He did communicate, but only via email or text, always brief, to the point, and somewhat mordacious. For the past several months, since Dave had moved back to the city to take a new job, the girls had lived with me 250 miles further west, where the whole family had moved a few years earlier, with high hopes of making things work with a new backdrop. But the time had come. They needed to get settled in their new home before school started.

The agonizing despair had come and gone, my ripped up guts somewhat healed, my mind deadened with this actuality, my heart held together now with nothing but faith. Faith that these girls would make it, that they wouldn’t become some foul statistic. I had to believe that they were in God’s hands, not Dave’s.

It was not with the judge’s final ruling two weeks earlier that I had learned that I would lose them; I sensed it long before, as the reality slowly but steadily materialized, like darkness on a night with no moon.

His raised eyebrows said, “So, that’s it then?”

And though I was sure he wasn’t referring to just the boxes, I replied with, “That’s only half of it. I’ll bring the rest next time.”

The “it” was the girls’ assemblage of their childhood:  toys, keepsakes, artwork, clothing, shoes, outerwear, souvenirs, stuffed animals, and room decor. Being tweens—still girls but barreling at full speed toward the teenage years—they seemed to have twice as much as a girl in strictly one or the other category might have. As we packed up their rooms, they were reluctant to get rid of anything, and understandably so. Everything they possessed represented a happier time, a safer place. I didn’t press. I was secretly hoping that when they unpacked and set up their new rooms, every item would serve as a reminder of my love and devotion to them over the years. Not that I wanted them to feel regret, guilt, or hurt; I just couldn’t bear them forgetting me.

Dave pursed his lips and bobbed his head slightly at the enormity of their belongings, grasping, I think, the enormity of the situation. He would now be raising these children. He would be responsible for their welfare, for how they turned out in life. Was he at all concerned about his lack of parenting experience? Maybe I had made it look so easy to him, too.

Of course, he probably wouldn’t be the one caring for the girls anyway. He would be working a lot, as he had been before. He had a live-in girlfriend, Susie, who was not employed and the court presumed that, for that reason, she would be an acceptable caregiver. Not just acceptable, but preferable. A better choice than the tried-and-true biological mother who had managed work and household and children just fine all these years.

Dave turned back to me. His eyebrows, still raised, showcased the stress lines on his forehead beneath what appeared to be a premature receding hairline. It had, in actuality, been that way since I’d met him some 22 years earlier. The fissures had come in gradually, like cuts in a chicken breast to determine if the meat was thoroughly cooked. Medical school, slice. Not-exactly-wanted children, slice. Cancer patients dying, slice, slice, slice. The tedium of the days, weeks, years. Slice. A move, a new job, a fresh start, cancer patients still dying. Slice. A wife who finally gave up and wanted out. Slice.

The question remained. “So, that’s it then?” As if the passing of the belongings served as the culminating event of the decisions made over the past year and a half. It was done. The girls were his. And I? Well, I was now an every-other-weekend mother.