I shredded so many old files tonight that my shredder is squeaking and smoking (for reals). It’s a weird feeling feeding the last several years’ worth of documents into the grinding jaws of destruction . . . there’s the bill … Continue reading
Karma is the Buddhist notion of moral causation, the idea that we all get what we deserve in this lifetime based on what we’ve done in previous lifetimes. It’s an interesting thought—and one that explains the discrepancies in fortune along … Continue reading
I feel like I just returned from four days on the moon instead of from four days at a writer’s conference at the Sea-Tac Hilton, so completely was I transported out of my daily existence. Even though I joined the Pacific Northwest Writers Association a few months ago with an eye toward the conference, I signed up at the last minute, still unsure if I was ready, unconvinced I could learn anything new about writing. But a small voice niggled in the back of my mind, and I’ve been working on listening to the voice instead of dismissing it as I’ve done most of my life.
I’m so glad I listened. I could not have imagined a richer four days. The workshops were all excellent—each one exceeded my expectations. The other writers were open and supportive, friendly, and talkative—all of which surprised me, I guess because writers are notoriously introverted (well, at least I am), and since there were NY agents and editors at this conference, I expected a sense of competitiveness. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I sat down at the table with the Memoir sign and within 10 minutes I was joined by three other women. We took turns sharing our stories and giving each other feedback, all instant compatriots linked by our love of words, all of us with four incredibly different stories.
I sat in a workshop called “First Page” in which attendees submitted the first page of their book to be read aloud by a volunteer. As she read, the panel of judges (5 agents/editors) were to raise their hand at the point where they would stop reading (this to give the writers in the room a sense of what catches an agent or editor’s attention or makes them hate one’s work). Once three hands were up, the volunteer stopped reading and the panel members told the audience what made them stop reading. The first handful of first pages didn’t get very far before the hands shot up. Common complaints from the panel included confusing openings, too much narrative, too much tell and not enough show. I began to regret handing over my first page—I wasn’t sure I could handle my work being judged like this. But then, a couple of pages got read all the way to the end and the panel had kind words. I started feeling better.
And then. Then I saw the volunteer reader holding my page (I could tell—it was double-sided). I started sweating (beyond the “normal” hot flashes I’ve been experiencing of late), my heart pounding. I entered that out of body orbit and I tried to pay attention as the volunteer read my first page. She got through the first paragraph and one hand was up, but the other panel members seemed engaged. Second paragraph—the one hand that was up seemed to flag a little (and honestly, this panel member didn’t seem to like much of anything). Other panel members were still listening, smiling even. And at the end, everyone applauded. The panel members complimented me on my clear writing, crisp language, and engaging story. The one male member of the panel said he wanted to know what happened to that little girl and felt for her and her dilemma.
Validation. I floated out of that workshop. What had been a casual decision to attend it at all turned into the most critical moment of the conference for me. People liked my story! Visions of publication danced in my head. Editors and agents will beg to represent me, I thought. And, in fact, all of the agents and editors I pitched to later that day invited me to submit my work to them for consideration, and I have since my return on Sunday.
But a few of the agents/editors I spoke with wondered what my “hook” was and how my story was relevant, and this question has me deep in thought as I work to finish my memoir which, for those who are wondering, is tentatively titled Co-Parent: How I Became a Divorced Lesbian Mother of Two Adopted Multi-Racial Girls in the Not So Gay 90s. I thought my hook was evident: same sex marriage is all over the headlines. What’s more relevant than a story about same sex divorce and custody? Still, a couple of these women asked why anyone would want to read my story, when it happened so long ago. Which makes me wonder . . . why do we read history? And how can I make my history more relevant?
Interestingly, the agents/editors who asked these questions were all of my generation—late 40s to late 50s—and those who were more enthusiastic were younger. And this disparity also has me wondering if those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, no matter how liberal we might be, still carry traces of homophobia with us in spite of recent cultural advances.
So, I’ve decided to crowd-source my “hook“—what will make my story appealing to readers outside of the narrow “divorced adoptive lesbian mothers” demographic?
I was heartened to find this Doonesbury cartoon in the Sunday paper—it made me feel that my story was indeed relevant, but I’m no Gary Trudeau. I need to convince agents and editors to take a chance on unknown me.
Fifteen years ago this week, I picked my eldest up from school. She arrived at my car sobbing, clutching what could only be a Mother’s Day art project, a gift wrapped with lots of construction paper, held together with even more scotch tape. When I asked her what was wrong, she explained between tears and hiccups that she only had time to make the one present. “But I have two mommies!” She whimpered. My heart broke into a million pieces. Gently, I took the gift from her hands and unwrapped it. It was a book. This was a problem easily solved. When I explained we could make a color copy, the relief on her face broke my heart all over again. We drove directly to Kinko’s. “See,” I said, holding up an exact replica, “One for me. One for Mommy M.”
Seventeen years ago, I sat weeping in my therapist’s office, terrified that I had made the biggest mistake of my life, certain that my life as a mother was over. I had just left my children, my partner and co-parent—my children’s other mother—had just moved out of our family home and into a tiny apartment, taking only my clothes, a CD player, and my 1964 Dodge pickup truck with its rusted out floorboards and no seatbelts. In a fit of youthful optimism I’d taken a job that would allow me to spend more time with our girls, keeping them out of daycare, a move that did not go over well with my co-parent. Long story short, she asked me to move out of the house, her house, launching us all into a long and painful custody battle. A war in which there would be no winners.
As I wept in that office, overwhelmed with despair, I could not visualize a way forward. I could not imagine life without my daughters, then six and two years old. We’d adopted both the girls as infants, first as single parents, then as a couple. We stood before the judge in the King County courthouse among family and friends and promised to be a forever family. Our names graced the birth certificates. Our little family seemed solid. I thought my decision to take job with more flexibility was the right one. My diminished salary would be made up in what we saved on daycare for our youngest and after school care for the oldest. We had worked so long and so hard to adopt the girls, had spent so many years dreaming this family into existence, it made no sense to me that we both worked full time and put the girls in daycare.
Full of bravado, and in spite of stern warnings from my partner, I had to follow my instincts as a mother. I had to do what I saw as the Right Thing. What did it get me? No house. No relationship. No kids. I thought, naively it turns out, that being a legal mother of both girls would grant me the right to be a parent, at least half time. Not so. While heterosexual divorced couples with children automatically get kicked into a custody process, “divorced” lesbian mothers, at least in 1996, got nothing. There was no divorce because there had been no marriage. Our commitment ceremony, while a fun little ritual, had no legal ramifications. Really, all that seemed relevant at the time was the fact that I did not have my name on that house title. I had to move out. Having no legal access to the house meant I had no access to my kids. I had no idea when I left that my soon-to-be ex would bar me from seeing our kids, that once I was gone, she would attempt to erase me from their lives.
My days suddenly silent, my nights stretched out empty, I spiraled into a deep depression. My identity as a mother slipped away. No diapers to change. No breakfast to make. No lunches to pack. What was I, if I wasn’t a mother? Everything I had been, I’d given up in our pursuit to adopt our girls, to be in this relationship, to become a family. One social worker along the way even commended me for giving up on being a writer and getting a real job. I’d sold my bookstore. I had become a Mother, and I loved being a Mother so much that I wanted to spend more time with the girls. That love had led me to here. To nothing, it seemed. If I couldn’t be a mother, then maybe I shouldn’t be at all. I thought about moving away, just leaving town. I flirted with razor blades and alcohol. My therapist reminded me regularly and forcefully of the damage done to those left behind.
I decided to stay. In town and on the planet. I upped my antidepressants. I got a lawyer. I worked three jobs and went back to school. I found two housemates, asked my grandmother for an advance on my inheritance, and bought a house. I made a home. I fought to remain relevant in my daughters’ lives. Not one part of this journey was easy. Co-parenting with someone who would rather I just disappear, with someone who had to be court-ordered to share custody sucked, but it sucked so much less than not parenting at all. My legal and therapy bills grew enormous. When I cried and railed against the unfairness of my situation, my therapist told me how fortunate my children were to have me in their lives. When I couldn’t breathe because the initial child support payments I had to make were more than half my meager monthly salary, she helped me strategize a solution. When I despaired that I would have no meaning in, no impact on my daughters’ lives, she reminded me that they would come back to me, they would be in my life, maybe not the next week or the next month, but in a few years, when they were out of school, in their late teens and early twenties. Mothering meant showing up and reaching out, even when I didn’t think it would matter, even when no one reached back. Even when the next week, let alone the next decade, seemed impossibly far away.
But I did it. I showed up. At games. At concerts. At parent teacher conferences. Doctor’s appointments. Most of the time, I felt awkward because the teachers, the doctors, the other parents didn’t know I even existed. I had to show up at the school with the Parenting Plan in hand to get my name on my kids’ emergency contact list. I had to request I be added to the PTA’s little booklet with the kids’ and parents’ names, phone numbers, and addresses. Every year. I had to introduce myself to coaches, principals, other parents. Sometimes, I missed events because I found out about them too late or was too embarrassed to call other parents to ask. The last time I called the pediatrician’s office to get information about my daughter’s medications they hung up on me, refusing to give me information even though my youngest was still a minor, even though I had the paperwork granting me joint medical custody. I had to take the parenting plan to the pharmacy to find out what medicine my child was taking. Often, I felt like a fraud, an imposter. So many times I wanted to give up, to crawl away in shame. The depression and suicidal thoughts stayed with me for years.
Still, I pressed through the fog and darkness. Even when I had to take a job 80 miles from home—I drove back three days a week, arriving in time to pick the kids up from school. I finagled time off. I found a way to be there. I got a MySpace Page. I got a Facebook page. I texted. I emailed. I called. I found a way. I made Easter baskets and bought Halloween treats, Valentines Day cards, swallowed my pride and left them on their front porch if I had to. And if my ex made other plans for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I had presents and stockings and dinner with the girls on December 23rd. Because what day we spent together didn’t matter. First day of school? I showed up. The day my eldest left for college, I packed my mother in the car with me and we went along too. I refused to be erased.
And you know what? That decade passed and my girls are in my life. They finished high school. My eldest finished college. The youngest just started this year. These are the days my therapist promised. These are the days I couldn’t even imagine.
Happy Mothers’ Day.
The first thought I had upon hearing that Ruth was dead? “Did I do that?” I had wished her dead for so long, and now she was. Colon cancer finally killed her. She’d fought it for years, on death’s doorstep one day, back on the treadmill the next. Deathwatch 2004 we called it initially, though she didn’t die until 2008. In death, now as she had in life, Ruth agitated me, inscrutable and maddening. Even though we had never been friends, our lives were intimately entwined, and I often felt trapped in a relentless dance with her—the same steps over and over and over.
We were on vacation, Taylor and I, on our annual trip to the Oregon Coast when the call came, beckoning us home for the funeral. Ruth cut everything short when it came to my kids. Taylor upset, because at 14 she thought she should have been contacted directly. Trust me, I would have preferred not to be the bearer of this bad news.
In my fantasies Ruth generally died in a car wreck. Her five-year-old van had over 300,000 miles on it. That van, full of toys and treats, her clothes, toothbrush, old woman shoes. Stuffed animals and children’s books. Sports equipment. Balls, racquets, running shoes. Games. She had a house of her own, but lived on the road, in between our home and hers.
I did not believe the cancer would kill her. She seemed invincible, omnipresent, immovable.
How many times had I driven past the large wooden church on the corner and watched as black-draped mourners filed in? How many times had I wondered what unfortunate soul inhabited the casket being extracted from the back of the hearse? I hadn’t been to many funerals in my life, just the expected ones, never for someone so much a part of my everyday life. And never for someone I actively wished dead.
Now I tried to find a parking space so we could join the long black line into the church for Ruth’s funeral. I could barely keep my soul and body together as I prepared to confront the death of the woman who had hijacked my family. I kept reminding myself I needed to be there to support my children.
“I wonder if there will be a casket,” I said to Nancy, my wife, as I waited, not patiently, for the old people in front of us to hobble their walkers out of the parking lot. I peered intently at the old couple, certain I recognized them but so many years had passed, I couldn’t be certain.
“I hope it’s not an open casket,” Nancy commented. “She wasn’t much to look at on a good day.”
“She was such a scientist though,” I said, surprising even myself with my equanimity. “Maybe she donated her body to science. She loved taking those anatomy and physiology students to see the cadavers, though I can’t imagine her naked on a stainless steel gurney for some random college kids to carve on. For a PE teacher and a coach, she sure had a fear of being naked in the locker room.”
I recognized Ruth’s profile well above the chrome rim of the casket as soon as we entered the sanctuary. Her faced looked weirdly green. I took a deep breath. The church and the people swam before me–I could feel my soul disengaging from my body. Too many people from the past. Two of my ex’s longtime friends handed out funeral programs and attempted to usher people towards seats. I let Nancy take the program and tried not to make eye contact, still uncomfortable 12 years after our divorce.
“Where are my kids?” I surveyed the pews, expecting to find Anna and Taylor sitting with my ex, Narcissa, their other mother, near the front, where the family usually sits. They were as close to family as Ruth had.
“There’s Anna,” Nancy pointed to the middle row, front pew where Anna sat among a long line of her good friends and schoolmates. Most of these kids had grown up with Anna, and some had been with her in school since daycare. All of them knew Ruth, knew what she meant to Anna. I was relieved to see Anna was nearer to the foot end of the coffin and not directly in front of Ruth’s strangely green face.
“That’s weird. Where’s T?” I frantically scanned the rest of the church. “I can’t believe she’s not here.” I started to grow indignant on her behalf. Figured, I thought to myself. She always came second with Ruth–I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d been forgotten at home.
I swooned (not in a good way) to recognize a cadre of Ruth’s former field hockey players–all mullets and capped teeth, awkward in their funeral attire. I averted my gaze again and then bugged my eyes out at Nancy, our universal signal for “help me!” She took my arm gently and guided me toward an empty pew.
“Let’s sit down before your head explodes,” she whispered. We sat a couple of rows behind Anna and her friends, and I thought I should say something to Anna, at least let her know I was here. I stepped forward and put my hand on her shoulder.
“Hey sweetie,” I began but had no idea what to say next. She knew how I felt about Ruth, not the entirety of my pain, but she knew well enough I did not much like Ruth. How could I convey that in spite of my anger and disdain for Ruth, I deeply felt Anna’s hurt? “I’m so sorry, honey. I know she meant the world to you.”
Anna, just two months out of high school and within a week of going off to her first year of college just stared at me blankly. I knew she must be completely unmoored by this. In spite of my most vigorous efforts, Ruth had been her primary parent–her biggest cheerleader, her most unfailing supporter, her own personal chauffeur and ATM. And, I suspected, the primary reason Anna had chosen a school a good seven-hour drive from home. Anna knew it was time to start cutting the cord, but I knew she wasn’t prepared for Ruth to just be suddenly gone. I patted her inelegantly on the shoulder and hugged the friends on either side of her, relieved to head back to my seat, on edge because I still didn’t see Taylor.
Nancy poked me when I sat down and pointed to the casket where a woman I did not recognize was trying to put a tennis racquet in Ruth’s cold dead hands. Ruth had donated much time and money to Anna’s high school tennis team over the past four years. Evidently, this woman had been charged with expressing the team’s appreciation.
We could not look away as she first positioned the racquet so it stuck out of the box as if Ruth might be holding it, and then as she rearranged it so the strings crisscrossed Ruth’s head and the racquet framed her green face. Not happy with that look, she attempted to put it behind the body where it simply looked ridiculous. The woman also had a folded pile of clothes, green sweats, and she attempted to wedge these in the coffin as well. Nothing said goodbye like a good racquet and a set of team tennis sweats. There was no way for the tennis accessories to look anything but weird and the woman mercifully gave up, but I do think Ruth would have admired her persistence.
Throughout the funeral service, I keep telling myself that I was young. Too young and inexperienced to have known about Ruth. And optimistic. Hopeful. Naïve. Twenty-five years of therapy later, I know that all I could do was leave, but not all choices are obvious or easy. I stayed. We both stayed, hoping for a place in Narcissa’s life. Ruth provided the money. I provided the sex. Ruth had history and everyone else could see that she was part of Narcissa. I couldn’t have Narcissa without Ruth, but I didn’t see it.
Narcissa’s friends asked how the three of us were getting along. I didn’t understand. Why the three of us? Ruth’s part of the package, they said. Narcissa didn’t warn me. She denied the truth if I asked. I learned slowly. Something about being in the 1980 Olympics. I’d written a paper about that boycott. I was a junior in high school in 1980. Narcissa a 29-year-old member of the US Olympic Field Hockey Team. Ruth her coach. Bitterness. I didn’t know field hockey.
We started as an affair—sexual attraction, a broken relationship. And hard to get. I dated a girl my own age then. Finished graduate school. What now? Two degrees in English. I wanted to be a writer. Narcissa found that sexy. The Girl My Age wanted to be a writer too. Whom to choose? I played it both ways.
When The Girl My Age started driving by my house at midnight and yelling obscenities from her car window if she saw Narcissa’s truck, when she started calling me at 1 a.m. asking if I were alone, I chose Narcissa. Stable, settled and starting a family. I thought those were my dreams too. I often consider the path not taken. I did not count on Ruth.
Ruth raised my children. Her ubiquitous presence drove me out of their lives as she became a puzzle I couldn’t solve. There were too many pieces. I couldn’t see how it all fit together. I should have known, should have seen it that first night when she arrived, unannounced, immovable. She never left. How could I have known?