September 27, 2013

Us, the Early Years.

Photo: Jeff Golden on Flickr.

The divorce had left you virtually a single parent, struggling just to get the bases covered.

I was 29. You were 42. You had full custody of five kids and I had a checkered past.

How could it not be perfect?

The first time I came to your house, I brought my two dogs: Storm and Bowie. All five of your kids from ages six to 13 were home, as were your four month old puppy Hershey and a barn cat whose name I can’t now remember. The ensuing chaos was a just a taste of what was to come. The dogs, cat and four of the children raced up and down the stairs hysterically laughing, while the fourth child, an 11 year old, who happened to have sprained her ankle and was unable to join in the running, calmly asked,

“Are you and my dad doing it?”

The first night I spent at your house, I somehow got locked out of the bedroom in the middle of the night. You were so fast asleep you didn’t hear my desperate knocking on the door. I curled up on the couch in the living room in just a T-shirt and woke a few hours later to dozens of eyes peering at me, child and animal alike.

“You want some Lucky Charms?” one of the kids asked.

Your business had just begun to go well, and we set about making your house a home. There was a lot of work to be done. The divorce had left you virtually a single parent, struggling just to get the bases covered. You hadn’t had time to hang photographs, or paint over the children’s scribbles in the stairwell, or update the bright blue wall to wall carpeting riddled with stains from God knows what.

I started going with you to the kid’s swim meets, and soccer games and softball tournaments.

I hate sports. But you wanted me there, and you had been doing it alone for so long. I had never seen a dad light up like you did when his kids did well. I had never seen a dad like you at all.

Somewhere along the line, I moved in. I spent the first few months curled up with my dogs crying when no one else was looking. What had I gotten myself into? But it was too late. I loved you. And I loved the kids.

We decided we needed to do more fun stuff as a family. The children had been through so much. We went downtown into the city every Sunday to Dave & Buster’s, ESPN Zone, The Rainforest Cafe, Jeckle and Hyde, Benihana.

We were more like referees than parents.

I couldn’t believe the amount of money you were willing to spend on entertainment. I had never seen anything so extravagant.

You were just as good to me. We did everything together. We still do.

I learned to cook, you taught me to drive, we fired the nanny and I took over. She kept getting everyone’s laundry confused. I figured I could do a better job.

We got married and I got pregnant, we had a son. The kids had myriad feelings about it, some were glad, some were sad. But soon enough, they loved their brother. They passed him around like a favorite toy. We abolished words like “half” and “step”. That wasn’t for us.

We were family.

We had Christmas’s and Halloweens, Thanksgiving and vacations, bed times, story times, dinner times. We were famous among the kid’s friends for our post sleepover breakfasts, which you made like a short order cook, churning out pancakes, eggs, bacon and juice as if you were ten men.

We often laughed that it was a good thing we’d both been in the restaurant business, because running our house was basically the same thing. Except nobody tipped.

So we had a pretty solid foundation when our 16 year old son took his life.

I hate talking about it, but I can’t tell the story of us without saying the words. Obviously it was the worst day of our lives. And it changed everything.

It changed how you felt about being a dad.

Beforehand, you’d been justifiably confident. Now you weren’t so sure. We dreaded the judgement of others. We assumed they would see your divorce, my past, the death of our son and think we were bad people. It was too much pain in addition to the grief.

We sank into a dark place. But like everything else, we sank there together. Family therapy, couples therapy, grief groups, walks to raise money for suicide awareness, memorializing our son with endless gatherings of friends and family, trips to the cemetery, reaching out to other families who suffered from suicide.

Nothing helped. It just hurt and hurt and hurt.

Years passed. The cloud lifted imperceptibly. We didn’t feel like we were sleepwalking anymore.

Now our youngest son is almost 10. The other kids are 19, 21, 24 and 26. Our oldest son would be 25. The house is quiet these days. We still have dogs and a cat and Christmas’s and Halloweens but it’s different with most everyone gone. We pretend our older son is off at college like the others.

Until the anniversary of his death rolls around.

In between those anniversaries we have lots of good days. Days of watching our youngest on the football field, summer nights with friends around our bonfire, dinners out together full of laughter and good wine, Skyping and texting with the children who live in California, Tennessee and Arizona, far from their Chicago home.

But there will always be a sadness. A longing for a time when we were all so innocent, even though we didn’t know it then.

Do people judge us? I don’t know. I guess some do and some don’t. It doesn’t matter. We know what we’ve made together, you and I. An imperfect painting, an unfinished story full of heart and hurt.

And we also know we’ll keep writing this story until we’re done, and when we are done, we’ll look back and think,

“Remember when?”

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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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