Month: April 2020


            (Note:  I have not referred to my husband by name in previous pieces, but will refer to him as Ron from this piece on to avoid confusion.)

            Ron desperately wanted to be part of his soon-to-be son’s life and started looking for help to gain control over his addictions.  His search landed him at the local Veterans Center.   Despite the obvious fact that Ron was the one with the problem, I agreed to join him for counseling, separately and together, alone and in groups.  The women in the wives group were welcoming, but I had difficulty making eye contact or casually chatting as we gathered, and left immediately after as they all ambled around chatting some more.  Most had been with their partner before, during, and after their tour in Viet Nam.  I had not.  I met Ron years after his return.  I rarely offered anything beyond a smile or a head shake, but listened to what others had to say.  I was obviously not the only one on this side of the battle against the demons the men had brought home with them.  But despite similar stories I felt different, felt our relationship was different.  I attended several times and then found convenient reasons for not showing up.  We continued couples counseling where I was more able to express my frustrations.  My tears often flowed as Ron sat silently.  The few private sessions with a counselor sometimes approached the anger that was deeply buried, but I never let it totally loose, afraid it would eat me alive – along with any chance for our relationship – if I allowed it to escape.  I gained a deeper understanding of what drove Ron to escape through drugs and alcohol, but often felt confused as to what I could do about it.  Understanding wasn’t enough to make it go away.  Ron was still the one that needed to fix it, not me. The meetings became a regular part of his life and he sometimes mentioned the connections forming within this group of men, but rarely shared the things they discussed.  We were living apart so it was difficult to know what was changing inside him.  I know he seemed quieter, as if he was starting to listen to the noise rattling inside his head that he had been running away from for so long.  We finished our individual and couples counseling and it ended there for me.  Ron continued attending the group for several years and seemed to find a home for a piece of himself there.  The struggle wasn’t over, but we were no longer alone.  I will always be grateful for the welcome hand extended from the Vet Center, and know we would not have had a chance without them.  

            As the days before our son’s arrival dwindled my blood pressure rose.  The doctor ordered an early end to work and bed rest.  I allowed Ron, needed him, to move back into the house.  I needed his care, unsure I could trust him to provide it.  But he did.  The bedroom and bathroom were separated from the kitchen by a long flight of stairs, so each morning before work he prepared a cooler with my daily supplies and set it next to the bed.  When he was in town for work he came home for lunch to check on me.   The drinking seemed to have stopped or slowed significantly – no late nights out.  We both knew that it would only take once and the door would be locked again – no matter what my condition was. 

            Our son arrived two weeks early according to the estimated date, but his hardy eight pounds fourteen ounces suggested he was right on time!  As soon as the pains began I was sent to the hospital.   Ron stood by my side as they prepared to start an IV, but soon landed on the bed next to me as he became faint with the insertion of the needle – into my arm!  My hopes for his support swooned with him.  But as labor continued for over 30 hours, his strength surged as mine waned.  In the final hour he was by my side as I pushed and pushed to no avail.  I looked at him and uttered  “I can’t do this any more.”  He shouted to the doctor “That’s enough, she needs help.”   The doctor voiced his concern and let me know a cesarean section might be necessary.  I was exhausted, but also determined to deliver this baby now, without the help of a scalpel if possible.  I had been directed to relax between contractions, but each time I relaxed the baby retreated from the position I had worked so hard to push him into.  I stopped listening to what they told me to do and did what made sense to me: maintained a steady pressure even as the contraction eased.  Two contractions later our son entered the world.  I had never believed a squashed, wrinkled newborn could resemble anyone, no matter how much it came to be true as they grew.  But there he was – dark haired, long torsoed, and the spitting image of his father!!   A father that stayed by my side through a difficult birth.  A father beaming at his new son.


It was a tumultuous relationship.  Despite past experience I once again thought my love could stitch together another’s broken seams.  But this time wariness kept one foot out the door, ready to bolt – a caution that would hover for years to come. Our love grew despite both of our need to protect our hearts from pain.  We each had our own weapons.  Mine was anger.  When enough hurts burned inside I hurled threats and screams at whatever tender spots he had laid bare.  His was moving away from reality, into a world softened by alcohol and drugs.   After three years of multiple partings and reunitings the increasing desire for a family finally pulled us to the altar.   We danced to the music of two steps forward and two steps back right up until the day our vows were voiced in front of witnesses.    One of my close friends walked away – forever – because she could not support my decision.  Wagers were taken at our wedding on how long it would last.  The outlook was less than bright.   

Drinking was an ongoing issue that plagued our nights.  He was often gone until early morning hours and I was often pacing the floors and cursing.  I was oblivious to the degree that drugs were still in use – until I found his stash.  Once again, the depth of my love could not heal wounds inflicted long before my entrance to the story.  As the birth of our son neared I became less and less willing to take care of a grown man, the father to be.  The looming responsibility of caring for an infant shifted my energy and attention.  I needed someone to share the parenting, not detract from it.  One evening, late in the pregnancy, he returned in the early hours of the morning even more wasted than usual.  He got up in the middle of the night, in what I would later understand to be a blackout, and began urinating in the corner of the bedroom.  As I tried to stop him he pushed me away and I landed sprawled on the bed.  I left immediately, fearing for my safety.  Next day he had no memory of the incident.  He move out at my insistence and we obtained a legal separation.  The prospect of being a single parent stared me in the face.  I did not want to acknowledge the fear I saw when I stared back.

Next step in the prescribed order of events: buy a house.   We found a row house on a street full of nearly identical homes. It was over 150 years old and carried the character of its age: hardwood floors, ceilings 12 feet high, marble fireplaces, and intricate moldings.  We both loved the house and worked on several renovations to make it meet our needs.  Its location in the downtown area was also walking distance to his work. A basement rental apartment helped pay part of the mortgage.  I paid the rest, despite the fact that my paycheck was a fraction of his, to allow him to pay off large credit card debt accumulated before we met. The ups and downs continued through our first year, but on our anniversary we decided to start that family we both so wanted.  It didn’t take long before a pregnancy was confirmed.   It was not smooth sailing, but we were a bit more settled and both looked forward to the arrival of our son.                                            


             Friday night meant sliding into my hip hugger bellbottoms and a top that flattered my curves, as I prepared to cruise local bars with friends.   It was the way to meet guys in the 1980s.  Now in my late 20’s, the desire to have a child had migrated from a small nook, unnoticed while I crafted a career, to a front row seat in the feature film of my future.  If I didn’t meet someone soon to share the responsibility of creating a family, I was considering having a child on my own. It was not a situation that was looked down upon anymore.  I knew life would be difficult as a single parent, but (naively) thought it wouldn’t be harder than other things I had done.   

            The second stop of the evening was a popular downtown dive.  My eyes met those gazing at me from across the room.  He was tall, bearded, and – in my eyes – utterly handsome.   I looked away, looked back, and felt the blood rush to my cheeks as our eyes met again.  He made his way to my end of the bar.  We talked and I soon realized he possessed the secret weapon – he made me laugh.  Laughter had been a missing element in the home I grew up in, and had become the barometer of attraction since my first crush on the class clown in the sixth grade.  That boy of twelve teased me in a way that did not feel like teasing at all, and often looked my way when he cracked a joke.  I eagerly obliged his attention with my giggle and smile.  The appeal of a man that could make me laugh persisted.  And now, it was pulling me in again.

            We dated seriously very quickly.  Early on I made it clear that other women on the side were not part of the arrangement.  He agreed.  His story emerged as we made our way into a party of two.  He was in the middle of a divorce, waiting out the year for an uncontested agreement.  He was spending nights on a friends couch when we first met, but soon moved into an apartment with another friend.  He did not have children, but had a strong desire to have a family.  A ship had carried him from Sweden to this country when he was two.  His sister was born here when he was five.  Their mother returned to Sweden a few years later – alone.  They had been raised by their father.  The family of three had progressed from relative wealth into relative poverty by way of his father’s gambling.  Eventually he and his sister had needed to enter foster care.  It was not a pretty story.  He had moved to Washington DC on his own at seventeen.  Scars on his body spoke of the rough times he had witnessed there.  Then, despite multiple attempts at evasion, the Viet Nam draft swept him into the highly unpopular conflict.  A quick marriage to his girlfriend left someone at home, waiting for his return.  That return was accompanied by the nightmare of addiction.  Ultimately the marriage had fallen apart and now here he was.  Another broken man waiting for repair.  And here I was, the fixer.  

            My heart opened for the first time since it had been sealed shut over three years ago.  The growing relationship lured me to leap in, yet propelled me to run away at the same time.  We seemed as different as moon and sun.  But the attraction was undeniable.  Our endowments were from opposite ends of the spectrum.  Mine included early years of stability like that of a mighty oak, rooted in one place, unable to move, waiting for a wind with sufficient ferocity to rip it from the ground and carry it away.  His included constant motion, across the ocean, across wealth and poverty, across homes and families, and across threats to his existence that led him to seek comfort from anything that offered it.  He tugged my feet from the mud, pulled me towards the freedom of the ethers.  I hauled his head from the clouds, pulled him towards the support of the earth.  Yet something more than the attraction of opposites connected us.  We had both struggled to get where we were, knew what hard work felt like, had been supported by little from outside of ourselves.  We both looked at life with our cup half full, saw hope through the haze.   And our mutual desire for a family interlaced our hearts.


            Men ducked in and out of the picture.  Some stayed longer than others, but if they didn’t move on, I did.  Desire for a long term relationship was not absent, but when opportunity presented itself my door seemed to close.  I liked coming and going as I pleased.  I liked the safety inherent in not offering more than I was willing to have taken away.  I liked the power of being the party of lesser interest.  But though I was rarely alone when I didn’t choose to be, loneliness stalked me.  Frequent meet ups with friends to share activities, food, and conversation were always enjoyable, but the loneliness even wore through the good times.

         I met an older divorced man with adopted interracial children.   He was persistent in his pursuit despite my persistent nos.  I finally agreed to meet him for dinner, and became curious.  Curious about his more rural lifestyle, his different views on the world, and especially curious about his children.  The first visit to his home was startling, yet did not dissuade my interest.  Chickens met my car, children ran around the yard comprised mostly of dirt, and he greeted me with a nervous smile.  We entered his relatively modern version of a middle class house, followed by curious eyes and snickers.  I met the kids – ranging in age from five to eleven, and they met me – a considerably younger woman and maybe the first he had brought into this house since their mother left – I never asked.  Furnishings were sparse and the place had definitely not felt a female touch in some time.  Food was primarily vegetarian and some kind of bean always seemed to be soaking in a bowl in the sink.   He introduced me to the local natural food co-op and I met people who were different from most of my friends.  I entered what I considered my ‘mother earth’ phase as I became a frequent visitor in his home and formed connections with the kids.  A small sense of comfort sometimes settled over me while I was there, maybe from tasting the flavor of a family, or maybe from memories of life with facets far beyond the one I lived alone.  I often sat in silence observing his interactions with the kids and the kids with each other.  Sometimes I wanted to jump in and either chastise the kids for inappropriate behavior or stand up for them when I thought he was being too rigid.  The closest I ever came to either was one evening at dinner, when I responded to a ridiculous statement by one of the older children with a sharp “Ha!”  They all turned to look at me with eyes wide, as if a bullet had been fired from a hidden gun! 

            Clothes were usually purchased from the Salvation Army and the kids slept on mattresses on the floor. This was not due to lack of finances.  It was his choice to embrace a philosophy of thrift and meeting basic needs rather than accumulating the material things that society proposed as necessities.  The kids did not necessarily agree with this view.  On rare occasions he butchered one of his own chickens for a meal.  The children were required to watch the beheading to understand where the food they ate came from.  I did not express my unease.  I did not express a lot of things.  He was older and these were his children. Who was I to suggest that things should be done differently?   

I began to sense that his need to feel different, to place himself outside of the norm, was possibly due to reasons deeper than those that he readily voiced.  I will never know if this was true.  But these suspicions made me examine my own reasons for being with this man, my own need to feel different by choice instead of the difference I had felt for as long as I could remember.  I had grown to love his children, but my feelings for him never reached that intensity.  I yearned for a family, but one that included love for the person I shared it with.  I eventually left despite – or maybe because of – his suggestion we marry and have children together.   I deeply regretted becoming yet another woman in the children’s lives that moved on without them.  It was a hard lesson for me, but I fear an even harder one for them.


            A small, nearby, private college offered a Master’s degree in Communication Disorders.  I had never considered moving beyond a Bachelors degree in my field, until I learned that a Masters would be required for permanent certification.  So I started, one course at a time, paid for on a payment plan from that tiny paycheck.  More student loan debt felt incomprehensible as I chipped away at what I already owed.  The classes were smaller, more personal, dove into greater detail in specific areas.  I loved learning the explicit information and was less distracted by the lifestyle that had accompanied my undergraduate work.  I became absorbed in each class, made time for homework, reports and projects between working full time, and taking care of bills, an apartment, a finicky car, and the long haired black cat I had adopted.  Challenges seemed to cocoon the growing creativity and confidence required to sprout adult wings.

            I changed the oil in my car myself.  It not only saved money, but made me feel empowered.  My father taught me how to drain the used oil and replace it.  But he never mentioned the other things that needed checking – like transmission fluid.  My car died from my ignorance.  I rode my bike from my apartment to my job, to evening classes, and then back home again, for several weeks.  Clinical practicum, located at a hospital in the next city over, loomed on the horizon as a required part of my training.  The hospital was not within bikable distance.  I needed a car.  I blamed my transmission failure on its automatic status and decided I needed to learn to drive a car with a standard transmission.  A standard Toyota Corolla Sport was listed for sale nearby.  A friend took me to see it and the price was right.  The owner dropped the car at my doorstep and there I was, with a car I had no idea how to drive.  What was I thinking?  I tried, and failed, to move the vehicle more than five feet without stalling, over and over again.  I was willing to pay a driving school to teach me how to drive it, but none of them were able to help.  A friend and I jerked and stalled around the nearby park for hours, to no avail.  I had no idea what to do, clinic started in a couple of days and I had no way to get there.  Finally, days before I needed to admit my inability to complete this important step towards my degree, my friend found a brother of another friend that could drive a standard, and was willing to teach me.  Back in the park, he explained how to ease off the clutch while applying the gas, and after a few tries I felt the intricate dance between stillness and motion. I could move forward, and even shift gears, with minimal bucking and stalling.  There have been few lessons in life more critical to literally moving forward than this one. 

            The city where my clinical practicum was located was known for its hilly streets.  Little did I know that hills were an entirely different story.  Each day as I approached a traffic light at the top of a hill it turned red. Inevitably there was a huge city bus only inches behind me.  The engine revved as I put on the gas but hesitated on the clutch, then stalled as the light turned green.  Traffic – including that bus on my tail – lined up behind me.  If I was lucky I finally made it through the green light with horns blaring behind me.  If not, the horns blared and we all stood still.  The challenge of the practicum faded in relation to the stress encountered getting there and back. Over the weeks I became a bit more adept at shifting and starting on hills, but this is one of those memories that never softens with time. 

            I stayed for one happy year at the daycare job, then left for a professional position that offered a bigger paycheck – but moved me away from young children.  I traveled from school to school within several districts, some over an hour away, as an itinerant therapist.  I worked with older students with disabilities and strengthened my skills, but can’t say I enjoyed the travel, or the in and out design of the job that prevented significant connections with other staff.   The pay increase allowed me take two courses a semester to finish my Masters degree.  I moved closer to work, which placed me further away from school.  The light of day often slipped into the dark of the evening as I sat behind the steering wheel, driving in opposite directions from my apartment. Social activities rarely squeezed between work, school, homework and sleep.  I completed the ten month school year, then found a temporary summer job to help pay off student loans.  It was a maternity leave position as a speech therapist in a preschool program for special needs students, located in a small agency close to home.  The work style was team oriented and there were other young women my age employed there.  The preschool children stole my heart immediately.  I loved working there.  When the opportunity to turn the temporary position into a permanent one arose I took it immediately, despite a lower, but still sufficient, paycheck.

               Work became my new love.  I felt respected, competent, and in control of my own destiny.  I also felt a deep understanding for those who had difficulty voicing their needs.  The love that flowed easily towards the children opened my heart again – this time without the threat of losing my independence.  I was driven to be the best I could be, to help others with the skills I had learned, and to gather new ideas and information from those around me.  I was fortunate to form close relationships with many of the other young women, who would become lifelong friends.  I also met older woman that became important mentors, not just in work, but in life.  It was a time of tremendous professional and personal growth.