The year my oldest son (we call him Doonie) turned three was a difficult one. The term “custody dispute” in no way describes the agony of that time, a time colored by gutting loss. I was losing my son, my home, my grip. I spent most afternoons in a lawyer’s office, trying not to cry in front of anyone, and Doonie was forced into a day care program where his choice of friends was limited to, in his 3-year-old-kid words, “kids what would eat cheese for dinner” and “kids who used books as bricks.”
“You mean they build things with them?” I asked hopefully.
“No, Mom,” he smiled sadly. “These are bad kids.”
In the lawyer’s office, while I sat and listened to people I barely knew read lists of lies that had been told about me and wondered how I would ever pay the lawyer’s fees, my son moved between both of these social groups, defending the cheese eaters from the book throwers. I don’t believe he ever let himself cry in public, either.
Sometimes, after leaving the lawyer’s office, unable to face my empty apartment, I would visit him at the day care facility. I wasn’t allowed to go in, but if I timed it right, I could stand on the other side of a chain link fence during recess and talk to him through it.
“Hi, sweetie. How’s it going?”
“It’s okay. That kid on the slide got scratched by her cat.”
“Oh yeah? Is that what the band aid’s all about?”
“I guess. I think she might be faking it.”
Then an aid would see me and call Doonie away. He’d stand at her side and wave goodbye with a very serious look on his face and I’d wave back with a fake smile, as if I’d just been out taking a walk and was now going on my merry way.
Weekends were wonderful, though. Fridays at five to five, I would be waiting in the fluorescent light of the kids’ coat room for my baby to come tearing out the door and jump into my arms. My future husband would take the train in from New York and the three of us would fill two whole days with pie baking and sand castles. Only sweetness, to shake off the bitter.
The pie baking always meant a visit from “Cooking Man,” the only super hero who carries a whisk. Who wouldn’t marry a man who so willingly shamed himself for our pleasure? Who wore only dark-colored long-johns, swimming goggles on his face, and a towel-cape around his neck, a handprint of flour on his chest? It was a beautiful thing and it filled my apartment with the greatest sound in the world: a toddler’s giggle.
Then we’d head for the beach, no matter what the weather, and build cities out of sand until our faces stung. These cities were always places we wanted to go. Anywhere but here, I’d think. Imaginary, but even more compelling in that, because they were created by the funny little broken family we were back then.
I could even eat on the weekends, so we’d all cook dinner together and then rent psychotic old Disney movies: The Cat from Outer Space, The Shaggy D.A. — two days of heaven every week.
Sunday afternoons, Cooking Man would take the train back to the city and Doonie and I would go home to a dinner neither of us could face. I only ever wanted vodka, he only wanted chocolate. Even then I could only manage a sip or two and he would feel sick after a few bites, so I’d gather him up and we’d sit in the red rocking chair, staring into the fish tank until we both fell asleep.
Doonie is now twenty years old, six feet tall, still very articulate yet soft spoken. He calls and writes, just like a good boy should. He’s no longer forced to hang with kids he doesn’t like, but he graciously credits the day care crowd with having taught him valuable social skills.
Last week, my husband and I dropped him off at the airport after a quick visit with his three younger brothers. He carried a bag of chocolate onto the plane and I went home to a shot of vodka, but we didn’t cry in front of anyone. In fact, I don’t believe we cried at all. It wasn’t sad enough. I was just so proud.
I do miss him. And I grieve the loss of the baby he was every day; I wear it like a lead apron over my heart. But I look at the person he is and I think — we’re not losing anymore. We may even have won.