Met Elihu and his dad at the train last night. We three had a nice, leisurely supper. The guys made some paper airplane models at our table while I enjoyed my very first experience with Angry Birds and was easily sucked into more than a few games on dad’s Iphone. At some point during dinner Fareed and I got to talking about my cable bill, and how I might get creative about changing up my house systems, and how I might save some money. Our tones must have become much more serious, because I looked over at Elihu to see his face beginning to scrunch up… “Hey, what’s the matter?” I asked him, and no sooner had I shown my concern than he began to sob. “It just feels like you guys are not happy with each other. Like you’re fighting. You both sound angry.” True, I suppose the tone was perhaps a bit more business-like than conversational-friendly, but we were not fighting. Far from it. Fareed and both I jumped in and assured him that we were not arguing – that we were just talking about a problem we needed to solve… “Sweetie” Fareed began, “your mother and I are best friends. We will always be best friends.” Then he looked up at me for confirmation. I met his eyes only briefly, as this was the first such declaration of this kind I’d ever heard from him since this whole thing began years ago. It caught me off guard, and I had to assess how this felt in a mere nanosecond. I felt I needed to answer positively, for the sake of my son. In an instant, as I considered the way this statement resonated with me, I could feel my heart softening towards him, yielding to him… and yet there was reservation, maybe even a faint sense of being deceived… “Yes, of course” I confirmed, so that Elihu might feel some solidarity here. The gravity of the moment quickly disappeared as Fareed and I attempted to lighten the mood in a manner that had come to us naturally for decades… we smilingly morphed into a Monty Python-esque sort of bit along the lines of ‘oh you think that’s an argument, I’ll give you something to really get upset about…’ and Elihu smiled too. Soon he was laughing along with us, but his tears took a little longer to stop altogether. Can’t say this was surprising. I sensed that once again he was feeling the stress of the ‘handoff’, and this was just another natural expression of the transition taking place. An expression of the evidence before him that he lived, ultimately, in a family divided by half a country. A one-parent-at-a-time family.
We passed a couple of hours, chatting, goofing around, making planes. Then finally, especially as it was a school night, it was snowing and we had chickens to get in (not to mention a long drive ahead), our visit was winding to a close. Sometimes our visits end happily, easily. And while it seemed all the elements were in place for it to end so now, I felt the vaguest current of something unresolved, a tenuous energy unready for the final goodbye that lingered in the air… We drove daddy to the train station and got out for last hugs and kisses. We three stood in the snow, our arms around each other. Elihu clung to us both as we exchanged our ‘double smooches’… Elihu told his father one last time that he loved him, and Fareed responded in a low voice, “I love you too, more than you’ll ever know…” We waved til the car turned and his father disappeared into the darkness. Elihu began sobbing as soon as he was out of sight.
What happened over the next half hour I cannot repeat with the complete, word-for-work accuracy that I’d like. What Elihu had to say, and the way in which he expressed himself, was simply beautiful. His words would have been impressive had they come from an adult in a state of deep reflection, but that they came from the mouth of a nine year old boy, who spoke without any prior consideration of his words – that made it even more mind-blowing to witness. My boy, finally, was letting me know exactly how he felt about this whole divorce thing. Until last night, I’d thought I knew how he felt. But I had only part of the picture.
I knew transitions were tricky, but I’d always thought on the whole he was much less affected by our split family than I came to learn. He started to express himself by telling me that he deeply wished “the essence of ‘what happened’ could say it was sorry to him. He explained that he didn’t mean me, or daddy, or any one person in particular. He repeated that he just wanted the essence of the experience to say it was sorry. Furthermore, he wished this ‘essence’ would acknowledge that Elihu did not deserve to be treated like this. A few moments of silence passed. During most of the ride, in fact, I said very little. I just listened as Elihu poured his heart out to the world.
“Why were you talking to each other like that?” he asked, and I was confused. “Like what?” “Like drones… you weren’t talking with each other. You were just talking… not like people who used to be married. Not like a family. Just like drones…” Wow. He did pick up on it – that restrained sort of vibe that’s always there when I’m with Fareed. I do know that I put up an emotional wall – it just feels safer that way – and I’ll be damned if the kid didn’t feel it. “Honey, I just need to be that way with daddy. If I weren’t, I’d probably end up crying and begging him to come back… I know it’s stupid, but I think that part of me still feels like that…” Was I admitting too much? Giving my son false hope? Hell, was this even really the way I felt about things? Even I surprised myself with this admission. This was a very honest moment between us, and I didn’t feel like modifying the truth for him, I didn’t feel like censoring what came out of me. I owed him that much. I’d helped screw up his life by not honoring my intuition and examining my marriage before it was too late. I had to be honest, there’d been enough deceit.
“I feel like I only just realized when I was eight that we were never going back.” “Never going back, sweetie?” I asked, “what do you mean?” He hardly paused before he explained; ” I feel like it was you and me and daddy in our house in Evanston and then we took a little trip away. But somehow I always thought we’d go back to that life. I really did.” I asked him how he could possibly remember Judson – he was hardly more than a toddler when we left – yet he protested that he remembered the feeling of that place, and that was the feeling he wanted to return to. “I guess I just kind of thought that we were just going to be here for a little while, and somehow, we’d go back to being our regular family.” More road, more darkness and snow. “And I’d have a sister too.” I thought back on my miscarriage. “By this July, your little sister or brother would have been eight.” I mused. “Yeah,” he answered, “that would have been perfect”. And we rode in silence for a while more, the windshield wipers smoothing away the big, wet flakes.
“It seems like everybody is always doing things with their fathers. They get both a mother and a father at the same time. And it makes me so sad to hear them talking at school about their family ski trips. It’s not fair. We can’t even do things together as a family. ” He mentioned one of his classmates, whose dad is my mom’s cardiologist. Even my own heart felt a tad bit of jealousy. They had three kids – and money. (I scolded myself for indulging in the thought and returned my attention to Elihu.) “It’s not fair that I don’t get my own daddy.” I asked Elihu if he’d ever talked to Fareed about all of this. He said no, because he was afraid of what he might say in response. “You need to speak to daddy about this, even if you are afraid. I was afraid too, sweetie, and I think that’s partly why we’re here now. If only I’d been brave and asked daddy where his heart was, maybe I could have saved our marriage. Maybe.” I was trying to show Elihu by example how important it was to face your fears and communicate, but I may have inadvertently given him hope… “Yeah, and maybe then we’d still be in Judson and I’d have a sister.” “Oh but sweetie,” I tried to comfort him, “honestly, there’s no way of knowing if it would have changed anything. It might not have changed anything at all.” Silence. This was a difficult situation. No one answer, no one perspective. “You can’t imagine your life without Charlie and Erie, can you?” I asked of his little brothers. “No” he said. “But I wouldn’t have known them, so I wouldn’t have known the difference. And I would have had a regular sister from you.” More road, more sadness. More unending what-ifs….
After a while he spoke up again. ” I don’t like the way Jill asks how my mother’s doing, like nothing’s wrong. It bothers me the way she does that.” What could I say? I have no idea what I would say to him if I were her… “Honey, all of us say the things we need to. None of us wants to hurt anyone, or to say too much, so grown-ups usually just say the littlest, most polite things we can.” Another pause. “She’s doing her best, I know” Elihu said quietly. There wasn’t much relief from the sadness that hung heavily about us both. But finally tonight there was anger too. “I feel like I’m on a huge string in between you and daddy. I’m in the middle of you two… and I’m just hanging there. And I don’t think daddy even knows or cares!” There was anger in his voice now, and I was rooting for him. Get mad, baby, I thought. “Daddy has never apologized.” Really? I thought. Honestly, he’s never apologized? My heart was breaking over and over for my son and now I was beginning to get angry too. Did Fareed have any fucking clue just what damage he’d done? Really? Did he? A moment of rage passed over me, and I let it go… I’ve learned how fruitless it is to get angrier and angrier… But I hoped that Elihu might remember this fire, and that he might finally speak to his father about it. “You do know the only way you’ll ever know for sure how he feels about all this, don’t you?” I asked. Good boy, he knew all right. He agreed that he finally needed to have that conversation with his father. And he would. Not just quite yet though, because he was still afraid. But soon. I didn’t say anything more. I hoped he’d get his father’s apology at the very least.
I explained as best I could that in the grand, planet-wise scheme of things we were very, very fortunate people. And he agreed. He listed all the many things that made our lives easy and made us happy. He even understood that he was lucky to have both his parents, loving and present in his life. He knew it all, yet still… I went on to explain to him the idea of a ‘new normal’. That this life – with his chickens, his helicopters and Waldorf – all of this was his life. No, it wasn’t a home with a father and a mother, a sister and a dog, no; it wasn’t in Chicago where all our old friends lived, no… But it was our life. And as everything stood, right now in this moment, this was our normal. Our new normal. And fighting it would only cause heartbreak. He made a ‘mm-hmm’ from the backseat. Nothing more was said until we got home.
Since then the air has lightened, and Elihu and I are back into our groove. But he seemed a little clingier than usual tonight after I turned out the light, and he asked me to please hold him. There are no more touching words that a mother can hear from a child… I held him until his breathing became deep and the sweet relief of sleep overtook him. Brave, insightful, loving boy. Welcome to your new normal.