Last week Sissy returned from Starbucks with a red cup. She was happy in the same way one of my BFF’s gets happy on November first—the day each year when she digs her boxes of holiday swag out of the closets where they have been neatly and carefully waiting since… April.
“Starbucks has Christmas cups. This means I’m allowed to listen to Christmas music, make cookies, and wear fuzzy hats as much as I want,” my daughter said.
“Oh no, you don’t,” I replied, “not until after Thanksgiving.” It was too late. She had poked a pinhole in my happy balloon and the helium had begun to whistle out. I wasn’t the only one whose bubble she had burst, either.
Little Man looked skeptically at the cup of hot cocoa his sister had brought him.
Don’t get me wrong. I love all the cheer and joviality—I love the same things my daughter does, and more. It is a relief that she looks forward to the season and that she doesn’t fill with dread. Certainly Ex’s sour-faced mother dreaded the holidays. For her they represented more unappreciated work. When we were together, Ex would recount her words for me ritually every year, just as he had heard every year of his youth. “I hate Christmas,” she spat.
Every year I asked rhetorically, “How can anyone hate Christmas?
I sent an email to Ex last week, apprising him of our plans for the Thanksgiving holiday and expressing the kids’ wishes for the winter break. I did not pull the divorce decree out of the dusty box again. It is for Ex to decide if he remains more concerned with his rights than the kids’ needs or wishes.
I wrote telling him that Zeep wanted him to come to visit after the Christmas holiday, but before the break ended. I wrote that Little Man and Sissy were currently saying that they did not wish to see him at Christmastime at all. I wrote that perhaps they would change their minds if he was nice and made the effort. I asked that he let me know what his intentions were prior to December first so that we could finalize our plans.
He shot me a return a few hours later which read only:
When does Christmas break end?
I did not reply to tell him that he could look up the school calendars himself since I have sent him the link MULTIPLE times. I did not tell him that I am not his personal secretary, nor that I was never his personal secretary, nor that expecting me to be his personal secretary is as crazy now as it was then. I did not say anything snarky at all, even if I might have thought it (with extra f-words).
Instead I replied:
The children return to school on January 3rd. [I'm getting better, no?]
December first is fifteen days away. Tick-Tock Tick-Tock Tick-Tock. Yeah.
For his part, Little Man is a mixed up nine-year-old. He has told several of the adults who have a hand in helping him that he is nervous about the holidays. And he has cause to be.
First, he doesn’t want to be accountable for not wanting to see his father. He doesn’t want to have to explain it to Ex. He doesn’t want risk Ex’s rejection or, worse, his anger.
It was one of the hardest things for Sissy, too—to advocate for herself and risk Ex’s reaction. Would he be manipulative, angry, or even mean? She worked to steel herself against the possibilities. When she finally stood for herself, Ex just deflated, not entirely unlike my hole-poked balloon.
She simply told him what she wanted and when he asked why, she essentially said because it was her right to set boundaries and those were the ones that felt right to her. In effect, she told him: Respect me or leave. He has chosen to do some of both, and I think she is mostly okay with that. I think it gets easier every time.
Little Man is nine. His feelings are conflicted and confusing. He talks with his father once or twice a week. These are short, “how was your day” types of conversations, the content of which Ex doesn’t remember from one call to the next. It is as though Ex is channeling his own father circa 1975, reading the paper while his boy yammers on, saying “um hum” periodically when the child seems to take a breath.
Jesus, I think, you get a few precious minutes a week to connect with these kids over the phone and you can’t even turn up your hearing aid and make a sober call? Part of me worries that the man has fried his brain, that he may no longer possess the cognitive capacity of a farm animal. (Now, before anyone gets upset, I know some farm animals are right-smart.)
Little Man is surrounded by great dads. There are wonderful dads at church, at school, and on the soccer fields. I am pleased that he has these role models, but… I see it in his eyes sometimes and I wish he had a dad like that, too.
“I was raised by my mom, just like you,” one of Little Man’s favorite dads recently said. “Sometimes I wished I had a dad, too.”
Over the course of the last year and a half, Little Man and his brother and sister have been in the same room with their father for fewer than twenty-four hours, all during the high-drama holiday visit last year. No doubt, Ex and his small band of haters blame me for the fact that the children have spent so little time with their father.
I admit that when the patrol car pulled away from the curb last year on Christmas Day, it was the last straw. I was done walking the extra mile (um, actually, more like 900 miles) to arrange visits. It was never my responsibility anyway. In the intervening months, Ex hasn’t made even a marginal attempt to demonstrate that he is interested in and/or capable of contributing to the children’s lives in anything that resembled a positive or meaningful fashion. So, instead of going the extra nine-hundred miles, I have left it to Ex to initiate and arrange. He hasn’t.
Still, in spite of my reservations, Zeep wanted to see his dad. Briefly, and not for drama. I sent a note on Zeep’s behalf, even though at thirteen he should be making his requests directly; but like his brother, there is always the anxious question of Ex’s reaction.
Little Man has not been alone with Ex since the accident. Further, Ex made it very clear from a few conversations that he blames me for the accident. He told Little Man and the other children that it “happened” because their irresponsible mother [hey, that's me!] doesn’t raise him in the real world. You know, the real world? Where little boys know to watch out for big drunk men wielding hammers?
This, of course, also makes it partly Little Man’s fault for not having gotten out of the way. Various healthy adults involved in his life have reiterated that none of this—none at all—was his fault.
Now, Little Man again faces the prospect that one of our community’s boys in blue might make an appearance at our dysfunctional divorced-family holiday dance. It has, after all, become an annual tradition, and an unpleasant one, even though those short-haired gun-toting guys in the crisp uniforms have been perfectly kind. (I can’t imagine any of those men or women suited up in riot gear, whacking college kids with a baton.)
Tick-Tock Tick-Tock Tick-Tock.