Becoming a dad was 10,000 times better than anything else I've ever done.
— Steve Jobs
Grace and Mary on the swings while Mary reads a book
A couple of years ago I was walking into a local Barnes and Noble when I noticed an elderly man standing in the entrance by himself. He was holding on to a walker and looking out the window at the parking lot. He seemed lost. I stopped and asked him if he needed any help, and he told me he was only waiting for his daughter to get the car. Soon a car pulled up in front of the store and his daughter came in and got him and they left together.
I'm also not going to subscribe to the usual reasons I'm given to try to explain why my children are gone from my life. What happened to us wasn't the result of a run-of-the-mill rift between a parent and child. There was never any rift of any consequence anyway. There's a completely different dynamic at play in our family -- one that's very serious and affects many families. It's called parental alienation, and is usually described as a set of strategies parents use to undermine and interfere with a child's relationship with his or her other parent despite that child's innate desire to love and be loved by both parents.
And this is exactly what happened to my girls and me.
I wrote it because I want them to know how I took the time to understand Mary's disability, care of her when no one else would, and give her back a life where she felt valued and loved when no one else could.
"They are friendly, most of the time. But something changes in them when their calves are born. They don't care who you are then. They only care about their calf, and anyone who gets between them and their calf is a threat to them. It's instinct for a cow to protect her calf, just like it's instinct for your mother and me to protect you. The cow will give her life for her calf just like we'll give our lives for you."
I never forgot those lessons, and I'd like to think it was this same protective instinct in my dad that compelled him to warn us about this danger. I also never fully understand what this parenting instinct was until I had children of my own. And now I know how powerful it can be and how it comes from a place deeper than our thinking or even our emotions. I also know that fathers have it just as much as mothers do. Men have it as much as women.
A Last Visit to the Therapist
Well, it's your choice," he reminded me. "You can either have a life or you can't. You've got a lot of living left to do, even if your kids aren't going to be part of it. You can't keep fighting this forever."
His advice for me was to let go because the damage is irreparable. And while I relish the thought of not having the pain of constantly missing my girls, I don't want to cut the ties to them either. Maybe I'm afraid that when the pain is gone, the memories will also be gone.
Plus I can't help but think of something I read in the book Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, by Amy Baker. She interviewed adults who were alienated from their parents when they were young, like our children are. These kids (now grown) didn't realize what had happened to them until years later, but they all realized it at some point, even though it was too late for most of them to have a relationship with their parents again.
But what I remember most about her interviews, is that all the children said that, even though they rebuffed their parents' efforts to contact them, they all wished their parents had kept trying. Some parents did. Some didn't.
Just like the therapist still has a connection with one of his sons, I still have a connection with my oldest daughter, Josie. I haven't written about her as much as the other girls, and that's probably because I still have her in my life and I take that for granted.
But we're extremely close and have a connection that's hard to explain. Sometimes when she calls me, I already seem to know if she's having a bad day and even what's bothering her -- something I can only imagine is the result of the years spent holding her, feeding her, reading to her, and listening to her tell me all about her world in the way only a child can. But she's still 2000 miles away and we haven't seen each other for over two years.
But I plan to see her soon. She wants me to move out to Oregon where she lives, and I'll probably do this.
Sadly, I've had to rely on Josie more than I've wanted to over the past two years, but we've talked about this and she understands. She knows what happened to our family, even though she doesn't like talking about it, which I understand. And so we haven't talked about it much. She figured it out for herself, however, after that crazy Christmas back here.
But I have another dream -- that maybe someday Mary and Grace can also find their way to where Josie and I are and see it as the safe place it is -- safe from all the craziness that tore us apart, the way Josie does now, and the way Mary did when she visited Josie and was able to call me.
Mary, Dad, Josie, and Grace
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy.— Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
(of this part)