Her confidence, her strength, and her grit supported me as we worked to negotiate how the boys would come home safely. She was a source of practical information as I attended to the challenges of working through all of our emotional hurdles of this situation. She came to my home and checked on me, helped me get groceries through a food bank, brought us school supplies for use home here in Ohio, and restored my faith in the military as she saw us through the beginning of a custody storm I wasn't aware had been brewing. Their father had moved away on amicable terms almost a year prior, and gave no hints he was going to permanently keep our sons with him. He had deployed twice in two years and spent almost a year living in Florida. When he asked if they could visit over the summer when he returned from his latest deployment, I sent them with blind kindness. I believed they should have time with him and didn't want to obstruct their relationship. Our divorce wasn't final, but I didn't have any hint that he would betray my trust (about bringing them home). However, the summer visit was part of a secret & methodical plan to relocate the boys to live with them. He finally disclosed his actions once he thought it would be too late for me to do anything about them.
Maybe he was right, because I was paralyzed by this nightmare.
But I wasn't alone.
I've only spoken about Miss J. to my close friends. I describe her and the other women from family advocacy as guardian angels that fought for me as I slumped in a corner seat and cried from exhaustion and gratitude. In all, it was fourteen days of tortured sleep, unimaginable stress, and being overcome with helplessness as I wrestled with the dark intentions of this twisted plan. My family, friends, and even photography clients, were constantly near me and supporting me. My lawyer fought for us and insisted that we patiently trust the system. I never knew I would come to depend on white sheets of paper to grant me the ability to continue raising the sons I had grown in my body. I didn't know I would have to be so adamant in my fight, just to continue the life we had already been living. I have replaced the original orders each time they are updated, and tuck them in my backpack. Sometimes when I'm digging for chemistry or calculus homework, I see familiar blue and red stamps from the court and am glad to have them. I want to be prepared to use them, or fear would affect me more than it does. For almost three years, this has been normal for me.
It is easy to talk about my classes, behavioral neuroscience research, or plans for medical school. I often omit the years I spent working to get custody of my sons. It's a significant part of our story, but it's embarrassing. It's not tidy. It's not like commenting about weather, discussing my favorite podcasts, or sharing funny stories about my kids. It also doesn't seem to have an end. Even after the final decision was made in my favor, there always seems to be something else that flares up. Like news of the submission of an appeal on the heels of our final divorce decree. It feels less dignified to admit that this week was one arduous legal event after another. Those papers in my backpack were summoned again. Another hearing. Another lawyer. Another week as a human filing cabinet weighed down by the pull of another world's gravity that detracts from the freedom of living my life.
I work to keep my mind occupied on other goals. I have to make a conscious decision to move forward or I would have drowned in this rabbit hole a long time ago. When I returned to college, I was desperate for something new to think about. Math and memorization help to keep my focus on something productive, but it can still be isolating to endure the battles that aren't mentioned in polite conversation. Some feelings don't seem appropriate for social media, even though they are all encompassing. It's hard to find a way to make a sensitive family circumstance a caption. Typically it isn't done, even though there is much comfort in knowing that other people have similar experiences. If you've ever felt like your body is exploding from the inside, time and time again, I understand. Even though the situation is no longer acute, I'm still impacted daily by the trauma. I shy away from talking about it, because I still have to process the anxiety it gave me. Sometimes I wonder if that means it's a good time to get started? Maybe it doesn't all need to be neatly packaged to be useful to help someone else feel less alone. I am curious to know if there is a way to own our scars as part of the larger narrative that highlights the strength we attain from fighting back.
It always seemed like there would be a distinct line I would cross that would signal when this is over. Maybe the terrain would feel different under my feet? Maybe the air more clear? Maybe sunlight itself would reach my eyes without the diffusion of the cavern walls? That doesn't seem likely.
Instead, I carry the burden with me as I build our new life and acknowledge it is part of me. I try not to let it get in my way. On good days I use it as fuel. On other days I'm not so strong, and it locks my feet in place like cement. Sometimes other people help me carry it, like Miss J, my family, my friends, or other professionals. I try to make myself notice the people in my life who support me. Their kindness, strength, and humor help me continue to move forward.
When I was exposed to darkness I could never have imagined, I also experienced a cascade of love that held me together.
When I felt like my body was exploding from the inside, time and time again, they patiently wove me back together with threads of hope.
While I heal, I choose to bathe my thoughts in the memories of the love I witnessed. My sons need this from me and I want it for our future.
It's been a few days (well, more than ten), since I began writing this. My sons finished their antibiotics and feel much better. I listened to S*Town and need to talk about it to SOMEONE. Also, I think the rain is procrastinating. My hydrangeas could use it.