Matthew Lickona 10:22 a.m., May 24
Picture a family. Three innocent little girls, torn totally apart, caught in the middle of a divorce. Used as pawns in a game of emotional manipulation. Parents using their children to hurt each other. The ultimate lose/lose situation.
When I was seven, that's exactly what happened to my family. My mom and dad divorced, well, separated. My mom was the appointed guardian of the children. Dad of course would take us on the weekends. He took us trick-or-treating at Halloween. Walking with us, holding the flashlight, while we tried to walk and breath in those silly one piece plastic masks. He checked all the candy to make sure it wasn't tampered with, before we were allowed to devour it ravenously. Dad also came over for Thanksgiving dinner. My birthday came and went quickly. Before we knew it, Christmas was upon us, with all its hope and promise.
My sisters and I made presents for everyone at Sunday school, and couldn't wait to give them. On Christmas Eve, Dad came and picked us up. I remember the joy we felt anticipating Christmas morning, thinking about the savagery as we would open our gifts. Unbeknownst to us, Dad had the car packed with everything he and we owned. When we arrived at his house, he said we were going to drive around and look at the Christmas lights. In our childish innocence, we believed him. He had hot chocolate and cookies for all of us to snack on while we drove. The chocolate was so thick and sweet, warming our throats and tummies as we drank, falling asleep in the car, as chocolate mustaches decorated our smiling faces. We were unaware of what was truly happening.
He left California and drove to Oregon. Mom never knew where we went, or what if anything had happened to us. Wallowing in despair, Mom began to drink to excess and poured herself into her work. The not knowing if we were dead or alive, eating away at her like a cancer. Eroding all hope.
Dad wouldn't let us call or write to Mom. I wrote her letters anyway. Hiding the sins of my disobedience under my mattress. Hoping that one day I would be able to deliver the forbidden letters. My anguish and longing put onto paper within the limits of an eight year olds ability. Finally our prayers were answered, Dad called her. Then we were allowed to send a letter, but only after Dad read and approved them.
Mom left California and drove to Eugene, Oregon. She drove non-stop. No sleep. Almost killing herself, just to get to us. If it hadn't been for the kindness of two truckers, she probably would have died. She wanted nothing more than to hold us, to cherish us, to love us. Mom was so driven, she pushed herself beyond her capabilities and the two truckers had her sandwiched between their trucks to keep her from going off the edge of the cliff. They kept blowing the air horns to keep her awake. My parents tried to get back together. Tried to make it work, for the sake of the kids. They failed miserably. So they decided to give us a choice.
Can you imagine the anguish and terror when asked to choose between two people you love? How do you decide? Whose heart do you break? "You can stay in Oregon with Dad, or go back to California with your Mom."
My two sisters spoke up immediately, "We want mommy!" I missed having my mother, and that's where my heart wanted to go. My love and loyalty said I'd stay with Dad. So that's what I did. I can still remember the taste of salt, as the tears rolled down my face, while the five of us hugged and cried.
Dad and I lived in Oregon, and then moved to Seattle. I was feeling disconnected, uprooted and lonely for my mother and sisters. I couldn't remember what they looked like and Dad wouldn't let me have any pictures of them.
When I was nine and starting to develop, Dad didn't think he could handle puberty with everything that entailed. So back to California I went. He knew Mom's address and took me there. She never knew we were coming. Dad had me walk up and knock on the door. The night sky was so oppressing. I could feel it pushing on me, making every step I took, harder and harder. The smells of chicken frying coming out to greet me as I stepped onto the porch. I remember how my hand shook as I reached for the door and knocked. It had been so long since I had seen her, that when she answered the door, I looked at her through tear glistened eyes, asking in a whispered question, "Momma?"
She screamed and started to cry, as she grabbed and pulled me close. "Oh, my God, Claudia, is it really you?"
We cried and hugged and then my sisters ran over to join us, crying as they came. Once more, the five of us were hugging and crying. Dad promised through tear moistened eyes that he would stay in California, so we could still be a family-even though we were disconnected. For a while it was true, he did stay nearby. Mom introduced Dad to her friend Mary, and a short time later they were wed.
We would spend weekends at Dad's new home or just go over for family dinners. I remember Mary’s' son Billy teaching me the harmonica, and how to ride a skateboard. I'll never forget my first attempt. Billy showed me how to go really fast, but he didn't get around to telling me the finer details of how to turn or more importantly, how to stop. He took me to the top of Nicholas Street, and sent me flying down the hill. I went so fast it was amazing. It was exciting to have the wind in my face. I was exhilarated, and then filled with panic, as I realized I was quickly approaching an intersection. Panic became terror as I realized I didn't know how to stop. I jumped off the board at the last second, rolling onto the grass of a neighboring yard. Watching in horror as the board went into the street, and was shattered into a million pieces by a passing truck.
We were happy and everything seemed perfect. Momentary at best, for our happiness only lasted about a year. Dad came to visit one Saturday morning. Instead of going out for our traditional family breakfast, he simply kissed us good-bye and left. He said he was moving to Missouri. I was ten and I never saw or heard from him again. I kept in contact with Dad's brothers Ernest and Jack. I sent letters for them to forward to Dad. They kept them in a shoebox for me, because there was nowhere to send them.
I'll soon be 52, and I haven't seen or heard from my dad in 42 years. For years I was on an emotional roller coaster. Feeling angry, fear, abandonment, and finally an emptiness. A void so large and yet it's still not large enough to house my despair. I feel as though I meant nothing to him. A mere afterthought at best.
Now there’s a bittersweet irony to this sad tale. I found my dad in October of 2008. Unfortunately, he had passed away in August so I never was able to have my questions answered, but I now have closure.