I need to thank Adam Phillips,
author of Crosscurrents (http://archerland.disbelieve.org/adam.htm)
for his help with this chapter. Thank you also to Bill for his editing
help. Finally, as
always, thank you to my partner. I love you more than words can ever
Erica went into labor two weeks early. I was worried; with all the things that had gone on since we found out she was pregnant, we hadn't managed to get to any birthing classes, and I didn't have a clue what to do. She was in labor for 36 hours.
She was such a trooper. She refused to take any painkillers. It was awful to see her struggling and not be able to do anything to help. The most I could do was hold her hand and try to say supportive things, but I don't think squashing my fingers made her feel any better. Somehow, though, we all made it through, and finally, a new life--a life that we'd created--took his place in the world.
I need to thank Adam Phillips, author of Crosscurrents (http://archerland.disbelieve.org/adam.htm) for his help with this chapter. Thank you also to Bill for his editing help.
Finally, as always, thank you to my partner. I love you more than words can ever express.
doctor delivered my son, I
couldn't take my eyes off him. Watching him cry his newborn little
out...seeing those perfect hands, those perfect fingers...did something
something that was, and is still, impossible to put into words.
Deep into my own incomprehensible thoughts and feelings, I heard a voice calling to me as if it came from far away. "Sam." I looked up at the doctor. He said, "Do you want to cut the umbilical cord?"
A rebirth of my own occurred that moment as the reality of this new life struck me full-force. The nurse handed me the proper instrument, I performed the procedure, and then they handed him to me.
It's impossible for me to describe the feelings that gripped me when I first held him in my arms. With everything that had been happening, there hadn't been time for me to come to grips with the fact that we were about to be parents. And then, suddenly, he was here. He was here, and I was holding him, and it was the single happiest moment of my life.
As he began to settle down and take in his new surroundings, I stared into his big blue eyes. It seemed as though he was staring into mine. It was almost as if we were asking each other, "What's next?" And I realized that, whatever the answer was, it wasn't like anything that had gone before. The world had just become new for me. The pain of the past seemed for the time being to lose its power; even its relevance; all because of the arrival of this new, perfect, little person.
"Mr. Passerello, we need to weigh him and clean him up a bit."
I looked up at the nurse who'd spoken to me. Somewhere in the back of my mind the words had registered, but in the front of my mind I was still incoherent, blown away with love and astonishment. I stared blankly into her face. "Yes. I...what?"
She smiled; she'd seen stupefied fathers before, I guess. "I need to weigh your son; what's his name?"
"Christopher," Erica said weakly from the table. I looked over at her and smiled; she smiled back.
"What a great name," the nurse said. "I need to get little Christopher cleaned up and into his new clothes," she said, reaching for him.
"Oh. Okay," I said. But my arms weren't complying. I stood there, holding my son close to me. Finally, the nurse walked right up to me and put her hands on Chris. "Just let me take him for a couple of minutes," she said soothingly. "You'll have the rest of your life with him." She practically had to pry him out of my arms.
As she took care of Chris, I noticed how totally, completely aware I had become over the last few minutes. In those moments it became clear to me, because of the contrast, just how numbed most of my waking hours had been. With one look at Chris, though, he managed to blast through all the walls and knock me out of that numb state. I was also aware that the reservoir of unhappiness that I had been carrying around with me had somehow receded in an instant, so for the first time in what seemed like forever, it didn't hurt not to be numb, or at least it didnít only hurt. The pain was still there, but it was being overwhelmed by the love and joy my son had brought with him.
The nurse handed him back to me. The doctor was finishing up with Erica, who seemed exhausted. I wanted to let her hold Chris but it didn't know if she was capable. Part of me felt I should be paying her some attention, but my heart and mind had been so totally captivated by Chris I couldn't tear my eyes from him. The awareness and curiosity radiating from his eyes as he stared at me engaged my deepest instincts and my most profound love.
It was a religious experience for me; I thought about my place, and his, in the grand scheme of things. I thought about what my life had come to, where I'd come from, where life had brought me. As I looked into his eyes, I whispered, "I love you so much, Christopher. I promise I'll be there for you forever. I'll get myself completely together for you, so that you can always count on me. I swear to you I'll never repeat my parents' mistakes...and every day of your life, I'll show you how much I love you." When I looked up, I saw the nurse smiling at me again. It was time for us to move into the maternity ward, but I wouldn't let the nurse take him back. I held him and walked with him as we went to Erica's room.
* * * * * * * * *
Erica and Christopher spent a few days in the hospital, and finally we all got to go home and begin our new life together. On the surface, Erica seemed okay, for the most part, at least compared to previous months. After Christina had died, she'd spiraled into a depression that was so intense that she was just short of catatonic. I'd been worried to death about it during those months, but she was unwilling to get any help. I really never knew if she would still be alive when I came home every night. I half expected her to wish herself to death.
She'd seemed to come out of it right before Chris was born. She still hadn't been quite herself, but she would at least get out of bed and shower on her own. There were ups and downs, but she was at least functioning again.
In the days and weeks following the birth of our son, though, things seemed to go wrong again. Not wrong like they'd been before, but not good. She never seemed to want to hold Christopher. She wouldn't nurse him either. At first she said she was too tired; she talked about how his birth had seemed to knock the energy out of her. I couldn't really argue the point: She weighed less when we left the hospital than she had when she'd gotten pregnant. She also developed a major infection within a day of coming home, and had to fight that off, so there was definitely some fatigue involved. She never really got better, though, and her malaise wasn't merely physical.
She slept a lot. It seemed as though she was always asleep when I was home. In hindsight, I can say that I should have paid more attention. At the time, though, I was doing my best just to keep my own sense of stability. During those first days and weeks back home, I was so over-the-moon happy about being a father that I didn't see how incredibly unhappy Erica was. She had been on a road toward a new and better place in life; we both had. Then her sister had been killed. Grief and guilt and depression had been festering away inside her, and becoming a mother had not resolved any of that. Something in her snapped her out of depression as it became time for Christopher to be born, but it seemed to me that almost the moment he entered the world, her demons returned.
I was attributing her low spirits to fatigue caused by the delivery, and then to her infection. I did all the baby care at night; since he was being bottle-fed, it was the easiest option, and I can't deny that I loved those quiet times alone with him in the small hours of the morning. To be honest, I didnít want to share him at those times. There was something so profoundly calming about holding his tiny body and watching him fall asleep cuddled against my chest. The feel of the soft peach fuzz that was his hair against my cheek, the smell of baby, his tiny hands clutching my shirt, the weight of his warm little body in my arms while I rocked him to sleep--that brought me such peace.
day, I left Chris with
Erica when I went to work. That worked okay for awhile, and I assumed
fine with it. Chris hadn't been home for
a full week before she asked me one morning to take Christopher with me
I studied her; she looked miserable, but I wasn't sure that this would work out. "I don't know, Erica, I..."
"Please, Sammy...please," she said, her eyes begging me. "He's never trouble during the day. You know that. It'll be fine. I just need..." She looked away for a moment, then turned to me and said, "I just need a break today."
I frowned. I didn't know if it would be the best thing for Christopher to be lugging him around with me all day. But as I looked into Erica's eyes, a number of things that had been going on lately came together in my head, and I realized that things weren't okay here. I knew then that I had to take Chris with me, at least for that day.
I discovered when I got to work that it wasn't all that hard. Chris was a happy baby and seemed to enjoy being carted around all over the place. The day went so well that I realized I could do this on a semi-regular basis.
As things developed, I began taking him to the office more often than not. There were days, though, when I couldn't take him with me, days when I had meetings or had to be out of the office most of the time. At first it seemed as though Erica was handling those days okay. But as time went by I discovered that on the days I couldn't take him, Erica would try to get friends of hers to look after him.
My boss, Beth, was one of those friends. She was in the office on alternating days from me; she knew Erica, and she loved kids. She agreed to watch Chris for us from time to time when she was at home and Erica needed a break. I was okay with this initially; because I wanted to do everything I could to help Erica become her old self again. I figured Erica could arrange with Beth for some time by herself a few days a week, and with a schedule worked out between them, she'd start to feel better about being able to take care of him. Beth was happy to help. It seemed like a great arrangement and I loved Beth for her willingness to take care of Chris from time to time.
One day, however, when I had Chris at work with me, Beth came to me and said, "I'd like to talk to you in the conference room for a second, okay?"
We went into the room; she shut the door, and we sat down at the large table. "Sam," she began, "I love Chris, and I love you and Erica, and I'm happy to help out with him as much as I possibly can. I just want you to be real clear on that, okay?"
"Okay," I said nervously. "What's up?"
"Well," she said, pausing for a moment as if to select her words carefully, "did you know that whenever you don't bring Chris to work Erica brings him over?"
I began to feel heavy in the pit of my stomach. "No," I said. "I'm sorry. That wasn't what I thought was going on. She's scheduling you for too much time with him."
"Well, I love the little guy," Beth said, "And really, it's not so much the hours, Sam, as the fact that she's not scheduling. She's just...." She looked into my face with concern. "She's just dumping him on me, without giving me any notice."
"What do you mean?"
She looked into my eyes nervously and said, "I don't want to cause any trouble...but it seems like almost as soon as you leave the house she drives over with Chris. A lot of times we haven't even made any arrangements ahead of time. She always picks him up just before you are suppose to be home. It's fine with me, Sam, and I love your little boy; I'm just concerned that if she doesn't give me any advance notice I may have something come up and won't be able to take him, and that will leave her in a tight spot."
Anger rose up in me. "A tight spot? But she doesn't have anything else she has to do..." Then I reminded myself of how down she was, and reminded myself again of the fact that I hadn't done a very good job of noticing her and her plight.
"Sam," she said gently, "I think...I think she's in some trouble."
It wasn't as if part of me hadn't been thinking the same kinds of things. But hearing it from my supervisor felt like a blow to my stomach.
I tried to sound neutral as I asked, "What do you mean?"
She looked at me silently for such a long time that my anxiety level rocketed up. Finally she sighed, and said, "Sam...I don't want to accuse anybody of anything...but I just want to tell you about these feelings I get."
Before I had a chance to ask what she meant, she said, "I find myself wondering what she does when she's by herself. I know that the pregnancy was hard on her...but the fact that she's up and about, bringing Chris over as regularly as she does tells me she's not spending all that time lying in bed. And why hasn't she told you that she's bringing Chris over so much? There's something that seems...I don't know, sneaky about it. Deceptive."
I knew exactly where this was going. For reasons I didn't even understand, I got defensive. "I appreciate your concern, Beth, but I'm sure she's just recovering from being pregnant. There's no mystery."
She looked at me like you'd look at some clueless guy whose spouse is cheating on him. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "Maybe. But that's not all, Sam. Have you really looked at her lately?"
I felt my face flush. I honestly hadn't. Things were too busy; I'd had more on my plate than I could handle.
"Look," she continued. "My husband Stan has been through hell and back with meth addiction. When I see Erica...well, there are things in the back of my mind that just raise all kinds of red flags. Nothing I can prove, Sam, but...I'm worried."
I looked away from her; as the words made their way into my brain, a number of things I'd overlooked began to click into place.
"I came here today," she said, "because when she left him yesterday I realized I needed to talk to you. She seemed really strung out; she looked for all the world like Stan used to look when he'd come off a bad high. It made me shiver, Sam, it seemed so familiar to me."
I stared blankly into her face.
"You've talked to me about Erica's past...Sam, I think you need to consider the possibility that she's using again."
"That's not possible, Beth," I said, too quickly. "The past year is just catching up with her. She needs my support, not my accusations."
"Sometimes support requires us to do some accusing, Sam. It's not fun, but especially when someone has a history of addiction, you have to always be on the lookout."
wrong, Beth," I
said. "I know my wife. That's not what it is."
I don't know why I said that. At the very instant I threw out that denial, another part of my brain was acknowledging that it made sense. Erica wasn't just withdrawn these days; she was obviously secretive too. I'd seen signs of that myself, but I'd just interpreted it as depression and uncommunicativeness. And she stayed so thin...but again, I had blamed her health and hadnít even considered that she was having problems with meth again. Although I'd had subconscious concerns, it had never explicitly occurred to me that she was using again. I hadn't known her when she was using and I didn't have much experience with meth addicts. She'd been irritable, but like everything else I'd seen from her, I chalked that up to depression.
But there was more. I began replaying scenes from the last several weeks. She could be so sweet--maybe, I now considered, she was being deliberately manipulative during those times--and then from time to time she'd become irritable and nasty, seemingly out of nowhere. Then she'd cycle back again. That didn't seem like depression; it seemed like something else. When she was just depressed, as she was in the wake of Christina's death, she just seemed lost most of the time. These days, she often seemed more like a caged cat: pent-up; anxious.
But I said none of that to Beth. What I said was, "I appreciate your concern, Beth, and I'll talk with her. But we're fine, really."
She frowned for a moment. "Just think about it, Sam," she said. She put a hand on my shoulder, got up, and walked out of the room.
When she left, guilt attacked me. I felt guilty that we'd imposed on Beth, but mainly I felt guilty because I hadn't picked up on the increasingly visible warning signs at home. I should have known that Erica was dumping Chris whenever she could. But I wanted to believe things were getting better. It was more convenient to believe things were getting better. Since I was the one getting up with him multiple times at night, I was so tired that I don't know that I had the energy to own up to what was going on.
I talked to Erica that night, trying to be indirect, never accusing her of anything, trying to give her every opportunity to open up to me. She denied that anything was wrong, aside from being tired. So I took Chris with me whenever possible and tried to let Erica know I was there for her, that I loved her; and I hoped and prayed that somehow I was wrong and somehow everything would be fine.
One day when Chris was three months old, I came home from work early to find extra cars parked outside my house.
As I got out of my car, I could hear music coming from the house. When I stepped through the door, I saw Erica dancing, a beer in each hand, with some guy I'd never met.
When she saw me, her bloodshot eyes went wide. Before I had a chance to say anything, she said belligerently, "What the hell are you doing home early?"
The look in her eyes, the contempt written on her face, her brash and abusive tone, all these things were completely alien to me. She was drunk enough to have lost her usual grace, but not to the point of stumbling. Still, it clearly wasn't alcohol that was fueling this. She had something else in her system; something that turned her into a stranger.
The woman I knew, the woman I had fallen in love with and married, was soft-spoken, gentle. Although she wasn't weak in any way, she was but utterly feminine, always put together, always polite even when telling you off. The woman in front of me was the polar opposite.
I looked around the room. I didn't recognize anybody else there. I realized that my wife had a whole circle of friends and acquaintances I knew nothing about. Who knew how often she'd done this at my house before this day. As I turned back to look at her, she and the man she had been dancing with walked over to me. The guy was standing in front of me with his arm around my wife as if he owned her.
She got in my face and said, "Fuck you, Sam. Don't you fuckin' look at me like that, I can't stand being caged up in this goddam house and I'm gonna have a little fun. If your tight ass can't deal with it you can just fuck yourself."
An odd thought passed through my head; I thought of stories of people who'd become possessed. This wasn't my wife; this was someone else. Something else.
All of a sudden, concern for my son flared up in my mind.
I grabbed her shoulders and said, "Where's Chris?"
She rolled her eyes. "He's takin' a nap. He wouldn't shut up."
I ran into his room; I didn't know what I'd find, and I was scared to death.
When I looked in his crib, I couldn't see or hear him at first. There was just a heap of blankets, and for a few horrifying moments I thought Erica had lost our son. Then I heard muffled cries from under the blankets over the noise of the music in the other room.
I pulled the blankets off Chris; he was absolutely hysterical. He was bright red, overheated from being under all of those blankets. He hadn't been strong enough to move them off by himself, and he'd been screaming for so long he was hoarse. His face was twisted into a mask of fear; I know it seems hard to believe that you can see fear on an infant's face, but it was plain as day to me.
I picked him up and held him in my arms. He screamed bloody murder for a minute or so, but once he was in my arms he began to calm down. That helped me calm down too; I was terrified until I began to see that he was okay.
After a few minutes, his screams had been replaced by the little gasping hiccups that babies have when they're recovering from having been crying especially hard. His diaper was soaking wet; it was clear he'd been in it all day. I cleaned him up and put a new one on him. When he had settled down, and my own terror had subsided, I was in a white-hot rage like nothing I had ever experienced before.
She could have killed him. That's all I could think.
I went back out to the party and found her.
"What were you thinking?" I demanded. Part of me was hoping that there would be some explanation--maybe she had put him down for a nap and someone else had done that.
"I got sick of his screaming. He was bringing everybody down and making all that goddam noise." She faltered for a moment, then looked at me defiantly and said, "I covered him up like that because he wouldn't stop that damn screaming."
"You didn't change him all day, did you?" I asked.
"No," she said. "So what?"
"When's the last time you fed him?"
"Yesterday, maybe," she said.
I grabbed her shoulders again and shouted, "You could have killed him!"
She just shrugged.
I went back to his room, packed his things, put him in fresh clothes and got him a bottle I went to the phone and I called the police: I told them about the party and the drugs. I gave them the location of our house. Then I took Christopher and left.
The police arrested and jailed everyone at our house, including Erica. I didn't bail her out, and I gave notice on the lease and moved out while she was still in jail.
* * * * * * * * *
After my anger and fear had subsided, and I'd gotten Chris out of harm's way, I began feeling incredibly guilty for not getting Erica out of jail, for having let her sink to such a level without realizing what was happening, for not having been there for her. I realized that if she wasn't able to own up to how far she'd fallen, there'd be no hope that she'd ever climb out of this, though; and in any case, I didn't have the money to bail her out; we were barely making ends meet as it was.
I wanted her back so desperately. I told myself that when she got out we'd be able to pick up the shattered pieces and start again. I had to believe that was possible. Failing her, failing my son that way was simply not an option in my mind.
I'd like to say that the experience was a wake-up call for Erica. I can't, though. Her first stop after she got out of jail was her drug connection. That was apparent when she stormed over to my new place.
After she knocked and I opened the door, she stood there, staring daggers through me. Her first words were, "You son of a bitch."
I stared at her; her words ripped my heart out. I kept looking for the woman I loved in the angry, bitter person standing in front of me. I wasn't angry with her anymore. And I wanted us all to heal and move on together. I realized then that wanting it and getting it weren't the same thing.
I said, gently, "Erica, are you high?"
"Fuck you, Sam," she said. "Yeah, wonder why, maybe 'cause my husband got me put in jail," she screamed.
"I want you to be okay, Erica, I want us to be a family again," I said. "But it's gotten bad, don't you realize that? I couldn't risk you hurting Chris again; I just couldn't. You scared me. It seemed like it was going to get worse unless you had a wake-up call."
"You let me just sit there in jail," she said, wounded.
"I didn't have the money," I said. And in an instant, the reason we were always so short of money was suddenly clear.
I paid all of the bills directly, but our grocery bills had gone through the roof. She did the shopping, and she'd kept telling me how expensive the diapers and formula were. I should have seen what was happening then; but now, in bitter hindsight, I saw all too well.
I looked into her eyes and said, "Please, Erica...get some help. I don't care what it costs, I'll figure it out. We'll make it through this together." I'd have sold my soul to get her into a treatment place.
She looked me in the eye and said, "I'm clean, Sam. You don't know what you're talking about."
It was pathetic; any toddler could have looked in her eyes and known she was lying; she had just told me as much.
"Please, Erica," I said again. "Do it for me, if you won't do it for yourself. Do it for Chris, do it for your sister's memory."
She looked as if she'd been electrocuted. She took a deep breath, and scowled at me and said, "Some husband you are. You won't even believe me when I tell you I'm clean."
"I love you, Erica," I said, "but you need help. I know it's not your fault, but you have to do something. You're a danger to our son. He might have died if I hadn't come home when I did." I paused for a moment, then said, "We have to make things different. Please, go get yourself clean. I'll stand by you and love you every step of the way. I need you in my life, in our lives. I love you.Ē
"Or we get divorced and I take sole custody of Chris."
Standing there, my mind raced through the rubble of the past. When we got married, I finally felt I was doing something right. Seeing all of that crumble was brutal. It hurt as much as anything ever had. And I felt lower than pond scum. I'd failed her spectacularly. How could I not have seen it?
We went a couple of rounds like this, for several minutes. Eventually I realized that it was pointless to try to have a rational discussion with her when she was high. I sighed and said, "You need to leave, Erica. Come back when you're clean and we'll make plans." Saying those words--asking my wife to leave, turning her away--each word felt like a red hot dagger to my chest. It was the hardest thing I have ever done and only the knowledge that she truly was a danger to Chris allowed me to say those words.
She had to
know that because she
looked shocked at my words, which just reinforced how far gone she was.
"No way," she said. "I'm not leaving without Chris."
"You're not going near Chris while you're high," I said firmly but gently. You can see him when you're sober, but no way when you're high."
"You think you're gonna beat me, Sam? Screw you, buddy. You try to divorce me and get custody of Chris, and I'll take him from you. You're the one who's fuckin' high if you think any judge is gonna leave him with the likes of you."
With the likes of me.
It was obvious what she meant. The cruel words cut me like a knife. In all our time together, Erica had never displayed anything but acceptance of my sexuality. It had never even come up before.
Before I had a chance to recover, she added, "Ever since that little brat was born, you turned all your attention to him. I know you love him more than me. I'd take him from you just so you can see what it's like to hurt."
back over my tumultuous
history: my public outing in high school and eviction from my own home;
regular bouts of post-traumatic-stress disorder; my brutal relationship
psycho who was still stalking me from time to time. It seemed to me
might be able to make good on that threat. Of course, once the state
involved, when they realized my son's mother was as messed up as I was,
might just take him away from both of us.
I had to hang tough.
"Say what you want to about me," I told her. "You're not in shape to take care of Chris, and you know it."
She said nothing in response; she just stared at me, accusing me with her eyes.
I kept hoping to see the woman I loved in her face; kept hoping some spark of recognition would show in her eyes. Finally I said, "Will you get some help? Please. Please just let me help."
"Fuck that," she said. "Just give me some money and I'm outta here."
"I'm sorry, Erica," I said, "but I know just where that money will go. I won't help you kill yourself."
She slapped me in the face, hard, and turned and walked away.
I walked into Christopher's new, tiny bedroom and watched him sleeping for a few minutes. Then I lay down on my bed and cried. I longed to hold her--to hit rewind and go back to the time before her sister died, back to when she could still smile, back to when she was still whole, back before I had failed her.
I had never felt so alone or like such a failure. I needed to not be alone and the only person I could conceive of calling was Brian. He was the only person I could imagine not turning me away in disgust after this latest mess.
I needed Brian.
I picked up the phone and called him.
He picked up on the fourth ring. "S'Brian."
My voice froze up on me at the sound of his. My chest heaved a couple of times. I got myself under control after ten seconds or so.
"Brian...it's Sam," I said, quietly, ignoring the odd way his voice sounded.
"Heeeeeeey, Sammmmmmmy," he said, "Whatchew know, pal?"
I realized immediately that he was drunk.
"Heeey, buddy, haven't seen you in such a loooong time, I miss the hell outta you," he said. "You always been my main man, Sammy. Friends forever, riiiight?" He laughed a little. It was clear he was feeling no pain.
I felt sucker-punched.
"Great," I said, totally defeated. "You're wasted too."
I felt my chest heave again, and I wrestled for control again, but lost out, and broke out crying as I held the phone to my ear.
I should have pulled my face away from the phone; somehow the sound must have broken through at least some of his intoxicated haze. "S'wrong, Sammy?" He slurred. "You okay?"
Typical of the recent ironies in my life, I thought. The one person I needed to talk to about my wife's drug problems, and he's like this.
I needed him to be serious, and he wasn't. I needed him to be sober and clear-headed, and he wasn't. I couldn't tell him--while he was drunk--that I'd just ended my marriage because my wife was an addict.
Beyond all that, it struck me that I'd failed to care for Brian just as I'd failed with Erica. I'd known he was hitting the sauce pretty heavily for some time. After everything he and I had come to mean to each other, what kind of friend had I been to abandon him, to limit our contact to practically nothing? It wasn't the first time he'd been drunk when I called him. In fact, I'd called him just a couple of weeks ago, midweek in the early evening, and he was already so drunk he was almost incoherent.
But just as I'd done with Erica, I hadn't wanted to see how bad it was. I hadn't wanted to think about it. And now, when I needed him desperately, he wasn't available as a friend who could support me; he was even more broken than I was. It was just another reminder of how I'd failed all the people I loved. I felt I'd failed them both: My best friend was hurting and drinking himself into oblivion, and my wife was hurting and drugging herself into oblivion.
Some friend I was; hell, some social worker I was.
Grief flooded through me. "Brian, I...I can't talk. Not when you're like this."
"Wait, Sam," he said, "I'm sorry I..."
I never got to hear the rest. I hung up the receiver while he was in mid-sentence.
I covered my my face with my hands and stood there by the phone, reliving the nightmare of the past two weeks, and capping it off with a mental replay of the phone call I'd just made. As I felt waves of despair gather and prepare to crash in on me, a small, authoritative voice inside said, go look in on your son.
I went into his room and watched his even, peaceful breathing. His eyes were closed, his face relaxed and angelic. Calm washed over me, and the love I felt for him momentarily drove out all the hurt and pain. I got myself collected, then stripped down and took my shower. Afterwards I put on a pair of boxers and climbed into bed. The last thought that passed through my mind before I fell asleep was It's a hard world, and I swear I'll be there for him; and nothing's going to stop me, not even if I have to do it totally alone.
As the weeks went by, I concentrated my attention on my job, my son, and my future. I had been planning on applying to medical school when we found out that Erica was pregnant. When I realized I was going to be a father, I decided that I'd need to make other plans. And now that things were completely different from the way I'd envisioned them, an alternate plan seemed even more important. I'd be raising Chris alone until Erica finally decided to get her life put back together; so whatever I did, I'd need to be around Chris a lot more than medical school would allow. A plan had shaped itself in my head over the last years, a plan that started with additional degrees--both undergraduate and graduate--in biology. I began to put the plan into action.
Brian must have been sober enough the night I called to remember the essentials of our conversation. He tried to call me several times over the course of the next several days. Occasionally I'd answer. He apologized again and again for being drunk that night, he expressed the right amount of sympathy over what happened with Erica. But things just werenít right. I couldnít ignore how much he was obviously hurting and I couldnít be there for him--I didnít have the reserves to face someone else with an addiction. And as for what I'd done to him that night when I hung up on him, I couldnít face that either.
I wasn't sure what all his demons were, but I knew I figured in there at least a little. And I was ashamed to tell him how horribly I'd failed with Erica. It hadn't been that long since he'd learned about my humiliation with Neal. It seemed to me that Brian was probably more able than anyone to see just what a series of failures my life had been, and I couldn't bear that. I'd failed my parents, failed Mary, failed him, and now I'd failed my marriage. It had been hard to face him after Neal. The shame had been oppressive. After I failed with Erica, it became even harder to face him. I didn't see how anyone could possibly forgive me after those kinds of failures--Brian especially. I'd not only caused him more pain than I was worth and utterly failed to be there for him; I'd also demonstrated that I brought pain to everyone who loved me.
Still, there was no way I could totally write him out of my life. Memories of what he'd done and been for me wouldn't leave me alone. And I knew that, whatever his current problems were, there was something so good and decent and kind and loving about Brian, I wanted my son to have a chance to be touched by that love. I know that seems odd, given my refusal to let Chris have any contact with his drugged-out mom, but Brian wasn't his mother, and I knew that Brian wasn't always drunk. I think somewhere a part of me wanted some kind of three-way connection with Brian, myself, and my son. I had some dimly-intuited sense that maybe it could be a life-enhancing experience for all three of us.
I called him up one Saturday afternoon. He grabbed the phone before it rang twice.
"Brian," I began. "It's Sam."
He didn't answer initially. After a few seconds, he said quietly, "Hey, Sam. Are you doing okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," I said. I tried to think how to shape the conversation, but it was difficult. He always made me feel so...strongly, I guess. Whether good or bad, I was always overwhelmed with feelings when I encountered Brian, and it made conversation hard.
After too long a pause, I said, "I'm fine. Are you doing okay?"
"I'm gettin' by," he said. He didn't elaborate, and silence rang out between us as the conversation hit its third snag inside a minute.
I took a deep breath. "Chris is getting baptized in three Sundays, counting tomorrow," I said.
"Oh," he said, neutrally. Blankly.
"Do you think...do you think your mom and dad could come?"
His voice was warm, caring, when he answered. "Of course," he said. "Of course they will, they'll be so happy to."
The tenderness in his voice caught me up short. Another snag in the conversation followed. It was as though we'd both forgotten how to speak English. Finally I said, "And you..."
"I'll be there too, Sam," he said.
"No," I said. "I mean...of course, I want you there but that's not what I wanted to say."
Three seconds went by. Then he asked, "What did you want to say?"
My eyes flooded with tears. No, no, NO, dammit, I told them. I took a deep and quiet breath and tried to continue.
I couldn't regain my composure with my ear to the phone. "Just a minute," I said.
I put down the phone and walked out into the hall. I took several deep breaths and tried to steady myself.
I went back to the phone and said, "Brian, would you be Christopher's godfather?"
I didn't hear anything from the other end for a full thirty seconds. When Brian finally answered, his voice was hoarse and his words were punctuated by ragged, audible breaths. "Sam...I know you don't believe this, but I'd fuckin try to jump across the Grand Canyon blindfolded if you asked me to." I swallowed hard and waited for him to continue. Finally he said, in a voice full of regret and barely audible, "But why would you want me to be Christopher's godfather? After everything...I mean, a godfather has to be a good example, right? Some good example I'd be."
"You're wrong" I said. "You've been through some stuff. We both have. I want you to be my son's godfather."
The line grew silent again, although I could hear Brian crying, quietly, and trying to compose himself, as I had earlier.
"Okay, Sammy," he finally said. "I'll do this. I wish I felt like I deserved the honor of it, but I'll do it. And you have to know I'll always love your little boy, because I..." He stopped in mid-sentence, and silence filled the line. Again. After about ten seconds he said, "You and I have been through so much," he said. "Especially you. Maybe in a way this can be like the beginning of something new for all of us."
I wish I could say I was filled with warm feelings for my friend. But, truth be known, I was protecting myself from him. I guess I also felt that I needed to protect him from me. I'd already caused him enough grief, and hadn't even been a good enough friend to support him. He clearly needed it. And there were other things there, things I couldn't sort out, and couldn't resolve; things I wanted from him--needed from him, if I let myself--but could never have; things I'd always have to be on my guard against--things that would always require me to keep an arm's length between us if I weren't going to destroy completely whatever friendship we still had. It was all too complicated and threatening for me to give in to a deep rush of emotion.
But even as I was keeping my emotions in check here, I knew that somehow, in a way I couldn't even explain rationally, Brian was a part of my life that I couldn't dismiss. I saw something in him--maybe it's better to say I felt something in him--that needed for him to be my son's godfather, that would make me proud for him to be my son's godfather. And a part of me knew that nothing would change that.
All these thoughts raced through my head as I considered what he'd said. "Thank you," I replied, quietly. "I...gotta go. I'll get you the details, though. We'll talk soon."
* * * * * * * * *
He and his family came down for the baptism; it was a good day and a good experience. But for all the good feelings of the day, it was uncomfortable: Uncomfortable to look him in the eye, uncomfortable to talk to him. My mind and heart were caught up in all kinds of conflicting thoughts and feelings about him, about me, about everything. Things were awkward between us, and we never were able to have a significant conversation while he was there. I wasn't sorry to see him and the rest of his family go.
Over the next several weeks, he called often, at least once a week. It was obvious he was trying, it was obvious he wanted us to find a way back into each other's lives. I just couldn't, though. It was too much for me to deal with. I didn't return his calls half the time.
My world narrowed to work and Christopher. That was all I focused on. I worked to support Chris. I lived to raise him. Period.
Erica never showed any signs of getting better, or even of wanting to. She sent me bills for her rent, which I paid. But she just couldn't shake the drugs off, or maybe she just didn't want to. I saw her only three times before Christopher's first birthday.
I'm not sure I can explain what leaving Erica was like. I had always believed that marriage was forever. I took those vows very seriously. Because of my own messed-up childhood, I had vowed with all my heart and soul that if I ever became a parent, I would put my child first, and I would make his well-being my top priority. When the days got long and my psyche threatened to torment me over my failed marriage, my thoughts would go back to those first minutes after my son's birth. That moment in the delivery room where I'd made those promises to him burned itself into my memory. And I'd remember the next night at the hospital too, looking out the window of Erica's hospital room at the lights of the city below while she slept, repeating my promise to Chris that I would always put him first.
I had never envisioned that someday my vows to Erica would be at direct odds with my vows to my child.
When my anger at her subsided, all I felt was torn. My marriage was sacred to me, and if not for my concern for Chris, I would have never left her for any reason. My vow to Chris was more important, but it didn't make leaving Erica sit well. I loved her. I wasn't just losing her, I was losing the life we planned, my entire vision of my future and my child's future. Leaving her also altered how I viewed myself: My marriage had failed. I had failed. It was a bigger failure than anything I'd ever failed at thus far--bigger than my failure with my parents, bigger than my failure with Brian--and it ate at me.
But I had my son to think about. I would not fail with him. So my plans for the future went on. Just before his first birthday, I started back to school. Since I had minored in biology for my first degree, finishing out the rest of a bio major didn't take long. I finished that following spring. That felt good, but in the back of my mind, sorrow and regret over my failed marriage were chronic.
I had offered to pay for Erica to get treatment, and I paid her rent for the first year. I would have done just about anything to put things back together--anything but endanger Chris. I held on to the hope that she would get clean, that this would just be a separation until she came to her senses. She never did, though. She disappeared right before Christopher's first birthday. I got a call from her saying she was headed for Chicago with another man. I never heard from her again.
I didn't actually file for divorce until after Christopher's third birthday, and the divorce wasn't final until just before his fourth birthday. The divorce took so long to finalize because I couldn't find her to serve her the papers. I was filled with regret; I'd failed her utterly. I had been so broken and overwhelmed myself during our marriage that I'm not sure what I could have done, but I failed in my vows to her in a rather spectacular manner, and it is one of the greatest regrets of my life. She had been there for me when Neal had almost killed me--truly "for better or for worse, in sickness and in health." But when the tables were turned, I wasn't there for her.
If it weren't for Christopher, I'm not sure I would have ever recovered from that failure. His birth had thrown me completely out of my habitual numbness, and that response didn't seem to be available for me anymore when I hurt. I was facing a period of life where everything I hadn't dealt with before, plus all the pain of failing at my marriage, was beginning to make its presence felt like a physical weight on my chest.
I couldn't be unhappy when I was with Christopher, though. I felt an overwhelming, all-encompassing love for him. From the very beginning, he was a happy child. It was an amazing contrast with my own past, and was such a sign of promise for a hopeful future that loving him and caring for him was easy. He always woke up insanely early, and I would put him next to me in bed. He would jabber away at me and cuddle close. It was perfect. In the evening, I would hold him and read him a bedtime story. He fell asleep on my chest almost every night. Holding him and watching him sleep was the most soothing thing in the world to me. I couldn't be angry when I was with him. I couldn't be sad. The pain was there, but it wasn't the focus, and it wasn't overwhelming. I could feel something good, with no overtones of anything bad, and I was hell-bent on doing this right. I wasn't going to let him down.
And somewhere, in and through those vows to be there for my son, my own healing began.