Excerpt #9 Dukin’ it out with God

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Nathan, Jesse, and Natali. Easter 1987

I waited a long time to hear from them. This is how it went: legal services in Washington and MorganCounty wouldn’t help because, for one thing, the case should legally be heard in Wood County, Ohio, since that’s where I lived when my kids were taken. Secondly, since the kids were taken by my mom, not by the state, and legal services didn’t do custody cases, I was on my own. I wrote back and explained that, while what the court was doing to me might be illegal, they were, indeed, doing it. Plus, if my mom had received “temporary custody” on her claim that I had abandoned my kids, well, wasn’t abandonment a crime? So, if I was a criminal, wasn’t I entitled to an attorney? Yep, that’s how I got an attorney from MorganCounty on the case.

I would have been better off alone. At least he got me legal visitation so I was no longer at the mercy of mom’s whims. She would try to rule the roost by threatening and, at times, taking away my visits with my children if I didn’t comply. (Like if I didn’t agree with her form of discipline and tried to stick up for them). Finally, I had legal recourse and could see them every other weekend. It was February 1990 by the time that finally got settled.

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Grandpa sneaking up on me

In the middle of all that hell, my grandpa succumbed to his illness and died. He had stopped smoking some 10 years or more before, but the damage done was irreversible. He fought valiantly for his life, not wanting us to lose him and grieve ourselves, not wanting the family he held together to fall apart. I didn’t want to see him go, but watching him suffer was worse by far.
He was unrecognizable the last time I saw him, lying in a stark nursing home in a hospital bed. I remember having to summon my courage to tell him, “Thank you, Grandpa, for leaving me the legacy of humor. It helps keep me strong when everything is going wrong.”
He smiled weakly. It hurt him to speak, but he forced the simple words, “I love you, honey.”
I told him I loved him, too. I’m so grateful that those were our last words to each other. There couldn’t have been a better way to part.
Still, when I left him, and knew it wouldn’t be long, I collapsed in the middle of McConnelsville. It was about 17 degrees outside at the time, and I’m sure that helped revive me. I actually hauled myself to a pay phone and called my mom collect to beg her to come and get me. I just couldn’t bear being in that shoebox of an apartment listening to my heart beat and all the savage thoughts tearing at my mind.

A trip to the emergency room for heart palpitations left me with a prescription for Xanax. It seemed, after a few days of taking the anti-anxiety drug that I had to take it. If I missed a dosage, a tsunami of panic rose up to drown or wash away whatever solid thoughts, plans, or activities I had going on. In addition, my body rebelled against me if I stopped taking the medication in ways that are just too graphic to tell in public. I had to wean myself off the Xanax over three month’s time.

After I was free of the meds, however, the panic episodes still had a way of sneaking up on me at the most inconvenient times. I’d be driving along and feel suddenly as if my arms were floating away, like I’d lose the ability to hang onto and control the steering wheel. I’d have to pull the car over, get out, and just let myself breathe for a bit. It still happened everywhere at any given moment, but especially driving or in the shower, places where you might feel a little helpless and cornered.

I did learn to talk to myself through the attacks once I knew what they were. I would tell myself that I wasn’t having a heart attack, that the panic felt bad, but it wouldn’t kill me, and that it would soon subside. The more I talked like that, the less frequent the attacks came, until, one day, years later, they went away altogether.
My grandma took pity on me, even in her time of grief over Grandpa. She talked to my dad, who decided to find an apartment for me in Marietta, giving me a better chance at finding a job and regaining custody of my children. Plus now I could be close to old friends and family.

In fact, one of the first people I looked up when I got back was a handsome black (yes, this is significant! Bear with me) man named Mike who had caught my interest when I was only 16. Being ten years my senior, he was out of reach back then. Now I was 30, lonely, overwhelmed with sorrow, and needing a friend. When we saw each other again it was almost as if no time had passed. We started dating right away.

He was a dramatic contrast to the men I had dated during the past ten years. He worked hard at his job, then came straight home to remodel (and remodel, and remodel…) the home he had inherited from his dear mother upon her death. He was kind to my children when they visited. He took Nathan under his wing and started showing him carpentry techniques.
Our relationship became serious very fast. I have to admit, it was a mooring of sorts for me. I wanted something that felt normal in a world that was constantly spinning out of control. I wanted my kids to have a father figure who treated them right.
We started talking about having a child of our own. He wasn’t getting any younger, and neither was I. We figured if we were going to do it, we’d better get going. We discussed my fear of having another stillborn baby, raising another child in poverty, not having him as involved as a daddy should be… Would he promise to be a real dad, help financially, the whole nine yards? Did he want to marry me? His answers were yes, yes, yes, and yes. But the more I thought about marriage, the more trapped I felt. As always, I wanted the baby but not the wedding.

Where did I leave God in all this? I had him right there, within reach, in case of emergencies. You know, like a fire extinguisher. I STILL wasn’t willing to put my life solidly back in his hands. I still wanted to have FUN.

Anyhow, my apartment in Marietta was a small one-bedroom place, but I fixed it up so the dining room was my room, and the bedroom could be Nathan’s and Jesse’s when they were there. Nat could share my room or sleep on the sofa. Some relatives got together and donated furniture. Something bigger would be in order once I got squared away financially, but our place was a comfortable spot to be together.

The cervical dysplasia was still untreated, which made me very nervous, knowing it could develop into cancer, so the first thing I did once I was secure in my new place was see a doctor and get help for that. I took a day to recover. The next day I walked all over town putting in job applications.
Grandma also put a bug in Dad’s ear about my lack of transportation, so Dad gifted me with an old Buick he had. The car was a blessing for sure. I could drive to my new job as a laundress at a nursing home plus the 45 minutes to Mom’s to pick up my kids every two weeks.

The court battle raged on. False allegations were made by almost all parties against each other. The Children’s Services from Morgan County were now involved, and they, along with Freda, the social worker from Bowling Green, agreed that I was a fit parent and would push for the Judge to give my babies back to me. They said they had talked to my children on numerous occasions, that they were bright, articulate, and well mannered, and that, “someone has obviously taught them something!”

 

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Nathan during a visit with me

 

 

Out of nowhere, Nathan’s dad showed up to become part of the custody circus. He had not participated in Nathan’s life at all since my son was around two years old. No cards, no letters, no phone calls… then, there he was to take custody.

Realizing that Jess was not getting the best treatment at my mom’s, Rico’s relatives filed for custody of him.

The Judge in the case was somehow prejudiced against me. I couldn’t understand the hostile attitude he seemed to be showing towards me. Then I learned that he and his wife attended church with my mom. Not only that, but I was ordered to have a psychological evaluation from the psychologist who cared for my mom’s bi-polar husband, and had already been told all kinds of untruths about me by my mom. The deck was stacked against me from day one.

I got independent evaluations done by two other psychologists who gave me good reports, but that took time. By then the Judge’s decision had been made: he granted custody of Natali to Mom, gave Nathan’s dad custody of him, and sent Jess to live with an aunt and uncle in Fremont, Ohio. Now not only were they separated from me, they were apart from each other. The Judge had completely ignored the reports from the two different Children’s Service agencies. That’s practically unheard of. By now it had been about 18 months since the whole thing began. Now all there was left was to appeal the Judge’s decision and hope for a different outcome.

 

Now that Jess was in Fremont, that meant I only got to see him every six weeks from Friday night to Sunday at six p.m. His aunt and uncle were responsible to transport him halfway, but that left me to find transportation for the rest of the trip. Thankfully, my dad had recently married a wonderful woman who volunteered to help me.

The visits were excruciating. The whole time my four-year-old baby was with us, all I could think about was how much he had grown, how much I had missed, that I hadn’t been there to teach him his ABCs, how fast the visit was going… He was there, but he was always slipping away. The hours flew by. I didn’t even sleep. I put him on the bed next to me at night and let my eyes gulp him in as he slept, telling my brain to hold fast to that moment so I could review it again and again till our next visit. When I put him in his aunt and uncle’s car to send him back, he would stare out the window at me with mud puddle eyes, wondering why I didn’t save him. Wondering how I could let him go.

I had another one of those weird dreams. I had a baby dressed in blue. He had died, so I placed him gently in a wicker basket and sent him across what seemed to be the ocean, to heaven. The sense of loss was mitigated by an indescribable peace as I watched the baby float into the arms of God.

Later I had a series of dreams about a baby girl with cinnamon skin and curly dark hair. In one of the dreams, I was getting the baby out of a car seat at the grocery store, laughing and talking to my mom. I thought, as I awoke from the dream, “Well, that’s one dream that will surely never come true.” Because, first of all, the custody battle had left some pretty deep wounds, and, secondly, mom was having a hard enough time with the fact that Jess was half Mexican. Being the mother of a half black child would do nothing to endear me to her. But the dreams felt remarkably real, and I knew in my heart they were messages from God.

Meanwhile, I did conceive again. I knew I would have to hide the pregnancy as I continued to fight for custody of my other children.
Nathan’s dad was giving him a hard time, telling him he was putting a cramp in his social life. I had discovered long before that his dad wanted me back and was using Nathan to lure me to him.

My firstborn began acting out in violent ways at school. He got detentions for various things. He got in trouble for shoplifting. Here was my tender hearted, reasonable, artistic boy behaving like a stranger.

Natali bore her pain in silence. Like me, she internalized everything and lowered her appraisal of herself.

Because my pregnancy was considered high risk, the doctor ordered an ultrasound at least once a month. Going into my fifth month, the ultrasound technician asked me if I wanted to know the sex of my baby. Bearing in mind the dreams I had had about the death of a baby boy but having a healthy girl, I felt I had to hear what she had to say. I was elated when she told me the baby was a girl!
But a short time later, the baby stopped moving. I couldn’t understand. I had been so sure my dreams had not been mere dreams at all, but God speaking to me.

Even stuck in the sewage of my awful sin, when I was not trying to live my life in a way pleasing to him, I thought he was communicating with me. I mean, yeah, I still prayed from time to time. I still asked him to look out for my kids or get us out of this jam or that one, but I couldn’t imagine trying to live a “good” Christian life. I was an outlaw, a renegade, proud to be a “free spirit.” I was still trying to fit God into my life instead of allowing him to shape me. So why was I so surprised when the doctor confirmed that my baby was dead inside me?

Upon discovering that the baby was no longer alive, the doctor determined to have me check into the hospital the next day to induce labor. One of the hardest things I had to do was to go tell Mike that we had lost our baby. I tried to stay poised, but as soon as he asked, “What did the doctor say?” I buried my face in his chest and sobbed my heart out.

One of my friends was pregnant, too. For some reason, as I prepared for the next day, she came to mind. I thought, She’s going to feel awkward around me and not want to share the joy of her baby’s birth with me. So I called and gave her my news. Then I told her to please call when her baby made his or her way into the world. “Don’t be afraid to be happy in front of me.”

The next day I found myself lying alone in the silent room on the maternity ward. I had told Mike not to miss any work to stay with me, that I would call when the baby came.
The labor was slow. There was barely any pain. I didn’t really want to spend too much time thinking. I needed company after all, and regretted telling Mike not to come. I picked up the phone to call my pregnant friend to chat, just something to distract myself. Her daughter answered and told me that my friend was at the hospital. I said, “Ok, thanks!” and hung up. In a second, it dawned on me, “Did she mean AT the hospital, or IN the hospital?” So I called back to ask.
“Yes,” the daughter said, “she’s in the hospital having the baby!”
I immediately pushed the button to call a nurse. When one arrived, I asked how my friend was doing. The nurse looked very concerned. “Oh, honey,” she said softly. “She’s right across the hall. Do you want us to move you?”
I shook my head. “No,” I told her, “I’ll still know what’s going on no matter where you put me.”
After the nurse left the room, I lay there again for a while longer just staring at the wall. Then, without warning or ceremony, the baby just sort of fell out. I was terrified. I couldn’t bring myself to look. Was the baby all there? Was she deformed? What had caused her to perish? Again I called the nurse and said, very matter-of-factly, “I had the baby.”
To my surprise, she came in carrying a white wicker basket, just like the one in my dream. She put the basket on the counter top and came to take my baby to be cleaned, weighed, and measured. Even though I had been told that the baby was a girl, my dreams nagged at me. So, as the nurse gingerly lifted the child from my bed, I asked her, “Can you please tell me the sex of the baby?”
She answered, “It’s a boy.”
I was shocked! “A boy? They told me it was a girl!”
I must’ve appeared strangely pleased, because the nurse gave me an odd look. My sorrow at having lost the baby was, as in the dream, eased by the knowledge that God was there, looking out for us. He had seen what the future held and sent me a dream to soften the blow.

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Mike showed up and I told the nurse I was ready to see my baby. He was a tiny thing, 11 inches long and weighing in at 13 ounces. His feet were half my thumb’s length. He was the spitting image of Mike. We named him Derek Michael.
I knew I was in for a long wait for an autopsy to come back and tell me why my baby had been taken. It took three months to find that Sara was born with no pituitary gland. But when the report came back on Derek, it found nothing to explain why he didn’t survive. I realize now that the coroner’s report could only tell me WHAT, anyhow, it could never tell me WHY.

It took me a few years to be truly thankful for the experience of having Sara and Derek in my life. God was gracious to allow me to have a part in their creation. He could have just made them in heaven and never let me know anything about them, but he trusted me to carry them for him. That’s how I see it, anyhow. At any rate, I’m sure they’re with him, growing up in heaven, safe.
I found out something years down the road as I studied the bible that I had never seen before. It made my dream about sending Derek over the water to God all the more comforting and REAL.

Genesis 1:6-8
6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

 

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