Atticus Eastwood is not my current husband’s real name. But that’s what I call him here because he reminds me of Gregory Peck’s character in To Kill a Mockingbird: reserved, with a strong moral compass, willing to do the jobs few men want.
Like take on my ex-husband.
He also is a bit of a tough guy, a la Clint. He says a lot with few words. He believes in law, order, and justice. And he doesn’t like it when people mess with his woman.
Atticus is a colorful character. He has three tattoos (that’s colorful when you’re fifty-one). He’s fond of curse words. And he’s got two kids from different marriages: Caleb, 18, and Kevin, seven.
Caleb’s mother is a scourge upon humankind. We refer to her as Lucretia, after Lucretia Borgia, who went around undermining and poisoning people. Right around the time she got pregnant, Atticus realized she was an unhinged control freak. Terrified that she would abscond with their baby, he thought marrying her was the only way he could remain a father.
He was wrong. Way wrong. They split up after two years and then waged a 6-year-long custody battle. When Atticus found out Lucretia was dating a registered sex offender whom she let babysit Caleb, he went to court hoping the judge would impose conduct constraints. But Family Law being the wild carnival ride that it is, neither the Custody Evaluator nor the Judge saw fit to reduce her time or even tell her she had to quit hanging out with child molesters. They did nothing!
If this weren’t bad enough, Lucretia also managed to bamboozle Caleb into believing his dad was Evil. She made him write stories titled, “Why I Hate My Dad.” Each school year, she got herself appointed Room Parent and badmouthed Atticus to the other moms and the teachers. She kept Caleb home “sick” days out of every month, took him out of the country without notifying Atticus, enrolled him in Hebrew School (Atticus isn’t Jewish). And, ripped from the Vindictive Ex-Wife headlines: she even made a false allegation of domestic violence against Atticus when he tried to pick up Caleb on his timeshare day.
Lucretia was the poster mama for Parental Alienation. Over time, her poisonous words etched themselves into Caleb’s belief system. Caleb wanted nothing to do with Atticus. And after six years of dragging him on home visits, on camping trips and Caribbean vacations, only to hear Caleb moan the entire time, “I hate you. I wanna be with my Mom,” Atticus gave up. He stopped enforcing visitation.
In situations like these, most therapists advise alienated parents to keep reaching out to the children who reject them: call, write weekly letters, arrive for your visitation day even when you know the door will be slammed in your face. They will urge you to shelve the perpetual humiliation of displaying public, unrequited love for your child. They insist that no matter what vitriol your kid spews at you, he really wants you to stay in his life. Even when he says things like Caleb said to Atticus: “You’re a bad dad because you force me to see you.”
Early on, Atticus met with one therapist who told him something different: “This will only get resolved when Caleb chooses to be with you. If you step out of the picture you will deprive Caleb and his mother of a ‘bad guy’ and it will be only a matter of time till their relationship collapses.”
Six years later, Atticus was ready to take this therapist’s advice. “In my heart, I knew it was time to stop trying to get him to see me. Nothing was improving,” Atticus says now. “And I knew strategically if I pulled out and was no longer the whipping post, if anything bad did happen, it couldn’t be blamed on me.”
In 2004, Atticus turned over Caleb to his mother completely. He told Caleb he could initiate visits if he wanted. He did not follow the conventional therapist wisdom: he did not send cards, gifts, or call. Year after year went by with only a few meetings with Caleb. On rare occasions, he would phone Atticus and offer him crumbs for get-togethers: 45 minutes on a weekend, with Atticus meeting him a restaurant near his mother’s house, on the other side of town.
Cut to: an evening in December 2009. Atticus and I are sitting in a darkened movie theater when his iPhone rings. It’s Caleb, hysterical. He can’t bear living with his mother and stepfather anymore. She padlocks him in his room, rouses him at 5:00 a.m. to practice the piano, won’t allow him to go to friends’ houses, makes him clean toilets if he complains. There was a tussle, and he left the house. He’s shivering on a street corner, calling from a pay phone. “Dad, can you come get me?” he sobs. “Can I stay with you?”
Now 18, Caleb lives with us full-time. He tells us about the years he listened to his mom badmouth Atticus, and the pressure he felt to recite the party line. He says she choreographed every moment of his day, filled up all his free time with piano lessons, insisted he play competitively. If he balked, he got the toilet-cleaning punishment or he was locked in his room. His stepfather stood by and did nothing.
Caleb and Atticus recently went on a father-son outing to get tattoos. “Carpe Diem” (Seize the Day) is etched around Caleb’s bicep. Part of his joy in getting tatted up was knowing he would be prohibited from being buried in a Jewish ceremony. His Jewish mother went bonkers when she found out he had plans for another tattoo, but there was nothing she could do: Caleb is old enough to make his own decisions.
Shortly after Caleb returned to us, my son, Luca, left to be with his dad. On days when my son ranted and raved about how awful I was, and how his dad was perfect, Caleb would sit him down and try to get him to see things in a more balanced way. “Your mom’s a nice lady,” he’d say. “You ought to be nice to her. You ought to show her some respect.”
Maybe one day Luca will realize I’m not so bad after all. Until then, I find solace watching Atticus and Caleb together. They are so much alike: same sense of humor, same work ethic, same obsession with The Bourne Identity trilogy. And then there are those tattoos blazed across their biceps…
Sometimes you have to lose everything to get anything. I may not have any choice about keeping Luca; the judge may decide he should reside with his dad full-time. But in our house, at least, justice has prevailed.
Atticus got his son back.