Mother and Child Reunion, Part Three

To read Part One, click here.

To read Part Two, click here.

“I’m going to visit you, wherever you are. You’re not going to get rid of me.”

I was trying to assure Luca that the terms of the custody agreement ultimately had no bearing on our relationship, which would develop and grow despite who picked his school or transported him there. In my eagerness to patch the hole in his damaged psyche, I was perhaps skating too quickly around the jagged edges, around the gaping wound created by betrayal and manipulation.

We were sitting in the shade provided by a grove of juniper trees. Jim, Luca’s therapist, and Eric, the Clinical Director, were facilitating our family therapy session. Luca was struggling to free himself–and me–from the straitjacket that is the custody agreement, the suffocating realization that Prince will be making virtually every major Luca-centered decision until he turns eighteen.

“It’s four years of my dad making all the decisions! It’s four years of my dad deciding when I can see you!”

I started to clarify what his dad could and couldn’t do and I said something lame like four years isn’t a long time in the big scheme of things, when Jim cut me off.

“Four years is a long time for Luca.”

And it is, of course. Four years is about one-third of his life. I felt like a nincompoop. After all the time I’ve spent prostrate on a therapist’s couch, I forgot that what Luca really needed from me was to let him have his feelings, as raw and uncomfortable as they might be.

The session had started with “family sculpting,” an exercise in which family members take turns moving each other into certain positions, like lumps of clay. People see how one person experiences life in the family now, and how that person wants life to be.

“You’re my dad,” Luca told Eric, pushing him a stone’s throw from the rest of us. “You stand there with your back to us, and you’re talking on the phone. My dad’s always on the phone.”

Eric held an imaginary phone to his ear. Luca took my arms and stretched them out towards him.

“And, Mom, you’re reaching out to me, like this, you’re trying to help.”

Luca stood in front of me, yet just out of reach, with a “help me” look on his face.

“What about Franny?” Jim asked. “Where’s she?”

“Franny’s by herself,” Luca said, moving Jim under a tree. “She’s crouching down, and she’s crying.”

Jim knelt in the dirt, turned away from us, his head in his hands. Luca stood in front of me again, forlorn, tentative: I want you to help me, but I don’t know how to ask.

The family sculpting exercise ended with Luca showing us how he wanted things to be. Jim was Franny and Eric was Atticus. Luca placed us in a circle and had us all hold hands, with Luca clasping “Atticus’s” hand.

I was surprised when I saw the hand-clasping. A rapprochement between Atticus and Luca desperately needed to happen, but I didn’t imagine that Luca would have any desire to be close to his stepfather.

For the first year-and-a-half of our relationship, Atticus quietly tolerated Luca’s rages. He listened to him, talked to him, tried to befriend him. He didn’t react when Luca channeled Prince and screamed at me about all my wrongdoings.

Until he did. The house had turned into Armageddon. Luca was exploding everyday, for hours at a time. We were all losing our marbles. Atticus’s son Kevin, then six, was scared of Luca. He regaled his mother with tales of Luca’s meltdowns and she was understandably not pleased. When Prince pulled Luca into the custody battle and Luca started telling me he and his dad were going to sue me, Atticus lost his zen.

He yelled at Luca. Stood in front of his bedroom door to keep him from tearing up the house. Tried to alpha-male him into submission. I understood Atticus’s pushed-to-the-brink frustration, but there were times when he crossed a line into what I felt were unnecessarily harsh reactions. Atticus and I argued privately about this and never resolved our differences–although I didn’t let on to Luca. It was bad enough that he saw his dad and me fighting; I wasn’t going to allow him to witness another partnership divided.

“You defend Atticus too much, Mom. He yelled at me a lot. He’d stand in my room and yell at me to shut up.”

It was toward the end of the family session. We were sitting on the ground, in the dirt, on a layer of prickly wilderness things that dug into my butt. I tried to explain the context for Atticus’s yelling, that he didn’t lose it for no reason.

“See? You defend him, Mom.”

The two therapists gave me a “yes, you defend him” look.

“Okay, I do, I defend him,” I sighed. “I got exhausted, Luca. It was a lot of years with your dad attacking me, and you angry at me. I think I wanted a buffer sometimes. I wanted someone else to deal with things.”

“You used to get headaches a lot,” said Luca. “You and my dad would have an argument on the phone and the next day you’d get a really bad headache.”

Certainly, I had consumed plenty of Advil post-divorce, but I had no idea Luca was aware of my physical state, or connected the dots to stress.

“Do you think you underfunction?” Eric asked me, only the question wasn’t really a question. “When you were married to Luca’s dad, did you need him to make the decisions?”

You know those occasions when someone accuses you of something you find especially heinous, and a blast of angry heat wends its way up from your belly to your face? A blast of heat that, if it could speak, would say how dare you! and oh my God, is this true!

Because at heart I am still that shy little adopted kid who always had a stomach ache, hanging out on the margins, asking for permission, second-guessing herself into a pretzel.

“Well,” I answered Eric. “kinda…I guess. Yes.”

If Luca ever started coming for weekend visits, as Prince and I had agreed he would, I would have to take the reins back from Atticus.

Eric and Jim balanced things out by explaining to Luca that Atticus had felt the need to protect me and insist on respect; that families fall apart when parents aren’t on the same page.

I watched Luca listen and nod. The force field of agitation that had held him hostage the past several years wasn’t there anymore. He was calmer than I’d ever seen him. And I was calmer with him than I’d been since he was a toddler.

“I feel like I was abandoned, Mom.”

“Abandoned?” I didn’t quite understand.

“I think what Luca means is that he feels like a pawn,” said Eric.

This cut to the quick. After being caught in the middle of an apocalyptic custody battle, how could he feel anything but?

“You have been a pawn, Luca. I am just so sorry. I’m sorry your dad and I haven’t been on the same page. I’m sorry about all the upheaval in your life. The last thing I wanted, ever, was for you to feel abandoned.”

Luca didn’t say anything, but blinked behind his mop of tawny hair.

*      *      *

We were sitting cross-legged in another patch of dirt. Dakota laid small piles of red, gold, and brown pigment on three “sacred rocks” in front of us.

Dakota was a wiry, bearded, tattooed-up-the-neck Staff. He was also clearly an artist: he had crafted the most beautiful shoulder bag I had ever seen out of red leather, black stitching and the tip of a deer antler for a fastener. If the occasion hadn’t been so solemn, I would have commissioned him for a purse.

After the family session had ended, Luca whispered something in Jim’s ear. Shortly after, Dakota had appeared out of the bushes and told me Luca wanted to give me a token.

Now, Luca dripped water from his water bottle onto each pile of pigment, carefully stirring the mixtures into paste with a stick. Dakota explained that we were participating in a ceremony based on an aboriginal ritual practiced hundreds of years ago by teenaged boys on their walkabout.

In keeping with aboriginal custom, kids are given wooden tokens when Staff feels they are choosing to make progress in a particular area. Staff doesn’t tell kids what they need to do to receive one. The idea is that the wilderness teaches us what we need to do. When the kids begin to “see the way” without prodding from adults, they gain a sense of internal control and self-agency–and they receive a token symbolizing the area in which they have made progress.

“Sometimes kids give their parents tokens. Luca, maybe you want to tell your Mom why you’re giving her this, and what it means.”

Dakota pulled a wooden token out of a leather pouch and handed it to Luca. Luca then placed it in the palm of my hand.

"Giver" token

“This token means ‘Giver,’ Mom. I’m giving it to you because it’s like you, you’re a giver.” He pointed to five fine lines pointing upward. “Those are hands — see the fingers? And the thing at the top is a heart.”

I ran my fingers over the smooth wood, tracing the carved ridges. I felt the afternoon sun hot on my shoulders. A thin breeze cooled the layer of perspiration on my neck. I glanced up from the token and gazed into Luca’s eyes. He smiled, shyly. That smile that breaks my heart. That smile that says I’m trying as hard as I can.

“Thank you, Luca,” I said. “I absolutely love it. And I will treasure it forever.”

Luca dipped a stick into the red paste and painted the image of the token onto my my cheeks and forehead.

*       *       *

When it was time to say goodbye, Luca began to cry, silently. Tears ran down his cheeks and mixed with the brown and red pigment that Dakota had used to paint the image of a winged heart. I handed him a kleenex.

Dakota had given Luca this token after Luca gave me mine. The winged heart symbolized the two roads that Luca could take: one road led to peace and the other to self-sabotage. Luca was starting to learn that the path he took was up to him.

I hugged Luca again, murmuring in his ear how proud I was of him, that I had faith in him, and if he kept going in the same direction he would turn his life around. I told him I loved him.

I tried to pull away but he pulled me back towards him. I held him in my arms for a long time, leaning his head against my shoulder the way I did when he was a baby.

Jim led me back towards my car when I heard Luca call out: “Bye, Mom!”

I turned and saw my scrawny, moppy-headed kid waving, becoming smaller as I walked away. I blew him a kiss and, in a spasm of wanting things to be normal, yelled that I’d talk to him soon. Which was a boneheaded thing to say, I realized a moment later. Because I didn’t know when we would actually speak again.

Jim and I stood by my car on the dusty roadside. I told him how stunned I was that Luca confessed all the things his dad had said and done to him the past eight years. I said I hadn’t been sure if Luca would ever realize what had happened.

“He’s always known,” Jim said. “He just couldn’t express it before.”

I gazed at puffs of white drifting across the turquoise sky towards the distant mountain ridges. Then I looked back at Jim.

“I’ve been played a lot. So I’m not sure…was he for real back there? Do you think he meant the things he said?”

“I think he was for real, yeah.” Jim shrugged. “But it’s tough to know. I tell parents, with these kids, see how they are in two years.”

On the way to the airport, I ended up on my own walkabout. A walkabout that involved a flat tire on a dirt road in a no-cell reception area. Hours later, after I’d missed my flight, I stumbled into a gas station mini-mart, covered in grime and crusty face paint.

The gas station attendant motioned me towards the restroom without batting an eye: here’s another one visiting her kid at that wilderness camp.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, scrubbing pigment off my cheeks and forehead with a wet paper towel. I didn’t know what Luca would be like in two years. But I knew this: these past nine weeks in the wilderness had changed him.

And one day in the wilderness with Luca had changed me.

After the Token Ceremony


About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
This entry was posted in Divorce, Custody, and Parental Alienation, Special Needs Children and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Mother and Child Reunion, Part Three

  1. Annie says:

    Pauline, I just read all three pieces together. I am moved to tears by your courage, and by the depth of your wisdom and love. Luca was right—you are a giver, and you have given something beautifully transcendent to the world in sharing your story.

  2. Thanks, Annie–for your kind words and your take on the series. It has sparked some outrage, so I’m glad you had a different response. The visit was incredibly encouraging and that was the experience i tried to get across.

  3. Pauline,
    “Outrage?” I cannot fathom–in my wildest dreams–why one would feel outraged by this… I have been in a situaiton where my children were manipulated by family members, and I know all too well the chaos that insecure and vindictive behavior causes for the child, and for the person being targeted.

    Pauline, as hard as it is, keep doing what you are doing. Over and over, and over, again. Luca will know. What an example of unconditional love you are to him, what an example of “I will always be here for you,” you are to him…

    The words you lend to this story are breathtaking, in every sense of the word; the emotion and compassion a testament to all that is good in life…

    Luca loves you…Luca recognizes right from wrong…Luca thinks you are a Giver. Ditto that…


  4. Jane says:

    Reading the third passage of your story literally took my breath away. I’m hoping for the best for you and your family, and thank you for sharing something so intimate.

  5. I wanted to reply to a comment on Open Salon but was unable to do so myself as I am not a card carrying member there. To the gentleman who wrote, isn’t it obvious that children are getting tossed around, abandoned and betrayed at the hands of their parents? I have found that most adults are simply too narcissistic to keep it under control. Parents can be selfish, but once you’ve had a child that indulgence is gone…or at least it should be.

    Pauline, don’t let Luca’s future happiness be “substantially separate.” Children and young adults need guidance (hell, I need guidance and I’m going to be 43 next week). Anyone who says differently is a MORON (sorry, but I raised myself and it sucked.) Please allow him to always see you as a giver, especially as it pertains to him. There are many “adults” in my family who absolutely abandoned their children, even if they were living under the same roof. They gave nothing…and the residual effects are astounding.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…hold tight to Luca, for the rest of your lives. Never let him think you don’t care. Never let him believe you don’t love him. Find him wherever he is in his life and let him know you’re thinking of him and you love him. Listen to him, nod your head and say, “I’m so sorry you felt that way,” and even if you are being “played” right now, in the end…when he’s older, he’ll never, ever be able to say you gave up on him. Don’t toss him around, abandon or betray him. Hold onto those hugs for as long as you possibly can, each and every time.

  6. Pauline, you’ve done it again. I can tell you’re a writer because of the way you write, and I can tell you’re a mother by the way you see Luca. Ah, stepfathers. They mean well, but mine always said I was too lenient with my sons, even though two of them are bipolar and really need more help than the other kids. And yet, when push comes to shove, he always does the right thing…

  7. Jenny says:

    A really moving piece, Pauline. You have the makings of a book here, I think. This is tough stuff, but ultimately I think you and Luca will come through it intact. As far as the stepfather issue goes, I believe that the “alpha” male’s role in a family unit involves defending the mother and demanding respect; I see way more problems when a father or stepfather doesn’t do that. God knows you’ve needed a defender, considering the garbage Prince has heaped upon you.

    Good luck with it all. I think boarding school will be good for Luca. He can find himself, separate from conflicting parental agendas.

  8. cassee01 says:

    oh how I hope Luca is onto a better life for himself despite being in Prince’s grasp – although sometimes we make wrong decisions as long as we make them with the right motive that is all we can do and I think one day Luca will see that you did. Wishing good things for him and you and your families.

  9. Val says:

    “I wasn’t going to allow him to witness another partnership divided”
    & here you distill the fundamental reason I’ve stuck w/my 2nd marriage (& I’m sure my hubby can relate to Atticus’s frustrations; I know in large part he thought things would get EASIER as Z got older!). A wonderful, heartrending story, Pauline. All the best to you & yours,


  10. Elizabeth says:

    You already know what my favorite sentence was. For the benefit of anyone else reading this: “If the occasion hadn’t been so solemn, I would have commissioned him for a purse.”

    I love you, Pauline.

  11. Something’s been wrong with my WP and I missed this. I can’t believe I missed this!!

    Wow Pauline. What a great story. And I’m glad it’s getting the recognition it deserves. It’ll be interesting to see how the pieces fall into place. *hugs*

  12. Wolf Pascoe says:


    I just finished this series. What a punch in the gut your writing is. Then I realized I had to go back and read all the posts in the blog to catch up. I’m just stunned and reeling, and rooting for you and Luca.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s