Children bridge divorce's war zone
Canada – The Toronto Star - Living - Peter Ehrlich - Special to The Star - December 10, 2007
Peter Ehrlich’s Column - Special to The Star
Lust. Love. Betrayal. War. Redemption. Peace. Sounds like an ad for your typical television miniseries. It's not. It's my life-changing journey as a single dad. My ex and I separated and the result was a fierce custody battle. A few couples can separate amicably. We could not.
When a mother and father fight over their child, the stakes always feel exponentially extreme. Watch any nature program starring a mother bear and her cubs. Then picture yourself walking into the frame with the intention of approaching her babies. You're not walking out unscathed. That's motherhood. Unlike male bears, men are programmed to care for and defend their children as well. That's fatherhood.
And so, like lots of you, my ex and I fought – a lot. The hostility was always there. Whether on the phone or during the "handoff" we were like the two guards facing each other at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Even apart, the silence of our war was deafening. To steal a line from Apocalypse Now, my ex and I looked upon each other "with extreme prejudice". Then life threw me a magical curve. Here goes.
As per our access schedule, I went to my son's school to pick him up. (My ex was the registrar.) When I walked in, the entire staff crowded around me: "Suzanne didn't come in today for work. And she never called in sick." There was a look of deep concern in their faces.
With their words, my body caved in. I knew my ex was in serious trouble. Suzanne (not her real name) was too disciplined to not call in. It was impossible. Something was very wrong. I was stricken. There was nothing cerebral about my reaction. It was all from the gut. As Woody Allen says, "nothing worth knowing can be understood by the mind." I grabbed my son, jumped into the car, racing to her house.
I knocked. No answer. The door was unlocked, the house empty. I got on the phone and called her best friend, now nearly hysterical, "Ingrid, Suzanne is missing." She suggested I call the police and ask if an ambulance had been sent to the address. I did, and yes, Suzanne had been picked up by an ambulance and taken to Mount Sinai Hospital. Speeding there, I parked the car in the first illegal spot I saw and we ran to her room.
There she was, her eyes lighting up at the sight of our son. She'd had a gall bladder attack. I slumped in a chair, put my face in my hands and cried. A nurse came in and said to Suzanne, "See how your husband loves you." We heard the words but could not possibly acknowledge the great irony to each other. Suzanne saw my tears and silently absorbed them. The emotional benefit for me would be manifested another day.
The magic? I discovered a love for my ex. I loved Suzanne because she loved our son. Nothing else mattered. I discovered the ultimate bottom line, and by doing so, was freed from the shackles of "extreme prejudice." Since that day we have been civil toward each other, something our son loves.
It's the end of the year. Maybe it's a good time to look deep within ourselves to discover the part of our soul that understands, once you willingly have a baby with someone, there is always love – somewhere.
Peter Ehrlich's column appears every other Monday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org