On Unpacking

I am currently in the process of packing for a move. It is a good move. My son and I are moving from our little apartment surrounded by college students into a house in the country, a house with a deck, a hammock, and a yard for playing. This house is surrounded by woods, and nice neighbors, and my son can have a real childhood there. We can have his friends over. We can have birthday parties there. For the past year, I feel as though my son’s childhood has been on pause. We have lived like transients. He has gone from one home, to another, to another, to another, and then, yet another. We are nearing the part of the year where he is going to have an extended stay with his father. I am faking cheeriness about this. “Are you excited?” I ask, with a big smile. “It’s going to be so much fun!” Meanwhile, my eyes are tearing up. I am not excited. I am worried. My ex-husband is not abusive to our son, but he is also not a good father. I recently bought the book, When Dad Hurts Mom: Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse. I wish I didn’t have to buy this book, but this is the life we are living, my son and I. We are in this together.

As the date looms over us where he will go to his father’s, and I will go to Idaho, my son has become more tender. He asks me, “Can I cuddle up in your bed with you? Your bed is so comfy, and I like talking to you.” This was something we used to do with his father, all three of us cuddled up in bed. Now, it is just the two of us, along with our dog Teddy. My son lays next to me with his head on my shoulder. He tells me about his day. He has become obsessed with Mother’s Day. He wants to make me breakfast. He wants to get me a present. He wants to give me surprises every day this week. He wants the day to be special for me. I find this heartbreaking because I know, that underneath all of that want, is a desire for him to ease his mother’s pain. He is maturing faster than he should have to mature. I see this every day. When I ask him for help around the house, he wants to help me. He turns off his cartoon in order to rinse the dishes while I wash. He feeds the dog before asking for his own dinner. He has none of the entitlement or selfishness that I had as a child who had two loving parents at home. I want him to be more selfish. I want that for him. I don’t want him to think of me first.

In the process of packing for the move, I’ve also had to unpack. There are boxes that I had stuffed into my closet and never opened. I am opening them now. It is a bit like sifting through rubble, so painful. Last weekend, I was so triggered by what I found that my body felt heavy. I had to crawl into bed and rest. My son crawled in next to me, not understanding what was happening, but offering comfort nonetheless.

I found this letter from my husband that I’ve been unable to throw away. He wrote it after the first time I left him. We had only been married for a year. He wrote, I was living an immoral life. I loved booze and mistreated you because of that. I was a horrible man when you met me, and I’m paying for that now. I never told you this, but I do talk to God, and I know I’ve been wrong. I’m working on forgiveness now. Don’t rush forgiving me, Honey. I need to earn it, and I want it to be right. I want our life to be perfect together.

And then this: Remember when you used to come and stay with me in my shack in the woods? I’d watch for you for hours making sure you didn’t miss the turn off of Highway 21. I remember holding you while we slept on that couch and I never felt crowded. You always fit perfectly beside me.

And this: This was how I felt the night I had to move out and sleep without you. It’s also probably how you felt about that night as well; I left you crying. I didn’t know if I could fix what I’d done to our marriage. I was so miserable, and it was my fault. I don’t blame you for what happened between us. Please Honey, if you can forgive me, please try. I don’t ever want to live without you.

And so, I forgave him. How could I not? How could I not forgive someone who wrote me such lovely words?

It was the first in a series of chances. How might things have been different if I hadn’t given him that first chance?

Because then I found my journal where I described him choking me by the neck, where I detailed the cruel things he had said to me while I gasped for air. I described these things in my journal so that I wouldn’t forget them, so that, in my memory, I wouldn’t replace his cruelty with kindness.

I also found my son’s art projects. I found first grade and kindergarten drawings of his family. He drew pictures of all of us, including both dogs, in front of our house. He no longer draws pictures of his family. Only superheroes.

I found an old planner from last year at this time. I didn’t even remember having it, yet when I opened it, every line was filled out. I was confronted with the reality of my schedule from those months in the wake of my ex-husband’s arrest. I was working 60-70 hours a week, raising our son alone, trying to get a divorce, applying to PhD programs and jobs, finding a new place to live. I coped by making to-do lists. Long, unreal to-do lists that looked unmanageable. Yet, every single item on those to-do lists was crossed off. I managed somehow.

I found my son’s first grade journal that his teacher had him keep. In it, he wrote what he was going to do on the weekend. One entry said simply this:

“I am spending this weekend with my mom. My mom will make a to-do list.”

I want to make a new to-do list, and this to-do list will have only one task, Cuddle in bed with my son.