children of divorce

Letter to editor, message to son

DW_letter_2_croppedAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 20, 2017.

The day Dad moved out of our family’s red bungalow in Providence, my mother handed me a letter written in his familiar hand.

The first line made my 9-year-old eyes well up: “Ever since you were a baby, I have marveled at how happy I was to be with you.” The second paragraph provided details I would someday understand: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” And toward the end, Dad made a request that would shape the rest of my childhood: “Continue to be good to little James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world. It’s very important to me that you be a good big brother to your little brother.”

My father had left a letter for my 12-year-old brother, Rob, too. But I doubted there was one for James — he was only 3.

My younger brother and I shared a room, and at night I would climb into his bed if the wind howled or we heard strange noises outside. At age 4 or 5, he asked me why Dad didn’t live with us, and I did my best to explain.

The question underscored how different James’ experience of the divorce was from Rob’s and mine. For us, there was a before and after; for him, there was only Dad’s absence, which became more pronounced once my father’s unpredictable Saturday visitations stopped altogether.

Rob and I managed to maintain relationships with our father as we grew older, but James, by his teenage years, had virtually no contact with him. When my younger brother enlisted in the Coast Guard right out of high school, my father, a former Marine, learned about it from me. Several months later, I gave Dad James’ boot camp graduation photo, which he framed and set by his TV. My brother’s crisp uniform and stern look made it clear he was “little James” no more.

James was assigned to the Point Charles, an 82-foot cutter stationed at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. On calls home, his stories about perilous rescues and high-speed chases made my mother proud and uneasy. She was less concerned about his boat’s security patrols just off the Florida coast prior to NASA’s space shuttle launches.

James took part in 11 shuttle liftoffs and, in January 1986, was deployed for his 12th when the Point Charles blew an engine en route to its position several miles offshore. The captain was ordered to limp on to Jacksonville, and the Point Charles was replaced by the Point Roberts for the impending launch of Challenger.

James would later say he was thankful not to have been an eyewitness to the space shuttle disintegrating in the sky.

Wreckage from the Challenger was retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean by a flotilla of Coast Guard and Navy vessels. With the Point Charles disabled, James and his fellow crew members had the solemn task of collecting debris that washed ashore.

On Feb. 5, eight days after the tragedy, The Providence Journal published reactions from its readers, one of which came from my father:

“With the media coverage attendant to the Challenger disaster, a thankless task may have gone overlooked by many Americans; namely, the sea-air rescue men and women, particularly the Coast Guard, working at the impact area off Cape Canaveral. Theirs is a useful, necessary, dangerous, lonely and, at times, distasteful mission. They do our dirty work quite well, I might add.”

My mother clipped the section from the paper and, after highlighting my father’s letter, sent it off to James. On his next call home, my brother thanked her. “Dad got it right,” he said.

Seventeen years earlier, Rob and I had gotten our letters; now James had his. It was as close to reconnecting as he and my father would come.

To this day, James keeps Dad’s letter, creased and yellowing, tucked away in a lockbox.

All I really wanted for Christmas

jw-op-ed-final

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal.

My younger brother, James, still believed in Santa Claus and I wasn’t about to tell him otherwise – not on Christmas morning. Besides, evidence of Santa’s visit to our Providence home was everywhere. The Stella D’oro cookies we had left out on the coffee table were gone, and there were gifts under the tree that hadn’t been there the night before.

James couldn’t wait to play with the toy that had been at the top of his list: Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. The two of us frantically pushed on our plastic joystick controls, unleashing uppercuts in hopes of disengaging the opposing palooka’s head from his shoulders. Boxing was big in December 1971. Nine months earlier, Joe Frazier had defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown. I had wanted Ali to win because my father was rooting for him. Dad had tried to explain to me why Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and opposed the Vietnam War, but I didn’t really understand. I just knew Dad was for Ali, so I was, too.

My older brother, Rob, was thrilled with his new Panasonic cassette player and radio. We marveled at how it could record songs from our favorite pop music stations without picking up any room noise. After the breakup of the Beatles, we were always searching for new bands to listen to. I liked Badfinger and was pleased on Christmas morning when a present of telltale thinness turned out to be their latest LP. Still, I hoped rumors of a Fab Four reunion would someday come true.

“Go get dressed, boys,” my mother called out from the kitchen. “Your father will be here soon.”

It was the third Christmas since our parents had separated, and this time seemed easier. When my father moved out, I didn’t want anyone to know.

He left notes for my brothers and me, and I swallowed hard as I read mine: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” By the end, I was wiping my eyes: “Say your prayers, keep your room neat, and be a good boy. Mommy and I love you very much.” I hid the note in my sock drawer.

My father arrived with two large shopping bags filled with gifts. He and my mother exchanged polite hellos without making eye contact. I had never heard them argue or speak badly of one another, either before or after the separation.

The five of us gathered in the living room by the glowing tree, and Dad passed out presents: a microscope for Rob, a basketball board game for me, a Hot Wheels race track for James. Then it was our turn: Rob handed our father a footstool he had made in his junior-high woodworking class, and James and I gave him the striped blue tie our mother had helped us pick out at Midland Mall.

“What’s in the other bag?” Rob asked.

“That’s for you, Norma,” my father said, looking at my mother.

“Oh,” she said, surprised. Rob and I exchanged glances. This was a first since the split.

My dad lifted an old kerosene lantern from the bag and placed it carefully on the coffee table. The lamp’s metal had a blue-green patina, and a red bow was tied around the worn handle. My father said he had found it in South County. My mom loved antiques.

“Why, thank you, Donald,” she said softly. “How sweet of you.”

After my father left, I was happy to see Mom give the lantern a prominent place atop a bookshelf in the living room. I wanted to believe they still had affection for one another. Wasn’t the lantern proof of that?

The Beatles never reunited; neither did my parents. While a John Lennon lyric had told us “all you need is love,” I’d eventually come to understand that sometimes it’s more complicated than that.

 

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