After a couple of years of loving life with first one and then two little sons in rural New Brunswick we were transferred to Toronto in Ontario. To move from a quiet and rural military town of only a couple of thousand people to a city of 4 million people was an awful, horrendous, culture shock of an experience for me and truly I hated moving there.
I decided to go back to college when Sean was old enough to begin Junior Kindergarten. He was little more than 3 1/2 years old at the time (having made the December 31 age cutoff for school by only one day), so he was the youngest child in the class. The cutoff date for school was December 31 in Canada. In the United States the cutoff date was September 30. Because of his birthday Sean was always the youngest child in class right up until the end of his first year of college many years later.
Even though Junior Kindergarten was only half days I worried greatly about my little boy being in such a big city, being off base and being away from me. There was a small school bus that picked up military kids in base housing and delivered them home again at the end of the three hours.
But the bus also made two other stops off base and I remember greatly worrying that my small child would sleep through his stop or get off at the wrong stop, or something else (who knew what?) would go horribly wrong. For the first few days I surreptitiously followed Sean's school bus home just to be sure that none of the horrible things that ran through my mind would happen. Just to be certain that this beautiful little boy was alright. He was mine. I loved him and I was fearful of sending him out into the world where I could not watch over him and protect him.
Sean always did get off at the wrong stop. Military housing in Toronto was a horrible and high density series of row houses that ultimately formed a huge oval, with a children's play park in the center of the oval. There was a stop at both ends of the loop. Sean's little friend Phillip lived at the top of the loop and we lived at the bottom of the loop. Try as I might I could not persuade my child to get off at the stop closest to the house. He wanted to get off at Phillip's stop, and then would begin to make his way across the center of the playground to our house on foot. By then I was juggling sitters for Chris and juggling a college schedule, and always made certain that I was home when Sean got home from school, and as I watched my beautiful little boy cross through the park I knew what would happen. He would get tired of walking. He would get cold. He would see me standing at the back door waiting for him. And then he would inevitably stand in one place in the middle of the playground and cry for me to come and get him - MAMA!!!! Sean only ever called me mama when he was very tired and very upset.
He loved to eat Spaghetti-O's while watching the Flintstones before catching the bus to school. And his favorite breakfast was soft boiled eggs. I would put them in egg cups, cut off the tops of the eggs and then cut his toast into long thin strips so that he could dip each piece into the soft yolk of his egg. The thin strips of toast were called Soldier Boys, one of the few positive things I remembered from my childhood and which I passed on to my boys. During the Christmas Pageant at Sean's small Catholic school I watched my little white haired angel with love and pride as he stood in the middle of the stage surrounded by cute little dark haired Italian children while THEIR parents also watched with love and pride, as these so young and beautiful little people sang their Christmas songs. He and his brother were my world and the love that I felt for them - the love that only a few short years before I had been so worried that I would be incapable of feeling - was sometimes overwhelming. Sean was greatly loved.
His favorite movie as a very small boy was Ghostbusters, and I played the theme music from that movie on a 45 record player over and over again for him as he laughed and jumped around the room pretending to be one of the Ghostbusters.
Sean as a toddler loved to sit on my lap as I hummed the Bonanza theme music and I tightly held onto both of his hands while I bucked him up and down on my knees, and while he (and we) pretended that he was riding a bucking bronco. I can still hear his laugh. Still see his wide open beautiful face and wonderful smile. Still feel my aching legs when I had sang the song and bounced him on my knees too many times. He never got tired of playing the Bonanza game.
Within only a few years of moving to Toronto the marriage that had quietly drifted apart became irretrievable. Our separation turned into four years of bitter custody battle, which ultimately was very hard on the boys. They bounced back and forth between my home and my husband's home. It was ugly. Lawyers. Judges. Counselors. Intermediaries. Childrens Services. I tried to protect the boys from the ugliness but it still filtered through and into their lives anyway and I battled depression and guilt. Knowing that I was the one who had initiated the divorce, and was the one who had disrupted their lives, and over those years when the boys came and went I questioned many times whether or not I should have just stayed. In hindsight I always wished that I had.
Although I knew that the boys were hearing negative things about me when they were with their father I refused to react in kind. Ultimately he was their father, and I would not say negative things about the man who had helped to create them. The boys loved both their mother and their father, and I desperately tried to hide from them the worst of the ugliness between my husband and I. Tried to hide my worry and depression about the disruptions I had caused and the worry and depression I felt when they were gone from me. I could never bring myself to say negative things about their father to Sean and Chris, not even when they were old enough to understand. Because he gave them life and because for better or for worse he was the only father they had.
It was during this period that I took Sean to see his first professional hockey game. He was about six or seven years old by that point. The game was played at Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto on a week night. The Leafs were playing the Quebec Nordiques and (of course) they beat the Nordiques handily. Sean was at his fathers' home and even though he was now at the age where he firmly believed that naps were only for babies and old people (and he was neither) I did manage to talk him into taking a nap before we went to the game.
Before the game - even before grabbing our seats - I bought both of us steaming Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate. As mother and son eagerly sat in the stands waiting for the game to start Sean squeezed his cup and the round plastic cup lid flew off and went airborne. We watched while laughing together, as the lid spun like a UFO around one person then another person then another, circling and spinning around winter-hatted heads and parka clad bodies all the way from the nose-bleed seats where we were sitting down to the Plexiglas barricade at the front of the bleachers. I followed the lid in amazement that it did not run out of steam, or did not bang into anyone and simply fall to the concrete floor. That stupid lid spun in the air all the way down to the bottom of the bleachers, and my young boy Sean laughed with glee at its unexpected journey.
When fights on the ice began (I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out) Sean quickly learned that as soon as a player threw down his gloves the fight was on. He learned who the rough enforcers were on the teams. He learned how cool it was when two players smashed into the boards, when someone was tripped, when someone scored a goal. "His team" won that night. And that game began Sean's lifelong love affair with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Sean had a Maple Leafs grooms cake at his wedding many years later. One formal multi-layered white wedding cake decorated with flowers and little bride and groom figures. And one chocolate single layer cake emblazoned with the Toronto Maple Leafs logo. I have one of his two Maple Leafs jerseys sitting in my closet in the bedroom as I write this. I asked for one of them not long before LC and I left Tennessee.
One day my husband called me on the phone and told me that he had been reposted back to New Brunswick, that he had already moved, that he had taken the boys with him and he was not bringing them back. It would be a year before I saw my two boys again.
After almost a year my lawyer was encouraging me to give it up. My husband made more money than I did, he had a live-in girlfriend who had two children the same age as the boys, the boys were now bonded with the girlfriend and step-siblings, the boys paternal grandparents lived close by. They were both settled into school at that point, settled into a home, settled with family other than me, somebody from the courts had evaluated the boys home life there and it was not found to be lacking.
As my lawyer sat across the desk from me in his office in Toronto recommending that I give up the fight I compulsively drank glasses of water trying hard not to break down in front of him. I felt disheartened and alone and abandoned and scared. They were settled. My boys were settled in New Brunswick and did not seem to be unhappy. We spoke often on the phone and they both sounded just fine. Should I just give it up? What was in the boys best interests? Should I just give up? Was I just making things worse? Should I give up? SHOULD I? I didn't know. I took my lawyers advice and walked out of his office with it, suddenly and completely uncertain about what I should do and emotionally devastated at the thought of finally losing them for good.
I missed them so much. So very much. Had missed my boys every waking moment of every single day for longer than I cared to think about. By that time I had graduated from college and was working in a horribly low paying job in my field two hours west of Toronto. I did not want to hurt them, or disrupt their lives when they had already started a new life again with their father in New Brunswick. Were they better off where they were? Were they? WERE they? The question bounced around and around in my head unanswered. I called my lawyer back and told him that I did not know when the right time was to give up the fight, but it wasn't now. He said alright.
A month later my husband and I sat in a judge's chambers in Toronto trying to battle out agreements that we could not agree on. The judge was very angry that my husband had traveled back to Toronto without bringing the boys with him so that they could see me. Together my husband and I walked out of the judges chambers and stood on the street in downtown Toronto. We stood leaning against a building wordlessly staring each other down. He was angry. Very angry. About how much money this was all costing him. I took a step closer to him, looked him square in the face and did not say anything for a moment, and then I slowly and calmly spoke. "I don't care how much money this is costing you.............And I don't care how much money this is costing me...............I'm never......ever............giving up". With that I turned and I wordlessly walked away, very afraid that I would break down crying in the middle of a busy downtown street and in front of my still-husband, That would have been unacceptable.
I guess he believed me because two weeks later my husband called me after returning home to New Brunswick. He said that he would give me sole custody of the boys if I did not ask for child support. There was not a moment of hesitation. A week later I flew the boys back to Toronto and then drove them home with me. Sometime after that (I don't even remember when) our divorce was finalized.
It was tough for a long while. I was just beginning a career and was a fast rising star in the organization that I worked for and my work schedule was erratic. More importantly Sean had difficulty both being away from his father, his step siblings, his grandparents, everything that had been his world for the past year. I was tortured with guilt and worry, but I naively believed as deeply in my heart as I could believe that the sheer force of my will and the sheer force of my love for my child would get us through.
When my angry young boy told me that he hated me, which he did many times for many many months, I calmly responded "No you don't. You love me and I love you and I will always love you". When my angry young boy told me that he wanted to go back to live with his father I told him "Tough - you live with me and that's not ever going to change".
I believed (hoped) that what Sean needed was complete love and consistent answers. At night, when the boys were safely sleeping in their beds I would stand at the entrance to their bedrooms looking at their sweet faces - their beautiful beautiful faces - knowing how deeply I loved them but in complete turmoil as to whether or not I had done the right thing. Doubt is a horrible thing. Self doubt is toxic, painful, tumultuous, and eats away at your soul and I fought self doubt all of the time.
He gave them up. He willingly gave up all rights to his own sons in return for no money. I kept reminding myself of those things. God I hoped that I had done the right thing..................
Life eventually and quietly moved on. With time my son did settle into his life with me and eventually we found our way back to each other. The next few years were filled with my moving up in the organization at work. Sean, Chris and I spent a lot of time together when we were not in school or working. Always lying beside them on the bed reading stories to them before they went to sleep. Always kisses goodnight. Always kissing whatever bedtime toy they slept with at night, which changed frequently. Always giving Eskimo kisses and butterfly kisses, and always kissing them in 10 different places on their face - their forehead, nose, chin, both ears, both eyes, both cheeks, and then finally their lips. As I went through that same routine with them every night they would gently move their head from side to side, smiling and counting the places as I gently kissed around their faces. I loved to do it and they loved me doing it, and for many years the three of us - mother and sons - went through the same rituals every night before bed.
One day in the middle of winter we all three drove to the lake. The beach was completely covered in snow, the lake was frozen, and we happily had the entire area to ourselves. Laughing like fools as we happily built snow castles instead of sand castles. Frustrated like fools when I dropped my camera in the snow and it took us 30 minutes to find it again. Walking to a petting zoo that contained young sheep and goats, surprised that it was still open in winter and spending a long time feeding them food pellets that we paid a quarter a handful for and that was dispensed from a small candy-vending machine.
I remember watching my oldest son in amazement one day as he happily played with one of his friends down in the basement of the house that I had adapted into a rec room. I watched this child transform a simple cardboard box into a boat, then a car, then a parachute, then a Beetlejuice costume, then a tunnel - moving swiftly from one toy prop to another, in a creative frenzy that was rapidly becoming a trademark of my son.
Around this same time I spent a couple of hours with Chris, sitting at the kitchen table with a random assortment of things we had gathered together in an attempt to make a homemade musical instrument for a homework project. After struggling unsuccessfully for a long while with my youngest son I called my oldest son to the table and told him what we were trying to do. "So.........that's what we have to do. Do you see anything on this table that would make a musical instrument??"
I watched my young Sean closely as he critically surveyed all that lay on the table and then evaluated his options. Wordlessly he grabbed the paper towel holder, the dry macaroni, the pieces of colored string and ribbon, the tissue paper, the stickers, pieced them all together within a few minutes to make a great looking and rattling shaker, and then carelessly tossed it down on the kitchen table and headed back to the living room to watch TV. It looked great. Better than the junk my youngest son and I had pieced together over the span of a couple of hours. Chris and I just looked at the shaker in amazement, shook our heads at each other and laughed.
It became a family tradition to watch Terminator and Terminator 2 on Christmas Day each year. They were not exactly typical Christmas movies and I don't remember how it began, but we watched those two movies back to back each Christmas morning for years. There was a rhythm to raising boys that was so different from that of raising girls, and although I had wanted a girl during my second pregnancy I had been the mother of boys for so long I did not know if I could even relate to a little girl anymore.
Life was about rambunctious and energetic and discovery and wrestling on the living room floor and digging for worms in the park and making fun of the pink stuff in the Barbie aisle of the local department stores. These were all part of life with little boys. And I loved it.
I watched my two young sons playing together in the living room one day. Chris excitedly said to Sean "I'll be Superboy". Sean replied "No I'll be Superboy - you be Superdog". "OK!! I'll be Superdog!!" And then they ran around the house wearing towels for capes and doing stupid Superboy and Superdog superhero stuff.
I clearly remember one Mothers Day morning waking up in bed to find Sean staring at me. His face was only a few inches from mine, so close that his big blue eyes were slightly out of focus. He was so close that he startled me and I sat up, instantly wondering if something was wrong. My young 9 year old boy had made me breakfast in bed. Toast and juice. In truth the toast was barely warm bread with a big glob of butter in the middle and the juice was grape Koolaide in a yellow plastic cup. But I ate the toast and drank the juice in bed, while both of my boys sat on the edge of the bed laughing and smiling and bouncing around, excited because they had done something nice for their mother on Mothers Day.
Going to yard sales was a popular Saturday morning routine. Predictably we would always return home mid-morning with a car filled with toys, and both boys had a ridiculous number of toys spread all over the house. Sean would always (as he had done ever since he was a very little boy) sleep with whatever new things he received. If he got a new toy he slept with it. If he got a new pair of shoes he slept with it. Not wanting to put his new treasures down for even a moment.
I would always check on both boys before I went to bed for the night. Not long after Sean first moved from a crib to a bed I was amused to find my very small boy sleeping soundly - while kneeling on the floor beside the edge of the bed, with his head on the bed. He was about 3 years old when I first found him sleeping like that and I still found Sean sleeping in that same kneeling/head on bed position until he was well into his teens.
For a long while as they continued to grow and thrive I was determined, in my young progressive thinking motherly way, to not let the boys play with guns. Guns were weapons of violence and of war, and I wanted neither of my precious boys to have any part of either of those things. Until I gradually became aware over time that they were eating their bologna into the shape of the Bat Signal (when their favorite movie at the time was Batman). That they were eating their toast into the shape of guns. That they were using the over sized candy canes I had decorating the front yard at Christmas for bazookas. That every stick and every comb and every hair brush and every hockey stick was being turned into a gun in their games. That GI Joe (in all his varieties and with all of his extraneous add-ons) were the favorite toys of both of my boys.
I watched as I realized that my oldest boy Sean was learning to love to draw and that he was very good at it. I watched as he drew tanks and planes and then studied my amazing child as he happily made bomb noises while drawing bombs dropping from the jet fighter and leading down to the tank. Inevitably the tank exploded in a huge and noisy explosion that I heard from my animated little boy. One day I finally realized the true answer to the question of nature vs nurture. Realized that play was their way of making sense of the world. That these were well adjusted little boys playing boy games and doing boy things. I did finally relent and purchase toy guns for my boys and they happily "played war" and "played superhero" and "played cowboys and indians".
By this time Sean's favorite TV characters were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The "Turtles" dominated our household. TMNT cartoons every afternoon after school, turtle figures and vehicles, turtle clothing, turtle posters and turtle birthday parties. Eventually turtle movies.made their appearance, and as with the rest of it, the movies were a huge hit in our household. Both of my boys (as with just about every other little boy their age that we knew) were firmly turtle fans. What was not to love about them? They were martial arts experts, had cool names, said the word "awesome" a lot and called everyone "dude", were crime fighters, had cool weapons, loved pizza, and had a wise elderly rat for their master and teacher. They loved life, loved to have fun, were on the side of good, and always came out on top without even trying:
Sean was always very afraid of doctors and particularly of needles. When he was four or five I took him to the doctor and he needed a shot. He cried hysterically at the mere mention of a needle, and when the nurse handed my little boy a stuffed teddy bear to try to calm him he angrily threw it back at her.
When he was six years old Sean slipped in the bathtub and cut his chin open. Looking at the short, but deep and open cut I knew immediately that he was going to need stitches. Leaving Chris with the neighbors I traveled with Sean to the emergency room of the local hospital, and after inspecting his chin the doctor told me what I already knew. At the mention of a needle and then stitches Sean became very scared and began to cry and struggle and tried to climb down from the edge of the emergency room bed he had been sitting on.
Nurses tried to hold my son down and he became hysterical and cried and screamed loudly enough I am sure, to be heard throughout the entire lower level of the hospital. Even with a handful of doctors and nurses in the room my young Sean still managed to struggle away from their grasp, climb off the bed and make a dash for the door. I grabbed him to stop him from making a break for it, he turned and with both hands grabbed tightly onto the rails at the bottom of the bed, scared and crying hysterically.
By that time I was crying as well, completely torn apart by the fear that my beautiful son felt, and I asked if there was any other way to numb Sean's chin aside from giving him a needle. There was a numbing cream, It was experimental. Some patients received the real cream and some received a placebo. I agreed to try it, and an hour later we all realized that Sean had received a placebo. Great. The only other option aside from giving him a numbing shot was to knock him out, and to stitch Sean up while he was sleeping. The bright red liquid was supposed to make him sleepy very quickly and those in the emergency room anticipated that within 20 minutes Sean would be sound asleep. Three hours later I was still reading stories to a very tired little boy who refused to go to sleep because he knew what would happen next.
I followed closely beside my child as he stumbled like a little drunken sailor to the bathroom and then back to his bed again, trying to keep him calm and quiet. We read story after story after story together as nurses occasionally poked their head into the room to check on him and I would shrug my shoulder and shake my head at them. Eventually he slept. Eventually he got the stitches. Eventually we made it home and I slept beside him overnight so that if he woke up I would be there. It had taken us 7 hours to get three stitches.
The next day I bought jelly beans for my little boy. Another routine that I just don't remember exactly how or when or why it got started, but at some point when he was a very little boy I began to buy jellybeans for Sean whenever he was sick. Jelly beans were his comfort food whenever he was sick or hurt and I bought them during those times right up until the day he moved away from home and off to college.
I do not remember how the topic came up but over this past Christmas I laughingly asked Sean when he was at the house for the holidays, whether he remembered eating jelly beans when he was sick as a kid. His wife Jessica laughed at the question, rolled her eyes and told me that Sean still wanted the candy whenever he was sick. I was surprised and said "Really??" Yes indeed. Jess had picked up NyQuil and jelly beans from the pharmacy many times since they had been married. I laughed when I heard that. I had no idea.
Sean worked as a paper delivery boy for a couple of years when he was still young, sharing the route with his younger brother. I smile remembering my oldest child coming home after delivering newspapers and telling me that he did not want to deliver papers anymore with Chris. When I asked him why, Sean impatiently told me that it was because Chris spent too much time petting dogs he came across along the way, and that it was taking too long to deliver all of their newspapers. I knew Chris. He dearly loved animals, and most dearly loved dogs. When Sean told me of his frustration I could very easily picture Chris stopping to pet every single dog that crossed his path, and in return could empathize with my oldest boy who just wanted to get the job done. Together we made arrangements for both boys to have their own separate paper routes, so that each could travel at their own speed..
Around that same time I caught Sean stealing money from a change jar that I kept on the dresser in my bedroom. I knew one of the local law enforcement officers and called him hoping that he may be able to come to the house and talk to Sean about the importance of trust and honesty. The office asked me if I wanted him to fill out a police report - it would not be filed of course but Sean would not know that during the visit.
He came to the house in uniform, officially identified himself to Sean and told him that I had reported money being stolen from my change jar. Did Sean know anything about it? Together they sat at the kitchen table and the officer asked Sean questions while he filled out the official (non-official) report. He was firm but friendly with his questions and Sean admitted to stealing money. When they were done the officer talked to my son about the importance of qualities such as honesty and family trust and how much Sean stealing money had hurt me. He also told Sean that he was not going to file the report (this time) because I had asked the officer not to, but I did want him to speak with Sean. When the officer left Sean cried and hugged me and told me how sorry he was and then expressed concern that he would lose his job as a paperboy because he now had a police record. I explained to my child that he did not really have a record, and that the officer had taken a lot of time with Sean because he really wanted Sean to understand that stealing was wrong and that honesty was so important. As far as I know Sean never stole money from me again.
When Sean was about 12 he wanted to babysit Chris and get paid for it, so that I could occasionally go out in the evenings (I still remember Sean sleepily kissing me goodbye before I went out one night. "You look pretty mommy"). Up until that point I had been paying outside sitters, and my boy surprised me when he told me that he thought he was old enough to do this. My condition was that he take a Red Cross Babysitter Course first. He agreed. And then one day my son was proudly earning his own money for the second time.
I did not go out often, but in the days before cell phones and computer access I always made certain that Sean had a phone number where I could be reached. I always called to check on the boys using our pre-arranged phone signal, but one night Sean called me. Worried, I hurried to a public phone after I received the message and called my boy, hoping upon hope that nothing serious was wrong. When Sean answered the phone he told me that Charlie had died. Charlie was Chris' goldfish, and Sean called me to let me know that he had used one of my small wooden jewelry boxes as a casket and together the boys had buried Charlie underneath a tree in the backyard.
Relieved I thanked Sean for letting me know what had happened to Charlie, for taking control of the situation, for solving the problem and for taking care of his little brother. Why Sean buried Charlie in the backyard instead of giving him a burial at sea I never knew.
It was around this same age that Sean started becoming more moody, started spending more time alone in his room, stopped playing with the last of his boy toys. My child was beginning to grow up and my oldest son (the one who had adored his mother) (the one who had so easily smiled and kissed and hugged) became a withdrawn, temperamental, easily angered pre-teen.......................