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Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on my frame of mind, I get to hate this room twice a week for two hours, and three hours on Sundays, until a panel of critics decide otherwise. Everything changes of course when she skips in. Then this room I hate is pure heaven, it smells like rain in the sunshine, honeysuckle in spring, Downey fabric softener and sticky sweet cotton candy, brighter than any room I’ve stepped in since the last time I saw her face.
The room is supposed to be family friendly and “conducive to a safe therapeutic environment” or so I’ve been told. Half the toys here I recognize from when Matthew was a kid, he and Bryan are nearly 12 years younger than me. They had the same miniature army guys with plastic parachutes that made them glide into battle after you tossed them as high as humanly possible for two boys under nine. Only they really don’t. It seems funny to me now as I watch this chubby kid in the middle of the room stare at his multiple attempts as they plunged down in less than three seconds. I’m sitting by the window thinking about how f**k stupid my brothers must have looked. Why is it when we were little the army guys soared high and strong, and today it reminds me of tossing toilet paper balls into the trash can? In the far corner, under the construction paper sign “Pretend Time” is an old wooden kitchen that reminds me of the one my Grandmother painted for Hannah and me and is probably still on her screened-in porch, I haven’t been there in years so I’m not certain. This one is a dull pink and splintery, ours was white, and we kept that kitchen in pristine order, otherwise our Papa would take it out to the barn so on the next visit we had nothing to do. We’d have to do house work or pick peas, to keep us from saying how bored we were every five minutes.
Hannah was also very controlling as a child, she still is most days, so everything you touched had to be returned to its exact location before you could pick up another tea cup or plastic piece of pie. There is a plastic tool bench meant for the boys I suppose but is currently occupied by a little black girl in purple overalls. Another child who looks way too thin to me is sunk down in a bean bag chair cranking a Jack in the Box, the sound when the clown pops out for the fifteenth time is increasingly annoying.
The rest of the room falls short attempting to seem colorful and friendly, ripped coloring book, broken crayons, every game has missing pieces, most of the Barbie Dolls are naked and they trashed all the stuffed animals a few weeks ago cause they somehow ended up with lice. On the front wall as you walk past security there is long list of the do’s and don’ts’s, number 12 reads “ Under no circumstances may you add or remove anything from this facility without prior approval,” and they do mean anything, even if she’s your own flesh and blood.
This is the sixth month since I’ve been ordered to attend parenting classes as well as supervised visitation by Judge O’ f**k Harriet, reigning asshole of the District Court of Livingston County. It’s been too long according to me and not long enough according to them. I have never missed a class or a visit or a urinalysis. But you can’t undo two years of hell in six short months, I get it. I have learned a lot since February, I have nine months clean and sober, and I’m living in a recovery house with crazy women just like me. I like to think of it as a sorority for drug addicts that no one ever plans to pledge, but it saved my life, literally. Now every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday I get to see my daughter. The first three months I was clean I was only allowed one hour a week, it took what seemed like an eternity to get to how often I see her now. The time moves too quickly, which is almost always the case when you wish it wouldn’t end. It will never be enough time unless I have her home.
It’s almost 1pm so she should be getting dropped of any minute, my sister won’t even come in. She drops Haven off in the lobby and one of the many social workers walks her down to me in the family room. In the beginning Haven acted shy and anxious around me, there are no words to describe how it feels when your little girl coils away from your touch. I knew it wasn’t her fault; it was mine, and if I wanted it to be different, I’d have to prove myself. The first half a dozen visits were like that by the end of the hour she would slowly interact with me, but by the following visit it was as if she had forgotten I was safe to be around and we’d start all over. Gradually she went from nervous to cautious to curious and now just silly and comfortable. It’s harder and harder to leave her here; its physical pain, as if my insides are fighting to tear apart, maybe at least my heart can stay if my body must go. It’s overwhelming and exhausting and I don’t deserve it. But she does. I clearly don’t deserve this second chance, according to Hannah and even a few social workers, but I have worked my ass off to show my sincerity, even when my patience wears paper thin.
Before each visit I check in with Serena Walker, our case manager at Child Protective Services. She has always been hard on me, but not in a way that makes me feel bad. She says stuff like “Get your sh*t together and be you again” I keep telling her the “Me” from before, even way before I got high, was no one to wish for. Her most famous line, “If nothing changes, then nothing changes”. I’ve coughed back a few giggles when I hear other women on her case load joke about how often she says it and how it makes no sense.
I thought the same way for a while, but I’m well aware of the lesson the saying holds, and I’ve started to change, as much as I can. I might not get it right until I can change everything. Once in a while I’ll laugh before I leave her office, like today and say “ You know what Serena?” she said “What’s that Lee?” “Sometimes,” I say sweetly with a wink “if everything changes, than everything changes.” Most days she just rolls her eyes and banishes me from her office, today was different. Today she said “You might just be right about that.” Her tone made my stomach flip and I still haven’t figured out why.
Staring out the window I see Hannah’s van pull in, engine running she slides the side door open, scoops Haven from her car seat and rushes her inside. I hardly blink twice and she back in the van and off she go’s. Any minute now, as always my hands get sweaty, my heart beats faster, my shoulders stiffen , to keep from looking like a total mess, I breathe deep and slow, and try not focus on the door, the time between Hannah’s escape and Haven’s blue eyes always seems never-ending, but all at once there she is.
“ MOMEE MOMEE MOMEEEE” jumps and spins, smiles and curls. That’s my girl. I kneel to her level and let her tumble over me and push me down flat to the floor. This is an every visit game she plays; she comes at me full force to “knock me over” and I squeal, “Haven sweet Haven, why have you grown?! I thought we talked about No growing!” I love her giggle, her sweet honest answer “Mommy, I have to grow, the food makes me do it.” “Ok then,” I reply “no more good food, only cookies and ice cream and candy for you, then you won’t grow at all, you might even un-grow.”
Our conversations go on like this for the next two hours, in between lots of butterfly kisses, eye lash to eyelash breath to breath. Her skin makes my skin feel warm, my cheeks hurt by the end for laughing and smiling so hard, and my throat is usually sore from as many different voiceovers as there are characters in whatever book she chooses, today was Hansel and Gretel. We sing “You are my Sunshine” I run my fingers through her copper curls and rock her on my lap. As time gets closer and closer to goodbye I notice her body language change, she yawns and rubs her eyes, it takes all her energy too.
“ It’s time Little Button” I whisper in her ear, then she says what she always says, what I hear in my dreams night after night, “not so long Mommy,” I know she means not so soon but I always answer then same “ Always too soon Haven, never too long.” “I’ll see you in two days ok?” sadly shyly, “ok”.
The ache is back. The horrible reminder of what I’ve done. She shuffles away; all her skipping and jumping used up for me, a tiny smile, a slow wave and out the door, she’s gone. Let the shredding begin. I am required to sit with Serena for 30 minutes after each visit. I guess to give Hannah enough time to get away. I understand the concept for some situations, apparently last year an angry father followed the car his ex-wife drove with the children in the back seat to a house she had secretly rented to keep him away and he beat her to death in front of both children. Talk about insane.
I would love to beat up Hannah, and believe me there are certain times she would have earned it but Serena would never admit she said that. The one time I shoved Hannah as a kid, she cut one of my pigtails off while I was too invested in a cartoon I was watching. I hadn’t even notice until she held it by the ribbon and waved it in my face. Bitch.
Not a single thing about Hannah has changed since we shared the attic room growing up in the house my father built. She was always better than me, most people thought it, she was better in school, more polite, neater, more organized, more responsible, better behaved, more helpful, more trustworthy, more, more, more. The thing is she and I both know that’s not the truth. Everyone might think she is an angel, that I’m the bad seed. I was there when Hannah had an affair with her math teacher and needed to be treated for chlamydia, I was the one who took the blame for wrecking the station wagon, because she was hysterically screaming at the boyfriend who left the party with another girl. Yes, I may have smoked a little weed that night, which is why it was so easy to assume I was at fault, but she and I know it was her, and the only reason no one knows the real Hannah, is because I never felt the need to tell.
Don’t get me wrong, I caused a lot of trouble before I even turned thirteen, and my entire teen years colored my parents hair grey I’m sure but by college I started taking things more seriously. We all knew growing up that college was mandatory; all that mattered to me was getting out from under my father’s thumb. The only way to do that was to get a degree, and a good job, preferably a few states away.
I got pregnant with Haven at the beginning of my second year. I struggled and earned my Associates degree, but that meant very little to my parents because I wasn’t married. Very quickly I was a shame to our family again and I was met with a lot of; "how could you do this to us and when are you going to stop being so selfish. It didn’t help that at the same time, Hannah had gotten engaged, her only desire was to be a pampered wife and produce grandchildren, and she was at least doing it in the right order, and of course the obligation of college was never mentioned to Hannah again, the diamond on her finger sealed her fate. They never set any expectations on Hannah, what applied to the rest of us didn’t apply to her, I think mostly because they didn’t feel the need to worry about her. After all, Hannah was the better one.
After Haven was born, the man that helped make her possible had vanished, which was just as well because I was never very fond of him anyway. To tell the truth if I had it to do over again, he would have been my very last choice. I was ok with life. My parents did rent a small two bedroom house for Haven and me, mostly I’m sure to show good face. I still remember my father’s expression when he asked where I wanted to live and my answer was sixty miles away. I only made it about thirty, but the house was cute and the rent didn’t kill me so I was grateful. Close enough for my parents to visit, but far enough away that they’d have to call first. Everything was ok.
I started out working at a bar in our town, in the evening I paid the teenager across the street to sit with Haven until I made it home after two am. I would have preferred a day job but unfortunately in some towns, making the perfect Whiskey Sour proves more lucrative than Associates degrees. It wasn’t long before I was excepting shots from inebriated guys that swore I was the answer to their prayers. Then I started taking a shot or two before I put my apron on because technically speaking you could buy drinks while on the clock. There was always the few for the road, after of course the toast to a great night.
My co-worker Sandy, who has worked at the Broken Record bar and lounge, more bar, less lounge of course, for nearly ten years smokes a pinner joint at ever break, if I happened to be on lunch or break myself, she’d share. Sooner than I realized our breaks seemed to always start at the same time. She covered for me a lot when Haven was sick, so I’d buy some from her to say thanks, and put a little extra money in her pocket. This is what I said anyway. I told myself a lot of things to make what I did ok.
It got harder and harder to explain away when Haven was caught at the end of the intersection near the post office in nothing but a diaper and the top half of her Little Mermaid pajamas one morning. I had passed out the night before and must have left the front door open after I paid the sitter and she left. To unwind after work it was customary to drink a glass or two of wine and pop a few painkillers that someone else had been prescribed. Less major incidents had occurred leading up to this last one that changed my life, and most importantly Haven’s life. I remember waking up, which more honestly should be after coming to one morning she had cut the ears off a stuffed Easter bunny to give it a “haircut” and the time she was found sleeping on the floor in the hall closet because I never tucked her in. Once my Mother had spent close to four hundred dollars at the grocery store filling the fridge and pantry because the money I brought home was always less than half of what I made the night before, I just wasn’t good at budgeting I said.
I wasn’t good at clothes shopping either, or getting Haven’s hair trimmed, I always forgot appointments to the pediatrician and the dentist. Hannah had to physically pick us up to make sure I made the appointment so Haven received her vaccinations. I had missed two appointments already. Hannah loved to swoop in and play best Aunt ever. After she and Ed married, no matter how they tried or how many doctors they saw she wasn’t getting pregnant. I can’t tell you how many times she reminded me of how lucky I was to have such a healthy beautiful child and that some people went their whole lives without knowing the joy I took for granted every day. If she wasn’t dead on I might have shoved her again, regardless of the consequences. Hannah took over, thank God, I think now, and it shocked me how ok I was with the idea of having more time to myself. Again something I told myself to make it easier to let my baby go.
Haven stayed at Hannah’s most of the time, but I would miss her so badly I’d scream and fight for Hannah to bring her back. I remember screaming at Hannah once, nose to nose with Haven in my arms “Why don’t you have your own f**k kid and leave mine alone”. It didn’t matter what I said to her or how often, she would still come get Haven whenever I claimed it was too much to do alone. No matter what happened or how I behaved Haven was sweet to me, much sweeter than I deserved. I remember now sitting outside of Serena’s office, a video I had to watch at either the first or second parenting class, it said statically 80% of children would rather have a bad mother than no mother at all. Haven’s unending love proves the theory.
After the cop rescued Haven from the intersection, a neighbor directed him to our house and according to Serena, it took him twenty minutes to even get a coherent sentence out of me and by then I was in an ambulance headed for a stomach pump. That was only nine months ago, sometimes it feels just like yesterday, other times a decade ago. So much has happened since then. I go to recovery meetings almost every night of the week, I have a ton of friends that don’t drink or drug, most have been around much longer than me. My sponsor Catherine and I are going over ways to make my life better, how to deal without the use of drugs. Some days the thought of a cold beer or a few hits on a joint seem like the best idea, other days it still feels like an itch I can’t scratch. But today, and most days, I see my life and all I’ve done realistically and I never want to use a drug or a drink again.
Serena opens the door and I enter and sit across from her in a very routine way. There are two chairs in her office, both equally accessible, I always sit in the brown one, and the other chair is orange. I over analyze this pattern often because Serena teases that I just don’t like the color orange. Once I forced myself to sit in the orange chair and the whole room looked different and I couldn’t keep a straight thought because it bothered me so much. I never let that happened again. Serena is smiling, which isn’t all together bad, she just rarely does it with me. We have a bit of a parole officer/ parolee relationship. I do exactly as I’m told in hopes of winning back my daughter, essentially a shorter sentence, and she isn’t quite sure she trusts my motives or that I won’t re-offend.
I notice the file with my last name open wide on display. I understand immediately that this is a case review. I didn’t like the last one three months ago or the one three months before that. I’m angry at myself for not preparing answers to the thousands of possible questions she may ask. I had forgotten it was this soon, I wonder briefly how I let it slip my mind. She begins like always, asking me how I’m feeling. What changes have occurred that might promote Haven’s return? Do I feel more or less secure in my recovery than the last review? She goes over the results of each negative urinalysis, which is a waste of time because we both know if I had failed even one I would have heard about it long before sitting down for a review. She sucks the wind out of me when she asks, “When would you like for Haven to come home?” I’m just staring at her; she has never asked this question, I don’t think anyone in nine months has asked me this question. My answer of course would have always been “right now!” But her steady gaze and squared off shoulders were encouraging a slow well-formed response. She nodded towards me letting me know it was ok to answer, it was my turn now.
“I would like my daughter back in forty-five days; I’d like to spend Christmas in a new home. I’ve saved enough money for a small apartment, I can walk to most of my meetings and she’d have her own room. I’ll just need a little time to get furniture and dishes and stuff.” I can tell that I am talking a little frantically, I’m just so determined she hear my whole plan, before she decides to cut me off. The plan I have obsessively reimagined over and over again. I breathe, “What about Haven’s school?” she says. “There is a school near the apartment, so maybe waiting till winter break to transfer her would be better, she could at least come for the Christmas weekend. I don’t want to yank her out of pre-k without notice. Also there is a library and a park a few blocks away with ducks and a pond; she would be happy, and safe.” “Really, really, safe” I say again just to solidify its importance to me.
“Well,” Serena begins in a “never thought I’d say this… kind of tone, “After reviewing the case with my team members, as well as most of the other parties involved, because you have done so much,” she is saying everything in slow enunciated statements and it is killing me right now, “in such a short period of time, and because you have been honest and willing, contingent on one condition, you have been approved to start a trial period for Haven’s permanent return.” Then she just stares at me, I can tell she is weighing her words, it comes swift like a knife to the heart, “One of two things has to happen, Hannah will agree to relinquish physical custody of Haven with no issue, or we will be forced to submit a formal motion to request reinstatement of your parental rights. After that it’s up to your good friend Judge O’Harrett. He will find in favor of you or possibly Hannah, one way or the other you will have your answer.”
I know I sat in the brown chair at least twenty minutes after Selena patted my shoulders and closed the door behind her. Allowing me some time to get myself together, she said. I’d like to know what her version of a “together me” looks like. I’m just sitting here. I feel this overwhelming desire to get the hell out and stop all the thoughts boiling in my head. I feel furious at Hannah, I want to take an ad out in the paper and tattle on ever stupid crappy thing no one thinks she did. I want to tell her husband Ed that she most likely can’t have children because she was a slut in high school and picked the wrong teacher to bone. I want to call my father and scream that his perfect princess is the reason his liquor goes missing, not me, that the crash that totaled our grandfather’s car was actually her and not me. I want to prove that she is not as good as everyone thinks, not as good as she pretends to be.
Then a thought that could have knocked me on my ass if it was possible roared through my head, she is still better than me. I lost my daughter, she could have been killed, I took her for granted, and I made drugs more important than anything and anyone, even my helpless baby. Hannah never forgot to pick Haven up, or even where she dropped her off, never let her miss a meal, or feed her dry cereal for dinner because that was the only thing left in the house to eat. I just want to run. So that’s what I do.
Leaving the C.P.S office I just start walking anywhere and nowhere at the same time. It’s getting cooler, it’s close to seven in the evening and the sun has almost set. I find myself standing in front of my old bar, the Broken Record. The bar’s name makes me laugh out loud; I’m not sure I why the irony was lost on me before but seeing it now sends me over the edge. That’s pretty much my life exactly, an old used up broken record, with the same sad song no one wants to hear on continuous f**k loop.
I’m sitting at the bar, I never thought I’d come back to this place. It even feels a little friendly and warm. I missed it I think. Sandy waves but she’s busy in the kitchen and I don’t know the new girl behind the bar. Her voice is really deep “you want a drink?” she asks. I nod and say almost on auto pilot “a lemon drop and a shot of Jack.” I see her pull a mixology book out from under the counter, she has no clue what she’s doing, and I wonder for a quick second if Hal is hiring. He wasn’t the worst boss; I remember when he picked me up off the sidewalk out back where we keep the dumpsters, he dumped me in my car, covered me with his apron and took my keys until the next morning, I woke up hating life that day. Remembering that story opened a flood gate of drunken memories. One after the other they played like an old projector behind my eyes. I’m humiliated in most, arrested in a few, sick as a dog in every one, in one nasty environment or another, the bar, my dealer’s house, the back seat of a car with whoever had the best of the best that night. Stunning vibrant crystal clear visions of my life. The last frame was of Haven waving over the shoulder of my sister, crying, screaming Momeee Momee Momeeee, the last day I got high.
I feel dizzy and nauseous and afraid. The drinks are in front of me and the bartender chick is staring at me, I mumble something getting of the barstool and barely make it to the payphone in the hall stationed between both bathrooms. Its ringing and ringing, but she answers, my sponsor “Hi there! How did it go today, I was just thinking about you, how was Haven, did you enjoy your time?” She’s always so sincerely interested occasionally it feels awkward for someone to care so much. “Help.” is the first word that escapes my clenched teeth frantically followed by a long string of details that led me to “I’m standing in the Broken Record can you please come get me?”
“Lee,” she says, in the same exact tone she used to answer the phone “do me a favor would you please?” I sigh out a long yes. “Three doors down,” She says “is Auto’s dry cleaning. I dropped two blouses and a scarf there last week, if you don’t mind picking them up for me I will meet you there. I am so glad you called Lee, I completely forgot to pick them up.” One day I swear I’ll force her to teach me how she keeps the emotions from her voice. It helps to stay calm when you’re talking to a woman on the edge.
I left the bar without offering any explanation or apology for the drinks I didn’t pay for; I didn’t dare stay a second longer. The cold air outside burned my throat I gulped so much so quickly, I feel like passing out. I rest my head on the telephone pole until my legs stopped shaky and it felt safe to walk again. When Catherine pulled up, I was already outside on the curb sitting Indian style the garment bag neatly across my lap. She hugged me, she always does, and maybe for the first time I didn’t think to resist it, I stopped fighting I fell into her arms and sobbed.
Everything is perfect. The house is mostly full of secondhand finds from thrift stores or flea markets. It’s all very clean and bright. The yellow curtains in the living room are meant to let in sun, and reflect well with the multicolored rug I patched together myself from carpet remnants I found on clearance. All the furniture in this room at least is more or less the same shade of wood. I covered an old couch I haggled for at a yard sale last weekend with a beautiful flowery quilt Catherine gave me as a house warming gift. I am nervous. I’ve baked few dozen cookies and watched Maury hand out paternity results two shows in a row and called six women I routinely see at meeting to kill the time and distract me from the panic I feel.
It’s been eighty-five days since I managed to leave the Broken Record unscathed. Next week on February 3rd I will celebrate with my sponsor and others in recovery my first year clean and today, everything is perfect, today Haven is coming home.