The first chapter of robert pikula’s non-fiction book, our children come first.
Abby, a slight brunette girl of ten years sat on the princess canopy bed in Sarah’s room. Sarah has been her best friend for the four years since Abby moved into the house next door with her father, Jimmy, four years ago. Sarah has lived in the same house for most of her life. You can see this in the comfort of her surroundings, the way she knows where everything is without looking, because that is the way it has always been. This is the same with the other neighbor across the street, Samantha and her kids. Abby has had no such luxury. Over the past few years she has enjoyed a little of normalcy, but she has kept something of that look in her eyes that speaks of helpless anticipation of chaos. Although that look has lessened over time, it now threatens to overwhelm her again as her widening eyes threaten to overwhelm her face.
Abby had stayed the night with Samantha and her kids the night before, doing perfectly normal little girl things. Abby’s father walked her across the street with her the night before. He had given Abby a hug and said, I’ll see you in the morning. As she ran to the girls she saw her dad giving Samantha a hug. Samantha thought the hug seemed a little off, but couldn’t place it. The girls had played dress up and discussed what life would be like for them as teenagers. They fell asleep with drawn on beauty marks smearing against the pillow and small painted toes sticking out of their sleeping bags in the living room, the television casting a kaleidoscope of light on their faces. The next morning, as Abby was saying her goodbye’s she notice through the window Sarah was going to Abby’s home, so she darted over to her to see what she was doing. The two girls giggled and Sarah asks, “would it be alright if I come over while my mom goes to work?” “Sure let’s ask my dad.” As they ran to the door Abby remembered she forgot her key, so they knocked, no answer. After knocking a few more times and rigging the doorbell, they decide to run up the stairs to the neighbor to get her extra key. The key opened the back door that entered the kitchen.
They had expected to find her father still sleeping on the couch with the television on, as had been his habit since his back started hurting. However, when they entered the back door, the kitchen greeted them with an eerie empty silence. They noticed the coffee should have been brewing, but it was not. Abby thought that maybe her father was feeling better, and had actually made it to bed. She thought that if that were the case, he would certainly sleep in as long as possible. Although Abby wanted her father to get some rest, as everyone was always saying he needed to, she had missed him the night before, and was eager to see him. She ran down the hall to his bedroom and knocked on the door. There was no reply. She knocked a little harder, knowing that sometimes his pain pills made him sleep very soundly. The door was not quite latched, so this time the force of her knocking helped the door open just a crack. She could see her father kneeling at the side of his bed, as if he were praying.
“Daddy?” Abby asked tentatively, knowing something was wrong but not sure what. She pushed the door open the rest of the way, but her father did not turn at the noise. Daddy wake up, wake up. She approached him, stood by him, and looked at his open, unblinking eyes. She then touched one of his clasped hands. The cold had startled her and she screamed.
1 COURTING DISASTER
Twenty three years ago, on a warm autumn day, I was out playing basketball with a friend at the local university’s court. The leaves were crunching beneath our feet as I entered the gym and I was dripping sweat. I saw a couple of cute girls watching us, and this one in particular caught my eye. She was about my height, and had this milky smooth skin, light blond hair and long legs. She was the kind of girl every guy wanted at his side. When I saw her break away from the group of girls she was with to get a drink of water from the fountain, I took my chance. I ran over to the water fountain and asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?” She flipped her hair as her head bobbed up from the fountain. The effect was like a kick in the chest she was so pretty. She didn’t answer, but smiled.
“Do you want one?” I asked, feeling like I was walking on clouds. I usually was not that gutsy with women. But her beauty was intoxicating and supplied me with all the courage of a few beers. She still did not answer my question, but it was, at least, a good ice breaker since we began talking. We introduced ourselves; I asked her if she went to the university. She said, “No, I started working right out of high school.” She told me that she was staying in town since her family kicked her out because she used to be kind of wild, but a family friend was helping her get on her feet. Her goal was to get her own place to live within six months. Being young, naïve, and quickly approaching puppy love, it never occurred to me to question what she was saying. Her friends motioned to her that they were leaving. So she jotted down her number on my hand, and then left with them.
The friend I had been playing basketball with was also my roommate, Jerry. He saw that I was done talking to the girl and ran up to me.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“That was Linda.” He would come to hate that name, and much later, so would I. I went home and called Linda that night. We talked for hours and met up for coffee the next day. Soon, we were spending all of our time together. It was great at the time; she was the second serious girlfriend I had ever had. I had dated before, but never saw the girls more than a few times. Jerry tried to warn me that something was not right about Linda, that some of what she said did not add up. But, I just thought he was jealous.
The family friend she was staying with was a man twice our age with a son a little younger than us, in high school. I thought I could be a good role model for the boy, Steve. He hung out with some unsavory types, so I would let him tag along with Linda and me when we would go out to keep him away from his usual friends. After a few weeks of Steve coming with us to the movies every week, I guess he got to liking me, because he tried to warn me. Again, I would not hear a negative word about Linda, but now I suspect everything everyone said to me at the time was true.
Anyway, I went to pick them both up for a movie one day and Linda was still in the shower. Steve told me that he thought Linda was having a sexual relationship with his father. I thought he was jealous and lying, as Linda had told me that Steve had a crush on her. So I figured he thought that if I left Linda, he would have a chance with her. I didn’t even confront Linda about it. I just stopped letting Steve tag along with us. It became a moot point as a couple of weeks later, Linda and I decided that since we were already together so much, I should get us a place to live together. At the time, I thought it was a mutual decision, but looking back I see how she pushed me into it.
I was not in a lease with Jerry, but more just renting a room. So I told him of my intentions and though he disapproved and told me I’d regret it, he lined up a new roommate. It was a month later that Linda and I moved into our very own apartment. I had been having mixed feelings about Linda, but concluded that when we lived together, there would be no one to try to come between us like Jerry and Steve had attempted. But things did not get better. We started fighting as I began to catch her in her various lies. Of course, I did not catch her at the big lies or I would have left her. It was the small, insignificant lies where I was angrier about her lying at all than I was mad for what she lied about. It was like Linda did not know how to tell the truth.
Several months had passed before I found out one of her big lies, and at that point the circumstances of the lie would not let me leave with a clear conscience. She had told me that her boyfriend had beaten her in the past when she was pregnant, and that she had miscarried and could not get pregnant again. But I was to find out different. She could not even tell me in a nice, calm way either. I came home from work one evening and asked about dinner. She snapped at me that she did not exist to cook me dinner and take care of me. Now I was not one of those guys who thought that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. But I did think that if I was working to support her, and she wasn’t even trying to get a job, the least she could do was keep the place looking nice and make dinner for us on the days that I worked. Apparently she did not agree, she told me she was sick of taking care of me, that I was like a child, and then she started crying, just hysterical sobbing.
I went to comfort her and gave her a hug. Like one of those all too common moments where the man thinks he knows what the fight was about, but don’t, I tried to fix the problem by saying, “Okay, I’ll order pizza.” Linda started screaming at me, pounding on my chest and arms with her fists,
“I’m pregnant you idiot, you child! Now I’m going to have two children to take care of!” This is what I am talking about when I say Linda is mentally abusive. If she’s upset about anything, even if it has nothing to do with you, she will say the nastiest thing she can think of just to hurt you. Eventually, she calmed down and we were able to talk it out. I decided to tell my parents, thinking they, at least, would be excited at the prospect of having a grandchild. They weren’t especially excited as we were not married, but they said if we got married they would do everything they could to help. So we set the date for July, 1990, three months from then. We talked to the landlord and explained that we needed a bigger place because we were expecting a baby. He let us out of the lease and we got a trailer.
The wedding and pregnancy were a blur of constant arguing. Linda picked most of the fights, except the daily one I would start to try to get her to stop smoking cigarettes and marijuana during the pregnancy. Finally when she was six months pregnant, she cut down on the smoking. Some of the times were good, like going to the sonograms and finding out that I would be having a little girl, and my father coming over during the weekends and helping me remodel and decorate a bedroom for her. I thought I loved Linda, but looking back on it, I think it was just this infectious love I felt for my daughter, even before she was born, spreading to Linda because she would be her mother.
The following November, I was the proud father of Juliana Marie. I guess I thought the responsibility of a child would force Linda to grow up and be responsible, I knew that was what it would do to me. But I was wrong. We had Julie home one night and Linda refused to take care of her the next morning. I thought, we are young, and this woman had just given birth. She was tired. So I woke up when Julie cried, fed her, changed her diapers, rocked her to sleep, and cared for her before work. I let Linda sleep. After a few weeks of the same, it became apparent that this would continue to be the routine.
Then Linda would be too upset to feed Julie or cook in the evening. So I would wake up two hours before work to care for Julie, then work all day, come home, and cook dinner for Linda and myself and feed and care for Julie. I would wake up and care for Julie at night when she would wake up crying. At first Linda just sulked on the couch, watching television and chain smoking while I would do this. Then I started coming home to a house full of Linda’s friends, hanging out and smoking marijuana all day while I was at work. They would clear out when I got home and I was left alone to care for my daughter. One day she actually called me at work telling me I had to come home to change Julie’s diaper.
It was like being a single parent with none of the benefits, like not having a wife to provide for or fight with. The situation became explosive. I told her if she was not going to care for our child and she wasn’t going to contribute financially, I didn’t see what good she was to either Julie or me. Rather than choose to care for Julie, she decided to get a job. That was okay with me; at least if she could contribute financially, I could work less and have more time to take care of Julie. Linda reasoned that everything would be okay if she got a job because she was just depressed from being cooped up in the house all of the time. I did not bring up that she went out with her friends every night, I just wanted some change and hoped her getting a job would bring it.
She got a job at a fast food place and her first day she was to drop our daughter off at her sister’s before work. I went to pick Julie up after I got off of work and found that she had not left any formula or diapers. She did this so often that her sister refused to baby sit. Her kids were older and she neither had diapers and formula in the trailer nor could she afford to buy them. So Linda started taking Julie to a woman who ran a daycare out of her home. That ended after a month. Linda told me it was because the woman had too many babies to care for, but I suspected it was because of something Linda did.
I started working some weekends to make ends meet. I was new to my field and struggling to get paid enough. Linda quit her fast food job and started cleaning houses for a guy she said she met at work. But she would not let me meet him. I soon found out that this guy also has a couple of sons our age that she had been spending time with. I started to think she was cheating on me. I dropped hints, but she insisted they only worked together. But soon she was not coming home until after 9:00 or 10:00 at night on a regular basis, sometimes not until after midnight. She would try to tell me they had been working. But I did not know of anyone who would want their house cleaners to come at night. I would picture her with them, laughing about how stupid I was to believe that she was cleaning houses until late in the night. I wasn’t stupid; I was just tired of arguing and trying to focus on my daughter.
On top of this, her job was not alleviating the financial burden on me. She never bought any groceries or gave me any money for the bills, and soon she was asking me for money. Sometimes she would leave the trailer before I got home from work and take Julie with her. One day she called to say she was going out with her friends after work, but I found out she was at the beach with a bunch of guys.
I decided to talk to a lawyer. He came recommended by several people, and I could not find a client of his that had not got what they wanted. I told George M. that I wanted to get a divorce, but was concerned that my daughter would end up with Linda. He told me that the way it was, that I was right and it was very difficult for fathers to get custody. He told me that I had to be absolutely certain this was what I wanted as it would mean a long battle in court. After talking to him, and learning how expensive his fees were, I was not at all sure of myself.
Meanwhile my father, who had been the one who demanded we get married, had wised up and realized that Linda was not a good wife or mother. He also talked to some lawyers. He stumbled across one who had been saying the same thing all the others said. After listening to my father go on and on about some of Linda’s behavior, he asked what her maiden name was. My father told him, and Martin nodded and said, “Bring your son to me. We will win easily.”
The straw that broke the camel’s back was one night in particular. My wife stayed out late with the one car we had. She did not bother to call to check in with me. Julie was five months old at the time and getting increasingly sick as the night wore on with a rising fever and had trouble breathing. I wanted to take her with me to the all night pharmacy to see if the pharmacist would recommend some medicine or tell me I should take her to the doctor. I tried to call her at work, but no one answered. So I started calling the bars she frequented, but if she was there, she told them to tell me she was not. The last call I made that night was to my parents. I asked them if I could move back in with them and bring Julie. They were very understanding and said of course I could. I waited until morning, and then got ready for work in case she did come home in time for me to go. It wasn’t until seven in the morning that Linda showed up, and by that time, I was packing.
“What the hell are you doing?” She asked.
“I’m taking Julie and moving back with my parents.” I said, as calmly as I could. She went nuts, completely disregarding the fact that it was past time for me to be at work and she had only just got home with the car. She yelled, “You are not going anywhere. You are not taking my daughter away from me!” She stomped around the trailer, cussing at me, bringing up everything she thought I ever did wrong. She began to throw whatever she could reach at me. I had no idea how to calm her down. I called one of her few responsible friends, a woman who lived next door to her parents. I got Linda to talk to her, and then started changing Julie’s diaper. I had got as far as getting the new diaper on when Linda gave the phone back to me. The woman began talking to me about calming down and assessing whether the situation was really that bad. Linda scooped up Julie without dressing her and took her into her room and shut the door behind her. Linda’s friend almost had me convinced to stay a few more days at least to try to work things out when I heard a crash and breaking glass coming from my daughter’s room.
I dropped the phone and ran to Julie’s room to find that Linda had kicked out the window and jumped out of it with Julie, still only in her diaper, sick, in the cold. I ran outside and cut her off before she could get in the car. She started running around the car saying she was leaving and taking Julie with her. I talked her into coming back into the trailer. She sat on the couch and refused to give me Julie. We were yelling at each other. All I wanted was for her to give me Julie; I explained that she was sick. I begged her to give me Julie so I could take her to a doctor, or at least get her dressed. I told Linda she could watch me leave all of my stuff at the trailer so she could be sure I would come back. She still refused. I had all of the fear of a new parent coursing through me, but was still trying to stay in control of my emotions. I told her she could come with if she let me drive and I could be sure she wouldn’t take off with Julie. Before she could answer, there was a knock on the door. It was two police officers, and as I opened the door, Linda screamed, “My baby’s sick and he won’t let me take her to the hospital!” One of the officers asked me to step outside to talk with him while the other went in the trailer to talk to Linda. My account of the story was as written here. Linda told the officer that I had pushed her while she was holding Julie and knocked both of them to the ground. She stated that she had been the one trying to take Julie to the hospital, and I tried to prevent her from leaving. The officers let her take our daughter in my car and leave the trailer. I tried to explain the situation as best I could and stated my intent to divorce. The police said that because there was no evidence of me hitting or pushing Linda, I was free to go, but they advised me to clear out of the trailer as soon as possible.