Wednesday, August 25, 2004

PART 37 - Swiss Miss

Believe it or not, I haven't come up with a relevant song for this post yet. I'll keep thinking.

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I truly had a "swiss cheese" relationship with Don. That is to say, portions of it were so solid, so strong, and other areas were just missing altogether.

The fact that he had another home, other commitments, children, an ex-wife, and financial problems really didn't affect me directly. Well, ok, they affected my wallet when I wanted to go out for dinner or a movie, but other than that, he just simply went away and did what he had to do, returned to me when he had gotten things under control, and we picked up where we left off.
I am going to put this in writing, even through it is shameful and embarasses me to say so: I could not stand his children.

Don had 3 children. At that time, his daughters were 13 and 11. His son was 8. At first, I saw his children at his mother's house twice a month when he had visitation. His mother's house was a step up from my ex mother-in-law's, but it was still a little dumpy concrete block house filled with cheap, 1970's crappy furniture, extra-large, fading, reddish Walmart portraits of each child on every available inch of wall space, and every piece of cheesy "collectible" crap that could be ordered from Fingerhut. We would spend Saturday at his mother's with the kids, and drive back toward Atlanta early that evening. By the time we left, I was usually ready to jump out the window.

I know it is a horrible thing to say, and no one was more shocked than I was to realize that I couldn't stand spending time with these kids. Me - a foster parent, one that loved all kids. What was it about them that grated on my nerves almost from the first moment that I met them?

I knew precious little about Don's ex wife, but being around her children filled in alot of the missing information. Conversations about her were rare, but Don had told me that she was a silly, spoiled, not terribly bright, manipulative person.

He had worked in the carpet mills when they married and he began to work weekends with her father, a brick and stone mason. He was making good money and even when the babies started coming, his main job provided all the benefits and a decent salary, and his side work provided all the "mad money." To hear him tell it, life was good.

I saw pictures of him and the girls from that time. He looked happy, and the girls were sweet, cute little babies. He would reminesce about how he loved to play with them, feed them, and how easy they had been to care for. He worked second shift so that he could be home during the day when the girls were active - his wife stayed home full time back then.

He was thrilled when he learned that they were expecting a 3rd child, and even more thrilled to learn that this time, it was a boy. His excitement was tempered when the two of them received some troubling news from the obstetrician: this pregnancy was different from the others, and he wanted to run some tests. Once the results came back in, the doctor confirmed his initial suspicions - the child had spina bifida, or "open spine", and would likely be born severely handicapped. Don and his wife both adamently refused to entertain any conversations about terminating the pregnancy. The months that followed were stressful and excruciating, and when his son was finally born, he was just as the doctors predicted - his spine was exposed, and he seemed to be paralyzed from the waist down.

The years that followed his birth went from bad to worse: Don got laid off, bills began to mount, tension rose, the boy demanded a tremendous amount of energy and care, they grew apart, she had an affair, they divorced, she got the kids and a support order, and married her boyfriend. Don lost all incentive to work, and that was just about when Angie met him.

When I saw his son, he was in a wheelchair, a sporty black and purple one with a tall flag mounted on the back. When it suited him, he would tumble out of the chair and scamper across the floor with his hands, dragging his small legs behind him. He was quite agile, and very boisterous. Despite his obvious handicaps and challenges; as hard as I tried I could not summon any warm feelings for this kid. I was infinitely sorry about his handicap. Paralysis aside, the kid was a pain in the ass.

His sisters were equally irritating. Neither of them had any kind of handicap, they were just abysmally dim, whiney, shockingly unattractive, and their baby talk and silliness drove me crazy. They seemed absolutely stupid and helpless.

When they weren't begging to be taken to McDonald's or whining about wanting toys, all three of the kids would look at you with a completely moronic blank look: their mouths hanging open, eyes at half mast. It was hard to see Don in any of them, and nothing about them was endearing.
I did try, I swear it. I would try to engage the girls in conversation about school, or find out what their interests were, but they generally reverted back to inane conversations about the latest plot twist on a television show. The scary part was, the girls talked about these shows as though the characters were real, very real, and an integral part of their lives. They would have heated arguments about which tv boy was their boyfriend, often coming to blows over the disagreement. They would claim to be this or that girl off their favorite show, and would refuse to answer to their given names for stretches of time. They spent inordinate amounts of time singing (oh, God help me, the tuneless singing) pop songs, insisting that I be their audience for their "shows". This was way beyond the typical girlhood teenie bopper crush - this bordered on hysteria and a complete disconnect with reality.

The boy was much the same, except his friends of choice were all superhuman and robotic. Hours and hours of being chased by him and his robot friends scrambled my brain, and any attempt to divert his attention to something else resulted in howls of dismay and temper tantrums.

Don's mother seemed to be blissfully unaware of her grandchildren's shortcomings and eccentricities; she loved them dearly and smiled warmly at all of their antics. I had never been around stupider, crazier children in my life. Secretly, I was convinced that they were retarded, all three of them. Don assured me that they were all just like his ex: dreamy, out of touch with reality, silly, and spoiled. Their lives seemd to be an endless pursuit of McDonald's Happy Meals, television friends, toys, and endless whining. Just the way he coddled me, Don coddled his kids, accepting them at face value, being completely content with them exactly as they were, with no expectation of anything thrust upon them.

I beat myself up for a long time about feeling this way. I always treated the kids with kindness and I always tucked away small gifts for them, which delighted them to no end. The kids were blissfully unaware of my disdain; as a matter of fact, they were tickled pink whenever we had the chance to spend time together.

I was able to endure this for the first few months we were together, then, as kindly as I could, I told Don that I couldn't accompany him for weekend visits any longer. I told him I needed rest and time to tend my own house and see my own family, but actually, I just couldn't bear to be around his kids anymore.

Maybe I resented them because so MUCH more had been expected of me at their age. Maybe I was jealous of Don's time; I still seemed to be so emotionally starved that after months together, my need for affection and reasurance was STILL not satiated. But I think the biggest reason was that I could not tolerate their stupidity. My family was shitty in many ways, but each of us was held to high intellectual and academic standards. Being dumb was simply not acceptable.

As much as I loved and needed Don, I couldn't blend my life with his. We fell into a familiar pattern, Don and I, one that I recognized immediately. We spent time together to the exclusion of all others, and when we were apart, our lives were our own, and our relationship was put on ice and resurrected over and over again. I had seen my mother live this way for years, and I had learned the ropes when I was back in college and trying to sustain my relationship with my ex.

It's funny, I never have been able to stand swiss cheese, either.

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