By Holly McNeill
I lost my children in the spring of 2011. Though there were other restarts in my life, none would be as significant as this one.
After work on a July evening, like all evenings since mid-March, I would drive the six miles back to Penrod Lane. There, I stayed alone in the house I bought especially for the boys. It sat in the St. Anthony school district, one of the finest the Minneapolis metro area had to offer. But that didn’t matter anymore. They weren’t even speaking to me.
The previous spring had marked the end of an eight-year crusade for my sons, then ages 13 and 15. I had won many battles over that time, but it didn’t appear as though I had won the war.
Work had kept me occupied since they left. Preparing my team for our first overseas trip to Cairo, my career had always been there for me. Our firm, one of the largest architectural practices in the country, was hired to do the interior planning for a large hospital complex in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. I was the project manager. Still, I could only hide in my work for so long.
On the home front, it was time to face the change. I put the house up for sale the month before. Lately, I had been spending my evenings boxing up old family memories and getting ready for the yearly neighborhood garage sale. That year, it conveniently occurred when I was downsizing significantly, from a family of three to a family of one; removing all the things from my home that, as an early empty nester, I no longer needed.
I spent hours in agonizing debate clearing out the boys’ closets and going through their youthful treasures. When I had moved back to Minnesota with them, five years before, they brought along all of their childhood effects. Yet, when they went to live with their father, they left everything behind. Now it was up to me to decide what to keep and what to let go. What a struggle it was to put a 50-cent or a dollar price tag on items that, to me, seemed priceless and carried so many memories.
“You did it right,” my father would often tell me. “You were right to stick with it, to fight for those boys.”
It is so amazing to me how life keeps sending you the same lessons over and over again until you learn what you are meant to learn. This time, it was my turn to be alienated. I thought of my father and how he must have felt when we were small. Dad had kept our beds made and ready for us, year after year, hoping for reconciliation.
You see, it was never a matter of whether or not I would lose the boys. It was always a question of how long I could hold onto them – how long I could be a part of their lives. In the beginning, my ex-husband dictated my time with the children as an evening a week and alternating weekends. Damn, so young back then, five and seven, they were innocent, full of life and had no idea what was coming. But I did. I insisted on equal time. Clark refused.
This initiated the first custody battle, which ensued for over six months during the divorce itself. Appointed by the judge for the court-ordered child custody evaluation, we met tirelessly with Dr. Janz. A levelheaded man, he always wore a suit and donned a bald hairstyle – even before it was popular. He and his colleagues administered inkblot and IQ tests, psychological evaluations and interviews.
Towards the end of the process, the evaluator said, “Well, you are both good parents, but one of you got an A, and one of you got a C.”
His statement sent my anxiety reeling. I simply couldn’t afford to be the one who got the C; the risk was too high. I asked Dr. Janz to wait on publishing his report to the court and requested a final meeting with him and my estranged husband to try, once again, to agree on 50/50. And meet we did. After a long conversation about split weekend and holidays, it appeared promising.
“Well,” commented the evaluator, “it sounds like we are actually getting there.”
“Are we, Clark?” I asked, turning to my soon-to-be-ex-husband. “Are we talking about 50/50?”
Clark was angry from the onset of the divorce. I knew that. Perhaps if I wouldn’t have bolted so quickly from our marriage things might have been different – maybe. The crazy part is, without that fatal blow that took down our kingdom, I may have never woken up. Certainly, I wouldn’t have gotten this far.
“Maybe someday I will give you 50/50,” Clark replied, so sure he had been the one who got the A.
With that, the meeting ended. There was nothing left to do but wait for Dr. Janz to decide who got custody. Waiting was sheer hell. Not because I was scared to be alone or that it would mean seeing the children less. I was afraid because I knew my alienation from the boys was a real possibility. From experience, I can tell you that alienation to a young child means parental abandonment, pure and simple. I knew full well what this type of targeted manipulation did for a young child’s sense of belonging, self-esteem, and confidence.
I couldn’t let that happen again. I wouldn’t allow them to sustain that kind of crushing blow. Yet, without the A, I would be powerless to help them navigate what was to come. Without the A, history would repeat itself.
The thought that terrified me was that I was equally responsible for creating this situation.
How the hell did I get back here?
At the time, I had little compassion for myself. I held no regard for my lost innocence or wounds of my youth. I didn’t understand how savagely I had been treating myself nor how I tried to bury whatever ailed me by covering up my shame. Still, we all make choices. And the decisions I made got me right back here – to where I was as a child. Only, this time, I was the parent.
A couple of weeks later I got a message from my attorney’s office, “The custody
evaluation has arrived, and your copy is waiting here for you.”
I couldn’t have gotten to her office faster to pick up the report. Nervously, I sat in my car for a while just staring at the envelope. The evaluator’s full report was 68 pages long. Dr. Janz had filled it with all kinds of details about Clark, the children, and myself: our personalities, our strengths, our weakness, careers, intelligence, schooling, the events of our lives, and what caused the divorce itself. But all that would have to wait. I was looking for one thing and one thing only. There, on the bottom of page 16, I found it. The evaluator had pulled the trigger.
I got the A.
A feeling of relief fell over me. So grateful, I sat and cried. Victory – the chance to make this right – was won that day. Only, if we were indeed rehashing the past, I knew the real war had yet to begin. This decision from the court would send Clark into a dark place and our lives into peril.
The first battle was the most intense, but many others ensued over the years. The boys were consistently under pressure to express their disdain for me, and their desire to live with their father. It was horrible. Worse still, I had zero resolve to deal with my own life crashing down. How was I to protect two young boys who found themselves smack dab in the middle of the wreckage?
But these were my boys. I stayed in it. I had to. My concept of what love even was back then was pretty messed up. Still, I knew one thing for sure; I loved my children with all of my heart. I could see the conflict and turmoil in their eyes. I wasn’t about to give up on them.
“Excuse me, how much do you want for this small tricycle?”
The sale came so quickly. This woman’s inquiry took me by surprise. She just looked at me for an answer. I recalled the times the boys would play on the small trike. Hell, we bought it, ourselves, second hand.
After a few moments of awkward silence, I softly answered, “I’m sorry, but that tricycle is not for sale.”
Yes, I thought, this garage sale, scratched up yellow plastic trike with orange tassels, I am keeping.
Amy, one of my dearest and oldest friends, with her mother, Paulette, had agreed to help me with the sale that day. Amy was a great coach, encouraging me to take a picture of an item, tag it, and move on. We set up some lawn chairs in the driveway as I watched their childhood effects disappear – the ones I could part with anyway.
“Amy thinks you should rent out your house and move in with her,” Paulette stated out of the blue. “That would be great for both of you.”
Ever since her sister moved out, the loft in Amy’s home was open. Both Paulette and Amy had previously mentioned the prospect of me moving in. I told them I had been considering it. I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do after the sale of the house, if it sold at all.
“The boys. Have you heard from them?” Amy asked, seeing the pain on my face. Family and friends asked me this question often. The answer was always the same – no. I hadn’t heard from them, and I didn’t expect they would ever be back to live with me. But, I did hold out hope for our relationship. In my heart, I knew they knew I loved them. History did not repeat itself, not entirely anyway. With all my dedication – baseball games, home cooked meals, late night talks, unicycle parades, road trips, and family outings – I knew they knew.
Lightheartedly, but sternly, Paulette would continue her line of questioning. But it was ok. I needed it, I suppose. Besides, she was like a mother to me.
So why wouldn’t you move in with Amy? – Do you like living here on your own? – Do the boys really expect you to sit here month after month, hoping they will visit?
“Mom, stop.” Amy reeled her back in, “How long has it been Holly? Four months?”
I nodded yes. That fateful March would mark the end of the eight-year war when my younger son, Zac, came to me and announced, “Mom, I am going on vacation with Dad, and I am not coming back. I am going to live with him.”
Damn, this wouldn’t be the first time something like this had happened. Every incident in this tug-of-war represented another slip of the rope from my calloused hands. I feared if I let go too soon, the boys would forget me. They would feel that I had abandoned them when that was the last thing I ever intended to do.
I explained to Zac that it doesn’t work that way. He just looked at me. I tried to contact Clark to find out what was going on. He didn’t return my emails or phone calls. Hanging my head in despair, I found myself feeling defeated and alone.
I knew this could eventually happen. I had ‘won’ the custody battles; I had gotten the ‘A’. But there was always the possibility when the boys got older they would go live with their father. I checked it out with experts, as I wanted to do the right thing. They told me that unless their father was completely unstable, it was better for them to have a relationship with him, then no relationship at all. I understood that they would eventually leave, and I would be alone.
The previous fall, having turned 15, my older son, Nate, went to live a majority of the time with his Dad. Not wanting to separate the boys for too long, I agreed to let my younger son go that coming fall. I was okay with that. It was the way it all went down that was so unsettling. I was trying to get Zac help in school before he went. More than once he had been identified as having attention issues. He needed to get some assistance put in place.
That was not to be.
Even at his young age, Zac had tried to stay neutral over the course of the war. In truth, he didn’t want to leave his home and his friends in St. Anthony. He was happy there. But, at the moment of his announcement, it felt like three against one. All I could do was hope it wasn’t true. Later that week, I received a phone call from the school.
“Hello, this is Mrs. Donahue, “ said the vice-principal. “I wanted to call and let you know that Zac has been saying goodbye to all of his friends. It’s very strange. He is telling his teachers he will not be returning.”
Her words were just a confirmation. From experience, I could see what was to come. Armed on my side of the rope with only my resolve, I had been losing ground for a while now.
This event would be the finishing blow.
Have I been able to hold on long enough?
When spring vacation came, Zac left with his father and, as he said, did not return. I, once again, contacted my attorney only to find out it would be a complicated process and battle in civil court to get him back. In the meantime, Clark was keeping him out of school where he was falling further and further behind. I was torn on what to do. Zac had to get back to school.
If I stayed in the fight, he could potentially end up in court – testifying against me. I couldn’t do that to him. Something inside me was saying that I had done enough. I had fought well. Knowing it would be a long and torturous time for Zac, I decided not to pursue enforcing the custody I already had. Instead, I took off my armor, laid down my sword, and left that battlefield, forever.
I didn’t lament over any of it: having been embroiled in what seemed to be unending custody battles, spending tens of thousands of dollars on court case after court case just trying to hold on to them. I did it faithfully and with no doubt in my mind that it was the right thing to do.
And though they decided to leave, I held nothing in my heart for them but unconditional love. They are my children. What else is a mother to do?
But Paulette was right. I shouldn’t wait in vain for their return. It was late in the afternoon when I had more time to reflect on Amy’s offer. My primary concern was not having a place for my boys to stay, if they did come back. Amy assured me they would be welcome in her home. There was an empty guest room with their names on it.
The sale was quieting down but not before a lot of items had gone. I took advantage of the lull and walked through the house, first to the family room downstairs, often crowded with my sons’ and their friends, and then past the boys’ rooms and their empty beds. I said a quiet goodbye to the life we had together.
At the close of the sale, I pulled the small yellow tricycle with the orange tassels and a plastic, yellow Tonka dump truck, still covered in dried mud. I kept the boys’ blankets that my sister sent them from Korea, as well as Nate’s miniature motorcycles and Zac’s Mexican jumping bean collection. As the day drew to a close, I took down the For sale sign in my yard. And, in the end, I decided to go.
I’ll rent out the house, I agreed with my old friends that day, and move into Amy’s loft.
Ultimately, the battles that ensued, both in and out of the courtroom, not only brushed up against my faulty foundations but also did their share in bringing my wounds to the surface. It is amazing what you learn about yourself when you are in the challenge of your lifetime.
An unexpected consequence of the boys’ exit stage left was the gift of precious time. Time by yourself is a teacher. At first the new normal felt isolating, but eventually, I discovered a quiet wisdom there.
Throughout the war, to gain strength, I started doing a lot of personal work. I began to recognize that my unresolved childhood trauma created a negative mindset from which I functioned. In defense of my children, I was compelled to change this mentality. And, in their absence, I wanted to expand on this journey started on the battleground. I would continue on my pilgrimage back to whatever it was I lost so long ago.
About Holly McNeill
Holly’s goal is to shout out loud about the power of creation we all share. In showing that the world responds to the intentions we hold in our minds, she hopes to crystallize how, by taking responsibility for our thoughts and actions, we can see our magic and its continued influence in our lives. Holly retired early from a prominent, architectural career to compose this work.
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