Written by Lesli Doares
I remember my 15th birthday like it was yesterday. You see, birthdays in my family had always been special occasions. The birthday child got to choose a special dinner menu and my mom would make the requested flavor of cake. But things didn’t quite go as usual on that September day so long ago. Instead of the savory lamb dish I always requested, my “special” meal was leftover chili. There also was no birthday cake.
Just a few days before, my father left for the final time. On my birthday, he called to say he was coming to bring me a present. My mother shut herself up in her room so she wouldn’t have to see him. My oldest sister was in the kitchen slamming my father with words as she was furiously slamming the cupboard doors. My middle sister was in tears in the front yard, and my younger brother was stuck in his room in his wheelchair dealing with his own sorrow. I sat alone on the orange and green flecked couch I had always hated, with my family in ruins. I said quietly to myself, “Happy Birthday, Lesli.” It was the first of many times I would experience the pain that a divorce can bring to what should have been special, happy events.
I lived a typical middle-class existence in the early 1960s, one that did not seem terribly different from that of my friends. That is until my brother, on whom my father had placed all his hopes and dreams, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I was eight and the security of my world began to crumble. My father began spending more time at the office. Over the years, my dad would leave home, come back, and leave again.
The day he told us he was leaving for good was the first time I saw my father cry. He gathered us around the kitchen table and told us he would no longer be living in our house. My father had always seemed so strong and capable, but on that day he struggled to find the words he didn’t want to say, and I didn’t want to hear. I remember thinking it was my fault. If I could only have kept from arguing with my middle sister all the time my dad wouldn’t be leaving. It was a moment that changed my life forever. I had climbed on the roller coaster that children of divorce ride whether they want to or not.
During my last two years in high school, I was forced to make “adjustments” over and over again. As Mom went to work and began dating, I became charged with taking care of my brother and fixing dinner. My culinary talents were limited so hamburgers became all too common fare. I could no longer just hang out with my friends. The preplanning involved seemed to rival a military exercise.
My parents’ divorce was final on December 1st of the year I turned 16. Both of my parents were remarried by Christmas. No one bothered to ask me or my siblings if we were okay with that. The night of my mother’s wedding was the first time I purposely got drunk. My oldest sister had to practically browbeat me into even attending the ceremony. I ate nothing at the pre-wedding dinner but actively consumed the champagne at the party after. My stepfather moved in and began to lay down the law. Needless to say, I didn’t respond well.
I remember being relieved that my high school graduation took place on the football field. My father and his wife (the other woman) could be on one side of the bleachers with my mom and stepfather at the complete other end. Anything to keep these two couples apart. Things were only slightly better by the time I graduated from college four years later. There was no way to separate them at the small departmental ceremony. This was one day I was grateful for my brother being in a wheel chair because it kept my mother’s attention off the woman she blamed for the destruction of her marriage.
By the time my father died five years later, I hoped both had moved on. I did however accompany both my mother and stepmother to the funeral home just to be sure. My stepmother hosted the rehearsal dinner for my wedding and my mother seemed to handle it well. But just a few years back, my mother got very agitated that “that woman” was still sending Christmas presents to “my grandchildren.”
It had been 35 years since the split, my mother’s second marriage had lasted more than 30 years, and my father had been dead for 25. Yet, I was still on the divorce roller coaster. As children of divorce know, there really is no way to really get off.