Daddy-hood sort of caught me by the nape of my neck.
In the summer 2004 I was surprised to learn that… like it or not I was going to become a Father.
Whoa!… after 50 years I had long decided against and avoided that (to me) unfortunate scenario. But, fate had chosen another route for me, one which had neither been in my dreams, or plans, or imagination. I mean, I was single although I had just (a month earlier) ended a nine month relationship with a woman/girl half my age. Though we had both enjoyed it for awhile, the differences in our worldviews were simply beyond any chance of our finding common ground.
After getting this news, and realizing that she was both determined to have my child and in control of my destiny… and then allowing some time for “sinkage”, I made the determination that I would embrace this “new chapter” rather than try to change something beyond my control. Not that it made me happy, as I both hated and respected her for it. But, I like to think I am the type to “man-up” in situations where there is little debate on what the right thing to do is. (read: I fuck up, I take responsibility).
Having spent over 20 straight years taking a 4-6 week motorcycle trip somewhere in the world, I thrive on the idea of “not knowing” what is around the next curve. I hate repetition and had enjoyed every minute of a career that I loved, because every day was different from any others, a brand new challenge every day. At the time in 2004 I had not worked in about a year after “retiring” from my business, with the idea that I’d take a year off to decide what I wanted to do next.
I felt this would give me time to settle into my home in Florida, where Id moved after having lived in North Carolina for the last 25 years. My marriage of 20 years had recently ended in divorce, and we both decided to move to Florida to begin our respective new chapters in life apart. Though I saw the move as exciting I figured that I would spend the year remodeling my home, which needed a lot of cosmetic updating.
But this… this was altogether different, and I suspected that life as I knew it would cease to exist sooner than I could get my arms around the idea.
I had never seen myself as daddy but more as a big kid, even though I was almost 50. Confident and successful in almost everything I had (seriously) ever attempted, after a couple of months I was beginning to doubt my conviction, my strength to face this new (opportunity), and/or my ability to succeed. I read voraciously during her pregnancy. I learned plenty about parenting, but it hadn’t change my mind.
I was simply ambivalent, not happy or excited.
I had enjoyed a highly successful business career in NC and had become comfortable with my home, my friends and social circles, my hobbies and passions, and mostly my work. I had reached that level of comfort where one can either find a new mountain to climb, or coast as slowly as possible downhill enjoying the view but lessening the satisfaction of competitive excellence. Most wisely choose the latter, but I couldn’t see myself fading into the sunset without giving my utmost to win. For me it was all or nothing. Always a fierce competitor, I was still at the top of my game… and it felt like there were surely more majors to win. I was seasoned and ready for something new. It’s funny, but failing at work hadn’t scared me in the least.
Failure was never an option. But this?
As I predicted silently when I first learned of this new situation, there would likely be some issues and problems to work out between (mother) and I. Though we weren’t together as a couple per se, we were amicable, especially after my change of heart about how I wanted to be a REAL dad. Yet, she was now living with her parents who were less than thrilled that daddy was their age while daughter (mother) was only 25 (don’t ask). As hard as I tried to assimilate I soon realized that I was looked at more as a meal ticket than a family member (and not by the mother, but by her parents).
As long as I took her to work, doctors, tests, etc. and took care of the bills and new baby room everyone was fine being hatefully cordial. For example, once when I called and was talking to (mother), I overheard her mother say, “what’s that son-of-a-bitch want now”. Now (mother), as beautiful as she was and sharp as she seemed had experienced some “psychological issues” as a young teenager. Of course, one of the reasons we were no longer together was that I couldn’t understand the whats and whys of many of her actions, and it led me to decide to break off our relationship. She could be charming this morning and the wicked witch of the west this afternoon. Something was up, but no one wished to divulge anything to me.
At any rate. finally the big day came… and as I looked in the mirror before heading to the hospital my attitude was… uncertain at best. I wondered how I could be so nonchalant.
Nervous yes, excited… not-so-much. Having decided to wait and see about this new role before embarking on a new career that might easily affect the quality of my daddy-hood, I had long awaited this day if only for expediency. I spent the next 24 hours at the hospital, where I cheerfully signed an “Acknowledgement to Paternity”, a form I assumed was Florida’s way of sticking someone else with the tab. Fine… “I’m in it to win it”, I silently quoted my new best friend in Florida. He, a single dad who faithfully paid his undeserving ex-wife 70% of his weekly paycheck without a court order was cheering me on…
If ever there has been a day where someone has felt their most exalted moment far beyond the pale in a 50-year lifespan… and within 24 hours reach their lowest, most helpless and maddening moment they could ever have imagined possible… February 1, 2005 was that day for me.
Without over-dramatizing the events of my son’s birth, it is necessary to make the reader understand what had happened to my pysche over the last 24 hours. Up until the very moment my son was laid in my arms I still could not pinpoint my true feelings about the event. I mean, I seemed happy-ish, but was I really?
But then, as I looked down at this beautiful creature with whom I immediately felt a cosmic connection to… he looked right in my eyes with his piercing black dots. Our eyes met for what seemed like an eternity, neither of us blinking but staring into one another’s soul. Tears rolled down my face while my son stared directly into my eyes as if to say, “hey, no worries… I know who you are”.
I literally swooned. It seemed like time and space zoomed together through billions of years backward… then forward again. Oh my! At that instant I knew my mission, my role, my duty, and my desire from then until eternity. Nothing else could ever interest me enough to drag me away from this “miracle”. I found my answers so convincingly that I could not even imagine how there ever had been a question. I held him in my arms for hours… all night long in fact watching him sleep, watching the slightest movement in blissful awareness.
blissful awareness was to be short lived.
The next day I waited all day with my cell phone (anyone who knows me may remember that I had virtually forgotten that phones existed during my sabbatical) to hear of my new son’s arrival home, so that I could personally welcome him into the real world… it never rang.
After finally realizing that “the call” was not coming I raced to where he would be living at his mother’s parents home, only four blocks away. Soon enough I stumbled away in a murderous rage without hardly being able to draw a breath. I had been instructed by mother to, “get off our property before we call the police”.
“You can’t… but… I’m the father,” I insisted
“You might want to check on that”, were mother’s instructions.
“But I signed…” “uhm… you might need to check on that”, she reiterated.
Truth. Mind racing without even a clue or a plan or an idea of what I should do next I stumbled home as I hyperventilated… until I was calm enough to think.
My frantic calls to the hospital yielded little information, except that I needed to call The Office of Vital Statistics and check on the birth certificate. The hospital had no record of my signing the Paternity Acknowledgement form, and I was not listed on the birth certificate.
I eventually found that my name had been left out of the records, and that essentially, by law… I was not the legal father of my son, whom I had just helped deliver. For the next 10-15 hours I vacillated between committing a heinous murder or exacting some serious revenge on those who had tricked me. Thankfully, I couldn’t locate my machete.
The next day was better, but only by a morsel. Although by then they (mother and mother’s parents) agreed that I was the father, I was subjected to a laundry list of demands, do’s and don’ts, nevers and always, and… if you don’t play by these rules you will not be seeing your beloved son.
If blood can boil mine was whistling like a tea kettle.
Although I knew that they would get their comeuppance come hell or high water, my first and only concern was bonding with my son… immediately. I agreed to the extortion and began to visit my son when it was “allowed”. Days passed, weeks passed, and I saw my son every minute I was allowed, but it was not enough. I complained. They said they didn’t care what I thought, and that they were running the show.
When I walked into my son’s room he lit up like a Christmas tree, laughing and kicking and reaching for me. Words cannot begin to describe my joy. We were together for awhile and that’s all that mattered for the time being. But, I knew that it was not enough and that there was a fight ahead of me.
As time passed mother’s parents were becoming unbearable. If I had forgotten to bring the $150 weekly check that I had paid since the beginning of her pregnancy for my son’s mother’s care, I had to turn home and retrieve it before being allowed to see my son. I was told that I must “make an appointment during (certain times)”. Yet, when I asked for their new phone number I was told that they didn’t want me bothering them, so I couldn’t have it. Huh? I could see that mother was going through some difficult times as well with them, yet she wouldn’t open up to me anymore like she once had… like when she described some bizarre happenings during her teenage years.
I meticulously logged every visit, every thought and conversation, every moment of every visit, while I steadied myself for a difficult but necessary move. Money, time, emotional turmoil was no object as I drew on my resolve from a long series of past successes in sports, business, and education; where I had turned certain defeat into victory through my determination to never give up. Determined, I had to “change” my personality to a degree for awhile. But as I saw it, nothing would stop me from getting my son.
On one visit to see (my son) and I had been with him for less than five minutes when his grandfather came into the room and asked /told me to leave because (of some insignificant event). I replied that, “NO, I wasn’t leaving until my hour was up.”
He stated that he wasn’t asking me but telling me and that if I knew what was good for me I would kindly remove myself from the premises.
“I’m not going anywhere until I see MY son,” I reiterated.
Then he asked, “am I going to have to throw you out of here?”
Normally under these circumstances I would likely have then taken the liberty to send my left fist through his eye socket before he knew that I had drawn another breath. However instead, I remained calm and profferred that he “do what he needed to do”, and “I would then do what I needed to do.”
Neanderthal man suddenly drove forward with his every might, knocking me backwards, tripping and smashing my head against a plaster wall. I didn’t raise an arm nor make a peep, so he then grabbed me by my lapel and drug me through a series of toys, furnishings, and other what not… crashing my right ear into the doorway nearly ripping it off it seemed. I heard my son screaming. Blood gushed out of a crevice behind my ear as he let go. I stood up, brushed myself off and thanked him for what he had just accomplished for me.
Neanderthal laughed in my face. I smiled as I left.
I walked out, drove to a nearby police station and filed an assault report (with lumped and cut head torn shirt and blood streaming down my clothes from my ear). I asked that they simply file the report for future reference and take no immediate action. I explained the situation and they seemed appreciative, since we both knew that it likely wouldn’t be the last time they would be called on in this matter.
It wasn’t. Mother routinely called the police after discovering some ridiculous reason to do so during my eventual visitation. She even stooped to suggesting “child molestation”, apparently a charge that custody Judges and Child Services are accustomed to hearing, but understand the dynamics enough to prevent undue harassment to innocent parents. It all played in my favor as the police began to laugh at their antics.
After the assault, I stayed away for two weeks using my time interviewing potential attorneys. None felt I had much of a chance of getting custody, my being an “unwed father”. I asked each one that if ANYONE could win my case, whom would they suggest… and that’s who I would visit next. Finally, the last one says (fictitious name), “well… Attorney Smithstein can win… but you better have very deep pockets.” Frankly, between a divorce and a stock market crash in the early 2000’s I had lost over$2.0 MM, and my reserves were dwindling fast since I hadn’t worked in two years. I had about $100,000 left but I had set aside $50,000 for (my son’s) future education, so I decided to take a risky gamble with it.
I went to the mother’s parents (since by now they were calling all her shots) and asked that they relinquish their stronghold over my son and give me the 50% visitation rights that I legally deserved as the Father of their grandson, or that I would sue for 100% custody. I told them that I would use every penny of their grandson’s college money to fight them (and my son’s mother). I explained that they would be hurting him if they made me use his future college fund.
Not only did they balk, they laughed right in my face, telling me that apparently I did not understand the family court system in Florida. They said that there was no way that I could ever get custody, and that I should save my money. They explained how (my son’s mother) would get free legal representation from the state while I threw away good money after bad.
I asked if this was their final answer. It was. I swore that they would someday be sorry.
I didn’t see my son again for the next six weeks while my new Attorney filed the necessary paperwork. Soon, the Court ordered that I receive 50% visitation. I was elated. Every day at 6:00 p.m. I would pick up, or mother would pick up our son to keep for the next 24 hours. It was heaven, though I knew next to nothing about diapers and babies I learned quickly. On my day with him I spent talking to him and playing with and caring for him. We bonded. It was in retrospect the happiest time of my life.
An avid motorcyclist who had ridden almost daily since moving to Florida, I built a spill-proof baby seat on the back of my Harley Davidson. We rode everywhere while people took pictures and gave us thumbs up everywhere we went. I had anticipated his growth and had accommodated the seat for adjustments in leg length. He rode with me until he was four years old and had grown too large for the seat. But, we had certainly created a bond that endures to this day (he is nine years old as of today in June 2014).
It wasn’t long before I was fighting for custody with every ounce of emotional and financial energy I could muster. The case dragged on and on until I realized that my Attorney made sure of that knowing how much money I had left to spend. Eventually I used it all and fired him, before the depositions were even taken. I took on the legal challenge myself… and eventually won full custody on January 9th 2007, before my baby’s second birthday.
My son’s mother began to visit almost daily and for awhile it seemed we were beginning to rebuild the trust we once shared. But she had also been showing signs of a mental illness or some serious psychological issues returning from her early teenage years, and had begun to act erratically. One day after a cordial visit in October 2007, she tragically committed suicide at her parent’s home. All before our son was three years old…
Finally, but sadly… we were now on our own…
It’s strange (for me), but I decided to allow my son to continue visitation with his grandparents a few months after his mother’s death, though by most measures was not normally in my constitution (it was solely for him). I reasoned that as a single father whose parents are long dead, and without other family besides my two loving (but childless) sisters, my son would need family in the future.
In late 2005, and very likely due to the stress of the custody Court action and having just been defrauded for $400,000 in a Real Estate venture which was also tied up in court, I suffered a series of Congestive Heart Failures requiring weeks of hospitalization (where I nearly died). As I recovered I realized how precarious my son’s future would be without me, and I vowed to look out for him despite my personal feelings of animosity towards his grandparents. I buried the hatchet and encouraged his visitation with them.
Today in 2014 I enjoy a positive relationship with his grandparents, as I’m sure that they finally realized that I love my son and cherish him despite my initial ambivalence. (And they have no choice but to honor me and my situation if they wish to continue to see their grandson). They are loving and caring grandparents today, and I think my son is better off for their participation in his life. Losing their daughter had a significant but positive effect on how they viewed me and my son. I expect they can’t help but see her through his eyes.
It’s funny but it seems to be true that what goes around, comes around…