Children in the Fog
May 25, 2010 § 3 Comments
by Larkin Vonalt
When he throws the child down against the stair landing, something inside me snaps. The little boy is screaming, pleading, trying to find his feet and back up the stairs away from his father.
This visit and the last one too, my husband and I both tried hard to not interfere, wincing at every volley of angry threats levied against these babies, trying to guide our grandchildren gently out of the path of their oncoming father.
Now it is too late for that.
“Get away from him!” I hiss. “Stop that right now.” He looks at me, eyes flat and expressionless. Gathering up the sobbing three-year-old, I walk to the kitchen and put the boy in his mother’s arms.
“You have to make him stop, or you’ll all have to leave,” I tell her, realizing my foolishness as soon as the words leave my lips. She can no more make her husband stop than she can stop the sun from coming up.
He’s come back from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, but the trouble started long before that.
It shames me to say that later I approach my son-in-law, and apologize for interfering. I am not sorry, of course. These are the lessons of growing up with a brilliant stepfather whose mercurial temper rained terror on our heads from time to time. Repent, placate, soothe: it’s all damage control.
I am nauseated to even think about it.
Every time they’ve been to visit, it’s the same sorry routine. The oldest boy is five. The next one younger by 17 months, their sister came along two years later. The boys bear the brunt of it, though his mother, the other grandmother, has taken to disciplining the baby by smacking her in the mouth.
For daring to behave like toddlers, they are left standing at parade rest, hands high and tight in the upper back, for extended periods of time. For saying the wrong thing they are likely to get punched in the face. Cooper, who early learned the system, quietly torments his younger brother until Sven hauls off and hits him. Cooper knows that running for Daddy will bring his brother grief.
During every visit we’ve tried to be helpful. We suggest. We try not to judge. We put ourselves between him and them, swooping up one child or another in our arms and shifting the focus to outside or ice cream or patty-cake. His parents meddle and we try not to be guilty of the same. But we hear their fear and sometimes you just have to make it stop.
Driving west in a rented Nissan under bright blue March skies, NPRs Morning Edition has given way to a strenuous bit of Schubert, so I press the “seek” button and the little car is filled with country music.
I am going to Iowa to testify.
“I swear, like the shadow that’s by your side, I’ll be there . . . .” the radio burbles. Funny how the right context can make love sound so sinister. “For better or worse, ‘till death do us part . . . I swear, I swear.” I click the radio off.
She left him finally. She thought she could bear it until his next deployment, but that is a still a year away when she packs up. We are simultaneously worried sick and immensely relieved when she tells us.
He promises to take the children from her, claiming he will never pay child support. “I’m sure as hell not going to pay you through the ass for them,” he shouted.
Seven months later, a judge in a windswept town in central Iowa is to decide their fate. The trial started yesterday, but as a witness I’d just be sitting in the lobby with dozens of relatives of my former son-in-law. Tonight is soon enough to arrive.
I will be Tai’s only family in court. Her father, beloved as he is, has a tendency to dither. His efforts are better served at home with our teenaged son. Her mother is confident that Tai will retain custody of her children, so much so that she has suggested Tai represent herself.
Growing up, every family relationship for Tai carried a modifier. As a South Korean adoptee, she has an ever-anonymous biological mother and biological father. An adoptive mother and adoptive father brought her home to be an American. When she was four, her parents split and when she was seven, she got me: her step-mother. Every relationship isn’t quite regular, until the babies. She is their mother. They are her children. There is no connection more primary than that.
Tai calls as I’m crossing Indiana, she sounds remarkably upbeat. So far the testimony has been limited to next-door neighbors and daycare providers. His mother had taken the stand and immediately fell apart, shaking and crying. A recess has been called.
“Libby,” Tai says, referring to the next-door neighbor, “Libby said that the town would be devastated if the children left the community. Devastated. My lawyer said she made it sound like a cult.” Tai pauses for a minute. “It is a bit like a cult.”
The courtroom had been full that morning, she tells me, of his family and his family’s friends and his family’s neighbors. Not an empty seat. Her attorney asked the Judge to close the courtroom and the Judge obliged. All of them got up and went to sit in the courthouse lobby instead.
One evening last summer, we were sitting with Tai and her husband on our patio in the gathering dark. The baby was asleep and the boys trying to catch fireflies.
“How are you getting on with Sara?” I asked, making conversation. Just before the wedding, he’d asked me for some advice on training the young Labrador.
“Oh, I shot her,” he said flatly, pausing to drain the last of the Mountain Dew from the can. “She was chasing chickens.” I looked at Tai and she looked away.
“Did she catch the chickens?” my husband asked.
“Nah, I was just tired of her bullshit.” He began an elaborate explanation of the events leading up to the shooting, but I was on my feet, clearing the table, calling the boys to come in for ice cream. I wouldn’t hear it. There is no adequate explanation.
Four o’clock brings Iowa City. I spent the night here once waiting for a part for my Swedish car. That’s not what I think of now. Now what I think of crossing Iowa City is a man named Steven Sueppel. He was a bank executive who’d been caught embezzling half a million dollars from his employer. His response to that was to drive at high speed into a bridge abutment on I-80 in Iowa City, but not until after he’d murdered his wife and their four young children. With a baseball bat.
Those four kids didn’t just belong to Steve and Sheryl Sueppel though. Each of them, (Ethan, 10, Seth, 9, Mira, 5 and Eleanor, 3) had been adopted from Korea. Four young Korean mothers had relinquished their babies to what they believed would be a better life in America, and their adoptive father had disposed of those young lives with the swing of a bat. Two years ago, on Easter Sunday.
I read that Sheryl Sueppel’s family had found forgiveness for Steven and allowed him to be buried with his victims. I wonder if the mothers of those four children feel the same. I wonder if they even know.
For decades, I’ve written about violent crime. I’ve participated in forums, I’ve dug for obscure information about perpetrator and victim alike. I’ve written hundreds of pieces about the dead. Men kill their wives. They also kill their children. I can’t bear these cases now. The anxiety makes me ill.
On the dash my phone rings. It’s Tai, they’re done for the day and she and her attorney are both pleased with how it went.
“When Robb cross-examined him about hitting Cooper in the face, he asked Robb which time,” she reports. “The judge has ordered that the kids are allowed to visit with you tomorrow, even though he tried to skirt the issue, saying that he would think about it. Oh, and the court reporter stifled a laugh when he said the last educational outing he took with the kids was to Wal-Mart.”
At the end of the day their lawyer brought them an offer to split the custody fifty-fifty. What did I think?
I think “God, not this again,” but I say “Let’s talk about it over dinner.”
The ditches along the interstate brim with snow. Mist rises out of them into dusk of evening, rolling along the edge of the highway. Thirty-five miles from my hotel, night is falling fast now.
I am missing the chaos of my own household; the arguing over homework and cello practice, dogs in, dogs out. The radio is on, I’m singing along, tapping out the melody on the steering wheel, when the car in front of me swerves sideways to avoid a line of brake lights in front of us. I hit the hazard lights and snap off the radio. We are shrouded in dense fog, another hour passes creeping along to the hotel.
Tai wants to go to Olive Garden for dinner, so we do. Being middle-aged and tired, I am invisible to the waiter, an enormous mess of a man who fawns over Tai. I think “You poor jerk, you wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.” She is lovely, she could have chosen– well, I wish she had chosen more wisely.
Tai recounts his testimony from the afternoon. He has admitted to hitting and shaking the kids. He told the judge that he makes $63,000 a year working for the Railroad, but his mother had to give him money to make the most recent mortgage payment in January.
“He didn’t even use the money for the mortgage even after his mother gave it to him.” Tai says, shaking her head. “The house is in foreclosure, it’s going to be sold at Sheriff’s sale on Thursday.”
“The day after tomorrow?” Tai nods, taking a bite of ravioli.
He told the judge that he did not want to pay child support. During cross-examination, he agreed that he shot the dog. Tai looks at me across the table.
“He didn’t kill her right away,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she was pretty wild, chasing the chickens that were loose in the yard. We were getting out of the truck and she jumped in one door and out the other. He went and got his .22 and he shot her in the spine. I took the kids into the house, but Sara was lying in the yard, struggling to get up and crying.”
“He came in the house and said he was sick of putting up with her, that this would teach her a lesson. I could still hear her in the yard. I begged him to stop. Sven and Cooper were crying. After awhile he went out with his handgun and shot her in the head.”
“He admitted to this on the stand?” She nods.
“And my attorney got his mother to admit that she knew he had shot the dog, but she said it was because Sara attacked the kids.”
“Attacked the kids, what do you mean?”
“She would jump on them sometimes and knock them down.”
Looking out the 8th floor hotel room window in the morning, I can see just beyond the parking lot. The fog is socked in now, unrelenting. In the near distance, forms and shadows are all that indicate other buildings, gas stations, another hotel. Across the street, the golden arches of McDonald’s glow dimly yellow. The town where the case is being heard is another 80 miles north, through the fog rolling across muddy corn fields.
Making our way north on the Interstate, we’re moving faster than I’d like, given the limited visibility, but with the fog it’s hard to know how much we might be delayed. We cannot be late. We pass an older red pickup truck, a confederate sticker on the back window, a young woman behind the wheel. Tai turns excitedly to wave.
“That’s Jessie! My other witness!” Of course Jessie doesn’t recognize the rental car, she’s concentrating on driving through the billowing fog.
Tai explains her connection to the woman in the truck.
“She’s the fiancé of a guy in the guard that was friends with us . . . wife left him and took up with a registered sex offender . . . kids were being shuttled back and forth and when they’re with Jessie and . . . sometimes we’ll get together and take the kids to a park or out to eat or something . . .”
I am only half-listening because I am concentrating on getting through the fog, so perhaps I missed something, but it doesn’t sound like much of a connection.
“What does Robb expect her to testify to?” I ask.
“That I’m a good Mom.” My heart sinks a little. Tai has two witnesses; her stepmother and a casual friend of a few months duration. Can that possibly be enough? I’ve asked Tai why there aren’t more, and she has a list of reasons why not. The truth comes down to one thing: it’s hard to make friends when your husband won’t permit it. I flick on the wipers as a white BMW sweeps past us.
“That’s Robb!” Tai exclaims. Her attorney. I don’t expect much of a warm reception there. We haven’t seen eye to eye on how to proceed with Tai’s case, and our concern culminated in a long phone call with the head of the firm. Like most attorneys, these are keen on finding a means to settle. But how do you broker a deal when the stakes are three terrified children? I’m glad he’s speeding though, and I gun the little Nissan to catch up. Better to let him lead the way through the fog.
In the courthouse parking lot, I am introduced to Jessie, a sweet girl from Arkansas with a basset hound in her truck. She’s wearing clear high heels this morning because she will be on her way to try on wedding gowns as soon as she gets through with court. Tai rushes ahead to meet with Robb, who turns with her to walk away, leaving Jessie and I standing in the parking lot. I look at her and shrug.
“Maybe they’re discussing strategy.”
The lobby is again full of his family. His parents have staked out the chairs closest to the courtroom door and I smile at them as I approach. They stare straight ahead, poker-faced, affecting not a glimmer of recognition. I walk past them, coming to rest against a far wall. I have no desire to sit.
His father is perpetually red-faced with a thatch of white hair. His hobby is traveling the countryside looking for windmills. His mother is the kind of woman who wears too many rings.
She is the kind of woman who grills her five-year-old grandson as to how did his Mommy buy a car? Does his Mommy sleep in the same room with her housemate? Does Mommy have boyfriends?
She is the kind of woman who tells her three-year-old grandson that if he doesn’t stop what he’s doing this instant she’ll make sure he never sees his mother again.
She is the kind of woman who smacks a 15-month old baby in the mouth.
His father is the kind of man who refuses to see.
Tai fetches me to the empty courtroom to meet Robb. (The role in the movie to be played by Bruce Willis, only taller.) He is trying to sell Tai the plaintiff’s offer of settlement, a continuation of the fifty-fifty agreement that has been plagued with problems from the start.
I shouldn’t speak for Tai, but I do.
“Absolutely not.” I am remembering Sara, writhing on the ground. The attorney turns to look at me, annoyed, then looks back to his client.
“If they’re offering fifty percent, then they must think they’re in danger of losing,” I continue. “You have to remember that they’d taken settlement off the table altogether. They must be worried.” I add impatiently.
How can they even be considering this? I am thinking of Sven, cowering on the front stairs. I am remembering the resignation and relief in Tai’s voice when she said she couldn’t do it anymore. I remember my son-in-law calling Cooper a “fucking crybaby.”
Robb does not let up his campaign and I can feel the conversation starting to unwind, throwing sparks like a Catherine Wheel. The words grow hot. Before long, we are shouting.
“Your audacity is repugnant, Madam,” says the lawyer.
“And your indifference equally so, counselor.”
“Indifferent, incompetent, whatever! Why didn’t you call any witnesses?”
“Why didn’t you pay the bill?”
“What?” I’m confused for a minute. “You didn’t even send a bill, and anyway, who goes to court with their attorney’s bill paid in full? No one!” He is walking away, but turns back.
“Yeah, you know, you’re right about that. I’ve got three cases going right now and no one seems to be paying!”
“Yesterday, you did so well in court. Why do you want to give up now?”
Tai and Jessie hang back, wide-eyed, watching us hash this out. Like taking a snarl from a skein of wool, we get through the tangle and begin to smooth out the questions, following one knotted thread, then another.
I shake his hand, offer an apology for losing my temper.
“Don’t worry about it, we’re good,” he says. Tai agrees that she does not want to settle, and Robb heads to the Judges chambers to tell them no dice. Jessie and I are dispatched, not needed until after lunch, not allowed in the courtroom until we’ve testified. There’s not much to do in this town.
I seek refuge in the rental car, still reeling from going ten rounds with Bruce Willis. One of my dearest friends is a trial lawyer and I call her. She laughs at my description of meeting the attorney.
“Some attorneys live to settle,” she tells me. “You know that. But about those clear heels– take Tai’s friend to K-Mart and buy her some Keds!” I don’t think Jessie’s footwear will have any impact on the court, but I don’t say that.
“The poor kid’s feet must be freezing,” I say instead.
I’ve brought a novel with me, but I find I am reading the same paragraph over and over. I leaf through a copy of Esquire, but it all seems so irrelevant. Don’t these people have problems more serious than which jacket to wear, or wondering what chefs eat when they’re at home? I am remembering the boys picking raspberries last summer, their mouths smeared with juice. How pleased Cooper was with a blue and silver pinwheel. It will be hours before I’m called to the stand. So I start the car and turn out of the parking lot, thinking about all the times I’ve been to this threadbare little place.
There, on the edge of the highway, inside a gas station, is the Country Kitchen, where I bought breakfast for Tai and her fiance in December 2004. I hadn’t met him before and he was, I told my husband, very polite. Tai was eight months pregnant. After breakfast, we walked outside together and he admired the handsome retriever that is my usual traveling companion. Two weeks later he’d push Tai down the steps of their trailer onto the icy driveway.
Uptown, there’s the slightly better restaurant where my mother and I took Tai to lunch when the baby was just a few weeks old, his downy head peeking out of the top of his carrier. Yesterday Tai and Robb went there and found themselves seated a few tables away from the presiding judge.
There’s the little Hospital, where my husband and our son and I spent an afternoon with the three kids and Tai’s father-in-law after Tai had an allergic response to the lunch we’d had in Fort Dodge; and there’s the gas station where we stopped before we left town. The father-in-law had stopped there too and he came over to talk for a minute.
“Don’t worry,” he’d said. “We’ll take care of Tai.”
There’s Bank Street, where we turned for their wedding reception at the Fairgrounds. The hall was done up in green and yellow, with hay bales and John Deere tractors. Baby Cooper was six months old then, bedecked in a little suit with tractors on the vest and a string tie and propped in a little green wagon. On the wedding cake, a cow bride and groom cavorted.
On the dance floor, bridesmaids did the chicken dance in green satin dresses. I’d even made the invitations, green ink with a yellow gingham ribbon. Tai couldn’t bring herself to tell me that she hated the John Deere theme. Her betrothed loved the tractors and that was all that was important. Tornado sirens had brought the reception to a close.
Tai hugged her father before she and her new husband got into his mother’s yellow Mustang to leave. I could see the bruises blue and purple, blossoming on her arms.
They hadn’t lived in this town though. Their home was twenty miles south, in a village, population 600. The most popular surname in the village is theirs. 99.7 percent of the village is white. (The non-white three-tenths of a percent is Tai.) First they lived in the trailer a few blocks away from his parents.
At five o’clock one November afternoon a tornado killed a 82-year-old woman, Lucille, who lived across the street. The CBS affiliate in Des Moines reported that the village “is currently sealed off to outsiders.”
Tai was pregnant with Sven, Cooper was 10 months old; they weren’t hurt. Her husband was away in Iraq. Later, they’d buy a little house that they couldn’t afford on the outskirts of town.
I begin with spelling my name, very slowly, for the court reporter. An essay I wrote about Tai’s adopted sister, Camille, has been entered as evidence. In the piece I mention that Tai was good at getting what she wanted. Since the subject was Camille not Tai, my comparison was that Tai was normal in this aspect. Most people testify in sentences. My testimony comes in paragraphs.
“Well, first,” I answer, “you have to realize that this piece is about Camille, not Tai.” Since they seem to want to know about Camille, I tell them about the meltdown she had, locking herself in the bathroom, in the church basement an hour before her sister was to marry. His mother tried to keep me from my other daughter, a child who had marched steadfastly to her own drum since she was five years old.
“We have it under control,” the woman told me, all the while tapping on the door, asking “Camille, honey? Camille, honey?”
Camille let me in, of course, well it’s all in that essay. When we got to a point where we were laughing, she was willing to put on that John Deere green satin dress and go out to help her sister seal her fate.
We were so surprised that Tai, who loves purple in every shade, chose to have a green and yellow wedding. A hoe-down country wedding seemed an unusual choice for a sophisticated girl that loves high heels and Paris and cats. We felt so awful later when we realized that what Tai wanted had been sublimated by her mother-in-law, whose favorite colors, in point of fact, are green and yellow. It seems almost a minor thing, that Tai didn’t have the wedding that she hoped for, but that she had been bullied out of it was real cause for concern.
What did I think about her moving to Iowa?
“Well, we felt quite mixed about it. It’s a long way from us at such an important time in her life. She didn’t have any support here. At the beginning, we took comfort that his family seemed to have made her “one of their own,” but then it became apparent that his mother really was overly involved in Tai’s life. She seemed to have her hand in everything.”
I pause for an instant, because I have to say something important, but I am trying to find a way to not cause offense.
“We also had reservations because it is very much a Caucasian community and our daughter is, well, different.” Their attorney snorts with derision, shaking his head. Robb is moving on to the next question, but I stop him.
“Hang on a second. I cannot go on without addressing that comment made by the plaintiff’s attorney.” It amazes me that I am not being stopped by an objection, but none is forthcoming, so I continue. “People incorrectly assume that Asian people do not suffer from racism the way other minorities do in this country. I can assure you as someone who’s been married to a Chinese-American for 18 years that they most certainly do. They suffer because they look different. If that’s not racism, I don’t know what is.”
Cataloging each incident on a finger, I count off my son-in-law’s abuse of the children in my presence. I recall Tai, heartbroken on the telephone, after Sheriff’s deputies had come and arrested her husband for abuse. This probably constitutes hearsay, but they let me go on talking. I don’t mention that the charges are dropped after his father lobbied the county attorney, a family friend. Judges don’t like the implication that the judicial system is broken in their district, even if it is.
When I talk about Cooper and Sven being punished for behaving like “normal toddlers” no one challenges me on whether or not I am an expert in childhood development.
I am in expert in dogs, though, and I tell the court this as I review the conversation on the patio, how my son-in-law told me he’d shot Sara, their yellow Labrador. I add that he knew that I was an expert in dogs and he only once asked my advice, before he and Tai married. I confirm that he did not ask for help when the dog became a supposed “problem” and he did not ask if I could have found someone to take Sara, which I certainly could have. I could have driven out to get the dog myself.
I know I am the fourth person to testify about the dog. I hope that the judge is really hearing what happened to Sara. I am hoping that Sara’s death may serve as linch pin here and that she will not have died for nothing.
Tai’s lawyer would like me to tell the court what kind of mother she is. I’ve been thinking about this question for a while. It’s not enough to say that she’s a good mother, because that hardly begins to encompass the scope of what kind of mother she is. I look at the young woman sitting before me.
I remember her at seven, when she stood up during an after-school reading program (in the library where I worked) to announce to everyone present that I was her father’s girlfriend. I remember her curled up on the sofa with our old dog Elinor, or riding through the pastures on our big Palomino gelding.
I am remembering her ballet recitals, her science fair projects, her clarinet, her boyfriends, her trip to Paris, her many dramas. Her purse was stolen on a family trip to Vancouver and she was mad because I wrote about it in a column.
She bonded with my late stepfather, who would be outraged at the way she’s been treated. She keeps in touch with my cousins. She dotes on her baby-brother, who towers over her now. How is she with her children? How she has suffered fills me with distress.
“Like all children,” I begin “Tai has had her ups and downs. She’s been better at some things than others. She’s had her share of scrapes, and plenty of challenges.” A beat goes by.
“But her father and I have been so impressed with the kind of mother she is, even in the most daunting of circumstances. This is the very best thing she has ever done. She is not just “a good mother,” she is an extraordinary mother. She’s so patient, and fun-loving and thoughtful with her children. It’s clear that she really enjoys them, even when they are not at their most enjoyable.” I can’t look at Tai now or I will cry.
“They are obviously the very center of her life, and I think that becoming a mother is the one true thing that has made Tai whole and complete. I wish I had been as good a mother as she is.”
That’s it. My part is done.
It will be sixty days before the judge comes back with a ruling. I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t find for Tai. Her husband has a lot of serious stuff stacked against him, and Tai’s attorney– Well. He was truly brilliant. But I am too cautious to begin celebrating. I’ve seen judges render unbelievable decisions before. Yet we are going to have a little party right now because we are on our way to pick up the kids.
Sven and Addie are at daycare in the village, and we thread our way there down farm roads in the fog, arriving at last at a Morton building behind the elementary school. Inside it is a hive of activity. Sven spots me with his mother from across the room.
“Nana!” he yells and comes barreling up to hug my legs. My husband used to joke how much Sven looks like Charlie Brown, with his sturdy body and very round head. But really he looks more like the three-year-old Chinese boy in The Last Emperor. It’s not the way one might expect a boy named Sven to look, but no matter. He is thrilled to see me, and is busily telling me about his day. “Where are Grampa and Uncle Julian?” he demands.
“They couldn’t come this time, darling. You’ve just got me, kid.”
“Okay,” he says. “But next time Grampa and Uncle Julian too! We are going to your house, Mommy?”
“No, honey, we’re just going out to eat with Nana. You’re coming to my house tomorrow, remember?”
“But I want to go to your house now!”
“I know, sweetheart. I wish you could.” Tai looks at me, and there are tears brimming in her eyes. “It’s like this all the time,” she says to me.
Addie is shy. She doesn’t remember her last visit to Nana’s. She can’t be expected to, she was only 14 months old then. But she senses that her mother and brother are happy to see me, and she smiles at me from under her mother’s chin.
Tai’s soon-to-be-former husband arrives in a black pick-up truck; I know it’s his father’s truck because the rear window is completely covered with a decal of a windmill.
“Hi, Nana!” Cooper calls cheerfully as he hops out the truck. His new haircut makes him look like a little Shaolin monk. He is very curious about a bag in the rental car trunk, suspecting there might be a surprise or two to come. Tai is getting the kids into their car seats when he speaks to me.
“How are Elmer and Julian? Do you guys have spring out there yet?” It is almost as if the last two days haven’t occurred, as if we are waking from some dream. There’s much to be said for civility and healing, and I am friendly when I answer.
We are going to McDonald’s in yet another town, 28 miles south through the fog. With the car seats snugged together, all three poke and pester each other. His other grandmother has given Cooper a ballpoint pen on a lanyard and he “shoots” it over his sister at Sven, until Tai tells him she’ll have to put it away.
“My Grandma gave me this pen and she says you can’t take it away from me!” he yells.
“Cooper, it is dangerous to throw the pen like that,” Tai replies. “Either put it away right now or give it to me for safekeeping.” There’s a pause.
“Okay, Mom,” he agrees, “I am putting the pen in my backpack.”
More McNuggets end up on the Playland floor than in anyone’s tummy, but it’s of little consequence. They are excited about the toys Nana brought—plastic golf clubs and books of stickers. It’s just goofy stuff. Though the purpose of my trip could not have been more grave, I am trying to keep it light with the kids.
Sven carefully affixes a “Wonderwoman” sticker to my jacket. He probably chose it by chance, but I smile to see that it isn’t the Incredible Hulk. He leans up against me and says “Nana, I wish you could stay longer,” and I tell him I wish I could too.
Addie wants to show me the shoes lined up next to the doorway. “Shoes!” she cried, pointing. She makes me think of the Queen of Hearts and I laugh.
“She loves shoes,” Tai says, and I make a note of her shoe size, since her birthday is in six weeks.
Before we know it, the time is up and we have to drive the children back 28 miles to the village. Night has fallen now, but the fog has not abated. The fun is over, the kids are cranky and Sven is telling us over and over that he does not want to go back to his father’s.
I point out the illuminated map on the navigator.
“See that line? That means there’s a road coming! See, there’s the road! See this purple line—that’s the one we’re following.”
This catches their attention for a little while, but Sven has to lean across Addie’s car seat to see and she yanks his hair. He yowls, crying out “Addie, no!” It’s normal, they’re little, they’re tired. By the time we get to the village, his sobs have eased into a little hiccupping sound. I think my heart will break.
That night in the hotel I dream of children lost in the fog.
Looking out the window in the morning, I am discouraged to find everything is still enveloped in a shroud of fog.
“Honest to God, how do people stand this,” I mutter, zipping my suitcase closed. “Three days and nothing but fog.”
By the time I have coffee in hand, I am feeling more cheerful, glad to be headed east, home, on I-80. The visibility is not quite as bad as yesterday. Yesterday is over, we’ve done what we can. Tonight the kids will go to their mother’s and they will feel safe and happy and they will chase each other around the yard with the new plastic golf clubs their Nana gave them.
On the radio, the Beatles sing “Love, love, love. ”
Eighteen miles east of Des Moines, the fog lifts. It’s a beautiful morning.
Author’s Note: Since the publication of this essay, threats have been received. Tai’s attorney is concerned that there may be attempts at retribution. I considered deleting this piece, but should I allow myself to be bullied into silence?
The court decision did not go our way. The judge, inexplicably, decided to give custody to the father, which meant giving custody to the grandparents. This isn’t permitted by Iowa law, and there will be an appeal. In August, the ex-husband will be deployed to Afghanistan. His parents have threatened to sue for guardianship. -June 2010