“Passing the Torch of Motherhood”
Taja and I met on the job. She was bar tending and I was a busboy at the same bar. We clicked immediately. We had the same warped sense of humor and appreciation for the differences between us that really weren’t that much of a big deal. She accepted me being gay without hesitation and I had no issue with her somewhat lofty attitudes. All in all, we had fun and enjoyed our time together at the bar.
I ended up losing that job. Downsizing, they let me go. I turned inward and sought some answers to myself. I found my mouth opening and committing to a Mescalero Apache Vision Quest while at a pottery workshop in San Diego. The irony is that I had sworn up and down until I turned blue that I would NEVER do a Mescalero Quest. After attending the sweat lodges for several others before they went Up the Mountain, I had shaken my head and wondered at the sense of such hardship.
Imagine my surprise as my mouth opened and I asked the last person on Earth I ever thought to guide me through the Mescalero Vision Quest. My heart was thudding like continuous thunder in my chest and my mind was literally asking me what the holy hell I was doing as the words poured from my flapping lips. I nearly looked around to see if someone was speaking behind me so I could tell them to shut the hell up. That is, until I had to acknowledge that the voice was mine. My horror only magnified as my request was accepted. Oh shit!
Since I lost two jobs on the same day, I had nothing holding me to Riverside. I moved out to the desert to focus on my preparations for Vision Quest. It was an interesting experience as I lived in Joshua Tree. I learned a lot about myself and my place in the world during that time. I finished and survived the three days and nights on the mountain. As I tried to decide what I needed to do now, I did a stupid thing. I asked Creator to put me where I was needed. The request was promptly accepted. Go figure.
Within two weeks I received word from a mutual friend that Taja wanted to talk to me. She was in the middle of getting a divorce. She was also buying the bar we both had worked at. Taja knew that she would be gone for long hours far into the early morning getting the place running the way she wanted and making it work. She wanted someone as a live-in to look after her three sons. Devin was 12, Tristen was 6 and Courtlen was 3. Her soon to be ex was a truck driver and often out of state so he could not be relied on to look after the boys. After a trial run, she and her ex agreed that I was the person for their needs.
Once of the issues that I addressed right from the start was that I was gay. This may seem odd, but this was in 1992. Things could get ugly pretty easily if I did not confront them from the beginning. If it was going to be an issue, better that they not hire me in the first place. I made sure they understood the limits on what I would do or should do. One of them was that I would not bathe the children myself. Either the kids did it for themselves or the parents would have to do it. At no point would I put hands on the boys unclothed. It may sound prudish or odd, but I wanted to keep things clear and without even the appearance of impropriety. It is hard enough for men in the childcare field but adding that it is a gay man dealing with young boys, well, I was not going to allow that possibility to ever become an issue.
Taja took time to think about it. Her ex talked with some of his friends and also took time to think. Both agreed that it wouldn’t be an issue. So, with everything settled, I moved in and began to take care of the boys. It was an enlightening experience, those first few weeks. Devin, the eldest, was used to running amuck, doing pretty much whatever he wanted. Tristen, the middle child, was used to getting whatever he wanted for the asking. He had a liver transplant when he was 3. Given that they thought he was likely to die, he was given whatever he wanted. Courtlen was quiet. He barely spoke above a whisper and you had to listen very carefully and sometimes ask him to repeat what he said if you couldn’t catch it the first time. He was largely ignored in the household. This is what I had landed in. It was hard to understand why Creator would place me there.
Taking care of the kids was definitely challenging. Devin learned that I was not someone that he could run over. He certainly tried. He even got his best friend Dustin to try to help him jump me. I fended both boys off as gently as I could while making them understand that gay did not mean weak or unable to whomp them both flat at the same time if needed. Devin liked to get physical, hitting and pushing and generally doing anything he could to initiate some kind of confrontation. It took me a long time to get him under control. He also had to learn that I would not let him out of my sight unless I had some way to find him. He resented it a lot but I held firm.
Tristen also fought me, though not physically. He demanded things and I would not give in unless he had earned it. If I let him have what he wanted, I told him why I said yes. If I denied him what he wanted, I told him why. I made it clear that his choices determined if he could have or do what he wanted. Homework before games or TV. Chores before playing outside. Shower before he got to watch TV at night. Little by little, Tristen came into line with accepting that his choices had consequences and that I would be consistent with it.
Courtlen was a puzzle for all of 30 seconds. He had been ignored most of his life. Tristen had his transplant shortly before Courtlen was born. All of the focus was on Tristen and Courtlen was an afterthought, if even that. I was patient and careful with him. He loved to be read to. I would sit him in my lap and read to him for hours. He soon started bringing me books and plopping himself in my lap to be read to. I slowly worked on getting him to speak clearly. With positive attention, Courtlen bloomed and gained in confidence that someone was listening to him. He would come to me for comfort and I freely gave him hugs and praise.
Having gotten into a routine, the other shoe dropped. Taja was diagnosed with cancer. This was a month after I moved in. Not only was she diagnosed, it had already metastasized virulently. They found cancer in her breast, sternum, stomach, lymph nodes and brain. The shockwaves through the household are indescribable. Taja immediately went into aggressive chemo and radiation treatments. Her divorce became a moot point and he returned to the house. I’ll give the man credit; he stuck by her and did everything in his power to help her. I took care of the kids, the house and Taja when he had to work.
Many friends told me I was insane to stay. That it was not my problem and that I should get the hell out of there. I just couldn’t. For one thing, it was obvious I was needed. For another, what kind of person picks up and leaves when things get rough? I couldn’t. It just didn’t seem right. She was my friend, I cared about her. I was also getting attached to the kids. Even the older two had grown on me. Courtlen most of all decided me on staying. So, I stayed.
One day we were all outside by the pool. Taja was still able to walk but was very weak from the chemo and radiation. She was sitting and talking with Courtlen. I was a distance away on a deck chair reading. Courtlen finished talking and ran off to go play. As he ran, he slipped on the concrete and fell right into the pool. Taja screamed and struggled to get up. Courtlen didn’t know how to swim. I found myself in the water, fully clothed, lifting the little form up toward the surface. We broke the surface and I carried the crying child out of the pool. I have no idea how I got there so fast. Taja didn’t see me go in after him either. Courtlen coughed out all of the water he swallowed and kept a death grip on my neck. Once I got him a little calmer, I put him in Taja’s lap and got towels to dry us off. She rocked him in her lap and couldn’t speak. It was a near thing. If I hadn’t been there, Courtlen would have drowned.
As Taja’s illness progressed, the difficulties increased. A tumor grew through her spine and paralyzed her from the chest down. She decided to remain home and use a hospice program to deal with any medical needs. The hospice nurses helped me learn what I needed to do for Taja that was within my abilities. My care for her brought us closer than ever as friends. We talked a lot and I drove her to her appointments.
One day as I was shifting Taja’s position on the couch, Courtlen ran into the room chattering up a storm. He was happy and wanted to share it. I laughed and so did Taja. After he ran down to a gasping halt, I asked him to go play for a while and I would read to him once I finished making Taja something to eat. He said, “Ok, mom.” and ran off. I was looking at Taja when it happened and I saw the shocked hurt in her eyes. I asked if she was ok and she nodded. Still, I knew. Her baby had called someone else mom. It was possible that she wouldn’t be there much longer. The mortality had finally struck home. I held her hand as she quietly wept.
I waited a couple of days and then approached the topic with Taja. I apologized for what happened. She waved it off and said it didn’t matter. She was ok with it. I asked if she were sure. She told me that she hoped I would stay once she passed. She knew that Courtlen loved me. She was glad. I wept. Knowing that the treatments weren’t helping and her time was limited, we did the best we could to make sure her remaining time with the kids was memorable.
In August of 1992, she died in the night, at home. My friend was gone. Her children remained. I helped as much as I could with the preparations for the funeral. I got Courtlen and Tristen dressed. I got dressed. We went. Courtlen was enraged. They put his mom in a box! How could they do that? He pushed away his father and his aunt and his grandmother. They just couldn’t calm him down. Finally, I took him in my arms and squeezed him tight. He resisted and then relaxed. He wouldn’t go to anyone else that day. He sat in my lap at the graveside and I explained what was happening and why. I took him home and helped him change clothes again.
I had a hard decision to make. I didn’t like their father. Not at all, I considered him a selfish inconsiderate despicable excuse for a man. There was also Courtlen. I just couldn’t leave him right away. Not with him losing his mom. In his world, I was the only other person that loved him for him and paid attention to him at all. Though I considered leaving, I stayed. How could I do anything else? Taja had as much as asked me to.
I stayed for 3 more years. I got Courtlen through kindergarten and volunteered in his class 3 days a week. Once he finished, it was time for me to go. He was going to be in school full time and they wouldn’t need me anymore. I was near a nervous breakdown from their father. It was definitely time to go if I wanted to keep my sanity. I found another family that needed me and said goodbye to Courtlen.
His father contacted me a couple of weeks after I moved out. Courtlen had quit speaking. He would not talk at all, not even a whisper. His dad had a family conference and was told that he should let Courtlen see me as often as he wanted and as often as I could manage. That I should take Courtlen for weekends and that he should encourage it. I was floored. I took Courtlen for that first weekend and explained that I wasn’t gone. I was just living somewhere else. I wasn’t dead and he could see me and call me and write me as much as he wanted. He started talking again after that. Courtlen had just needed to know that he was still loved and he hadn’t done anything wrong to make me go away forever like his mom.
When he turned 9, he and Tristen spent the night with me and my husband to be. Tristen was totally conked out on the couch. I was sitting in bed reading and Aaron was asleep. Courtlen came in and told me he couldn’t sleep. Would I rock him to sleep? I was flummoxed. He was 9! I thought he was past the point of needing or wanting that. I nodded and got up and went with him back to the living room.
I sat on the recliner and he climbed up into my lap. His head was right up under my chin and his legs trailed nearly to the floor. He wrapped his arms around my chest and leaned into me. I held him and rocked the recliner using my feet. The smell of his fresh clean hair was in my nose and it tickled a little. I rocked and rocked and hummed. Slowly he relaxed and then fell asleep. I was at total peace. This was what life was about. Simply being and just loving without worry. I also almost cried. This was surely the last time he was going to ask to be rocked to sleep in my arms. Not many are given to know when that last childish thing will pass and never come again. I was grateful for the insight and rocked and rocked. The memory is one of the most treasured that I have. It was hard to get up and put him on the couch fold out with his brother but I did it gently. I kissed his cheek, put the sheet over him and went to bed myself.
Devin has 3 beautiful daughters now. Tristen died when he was 17 due to complications from his transplant rejecting. I saw him a couple of months before he died. He knew it was coming. I spent 3 hours with him and we talked and talked. He kept coming back to Courtlen and reinforcing that Courtlen needed me. He went so far as to make me promise to never give up on him. Of course not! Still, I promised. I have kept that promise and always will. If he needs me, I am there. If he doesn’t, I am there. I also can’t watch “Stepmom” without crying. Way too close for comfort.
Courtlen had his first child, Blake Mitchell Rhoades this year. He made sure I was one of the first to hold his new son. He has always told people I am his godfather. He firmly declared I was Blake’s grandfather and I could see him as often as I wanted. I am so proud of Courtlen. He has become an awesome father. He is a good man. He is kind, caring, compassionate, funny, and smart and everything anyone could want for and of their child. Yes, Taja, you can rest easy; your baby is doing better than fine. You can be proud too.