Deb’s Saturday Psychedelia – On Becoming a Hippie (Chapter 45) – Learning to Be a Single Mom
Written by Deb Cavanaugh on February 6, 2021
We had done a lot of work over the summer trying to make the trailer livable, but there was still a long way to go when Paul moved out. I was also facing being a single mom of two for the first time. Although, I had done most of the caretaking for our children, I was always able to count on Paul for certain things. He was always happy to stay with the kids if I wanted to do something on my own. When they were young, we traded off with baths and the bedtime routine, telling them stories and singing lullabies. The kids loved Paul’s stories about Bluto who got into all kinds of funny misadventures. When our babies were first born, he often got up with them in the middle of the night, changing their diapers and bringing them to me to be nursed as I recuperated from the births. And, at the end of the day, when they were both in bed, he was my companion, my lover and my friend. Now, I was still in love with him but living on my own forty-five minutes from Albany, where all of our friends were still living and where Justin and I were still at The Free School, hoping that he would figure out how to curb his anger so that we could be a happy couple. I knew being separated would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. I also didn’t expect some of our friends to turn against me.
Shortly after Paul moved out, I started getting calls from some of the men we were friends with accusing me of ruining Paul’s life. They accused me of having an affair with our bass player who lived nearby. John was my only friend in the immediate area. He was much younger than me, and I had no romantic interest in him at all. We just had a lot of fun together. No one seemed to understand this. They also accused me of taking Paul’s family away from him. they only saw him as when a really nice guy. I tried to explain that I didn’t take anything away from him. He was choosing not to see his children, and I would be happy to try to reconcile. None of that seemed to matter to them. They were witnessing him getting drunk every night, sometimes barely able to make it home and felt his pain. I soon found out that he had started doing other drugs like cocaine. There was plenty of money to spend on it, and he seemed to have forgotten about all of the plans we’d made. He wanted to become a lawyer and now had enough money to pay for law school. But he was throwing that all away, and I was being blamed for it. He refused to see his kids, and I was being blamed for that as well. He was miserable, and it was all my fault. No matter how much I tried to reason with these so-called friends, it didn’t make any difference. I had become the bad guy. I didn’t want to air our dirty laundry in public, revealing all of the yelling that the kids and I had to deal with. I didn’t want to tell them about the things that got thrown at the walls in anger, the blaming, the jealousy and more. I didn’t want to tell them about Paul hitting me while I was driving the car. I finally just stopped trying to get through to them. I wasn’t interested in making Paul look bad, but I also didn’t care what anyone thought about me at that point. I was busy just trying to survive.
I’ve always seemed to have unusual experiences. Some of them are funny and fun, some are awesome, and others are horrible. They always seem to come in groups, too. I rarely have one major thing happen at a time. I feel like I was cursed by what is often referred to as the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I know it seems innocuous at first glance until you really think about it. Although life has certainly been interesting, it’s also felt unbearable at times. As I look back over the years, I sometimes wonder how I ever survived it all. I do know that adrenaline was often my friend.
It was now 1986. We’d been in Albany for four years and had a successful band. Although we were separated, we were trying to keep the band together with regular band practices in Albany. We always played beautiful music together. Jessie was now old enough to stay home in the evenings with Justin, so once a week after feeding them dinner, I drove back into Albany for band practice. One evening, as I was packing up the car with my equipment, our cat jumped on the snow laden hatchback driving it down onto my head with such an impact that it knocked me on the ground leaving me stunned. I sat in the driveway until my head stopped spinning then got up and started unloading the car, pausing to vomit and finally recruiting the kids to help. When I called to say I wouldn’t make it to practice, Paul was furious. He wanted to arrange for our bass player John, to give me a ride. I was still seeing stars and refused. I also called in sick to work the next day, a Friday, keeping Justin home with me. I went to the doctor then rested through Friday and Saturday, starting to feel much better by Sunday morning. On Sunday evening, our pipes froze leaving us with no water. In addition to the gaps that had been left in the skirting around the bottom of the trailer, there was no easy access except to remove a section, so I pried off one of the pieces of plywood, crawled underneath and tried applying heat to the pipes with my hairdryer. They appeared to be frozen solid despite having left the tap running and wrapping the pipes with heat tape. I made a few phone calls and finally found someone who agreed to come the next day. I knew we could do without water for the rest of the day.
Jessie had started public school in Averill Park that year. Justin and I were still at The Free School. I probably shouldn’t have gone back to work so soon after my concussion, but I didn’t want to keep Justin home from school another day. He was already struggling with being away from his dad and needed to be with his friends and teachers. I knew that I couldn’t drive the forty-five minutes there, another forty-five minutes back home to rest then do it again to pick him up, so the next morning I went in to work. I checked in with the guys who were going to repair the pipes, and they assured me I didn’t need to be there as long as I left the door unlocked or left a key. I was usually home by four in the afternoon except on Mondays. Monday was the day for teachers’ meetings at the school. Attendance was required for all teachers except for an emergency. They always lasted until six pm, and sometimes went even longer but that day, they let me leave early. Jessie got home from school earlier and waited at home for us to arrive.
After a long day at work and a tedious meeting, I made the drive home with my head pounding and feeling slightly nauseous. When I walked in the door, I found Jessie standing ankle deep in water, crying and moving a dripping blanket from one spot to another in a futile attempt to soak up all of this water. Apparently, the tap in the bathroom sink had been left on according to the directions given by the repairmen, but the stopper was in the drain. The pipes had been unthawed in the morning, and the water had been running all day until Jessie came home, waded through the water and turned it off.
In spite of my throbbing head, I leapt into action. Poor Jessie was beside herself, so I first tried to calm her down assuring her that she’d done a great job and apologizing for not being there. At eleven years old, she had done the best she could. She’d used every towel and blanket in the house to try to sop up the flood, throwing them in the dryer when they wouldn’t hold any more. Unfortunately, she hadn’t spun them in the washer first, and the dryer was just sloshing the water around. I wasn’t sure where to start. We hadn’t had any dinner, and it was getting late. I decided to call for help. My mom and dad lived about twenty minutes away and had a shop vac, so I tried them first. When my mother heard the story, her response was, “Well, you got yourself into this mess by marrying Paul. Where is he now?” Once again, I asked if she would please come bring the shop vac and maybe pick up a pizza for the kids. She didn’t have to stay. She could just drop them off. She replied that they were watching their favorite TV show and that I could come get it myself. Then, I asked if the kids could stay there for the night, but it wasn’t a good night for that. She was tired. As I listened to her in disbelief, I saw Justin, standing in the lake that was once our living room, plug in our vacuum cleaner and reach to turn it on. I screamed, “Stop!” and hung up the phone. A minute later, the heat came on with the forced air creating geysers out of the floor vents. This was too much. Now I started to cry. I couldn’t afford to cry for long however and quickly rustled up some food for our late and hasty dinner. I needed to think.
The mobile home we lived in had two bathrooms. The one near the living room was the one that had flooded first. The water had been seeping into the heating ducts that ran under the floor eventually filling up the rest of the trailer. I was still trying to figure out how to deal with all of this water when Jessie screamed from the other bathroom that the toilet was overflowing, pouring sewage into the existing flood. I found out later that now the sewer pipes were frozen causing a backlog. I decided to open the backdoor, directly across from that bathroom and start shoveling water out the door in a frantic effort to contain the problem as quickly as possible. The door wouldn’t budge. I instructed the kids to stay off of the floor and ran outside around the back to see what the problem was. I couldn’t believe what I saw. There was an ice floe about eight inches thick covering the back door almost to the ground. I went at it with a hammer and chisel, trying to break it apart but got nowhere. I went back inside and called Paul.
It took him a while to answer but when he finally did, I explained the situation and told him that I needed his help, trying to keep my volume tempered and the hysteria out of my voice. But I was feeling desperate. I knew he didn’t have a car but also knew that he could get a ride or borrow a car from one of his friends. He kept insisting that he couldn’t come and finally said, “This is what you wanted, to be single. Now you’ll just have to deal with it.” Once again, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Who were these people that were supposed to be part of my family? At that point, my voice got quiet and hard. I reminded him that he had helped make our children and was equally responsible for the current situation. I also told him that if he ever had any hope of getting back together, or even remaining friends, he had better figure out how to get himself up here to help as quickly as possible. Everyone in my family knows that tone of voice and always takes me seriously when they hear it. This was no exception. His friend dropped him off in a little over an hour with a shop vac and a torch, helping me clean up this unbelievable mess. Luckily, the kids’ bedrooms had been unaffected by the sewage, and their beds were dry, so they slept while we worked for most of the night. We had bookshelves along one wall with our books and albums on them. We noticed that the walls were sweating due to the humidity causing those items to get wet. Now we were laying these wet things out to dry on whatever dry surfaces we could find. Finally, we were finished and, at around four in the morning, both plopped down on the couch. Sploosh! The couch, an old bedframe with a foam mattress and foam bolsters on the back, had also been pressing against the wall and had acted like a sponge. We looked at each other and laughed until we cried. What else could we do?
These traumatic events defined my life as a mother. They certainly weren’t the only defining moments, but they played an enormous role in my ability to cope unemotionally with disasters and to find the humor in everything. I felt as though, if I didn’t laugh, I might never stop crying. Even today, I recognize that disasters always teach me lessons, often teaching me something about myself, and offer me opportunities. Shortly after Paul and I were separated, Justin started having a tantrum almost every night after dinner. He just wanted to see his dad. He was thrilled when he woke up the next morning, and Paul was there. I wasn’t willing to give in yet, though. I wanted our marriage to work and that meant less fighting. I knew that wouldn’t happen without some profound changes and stood my ground about insisting on marriage counseling, so Paul went back to his apartment in Albany. Then Justin’s tantrums got really bad. I often had to restrain him so that he wouldn’t break windows or punch holes in the walls. These would often go on for well over an hour. One day, I finally had enough.
I told Justin that I was going to let go of him and would bring him to his dad if he promised to calm down. Still sobbing, he agreed. Once again, I called Paul. He explained that he couldn’t have Justin that night because he’d already been drinking and was in no shape to be a parent. I didn’t care. Enough was enough. He was also their parent, and Justin needed him. I told him that he’d better start sobering up because I was coming into town with Justin and would drop him off on the front porch if Paul wasn’t home. Then I hung up, packed a bag for Justin and drove to Albany. Paul was waiting for us on the porch. As soon as the car stopped, Justin raced out of the car and into his dad’s arms. Paul was still trying to convince me that he wasn’t up for having him overnight, but I kissed Justin goodbye, got back in the car and drove home. After that, Justin spent every Monday night with Paul. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. We were separated for about nine months when I finally relented and agreed to try again. We had burned through the inheritance and were running out of money. I didn’t know how we would continue to support two households and also knew that I couldn’t survive on my own with two kids. I could see that Paul also missed us. He’d straightened up, gotten a job and seemed to have mellowed. He promised changes, and I believed him. It was spring, a time of love, and I still loved Paul deeply.