a personal photography project & journal



Fuji X-T1 35mm f/1.4 Settings: ISO 400 f/2.2 SS 1/125

Fuji X-T1 35mm f/1.4 Settings: ISO 400 f/2.2 SS 1/125

I drove eight hours today. I woke up at 6:30, helped usher my older kids out the door, followed by my younger two an hour later. Then, I drove four hours down to Oklahoma for my sister.

My sister had the custody battle of her life today. Her ex-husband (who I don't mind saying is the equivalent of a human garbage can but I am sure a lawyer would advise me against writing that) somehow managed to get primary custody of their three girls & today was the day she intended to get them back. 

I had written a letter to the court (or judge or lawyer or whoever would fucking listen to any kind of reason) immediately after he was awarded primary custody. When my sister asked if I would come to court I said Yes, of course, yes. I was ready to stand by her side.

On my drive down today I felt bold, ready for battle. But once I arrived, I clearly hadn't prepared for the emotions that crept up on me unexpectedly. I stood in an old musty hallway, in a long forgotten courthouse, in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma & felt suddenly nervous. My sister, step-mom & dad waited with us. My step-mom dabbed at her eyes & then asked for tissues. 

My father, ever matter of fact, scolded, Oh, now don't start all that. Nothing has even happened yet! 

I laughed it off & then looked away as I felt my own eyes starting to fill. Blinking away any trace of a tear, I turned & scanned pictures of faces in mismatched frames, nailed to a wooden paneled wall - all old, white men. Judges, likely. Important men who sat here in the courthouse & got to make decisions every day that would impact people for the rest of their lives. 

We sat outside the courtroom for hours while official people went in & out during the proceedings. I was never called in to talk to the court but I was still glad I was there. I hugged my nieces. Gave them quarters for the old, twist handle, candy machines & let them put Lisa Frank stickers on my linen jumpsuit. My presence was solidarity to my sister's ex - you cannot do this to my family. I will not allow it. 

My dad & I occupied a bench & I listened quietly as he gave me his opinion on all that had transpired with my sister over the past 10+ years. Our biggest concern, we both agreed, was the girls. 

Then he recounted, as he very often does, his own legal dealings with my childhood. The story always goes the same & every time, I listen & nod.

When I was very young, about 9 months old, my dad lost his leg below the knee during a motorcycle accident. The trauma was so great, he obviously spent a lot of time out of work & during that time, while my mother had to have the sole job, he took care of me. My parents would be divorced about a year or so after that. 

My whole life was a custody battle. Every weekend. Every two week visitation in the summer. Every holiday.

I remember once in early elementary school when I hadn’t brought anything with me to Show & Tell, I sat quietly as my class went around the circle. Each child pulled out an old stuffed animal or beloved book or toy. Told a story of their sister, pregnant mother or weekend. When my turn came, I wasn’t quite sure what to say so I simply said the first thing I thought of: My mom says if my dad doesn’t stop trying to take her to court for custody I might get put into foster care.

The room froze. The teacher stared. I placed my hands in my lap & looked down.

On Christmas I would spend Christmas Eve with my father's family, wake up at 6am Christmas day & be driven back to my mom's house to see what Santa had deposited while I was away. This, was, it seemed, the only fair way to deal with holidays. Everyone wins. Everyone loses. 

My mom says I was miss cared for. I always came home dirty. My dad hung out with a less than refined biker crowd. I would return with rubber bands in my hair that would tangle & break the ends & my attitude - oh, my attitude was always the worst when I came home.

My dad says he knew it was too much on me. On the ride back to my mom's he would watch me physically begin to shrink. Going back was always the worst. There would be interrogations. What had I done? Who had been with me? My father's drug habit notwithstanding, my mother was like a bloodhound, trying to sniff out any inkling of instances untoward. 

There remains a bit of truth in both their versions of events.

Around the time I was 12 or 13 I suddenly decided I knew everything. Parents were lame. Visitation weekends were lame & I was fucking done with it. When I wanted to go skating one Friday night & my dad said no, I freaked out, called my mom & said, Come get me. It was probably music to her ears. 

After that, she pressed me harder - Do you want to see your dad anymore? Don’t you want to be adopted by your step-dad? We can do that, you know. We can make it so you don't have to see him anymore. And I said yes. Of course I said yes because what else does a child in this position say? You learn early & you learn fast - please the parent who is staring you down. Tell them everything they want to hear. Or else. 

My dad revoked his rights. He admitted his drug use in court (the fact that I had pretty likely seen him dealing & then told my mom didn't help him any either) but he told the judge the real reason he would allow me to be adopted was because he knew that going back & forth like I had been, was far worse than anything else. And if this would make things easier on me, then so be it. 

And just like that I was changed. A new birth certificate was issued stating a baby girl was born on the 23 of June in the state of Texas with the same first name but a whole new last name. In that moment, I was given a history I’d never had while a part of my life was simultaneously wiped away.

To be completely honest, I never realized what being adopted would mean. I had no idea I would be given a whole new birth certificate. I just knew I was angry. And tired. And my life was supposed to be easier & this seemed like the way to make that a reality.

After I got to hear this retelling, yet again, my dad patted my knee & said, Well, you seem like you turned out alright with all the shit you had to go through. I know it was pretty terrible.

I nodded. It was pretty fucking terrible, I agreed. 

So...he continued, I guess now you're ok. Just remember, the thing about parents is that they're overrated. You're an adult now, you've got your own life & sure, it's nice to have them around for the big things, but if you don't want them around, then that's up to you. Plus, even the best parents turn out to be fucking monsters anyway. 

And he should know. His father turned out to be a monster.  

The court ruled in favor of my sister today but truly she can't win. Her two older girls are angry. They burn with the fierce fire of children who've been manipulated & feel confused. Words literally fail me when I feel like I should be the one giving the most sound advice.

When one locks herself in the bathroom stall of the courthouse I simply stand outside the door, quiet. After a few moments she peeks through the invasive crack in the door. 

I'm still here, I say quietly, my head bowed to one side. She retreats back out of view. 

I place my hand on the oldest's arm. I can tell you I understand how you feel because I really can. I was very much like you when I was your age. I do not cry. Because those tears are mine & it's not fair for me to share them with her now. 

I drive the four hours back & arrive home to a dark house. It's 10:30pm. Everyone is asleep. I'm disappointed. I really had assumed my husband would be up & I needed to tell someone all that's happened today. But he has an early wake up tomorrow & the gas station coffee I drank two hours earlier is now coursing through my system so there's no bedtime for me any time soon. 

Don't let any of that stuff that happened to you then have any effect on you now, my dad said. And I feel embarrassed. God, yes. Why can't it be that easy! Why can't I just pretend it didn't happen? That it doesn't matter? Why did I decide to keep picking at that fissure in the wall? Why did I peel away at the foundation so much that I was swept off my feet by the well of emotions that came gushing out behind it? Why didn't I leave it alone, for fucks sake? I should have left it alone. 

The Japanese have a method for dealing with broken pottery called kintsugi. They are not pieces to be thrown in the trash, but instead, repaired, the scars sealed with gold. All the metaphors are just waiting to emerge here. Cracks are highlights, showing our true beauty. We should learn to celebrate resilience. Tragic events should serve to remind us that our experience is unique & valuable. 

Some days I can't shake the knowledge that I am such a broken person. I want to pretend that I'm like kintsugi but I don't fucking buy that when it comes to the human experience. We are creatures who are trained. Taught. Our brains form attachments, synapses are thickened & we learn by conditioning. My brokenness feels like a festering wound I can't shake. And I worry that my need to examine this is like a tornado, leaving a trail of destruction in my wake. 

I feel guilty for my selfishness. I'm embarrassed & painfully exposed with my nagging urge to examine my childhood & honestly, I wish I'd just left it alone.  

Trisha Hughes10 Comments