Challenges, Grief, Hope, Marriage, Special Needs Parenting
Author: John Felagellar
Originally written for Key Ministry, November 2020
Last November I had the pleasure of attending the one-man show of a friend who is somewhat of a local celebrity in the Chicago area. The show is quite unique, as it is based on the life of a priest named Father Damien, who was confirmed as a saint by the Catholic Church. Father Damien was the lead missionary to the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii in the late 1800’s. Damien served his community in a variety of ways, helping to build homes and roads, setting up a hospital and organizing medical care, petitioning the religious leaders of his order for more support and resources, and of course, served as the spiritual leader for those stricken with the disease, separated forever from their families and their loved ones. After 15 years working among all of the members of the colony, Damien awoke one morning to soak his feet in some hot water. He discovered that the skin began to peel off, yet he felt no pain. His worst fears now realized, Damien himself had contracted leprosy. In the play, Damien goes to the town center and calls the members of the community together, addressing them, “My children, please come to me. I have always called myself one of you. But now I tell you, I truly am one of you.” It was a striking performance, as my friend carried on the rest of the evening with the retelling of a man who loved a group of people that had truly been outcast from society. Father Damien loved them as much as one could, even unto death, and never lost his faith. One week later, the day after Thanksgiving, I was home doing a variety of minor chores when my wife walked in the house, presumably from running errands. With a half smile on her face, she tapped me twice on the chest and said, “Get your coat, we have to talk in the garage.” It was an odd request, one that I met with great trepidation. As we walked out of the house, she mentioned that it was not going to be an easy conversation. The door to the garage was still open, and with no cars parked inside, we sat in two camping chairs that had been set up facing the driveway, reminiscent of how people in my middle-class upbringing hung out in the summer. My wife pulled out an envelope with the name of a law firm at the top, and proceeded to read me what was, quite seriously, a “Dear John” letter. She began to share the most painful words I have ever heard. It began with generic compliments of me as a wonderful dad, and how we built a great family and she would always love me but...she could no longer love me as my wife. I sat there listening to the words the words no man ever wants to hear wash over me, in waves of shock and astonishment. The letter continued to speak about how proud she was of me for the things I was accomplishing, and how God was working in my life—but we were going separate ways and could no longer be married. She did want us to be co-parents, and believed that we could be a model to others in terms of how to handle co-parenting. She finished the letter, handed me the envelope with the letter she had just read. Also enclosed was an official letter from her lawyer, and some brochures with resources for me about how the divorce process would work. She stood up, mentioned that I would need to get a lawyer, possibly take out some new credit cards, and went to grab her purse to leave. I quickly got up from my seat, and hurriedly asked a series of questions, which essentially all amounted to “why?” She just as quickly responded with how it wasn’t one thing, it was a bunch of little things and such. I was in too much of a daze to try and pursue the conversation any further. I watched her walk out of the house through the garage, into her car and drive away. She did not tell me where she was going, and I didn’t even have time to ask about where she, or more importantly, my son would be; he was out with a family friend at the time. I returned into the house, placed my hands on the kitchen counter and tried to catch my breath, all the while my mind racing with thoughts of what to do, what next, who should I call? Somehow, I felt the best move was to physically leave the house, get myself moving and start driving; maybe that would help me to process my next moves and clear my head a little. I had nowhere in particular to go, but I knew I needed to start making phone calls to get opinions and support. Regardless of whether this might all be a bad dream, or something that might blow over in a few days, I still needed to protect myself. I drove to the nearby parking lot of a big box retail store that was mostly quiet, even though it was still Black Friday. I took my phone out and began to make a mental list of who to contact. The first call was to a lawyer friend, who specialized in special needs families and had been divorced himself. He was supportive but brutally realistic about my situation. He also reminded me of what a quality guy he thought I was and gave me the name of the attorney he used in his own divorce. I followed that up with a call to another special needs dad, who had also been divorced and gone through a very messy separation. He was equally supportive, but made it clear how much I had to defend myself and how to best emphasize my rights as a father, especially since our state was strong on fathers’ rights. The next call was the hardest, as I texted a close friend from our old church who knew our family very well, and had actually just visited us at home for Thanksgiving. He was stunned, and called me back, thinking I might not be serious. When he realized I wasn’t, I explained what I knew; he agreed to meet me the next day to discuss what had happened and what my next move should be. That night I slept alone in the house, the first of several nights sleeping alone while my wife and son were presumably at her mother’s house. I wasn’t actually sure, because she never told me. I really couldn’t call what happened sleep, as it more resembled crouching in a fetal position; I shifted between mourning for what I had lost and searching my mind for any possible bit of explanation as to why it happened. The next day, I spoke with my friend from church, then connected with several other folks over the next few days: friends in the counseling world, pastors, ministry leaders, and other special needs parents. None of them could give me an explanation; all of them suggested one theory or another that I essentially couldn’t prove. What made those days even more challenging was the fact that my wife would text me with offers to see my son, to have dinner or hang out with him at the mall, where she would meet me for a pick-up and drop-off.
IT WAS IN THOSE MOMENTS, THOSE QUIETER MOMENTS IN BETWEEN THE CALLS AND TEXTS, WAITING FOR MY SON, THAT A STARK REALIZATION CAME OVER ME: WHEN I CONSIDERED ALL OF THE SPECIAL NEEDS DADS I HAD SUPPORTED OVER THE YEARS, ALL OF THE ONES WHO WERE SINGLE, GOING THROUGH OR HAVE BEEN THROUGH DIVORCE, I REALIZED NOW THAT I WAS NOW COUNTED AMONG THEM.
Just as my friend had spoken of Father Damien and his community of lepers in the play just a week before, I had always thought of myself as part of you, but now I was truly “one of you.” I was now part of a world I never thought I would be, whether I wanted to be part of or not. Over the next several days, my wife and son returned home. I willingly moved into the guest bedroom, while we began the slow and difficult process of doing life apart, each of us taking responsibility for different days and times with our son. I connected with my friend’s lawyer, and we began to develop a legal foundation for my defense and protection in the divorce process. My wife and I continued to meet with our long-time marriage counselor. My wife had actually spoken to this counselor privately before making the decision to go ahead with the divorce. The counselor was still supportive of us working on the marriage if that’s what we wanted to do. I certainly did, and stated that quite clearly to my wife in our sessions, communicating the love I still had, and how I would do anything to repair and work on the marriage. My wife, however, was already in a different place, so the negotiation of how and what our divorce would look like was now the focus. I reluctantly agreed. I privately communicated to our counselor that I still held out hope, despite all the odds. The next several months have seen our family become quite different. The large wall calendar where my wife would scribble work nights, doctor appointments and date nights was replaced by a calendar app. Now we both contribute all of those same arrangements, with date nights replaced by lawyer meetings and counseling sessions. We shared the time with our son fairly equally, each of us sharing therapy duties and split time on evenings and weekends, though now neither of us report where or who we’ll be with when the other one has our son. I agreed to move into an apartment in March, and so the “single person” rituals of shopping for furniture, packing boxes and cramming them into a storage unit, and securing my buddy and his truck to help me move took up a lot of my spare time. It was truly depressing some days, but very hopeful on others. I enjoyed taking my mind off of the uncomfortable silence that existed in the house then by thinking about what the future holds. In April, amidst the backdrop of COVID and the required quarantines we all experienced, my divorce was finalized with our attorneys and a judge via conference call. I was in incredible pain and expressed as much to friends and family through social media and texts. I even received a text from my friend from the Father Damien play, who let me know he was thinking about me. While I reflected on how surreal it was to have a 15-year marriage end on a phone call, I also considered how much more difficult this would have been in person, standing in a room full of people: some I knew and some strangers, but all of them there witnessing the end. I struggled to bring myself back to a place of hope and gratitude, and forced myself to remember all of the times I have been led out of dark times by my precious God. There is one more piece of hope that I hold onto in my darker hours, and it actually goes back to my friend’s Father Damien play. At the end of the play, when after the character has gone through the whole retelling of his life at the leper colony, has now passed away and is metaphorically saying goodbye to this world, he pauses, and turns to a cross hanging above the altar where the show was performed. He raises his hands in prayer before the cross, and slowly and profoundly utters these words: “Whatever I have done, for good, or ill, I am your priest and You are my God. I trust in Your prodigious love.” I don’t believe it was an accident that I watched that show one week before the events that began to end my marriage unfolded, nor was it an accident that those words were the last I heard that night. They were a truth for Damien, grounded in his faith and love for the God that never abandoned him, even until the very end. I too seek to have that trust, trust in the prodigious love that will carry me through even this passing away.
Originally written for Key Ministry, November 2020, Reprinted with Permission
Connect with John on his website: www.johnfelageller.com