Chapter 20, april
There is a song that says, “Every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.” This was the season of new beginnings for me. However, it was also the beginning of the end…the end of peace and life as I once knew it.
The police officer that came to our home, the Friday of the email, was very kind. He advised us that once a call is made, law enforcement is obligated to do a health and welfare check on the children involved. We explained the situation to him and let him know that we would like to tell the children that he was a friend of ours, and as a treat they could look inside his police car. The officer was a former Marine and a single father, so he was happy to go along with our plan in order to make sure the boys were not frightened. He shook John’s hand, told him to stay strong, and that he was proud of what he was doing. He gave a quick Semper Fi and drove away.
We knew that our small victory would be short-lived. In fact, neither of us slept at all that night. Between the things the children had made us aware of, accompanied with the threats that were made by Loren, we were on guard until the morning came. We had no idea what she was capable of.
My imagination ran wild with thoughts of the front door being kicked in and the boys being taken in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. That may have been far-fetched, but as a mother myself, I knew that was exactly what I would have wanted to do.
Loren did not bust the door down, she did in fact drive back to North Carolina the next day. We did our best to keep busy and spend as much time with the boys as possible. We roasted marshmallows, had water gun wars, baked cookies, went to the beach, and played at the park. We even had dinosaur shirts made for all of us that fit our individual personalities. The very next day happened to be Mother’s Day. Loren reached out to John via email and requested to pick up the boys and spend the day with them, promising that she would return them after a few hours.
I remember that being the first time I was torn between standing by my man and listening to my heart. I had watched the man I now loved go through Hell, not knowing where his children where and if or when he would see them again.
As a mother myself, I could not imagine the thought of not being able to be with my children. Especially, on the one day out of the year I was supposed to be celebrated for giving them life. I also knew that I would never take my children away from their father and refuse him the opportunity to do the thing he loved most in the world – be a dad.
John had been threatened for so long that Loren’s family would help her afford the best attorney money could buy and that she would move the boys to Texas, in order to limit his ability to visit with them as much as possible. Unable to get professional advice due to the holiday weekend, John did what he thought was right at the time. He made the tough decision to not allow Loren to take the boys with her, for fear of them leaving the state – never to be heard from again. He did agree that she could FaceTime with the boys as much as she would like.
First thing Monday morning, we were able to speak with John’s attorney. He advised us that filing an ex parte would be our next step. At this point, it was essentially a first-come first-serve situation. The race was on to be the first in line to have the judge sign off as to where the children would remain and with whom they would remain, until we could get on the docket for a court appearance.
When we originally met with John’s attorney, as we said before, he was under the impression that this would be a quick divorce, and custody would be settled outside of court. Therefore, the attorney was not prepared to go to battle in what appeared to be a nightmare of a case. Being that John had to seek counsel elsewhere, he was not the lucky one who filed the ex parte first.
We were notified that Loren would be granted permission to have the children beginning Wednesday at 9am, and custody would alternate every other week until the judge could hear the case and grant temporary custody to one parent or the other.
The order also stated that Loren was not allowed to take the children out of the state until the judge heard our case. That provided John with a shred of relief.
Monday morning, John re-enrolled Jackson in Kindergarten. He had changed schools three times that year, and our argument would be that John was able to provide the stability that Jackson was not receiving with Loren. John sent Loren an email requesting that he bring the younger two boys to her at the time ordered by the judge, and he would bring Jackson after school. She did not agree and stated that John should not have re-enrolled him in school because when this was all over, she would be taking the boys back to Georgia and enrolling him there.
Given the details of the last few months we received from Jackson, along with the lack of communication between John and Loren, he felt it was best to contact Child Protective Services (CPS) in order to have the allegations of abuse on record. It was also advised that Jackson begin seeing a therapist to talk about the bold statements he was making against his mother. CPS believed that John did have a case and agreed to interview Loren and the children. A caseworker visited our home, and once the children were introduced to her and they were comfortable, she asked that John and I leave the room so she could speak with the oldest two children separately, one by one, and without coercion from any other adults. After speaking with the boys, she stated that she would submit her report, and someone would be in touch with us soon.
Wednesday came, and John hesitantly returned the boys to Loren. They met at the police station to swap the only thing that remained of the love they once shared.
Meanwhile, we went back to building the case that would prove John was just as capable of raising his children as their mother. In the beginning, the plan was never that John would be the primary guardian of the boys and Loren would be a secondary, or weekend, parent. John only wanted custody to be fair; he wanted just as much time with his boys as she would have. Once he hired his new attorney, it was presented to him that full custody of his children was absolutely an option. With all the evidence that was building against Loren, the attorney was confident that John stood a fighting chance at getting more than just the usual - every other weekend and two weeks in the summer – visitation schedule that was normally granted to fathers.
John explained it to me like so: for the past several years, he had been threatened that if he was not the type of husband he was expected to be, that he would not be allowed to be the type of father he wanted to be.
The safety, stability, and well-being of his children was first and foremost in his mind. Add to that what he had gone through over the last few months, the anger and resentment he held for Loren over not being allowed any communication with his children, and the calls that were still being made to his command, along with the lies that were being spread about him - John felt justified in his decision, with the advice of his attorney, to proceed with seeking full custody. In his mind, that was his right as a father and what was in the best interests of the children. Mix in a little vengeance – we had ourselves the makings of a catastrophe!
The day had come for John to pick up the boys for his scheduled visit. They returned with plenty to tell. The first being that “mom threw away our dinosaur shirts”. At the time, it infuriated me that Loren would do that. I then realized it had nothing to do with her being a bad person, but everything to do with her hatred for John and me.
Looking back now, we should not have entertained anything that the children said when they came back to our home. However, when you are angry and reaching for any thread of hope and evidence that would ensure you do not lose your children, adults will stoop to all sorts of levels.
We never pried them for details, but we did listen intently to every word that spilled freely from their little mouths. Per John’s attorney, we were to begin keeping a log of every interaction we had with Loren, along with every detail the children willingly described, as well as a recording of all phone calls between the two parties.
The next exchange with the children set the tone for all the exchanges thereafter: tense and anxiety filled. John decided that he wanted me to accompany him to drop the boys off. I did not think it was a good idea, but he insisted I go and that everything would be fine. We were meeting Loren at the police department, what could possibly go wrong? We showed up in typical John fashion – fifteen minutes prior to the time ordered. We waited anxiously in the truck while watching the boys swap Pokémon cards.
Loren pulled up, and my heart began to beat ten times faster. My emotions were all over the place. Given our history and this being the first time she would see John and I together as an official couple, I was not sure what to expect.
I did not know what I was supposed to do in that situation, so I just acted as I normally would. I was kind and helpful, taking the boys from John’s truck and gathering the items they would transport to their mother’s home – blankie, pacifier, and stuffed dino.
The boys asked to take their binders that contained the Pokémon cards we had purchased for them. John explained that he preferred the binders to stay at his house and they would be waiting for the boys when we picked them back up in a few days. Of course, children do not understand the division of property, and one binder was smuggled into the other vehicle.
John asked Loren to give it back to him, and she obliged…she gave it right back with a swift toss to my face. I was infuriated, but I knew better than to retaliate. Loren returned to her car and drove off, but not before tossing up her middle finger in our direction. There were cameras in the parking lot, giving us more fuel to add to our fire.
As the weeks went on, the exchanges became less pleasant. I am not proud of how I behaved, but at that time I was angry and felt justified.
During that time, I felt like there was a target on my back, and Loren was hitting bullseye with every shot she threw my way. John and I decided that I would attend every future pick-up and drop-off. On one hand, it was adding salt to the wound, on the other hand we were just waiting for the moment that Volcano Loren would erupt, giving us all the evidence that we needed to prove her unstable.
All the chaos left us very little time to enjoy our new relationship status: It’s Complicated. We were so in love. However, it did not feel like the right time to purchase a billboard downtown and advertise it to the world.
It seemed like all the free time we had was spent preparing for the custody battle that engulfed our lives. This was when things began to get extremely stressful. John did his best to comfort me and my insecurities about our relationship, while I did my best to be patient with him during this very difficult time.
One evening when I arrived home from work, he walked me into the bedroom where I found a swimsuit and robe waiting for me. He asked me to get changed and meet him outside. I did as he requested, and when I walked out the back door, he was waiting for me to join him in the hot tub.
He had the record player set up on the patio table and Ray Charles was serenading us with the first song John ever sang to me. We enjoyed a glass of wine and some refreshing conversation that did not involve attorneys and court dates. John stood up and grabbed a towel, then asked me to accompany him for a dance closer to the record machine. Being in his arms was one of my favorite places to be, so of course I accepted the offer.
He changed the record to Sam Cooke and took me by the hand. We began to dance slowly to the sweet sound coming from behind us. He pulled away to steal a kiss when something caught his eye.
“What is that on the record?” he asked.
I looked over and noticed something on top of the spindle…something that sparkled and shined even under the dim night sky.
When I turned back to face John, he was down on one knee. “Will you allow me to love you forever and make me the happiest man in the entire world? April, will you be my bride?”
Tears flooded my eyes, I could not breath, and my voice was no longer in working order. I was shocked, surprised, nervous, and elated! Why did this perfect man want to marry me? What had I done for God to bless me enough to be loved forever by this amazing creature standing before me? I was happy, finally. For the next few days I wore proudly, a shiny diamond on my finger and a bright smile on my face. Nothing could bring me down from where I was currently residing – Cloud Nine!
That weekend, John and I planned a small celebration dinner with the few close friends we had made privy to our secret. For a split second, we would enjoy an evening that centered around our love and nothing more. That excitement was short-lived.
John asked me to check his phone for an email he received about an upcoming trip we were planning. In doing so, I noticed another email sent from his attorney. Normally, he would call me the moment he received any word regarding the case. I said, “John there was an email from your attorney in your inbox, what was it about?” He immediately became nervous and reached for his phone. That only intensified my curiosity. Instead of handing the phone over to John, I decided to open the email.
The words I read at that moment felt like a dagger going right straight through my soul.
His attorney explained that she did not believe the divorce between John and Loren was handled properly. She went on to say that she wanted to prove Loren’s character to be less than honest. In order to do so, she would need their divorce would be retracted…John was still legally married to Loren. The day we were meant to celebrate the beginning of our commitment to one another quickly went from joyous to ominous, faster than the North Carolina sky in the midst of a hurricane.
During the madness, there was one thing that John and Loren agreed on – neither of them wanted to be married to the other.
At all costs, they were willing to join forces to prove that their divorce was legal…even if that meant John’s attorney would not agree to represent him any longer. Thankfully, it never came to that, but for the few short weeks leading up to us learning of the final verdict, things were less than peaceful. Once that nightmare was behind us, we began to focus on the future – we were getting married!
I was so excited to begin making plans for our wedding. However, we still had one dark cloud looming over our happy ending – we were expecting a call from John’s attorney that would give us a date for the custody hearing. While waiting impatiently for the call, we spent all our free time praying for God’s will and documenting our travels to and from South Carolina, where we were ordered to meet Loren and exchange the children.
We had gone from one police station to another for the dreaded swap, knowing full well that I was more unwanted than an ingrown toenail. Loren made it her mission to make me as uncomfortable as possible. I kept praying and had faith that one day, she would find something she enjoyed more than she disliked me.
Anxiety arrived with every email, text, and phone call we received. The most exasperating news came in the form of a letter. Who knew that one piece of paper could bring with it so much adversity?
One single date would decide the fate of our future…July 12, 2017. This would be the day that a complete stranger would adjudicate the custody of three little humans that I had grown to love with my whole heart. This would be the day that would change our lives…for better or worse.