Across the room, the case name is announced by a booming voice. As I stand from my spot a few rows back, I watch as the mother of my son and her husband rise together. I can see in her frame her movements are achingly slow, pained. Her husband’s helps her shuffle from between the benches into the aisle a few paces ahead. I pause before I follow suit.
But then, she stops. She turns, her thin arm extended towards me, palm up: inviting me forward to join this rag-tag family.
Months ago, when I initially got the call, I assumed it was to talk about when I’d next be state side to spend time with our son. Between the travel and time difference, we have to put in effort to coordinate my visitation. But, that time her tone was different.
She sounded weary and worried. Understandably so. Cancer was killing her and she was calling her ex to plan for her death.
Looking back, I am ashamed of my initial reaction. My knee jerk, “why is she doing this to me.”
But after significant thought and soul searching, it was hard to tell her “no.” Impossible to tell my son “no.” Because fighting this, saying no, would have meant ripping everything from him. For my ego, because I’m his father.
Before my thoughts can wander more, I’m jolted back into the moment by her icy hand’s touch to mine. We walk forward to toward the attorneys and judge before us, parting ways to our separate tables. As I sit down, my eyes connect with my attorney’s.
In Georgia, a Petition for Equitable Care-giver doesn’t terminate a parent’s rights. You’d still be his father. The memory of that consultation rings in my head.
You don’t have to consent to the Petition or to custody.
Under these circumstances, the Court will have questions about the best interests of your son.
What do you think is in his bests interests? That question made me suddenly chuckle in pain. I’d never really had to think about it or him like that. He is my son; I love him. But, also, he is my buddy. When I visit, we watch movies and make pillow forts; eat junk food and have no bedtime.
Our time is always short to accommodate work. Two days in February; three in April; sometimes a full week in June if I can swing it; three days in August, September, and October because it is the slower season; and maybe a full week sometime in December to celebrate all the holidays.
I’ve never had to take him to the doctor… I don’t even know if he gets scared of shots and needles… I’ve never spoken to a teacher about his behavior in class… I don’t even know the teacher’s name…
The judge’s voice cracks the trance holding me captive; her words strong and commanding. “This is a unique and heartbreaking circumstance. If I know one thing, though, your little boy is very loved.
“I commend the parties – mom” the judge gazes down on her fragile frame, “dad” before shifting toward me, and “step-dad” then bouncing back to the husband who is holding his wife’s hand securely “for working together in the best interests of this little boy, and ensuring there is stability for him at the end of the day.” The silent part still rings loudly for the courtroom to hear; everyone there can see: the Mother is dying.
“For the reasons set forth in the Consent Agreement, I grant the Petition for Equitable Caregiver – naming the step-father” the judge looks to the husband again with a subtle nod, “as a person eligible for custody in the best interest of the minor child.” My chest squeezes, but my heart is at peace.
“I further grant the parties’ executed parenting plan outlining the father’s” the judge pauses to nod towards me approvingly, “liberal visitation and communication with the minor child.” The squeezing subsides as quickly as it appeared. I’ve done the right thing.
“This is the order of the Court. I wish you all a good day.” Bang goes the gavel.
Time moves painfully slow, but eventually my son is barreling toward me for a hug: blissfully, innocently unaware. We’ll make a pillow fort tonight. And when it is time, when he is older, he will understand. This is his family legacy.