The Summer of Cancer and Custody Battles

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NOTE: The names have been changed to protect the innocent and disguise the guilty.

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I lie on the cold metal table, feeling the burn of the radiation. I had been diagnosed with Breast Cancer, and I had a Lumpectomy, which is surgery to remove a small mass of Cancer while leaving the breast mostly intact. I also had a lymph node removed from the underarm area, and it was tested to be sure I did not have Lymphoma, which is Cancer of the lymph system. I am two weeks away from turning 48. I remember back to my father, who died of Lymphoma two weeks before he turned 48.  But this Cancer is a mosquito bite compared to what is really bothering me. I am also fighting for custody of my son.

Lying there on the radiation treatment table, I can see the computer screen over on the counter a few feet away. It lists the names of the patients that are scheduled today and their birthdates. I know that there is really no such thing as privacy in this cyber world. I’m not the kind of person to complain about that. What did bother me was when the screen changed to the Coldwell Banker Real Estate “for sale” page, and I could see that someone was scrolling through the houses for sale, and clicking on the pictures, while they were supposed to be monitoring my radiation treatment.

I think about the night that my husband, Mark, and I came home to find legal papers duct-taped to the front door, informing me that I was scheduled to appear in court the following Monday morning. My ex-husband was filing for full custody of my son. That gave me exactly one day to find a lawyer. The papers were dated two weeks prior, which means he purposely held the papers until the last minute to catch me unprepared.

I felt a great sense of betrayal. Although I had learned long ago not to trust my ex, I had hoped that for my son’s sake he would keep to his word.

Mark told me not to worry; we would find an attorney in the morning. I am always thankful that Mark stuck with me through all these “roller coaster” years

When Ron and I divorced, I had been given residential custody of my son, Jacob. He saw his father almost every weekend.  In 2006, we had agreed that Jacob would spend 7th and 8th grade with his father, and come back to me for 9th grade. Now his father was reneging on our deal.

I was scared that my son would not come back home with me. Sometimes I was downright terrified.

My son Jacob wanted to come back home with me so that he could go to high school with his friends. I was angry and upset that his father would do this to him. I can understand him wanting to hurt me, but why did he want to hurt my son?

It felt as if my world was being ripped apart. Fighting Cancer itself is enough to put one’s life on hold; but to couple it with the possibility of losing custody of my son was agonizing.

All these thoughts rush through my mind, as I endure the Radiation Treatment.

Finally today’s Radiation Treatment is over, and my mother drives me home. I always take a nap after the treatments. I am tired physically and emotionally. My mother is staying with us. She helps with housework and drives me back and forth to the hospital for treatments.

Later that day, my friend Deb comes over. I am grateful to have a friend who is not afraid to dig her fingers into my dirty hair with shampoo. Normally, Deb takes care of dogs. She feeds, walks, shampoos and dog-sits. But today she is taking care of me. I am unable to wash my own hair. I am unable to lift my right arm above my head, due to the stitches under my arm.

It’s a humbling experience, after spending my adult life being fiercely independent, to need help with basic hygiene. Deb rinses my hair, and wraps the towel around it. I thank her. I hope she understands how much I appreciate her help. She heads for the door to leave, and I thank her again.

The doorbell rings. It’s some other friends who have sent over a hot meal for dinner for my family. Sure, we could have had sandwiches or cereal; we are far from starving. But it feels so sweet to have someone care enough to cook and deliver a meal. The women in my Thursday Prayer Group are each taking turns bringing a meal each night. I know they are also praying for me. I can feel the good vibes. Knowing they are caring for me lightens the load.

Before I had made the decision to send Jacob to live with his dad, I had been attending a Bible study at my church. We were studying the section in The Book of Genesis where Abraham is told by God to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham is ready to trust God, and puts his son on the altar. As Abraham lifts the sword to kill his beloved son, and Angel of the Lord stops him. Abraham and Isaac walk back home together. Abraham had passed the test.

It seemed every time I flashed past the Christian radio station the story of Abraham and Isaac was on the radio. It was on television, as I flipped thru the channels. The story showed up again and again, in magazines in waiting rooms. God was trying to tell me something, quite obviously. So I was explaining all of this to my husband, Mark, as we drove down the Northway and a car passes us. I look up and the vanity license plate reads “ISAAC.” Okay, God, I get it now. I will trust you with my son.

The day after receiving the legal papers, I found an attorney who specialized in Divorce Law and Child Custody cases. I explained my situation. Ron and I had split up when Jacob was 2 years old. I had residential custody. In September 2005 I spent two weeks in a hospital for Depression. I stopped working and was hospitalized again in January of 2006. By the end of the school year, I decided after much prayer and consultation of friends, that I would send my son to live with his recently remarried father. This was to be temporary, for 7th and 8th grade, and then he would come back for high school.

Ron was suing for custody on the grounds that I was an unfit mother with severe psychological problems.  My attorney explained that since my son was 14, New York State would provide him with his own attorney, and that that Jacob’s decision of who he wanted to live with would carry a lot of weight in the judge’s decision. Also, I had not been re-hospitalized, I had remarried, and I had a much more stable situation.

I spoke to my son, and he said he wanted to come back with me. I explained that if he wanted to stay with his dad, please tell me now, and I would let him stay. He repeated, he wanted to come home.  We gave my attorney a retainer, and got ready to go to court.

My son wanted to come back home so that he could go to the private High School with his former friends. I had contacted the school and they had an opening. I sent the deposit money as another step of faith that they would hold the spot open for Jacob, and Jacob would be here to take it.

Mark took a day off from work, and drove me to the courthouse where I am summoned to appear. Mark finds a parking spot and we walk in circles for a while until we find the right building. I’m so nervous that I’m not thinking straight. I am grateful that Mark was willing to use his vacation days for something that was so opposite of a vacation.

The first court hearing was very preliminary. We went into a small room. The Judge’s desk was in the front of the room, and elevated higher than the tables for the defendant (me) and the plaintiff. I remember the courtroom was dark and cold, and there was a huge digital flashing red clock.  I watched the seconds clicking by. My hands shook with nervousness, and my stomach did flips. My ex’s attorney explained that the Plaintiff was seeking residential custody of Jacob. The judge gave us a date and time for the next hearing. It was over that fast.

For the second court hearing, Mark and I arrived early and sat in the crowded waiting area. We could overhear bits of others’ conversations. Some fathers were in jail on drug charges. Others had restraining orders against them. We heard one lawyer speak to her client in the midst of the room, and informed her that if she didn’t go to rehab, she would lose custody of her children. The woman refused to go to rehab, and left.

I had the usual pains in my stomach and shaking hands, sitting there nervously waiting for my name to be called.

We were finally called into the courtroom. This room was 4 times the size of the first courtroom. The Judge’s Bench was raised higher than the tables allocated for us. I breathed in cold air-conditioned air. It added to my nervousness. Ron’s lawyer explained that he wanted residential custody of Jacob. An appointment was scheduled for my son to speak with a court-appointed attorney.

At the third court hearing, my lawyer couldn’t make it, so she sent her partner. Now this guy could schmooze with the best of them. He spent the hour before my case, not talking to me or learning about my case, but chatting with the security guards about baseball.  This is my life you’re dealing with here, and you’re talking sports with the security guards? I didn’t confront him because I didn’t feel safe; a crappy lawyer was better than going into court without a lawyer at all…I hoped.

Once we entered the courtroom, my ex’s lawyer threw down the ammunition: I had been hospitalized for Depression and was unfit. My lawyer referred to me as “the respondent.” He did not even take the time to learn my name. He later sent me a bill for $250 for an hour of his time. We were actually in the court room approximately 10 minutes. I wrote my attorney a strong letter, saying I wanted her and not her partner. Thankfully, I never saw the partner again.

At this point I had learned that I had Cancer. I informed my attorney, and asked if this could be used against me. She assured me, no it couldn’t; but I knew my ex well enough to know he was never going to find out from me. Of course, I did not tell my son either.

My son met with his attorney and told him he wanted to come home and live with me.  Once again we went to court. Usually this is where it ends; Jacob was old enough to make his own choice. But my ex decided to kick it up a level: he was taking it to trial. But first, I would have to be analyzed by a State-Appointed Psychiatrist. Ron wanted them to dig into my Depression issues. It was bad enough to survive the Depression; now Ron planned to use it as ammunition against me.

I called the Psychiatrist. I sent the $1000 payment and was told I could not schedule an appointment until they received the payment from my ex, as he had to be tested as well.

Meanwhile, I was scheduled for the Lumpectomy.

Off to surgery I went, counting from 100 to 99 and then waking up in Recovery. The surgery itself was the easy part of this whole thing. The before and after were the difficult parts. During the surgery, they had also taken a lymph node, and the test came back clear. That was good news!

Also during surgery, a balloon-type device had been inserted into my breast. This was new technology that allowed a small radiation seed to be implanted so that a patient only needed 5 days of treatment instead of 6 weeks.

It felt like there was an alien in my body, I had to sleep sitting up. I was very uncomfortable.

We waited for my ex to contact the Psychiatrist, and put his $1000 on the table.  We were angry because my ex kept making us wait. We felt helpless because there was nothing we could do about it. The stress of waiting for the Custody Decision lingered all summer. We couldn’t just relax and enjoy the summer weather. My ex-husband still had control over my life. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Once you divorce someone, their issues are not supposed to affect you. I was wrong about that.

My husband and I put aside $10,000 out of our ‘emergency’ savings so that when we went to court, the money would be there. We needed a bigger house, and the money was originally allocated for that, but we put our house plans on hold. Between the Cancer and the custody battle, there really wasn’t much time to house shop. Too bad I hadn’t thought of house hunting DURING radiation……

So now my radiation treatments are over, but I am still tired from the radiation’s effect on my body.  I need to call the Psychiatrist yet again, to find out if my ex has ponied up the $1000 for his mental health exam. Nope, still no word from him. The custody trial is scheduled for next week.

I told Jacob that although he had made it clear that he wanted to come home, his dad was still fighting to keep him.

Finally, the phone rings, and it’s my lawyer, explaining that my ex “doesn’t want to fight anymore” and that my son can come back and live with me. Oh, thank you, God!

My son comes back to live with me, all is right with the world.

I am so thankful for my friends who took turns each night brining us a hot meal for dinner. It really made me feel important and cared for. I am thankful that my mother was able to come up and stay with us to drive me back and forth to radiation treatments. My husband, Mark, was always there, going through the bad times with me.

I am thankful that I had enough faith, that after laying my son on the altar, in a spiritual sense, God gave him back to me after I passed the test of trusting Him.

The summer of Cancer and Custody Battles has ended. I won both battles.

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