On Reunions and Re-Establishing Sisterly and Fatherly Ties

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July 27, 2015

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When my 15-year old daughter was younger, she was timid when it came to doing anything without me, her mom. We were tight, the only thing that mattered was the two of us. After all, my side of the family lived a few states away and there were no dad or siblings. When I married my (now) ex, she started developing close ties with him, too, which was fantastic.

She also got to two older step-sisters, which she mostly worshiped. And then we adopted her younger sister. All of a sudden, she had a family, a large one, with siblings, a dad, two sets of grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. I was so happy to see my little girl, then just five-years-old, learning to love and trust and open up.

She loved her dad like no other. Even though our relationship was a disaster from pretty much the beginning and was extremely high conflict, Morgan was secure. I watched my tiny child start coming out of her shell—diving off the diving board, fishing, being the first to dive into the ocean from a boat in the Bahamas, swimming with sharks, playing with snakes, and even diving off cliffs in Maui. She child was becoming a daredevil.

When I decided to leave my ex in the wake of my cancer diagnosis, I asked my daughter if she wanted to stay with Daddy or move with me. I was leaving San Diego and heading to Salt Lake City to begin cancer treatments, which over the next ten months would include two stem cell transplants, massive amounts of chemo, and going bald (I lost my eyelashes and eyebrows, too). “I’m going with you, Mommy!” she said without hesitating. While she loved her dad, no way could she be without me for more than just a day or two, and even that was hard.

So off we went, Morgan, my younger daughter, Siena, and I starting a new life, away from our beloved beach and this time surrounded by four seasons, mountains, and even snow (and illness). While our new life started taking shape, Morgan was nonetheless in deep pain and I could see it. She was no longer seeing or talking to her dad at all. Total silence. It took some of her mojo away. That confidence and lightness in step was heavier, sadder. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.

In my attempts to drown out the deafening silence, I did my best to distract, keeping life so full and busy, hoping she wouldn’t notice. Trips, more trips, more activities, retail therapy, Mommy-Daughter dates, snowboarding, tumbling classes—you name it. But it didn’t work. We spent many nights talking and crying, trying to understand how her dad could just vanish. “What did I do wrong?” she would ask. I had no answers.

This summer, I realized that it was time to start providing opportunities for Morgan to start spending time away from me. It was painful, I hate being away from my children, but it was time. I signed her up for several camps where she would travel alone. The first, a Girl’s Camp for five days in the mountains. The second, a writer’s camp at a nearby college. For six days, she lived in the dorms and met all new friends. The third, a Bible camp for a week. This one was very “out there”—they went boating, hiking, and played paintball. She came home happy, with bruises and contusions all over her body.

In addition, I took her on some trips recently—a cruise in March where, for the first time in ages, she was able to jump in the ocean and snorkel, go zip lining, and cave tubing. New(er) experiences. We also went to Seattle and Canada where she swam in lakes and stayed up almost all night wiring together fireworks for the 4th of July.

But the zinger was this past weekend when she completed her first flight alone. Last Friday, I drove her to the airport and while I choked back tears, I watched Morgan board a plane for San Diego to visit her (former) step sister. Kellie and Morgan were going to spend the weekend together. I was so nervous. While we have kept in touch with Kellie and saw her every summer, this was far different. Because other than Kellie, Morgan had lost contact with that entire side of the family—her other former step-sister, her grandmother, aunts, uncle, cousins—and most importantly, her dad. This trip held no promises other than sister bonding with Kellie but who knew how it would all turn out.

Here was my once fearful child who was now 15 years old. She was different. Wiser. Smarter. She had this. “Are you sure you want to go?” I asked. “Of course!” And off she went through Security, with a quick wave of her hand.

I picked her up at the airport last night and those two days in San Diego, I believe, it was a game changer for her. The weekend turned out to be a reunion facilitated by Kellie who did what no older adult could (or would) do—re-unify. Because not only did Morgan hang out with Kellie, but her older step-sister, Nicky, joined them and, surprise of surprises, her dad. It’s been three years since she has seen either.

They hit up the beach, went cliff diving, went to a movie and a Padres game. While all of those things are nice, what mattered were re-establishing ties, feeling connected, and loved. Is this the wave of the future? Can she, once again, have a relationship with her dad? And a real relationship with her sisters? I am so afraid to even dream that the answer is yes. Please, let it be yes.

The reality is that my ex and I do not belong together, but the children loved him completely and purely as children do. No strings attached. Watching my children hurt and worrying about what long-term abandonment issues they may have has kept me up countless nights. The fact that this weekend may have begun to erase that, to provide more confidence and security for an innocent, awesome child who is simply trying to learn, love and grow, is a hopeful, amazing feeling.

I am crossing fingers and, today, I feel hope and joy.

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