I missed Luca’s phone call a couple weeks ago. Francesca and I were coming back from my dad’s memorial. Our plane was delayed and we had camped out on the floor of a tiny airport on the east coast. I handed her the sandwich I bought for her at the airport cafe. When I reached in my pocket and took out my iPhone to check the time, I saw Luca’s name staring up at me from the screen with the words “Voice Mail” underneath. I’d had the phone on “vibrate” but hadn’t felt the buzz through my jeans pocket.
My stomach jumped into my throat. The last time I’d spoken to Luca was a couple weeks earlier, when he’d called to announce that I was not “an active participant” in his life and he wouldn’t see me until I started making better decisions, which I took to mean the decisions his dad thought were best.
So I was stunned to see that he’d left me a voice message. I felt all trembly and short-breathed, as if I’d missed a call from an old boyfriend who’d broken my heart. I held the phone to my ear and in the nanoseconds that it took for the message to replay, my mind tossed out different reasons for Luca’s call. Perhaps he regretted not attending his grandfather’s memorial and wanted to know what he’d missed? Maybe he was calling just to yell at me again? Had something bad happened to him, and his dad or his dad’s fiancee called on his phone to tell me he was in the hospital?
And then I heard Luca’s voice. Except that it didn’t sound like him. He was sobbing. His voice sounded so tiny and young that I thought I was listening to Franny. But how could Franny, who was sitting right next to me, have left me a message on Luca’s phone?
“Mom, my dad’s being really, really mean to me…I need your help, please call me…!”
I panicked. A couple months earlier, Franny confessed that her dad and Luca fought so much that she got scared and wanted to spend more time with me. I could only imagine the chokehold Prince had on Luca, all the hoops he was forcing him to jump through so he would be readmitted to the fancy private school from which he was expelled last fall: social skills groups, individual therapy, family therapy, tutors, community service, extra homework assignments.
Franny had told me that sometimes her dad would corner Luca in a room and the two would start screaming at each other. I imagined Luca darting around Prince, bolting to his room and locking the door, then calling me.
I called him back but got the recorded message, “The Google subscriber you are trying to reach is not available at this time.”
I’ve gotten this message a lot when I try to call Luca. So I suspected that his dad had heard him calling me, then blocked my phone number so my call wouldn’t get through. I texted Luca, but played it on the down-low in case Prince checked his texts. I just wrote that I’d gotten his message and asked him to call me back. I got no response. The hours wore on. I texted Luca again when we changed planes, but still no response.
I knew I had to play it cool. If I called Prince to ask what happened, he would deny everything and then perhaps punish Luca and Luca might not ever feel safe enough to call me again. So I waited the rest of the night for a text, another call from Luca. But the phone was silent.
Over the course of the next week, I called Luca but got the same recording that he was unavailable. Scenes of what might have happened played through my mind. Remembering how he sobbed, the desperation in his voice, I felt sick that he had reached out to me, after so many months of pushing me away, and I hadn’t been there.
I remembered when Luca still lived with me, all the nights he burst into a non-compliant rage and had issued similar 911 calls to his dad, screaming that Atticus and I were being mean (because we’d set a limit) and begging for help. I knew that Prince doesn’t understand the concept of “splitting”, a primitive ego defense in which someone views people as “all good” or “all bad.” So when Prince had gotten these calls from Luca, he believed that Atticus and I were horrible, incompetent parents terrorizing Luca. Thus the escalation to our current custody battle, in which I have to defend myself against allegations of neglect, sabotage, and unfit motherhood:
“She refused to let Luca have an MRI when he broke his knee!” Fact: the x-ray was negative and I asked the surgeon if waiting a week before subjecting Luca to more, possibly unnecessary radiation, was reasonable. She said it was.
“She wants to sabotage Luca by not sending him to a good school!” Fact: Luca has had social and behavioral issues since kindergarten and was expelled from school for drugs last fall. He has been on probation at his current alternative school for non-compliance and was recently busted, again, for smoking pot off-campus. I have requested a school placement specialist to determine the appropriate school setting for Luca, since he has struggled at every school he’s attended.
“She lied when she said the police came to her house because Luca was out of control!” Fact: I have police records which I have given to Prince that clearly state the police observed Luca disrespecting me.
As agonizing as it remains not to know what happened that night that Luca called, I know that Prince is not physically abusive. I know Luca wasn’t in real harm. He was overwhelmed by his father’s demands, and in that moment saw his dad as “all bad,” and reached out for me. For one sliver in time, I had been “all good” in Luca’s mind.
Now, however, I am “all bad” again. When I finally got Luca on the phone earlier this week to ask him to come out with me for Mother’s Day this Sunday, he declined. “No, I don’t want to go,” he said curtly. I sighed when I hung up, envisioning him having a Mother’s Day brunch at the country club with his dad and his dad’s fiancee. I imagined him giving his dad’s fiancee a flowery card signed, “I love you, Luca.” I imagined Luca at the buffet, loading fruit and muffins on his plate, explaining, smiling, to inquiring guests that he was celebrating Mother’s Day with his mother, then gesturing to his dad’s fiancee. And people who didn’t know me, who didn’t know the story, would think, “what a nice boy, look how he loves his mother.”
Last night I replayed the voice message, listened again to Luca’s small voice and sobs, begging for help. I heard him say, “Mom.” I replayed the message several more times, just to hear “Mom…Mom…Mom.”
There. I have proof. For a moment, Luca had thought of me as his mother. He knew I loved him and would want to help him. I will be replaying that message often in the weeks to come, as the custody evaluation plays out. I’ve gotten mixed messages from the Evaluator. He has told me both that he doesn’t like to give one parent legal custody, but that sometimes he does just that when there is too much conflict between parents.
So I have decided to give Prince decision-making power for Luca. He can pick his school, his therapist, his doctor. I am offering that trade, begging, groveling, for the right to retain shared legal custody. For the right to remain my son’s mother. Because I know, in some deep, small part of himself, and perhaps only for fleeting moments, my son still needs me.