A Sense of Symmetry Pt. 11byKarennaC©
Julie took the stand. Her performance, Dani thought later, was worthy of an Oscar. In tears, she told of how she had been an innocent teenager seduced by an older man. (She had been eighteen when she met Ben; he had been six years older.) She had suffered through an accidental pregnancy (as accidental as the three she had miscarried?) and had been deserted three months into the pregnancy. (If she really had been deserted, it must have been by the new boyfriend, because she was the one who had deserted Ben.) Drug and alcohol addictions had been aggravated by the stress of unsupported single motherhood. (Even Julie's own parents had said that Ben had been a responsible father.)
"Ms. Ryan, how did you feel when you learned that Ben's lover had taken custody of your son?" Warner asked.
"Horrible," Julie said, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue Warner handed her.
"Objection," said Martin. "Mrs. Sheridan has stated that she and Mr. Mills were not lovers during the last several years."
"Sustained," the judge said. "Mr. Warner, you will refer to Danielle Sheridan by name only."
"Yes, Your Honor," Warner said. "Ms. Ryan, you feel you have the resources now to care for your son?"
"Yes," Julie replied, glaring at Dani.
"Where are you employed, Ms. Ryan?"
Julie named a company that Dani had never heard of. "I'm earning nine dollars an hour right now, but I'm still in their training phase."
"And how long will that be?"
"Until January thirty-first. Then I'll be relocated and my pay will go up to ten an hour."
"Yes. The company's main headquarters are in Waltham, Massachusetts. That's where I'd been living for the last year. They sent me here to Portland for training, and I'll be sent back to Waltham when I finish the training."
"I see. And what will your child care arrangements be in Waltham?"
"I have a cousin who lives there, who stays home with her kid. She said she'll watch Sean for me."
"And while you're still in Maine?"
"My parents are going to stay in Portland till I move. They're staying with friends, and my mother will come to my place to watch Sean while I work."
"And you will be able to ensure Sean's contact with his grandparents after the move?"
"My parents are considering moving to Waltham."
Martin took over questioning. "Ms. Ryan, you state you had addictions to drugs and alcohol?"
"How long has it been since you completed a rehabilitation program?"
"Ms. Ryan, why did you leave your son in the care of your parents after he was born?"
"I felt that I was a poor parent, and that my parents would take better care of Sean than I could."
"Ms. Ryan, isn't it true that, rather than Benjamin Mills abandoning you during your pregnancy, you left him when you became involved with another man?"
Dani held her breath. Would Julie answer? "Yes, it's true," Julie said.
"And were you living with this man when Sean was born?"
"Ms. Ryan, isn't it true that the man with whom you were living at the time of Sean's birth had a criminal record that included time served for drug dealing and child molestation?"
"Yes, it's true!" Julie said defensively. "That's why I took Sean to my parents!"
"So, rather than taking your child and leaving this man, you chose to leave your child and continue your relationship with your boyfriend?"
Julie looked helplessly at her lawyer, who seemed unable to think of any grounds for an objection. "Yes," she said quietly.
"No further questions," Martin said.
"Does either party have any more witnesses?" the judge asked.
"No, Your Honor," both lawyers said at once.
"I would like to hear from the social worker involved with the case."
Kendra Holmes took the stand and presented her report. She had nothing bad to say about the Sheridans; the only problem she found with Julie was that Julie's apartment was a one-bedroom. "But she has set up that bedroom for Sean, sleeping in the living room herself. And it is my understanding that she has arranged rental of a two-bedroom apartment when she returns to Massachusetts."
"You found no adverse conditions in either home?" the judge asked.
"Your Honor, while I would not necessarily term this an adverse condition, I did notice that the Sheridan home seems to be a very busy place. This is understandable with a family of five, especially when two of those five are toddlers. However, Sean seemed rather quieter during my visit than one might expect from a child his age, which led me to wonder if he might not be feeling overwhelmed and possibly ignored in that setting."
Dani cursed to herself. Of course Sean had been quiet during Kendra's visit; he didn't know her! "Is there anything else, Ms. Holmes?" the judge asked.
"No, Your Honor."
"Then I will call a one-hour recess for lunch while I consider the case. All parties will return at twelve thirty."
"What do you think our chances are?" Dani asked Martin as they left the courtroom.
"Honestly, I couldn't say. We have a strong case, but so does Julie."
"So what should we do now?" Jason asked.
"Take Sean, go to lunch, and try to think about something pleasant for the next hour."
* * *
Dani and Jason took Sean and Phyllis to Burger King for lunch. They would rather have gone somewhere more special, but they allowed Sean to choose the location. On the walk back to the courthouse, they stopped at a toy store. "You can pick any toy you want," Dani told Sean.
Sean, to their surprise, chose a dollhouse family of five dolls. "It us," he explained. "Mommy Dani, Jason, Anna, Sean, and Melanie."
"Are you sure that's what you want?" Jason asked.
Sean nodded. "Now I see you all time," he said.
"Sean, the judge might let you stay with Dani and Jason," Phyllis said.
"No," the boy said sadly. "My Daddy telled me."
"He keeps saying that!" Phyllis exclaimed, exasperated.
"It's true," Dani said gently.
"I know, but that doesn't make it any easier to hear!"
They paid for Sean's dolls, and returned to the courthouse. "I've considered this case carefully," the judge said. "On one hand, I have a family, chosen as guardians by the custodial parent before his death, who wish the child to remain with them, and who have shown themselves able to care for the child. On the other hand, I have the child's mother, who has taken many steps to regain custody of her child.
"This was a difficult decision. I do not wish to disrupt Sean; he's had enough of that in his life. However, Ms. Ryan has shown herself to be well on the way to being a good parent to Sean. I believe that the Sheridans genuinely care for the boy, but they have known him only a short time, and they have two children of their own. I cannot, in good conscience, award custody to them in the presence of a capable, biological parent. I therefore am awarding custody of the minor child, Sean Joseph Ryan, to his mother, Julie Ryan."
Dani was stunned. Jason seemed about to cry. "Your Honor, may we discuss visitation rights for my clients?" Martin said.
"Your Honor, we do not feel that visitation is called for in this case," Warner said. "The Sheridans are not related to the child, and have essentially been functioning only as foster parents."
"The Sheridans signed documents designating them legal guardians of the child," Martin countered. "We feel that it would make the transition easier for Sean if he still had contact with them."
"Your Honor, we feel the opposite," Warner said. "Sean has not had much contact with his mother in the past year, and therefore does not have a relationship with her. He needs time to make the adjustment to living with her. We feel that the relationship he has developed with the Sheridans would interfere in Julie's attempt to build a relationship with him."
"Both sides have made good arguments in this matter," the judge said, "and for that reason, I will suggest a compromise. For three months, the Sheridans may have contact with Sean by letter only. Ms. Ryan, any letters received from the Sheridans will be read to Sean exactly as written. At the end of those three months, the Sheridans may repetition this court for instatement of full visitation rights."
No contact for three months. With those words, Dani felt the world fall out from under her.
"You did your best," Ben said.
"Am I going to see you every time I faint?" Dani asked.
"Are you planning to faint on a regular basis?" He sobered. "No, you won't be seeing me."
"Is Sean going to be all right, or is Julie going to hurt him again?"
"Don't worry. I'll still be with him. He may even still see me, until he's older and Julie convinces him he's imagining it."
"I'm sorry, Ben," Dani said, finally letting the tears come.
"Don't cry," Ben said. "You tried. No one else would have done as much."
"We won't see Sean again, will we."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that. The universe still has its sense of symmetry. I have to go now, Dani. Please don't forget me."
"I love you, Ben," Dani whispered as she came to.
Jason was kneeling beside her. "Dani, are you all right?" he asked.
"I'll have to be," Dani replied. She held out her hand, and Jason took it and helped her to her feet. "Come on," Dani said. "Let's go say goodbye to Sean."
* * *
Sean was allowed to go home with them that night. He didn't stop crying until they were home. Anna started crying when they got home, because her playtime with Allie had been cut short. "We could have stayed longer!" Anna insisted.
"Anna, Sean was crying," Dani said. "Daddy and I wanted to get home so we could try to calm him down."
"He's not crying now," Anna pointed out. "Let's go back to Allie's."
"Anna, drop it," Jason said, more harshly than he probably meant. Anna burst into tears again.
Dani sat down, holding Melanie, and Sean climbed up beside her. Anna sat on Dani's other side. "I think everyone's kind of sad right now," Dani said.
"Melanie not sad," Sean said.
"Yeah, she is," Anna argued. "She isn't smiley-face."
"I don't think Melanie understands what's happening," Dani said. "But if she does, then I'm sure she's sad too."
"I don't understand neither," Anna said.
"I not live here now," Sean said.
"We knowed that," Anna said.
"The judge say it now," Sean said.
"Anna, tonight's the last night that Sean will live with us," Dani explained. "When we saw the judge today, he said Sean should live with his mommy. So, tomorrow morning, his mommy will come pick him up and take him to her home."
"But we'll visit, right?" Anna asked.
Jason shook his head. "Anna, we won't be able to visit Sean for a while," he said. "The judge said we can't even talk to him on the phone until he's lived with his mommy for a while. But we can still send him letters and pictures."
"I wanna visit him!" Anna wailed.
Sean, having recovered from his crying fit, was surprisingly calm. "No cry, Anna," he said.
"I'll miss you!" Anna sobbed. "You're never gonna come here again!"
"I miss you, too," Sean said.
Dani laid her cheek on Melanie's soft head, blinking back her tears. Jason, noticing, knelt beside her and took her hand. "We'll all miss Sean," he said.
"He's my brother!" Anna declared. "That judge is stupid!"
"I think you're right, Anna," Dani said. "But even if Sean isn't living here, he'll still be your brother. You just have to remember him."
"I think we need to pack," Jason said gently.
"You get started, please," Dani said. "I'll be up in a minute."
Jason went down to the cellar to get an empty box, then went up to Sean's room. "Sean, why don't you and Anna go help Jason," Dani suggested.
"Let's go, Anna," said Sean, finally turning the tables on all the times Anna had given him orders. Anna followed him without argument.
Dani set Melanie down in her playpen and went into the kitchen. Pictures that Anna and Sean had drawn were hanging on the refrigerator. Dani hesitated, then began removing the pictures. Seeing Sean's drawings there would be too painful with him gone, and seeing Anna's drawings there alone would only remind Dani of Sean's absence. She made a neat stack of the papers and put them in her desk, then went upstairs to help Jason.
Anna was standing in the packing box with her eyes closed, tears running down her face, and her hands covering her ears. "She's been there since we came upstairs," Jason told Dani. "She won't get out."
"Take her out," Dani said.
"She get back in," Sean said.
"That's right," Jason agreed. "I've taken her out of that box twice, and both times she's climbed right back in. And I don't really want to send her to her room."
"Good thinking," Dani said. She sat on the floor beside the box and pulled one of Anna's hands away from her ear. "Anna, why are you in the box?" she asked.
"I wanna be packed," Anna said. She put her hand back over her ear.
Dani pulled it away again. "Why do you want to be packed?"
"So I can go with Sean."
Dani lifted Anna out of the box, and settled the child on her lap. "Darling, I know you want Sean to stay with us, or to go with him, but it can't work that way. You're my little girl and Daddy's little girl, and you live with us. Sean is our little boy because we love him, but he's his mommy's little boy because he was born to her, and that's what's more important to the judge."
"He's a bad judge," Anna said.
"I hide," Sean said. "Then Mommy not take me."
Dani smiled. "Sweetheart, I wish that would work, but it won't. If you hide when your mommy comes to get you, she'll be sad. And the judge would get mad, and Jason and I might get in trouble. We want you to stay here, but we have to do what the judge says. But we'll write letters to you, and as soon as the judge says it's okay, we'll call you and come visit."
'Promise?" Sean said.
"Promise!" Anna said. "I love you, Sean."
"I love you, too, Anna," Sean said.
Dani had to leave the room. It was ten minutes before she stopped crying long enough to see her way downstairs.
* * *
Julie was there at eight o'clock the next morning. Dani had expected her to be early, and had all of Sean's belongings ready to go. "What's in there?" Julie asked, indicating the box.
"Sean's clothes and toys," Dani replied.
"Stuff he had, or stuff you gave him?"
"Some of both. Mostly stuff he had. Julie, if you're thinking about getting rid of the things we gave him, please don't. It's hard enough that he won't see us anymore. At least let him have some memory of us."
"What kind of a mother do you think I am?"
"One who loves her son enough to change her life to get him back. And one who trusts his love for her enough to let him have some memory of the friends who took care of him. And of his father."
"Don't even bring Ben into this." Julie barely kept the fury from her voice.
Dani met Julie's glare, and held her gaze until Julie had to look away. "Okay, he can keep the stuff," Julie said uncomfortably. "But I'm not going to talk to him about you or Ben. He's my son, not yours. And why should I do any favors for his father? He never did anything for me."
"He gave you Sean," Dani pointed out.
"Yeah. The bastard giveth, and the bastard taketh away. Is Sean ready?"
"Can he have a minute to say goodbye to my daughters?"
"Yeah, all right."
Dani led Julie into the living room. Unobserved by the children, they watched as Sean kissed first Melanie, then Anna. "I miss you," he said. "No cry, Anna. No be sad. My mommy take care me, and your mommy take care you."
"And your daddy take care of you," Anna said.
"Yeah, 'cause he a angel with Jesus."
"Don't forget to pray at nighttime," Anna said. She saw Dani and Julie in the doorway. "Your mommy's here, Sean."
Sean walked slowly to Julie, who picked him up and gave him a kiss. "What's this about Daddy taking care of you?" she asked, giving Dani a hard look.
"When someone go to Heaven, they a angel. Daddy look after me 'cause he a angel and he love me."
Dani said a swift, silent prayer that Julie would allow Sean to hold onto this belief. To her relief, Julie didn't argue with Sean. "That's right," she said. "Your daddy's in Heaven now." The look she gave Dani said that she really believed that Ben was in Hell.
"I'll take the box out to your car," Jason told Julie.
He carried the box out, Julie following with Sean in her arms. She paused to allow Dani and Jason to kiss the little boy, then put him into the car. "You can write if you want," she said. "I'll let him have the letters. But I wouldn't count on seeing him anytime soon."
"You never know," Dani said smoothly.
As soon as Julie drove away, Dani started punching and kicking the wall of the house. Jason put his arms around her from behind to restrain her. "Dani, stop it!" he ordered. "You're going to hurt yourself! Think about the girls. Do you want them to see you bleeding in the emergency room?"
Dani turned to him, and, burying her face in his shoulder, burst into tears. She could feel Jason's tears too, falling hot on her head. "We've lost him," she sobbed.
"No, we haven't," Jason said adamantly. "We'll get visitation. We won't lose him, Dani."
Dani wondered if he was as unconvinced as he sounded.
* * *
They sent a letter to Sean the following week. It was returned, stamped, "Addressee Unknown." The next four letters, which were mailed over the next month to Julie's address, the Perrys address, and even the court, were all returned the same way.
"I haven't seen him since she took him," Phyllis said. She had come to visit the Sheridans in response to a phone call from Dani. "She's called me a few times, though, and let me speak to him. He sounds okay, says he misses me and you guys. But Julie won't tell me where they are."
"At least you're allowed to talk to him," Jason said. "We haven't even gotten a letter."
"She said we wouldn't," Dani said. "The day she took him, she said we could write, but we wouldn't be seeing him. Well, we've written to him, but he hasn't gotten the letters. We keep getting them back."
"Grammy Phyllis, have you seen Sean?" Anna asked.
"No, Honey," Phyllis said. "But I talked to him on the phone the other day. He told me to give you a big hug." She picked up the little girl, hugged her, and put her down.
"That was a nice hug, Grammy Phyllis," Anna said solemnly. "But Sean was a better hugger."
"I know he was," Phyllis said, smiling.
Dani had called Phyllis because they hadn't heard from her since the hearing. When questioned, Phyllis explained that she felt awkward contacting them now that Sean was gone. Dani assured her that the Sheridans considered her family, and would be disappointed if she didn't stay in touch. "I'm glad you came over," Dani said now.
"So am I," Phyllis said. "I lost my son and my grandson, but at least I have you and your family. The way Ben used to talk about you, I felt like I knew you so well."
"Ben used to talk about Dani?" Jason asked suspiciously.
"Let it go, Jason," Dani said in a warning tone. "I don't know why you and I didn't get to know each other better when Ben was here," she said to Phyllis.
"Neither do I," Phyllis replied. "But I'm glad we know each other now."
* * *
Whenever Phyllis came to visit, Anna asked her about Sean. The girl told everyone she met, even complete strangers, that her brother's mommy had taken her brother away. In desperation, Dani finally called Kendra Holmes. "I'm surprised to hear from you, Mrs. Sheridan," the social worker said. "I'm sorry the hearing didn't go as you had hoped."
It would have if you hadn't badmouthed us, Dani thought. Aloud, she said, "Actually, that's why I'm calling you, Ms. Holmes. My daughter is having a lot of trouble adjusting to the situation. I was hoping you could recommend a counselor for her."