As I sat at my desk and reflected on the past year, tears rolled down my cheeks. I clearly remembered the night Liz told me she was pregnant with our third child. We were in bed, snuggling after a very satisfying round of love making.
"Tim, I have something important to tell you. Promise you won't get upset and raise your voice so the kids hear you," cautioned Liz.
I knew that there had to be something very serious on Liz's mind. I seldom raised my voice, especially in bed. I did raise myself up on my elbow and nodded to Liz as I waited for her to continue.
"I seem to be pregnant, Tim," began Liz nervously. "I can't believe it, but it's true. Please don't be upset with me, Darling."
I looked at Liz like she was from outer space. My jaw worked up and down, but nothing came out. I felt giddy and very excited. I finally found my voice.
"Upset? Sweetheart, how could I be upset? We've been given a precious gift!" I exclaimed.
"You really feel that way, Tim?" sobbed Liz. "I was afraid you'd be angry at me for not being more careful. It really was an accident. I didn't plan on it. That's for sure."
"What will the kids say when we tell them?" I wondered. "Steve might not act too excited, but I bet Angie will love the idea!"
"They'll be embarrassed, Tim," replied Liz. "They're in high school. Kids their age don't have little newborn siblings. People our age don't have babies."
"Well, it seems that these people our age will have a baby, doesn't it?" I laughed. "This is just incredible, Liz. I can't wait to tell everyone!"
"Tim, I do love you so much! I was afraid you'd be angry about having another baby after all these years. It'll change our lives in all kinds of ways," warned Liz. "You may have to give up some golf dates to do parenting. You might not be able to retire in ten years. "You'll be up all night with the baby more than a few times. Is this all okay with you?"
"Sweetheart, it's more than okay! I'll quit golf if I have to. I'll take off from work when necessary to take of this little bundle of joy. I was pretty young and inexperienced with our first two kids," I admitted. "I'm going to be sure to spend time with this baby as she grows up. I'll be the best dad ever!"
I had quickly grasped that Liz was concerned about my reaction to her pregnancy. I had to put her fears to rest. She needed me to be happy and supportive. The subject of an abortion would never even be discussed. I knew that. Liz and I would treasure this child.
It was six months later that Liz gave birth to Marisa. As I had predicted that night, we had a girl. Liz had waited until she was three months pregnant, and certain of her condition, before telling me about it. Her birth was one of the happiest events of our lives.
It had been difficult to relearn how to hold, feed, change, burp, and care for an infant. I had been determined to be a hands on father and I changed at least as many diapers as Liz. Angie had quickly overcome her initial embarrassment about having a sister seventeen years younger than she was and helped tremendously. We all viewed Marisa as a special gift and showered her with love.
I took a lot of ribbing from the guys at work and my golf buddies, but I didn't mind. My happiness was apparent to everyone. I was a very proud father. Liz had to conceal her anger a few times while she was pregnant because of an occasional cruel or insensitive remark about a woman in her forties having a baby. Once Marisa was born, the only emotions either of us ever felt were positive.
When Marisa was six months old, Liz returned to work. She had only been back to work a week when my life fell apart. I was doing some paperwork in my office when the phone rang. I answered on the first ring. I knew it would be Liz calling. She would have picked up Marisa from the daycare and arrived home to tell me about her day and how the baby was doing.
I listened in stunned silence as Angie explained how she had just received a call from the local hospital. Liz had been in a serious automobile accident! Angie showed a lot of pluck as she fought back her tears to explain what she had been told.
"Mom was hit by another car at that intersection by the Home Depot. That means she wouldn't have had Marisa with her yet, Dad!" she reasoned. "We have to pick up Marisa and get to the hospital. The person that called said you needed to get there right away. Dad, this isn't good!"
I forced my brain to slow down and plan my next few moves. It was no time to do something stupid or neglect something important.
"Angie, call my mother and father. Ask them to pick you up and then get Marisa from daycare. Take Marisa home and leave her there with Mom. Then get Dad to drive you and Steve to the hospital. While you're waiting for them to get there, call your other grandparents and tell them what's happened," I instructed. "Ask them to make whatever calls they feel are needed. Can you do all that, Sweetheart?"
"Yes, I'll do it, Dad. You have to hurry up and get to the hospital. Mom's going to need you!" she cried.
The next few days, and even weeks, were a nightmare. I rushed to the hospital only to sit and wait for Liz to come out of surgery. No one could even tell me exactly what injuries she had. I tried to reassure the kids when they came into the waiting room, but I failed miserably. We spent a two long, excruciating hours waiting to find out how Liz was doing.
Finally a thin woman came into the room and approached us. She wore one of those scrubs you always see in the shows on TV.
"Mr. Jackson?" asked the woman as she stopped in front of me. "I'm Dr. Jeffers. Your wife is out of surgery."
The relief that flooded over me quickly dissipated as Dr. Jeffers explained how seriously Liz had been injured. Strangely, she had no broken bones but had suffered severe head trauma. The operation had been to reduce swelling and stop any bleeding.
Liz was in a coma. It had been induced to limit the swelling and the damage to her brain. It would be several days, at least before they would attempt to bring her to a conscious state. The word "attempt" did not escape me. The doctor promised us nothing except that she, and the rest of her team, had done everything possible for Liz and they would continue to do their best.
The kids were crying and I was unable to staunch the flow of tears running down my cheeks. My dad, who always had a comment for every occasion, silently hugged each of us. Liz's parents made their way into the room just as our crying began to let up. Seeing our despair, they immediately broke into tears as well.
My dad was the one that finally explained the situation to my in-laws. I was too emotional to speak. When I tried, I simply made croaking sounds. A little later, the kids and I were allowed to look in on Liz for just a minute. It did nothing to offer encouragement. Tubes and bandages and machines were all we could see.
Dad drove us home a couple hours later. The hospital staff made it abundantly clear that we would be waiting days for any improvement. Liz was stable, but in critical condition. Since we weren't able to be with her, Dad had eventually prevailed upon us to go home. Mom was waiting at the door when we entered the house. Dad had called her from the hospital so she knew the situation, but seeing our faces caused her to begin sobbing and soon the kids were right there, crying with her. I managed to hold it together this time.
I was back at the hospital early the next morning with Angie, after getting no sleep. I had risen early and tried to quietly leave. To my surprise, Angie was dressed and waiting for me when I descended the stairs. She was in the living room, sitting in the early morning gloom.
"I knew you'd be going back early, Dad. I'm going with you," she told me simply.
We waited around all day, but there was no change in Liz's condition and none was expected. It was the same the following day. Then, the following day, they began the effort to bring Angie out of the coma. We were told not to expect any rapid changes, and there were none. After another day with no real improvement, we were urged to go home and get some rest. We would be called as soon as there was any change in Liz's condition.
I decided to visit my landscaping business and see what had transpired during the days I had been at the hospital. It was almost five PM when I walked into my building. All ten employees were there as they returned equipment to the shop and took care of any maintenance. I always had the guys keep everything in working condition and ready for use.
It only took a few minutes to gather that the men had carried on in my absence, perhaps better than if I had been there. My foreman was experienced and respected. He knew what was needed and had stepped up to see if had gotten done. I thanked the guys for their concern and effort while I had been away from the shop. I told them Liz had not come out of her coma yet, but we had every reason to believe she would make a full recovery. Then I stepped into my small office, closed the door, and thought about Liz.
I contemplated how my life would be if she died. It was selfish, but I finally allowed myself to consider that possibility and how it would affect me. It gradually dawned on me that every facet of my life involved Liz. She was the center, the nucleus, of our family. Marisa would need her. Angie and Steve were in high school but still relied heavily on their mother. I felt my gut knot up as I considered the consequences of life with no Liz in it.
A week ago, I had it all. My life was as good as I ever dared hope it could be. Now I was sitting alone in my office, cursing the fates and begging the gods to give me Liz back. I knew enough to realize I was sliding into depression, but I couldn't summon the will to even care. Then my cell phone rang.
Hoping it was good news from the hospital, I quickly answered it. I couldn't conceal my disappointment when I realized it was Liz' father, Frank Miller, and not the hospital. Frank and I had never been close. He felt his only daughter should have married better. I had spent twenty years building my landscaping business into a very profitable operation, but I wasn't a professional. Frank was an accountant and he had made a killing in the stock market over the years. By most standards, he was a wealthy man.
He had accepted me slightly better when the kids were born, and as my net worth increased. That always rankled me. A man isn't judged by his income or his portfolio. I was honest, worked hard, supported my family, and adored his daughter. I knew a lot of men that would love to have a son-in-law that fit that description. Was I a better husband now that my business was doing well? We just saw things very differently.
"Tim, I just received a call from an attorney with some disturbing information," he began. "This concerns the entire family, but especially you. This lawyer represents a man that claims to be Marisa's biological father. If Liz doesn't come out of the coma, he wants custody of Marisa."
I had thought my life was circling the drain before Frank called. Now it was completely in the sewer! I reeled back and had difficulty drawing a breath. My hand that held the phone shook uncontrollably. Sweat suddenly dripped from my brow. It took me a full minute to respond to Frank.
"What the fuck! You're full of shit! I don't know what you're trying to do, Frank, but I'll see you in hell before you get Marisa away from me!" I threatened. "Is that what you're trying to pull here?"
"Tim! It isn't my doing! We've had our differences, but I'd never try anything like that! You've been a great father to the kids and a loving husband to my daughter. I know that. I'm telling you some son of a bitch claims he's Marisa's father and if Liz dies, or remains in a coma for an extended period, he's going to go for custody of the baby."
"Who, Frank? Who are you talking about? Give me the fucker's name and I settle this right now!" I vowed.
"The damn lawyer wouldn't give me a name," responded Frank. "He said he just wanted to know who my lawyer was so he could inform him of the possible litigation."
"Why didn't he call me, Frank? I'm the goddamn husband and the father of that baby! Why would he contact you?" I demanded.
"I asked that very question, Tim. The shyster told me that I'd probably be the one to hire a lawyer, if we decided to fight this. He told me he felt he should go right to the top on this," revealed Frank.
"Well, fuck him!" I roared. "If this cocksucker contacts your lawyer, have him refer everything to me. I'll handle the bastard!"
"That was the other reason he went through me, Tim. He implied that you were known to be a bit hot headed and would be difficult to reason with. He thought I'd be calmer," suggested Frank.
"Fuck calm, Frank! You just tell your lawyer to give me whatever information he gets and as soon as he gets it. I'll take care of my family!" I snarled as I hung up in anger.
Now I had a whole new pile of shit to wade through! How could this happen? How much more could I take? I needed a plan. There was one absolute, and that was Marisa was staying with me and the kids, regardless of Liz's condition!
As I drove home, I began to see a silver lining in the mess I was facing. I could do nothing for Liz and that was bothering me a lot. I felt useless and afraid. She needed something I couldn't give her. I was helpless. I had always been able to protect my family and shield them from serious harm. Now my wife was in a coma and there was nothing in the world I could do for her. That had thrown me into the throes of depression.
Now some bastard had declared war on me! That was something I understood. My family was under attack and I would respond as men have responded since the beginning of time. I would fight back and I would not lose, regardless of what the consequences were. Of that, I was certain. Now my life had meaning and purpose. Some jackass had picked the wrong dog to kick!
The kids and I kept going to the hospital every morning to see Liz. It was taking its toll on us, but no one suggested we give up. After several hours, we'd leave and attempt to live our lives. The high school was extremely understanding. They allowed the kids to miss morning classes, as long as they worked to keep up with the subject reading and the homework assignments.
I had debated whether I should tell the kids about the threat that Frank had relayed to me. Ultimately, I decided to tell them. It wasn't because I wanted them to feel less for Liz, but because they would find out soon enough if the prick did push his paternity issue. I wanted them prepared for the battle and ready to help me fight it. Without Liz, I had come to depend on them more and more. Angie especially, had stepped in to fill the void.
My mother had moved in with us and was caring for Marisa, but Angie seemed to be in charge. She explained to Mom how Liz wanted the baby fed and cared for. She spent hours with Marisa and I could see the sisters bonding more every day.
The next evening, I got another call from Frank.
"Tim, the bastard contacted my lawyer today. I had already told my lawyer to take all the information he could get and then give it to you," stated Frank. "Stop in at his office tomorrow afternoon, and he'll give you what he has. Tim, I don't think it would help matters if you go off half-cocked. It's possible we may be able to negotiate with this guy."
"Just what the hell is there to negotiate, Frank?" I demanded. "Joint custody? You don't know me very well if you think I'd ever allow that. There is nothing negotiable here!"
"I was thinking more along the lines of a cash settlement, Tim. Maybe I could pay this guy to just go away," suggested Frank. "This will become a three ring circus, with Liz being dragged through the mud. I don't want that, and I don't think you do either. This will destroy her good name, and it certainly won't benefit you or the kids. At least consider it before you do anything rash, okay? I know it's been tough on you, but Liz is our daughter and we're in pain, too."
I stifled an angry reply and took a breath. Frank was Liz's father and he had to be suffering. I needed to do the best thing for my family, even if it didn't seem right. I had to think.
"Frank, I'll listen to what your lawyer tells me and I'll think about everything before I act," I promised. "I've been talking to my lawyer, too. I'll keep you in the loop, okay?"
It was now ten days since Liz had been involved in the accident. She was breathing on her own, but had not regained consciousness. The doctors told me she could still wake up alert and healthy, or she could awaken with brain damage, or she could just remain in the coma. I had lost weight and had to keep taking my belt in. Luckily, I had begun the ordeal with a few extra pounds. The kids looked drawn and tired all the time. Angie was trying to care for her sister just as Liz would, do her school work, and visit her mother every day.
I had realized that I had slacked in my parenting and decided to spend more time with Marisa. The time with her strengthened my resolve to protect her from the asshole that claimed to be her father.
As I held her, I considered the situation. Suppose the worst had happened and Liz had an affair and became pregnant. Where would that put me? As I mulled it over, my feelings and thoughts gradually took shape. I had to come to terms with any and all possibilities. Could Marisa not be my daughter?
I weighed all the emotions and instinct I could summon as I looked at the facts. Liz and I were man and wife, legally married before man and God. Liz had given birth to a beautiful baby girl. I was Liz' husband and I was not challenging or questioning the child's paternity. I accepted that she was mine. Could someone else step in and insist that my wife gave birth to their child? If one man could do it, could every man do it?
If every man had the right to challenge a family unit, couldn't they do the same to every family? Does any father know for a certainty that his wife gave birth to his biological child? Since the beginning of time, men have, on occasion, raised other men's progeny without realizing it. If a wife gave birth, the husband was the father, unless he rejected the offspring. He had to believe he was the father for the family unit to survive. It was never up to some guy in the next cave to stroll over and announce he'd take the baby since it was his! Wasn't it better for the family to always consider the husband the father, rather than doing DNA tests on every baby when it's born to determine paternity?
Marisa was my child, born to my wife and me. If my parental rights could be challenged, couldn't everyman's? If a judge even considered this pretender's claim, what would stop me from claiming to have fathered the judge's kids? Would the judge then issue an order having his offspring tested? Would he subject his family to that pain and embarrassment? Would he have any more choice than I did?
It became clear to me. The very assertion that Marisa wasn't mine was a cruel act. If any court even allowed it to be considered, chaos could ensue. A wealthy man could file suits claiming paternity in every town and city in the country, just for the hell of it. Would he have to prove opportunity first? In this day and age, who knows where anyone is? If I had visited Kansas City for a month, could I claim fatherhood of every child born there nine months later?
The other consideration was that Liz would never be unfaithful. I knew her values. I knew what her family meant to her. The kids and I were her life. No, Liz wouldn't be having another man's baby. Of that I was certain.
It occurred to me that Liz's faithfulness was really secondary in this matter. When a man's wife has a baby, it is his child and no man can interfere with that family unit, regardless of any biological link. A family unit was stronger and more important than some chance conception by a man outside the family. Fatherhood was far more than impregnating a woman!