I have a cute house in a cute suburb. My basement is mostly finished but I don’t go down there much unless I’m doing laundry. The other day I decided to spread out on the sectional with my dogs to watch North and South (not the Patrick Swayze one, the BBC one) for the millionth time and my eye caught a towering stack of Jenga pieces in the corner. My heart sank knowing that Eli, James’ middle child, had built that tower for us the very last time I saw him.
James has three children. I love them still. Not loved, love. Even today knowing that I will never see them again, I love them with every part of me. If any good came from knowing James, it was them.
Eli and I were especially close. He was always the first to grab my hand, snuggle on my lap or give me a hug. I remember him saying, “Jenny, let’s play Jenga!” And I happily replied saying, “Just a second, I’ll be right there.” Only that second turned into, what, six months? I never got to play with him that afternoon and the tower still stands.
We did so many things as a pretend family. My kids were very sweet with them nearly all of the time. They were willing to go to zoos, museums, parks and kid-themed activities with his much younger children. Those moments together felt hopeful and good. James is/was excellent at maintaining a facade of being engaged and funny when around strangers, acquaintances or people he never wanted to know about his dark side. My children were part of that mix.
What James wasn’t counting on, however, was the fact that my children are very intuitive. Even without an outburst, they knew something was off by the time last fall rolled around. Charlie, my sixteen year-old, commented that James was “sneaky” and that he didn’t trust him. Claire, my fifteen year-old, didn’t like the way he treated me. That surprised me only because James did an excellent job of keeping his Nice James mask on with Charlie and Claire. But she is her momma’s daughter and could see the cracks in him even so.
As I’ve mentioned before, my children are why I fought (and still fight) so hard to extract myself from James. Behind the scenes, James didn’t like me attending their music or sporting events on my non-custody days. (This should not have surprised me as he didn’t go to his children’s activities on his non-custody days.) Or even text them when I was kid-free. I don’t know that he actually minded me texting them but my texting, in general, filled him with suspicion. He wanted complete control over my interaction with them, just as he did with anyone else in my life. Many friends and professionals said that this had to be where I drew the line, that enough was enough the moment my relationship with Charlie and Claire were at risk.
I’d like to say I immediately took steps to leave James once this started to happen. But leaving for good took months longer than it ever should have. There was part of me that desperately wanted that family of the seven of us to work. It was never, ever to be. And James, I realize now, quickly tried forging this pretend family to secure our fake relationship. He knew how much family means to me and used his sweet children as pawns in his terrible game.
I think about his three littles often. I hope they know that I love them and that I tried so hard to manage their dad’s sick and disordered mind. That in a perfect world I would still know them or at least know how they are doing. But that can never be.
In the meantime, it’s time to put the tower of Jenga away. I need to know in my very core that taking it down and putting it away is not a defeat. And it doesn’t mean it never existed.