This story is by Lori Fogle and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
“…suddenly, the ground disappeared from under my feet. I flopped hard into a muddy puddle of clay and a sharp pain zipped through my shoulder. I jerked my head side to side and gazed up through a three by three foot hole to see the glow of Florida sunshine overhead. Clumps of wet dirt fell on my legs and a cold dollop on the top of my head. I clawed at the side of the hole, got two steps up and slid back down. ‘Help!’ I yelled out in strained voice.”
As I paused for effect, my mind drifted. Who knew falling into a sinkhole would lead to such a lucrative speaking career? A speaking career that would take me away from my family traveling five or six days a week, destroy a marriage and cause me to lose my only child.
I strode to the front of the stage. The audience leaned forward in their seats. They were waiting for the happy ending where I escaped the sinkhole.
I continued. “Immediately, I took charge after seeing my neighbor, Mrs. Baker’s, panicked face peeking over the edge. She was flapping her arms like a bird and shouting ‘oh my goodness, what should I do?!’”
“I instructed her to grab a rope, tie it to the light pole in the yard and throw the other end down to me. Finally, the rope sailed down beside me and I wrapped it around my waist, cinching the knot as tight as I could.”
“As I pushed off the sides of the hole, dirt rained down. My palms burned. I had to let go of the rope with one hand and flex it. I swung into the side with a thud. Then it was hand over hand on the rope, just like in elementary gym class. Mrs. Baker grabbed my arm as I scrambled to gain footing in the slippery mud. My shoes felt heavy. I let out a whoosh of air as I fell onto the cool grass, with my feet still dangling over that gaping 10-foot hole.”
And then, for my big close. “I’m a survivor. I didn’t give up! It took strength, the help of a good neighbor and a lot climbing but I faced adversity and overcame it. We can all conquer the challenges we face in life.”
I’d given this same speech many times, but as of recently, the words meant nothing. Managing a tight smile as I finished my speech, I looked out at the blur of hands and flashes of white in wide grins. As I left the stage, the only sound I heard, despite the applause of the crowd, was the ominous echoing of my grey snakeskin heels hammering on the hardwood floor. Like nails being driven into a coffin. At the edge of the stage, I stumbled a little and reached for the wall to steady myself. The side effect of drinking my breakfast.
Halfway down the hall, Emily, one of the event coordinators stopped me. “I heard you were going through a tough time. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No, where’d you hear that? I’m fine.”
She frowned slightly at being brushed off as I sidestepped her to snatch my leather bag from the hallway before slipping into the bathroom. I peered into the mirror and watched as the smile I’d pasted on, fell. I propped my hands on the countertop to steady myself. Overcoming adversity, hah! I felt a little guilty about denying my situation to Emily. But no one could find out I’d lost my daughter, Makayla. No one could find out I’d been sipping a water bottle filled with Grey Goose all morning. It was my new vice and my hope was that it would obliterate my thoughts.
My current reality was too scary to think about. It was why I kept talking about the past in these speeches. I knew how that story ended and it always turned out in my favor.
My eyes wrenched open and I checked the time on my phone. Pushing out the bathroom door, I kept going until I hit the parking lot where I climbed into my SUV at the curb. Dismal clouds slid in front of me. Five minutes down the street, one, two, three and then hundreds of raindrops pelted my windshield. The weather seemed aligned with my mood. I winced as the familiar stabbing pains of a migraine shot above my left eye. Makayla is mine! I need more time with her. I’ll do anything to get her back. Desperate thoughts dragged me down, suffocated me.
My phone rang and I snapped to attention. It was my best friend, Laurie. Without waiting for a greeting, she launched in. “Ana, I’m sure you’re on your way and wanted you to know I’m thinking about you. Good luck getting through today.”
“No amount of luck will help me. The deck is stacked against me.”
“I thought you were going to be more positive? With all those books you’re reading—”
I cut her off. “I was until this happened, but now there’s nothing to be positive about!”
“Ok, but—”, she started. “You know what, I’m not even gonna go there with you today.”
I knew what she was going to say. Being positive only when things went my way, wasn’t exactly positive thinking. But she wasn’t going through what I was.
“I just want to let you know”, she was saying, “you deserve all the praise in the world for how you’ve raised Makayla and no one can diminish your accomplishments. I’m proud of you.
But asking for help is not defeat. I’m here for you.”
“Alright. Gotta, go.” I hit end, squashing any further conversation. I parked my SUV and trudged up the hill, as reluctant as if I was headed to my own funeral.
I tapped the button on the side of the door and waited while it opened for me. Once my bag was through the scanner and they were satisfied I hadn’t brought any weapons to the battle, I asked the security guard which way I was supposed to go. He stared at me, expressionless. After a slight pause, where he was probably judging me, pointed down the hall.
As I walked through the door, all heads turned. A few people put their heads back down, uninterested, but too many kept their eyes trained on me as I walked to the front of the room. I thought I’d worn the right outfit- a professional looking pencil skirt, heels and a conservative suit jacket but started second-guessing myself. Is it too businesslike? Do I look like a loving mom who wants nothing more than to take care of her daughter? And most importantly, do I look like the better parent?
I tried to make eye contact with my Makayla once I sat down. She was across the courtroom, studiously avoiding looking in my direction. I turned back around, stung by her rejection.
The judge waddled in, his stern face all I saw amongst massive folds of black fabric. When he called us to the bench, my heart beat like a drumroll in my chest and I felt light-headed. Tears built up behind my eyes, threatening to spill over. I tried to stir up angry, not sad, thoughts. Where was my indignant anger when I needed it?
“In situations like this, our decision is based on the best interests of the child. It should never be about the parents”, the judge warned us with his opening line. “I’m awarding temporary primary custody to the father. The mother will get visitation Wednesdays, Fridays and every other Saturday. In addition, mother will pay $850 a week in child support.”
My heart plummeted to my stomach. I gaped at the judge. It had been just me and Makayla in the hospital room when I brought her into this world and I’d worked my butt off ever since trying to give her the life she deserved and this was the thanks I got?!
Tears escaped out of the corner of my eye. I tried to flick them away with my fingertip. I willed myself to look at Makayla. She was so strong with her little lips pressed together but I saw the pain in her eyes. I’d let my little girl down. Again.
It might as well have been just her and I in the room. None of these other people mattered. No one was helping me or cared about my side of things. I rushed over to Makayla and hugged her tight, trying to meld us into one.
“I’m going to fight this,” I said through clenched teeth.
She arched away from my embrace.
As soon as I got home, I called my mom. “They took her away from me!”
“Have you tried talking to her father?”
“No! He’s the enemy! I hate him. Why would you even suggest that?!”
“I’m suggesting it because he’s Makayla’s father and she’s going to be spending most of her time with him now, it sounds like.”
“You are not helping. I’m going have to figure this all out on my own. No one understands what I’m going through.”
“Are you sure you would even accept help?”
I threw my hand up in frustration. Oh my gosh, was she serious?! Emily’s and Laurie’s words popped into my mind, but I immediately snuffed them out.
My mom was still talking.
“Ana, you’ve got to rise above this pattern of anger and fighting. Remember the story of Solomon and the two women in the Bible claiming to be a child’s mother? Solomon threatens to cut the baby in half but the real mother is willing to give up the child to save it.”
“So, I should just give Makayla up now?!”
“I’m not telling you to give Makayla up, but I what I am telling you is that you reclaim your personal power by giving up the fight. Have you ever heard this quote: ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging?’ When you’re angry and fighting, you make the situation worse and dig yourself into a deeper hole.”
But I had to fight. Why didn’t she understand that?
“I have to go,” I spat out.
I was a mom. My daughter was supposed to be with me. I couldn’t feel any lower than I did in that moment. One fear after another pummeled me. What if she doesn’t even want to see me on visitation days? What if she tells her kids one day what a terrible parent I was.
But I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my phone, searched through my contact list for Makayla’s father’s phone number and hit Call. I prayed for voicemail to pick up.
“If you’re calling to fight with me, I’m gonna go.”
“I’m not. I need your help.”
“I’m just gonna throw this out there…can we work through this together so we can each spend time with Makayla? She needs both of us in her life.”
“Wow. I thought you’d never ask. I know she wants to spend more time with you too. You’re a good mom. What can I do to help?”
“I need you to keep her with you for right now.”
I took a deep breath. “I want you to know that your support in this means everything to me,” I said in a rush. “But I’m realizing that Makayla is not my possession. I’m here to shepherd her. And I can only lead her down the path to being a positive, present, happy woman, if I’ve first taken that route myself.”
“Hey Mom.” Aww, the little chipmunk voice. “Love you!”
I felt like I’d just climbed out of a dank, dark hole to be graced with redeeming sunlight. The corners of my mouth turned up in a slight smile. So this is what it means to stop digging.