Every night for the past twenty-some odd months I've said the same prayer before collapsing into bed. "Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Creator of it all, please watch over my beautiful but ill-mannered children. And once Lord, just once, before Zack and Lily turn 18, please let me win one hearing in Department 18 of Family Court, 111 North Hill Street, County of Los Angeles, Judge Isadore Brownstein, who hates my guts presiding. Good night, now."
That is the opening paragraph of my darkly comic novel, "A Short History of a Tall Jew," which revolves around a single father's attempts to increase his custody time with his two teenage children and his search for a woman to become his last great love.
In the novel the protagonist accomplishes in one year both goals, but in real life for three years I lost all contact with my children and spent 10 years in court fighting over custody time and cable bills; I shared more lunches with my lawyer than dinners with dates; paid for my attorney's family vacations, but could not afford one of my own.
Like the divorced dad in the story, I stood by helpless as my Volvo was repossessed and later auctioned to the highest bidder in a car prison in the San Fernando Valley.
Like my alter ego, I lost contact with friends, alienated family and ranted about injustice to strangers on the bus.
My therapist, a wise Dutch woman who wears white t-shirts, blue jeans and hiking boots to work, suggested on many occasions that I give up the fight. Walk away. "When your kids are old enough to get around town, they'll find you. They'll always love you. In the meantime, stop killing yourself," she said.
But my children were 7 and 8 when a court order separated us and there was no way I was going to wait until they passed their drivers' ed. tests to see them again.
So I fought on. From 1990 - 2000 every paycheck I received was divvied up three ways: one third for rent, one third for bills, one third for my family lawyer.
Years later my children chose to attend Palisades Charter High School where I taught English. My daughter was a student in my tenth grade honors class. And yes, she made an A, which she earned.
When my son and daughter fled LA for college in San Francisco and Seattle, respectively, I began writing the novel, convincing myself that one day my kids would read my account of why they lived a chunk of their childhoods in a state of perpetual civil war. I envisioned them nodding and saying, "Thanks, dad, for clearing all that up."
But as I wrote I realized the book was intended not for them but to make sense of a decade lost.
Now when my friends, family and my wise Dutch therapist ask me if the anguish, the money, and all those years battling it out in court were worthwhile, I shrug. I certainly would not want to go through that again, but I never could figure out any other way to play it.
I do know this: Once the lawyers come in and the games begin and the allegations fly, nothing can ever go back to anything that resembles normal. Once the lawyers cash their retainer checks, everyone loses. Everyone loses big. And those losses endure forever.
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