For the last four and a half years I have been walking into the Robert N. Wilentz Justice Complex in Newark on my own (with a couple of exceptions of friends and once with an attorney). On February 23, 2013, I had no idea what to expect. I thought that it would be over quickly. I thought for certain that the judge would see right through all of XN’s lies to the truth. I thought there was no way she’d keep us here in New Jersey at the will of a man who had been charged with the sexual assault of a teenager who worked at our restaurant, a man who had been arrested after putting me in the emergency room. It didn’t work out that way.
That first day, I walked into the courthouse with nothing. I was a shred of the woman I had once been. The man I was fighting had stolen most of my strength and confidence. He had made me believe that I was stupid, lazy, and worthless. Despite his words and my own belief, I found comfort in words from friends I admire and respect.
For over fifteen years I was on staff at the Youth Leadership and Diversity Conference. It was there that I began to learn who I am and what true love and belonging looked like. Each year, the staff create manila envelopes for themselves that are hung on a wall in the staff gathering room. Throughout the week we write each other warm fuzzies, notes of gratitude and kindness to each other. For the folks you don’t know well, it could be as simple as “thank you for helping me get the handouts ready for Tuesday’s session. I really appreciate your initiative and enthusiasm.” For my decades-old friends, they’re a little deeper. Even then, one of my favorite warm fuzzies begins with “I love me some Elle.” Each year, one of the best parts of YLDC is returning home to read all of my fuzzies. I have envelopes of them from over the years that I’ve often turned to in times of struggle.
When I began to prepare for that first day in court, my Gram, my biggest supporter and best friend at the time, had just been moved into hospice care. She’d fallen and broken her hip. I spoke to her before she went into surgery. The last thing she said to me was “you fight for that baby.” Though the surgery seemed to go well she had a stroke and was not going to make it through. I wanted nothing more than to make her proud but I didn’t know-how. I turned to my warm fuzzies. I affixed my favorites to paper and slid them into plastic notebook sleeves along with the last note I’d ever receive from Gram. With them by my side, I knew I wasn’t alone, that there were people cheering for me. Some of my favorites read:
“Elle, ever since my delegate year you have been the staff member that I have looked up to most…You’re a strong person and I truly respect and look up to you for that. Thank you for being you and for helping me be me.”
“Elle, you have real balls…You’re an inspiration to persevere, not to mention the fact that you’re hilarious, and very beautiful. Stay awesome!”
“…As much hassle as I give you – I admire how much time you give to the kids who need it. Your experience in life is invaluable in helping these kids understand they are not alone. Your dedication to your causes is inspirational.”
Yesterday found me at the courthouse again but for a different kind of hearing. I hadn’t filed a motion, nor was I responding to a motion. The Probation Department scheduled an enforcement hearing. Turns out that once you have over $12,000 in child support due they actually do start paying attention. (It’s up to $16K now.) I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was told I didn’t have to appear but that it would be good to be present to provide any information. Since I am a fountain of useful information that XN so easily forgets, I thought it best to go. I was told that if he did not appear that there would be a bench warrant for his arrest and they’d pick him up that day. So yes, a part of me was hoping he wouldn’t show up. 8:30 came and he wasn’t there. Then 9:00, 9:30, 10:00, no XN.
As the hours passed I realized how foolish it was of me to think that we would actually be seen at 8:30. I didn’t have the book I am reading. Phones were “not allowed” (this was according to the sign no one else seemed to see.) I went through the papers I had brought with me and made some more notes, made sure everything was in order. I pulled out the 1.5-inch binder that is filled with our Court Orders and read through them all. I had forgotten so much of what has been argued about before a judge and the ridiculous requests and accusations I have come up against.
The one thing I didn’t have to read for the first time was my warm fuzzies. Not only did I not have my warm fuzzies, but I also didn’t have my pictures of Liam with Gram, my colorful sheet of all my favorite empowering quotes, nothing. I needed some encouragement. Then it occurred to me; I am not the same woman I was five years ago. I am stronger, smarter, and more loving toward myself and more supported by others than I have ever been. I decided it was time to write my own warm fuzzy, my truth. This is what I wrote on my yellow legal pad:
“I am brave. I am strong. I have walked through hell to get to the other side with unrelenting stamina and courage. Their words cannot hurt me. Their words are not truth. The truth is on our side. I am clear. I am focused and I am able. I will not be intimidated by threats or money. Their money does not make them better than me. I am Liam’s mother. Oliver is Liam’s dad. Oliver is the example of manhood that Liam will grow up to know. Liam is safe and loved with me and Oliver. We are a family. The Court will never break up our family. They cannot break up our family. Our family; me, Oliver, and Liam, are a family and we are love. The Universe has our back.”
Then something peculiar and beautiful happened, my writing turned into a prayer.
“Spirit of Life and Love, please grant our family peace. Free us from the fear and anxiety that has plagued our first years as a family. Spirit of all that is holy, rid us from the terror [XN] has reigned on our lives. Grant us the presence of love and help us to trust that you will provide for us.”
As I wrote I could feel myself sitting up straighter. I felt my breath deepen and slow. My hands stopped shaking. And when I finished I sat back in my uncomfortable waiting room chair, closed my eyes, and felt the corners of my mouth creep into a smile. This was surely a new physical experience of being at the Courthouse.
As the day went on bad news poured in and I found myself crumbling under the weight of another battle that ended in a momentary stalemate. I’ll write more about that soon, but for now, I want to focus on the progress. For a moment, I was at peace with myself. I turned my life over to the universe and said “Ok, it’s up to you now. I have done my part,” and it was an incredible feeling.
There is hope! Maybe I CAN do this. Maybe I CAN make it all the way to the end. Maybe I CAN relax and trust that everything will be okay. Maybe it won’t be exactly the way I want it, but as Gabby Bernstein says, maybe I can trust that what will happen is for the higher good of all. This journey has taken me places I never expected. The obstacles and the detours have frightened, frustrated, and nearly destroyed me, but look at me now! I’m a warrior on a hero’s journey. And maybe I am closer to being able to see myself as the hero of my own story than I thought I was.