Upon arriving home on my 22nd birthday, I was greeted with three little words, “I am leaving.” While I should not have been surprised, I was floored. That began an eye opening journey into both human nature and the American legal system.
Married too young
While it may sound trite, marriage before the age of 21 was too soon for either one of us. We both made just about every mistake that can be made in a marriage. While the distrust was a daily topic of conversation, I was naively blind to my ex-wife’s plans to leave. In hindsight, there were signs everywhere.
This was further complicated by our daughter, Christina. By the end of our brief marriage, the single link between my ex-wife and I was our devotion to this beautiful red headed one year old. And though I knew the divorce would be emotionally painful, I knew that our love for Christina would be strong enough to keep it from getting messy. Boy, was I wrong.
Sometimes the best advice is hard to take
After being separated for two months, I finally decided I needed a lawyer. The first attorney I met with laid it out straight for me. With no real property to split, the only thing contested was custody. I was in a far better position to provide both financially and with a stable environment. And that meant zip… zero… nada.
“Unless she abuses the child or drugs, there is no way you will get custody of a female child in Georgia,” the man had told me.
Of course at the age of 22, I knew more than all of those years practicing law had taught this guy. I wrongly assumed that gender would play no role in court. So I found an attorney that agreed. Not only did he agree, but all I had to do was give him my meager life savings as a retainer, and he would make it an open and shut victory.
You never know someone until you divorce them
The other piece of advice I was too smart to take came from my mother. Before I ever met with an attorney, my mother told me, “You never know a person until you divorce them.”
Of course, I knew better. My ex and I had spent two long years together. How could I not know her? Sure she had left me and moved in with a group of friends so she could be with another man, but I was special. My daughter and I had a bond that even strangers would take note of. Everything would be ok.
Everything was not ok. She too had met with a lawyer. It would turn out that she had better, smarter representation. And they hit me where it hurt the most: my daughter.
What she knew that I did not was that during a separation neither parent has custodial rights. Essentially, custody in Georgia at the time fell under a weird finders keepers law. This came to a head on the second day of my estranged wife failing to drop my daughter off as promised. The last contact I had with her was a brief phone call. She said she was leaving the state and taking Christina with her. The more distraught I became the more I called. I had thought she was bluffing. But the more time that passed, the more I believed. My biggest mistake was the number of times I had paged her. Seventeen years ago, cell phones were rare. I called her pager number enough times in two days to earn a restraining order.
After that, I was powerless. For the longest two months of my life, I could not see my child. I pleaded my side to my attorney, but his assurances rang hollow. I had a home, a car, a job, and a devoted support network. My ex-wife had none of these. I could not comprehend how that meant nothing. And the more promises he made, the more inactivity I noticed. Out of time and money, I had no choice but to stick with this attorney. I could only hope he would would be able to sweet talk the judge in the same manner he had convinced me.
My last chance
My last chance was also the moment I learned to never pass up truth for hope. My attorney had gotten me an emergency custody hearing. He advised me it would just be the two of us and her and her attorney. All I had to do was speak the truth, and this whole mess would be solved. No preparation would be needed he had told me.
I remember sitting in a long marble hallway. Desperation clouded out every other emotion. My attorney rushed up to me with a stack of papers and a pen. The papers contained my ex-wife’s witness list and a list of mind numbingly false statements. He instructed me to write down my response to the statements and he would find me before the judge called our case. Turns out, he had a wealthy client in court that day too and would try and work me into his schedule.
Staring at the stack of paper, I knew I was out manned, out smarted, and out gunned. I scribbled my answers out of formality. I knew my answers would be meaningless.
When we were called before the judge, the judge’s first question was if we had tried to mediate this ourselves. We had not, so the judge excused us for fifteen minutes. My attorney whispered in my ear, “Best work this out. This judge ain’t my biggest fan.”
With only fifteen minutes to decide the fate of the most important person in my life, I gave into all of the demands. Her attorney made it clear that this would not be temporary. This would also be a template for the final divorce agreement. I didn’t care. I had grown too tired to fight anymore. I only wanted to see my gorgeous babydoll.
In return I got two things. First, I got visitation with the addendum of, “or anytime mutually agreed upon”. That has been a life saver over the years. Second, I got my last name. Other than my daughter, it was the only thing of value I had left. In Georgia, Beheler is a rare name. I wanted to share that with my daughter and no one else. It was a small victory, but even now seems important.
As far as finalizing the divorce, what day could be better than Valentine’s Day? No joke. The odyssey, that began on my birthday, came to an end on February 14,1997. There were more people in the meeting room that I did not recognize than people I did. But by that point, I was just ready to sign and move on with my life. So, that is what I did.
Between then and now, there have been ups and downs between the ex and I. We speak cordially during drop offs and pick ups. I have done my best to forgive, and she has done her best to apologize over the years. But that divisive bitterness from the custody battle still remains. And even though my daughter is on the precipice of adulthood, I still find myself watching my words around her mother. Because you never really know someone… Until you divorce them.