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Broken Steps

She didn’t know it was possible that she still hoped for reconciliation. Afterall, it’d been 20 years since she’d had any form of familial connection that he would willingly acknowledge. Twenty years since he chose someone else to call “Mom.” Twenty years since he packed a laundry basket of his clothes, ripped his childhood pictures off the walls, and left home to finish his senior year of high school living with his best friend. And legally, since her divorce from his dad nearly five years ago, she couldn’t even call him her stepson anymore. What more was there left to hope for?

When he was only ten years old, she met his dad, and the whirlwind relationship resulted in an outdoor summer wedding within a short eleven months. He started calling her “Mom” instead of “Jen” almost immediately, which delighted her more than she could express. She wouldn’t know until seven years later – after he left home – that his dad had told him to call her Mom. It wasn’t her stepson’s choice to identify her in such a familiar way. Some part of him must have resented calling her that.

Initially their relationship was seamless. He willfully accepted the step-role she played in his life and was happy to play big brother to his new siblings as they came along – first his sister after one year, and another two years later came his first brother, with the second brother to follow after another 18 months. He was the best big brother she could have hoped to have for her children; he would play with his siblings and sing to them, making up stories with the stuffed animals or toys nearby, easily captivating their attention on a whim. She could count on him to entertain them while she made dinner or took care of other household chores.

His love for his siblings would never fade. She was glad of that. But somewhere along the way, his love for the one he called Mom slowly disintegrated. Perhaps what she thought was love from him never truly existed. Little by little she began to notice darts in his eyes when she’d call him her son, or a looming glare from him when she’d make some motherly gesture toward him. He started to act suspicious, convinced that she wasn’t relaying messages from his real mom, always asking, “Are you sure my mom didn’t call?”

He never knew that I was the one to talk his mom into attending his 15th birthday party. I wanted to surprise Chris with a traditional Korean celebration, to reenact his first birthday party that I’d seen pictures of in an old photo album with fresh fruits, like whole pineapple, mangos, oranges, and bananas on display next to the birthday cake. I wanted his mom to come and make a traditional Korean meal for him and his friends, so I had his dad call and ask her to fly up from Arizona for the celebration. When she declined, I sent her a personal mom-to-mom letter expressing how important she was to him and how happy it would make him if she came.

She called me crying, so happy to know that her son still wanted her in his life. Chris hadn’t seen his real mom since before his dad and I met, but he’d talk to her from time to time. I knew that having her there would be a better present than any other gift he could hope for, better even than the papasan chair that we planned on getting for him – something he’d wanted in his room for a long time. I loved Chris like my own son and wanted him to be happy.

I’m not sure when or why Chris started to hate me, but sometimes the hatred felt like there was a forcefield around him, preventing any possible connection between us. Shortly before his 18th birthday, when he was a senior in high school, he left home. I don’t even remember what the fight was about that day, but I remember it was a cold January afternoon, and I had to beg his dad to come home from work early to talk to Chris. A few hours later Chris’s best friend picked him up and his dad changed the locks on the doors.

For years I would hope for reconciliation between us, especially around Mother’s Day each year. I would attempt to reach out to him, write him letters, try to apologize and open the lines of communication. One year, three or four years after he left, his dad told me that Chris wanted to come over on Mother’s Day. Finally, I thought, finally he wants to accept me back into his life. I went to church that Sunday morning ecstatic, anxious to get back home and embrace my son in my arms once again. But my heart instantly broke when he arrived. He refused to make eye contact with me or acknowledge my presence in any way. For nearly three hours the six of us sat in the living room together, Chris talking freely with his dad and siblings, laughing and reminiscing earlier days, while I simply hoped to make eye contact with him.

Chris knew I loved him. He knew how much he could hurt me by showing up and completely ignoring me on Mother’s Day. Still, I continued to hope that one day it would be different. For ten years or more I was able to hope that he could love me again. After I divorced his dad five years ago, I knew that reconciliation was impossible. Now it’s been twenty years since he left home. I thought I knew reconciliation was impossible until I had a dream the other night.

Chris came over. His sister and brothers were there. My husband, Scott, was there. I expected zero acknowledgement from Chris in this dream, as was my experience from so many years of nothing from him. But in this dream, Chis gave me a card. He hugged me and apologized for wasting so many years of not talking to me and for keeping me out of his life. I remember holding him so tight in this dream, tears of joy streaming down my face, not wanting to let him go. It felt so real. I finally had my boy back! I opened my eyes from this dream, feeling pure elation because I had Chris back in my life.

When I rolled over and saw the early morning sun peeking through the curtains, I realized I’d dreamt the whole reunion. None of it was real. Tears filled my eyes as I mourned him all over again. Chris will always hold a very dear place in my heart. Maybe someday he will know.

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