When I asked people in the Public Insight Network about how loss is changing their holidays this year, I expected to hear stories about how the death of a loved one might affect the holidays.
But Christopher Fleming of Athens, Ga., wrote to us about another kind of loss — the kind that comes along with divorce. He and his wife divorced when their son, Jacob, was two years old. Christopher’s ex-wife, who has full custody of their son, moved with Jacob to Florida to be closer to her family. Christopher says he didn’t fight the decision because he felt that such a young child needed his mother, and he didn’t want to make what was already a tough situation any more difficult.
Jacob and his father lived in the same state for about four years during his childhood, after Christopher found a job in Florida. “Eventually, feeling like we had established something strong between us, I gathered up the courage to think about moving out of Florida, a state I never took to,” Christopher writes.
For the past six years, he has worked as an artist and lighting designer in the University of Georgia’s dance department, 450 miles from his son.
Jacob turns 13 this week. He visits his father twice a year. Early on, Christopher was acutely aware that his time with his son would be limited. He would have just bits and pieces of the 16 years until Jacob turns 18 to spend with him.
“After the paperwork was done, the lawyers paid, the household goods divvied up, there came the soul-wrenching acknowledgement that from age two to age 18 — 16 years — I would have exactly eight Christmases and seven Thanksgivings with him before he was up and out into the world.”
Holidays, like Thanksgiving this year, when Jacob was with his mother — and really, all the days that Christopher misses out on his son’s life — are hard. (He says he’ll go somewhere quiet, like the woods, to spend the holidays without his son.) But Christopher decided early on to make the most of what time he had with Jacob.
“After the divorce, which would forever change my relationship to my son,” he writes, “the little snatches of time that I would have with him would become ever more important.
“Each word, each activity, all of my body language would be so very important. As a non-custodial parent, the day-to-day became no longer possible, but what came up quickly as a possibility was the opportunity to be truly present with the ever-changing little creature I helped to bring into this world.”
Christopher says he spends every other Christmas, every other Thanksgiving, and part of each summer with Jacob. And they’re finding new ways to communicate across the time in between.
“We talk a lot on the phone, and text,” Christopher says. “And he is always updating me with any new posts to YouTube of him playing the guitar. Here is one of his latest. He is quite a fine musician, and an excellent writer and storyteller.”
“There is an unbelievable amount of love between us,” Christopher writes, “and even more importantly, a great deal of acceptance and respect. We have really learned to meet each other where we stand, and push and pull in all sorts of wonderful ways without fear anxiety or any of those other crippling habits. Ours is an honest exchange.”
This Christmas, Jacob and Christopher will be in Minneapolis, celebrating with Christopher’s family. Their plans? “Together we will play and explore,” Christopher says, “collecting stories and just enjoying each other’s company.” He’ll likely drag his son to museums, he says, and Jacob will likely drag him to the mall.
Christopher says that the hard reality of their circumstances has allowed him to build a close relationship with Jacob from the time that they have together. “What our relationship would have become if things had worked out, or if the divorce had come later, I can never know,” he writes. “But what I do know is that each breath shared with another is a chance to get better together.”