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Chapter One – Torn Apart

Sometimes Dash was whisked off for hamburgers just as I was due to arrive; other times he waited eagerly for me at his door and sprang out and hugged me excitedly, leaping into my car and holding my hand tight the whole drive back to our house. At the same time that Peter wrote in one of his countless affidavits, "Dashy is happy, content and exuberant in every aspect of his life, except when it comes to these access visits. Dash wants to visit every second weekend and he doesn't really like mid-week visits, at the end of a school day", Dash would be in my car, chattering away merrily and blasting questions at me about what was planned for the evening or weekend.

Still, when I drove over to pick Dash up for our access time, I often found no one home. I'd wait for a half hour or so, fighting back tears and rising frustration, then drive home alone, rehearsing my ever-unspoken questions: Why doesn't Peter think about what this does to Dash? Why, when Dash lives with three professional adults and a nanny, can no one respect the access order and have Dash packed and ready to go when I arrive? Where are they? How will this end? When will I see him next? The first of many times Suzanne took on the role of gatekeeper and refused me access to Dash, I turned on my heel, brushed away hot tears, and called my lawyer from the car. He told me to go home and then sent a fax to the Hart house, saying I would be arriving again at seven that evening to pick up Dash. Breaking out of his background role, Dave volunteered to go. He needed to do something. I had come home in tears yet again. When Dave arrived at seven o'clock, Peter and Greg were standing guard at the door.

“Go away, little boy. You're not getting Dash,” Peter sneered.

“Get off our property,” Greg said. “You're trespassing and we will call the police if you don't leave.” Peter wrote an affidavit later, saying, "Pamela complains of a denial of access. Her accusation is false. At no time have I denied access. I have conducted myself, regarding access, in a manner that is quite the opposite. I have been flexible and generous.” Dave had worn a little recording device that night, and the whole exchange was on tape. But what could we do? We might have a tape, but they had Dash.

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Chapter Two – The Disappearing Boy

I made lists and mulled them over in the middle of the night. How much of Dash's behaviour was normal for a boy his age? How much of it was because he hadn't seen me that week or that month? How much of it was because anger flowed through the Hart household like lava? How much of it was me, my "overprotectiveness"? I would get down on myself as the clock ticked toward midnight. I tend to obsess about things. I'm probably just obsessing now. Maybe the experts were right to choose Peter over me. Have I so misjudged Dash's needs that he clings to his father? Dash is my first child. Have I done a bad job?

Then I'd swing back the other way. Surely the five years Dash and I spent together meant something. You can't pour your heart and soul into a child, spend every day with him, introduce him to music and food and have him nurtured at your breast, and have it go this badly. I had given him everything I had to give, all my security, all my confidence, all my love, and he had responded to it as children do. He had been happy. Most of the time he was still happy with me. When I saw him. I mulled it over and over and over. I read books on parenting. I talked to other moms about what I should expect from a eight-year-old boy. Each weekend when Dash didn't visit, or did but was withdrawn or angry, I would go to sleep with only one thought in my mind: If Dash was living with the parent he most needed to be with - Dr. Elterman's “excellent parent”, Dash's “psychological parent” - why wasn't he thriving? Why was he running from place to place and avoiding his father's home? Why did I never hear from him except when I called? Why didn't he need his mommy? Why was Dash's tolerance for ordinary discipline so low that, at the first sign of a rule, he ran off and hid behind the couch? Why had Dash's entire personality changed so radically in the space of three years?

But I could mull all I wanted. I needed help.

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Chapter Three – Crushed

The notice of motion asking for custody sparked one reaction I did expect. Eight-year-old Dash flew into the fray. His rage was swift, his hostility palpable on the phone. I tried to keep my nerve, but I was left shaking after each exchange. Even though I had spent three weeks persuading Dash to come on a ski weekend with us, he called the night before we were leaving and demanded to know if we were still going.

“I want an answer,” he snarled. “It's simple, are we going to Whistler or not? Because I don't want to go.”

“Okay, Dash. We'll stay here, if that's what you want.”

“I don't believe you.”

“Dash, I promise you. We'll stay here.”

“I won't come.”

And he didn't.

Dash kept up his hostility and distance from me, and I kept trying to bridge it: I called, every day, telling him I wanted to see him, I loved him, I was there for him. When Peter wrote me a letter saying that Dash had decided he wouldn't visit me until I called off my application, my resolve only grew firmer. This is sickness.

Dash retaliated still further. “I don't want to see you. I don't want you to come and pick me up on Friday,” he said angrily. “This is your warning. Goodbye.” Days later, Peter had a courier deliver a handwritten letter. “I will not be visiting until the custody stuff is over. Dash.” I panicked. Dash is in a worse position than ever. What am I doing? Whatever it was that Peter did to make Dash respond like that, to be able to say those things, terrified me. The cruelty seemed limitless. He was orchestrating and manipulating Dash in exactly the ways Norman Goodwell had predicted.

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Chapter Four – Armed and Dangerous

Given how bizarre our life together was, part of the responsibility I felt as Dash's mom was to not do to him the things his father had done. So, no pressure. No manipulation. No lies. I piled on understanding and love and gave him, each day, a commitment I believed he privately relied on: that I would always keep trying to see him and I would love him no matter what had happened in the past or would happen in the future. Whenever Dash cancelled, he saved it until the last minute, as though waiting until the last possible moment to face the disappointment. His cancellations were as hard on our household as they were on me, because all four of us would have geared up to see him, the boys would save up their stories for him, but have only a couple of hours or a night's warning that he wouldn't be coming. The weeks became months; months became a year, and by the time Dash was eleven, I had stopped telling the boys he was coming at all, because he invariably didn't, and I couldn't bear their disappointment on top of mine.

Whenever I did get Dash, it felt like a military coup. I would call Dave and Mimi from the car, and all I needed to say was, “I've got Dash with me.” I kept it casual, because Dash was sitting right next to me, but it was code, and they knew what it meant. Other plans were summarily cancelled, Mimi would stay longer, and Dave would come home early to occupy the boys. When Dash and I walked through the door, and for the entire time - a couple of hours usually - the household revolved around him.

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Chapter Five – In the Belly of the Beast

I still have hundreds of vignettes, little treasures, that I can call up from those days. The boy who wouldn't visit made it so clear, when he did come, that he was so glad to be with me. We sat in the kitchen and talked about what he wanted to be when he grew up (“a lawyer, like my dad”) and how he was worried about going to a big high school soon. We discussed books he wanted to read and movies he wanted to see, and we made plans for the summer. He wanted to come with us to Lake of the Woods again, and asked me to get him a new wetsuit so he could stay in the water longer with Big D. He talked about how he'd been falling out with some of his friends at school. We didn't just live in the present, as many estranged parents and children do. I made sure we always, always discussed the future and made plans. When I drove Dash home he said, “You know, Mom, I could take a bus to your house, couldn't I?” and my heart leaped and broke at exactly the same time. Both of us were trying to find ways to defy his father. But the reality was that we were heading into a trial over his custody. Dash was kept right up to date with all the grisly details. According to Peter, Dash had known everything “from day one.” He wrote that, “Dash has been always, without exception, fully aware of what has been transpiring, and said and written, etc, throughout these past 7 years.” And, “Dash is going to hear about this this afternoon, as soon as he gets home.” Dash said later that he read everything that came to the house as he was given ongoing proof about how imperiled he was. Peter faxed me a note in April 1996, a couple of weeks before the trial, after yet more missed visits had forced me to try and have him cited for contempt of court again:

"Dash becomes disturbed by process servers on our home doorstep, presenting documents of accusation against his father, of Contempt. But not for long is Dash upset. Very brief indeed is that. He quickly graduates to a thoughtful analysis, and a resulting displeasure with, and resentment of, his mother and her lawyer . . . for this invasive conduct, and for the making of these accusations, which he sees not only as false, but also, even worse, as offensive, small and mean."

In court, Dash would say he sometimes sat down and read the affidavits himself, and other times he read them with his dad. "Take a look at this!" Peter said they exclaimed to one another. When I found out later that Dash had a reading level that roughly followed his emotional level - suspended at a Grade Four - I knew that Dash wasn't reading those documents alone. I read an article written by Dr. Peggie Ward of the Children and Law Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, who wrote that, "The willingness of a parent to directly involve a child in the litigation should be a red flag that the parent may well be using the child to further his own agenda, even if the child is apparently acquiescent."

All I could do was hope the judge would see it, too.

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Chapter Six – Bringing in the Troops

“Do I have to call another twenty witnesses to say he's one of the happiest kids?” Peter asked. When Justice Brenner told him the teachers' evidence had certainly been damning, Peter fell on an old standard line – no one understood Dash like he did. “The picture painted here is totally inaccurate,” he said, his air of bemusement crawling on my skin. “They don't even know Dash.”

To my plea that Dash be ordered to undergo a psycho-educational assessment, Peter pulled Dash out of his hat. “I assure Your Lordship, Dash will not go to any psychological assessment,” Peter said, and those twelve words sunk us. Dash was thirteen now. Of course he wouldn't be forced to go. Brenner shifted in his seat. Then just move him, I begged, as Jamie pleaded the same with the judge. Move him and I will work with him. We can get an assessment later. Just give us time to start his healing. Let him live with a healthy family. Let him learn what unconditional love feels like. Don't let him lose this chance. Soon it will be too late. Give me custody. My family is committed to healing this damaged boy. I will hire any expert I have to, any counsellor, any tutor. I will take him anywhere. Please don't make me watch him simply fade away.

But Peter knew his judge. He knew his system. He pulled out his reliable trump card: If you shift him, Judge, he will run away. Oh, he won't. He won't. Don't believe them, I willed. But it sealed the deal. It was over. Brenner wasn't going to write another failed order. He wouldn't be our super parent. Brenner said he wouldn't go against what he had found at the trial – that Dash was happy at his dad's home and wanted to stay there – and he wanted to talk personally with Dash before he decided what he should do. Oh, God, I put my head in my hands. This is a child who lies like a corpse on the floor of his classroom! How much more can he take? Though Jamie remained the gentleman he is, I saw a look of disgust cross his face and then a kind of sad, muted resignation. How can this be happening, after those teachers sat there and said “potential suicide”?

I wanted to finally, after all these years, dissolve into a fit of screaming. I wanted to be mad and bad and to express the disbelief, outrage, and hysteria that I had so often felt sitting in these rooms, to break down for having to colour within the lines all these years and get nowhere. For having sat in front of a dozen judges who did nothing. For having to think of every solution and hand it to them on a silver platter for them to ignore. I wanted to let it all out and show them all what battling this maniac for my son in this hamstrung institution had done to me. I was in court when I should have been home with Mimi, the boys, and the husband I was neglecting. Instead I was here again, banging my head against this brick wall. How many chances have you people had to do something that helps this child? I wanted to shout, “I'm not the only one Dash is slipping away from. Peter is going to lose him, too!” But as I watched Peter grandstand, Justice Brenner demur and murmur, and Jamie struggle, I said nothing. I stayed in my seat, my face reddening from the effort of keeping my frustration inside me. Neither Jamie nor I did any shouting. I looked down at my palms, which showed red half-moons where my fingernails had pressed into them. I crumpled into my seat. Unable to vent my rage, I simply went numb.

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Chapter Seven – Winged Angel

When Dash was done painting his canvasses, he'd cover them with white paint and start all over again. And he'd call me out of the blue, when I hadn't heard from him for months. “Mom, I'm out of paint. Can we go to the paint shop?” And I'd rush out the door.

One afternoon after hamming it up in the paint shop, we pulled up outside Peter's house on West Fifth Avenue, shortly before they moved. Dash turned to me and said excitedly, “Can I show you some of my canvasses, Mom? I've been working really hard on them.”

“Dash, I'd love that!” I was astonished to be invited in. I hadn't been inside his house since he was five years old. “You run inside and ask your dad if I can come in and see your canvasses. I'll wait here for you.”

Minutes passed. Dash came out again. Disappointment had crushed his happy face. “Dad says you can't come in.”

“Oh. Well, Dash, another time then. I'd really love to see them.”

“Yeah.” He looked down and half turned to go. “Hey, Mom! I've got an idea!” He pointed to the corner of the house. “If you go over there, I can go into the corner room and show them to you through the window!”

He ran inside and I walked around to where he had pointed; the window looked into a playroom in the basement. There were layers of grime and muck on the glass, and I kneeled down on the damp ground and wiped it away. I cupped my hands on either side of my face to cut out the glare so I could get a better look, and there was Dash, so proud, standing next to a big canvas covered in graffiti art. I smiled and waved and gave him a big thumbs-up. He was beaming.

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Chapter Eight – Sabotage

The counsellors knew they were in a precarious position. Reckless intervention would do untold damage. Dash needed Ascent to start the work, and he needed the two-year residential program at Cascade to continue it, Lana said. I felt a fleeting, hollow victory, knowing I had been right about how sick my son really was, but mostly it just added another layer of fear to have it confirmed in such a clear way, by a specialist like Lana. I knew that, if Dash was to be free emotionally, he would have to be strong enough to withstand what he had been through, and I worried for a moment that he never would be. But I told myself that this was just my fear speaking. I knew he was being nurtured at Ascent. He was getting help. If he could do his six weeks there, then move smoothly on to Cascade, Dash would get there. I couldn't let myself believe anything else.

When Lana hung up, I tried to steady myself for the boys. My knuckles were white from gripping the phone as I drove, crying, through the October drizzle to the boys' school. I searched my thoughts. I was very frightened. My son was damaged beyond belief and had a long climb back to health ahead of him. He may not ever fully heal. But there was another thing, too; I felt it inside me. It sidled up alongside the hope I always managed to find. I felt empowered. Somehow I even felt strong. I knew Dash was in the right place. I knew he was going to be okay. It had taken twelve years, but I had made the right decision for him, despite the personal cost from which I would probably never recover. He might never speak to me again and was lost to me, at least for now, but he wasn't lost to himself. He would find his way back. I got to the school and my boys flew down the hill into my arms, brimming with their day's news and excited about our trip to Whistler. I hugged them tightly as they chattered on and let myself get caught up in their world. My family, for the first time in years, was whole. I had Dave, I had my boys, and Dash was finally safe. What I felt, more than anything else, was joy.

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Chapter Nine – A Final Statement

I couldn't even guess at what Dash felt for me now. After Ascent any trust he had begun to feel had surely been comprehensively quelled; his disgust for those charged with looking after him had surely peaked. This poor child, being brought in a police wagon to a mother he does not trust. Going home now to a dysfunctional, pathetic father. How could I explain to him that Ascent had been the start of a new life for him? He wouldn't have believed me. How long could I continue saying, “You have to trust me,” and then keep failing him by the help I promised not coming, or by his father coming instead and leading him back to nowhere? I got so angry then, sitting on my doorstep, Dash's back to me. Peter had brought him back - but for what? More court appearances, more sleepless nights, more directionless days, dope, isolation, fights, when he could have been protected and started on the journey to being well. If Peter could have just left him alone for six weeks - that's all Dash needed to get started.

And Dash shouldn't have been delivered here. The bond I had tried so hard to mend and rebuild over the past two years was wrecked utterly, and I couldn't do anything to take away his pain. Seattle had been the end. If he had got through Ascent, maybe. But there was a gulf between us now, so wide. I didn't have the courage to make any big move. I couldn't bear being spurned or attacked. Not today. Perhaps not any day now. Maybe I was changed, too. I could have reached out for him as I always had done, but I couldn't even bear his flinch, let alone a “fuck off.” I couldn't take his rejection.

And so for now I thought of myself instead of him. I protected myself, as Dash was protecting himself. I didn't reach out. I didn't tell him I loved him and would always be there for him. I didn't say a word. The damage now seemed insurmountable, and my powerlessness complete.

The Dash Wish List has been created in the hope that no other child will suffer the psychological abuse and emotional neglect of an alienating home. ( more )

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