When I first met Ronnie Beach, the soft-voiced, redheaded, fifty-four-year-old divorce mediator (and my second supervised visitation monitor), he was climbing out of his Honda with a bag of McDonald's in one hand and a milkshake in the other.
whiteI had resisted Ronnie, because he came into your home, and he was with you every time you were with your kids. To me, it felt creepy, and it seemed to imply even creepier things about me. I thought the girls would also think it was weird, and that it would confuse them. And other people would think it was who-knew-what and probably jump to false conclusions.
white"Rebecca, please don't make me do that again. I already did all that with Barbara. She said supervised visitation was unnecessary. She told you there was nothing to worry about."
white"It's Ronnie Beach or nothing," she said. I could accept some supervision, but I wanted a more blended approach. Something like a mix of parenting coaching and maybe urine tests. I called my lawyer. "We can fight it," she said. "It's definitely not something you need to agree to. No judge will require it in your case. But it might take a while before you see your girls."
white"How long is a while?"
white"I can't say for sure. A few months? If you want to see your kids right away, get Ronnie Beach," she said. "He has an impeccable reputation. You'll like him. He's a very nice guy. It's noth- ing to be afraid of."
whiteRonnie was a specialist in court-ordered supervised visita- tion. He cost a hundred dollars an hour, and we were going to be spending at least a couple of hours a week with him. "I know it sounds expensive," he said on the phone. "But when people tell me that, I ask them, 'How much are you paying your attorney?'"
whiteIn his office, the kind of modest, comfortable room one might expect a psychologist to rent out, he assured me that it was not at all unusual for couples to go through a period of supervised visitation without a court order.
white"Whether or not a judge is involved, it's about reestablishing trust." Those were more or less the first words out of Ronnie's mouth, and they became my mantra. I couldn't talk my ex into trusting me; I couldn't even "sober" her into trusting me. I had to create the conditions under which she would decide, of her own free will, to trust me again.
white"How long do you think this is going to take?" I asked. "There's no way to know that for sure right now," Ronnie said. He was being very savvy. He knew that if he told me up front that it could be months, even years, I would freak out. "It's incremental. It takes patience. Let's get you spending time with your kids again, and then we'll see where we are."
whiteDespite all my big talk about how I would do anything to see my daughters, I was not happy. Ronnie, I concluded, was going to be my daughters' new dad for the next year, and I was going to be his bumbling sidekick.
whiteOur initial meeting with Ronnie was at Crown Center mall in downtown Kansas City. My daughters and their mom pulled up next to the fountain outside the large glass-fronted building while I waited inside and watched. Ronnie met Margaret and Portia at the car and walked them in.
white"Ronnie is going to be hanging out with us today," I said. It still makes me sick to my stomach, writing this years later. "Sound good to you guys?"
whiteThey nodded, a bit carefully. They knew that something wasn't 100 percent right, but they were willing to play along. I hadn't told them what role Ronnie was going to be playing in our lives-just that he was going to be keeping us company during our visitation.
whiteWe went to Sheridan's Frozen Custard, where I got peanut butter custard, and Ronnie and the girls got Dirt & Worms. We strolled around the mall and shopped, and the girls and I played in the Crayola Store. After a couple of hours, we hugged goodbye, and Ronnie took them back to their mother's car.
whiteThe humiliation of this, I can't tell you what it was like. I can't even really imagine it myself anymore. But it was the only way I felt certain I was getting them back.
white"On that first day," Ronnie told me later, "I gave you a B plus." He never told me what I'd done wrong. I was disappointed that I didn't make an A, but since I'm laying my cards on the table, I'm probably about a B-plus dad on my best days. I mean, don't get me wrong, I try hard to be a solid A dad. But I expect I'm still too selfish to earn really top grades. (To be totally fair, my wife Amie, my ex-wives, and the three of my children who are old enough to express an opinion all insist that today I have become an excellent and devoted father, and I hope it's true. On good days maybe I get an A-minus, for effort.)
whiteThe girls remained cautious around Ronnie. They were quiet and well behaved, always friendly and polite-they liked Ronnie okay-but part of his skill was making himself both ready to hand and unobtrusive. His calm, grandfatherly presence was always nearby, whether he was checking his email, writing in a notebook, or watching a movie with us at home. He'd play Scrabble with us if invited, eat pancakes, and sometimes take me aside to share observations, like "You're giving more attention to X than to Y." He was himself a father. But my daughters never got to know him well enough to let their guard down around him, which was a comfort. It wasn't that I worried they'd like him more than they liked me. But I worried that they might start to see us as co-dads, with Ronnie as Dad Number One and me as Dad Number Two. Maybe I was worried that they'd trust Ronnie more than they trusted me, or that, like their mom, their trust in me would depend on their trust in Ronnie.
whiteThroughout Ronnie's supervision, I did not attempt to kill myself, and though I'm sure I often fantasized about it, this was a relatively stable time, suicide-wise, because I felt I was making moral progress. I saw myself as working hard to get my children back, so I congratulated myself on becoming a better person. Or at least, I seemed less contemptible to myself.
whiteI recently asked one of my closest friends what had made Ronnie special. "I mean, he turned everything around in my relationship with Rebecca," I said, "but what did he do?"
white"He made things normal again for you guys," she said. "He took what was degenerating into a very unnatural situation and put everything back on solid ground."
whiteThat was Ronnie's gift. He didn't just assure my ex that I could be a good dad to our daughters. He also reminded me that I was their dad, that I was supposed to be their dad, that I had a right to be their dad. Naturally, if you'd asked me then, I would have insisted, at every stage of this process, that I had both an obligation and a right to father my own children. But somewhere along the line, I had lost my conviction that this was true. Another ugly truth I shouldn't say, which is probably obvious to you, my reader: at some point in those dark years of 2009 through 2012, I had given up on myself as a father.