Photo by Don Boomer
This should not happen to an 8-year-old …
It is Aug. 13, 2006 and Jessica Socha’s father, Shawn, is dropping her off at her mother’s house in Vista. Jessica’s mother has long been suffering from severe pain and has recently been prescribed methadone, the heroin substitute that can also be used for heavy-hitting pain, but which is also a growing cause of narcotic deaths.
The two walk up to the house and ring the bell. No answer. They look in the window and Jessica can see the back of her mother’s head on the couch.
Shawn senses something and sends Jessica to the car, then calls 911.
To the mystified alarm of the child in the car, emergency units converge on the house. After staring through the car window for endless minutes, Jessica sees a firefighter come out of the house and solemnly shake her head toward Shawn.
Jessica is only a child, but she knows. Her mother is dead.
Her grandmother is called, and Jessica is driven home. She is quiet during the drive and plays “Super Mario Bros.” on her Game Boy. She seems calm, but trauma is subtle, and she realizes later that she played the familiar game backward.
Jessica had been one of a huge population subset: children of split and warring parents.
Her mother had primary custody, but her dad was fighting it in court. The two had never married, and she was 16 years older. The bond between them was paste, not glue. The split custody time gave Jessica’s life a night-and-day effect: Her mother was super indulgent, letting her eat whatever she wanted and watch whatever the dial offered. Her dad was more strict, insisting on a healthy diet and appropriate media choices.
But that’s all past. It’s now just girl and dad, Jessica and Shawn.
Shawn provides a foreshadowing of what kind of man he was. Jessica explains: “My dad got me a notebook, and was like, ‘Look, this is your notebook about your mom, and you should write stuff in it about her. You’re not going to remember forever.’ ”
If a children’s therapist were to read the above as a case study, the response would be: “That child is probably headed for trouble.” There would be scads of examples in this world of broken homes coupled with tragedy to give weight to such a glum prediction.
After her mother’s death, Jessica and her dad lived for two years with his parents in Fallbrook while Shawn recouped the lawyer costs of his custody fight and saved for buying their own house. Jessica’s life became more orderly. She was baptized a Catholic at age 9. She and Shawn both say his parents in Fallbrook have played an important supporting role in their lives.
It wasn’t easy. Shawn worked in the warehouse of Time Warner Cable (he’s now a supervisor), and what he made wouldn’t carry them much past next month.
Shawn finally scraped together the money and bought a small house in a stable San Marcos neighborhood. His additional goal was to place her in the best schools. The harsh winds of her earlier years had settled into a calming breeze. Normalcy, or pretty close to it.
It’s today, and we’re sitting at the dinette table in that same home. Shawn is a tall, slim man of 39 with an enviable full head of dark hair. A smile is almost creased into his face, but he doesn’t say much. He’s in and out of a conversation like a drive-up window.
Jessica is a cute, perky, round-faced girl of 17 — sort of a living happy-face symbol. She’s a take-no-prisoners scholar as a senior at Mission Hills High School. Her father proudly shows me an album containing all of her report cards. Since sixth grade, she has never gotten anything other than an A or A+. And we’re talking Advanced Placement classes in math and science. Even in this era of grade inflation, that’s otherworldly.
It took teamwork, year by year, as steady as a hard winter rain.
Dad and sixth-grader Jessica settled into a contented family life. After school, she would go to the Boys and Girls Club until her dad picked her up. She fondly remembers him playing dolls with her as a child, though she could get irritated that he wasn’t serious enough.
As Jessica grew and the years passed, they developed their own domestic regimen. She vacuumed, dusted and did the dishes. He handled most everything else. They each did their own laundry. Shawn also did the cooking, sometimes with results that would make Rachael Ray flee the kitchen in tears.
“I don’t really enjoy cooking, and I’m not a really great cook, so it’s kind of a struggle. What am I going to cook tonight, and how am I going to do it? How do you know when the chicken’s done? How do you know when the fish is done? Meat’s easy, it changes color. OK, great. It’s not pink any more, we can eat it. … Fish and chicken and things like that, when they look very similar, those are hard.”
Jessica, too — shall we say her epicurean boundaries were narrow? She tells of dining with the family of an upscale girlfriend. “The food they ate was different. We always had American cheese. Over there, I had Swiss and I had Gouda, and I had cheddar, and it was like, ‘What is this?’ ”
She tells of her first venture onto the softball field. They had played catch in the backyard, and it was decided that she had a pretty good arm. So Shawn drove her to her first practice of the high school team as a freshman. When they arrived in the parking lot, she saw the other girls were all dressed up to play, with custom jerseys and regulation cleats. She had a glove, tennis shoes and everyday shorts. Sitting in the car, she saw this and wanted to go home.
“I’m like. ‘What am I doing?’ I was intimidated, and I was like, ‘Never mind. I don’t want to do it.’ I was like, ‘Take me home.’ Dad said, ‘You can’t go home. You need to do this.’ He said, ‘If you do this, when we get home, I’ll get you a big bowl of ice cream.’ I said, ‘Fine. I’m doing it for the ice cream.’ ”
She made the school team. He went to most every game, just as he had with her middle school basketball team. Many practices, too.
Jessica dates in the usual high school way, but not currently. She wants to finish school with a perfect academic record.
Any boy who wanted to date Jessica was required to survive the gantlet of dad’s eyeballing.
“My dad was strict. I was not allowed to watch PG-13 movies until I was 13. Any song that I wanted to buy, my dad listened to it first. If it had a bad message or bad words, no song. The same with a book. It made me mad, but the more I think about it, the better it was for me.”
Was Shawn ready for the terrible teens?
He says, “My mom told me early on that girls go through this weird hormone thing. So, instead of me taking it personal or trying to figure out what’s wrong with her, I just kind of let it go, and then it went away.”
Oh, oh. It had to happen. The dreaded other woman. Not long ago, a girlfriend named Rachel came into Shawn’s life. And if he expected Jessica to throw open her arms, well …
When Rachel first came to visit, Jessica pouted and went into her room and wouldn’t return. But eventually, they worked it out, and Jessica made space in her life for Rachel.
In fact, Jessica would like Shawn’s relationship with Rachel to deepen to allay her worries that dad will be attacked by the empty-nest syndrome.
And the time of separation is coming as college looms. In a few months, Shawn will wake up to an empty house. He addresses that in his laconic Gary Cooper manner. “Yeah, I’ll have to figure that out, I guess. I’ll just have to wait until it happens and then go from there.”
Jessica’s goal is to study math and engineering, and to go to a top college that will challenge her considerable brain power. She has already won a Simon Family Foundation scholarship, but she’ll need much more if she is to avoid mountainous student-loan debt.
In retrospect, Shawn wonders if he should have made a greater effort to find a new mother and family for Jessica. “But I didn’t go out and do things. I wasn’t going to the bars and clubs and stuff like that. It was go to work, leave work, pick her up and then come home.”
(Hindsight and second-guessing. What would parents do for angst without them?)
He says, “It’s important to me that she feels loved and that she knows I’ve given her the best life I could.”
Not to worry, Shawn.
Jessica is the rare girl who grew up in a single-dad household. Let me be brash and say her childhood was as good as the best, and better than many.
We’ll give that man an honorary X chromosome.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org