Witness

I haven’t written about this before because I wasn’t really sure where to start and, as it’s about religion, I was conscious that I could offend. But as we approach another Christmas (I start planning very early), it’s on my mind, and I think enough time has passed to give me some perspective.

Basically, the kids and I think that E might have become a man of faith.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course (although, it would be perfectly legitimate to question E’s actions in the light of any religious beliefs he holds), it’s just that, rather like the way he’s treated his children, I just didn’t see it coming.

Whilst I have great respect for the religious beliefs of others, I have no faith myself (this is one reason why I never wanted to be married), but E was a churchgoer in his youth (he was even in a church choir). However, when I knew him, religion barely featured in his life and as a couple we were quite comfortably and happily non-religious and raised our kids without a faith (they were educated in all faiths and none and are free to choose their own path).

E and I had very different political perspectives, but our views on religion tended to agree. We both disliked religious extremes and we shared a suspicion of, and irritation towards, people knocking on our door to try and convert us and tell us that their God loves us. In fact during the 25 years we were together, E and I only ever went into a church for weddings, funerals, christenings, and, in my case, the odd school trip (where I was the butt of the jokes about lightning strikes).

Anyway, back in December 2020, the boys and I were slowly settling into our new home and life was beginning to even out. E and P had had a new baby back in July but, at the time, we’d been dealing with the death of my Mum and the house sale and move, and the kids hadn’t been able to do anything or send anything to celebrate the arrival of their new sister. With Christmas coming up, we decided that it would be nice to send a gift to the baby.

If I’m honest, I thought it might be a nice way to mark a change and start afresh. I thought Christmas would be the perfect time to try and be civil after the four years we’d been through. I hoped it would mean we could put the bad stuff behind us and show there were no hard feelings. I hoped it would mean that, once the pandemic was over, my kids could meet their little sister. I genuinely hoped that she could become part of their little family and they could become part of hers. I knew there was a long way to go, but I thought a Christmas gift would be a good first step.

So, we put together one of those personalised children’s books. It was based around it being a child’s first Christmas, and we had to choose four gifts that would be given to the child in the book. I did most of the work on it, including a personalised message to their sister from my four kids, but I sent it to the kids for their approval and all four of them loved it. I then paid for it and arranged for it to be gift wrapped and delivered to E and P in time for Christmas.

I’m not sure what I was expecting E’s reaction to the present to be. I don’t think I really thought that, Scrooge like, he’d be a changed man and vow to keep Christmas forever in his heart from that point on, but I did hope that it would be appreciated and start to heal his relationship with our kids.

A week before Christmas, I got a delivery notification texted to me, so I knew that it was on its way, and, at that point, I must admit, I was feeling a little smug in an ‘I’ve been a grown up and done the right thing’ kind of way. However, later that afternoon, I got another text, from Oldest Son, asking if he could come and see me (I worked literally two doors away from our new house). I went outside to meet him, assuming he needed money for something, or that he’d had a problem at school (at the time he was very much struggling with school attendance). When I got there, he was standing on the steps to the office, holding his phone, looking confused and upset.

The present had arrived, and his dad had indeed texted, but it wasn’t to say thank you. He’d texted to say that whilst a gift for the baby was welcome at any time, P’s beliefs meant that she doesn’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays and that ‘going forward’ he would appreciate it if her beliefs could be respected. It was as cold as that.

Oldest Son just didn’t understand. He felt he was being told off, and that he’d caused offence. He knew that the present he’d been so happy about had been rejected, but he didn’t understand why or what he’d done wrong.

Now, I could be wrong, but I only know of one belief system where Christmas and birthdays are not celebrated and that’s the one that involves a lot of door knocking and no blood transfusions.

Whilst Oldest Son was completely confused, I suddenly experienced a moment of absolute clarity. It made absolute sense to me that she was someone with firm (probably religious) beliefs. For a start only someone very naive and inexperienced would have been stupid enough to not just believe E, but to also marry him. Secondly, of course she didn’t think he’d been unfaithful, her comment to Oldest Daughter’s friend re ‘it depends what you mean by unfaithful suddenly made sense’, if E wasn’t married to me, she probably didn’t believe he could be unfaithful to me. Finally, her lack of social media presence, so unusual for someone as young as her, made more sense, as did the breakneck speed of their wedding, just five months after he left me.

I have no idea what P’s belief system is, or if E shares it, but, if she does follow a strict set of beliefs, as suggested by the rejection of the kids’ present, I don’t think it would be possible to marry outside of that kind of faith. So, even if only in terms of lip service, E must have professed to share her beliefs (proving he’ll do anything to get laid, but also suggesting a cynical ability to twist even a belief system to fit his own interests).

So, there we were, Oldest Son and I, standing on the steps outside my office, in the pre-Christmas chill, staring at a text.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I think this was the moment that he finally gave up on his dad.   As I stood there, I saw it, I witnessed the end of what was left of his faith in his dad.

It turned out that he’d copied and pasted and sent the exact same text message to all four of his children (I believe a similar message was also sent to his parents and sister when they sent Christmas gifts). As the afternoon went on, and the kids shared screenshots of their identical texts on our family group chat, their sense of humour began to take the sting out of what had happened. They gleefully speculated over whether or not he and P went door knocking. They pitied their baby sister being brought up with no birthday or Christmas presents and wondered if this was why their dad had got nothing for them in these occasions for the last couple of years. They laughed at the thought of their dad being preached to about love and family values in a church. By the end of the day, they had accepted this new information about their dad with good grace and wry humour even if his rejection of their gift had hurt them.

Sadly, the gift that I’d hoped would bring them together, was the thing that confirmed how great the distance was between them.

Since that day on the office steps, there has been a profound and lasting change in my children’s feelings towards their dad. In the last two years, E’s potential Damascene conversion to P’s beliefs, has been shadowed by a similar, more secular, change in his children. If he has gained a religious faith, they have lost a more human one.

I think they’re stronger for it.

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