Saturday, May 23, 2015

Divide & Conquer: How I Got My Parents Divorced

When I was young, I remember my mother telling me that she would divorce my dad if I wanted her to, but that we'd have to move out of the house and be poor and she was leaving the decision entirely up to me whether these things happened or not.  It turns out she was right.  I take credit for making their divorce finally happen.

After my mother stopped paying the mortgage and sold my dad's prized possessions, I finally convinced my dad to file for divorce.  She was calling ambulances and visiting the ER on a semi-regular basis for her imagined ailments, and their joint debt increased, if not exponentially, at least very very quickly.  As I saw it, they never should have been married, so there was no reason for him to stay tied to someone who was so clearly trying to drown them both.  It reminded me of the dilemma people like to pose in which two people are drowning.  Which one do you save?  The one who isn't trying to drown all of us.

I was in my early 20s and had no idea what I was doing, but I knew my dad's sister had won an important court case a number of years earlier.  I called her, and she gave me her lawyer's name and phone number.  He wasn't a divorce attorney, but he knew a good one, and he gave me that lawyer's name and number.  I called the divorce attorney and arranged for a free consultation between him and my dad.  He sounded like he knew what he was doing, so we hired him.  I would pay the attorney fees through my joint account with my dad.  The first step was to get my parents legally separated.

The legal separation was important because of how quickly my mother accrued debt.  She had recently maxed out a credit card she found in my dad's name, and when my dad called the bank to say it was identity theft on the part of his wife, they canceled it and issued a new card, which she found in the mail and maxed out as well.  She called herself an ambulance every time she fell down, and she had no medical insurance.  She could rack up tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills in the course of 24 hours and sometimes did.  As long as my parents remained married, it was joint debt.  When they became separated, any new debt she acquired would be hers alone.  It was a band-aid on a gaping wound, but it was something. 

When my mother received the divorce papers, she called me in tears.  She said it was a shock, completely unexpected.  She had been threatening divorce repeatedly, but it hadn't occurred to her that anyone might actually want the divorce to happen.  She sobbed and bargained that she would even be willing to live on a budget if this would just go away.  It hadn't occurred to me until then that she had genuinely never kept track of any of the money that passed through her hands.  She'd spat out "live on a budget" like it meant "eat cat food and live outside."  She found herself a lawyer who didn't require money upfront but would ask the court to make my dad pay her fees instead.  It appeared to be her only qualification. 

My mother asked for $1,500 in monthly spousal support payments during the separation, which the court granted.  I had previously deposited the entirety of my dad's monthly check into her account after paying the mortgage -- some $7,200 per month for her personal discretionary use -- so I had to stop doing that in order to be able to pay her the requested $1,500.  My dad put the other household bills -- electricity, gas, phone, cable and satellite (they couldn't agree on just one so they had both), trash collection, the works -- on auto-pay from our joint account.  The only things my mother would need to pay for regularly from her $1,500 per month were food, toiletries, and anything else she chose to buy for herself.  I set up a savings account for my dad where I socked away all the money that she was no longer receiving.  The money compounded quickly. 

My parents had to go through mediation, which involved filling out forms where they each listed what they owned jointly and what they felt each of them should receive.  My mother's forms made no sense.  She felt they should each get the washer and dryer.  They should each get the stove.  Her suggestions were mathematically impossible.

They agreed that my dad should get the house, which was a relief to me.  I had spoken with the mortgage company already and determined that, while one of them could be removed from the deed to the house, neither could be removed from the mortgage.  Had my mother received the house, run down as it was, my dad would have had to pay her enough to keep up with the mortgage -- which cost more than her monthly spousal support checks totaled -- which she would have still likely chosen not to pay.  The mortgage company would then go after my dad for even more money, and his already paltry credit score would get worse.  I told him to ask for the house to avoid any of that happening.  The house had been custom built to be handicapped accessible for him, so I said he should argue that point.  It turned out not to be necessary.  My mother has a history of refusing to ask for what she wants or needs, wanting instead for people to simply know and give it to her.  I believe she made this mistake when she offered him the house.

My mother had a rough time with the divorce.  She went through phases in which she wouldn't even respond to her own lawyer.  I believe she was in a depression during these times since that was generally the only thing that kept her silent.  She sometimes missed court dates, even though they were conducted via phone for my bedridden dad's benefit.  Her behavior annoyed the judge, which did not go well for her.  She drew out the divorce proceedings for years.

First she tried to have the divorce thrown out by arguing that she had cared for my dad when he was disabled and that he was discarding her now that she was disabled and mentally ill (she had never admitted to the possibility of being mentally ill before this point, and now it was in court documents).  I found a court case of a woman in their state who had tried this same tack to no avail.  My parents lived in a "no fault" state.  The only cause for divorce was "irreconcilable differences."  None of her arguments helped her.  She couldn't force him to stay married to her.

When my mother finally asked for more money as spousal support -- she was currently receiving $1,500 per month of my dad's almost $10k monthly income -- the judge told her if she wanted more money she should get a job.  He said he saw no evidence that she had any kind of disability that should prevent her from working.

She asked the court to require my dad to buy her a new car.  Denied.

My mother asked the court to require my dad to keep her as primary beneficiary on his life insurance policy, including all the new life insurance policies she had taken out against him in recent months.  He and I had both worried for his physical safety during his last stay at home from the hospital.  My mother doesn't have a history of violence, but she was not the same person who had raised me.  I didn't know her anymore.  She rarely seemed lucid, and she sometimes seemed psychotic.  Even if she never became violent herself, I could see her promising someone else money to cause harm to someone she hates, like my dad.  No one had to mention this seemingly ridiculous concern to the court.  The judge just told my mother no, and my dad canceled all the new life insurance policies she had taken out against him.  He still had a small one that the VA paid for, and he made me the primary beneficiary.  The understanding was that I would use it to pay for his cremation and then split any leftover money 50/50 with Dante.  I think he knew as well as I did that any money given to Dante would disappear as quickly as it would with my mother.

The divorce became final when my mother's lawyer asked the court to excuse her from the case because she wanted her money and my mother wasn't responding to phone calls anymore.  The judge ordered my dad to pay my mother's attorney, which I did from his account, and everything was final.  My mother was given three months to move out of the house, which she mostly spent sleeping in what used to be Dante's bedroom.  She had ordered a portable storage pod, which sat empty in the driveway.  Whenever Dante visited the house, he said she hadn't appeared to have packed anything.  After the three months came and went and my mother had made no attempt to vacate the house, my dad went back to the court, which granted her more time, during which she made still no attempt to pack or move. 

The court eventually ordered her to leave.  She moved in with her parents in a neighboring town, taking almost nothing with her since she never packed.  The storage pod remained empty in the driveway when she left.  Her brothers came by their parents' house each day to care for them, cook, clean, and do laundry.  Since she did nothing to care for herself, they looked after her too.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Time I Took Over My Parents' Finances

When I was in my early 20s, after my mother went off the deep end and my dad was living in the hospital across the state, my mother decided she was going to ruin my dad's life.  This might sound hyperbolic, and I don't know what she was actually trying to do or even if she knew, but I think "ruining my dad's life" sums it up rather well. 

As part of the deal for refinancing the house, she got a check for $40,000.  It was all gone within three weeks.  No one knows where it went.  She had elaborate plans, such as renting a bus and taking troubled orphans to the movies for a day, but none of it ever happened.  She had previously vowed to fix up her house, buy her parents a house, and pay for my wedding, but unsurprisingly none of that happened either.  The money just disappeared, as money in her possession so often did.

Not long after, my mother called me and told me she wasn't paying the mortgage anymore because she wanted the house to go into foreclosure so that my dad wouldn't have a home anymore when he got out of the hospital.  Please understand that I am not claiming to read her mind -- wanting him to be homeless was the explanation she gave me.  It was her house too, and it was where she lived at the time, so I don't know where she planned to go.  I somehow doubt she had a plan.  I decided to intervene because one or both of my parents becoming homeless could adversely affect me personally even more than intervening in their broken marriage would, and I went about setting up a joint checking account with my dad at a bank in my town, far away from my parents.  

It isn't easy to set up a joint account with someone who is bedridden in a hospital halfway across the country, but with the help of a polite customer service agent at my bank and three-way calling, we did it on my lunch hour.  Then my dad had to put through paperwork to have his veterans benefit checks direct deposited to our new joint account rather than his account with my mother.  This was the start of my managing my parents' finances.  This was how I found out just how much money they had.

When the first check went into my joint account with my dad, I contacted the mortgage company.  It's generally really hard to get people to talk to you about someone else's account, but if they're some kind of debt collectors and you want to give them money, they really don't care who you are.  My mother hadn't paid the mortgage since before the refinance, so they owed more than one payment.  I paid it up to date.  I changed the mailing address on the mortgage statements so that they would come to my apartment, after making sure there was no way I was somehow taking on my parents' debt by doing so.  Then I transferred the remaining money into my parents' joint account for my mother to spend as she saw fit.  This is what I would do on the first of each month.

Soon my mother called my dad in the hospital and told him that, if he didn't give her more money, she was going to sell all of his possessions.  The problem with that was that all of the money that wasn't going toward the mortgage was already going to her every month.  Unless you count his comparatively meager social security checks that my dad set aside to pay the property tax on the house, there was no more. 

My dad had tens of thousands of dollars worth of musical instruments and amps and related equipment.  My mother sold all of it.  She also gave someone his computer in exchange for a second used refrigerator she decided to keep in the garage.  All the while, she called me regularly to complain about her week and make money- and divorce-related threats.  Once she said I had to send her $2k of my own money or else she would spend the money my dad had set aside to pay the property taxes on the house (I sent her nothing).  Another time she threatened to file for divorce unless my dad sent her an extra $2k.  I don't know why the number was so often $2k, but it was. 

That's around the time I convinced my dad to file for divorce.

Monday, May 18, 2015

How Do You Feel About Donor Conception?

When I've written about my experiences being donor conceived -- always anonymously, as I do here -- one of the things people ask is how I feel about donor conception.  Would I donate my gametes?  Would I use donated gametes? 

I am not vocal about my opinions on donor conception.  I am not even vocal about the fact that I am donor conceived.  While I've been happy to shrug off the secrecy imposed on me in my youth and tell anyone who asks about my origins, I don't want just anyone knowing.  My close friends and "family of choice" know.  My donor conceived acquaintances know.  My half-siblings obviously know.  When you look up my name online though, I want you to see the delicately crafted persona that I wear for strangers.  Only flattering photos and self-deprecating humor and benign facts I'd want my boss or my biological father to see.  I admire many people who are outspoken about their beliefs, but I can't do it.  If you want to know my feelings or intimate details of my life, I want you to have to ask me.

When I first tested my DNA with 23andMe, I realized I only knew two surnames in my family tree -- my mother's maiden name and her mother's maiden name -- and I wasn't even sure how the latter one was spelled.  I confided in a maternal cousin about the DNA test and being donor conceived in the hope that she could provide me with more family names.  She was very supportive and very helpful.  She also confided that she was currently in the process of trying to conceive using anonymous donor eggs.  I'm not going to tell her how I feel about donor conception.  I'm not going to warn her that her child -- should she successfully have one -- might have some strong feelings about donor conception too.  She had already spent tens of thousands of dollars on failed fertility treatments.  I do not believe my opinion would change her mind.  Instead, I think it would make it even harder for her to talk to me, and I think it would drive a wedge between me and one of the few "original family" members I have left.  Most importantly, her choice to use anonymous donor eggs does not affect me.  I wished her luck and all good things, and I meant it. 

Personally, I would not donate my eggs, and I would not use donated gametes of any kind.  I told my husband before we tried to conceive that, if we couldn't conceive naturally, I knew I could not use donated gametes.  I don't expect someone who isn't donor conceived to understand or to anticipate the pain, but as someone who is and who has gone through it, I couldn't in good conscience do that to another person.  He understood.  He had thought it went without saying. 

I believe anonymous sperm and egg donation should be banned in the US, as they have been in the UK and several other first world countries.  I believe third party reproduction should be heavily regulated, donor medical information tracked, and number of offspring per donor severely limited, the way many people think it already is.  If we continue to let the free market decide the ethics of third party reproduction, money will continue to do all the talking.  Gamete "donors" will continue selling their sperm and eggs, people who desperately want children will continue buying them, and cryo banks and fertility clinics will continue making enormous sums of money as the wish granters and middle men.  People who haven't been conceived yet don't have money.  They are the goods.  Their rights will continue to be leveraged by their parents and doctors, all decisions on the matter made for them before they are even conceived, let alone born.  This is distasteful to me.

Of course, whether anything or everything is outlawed, people can still go onto Craig's List or have one night stands or recruit family friends and refuse to tell their children who their genetic fathers are (traditional "artificial insemination" can easily be done outside a medical setting), but I think fewer people will be willing to do that who weren't already planning to do that.  I'm aiming for improving the current situation.  I don't believe there is a way to fix it completely.  There will always be children born who don't know who their genetic parents are, for whatever reason.  I just want to limit those numbers as much as possible.

I used to feel much more upset about being donor conceived than I do now.  I used to feel much angrier and sadder and more misunderstood when people challenged me or disagreed with me.  I feel a lot better now that I know who my father is.  Knowing his identity doesn't solve all my problems, but it's all I really wanted, and I got it.  No one can take that knowledge away from me, regardless of how strongly they feel that I should shut up and be grateful to be alive.  I wish for everyone who is donor conceived (or adopted, or unsure of their parentage for whatever reason) to be able to know who their biological parents are.  I think it makes things easier.  On that note, please take an autosomal DNA test.  23andMe and AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA each do them for about $99 or less, and even if you know who your parents are, you might help someone else find theirs.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

More Motherly Antics

My best friend also forwarded me this follow-up email I sent her a few days later.  

Dear Jerry,

You always make me feel so much better.  As a means of keeping a log of my mother's antics, I will note here what she has done since my last email.  Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.

Yesterday she called me three times between 8:30pm and 11:30pm.  Her last message was that she was afraid I was dead in a ditch somewhere and that I needed to return her calls.  I called her back, pretending to have been asleep (I was watching The Colbert Report), and told her not to worry so that she wouldn't call again and actually wake me up.  I had been trying to wean her from the daily calls.  She sounded so offended when I asked why she was calling at 11:30 at night and what terrible thing had happened that I thought I'd get a break for at least a couple of days.  Then she called today.  Apparently she had been trying to call me repeatedly but had ditched her cell phone (she says her fingers aren't strong enough to turn it off) for a new flip phone and had been getting my number wrong.

She said she thinks she has MS, and when I mentioned that that was one of the two diseases she said the doctor had ruled out, she said, "Oh yeah," but that the doctor wanted to do an MRI just in case.  She said she went to the eye doctor and said she has the beginning signs that she will someday probably get cataracts.  

She went to the VA hospital and talked to a quadriplegic woman about discounts on hotels in Cleveland (I doubt I have all the details on this visit).  I didn't tell her I already have reservations because I didn't want her asking where I'll be, whether I'm sleeping with my fiance, or if she can stay with me.  If she asks, I will tell her a different hotel.  The same woman also told her various charities to call where she can beg them to pay her debts.  I somehow doubt they will oblige.

She lost her wedding/engagement ring.  She said it was 35 years old and probably not worth anything anymore anyway.  I explained that diamonds and gold don't work that way.  

She told me that she has fallen down 40 times in the last month.  Once was when she 'broke' her nose.  She mentioned today that she had lain in the front yard screaming but no one had noticed, so she had pulled herself to her car and called 911 -- an ambulance and firetruck came.  Earlier this week, she fell in her parents' yard and screamed and the workmen in the next yard didn't do anything, and her father claimed he thought the sound was just a bird.  When he saw it was her, he told her he'd call her brother to come help her.  She told him he should call an ambulance instead so they know where the house is in case they need an ambulance later and it is hard to find the front door.  He called her brother.

She said today that she visited another possible wedding venue (we have the church already reserved but they made the mistake of not requiring a down payment), and she claimed she forgot the price.  She loved the place.  She said the woman who runs it will send me pictures.  I told her I wanted prices.  She said it's immaterial because she will pay for everything with all the money they are getting.

A List of Mom's Antics While Dad's in Hospital

My best friend ran across and forwarded me an old email I had sent her in the days after my dad went into the hospital, but before the convict story or my taking over my parents' finances or their divorce or my wedding.  It details some of the little things I had forgotten. 

So my dad is in the hospital in Cleveland for the foreseeable future, which puts my mom back in charge of the finances (Dad had come up with a system for paying everything when she stopped paying bills, eating, and getting off the couch).  He had started digging them out of debt so that they were projected to actually be free of debt in five years.  Here is what my mom has done since he has been in the hospital:

1.  decided she has NPH, or Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
2.  went to the emergency room 3+ times
3.  decided to sue Cincinnati Medical Center for putting her in a psych ward and ignoring her NPH back when she stopped eating and getting off the couch
4.  found out she doesn't have NPH
5.  decided she had multiple sclerosis
6.  bought herself a $2300 bed and explained "if I've got a disease that will make me bed-ridden, I want to be comfortable.  I deserve this." 
7.  found out she doesn't have multiple sclerosis
8.  fell down and "broke [her] nose"
9.  bought a motorized scooter and explained that "walking is obviously hazardous to [her] health"
10.  made arrangements to buy a $3000 van from a woman in Queens so that she will have something to ride in when the degenerative disease gets into full swing (as she said today, the doctors ruled out NPH and MS, but she could still have Lou Gehrig's disease, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Parkinson's, or any other number of diseases that she has heard of on television -- she listed more but I can't remember them all)
11.  tried to convince me to drive said van from Queens to Cincinnati.  I said no, and she has decided my cousin will leave his job, wife, and young children to do it for her.  I'm pretty sure he doesn't know about this yet. 
12.  decided she could get Medicaid and cheap drugs if she divorced my father, so she went to see a lawyer about a "quickie divorce" while Dad is in the hospital
13.  saw an ad for refinancing home equity loans on the way to the lawyer's office and decided to do this instead
14.  demanded that my father get a fax number where she could send him the paperwork in the hospital so she could get his signature and refinance the loan the next morning.  got angry when she was told the fax wasn't coming through and said they (nurses?  I'm not sure who had the fax machine in the hospital) were lying.  found out two days later that her fax machine is broken.
15.  cancelled the non-profit program that had arranged for them to be out of debt in five years, because it was "too expensive" (note:  all money being paid into this program was paying off debts)

Where Are They Now?
Today she has decided she will use the $40,000 she expects from refinancing their home equity loan to fix up the house ("so I have somewhere nice to live when your dad dies"), to purchase back her parents house that they just sold for $35,000 and give it to them as a surprise gift ("yes, it will cost more than they sold it for, but it will be fixed up"), and to hire a personal care aide for herself since she will need someone to dress and feed her when the degenerative disease -- whichever one it happens to be -- finally kicks in.

My dad is pretty panicked in his hospital room in Cleveland with no way to do anything about this.  He never really paid attention to the finances before she gave them up, at least not to my knowledge, so it's distressing seeing him in this situation.  He doesn't know about 80% or so of the list above, and I want him to be aware of the stuff he might be able to prevent, but I don't want to freak him out since I think he'll heal faster if he calms down.  I'm glad for my situation, being out of there and all, but I wish I could do something to keep her from ruining the rest of his life.  I'm not sure what kind of situation they'd each be in if they did divorce -- surely the alimony would ruin them both, and he'd still be saddled with the debt she racked up.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that, shortly before #1 on the list, my mom canceled her medical insurance.

I made Thanksgiving travel plans finally and determined that I would not be able to tolerate actually being in the same house as that woman without snapping (I've been really docile on the phone -- you'd think I was on Valium or something, but in reality I just try not to pay too much attention to what she is saying), so I'm staying in a hotel in Cleveland and spending a few days with just my dad and fiance.  The hotel has an indoor pool, and there are a few restaurants in the area (it's in the outskirts of the city and we plan to stay in that area), so Michael* and I figure when we aren't hanging out at the hospital, we can pass the time in a leisurely fashion, and the hospital will probably be pretty calm too.  I'll miss not seeing friends in Cincy, but I really would not be able to handle her, plus she was insisting on accompanying me to Cleveland on the one day I'd get to see my dad.  It just wouldn't have worked.  I was really good today when I told her though, because when she accused me of loving him more than her and of not wanting to see her, I laughed and said, "You're being silly, Mommy," and explained calmly that my father has cancer and is in the hospital 4 hours from anyone he knows.  Even she knew that her retort of "that's what he wants!" was weak at best, and that her argument that he doesn't like people only holds for people he dislikes, like her.  

* The fiance.  This is not his real name.

Friday, May 1, 2015

My Mother, Savior of Convicts

On the Greyhound bus home from seeing my dad in the hospital, my mother said she met some convicts who were in the process of being transferred between prisons.  One of them stole her cell phone, or she left it behind and he kept it.  When she got home, she said she called her phone and the man who had sat beside her answered.  His name was Jeremy.*  She told him to give back her phone, and Jeremy explained that he couldn't.  She threatened to cancel her phone plan, and he begged her not to.  His life depended on that phone, he said.  Another prisoner would kill him if he didn't have that phone and let him use it.  So my mother continued paying for her cell phone while a small subsection of the local prison population used it.

Some months later, Jeremy got out of prison.  He contacted my mother, who invited him to live in her home.  My dad was still in the hospital, and Dante had found his own apartment, so no one else was around.  She promised Jeremy and another ex-convict, Sam*, several hundred dollars per day to clean the house.  These were the kinds of extravagant offers she often made and never paid. 

She also invited another woman, Beth, to live at the house too, though I don't know how they met.  I only know that Beth slept in a hospital-style bed my mother claims to have spent several thousand dollars on, and bled on it, and had hepatitis.  My mother complained about her hepatitis blood ruining the mattress long after Beth moved out.  I remember talk of a second woman living there briefly, but I remember nothing about her.

As one of their odd jobs around the house, my mother asked Jeremy and Sam to fix Dante's car, which was sitting broken in the driveway.  She gave them the keys, and when she came back outside and discovered both the car and the men were gone, she called the police.  She told the police her son's car had been stolen.  The police found both the men and the car at a local gas station, and both Jeremy and Sam went back to prison.

*This was not his name.