It was the beginning of summer in 1988 when I made the decision to go live with my mother. At the time, I was 15 years old and living with my Dad and step-mother in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Dad was always on the road and my step-mom was having a hard time bringing up three kids pretty much on her own. My older brother, Jim, had recently dropped out of college and left for Dallas to go live with our birth mother. My little step-sister Holley and little step-brother Jesse, who was just barely a year old then, were growing up well. I, on the other hand, was having a hard time figuring out who I was and where I wanted to be in Life. I kept getting into trouble, getting into fights and generally acting out in very odd ways, with every episode invariably ending in a shouting match between Andi (my step-mom) and myself. Despite her best efforts she simply could not find a way to "get through" to me and I resisted every attempt. It wasn't because I didn't like or love her, it wasn't because I was ungrateful or purposefully rebellious- I was just a teenaged kid with lots of questions and no one around me seemed able to provide the answers I was looking for. And make no mistake, I do love Andi very much. To this day I still call her "Mom" while calling Carol "Mother"- both, in my opinion, have earned their titles admirably. To Andi, though, I simply couldn't relate regardless of how well I knew her while I knew virtually nothing of my mother except that she was a drug addict and recovering alcoholic.
So after quite a few sessions with a psychologist and some deep soul-searching, I decided that maybe the answers I needed would come from the one person I had the least amount of access to: my mother. I'm certain that Mom and Dad didn't much care for my decision and probably felt a little insulted by it, perhaps wondering if they'd made some horrible mistakes with me. At that period of my life I wasn't mature enough to consider their feelings in that way, but if I had been I would have done my outright best to assure them that, no, my decision wasn't about anything they had or hadn't done right. I was just looking for myself and felt that contact with my birth mother, a person who was as genetically close to me as I knew, might be able to help. And, so, on June 12, 1988 I had packed my bags, got onto a plane and landed in Dallas, Texas with the long-shot hope that my life would begin anew.
And it did, but not at all in the way that I had expected. New faces, new surroundings, new rules... it was a lot to take in for me as well as my mother, who probably wasn't as prepared for raising me as she would've liked. Nothing about it was easy. We fought and argued. I asked questions and observed. I beat my head against the wall a lot of times. And, about six weeks after I'd arrived, I learned the truth of my parentage: I was the result of an affair. Learning that fact from my mother definitely answered a lot of my questions, but it opened me up to a whole new set of questions, the answers to which I fear may never come.
Once I was there, though, I was committed to this thing. After learning about who my true father was, I wondered, deeply, about what other secrets my mother might have been holding back from me. I couldn't risk the possibility that I might miss out on other truths which would help to set me free, so the summer break visit to my mother turned into a permanent arrangement at my request. It took a lot of convincing for me to make that happen, but my parents (all three of them- my biological father was a totally alien concept to me at the time) finally agreed to give me this chance to grow in ways that I never had before. I remember well, when talking on the phone with Andi about who my father was, hearing her say, "You're a survivor, Jay. You always have been. Whenever a challenge comes your way, you somehow find a way to rise above it and move forward. I've known you all your life and I can honestly say that I believe, in my heart of hearts, that you'll figure this out, too. Just know that we love you very much and want only for you to be happy." Yeah, Andi truly is my Mom... only a person's mom would know such a thing about a child; Mother sure as hell had to discover this about me the hard way, and in a very short period of time.
Off I went to high school, my first year as a Freshman in a totally unfamiliar environment. It was the same school that my older brother had gone to and graduated from, so there was a bit of a shadow already waiting for me there. The faculty at the school knew my brother's name well and kept a watchful eye on me, expecting me to be like him. They were, I am glad to say, disappointed in that regard. I am, in most ways, the night to my brother's day- we're very, very different from each other. But cautionary tales being what they are, they watched me like a hawk nonetheless. And, at the first indication of strangeness, they seized upon the opportunity to throw me into a group of other misfits, other kids who came from "broken" families and divorced homes.
Before class began each day I would meet with about six other kids at the school counselor's office where we discussed our pasts and family lives and our feelings about them. We talked about hard times, good times, challenges, successes, hopes and dreams... imagine The Breakfast Club, but it wasn't detention and it was a controlled environment with a chaperone who actually cared about who we were. I can't recall everyone in that group, but one young woman stood out to me. Her name was Cheryl and she was different from any other girl I'd ever met. She was smart, observant, headstrong, cynical, articulate and brutally honest with everyone. Perhaps she had a bit of a chip on her shoulder, too, begrudging the fact that she had to participate in these before-school talks, but she seemed to have the wisdom to accept things that she could not change and just rolled with it. We hit it off almost instantly and became very good friends in record time.
I can't say that I was drawn to Cheryl in the same way that I was drawn to other females at that time. Certainly, she was attractive in her own unique way and thoroughly engaging on an intellectual level, but I couldn't quite bring myself to put her into any kind of sexual context that most boys my age did at that time. She was not a romantic focal point in my eyes. She had a sort of sisterly quality to her that was nothing at all like my real sister, Holley, and yet I felt perfectly at home with her. They say that you can really get to know a person when they're in a crisis. Well, Cheryl's life was nothing if not interesting and there was no shortage of crises with her. Her parents were divorced, like mine, but their separation was a recent one. Her father was a former Army Special Forces soldier and her mother worked full-time to support herself and Cheryl. I think that Cheryl, in many ways, blamed her mother for the divorce and chasing her father away- there was definitely some animosity there and almost constant friction at home. It would be many years later before Cheryl finally came to terms with her parents' divorce and figured out exactly how things fell apart for them, that RD (her father) was probably more to blame than anyone. But, then again, blame is a hard thing to assign to just one person when it comes to divorce, a truth that teens rarely understand.
Cheryl and I got along famously. We talked on the phone late into the night, hung out at school and even when school wasn't in session we would find ways to hang out together. But it was just friends. Truly and honestly, we didn't date each other and kept anything even remotely like romance a good deal away from our relationship. There was a connection and attraction, to be sure, but our friendship and the fact that we were so utterly different conspired to not take that next step. Going out to the movies was really just going out to the movies. Having lunch together really was just having lunch. Playing "wally-ball" behind the gym during lunch break at school really was just that- with 30 other kids. I didn't date much due to a lack of confidence with the opposite sex; she had boyfriends aplenty due to her outgoing nature. And through it all, we just talked and helped each other with our challenges in life, even after the support group that had brought us together was disbanded. I was her "Jiminy Cricket" who often encouraged her to do the right thing and she was my Pinocchio who, through dint of her choices, taught me to appreciate the value of doing the right things- we gave each other a purpose, in a sense, and balanced each other perfectly.
About midway through my Junior year Cheryl decided that high school wasn't for her anymore. I tried my best to dissuade her of this decision, but she would not be deterred. She was dead set on the notion that she would learn more and grow more if she was on her own. So she dropped out and began to struggle in The Real World at the tender age of 17. The rest of my time at that high school was rough without her and I missed her fiercely, but we remained in touch and visited each other as often as we could on weekends. At the end of my Junior year of high school my mother decided that it was time to move, so we packed up our belongings and moved to a new appartment in a different school district. My life was upside down again and I was feeling kinda lost.
I went through my Senior year under very difficult circumstances. I had to keep a part-time job to help pay the rent, my mother was relapsing back into drugs and alcohol, my older brother was close by but going through his own struggles and my best friend was too far away from me to maintain significant contact except through sporadic conversations on the phone. We lost a lot of ground that year and saw each other only a handful of times. Halfway through my Senior year Mother succumbed to her anxiety and stresses in a whopping way and kicked me out of the house. In a flash I found myself moving once more, this time to stay with my grandparents clear on the other side of Dallas. My grandmother's second husband, Billy, allowed me to drive his old pickup truck between home, school and work, so I didn't have to change schools again, but I was feeling more lost than ever before and it seemed like the walls of Dallas were closing in around me, trapping me both heart and soul. After graduating from high school, I moved back to Tennessee to live with Mom and Dad, where I knew that I would at least have some parental support, and left my life in Texas behind in relative ruins and me feeling pretty uncertain about the whole experience. Before I left, though, I saw Cheryl, who was now calling herself "Victoria" (her middle name), and I came to learn what the time apart between us had brought for her. She was pregnant, still living on her own, and her baby's father was persona non grata. I honestly wasn't quite sure of how to respond to any of that, so I gave her a hug after telling her that I was moving back with my family and gave her my number. I wished that I had been able to say or do something more supportive, but my head was too full of other things at the time to consider what, if anything, I could do for her.
A few months went by and I was living in Tennessee now. I had a tinder-box appartment with someone I barely knew, I was engaged to someone I knew even less and I was working full-time to keep my head above water. Life was tough and confusing, but, as always, I was doing my best to meet it face-on and not back down. One night, when I was away either hanging out with friends or at work, Cheryl had called my appartment and my then-fiancé had answered the phone. Tonya hadn't been very kind or polite to Cheryl and never passed on the message that she'd called. I was oblivious to the fact that my dear friend had given birth to a beautiful baby girl and that I was considered that child's "god-uncle."
A year passed. I had broken up with Tonya and was now living in another appartment on my own with no roomies. I was struggling to make ends meet and I'd grown up a bit more by then, still unsure of where I was headed but certain that I'd get there, somehow. I got the mail one day to find a letter from Cheryl. Within it was a picture of her and her daughter, Kathrine. A short note was scribbled therein which included her phone number. That night I called Cheryl, who had again changed her name to "Tori" (a shortened form of her middle name), and we got caught up on the year's events. I found, much to my surprise, that I still missed her. The conversation didn't last nearly long enough and there was a strained sort of uneasiness about it, but I couldn't help wondering if she was okay and if there might be something I could do for her. At the time I was barely making rent while delivering pizzas for a living; I couldn't be with her, couldn't see her, couldn't stand the distance between us. We lost touch after that, but she crossed my mind frequently in subsequent years and I never forgot that I had a god-niece somewhere, out there, in Texas.
The next 13 years flew by. I'd experienced countless challenges and adventures along the way, but I was still essentially the same, unchanged at heart in most ways. I was still struggling to make ends meet, still meeting new people and keeping few friends, living on my own and not knowing if or when I'd ever find "The One." At the age of thirty-two I was still single and unsure about my future. On the afternoon of July 14, 2005, Bastille Day, I was sitting at Café Coco, alone with my cup of coffee and perched before my laptop, when I got an email from Cheryl/Tori. It was a short missive:
"Just randomly surfing from work and found you name. I was wondering if this is the same Jay Seals that attended Hillcrest high. I'm not sure if you will remember me but thought I would try."
I responded immediately and included my phone number. Later that night, after I'd gone to a Bastille Day celebration at a friend's house and found my way back to Café Coco, she called me. From that night forward, for nearly three months solid, we talked and talked and talked on the phone, via Yahoo Messenger or emails, often it was 3 times a day. My old, long-lost friend from years gone by was once again in my life. Through the course of those conversations, I found myself realizing that SHE was The One that I'd been waiting and looking for all this time. We had grown into different people with echoes of who we were back in high school, but the people we'd grown into... meshed. I took a vacation from work, the first paid vacation I'd had in almost a decade, and drove to Dallas and spent it with her and her two children, a daughter of 12 and a son of 8.
When I arrived on her doorstep at 1 AM on September 21, 2005, thoroughly bedraggled and exhausted, she opened the door for me and I walked in. I didn't hesitate, didn't think, didn't question myself in the slightest: I kissed her. I kissed her as deeply, firmly, lovingly, gently, honestly and seriously that I can ever recall myself doing. I kissed her with my soul trapped between our lips and knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I was Home. Those 10 days in Dallas were far too short for my tastes. So, before leaving, we discussed the possibility of me coming out there to stay, to be with her. I'd suggested finding my own place to live not far from her but she would hear none of that. I came back to Nashville to close up shop, pack my things and, two weeks after I'd left, I found myself once again in Tori's arms. My life had finally begun.
We got married on May 7, 2006. It was a simple affair, really, nothing too ostentatious or elaborate. We footed the entire bill, which cost us a little under $2,000 for the whole event (honeymoon to San Antonio included), which put us at our stretching point. We had our friends and family there to see us off, as most couples generally do. Our wedding really was a reflection of who we are: pulled up by the boot straps of whatever we happened to have lying around at the time, but charming and elegant in its own way. It would prove to set the tone for our life together and, I'm happy to say, it went perfectly according to Plan. And, as luck would have it, my Dad, who passed away a few short months ago, was the one who married us.
"I promise to love, support, guide, follow and cherish you from this day to our last, in this world and the world to come. I give you my life and everything in it without reservation or doubt. I will share with you every experience, hope, dream and joy; my hardships, fears, concerns and tests I will share with you, also, for we will be as one soul.
"Where I am weak, you are strong; where you are weak, I am strong. This is our balance. All that you ever need or want, I will, to the best of my ability, provide to you. I will ask and give, question and answer and, in all ways, walk beside you as your equal, your lover, your dearest friend and your spouse.
"On this day our lives and our souls are joined in the presence of those we love and respect, under their watchful eyes and joyous hearts. And our Creator, also, is watching closely.
"Therefore, with these promises in mind and held dearly to my heart, I solemnly swear: We will all, verily, obey the will of God."
We said these vows to each other on that day and stand by them still. Tori is my truest, dearest friend and, thanks be to everything that has led me to her, she is my wife. Her two children, I keep a watchful eye over and regard as my own. Our life together, just as when we lived apart, has been exceedingly adventurous. For her sake and the sake of our children, I have joined the Army, sacrificed my selfish dreams and embraced the challenges behind and ahead. It's not a storybook romance, it's not conventional, and it certainly isn't what either of us had expected, but, then again, what in our lives ever is?