Here’s a new post on my Medium site. It’s political. Read or avoid at your discretion.
Here’s a new post on my Medium site. It’s political. Read or avoid at your discretion.
In his obtuse, frustrating, beautiful poem “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot writes, “Life is very long.” That idea goes against what most of us have heard—that life is short, that we must make the most of every day, that every passing second leads us that much closer to dying. I’ve always wondered which is true. Does life stretch out and out and out, or does it flash by like a film montage where pages fly from a calendar, floating off-screen and disappearing forever, moving us toward the action that matters, the conflict that advances the story?
In my forty-second year, I have decided that the answer is both.
Some days, even weeks, of my life creep by on their bellies like snakes that have lain too long in the sun. Time seems interminable—the in-class activity that shuffles along until it ends in a whimper, the grading session that drags on and on and on, the dinner where the waiter pops by every twenty minutes to make sure we haven’t died of thirst while he took his smoke break.
But other times are different. They don’t creep or shuffle or drag. They zip past you like the purse snatcher that steals your valuables without ever breaking stride, so that you don’t even realize what is missing until the thief has turned the corner and disappeared forever.
These moments fly.
The hell of it is that these latter times aren’t bad, at least not all of them, maybe not even most of them. Often, the moments we would love to cherish are the very ones that we cannot hold onto. They disappear in the space of a breath, leaving us gasping in their wake.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately, not because I’m forty-two, which isn’t that old. No, I’ve been pondering the passage of time because my children are growing up. One, in fact, is no longer a child in any sense of the word, and another stands on the cusp of adulthood. My youngest is thirteen. And as they grow up and perhaps have children of their own, I have been thinking, even more than usual, about what kind of father I’ve been. What kind of man I am. What kind of people they’ll be, and how much I influenced their evolution, for better or worse.
Anyone who knows me well would tell you that I have never been good at sharing my feelings. The only-sparsely-revised, not-all-that-carefully-edited nonfiction on this blog represents more confession than I’ve ever made to most of the people I’ve met in my entire life. I am trying to be honest here, because if you are going to write any kind of non-fiction, you have to be honest to the point of brutality, of rawness. The audience will recognize your bullshit. They will crucify you for it. So you try to be true, even when it hurts, even when it angers those closest to you, and you pray that the art (if there is art) in what you say will eventually salve those wounds.
So I come here again, as I usually do, to open up a part of myself that I have never been able to express, except, perhaps, in some oblique fashion through my fiction. I come to speak from the heart, directly and honestly. I come to speak about my kids.
More specifically, I want to talk about my oldest daughter, Shauna. I want to say things about all my kids, of course, but I cannot say everything, even if I wrote nothing else for the rest of my life. And I cannot speak about all of them at once, because the very facts of their being overwhelm me. Thinking about them is like standing on a ship’s deck in the middle of the ocean, nothing but expanse and majesty all the way to the horizon. I have to take them one at a time, one piece at a time, and if I do this occasionally throughout the course of my life, perhaps they will know me better than they would have otherwise. Perhaps they will not be sorry that it was their fate to spring from me and the better parts of myself.
So. One at a time, whenever I can muster the courage and, hopefully, the words. Starting here, with the first about Shauna, others to come in the future, given world enough and time.
But really, what can I say about her that would be sufficient? Saying something in an honest, hopefully new way is part and parcel of the writer’s job, but sometimes language seems insufficient in and of itself; to truly know the thing about which one writes (or reads), one must experience.
We named her Shauna, but we might have named her other things. My first reason for living. My North Star that guided me through the darkest part of my life. My friend. My daughter. String bean, lovely woman.
I would like to start here by telling you that the person she is, the woman she’s grown to be, staggers me. At twenty-four, she is a better person than I have ever been. She has always been better, right from the start. And in being nothing more than herself, she has made me better.
She is a child of divorce—of two parents who became parents too young, who got married too quickly, who bulled their way into adulthood as if some Matador were waving a red flag that attracted them when it should have signaled a warning. I lived with her for the first several years of her life, before her mother and I finally did what we should have done in the first place and got away from each other. After that, every parting was a little tragedy marked by tears and sighs and regrets. Because of the divorce’s timing, I never got to take her to school or pick her up. I seldom got to help her with her homework. I never hosted a sleepover or helped her build a school project. I did not teach her to drive. I did not get to embarrass her in front of her boyfriends. Now that she is grown, with a life and job of her own, I get to see her roughly once a year. In so many ways, our story is about pain and missed opportunities, about how the little aggravations that typical fathers and daughters experience were lost to us. When I think of all that we missed and are still missing, I can barely lift my head.
And yet. And yet . . .
For many years, until she matured enough within herself and in her social relationships to let go of her father’s hand and fly on her own, we maintained a ritual on the night before I had to take her home. As that last day progressed, she would grow quieter and quieter, and nothing I could do or say would draw her out of that silence. Eventually we would go to bed, and I would lie there, dreading morning’s arrival, until I would hear it coming from her room—tiny little sniffles, choked-back sobs, the sounds of someone in pain, of someone who wants to keep that pain to herself. Of someone who did not want to bother anybody.
I would always get up and go to her room, and there, for minutes or hours, we would talk—about why she had to live so far away, about why I couldn’t just get a job where she lived, about why she couldn’t come see me more often, about how she didn’t want to go home. Not, I always hoped, because she did not want to see her mother, but because she knew we would miss each other.
During these conversations, I would never allow myself to weep. It was her time to hurt and my job to salve it in whatever way I could. It was not about me, would never be about me. I had no right to share my tears with her because, knowing her as I did, I knew that she would push aside her own pain and try to stop mine. To weep would have been selfish and egotistical and wrong. Our children should not have to bear our burdens. They should not have to fix us.
One day, though, in the middle of our end-of-visit ritual, I said to Shauna, “I’m really, really sorry you’re so upset.”
She looked at me for a long time, her eyes filled with tears, before she said anything. Then, finally, she asked, “Do you ever get upset?”
This question poleaxed me. I had never considered that my calm-on-the-surface demeanor might have been suggesting that I was perfectly okay with her leaving. That I would go back to bed and fall right to sleep as soon as she let me off the hook for the night. That she might not realize that I lived every single day of my life in fear that I was failing her in ways both fleeting and fundamental. That she might one day wake up to the fact that, in spite of all his efforts, her father was not a good man and might never be one, and that for evidence she need look no further than how I had failed to remain an everyday presence in her life.
Of course, I could no more tell her all that than I could burst into tears and ask her to comfort me. All I could do, all I had the right to do, was pull her close and hug her as hard as I could without cracking her ribs. All I could do was kiss the top of her head and say, “Of course I get upset, every time. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is you.”
I suppose that if I could say only one thing to her that would sum up her place in my life, it would be the same thing I would also say to my wife and my other two children, and yet it would be just as true for each of them. “All that matters is you.”
I don’t mean that nothing else matters, of course. I cherish my art and glow with pride every time something is published, every time someone tells me something touched them or made them laugh or think or curse my name. I want my work as a writer, a teacher, and a human being to survive me and matter to the world. I want to make the world a better place, not a worse one. I want to give my family the best life I can possibly give them, and if I can’t give them what I want, then I want to be able to say, honestly, that I tried hard to do it. These things matter more than I can say.
But these things are tied inextricably to my love for and duty toward my family. It is a Gordian knot that I have no interest in untying. In this case, being bound is the greatest kind of freedom. And before I knew Kalene, before Brendan and Maya existed, Shauna taught me that. She was my first graduate program in being a better man.
I cannot possibly tell you about everything we did and what it all meant and what it all taught me. But I can tell you some things.
* * *
I remember when her mother announced to me that we were likely going to be parents. It was the summer before our senior year in high school. We had broken up, as we often did, and this time, I was determined to make it stick. Even then, the relationship was turning me into someone I didn’t recognize and didn’t like, and I had finally had enough. I was out, and I was determined to stay out. I had taken back my class ring, that great high school symbol of commitment, and wore it myself for the first time since buying it. I had even gone out on a date with an ex-girlfriend with whom I still had a connection, and I felt pretty sure we were going to get back together and live a long, happy life together.
Then Shauna’s mother-to-be showed up at my house and knocked on the door to my room. I opened it, saw her standing there, scowled. I had nothing to say to her and felt no interest in hearing what she had to say.
“I’m late,” she said.
“Here,” I said, giving her my class ring back.
We were married a few weeks later, and we spent every day together until the moment when I left, heartsick and wrecked and wondering if I were doing the right thing.
I don’t regret marrying her. We were miserable and at each other’s throats day and night and poor and stupid, but at times, we were also happy and in love and rich in ways that most of our classmates would take years to discover. Mainly, I don’t regret it because it gave me years with Shauna that I would not have had otherwise—feeding her, changing her diapers, watching the same videos a million times until the VHS tapes broke. It was all as glorious as a sunrise over the sea.
* * *
I remember the trip home from a high school football game—Malvern? Pine Bluff?—where we had gone to watch my former teammates play. I had loved the games and hated the practices, so it was no great loss for me or the team when I had to go to work and miss playing in my senior year. Still, whenever we were both off on Friday, Christie and I would go to the games, where I would cheer on my friends and part of me would wonder what might have been.
I was driving through the dark, the road unspooling in front of me, Christie in the passenger seat and asleep for all I knew. I was thinking about what I might have done on that long pass that just missed the receiver’s outstretched hands; in my head, I would have caught it, though in my heart, I knew I probably would not have been fast enough either. I was watching the road and daydreaming and listening to some hard-rock song on our car stereo when Christie reached over, turned down the volume, and said, “I just felt the baby kick.”
Something turned over in the deep pit of me. Some creature that had been sleeping in the darkness and dreaming in its own primordial way. It woke up and whimpered and crawled away from the crack of light that had suddenly appeared.
Never taking my eyes from the road, I reached my right hand over and Christie took it, placed it low on her stomach, pressed it harder than I would have advised. The car had grown silent; it seemed that even the regular thrum of the tires, the whistle of the wind as it blew past us, faded, until all that I could hear was my own heartbeat.
Then I felt it—a tiny, almost imperceptible tap against my palm. Like placing your hand on a taut tent wall and feeling someone brush against the other side. Just a millisecond, just once, but undeniable, and very, very real.
And light flooded my eyes. It wasn’t until that creature in the deep pit of me screamed and vanished that I realized it was my own ignorance, my own sense that, even though we had gotten married and had begun compiling cribs and plastic bottles and onesies, we could not possibly be parents. I had known Shauna was real, but I had not believed it on some vital level until I felt that tap, the touch of a person who was not yet a person but who one day might be anybody.
Five miles or so down the road, I felt my face hurt and realized that I had been smiling for a long time. And for perhaps the first time in my young life, I was truly happy. Terrified and incompetent and ignorant, yes, but happy.
* * *
I remember her birth, the moment she was pushed out into the world, screaming and purple and covered in goo.
“Why is she purple?” I asked, alarmed.
“She’s cold,” said the doctor. “Where she’s been, it’s nearly 99 degrees.”
“Want to see me weigh her?” asked a nurse. I walked over to the scale with her. She eased Shauna onto it and waited for the readout. The numbers appeared; the nurse looked at me. “Nine pounds, thirteen ounces? Is that right?”
“How the hell should I know? It’s your scale.”
By this time, the doctor was pulling out the afterbirth while Christie grimaced and grunted. When he got it out, it looked like something you might see on the side of the road in the deep South, a creature that dozens of tires had squished beyond all recognition. I mentioned that I had once seen something like it on Nightmare on Elm Street. Nobody laughed.
A few minutes later, still clad in the disposable gown they had pinned on me, I walked into the waiting room and presented Shauna to her grandparents. She was wrapped in a blanket and looking about curiously, acclimating herself to her new world. Everyone ooohed and aaaaahed and grinned and slapped me on the back and passed her around like they were playing Hot Potato.
Later that night, as Christie slept in her hospital bed and Shauna dozed in her bassinet beside me, I took in the silence, the sheer peacefulness of that room compared to the chaos of the birth, and wondered, not for the first time, if I were remotely qualified to be in charge of this little person who would look to me for everything.
* * *
I remember one night, a few months later when I had been at home alone with Shauna. It was time to pick up Christie from work, so I loaded Shauna into the carrier-thing that also doubled as a car seat. I strapped it down and got in the car and backed out of the driveway. About halfway to Andy’s Restaurant, where Christie was working at the time, I held the steering wheel with my left hand and stretched my right hand into the back seat. I touched Shauna’s tiny little bird hand and she jerked it away.
“Huh,” I said. Against all reason, it hurt my feelings. I wondered if it meant something, knowing in my head that it was probably a reflex or evidence that she had not yet learned to control her body, any of which would have been perfectly natural. But in my heart, a voice whispered, She knows about you. She knows you are not a good person. She wants nothing to do with you, which just proves how smart she is.
All of this happened in perhaps two seconds. And then, before I could pull my hand back and grasp the steering wheel and start feeling really sorry for myself, that tiny bird hand settled on mine and wrapped itself around my index finger. And in that moment, like the Grinch’s, my heart grew two sizes.
I drove all the way to Andy’s like that, my right arm cranked painfully backward and twisted and stretched. I smiled through the pain and the numbness and kept on driving, and Shauna did not let go.
* * *
I remember watching the same videos hundreds of times, everything from Disney classics to Scruffy to stop-motion California Raisin shows. I had them all memorized. So did Shauna. She never just sat in front of the television for hours at a time, and we never used the television as a de facto babysitter. But when she wanted to watch, she would sit there attentively while those same dogs did and said the same things they had always done and said. It never seemed to get old.
I can no longer quote those movies and shows verbatim. I don’t even really remember the plot. But just hearing the word “scruffy” sends my mind down those same roads, and I wind up back in that mobile home, sitting on that couch and watching Shauna watch TV. In times like those, that trailer was a sanctuary, a garden where the sun always shined and things grew in rich black soil.
* * *
But like most places, there was nothing intrinsically good or bad about our first home. Its nature depended on the people in it and what they did for, or to, each other. I also remember the fights, the screaming matches that often devolved into physical confrontations.
Just as when Christie and I were dating, our marriage was a study in extremes. We were giddy and joyous and thrilled at life’s possibilities. We were hateful and violent and heartsick. I loved her desperately and wanted her to love me back, but she never did, at least not like I loved her. At times, she seemed to value me; at times, she would speak and act with nothing but contempt, as if I were a bug that she wouldn’t bother scraping off her shoe. I never knew which Christie I was going to get, and I didn’t understand the one that seemed to hate me, and so, once I learned to lash out, I let that part of me take over when I felt hurt or threatened or useless or stupid, which was most of the time.
When our arguments became physical, they threatened to rip that trailer in half. We were like a storm that blew in out of a cloudless sky, tearing sturdy buildings off their foundations and scattering trash for miles around.
Every time this happened with Shauna in the house, she would do something unexpected while we were raging about her. She might fold the basket full of clean laundry that we hadn’t gotten around to yet. She might pick up the clutter in her room. She might grab a rag and dust. Whenever I would see her trying to impose order on the chaos surrounding her, my heart would break, and I would try to stop the argument, shut down the swirling negative emotions filling the house like acrid smoke. Sometimes it even worked. But it never fixed the underlying problems.
One day, in the middle of a huge fight in our kitchen/dining area, I happened to look down. Shauna was hiding under the table, knees drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs. She was crying and rocking back and forth. And in that moment, something broke inside me. What spilled from that break were pain and guilt and the sudden, dawning realization that my marriage would never last. I knew that Christie and I were too different, in our goals and our worldviews and our values. I knew that as long as we lived together, the fights would never stop, and that every single day would bring about the possibility that Shauna would wind up under that table, sobbing and wishing that her Mom and Dad would just love each other.
I stayed a couple more months and tried to fix things, but eventually, I did what I had always known I would have to do. I packed my things and moved out. I initiated divorce proceedings that would drag on for several months as we all wept and wailed and fought and tried to patch it all back together and eventually moved on.
It was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done, leaving that trailer and the woman I still loved and the daughter I adored. I was afraid and depressed and so very, very angry, none of which would change over the next two years of my life. I was entering the darkest period I have ever been through, but I had to do it. I could no longer abide the sight of that sweet girl hiding under a table, the knowledge that I bore half the responsibility for putting her there. I was changing things in the only way left to me. But every night, for months and months and months, my heart would break all over again, and I hated the world for letting things come to this. I hated it, but even more, I hated myself.
What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?
* * *
I remember when Christie’s mother informed me that Christie was getting remarried and moving to Pine Bluff. Until that time, I had seen Shauna whenever I wanted, which meant any time that I was not in class or at work or trying desperately to get some sleep. Now, the original custody agreement would be enforced—visitation every other weekend and alternate holidays.
The prospect of not seeing my daughter daily finished shattering what was left of my heart. In fact, it nearly killed me.
I got this news with only a couple days’ notice. I was supposed to work that night. I had an American Novel test the next day. I knew that I would not keep either commitment. Not when my world had just been turned upside down again.
I picked up Shauna and brought her to my parents’ house. I found her something to do. Then I went back to my parents’ room, closed the door, and grabbed their phone. I called my workplace and got an assistant manager.
“This is Brett. I’m supposed to work tonight, but I….I…” And then I burst into tears.
I couldn’t stop. The pain and confusion poured out of me in deep, throaty sobs. The manager listened quietly, and when I finally calmed down a bit, he said, “What is it?”
“It’s my daughter,” I whimpered. “She’s moving away, and I…”
“Don’t worry about coming in,” he said. “Take care of yourself. Take care of her. Let us know when you can come back.”
This small act of generosity—of taking me at my word, of putting my obvious breakdown ahead of whatever inconvenience the store might feel at my absence—nearly sent me into hysterics again. But I managed to swallow it. I thanked him and hung up.
Now for the test. I tried to look up my professor’s phone number, but it wasn’t listed. So I checked the number of another professor, one I had taken classes with several times. She was friends with the American Novel professor. I was in good standing with both of them; I was honored to know that they considered me one of their best students. I was hoping that Professor #2 would give me Professor #1’s number.
I dialed Professor #2 and waited as it rang. I took deep, slow breaths, determined to calm myself this time, to handle things better. I didn’t want to look like a fool, and I wanted to make the best case possible for myself.
“Hello?” said Professor #2.
“Hi,” I said. “It’s Brett Riley. I’m sorry to bother you at home, but I….”
That was as far as I made it before it all ripped out of me again. I burst into sobs that were just as deep, just as uncontrollable, just as wrenching as those that came before. It took me at least a couple of minutes to calm down.
“What’s wrong?” said Professor #2, and I was grateful for the concern that I could hear in her voice.
“It’s my daughter,” I said. “My ex-wife is moving away, and I’ve only got two days, but see, I’ve got this test in Professor #1’s class….”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Professor #2. “I’ll talk to Professor #1. She’ll let you make up the test.”
I thanked her about a hundred times and hung up, feeling a bit better because at least I could spend those two days with Shauna without worrying about all the other things in my life. Not until I became a teacher myself did I really understand what Professor #s 1 and 2 did for me. It wasn’t just being generous enough to give a make-up exam to a student with a real-life problem. It was how they worked together. Professor #2 had made a promise about how Professor #1 would handle a situation in class. Professor #1 lived up to that promise, even though she hadn’t made it herself and would have had every right to be angry with me and Professor #2. I have worked with several professors—little martinets who run their fiefdoms with iron fists, regardless of circumstance—who would not have been so generous. Who might have failed me for seeking aid from a colleague. Who would have resented the colleague for speaking out of turn. But somehow, Professor #2 had conveyed the depth and sincerity of my sorrow. Professor #1 honored both me and her friend. To both of them, I have ever been grateful.
When I came out of that bedroom, I had dried my eyes and blown my nose. I would not cry in front of Shauna until she was in her 20s. But when she asked me if I ever got upset when she had to leave, I thought back to those first departings, the ones that knocked my world off its axis and left me a blubbering mess in front of my co-workers and my teachers, and I think, “Yes. From the very beginning of all this. But that was not your cross to bear. It was always mine, and mine alone.”
* * *
I remember leaving work once a week and driving an hour and a half to Pine Bluff. I would pick Shauna up from her new apartment and take her somewhere—a restaurant, a movie, a mall, some combination—just to get some extra time. I would have to drive back home, crash for a few hours, and get up early the next day for work or school.
One mid-week visit found us at the mall’s arcade, playing all those carnival games that spit out tickets based on your score. We managed to cobble together enough tickets to purchase the kinds of crummy prizes those places stock, garbled and hastily-constructed bits of plastic and rubber that would either survive a tactical nuclear strike or break within two days.
After she picked out the prizes she wanted, we had a few tickets left over, just enough to get a plastic Sheriff’s badge, gold-ish and hard as a rock, a clip-on job. You could barely read the writing on the front. It was the very definition of a throwaway toy. It was not, strictly speaking, a toy at all. It was tacky decoration, the kind of thing only a little kid would be drawn to.
I remember wondering why Shauna wanted it, what appeal it possibly could have held. She took it and clipped it to her shirt, where it hung like a dead man from a tree, weighty and shifting with every movement, threatening to drag the neck of her shirt halfway down her torso.
Nothing about her outfit or bearing connoted “Sheriff.” She was not dressed in western garb. She was obviously not wearing a county sheriff’s uniform. She might as well have been wearing a football helmet or a pair of boxing gloves.
There was something about the incongruity of the badge—her wanting it, her wearing it unselfconsciously—that struck me as such a little kid thing to do that I found myself misty-eyed, a lump in my throat. It was the sweetest thing I had seen in months.
I still think about that day, that badge, her wearing it while holding the rest of the loot we had won. It still chokes me up. Meaningless to anyone else, probably forgotten by her. Yet it has stayed with me in ways that other, seemingly more memorable events have not.
From little moments like this, we piece together our lives.
I remember how once, when I was taking her home from a weekend visit, Shauna asked me to stay the night. “You can stay at our house,” she said. “I bet Mom won’t mind.”
“Yes, she would,” I said. “She would definitely mind.”
I left that night after another bout of tears. Our visits during those years were always punctuated by Shauna’s tears and my sleeplessness, my nightmares. I don’t care what Shakespeare said. When it comes to your kids, there’s nothing sweet about the sorrow of parting. Nothing sweet at all.
* * *
I remember moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to begin my doctoral program. I had to do it. I am a writer, but I am also an educator, and you cannot work in the college/university system without a terminal degree, not if you value decent pay and the possibility of job security and benefits. I had to go, for myself and for my family. And so the every-other-weekend-and-alternate-holiday visits became six-weeks-in-the-summer-and-alternate-holidays-and-sometimes-spring-break visits. Even less time than before.
Thus, the end-of-visit anguish intensified, for both of us. We had great times during the visit. It always seemed like we had never been apart. We still knew each other as well as ever; we still loved each other just as fiercely.
But the time. Always the time, and never enough of it.
The night before her leaving was always like a little funeral, not for us or our relationship but for every missed day, missed conversation, missed opportunity to share our lives.
We have survived so many little deaths.
* * *
I remember living in Baton Rouge and hearing her ask tearfully if we could at least arrange it so that we could see each other more.
“Six weeks just isn’t very long,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “As soon as I can save up the money for the court costs and get things settled enough to impress a judge. We can absolutely do that.”
“Okay,” she said.
It never happened. By the time I saved that money and settled my life, everything had changed. Now she had friends, boys, a social life, activities—the things that every healthy, well-adjusted kid has, the things that no decent person can begrudge them.
“Six weeks is an awfully long time,” she said when she told me that she wanted to cut those six weeks down to two. The two would eventually become none, and then she was grown, and working, and dating seriously.
Time flies, and all your good intentions fly with it. When it all goes, you are left with empty rooms, the silence that always descends in the wake of loss. People call it Empty Nest Syndrome, and it is no less painful when that nest has only been occupied part-time. It is natural and good; it is progression, evolution, maturation. It is the very essence of the word “bittersweet.”
What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?
* * *
I remember Shauna’s high-school graduation. I watched her walk across that stage and take her diploma, and I felt as proud as any parent ever does. I felt relief, because she had not only survived all the mines that her mother and I had dug for her; she had thrived. She was moving on to an adult life full of possibility. She could be or do anything. And whatever she might do, I no longer had a say in it. More bitterness, more sweetness—that moment when your child moves past you into a world truly their own. Visitation dependent not only on desire and convenience but also work schedules and vacations.
Graduation is beautiful and agonizing and scary and part of the natural order. It is like the moment when the baby birds finally jump out of the nest, exhilarated and flapping their wings as hard as they can, hoping to catch the right updraft before they splatter on the ground. Meanwhile, the older birds sit in that nest, suddenly alone, time stretching before them all the way to the horizon. They want to scoop up those children and usher them safely back to the fold, knowing all the time that they cannot, must not. That they would not be allowed.
* * *
I remember Shauna’s surprise visit on my birthday. I had not seen her in a year. I walked into Kalene’s office one Friday afternoon, tired and grumpy and ready to go home. Shauna was sitting in a chair, smiling.
I was thunderstruck. I said the only thing I could think of: “Holy shit!”
It was one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten. I remember once, when she was a little girl, she drew a picture for me and presented it to me on my birthday. I can’t even remember what it was. All I know is that it was hand-drawn and colored and said, “To Daddy.”
“It’s all I have to give,” she said.
“It’s all I want,” I replied, hugging her. “I can’t imagine getting anything better.”
What do you do for someone who has so often given you all she has to give? When you have so often failed to give her what she asked for, what she needed? How do you sleep at night? What do you dream about? What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?
I suppose that the only answer is that you try again. That, even when you can barely stand to look at your own reflection, you stand up and walk. You write her on Facebook. You text her. You invite her to your new home and let her know that she always has a place there, that she never has to ask. You remind her that if she needs something and it is within your power to give it, you will, for this is your duty and your privilege.
And when you screw it all up, you pray that she has one more ounce of forgiveness in her heart.
Do I ever get upset? Oh, yes. God, yes.
But I don’t dwell on those things. I dwell on the blessings I’ve been given—to know her, to be whatever kind of father I’ve been, to spend time with her, to influence her in ways that are, hopefully, more positive than negative. I look at the woman she’s become and hope that her goodness is partially because of me, not just in spite of me. I thank God for her presence in my life—a presence that saved me in very tangible ways.
And then I move onto the next task that will take me through the next minute, and the next hour, and the next day, until she gets off the plane and everything is like it should be again, for just a little while.
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at email@example.com
Today I had to take my son and my youngest daughter back after having them at my place during their spring break. I’ve been doing this kind of thing for nearly twenty years, and it never gets easier. This is how it feels.
You wave goodbye as they drive
Away, already mauling video game
Aliens and tapping their feet to
The rhythm of a song you’ve never
Heard of, forgetting their promise to
Look back before they vanish this time.
Or perhaps you sprint madly for the car,
Slam the door and clasp the seatbelt,
Reverse gear down the drive and
Rooster-tail through gravel to the nearest bar,
Leaving them to wave at your taillights
As your façade collapses in their wake.
You cannot betray their belief in
Your stoicism, your ability to take
The separation with blank aplomb.
You must remain an optimist, the
Guardian of their right to devastation.
But you can never cry.
Instead you must spout cheerful platitudes
That echo false in your throat.
They might as well be slogans
Advertising incremental hells:
“Only two weeks” and “next summer”
And “before you know it” and “soon.”
If you say it long enough,
One day you might believe yourself.