The two weeks of summer with my boys is already a week past, evaporating like late morning fog. We enjoyed our every moment together, and somehow I managed to walk that tenuous line between having fun and keeping them in line. Yet for all the joy, these visits now yield an increasing amount of anxiety and desperation as we come to the end of trip. All three boys begin exhibiting distinct changes in their behavior. They becoming clingy and shadow me like mini-bodyguards until the last kiss and hug before closing their mom’s minivan door. Pressing against the windows, they wave goodbye, and I wave back as if we were all buddies from camp.
I hate these moments when they have to be returned—a word I despise for its cruel association with the concept of taking merchandise back to the store for a refund, the only difference being no refund exists for me. Instead, all I’m left with is two weeks worth of memories that I have to make last for the remaining fifty in the rest of the year.
That’s when I allow the lump in my throat to grow so large it literally chokes me out of retribution for suppressing it during the past few days. I can’t allow my emotions to bleed through for the boys to witness since it will only elicit a similar reaction in them. The situation is difficult enough without me adding to it.
A month back, I scraped together the resources in order to be present for my oldest son Noah as he had his tonsils removed. After telling him I’d be there, the mixture of surprise and relief in his reaction told me how much this meant to him. “Thanks, Dad!” he said. The quick visit also meant being with the younger boys, Harrison who’s seven and four year-old Sawyer. Even though it was Noah’s surgery that brought me up there, it didn’t overshadow the significance of our all being together unexpectedly, and at no time was this more evident then when I had to leave.
“I miss you more than you know, Daddy,” Harrison burst out sobbing. I sunk to my knees and hugged him close. “Daddy misses you too,” I said into his ear, while knowing that words hold less reassurance for a child than do actions. “Don’t worry. We’re going to be together again. Just keep praying like I said to.” Looking over his shoulder, I noticed his mother observing from across the room. Her presence helped me keep my emotions in check despite the overwhelming desire to do otherwise. I vowed never to shed a tear in front of her ever again—one of my many resolutions wrought from the divorce.
Parents tell of the difficulty in leaving their crying children at a daycare or with a sitter, but to walk away from my son at that moment—the both us unsure of when we would see each other again—made me want to vomit. It was this earlier farewell that haunted me with the awareness our goodbyes after two whole weeks together would be exponentially worse. I was right, and a couple nights before the trip back, this realization hit the boys.
It was right after lights out for kids. I stepped into the shower, glad for a few minutes of peace and quiet from my boys and two stepdaughters. Five kids, no matter how much you love them, can wear you down. “Honey, I think you’re needed downstairs,” my wife said, poking her head from behind the bathroom door. When I reached the basement, I found Harrison crying as he lay curled up into a ball on top of the bed. Standing next to him, Noah repeated he didn’t mean to do it, referring to his accidentally kicking Harrison out of bed. Noah looked worried, expecting me to chide him, but I already knew the situation had nothing to do with the surface evidence. Even so, I asked Harrison what was wrong.
“I miss you,” he coughed through snot and tears. His admission triggered Noah to break down too, as he ran over and threw his arms around my neck. It took more than half an hour of my staying with them before they calmed down enough to fall asleep. Nestled between them I listened to their innocent breathing while conflicting emotions raged inside of me—the satisfaction of being there for them as their father, and the guilt of knowing that it’s my living away from them that’s causing their hurt.
The next morning Noah and Harrison were disappointed that I was gone when they woke up, and it spurred them to grasp as solutions that extend being together. “Can we call Mom and ask for another week?” I already knew the answer. I had asked her for three weeks this past spring and she turned me down. Even though the court orders dictate that I’m authorized custody of the boys for a month and a half, she always manages to come up with an excuse as to why it’s a bad idea, and I always give in, not wanting to incur retaliation from her in other matters involving the boys.
It was foolish of me to give the boys permission to ask for extra time on the spur of the moment. Doing so put her in the position of being the “bad guy”, but my judgment had been weakened by the residual feelings from the prior night and the crushing unfairness of having limited access to the boys—my boys.
By Noah’s tone, I could tell how the conversation was playing out, and I held out my hand for the receiver. I felt stupid for not talking to their mom beforehand in order to explain the situation. An apology was the first thing out of my mouth. Still, it had no effect, and I kept silent as she exercised her talent for beating dead horses into Elmer’s glue.
“And stop telling the boys you’re going to move here,” she ordered. “You’re just giving them false hope, and I’m tired of dealing with it.”
The gall of this caused an instinctive reaction in me counter to my normal compliance. “No,” I replied, pausing long enough for the resoluteness to catch her off guard before I went on. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’, but of ‘when’ I move back there. And it’s not wrong for them to have hope. They need to learn that sometimes the things they hope for don’t happen right away, and they shouldn’t ever give up on it.” Every time the subject of my return comes up with the boys, this is a lesson I try to instill in their minds, and I reiterated this with their mother who abruptly announced that she need to get off phone.
My indignity over this stems from a fundamental belief that hope shouldn’t be denied to anyone, least of all a child. Worse still, is to withhold that hope because you can’t bear to deal with a child’s disappointment. Sure, our hopes may never come to fruition, but that’s not a reason to give up. There have been so many moments during the past two years when the idea of moving closer to my children seemed hopeless, and yet, for me to give up—to never reassure them that being together would happen—this resignation of my belief would only signal that I didn’t care about them, that it wasn’t worth it to keep trying.
As of now, no solid plan or timeline exists for a return to Chicago. I scour the area for job postings, while my wife stands ready, willing to leave her dream job and yank the girls from school in the event an opportunity does arise. There have been nibbles, but nothing solid. Every resume I send off is like yelling into the dark and then straining against the void to hear the faintest of replies. Month after month of this has worn me down to the point of watching Oprah, praying she would magically call out my name and make all our family’s dreams come true.
A while back, I began to wear a Chicago Cubs baseball cap—not because I’m a huge fan per se, but because it’s synonymous with an underdog who keeps slugging away in the hopes of a championship. How many years has it been now? And that’s exactly what I want my sons to see—that to maintain hope you have to keep swinging no matter what you’re told.
Me and my boys - Summer 2009
Note: I avoid writing about my former wife for a number of reasons. Today, however, I’m breaking that rule for right or for wrong. Understand, my intent is not to demonize her, but rather, to provide context for the purposes of this post. If you think this unfair of me, I would be the first to agree with you. There are many good things about her, but the emotional rift is too great to be breached in order for us to focus on effectively co-parent together. This too is something I hope that will change one day.