The following is the third excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, The 10 Minute Time Machine – a story of wreckage, renewal, and redemption. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more.
We waited for quite a while to tell the kids, from what I recall. We went to see a counselor at some point that Spring, not to salvage the relationship – both of us were completely finished by the time we pulled the pin – but for advice on how to steer the kids forward. While I don’t remember the exact night, or circumstance, or even the words when we told them, I do remember it was at the dinner table, and we went through the motions of “Mommy and Daddy care for each other very much, and we love the two of you so much. We are really good friends, and we think we’ll be able to be better parents to you if we live apart.”
I’m fairly certain the best-intentioned and most carefully-crafted words matter little, however, when you’re throwing a grenade on the lives of two little children whose parents are still their entire world at that point.
Our son was eight and our daughter was five. I don’t remember (I was almost certainly medicated in some form or another during this conversation) what her reaction was, and I don’t even quite recall how our son handled the news overall – whether there were tears, acceptance or indifference – but I do remember clearly one of the things he said, looking at me as he said it: “If you love us so much, then why are you leaving?”
It still drives a knife through my heart any time I think of that moment and that sentence. Despite any of the innumerable reasons that tear a relationship or family apart, there is no palatable answer when your child asks how love could still exist when you’re walking out the door. It broke my heart, and despite the lengths we’ve come since then, it still does in its own way.
I worry often about how I might have screwed up my children, whether in that moment, or in the preceding 8 years when escape, annihilation, and self-centeredness ran the agenda. I wonder what kind of scars I created show up in their actions today, or may show up in the future. I was a horrific father then; while physical abuse was absent, I was governed by a quick temper and near-permanent state of irritability at the best of times. I hurt them, consistently, whether through words, actions, or inaction. Perhaps simply through the inevitability that my malaise at being a father – and living this picket-fence-two-cars-mortgage-middle-management-keep-up-with-the-Jones’s-work-til-you-collect-a-pension life – seeped out of my pores, and everything those little faces exuded served as a constant reminder of my discontent. When I no longer had a nightly 8 p.m. escape, this discontent seemed to worsen and permeate even more. They say those first few years of a child’s life are crucial and govern the rest of their years to follow, and I worry I damaged them beyond repair; that no matter what I do these days it won’t be enough to make up for the sins of the past, the sins of this father.
I often wonder what they think about that time, what they remember, what their experience was. Any scars I created then don’t seem to show up in our direct relationship now, other than for a time my son seemed to have lingering concern or jumpiness if he thought I was frustrated. Any hint of tension probably rubbed up against wounded memories of times when I would snap, going on what I’m certain felt like endless diatribes, where every frustration I had with my truncated and disappointed life came flowing out in his direction. My daughter rarely brings up anything from that time other than reasonably pleasant memories – not of me, specifically, and naturally – but general anecdotes of a time I can barely recall. While on one hand I try to maintain an open environment of not shying away from who I was or what they felt, I also endeavor to walk a line of not needlessly opening old wounds that have perhaps finally healed, or even wounds they weren’t aware (or at least aren’t conscious of) they had. I don’t know if those are just bullshit rationalizations of a man who carries regret.
I know it’s a common thread in most biographies where the main subject will profess they “wouldn’t change a thing” about their past, regardless of the suffering. As I write that it calls to mind a recent memory of my daughter, while we watched a movie together: the main characters had been marooned, and one of the protagonists mourns getting his love mixed up in the situation – that if it hadn’t been for him, she would be safe, living life freely, likely to get old and happy. She replies something to the tune of “I wouldn’t change a thing, even if I could.” To which my daughter – always wise and humorous beyond her years – remarked “Well, she could change being shipwrecked, and about to die, and pick living and loving in safety instead.”
I had to laugh at the insight of this remarkable young woman who has thrived despite all I threw in her way. Humour aside, it’s true I feel that sentiment about my own experience – the hell I chose for myself: I wouldn’t change a thing, because of that enduring axiom that it made me who I am today. I can understand that were it not for the climactic events of the past, the scope of our relationship might never have changed, might still have been as insidious and corrosive. But still, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t catch my breath in moments of reflection that if given the chance, I would take it all back. I would spare their tender hearts any pain I could.
I was supposed to be their protector. Their guide. They came into the world as all humans do: entirely defenseless, entirely dependent; and the first man that was supposed to love them failed miserably. Oh I did a lot of the right things – I was there for every diaper change, every midnight bottle, every bath and every tear. But for the longest time I didn’t want to be, and while that thought tears my heart out now – and seems incomprehensible when measured against the love I feel today – I know it was true then, and I know it permeated every action. I resoundingly fucked up in the care of living human beings – human hearts, human souls, and human lives I was responsible for bringing into this world – and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get over that. I don’t know if I’m supposed to.
Regret is a powerful ally when it’s harnessed in the right way. Guilt is corrosive, and usually the guise of self-pity or self-loathing; the result of mistakes left uncorrected. I regret those years deeply. I have to live with the things I did, and perhaps even more significantly, the things I left undone. But I also know that weight and regret has become a driving force these last five years. I remember how difficult it was to emerge from that hell and realize that in spite of everything I put them through, they’ve seemingly emerged – if not without injury – from that hell also. And for as selfish and self-centered I can still be at times these days, it’s a powerful motivator to keep out of that world, to never go back. I don’t know if I would live and love with the same kind of urgency had it not happened. I never want to lose that feeling, now that it’s here.
It took a long time for an authentic, unconditional, selfless love to emerge. It wasn’t automatic, the way it perhaps should have been. It required a level of self-honesty that was terrifying to confront. But it did come. While I know it can never erase or even atone for what occurred, this is the thing I know I would never change now, under any circumstances. I have been given many gifts in this new life, more than I ever had a right to expect or even hope for. That those young eyes and hearts that once asked why I would leave if I loved have let me back in – and loved again – has been the greatest of these. I will never leave that again.
Thanks for dropping by, Dear Reader! Please feel free to follow along as I continue to post excerpts from this, and my novel Of Dreams & Angels. And posts on other random thoughts/experiences that come along. Glad to have you here!