The following is the sixth 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. (Or take a gander back at previous entries!)
With my daughter, it was during one of the innumerable evenings when we engage in one of our favourite pastimes – watch a movie together on the couch, eat popcorn, and huddle under blankets. The move was so innocuous, so routine; she stood up to readjust her hair (whatever it is that you ladies do when you’re tightening a ponytail or readjusting a bun or braid). I looked at her and almost couldn’t believe standing before me was this little human I had somehow made; who had somehow thrived, and was growing into this young, independent, bright, kind, beautiful soul–despite everything that had happened.
With my son, it was probably somewhere within the same few-month period; he had come down with pink eye of all things. I was supposed to give him drops a couple times a day–something I didn’t imagine was overly comfortable. He stood there patiently, and although he flinched with every drop, he took it like a champ. When it was done and he went to walk away, he offered me a “thank you”, of all things. That was the moment it happened with him. Again, a completely mundane situation–there was no grand backdrop or choir of angels when it occurred; just a quiet, unobserved, and seemingly trivial scenario in our family kitchen.
As I write about it now I feel there ought to be better words to describe those moments, but even if I combed a thesaurus I know I’ll likely never accurately convey to you, Dear Reader, what went on for me internally. Even now, you may be thinking “Ok–so your daughter straightened her hair one time, and you gave your son eye drops on another… where is this going?”
Those were the moments in my new life where I finally stopped questioning my connection–my love–for my kids. It might have taken nearly a decade, but I knew in those seemingly benign events that they had finally become more important to me than any self-serving interest. Those were the “I would take a bullet for this human, no matter what they ever do” moments. Those are also two of my most favourite memories with each of them–and at this point we have a lot to choose from–although I realize the inanity of both of those 30-second snippets of our lives. They wouldn’t recall either event, I’m sure, and they certainly wouldn’t have known what was going on in my head and my heart during those flashes of time. They wouldn’t have known I was almost brought to tears as I was overwhelmed and awash in these feelings of love, adoration, gratitude, and a near disbelief: that somehow, for some reason, I had been spared, and was getting a whole new crack at this.
I was one of those people where the heavens didn’t open up the first time I ever held either of them in my arms. They say when you have kids that no matter how or who you were before, they will change you. That you will know a love you’ve never experienced before, and it will just happen. But for me, it didn’t. I don’t know how to properly explain any of this but dammit if that’s not what the writing is for, so we’re going to plod through this together, Dear Reader.
I loved my kids in the sense that I cared for them, I felt an obligation of responsibility to them, but I didn’t feel them as an extension of me–as a part of my heart, I guess. They were these little, third-party aliens I was now certainly responsible for–because I held a 50% responsibility in creating them–and I enjoyed certain facets of being a father. I realize now it was so very conditional, however: I liked when it was easy. I liked when they were affectionate, when they were fun, when they cooperated with my needs. Any time they ever got in the way of that… well, then I was far from grateful for my responsibility to them. I was resentful.
I wrote previously that so often my children represented this barrier of time in getting to 8 p.m., and what I really wanted to be doing. By extension, they began to represent an existential barrier, as I now had to adhere to a life–career-wise and financially–that ensured I was taking care of them on a logistical level. While I didn’t resent them as individuals, I resented the hell out of them conceptually, and that inevitably played out in all my actions. It certainly played into the relationship–or lack thereof–I had with them in the first so many of our years together.
As a result, I never felt bonded with them. “They” also say that can just happen with fathers in general since we didn’t carry them inside of us, we don’t feed them with our bodies, they don’t long biologically for our touch, feel and scent as they do with their mothers. Combine that with being born into the hands of a father that would have sooner held his own bottles than theirs… and well, it just never came. That feeling I would do anything for them, or step in harm’s way. Nor the possibility I would ever allow them to become first, second, or even fifth on a list of priorities that included answering the call of a daily obsession. A compulsion that had no interest including the hearts, lives, and minds of little, developing humans.
It could–and would–be easy to blame the lack of connection entirely on my addictions, but even when I did sober up, for a time I felt entirely unprepared and unsure of how to relate to these young people. I honestly wasn’t certain how to manufacture a love for them; something I had never really known. Again, there was a caring there, a sense (and now a willingness) towards responsibility, but as with so many other facets of my old life, it came with this feeling I was now living the consequences–positive or otherwise–of someone else’s life.
It was this feeling I had suddenly awakened at 35, after another human being lived the entirety of those initial years. I was to take up the reins of everything they had done and accumulated. When it came to the damage–financial, professional, or in relationships–I really did feel like I was cleaning up the wreckage of a disparate individual. Although I knew that person intimately, although I could recognize and remember the things he had done, I was losing my ability to relate to him… he was starting to feel like a separate soul altogether.
At times I hesitate to say or write that, as it could come across like an abnegation of responsibility–as though I were saying “You can’t really hold me to any of this, because I was a different person then.” I have never felt that way. It’s just strange, is all, dealing with the detritus of a different life altogether–cleaning up the mess from actions I took then that I would never take now.
If anything, however, at times it’s made it easier to confront the damage done. I know I’m not temporarily mending damage I’m just going to do again, because the behavior, the pattern, the person¸ hasn’t changed. I know and live with the risk I could always return to that life–I’m only ever one massively horrendous choice away from it–but it at least feels foreign.
The notion of past or new lives aside, sobriety on its own didn’t automatically imbue me with a sense of love and selflessness towards those babies. It felt like something I would have to work towards, to create, and in times of brutal self-honesty I didn’t know how–or if–that was ever going to happen. How do you convince yourself you love someone? How do you make another being’s life matter to you as much (or more) than your own? I didn’t know how to simply manufacture that; how to will or work myself into it.
And so I began this new chapter in my relationship with my children not entirely dissimilar to how the old one had ended–just with drugs, alcohol, predictable unpredictability, and calamity aside. I began our new relationship dutifully, but mechanically.
I don’t know if it helped or hurt in those earliest days that I wasn’t permitted to see them without supervision. In that first month I stayed with my parents, I believe the kids came once or twice for sleepovers, with both my parents present, keeping a watchful eye. When I returned to my home, things began slowly: once or twice a week where I would pick the kids up for dinner, and bring them to my house from 5 to 7 or some such time-frame. Just enough time to visit, make and eat dinner, and then return them to their mother’s house. Not enough time–I’m sure the hesitant minds and hearts of their other caregivers hoped–to put them in a position to be hurt, literally or emotionally.
Beyond those humble first visits, our separation agreement laid out specific terms of visitation based on milestones in sobriety: at 3 months I was permitted those small chunks, at 6 months a little more time, at 9 months a one-night-every-other-weekend sleepover, and at one year, our specified version of split custody.
I don’t know if it helped or hurt from the perspective of connection, but–well, actually, as I write that, I know it helped me. In what may amount to callous justification and rationalization, I believe it helped them, too. I do believe they feared me for a long time–not just due to the inconsistency, and the times I fell down flat on my face (literally and figuratively) right in front of them, but also as a result of ten years of moodiness, lack of temper, and what I’m certain was a palpable (even if they weren’t old enough to identify exactly what it was) sense of resentment and despair. They did not know a father that was patient, or kind, or playful; all they knew was frustration and disappointment–a simmering cloud of discontent that could erupt at any time. I think we all needed that time for me to make a slow re-entry into their lives. I know I needed to figure out–just like in every other facet of my life–where I fit, what kind of person I had been, what kind of a man I hoped to be, what kind of a dad I actually was.
For a long while I could still sense some of the old scars; more from my son than my daughter, but a bit from both of them. My son still had caution and fear I might erupt at a misstep, or if I got quiet he would nervously ask repeatedly if I was ok. My daughter would also do the latter; while she seems less impacted overall (she was 7 years old when I sobered up, compared to 10 years old for him), she remembers a lot more than I realize–and far more than I can, regrettably. I think it will be intriguing to have some of those larger conversations–if it’s something they need and want to do–when they’re older: what they remember, how they were impacted, what it means to them now.
I haven’t shied away from discussing the past with them, nor have I made any bones about what I was made of, and what actually went on. There is a line I do try to walk that balances honesty with integrity–I want to ensure my willingness to be open doesn’t hurt them further. There’s a line in the recovery community as it pertains to making amends that says “unless to do so would injure them or others”, and I try to keep that in mind, without using it as an excuse for inaction or omission.
That early forced space allowed us time to adjust and adapt, and it gave me time to ease into this monumental relationship I awoke to. Just as I wrote about the sense of inheriting tangible remnants of my past life–financial issues, no employment, and the like–I felt I inherited this relationship that was going to be entirely new for me, but held the weight, scars, and pensiveness from all that transpired before. I needed to be sensitive to them and what they experienced, and I needed to be sensitive to what was happening for me: this idea and feeling I had woken up with a 10 and 7 year old in my life, and how we were to relate to each other.
I struggled, for a long time, with the gravity of it. My mistakes. Their perspective and experiences of me. My feelings (or lack thereof) towards them. I write that, and it makes me feel as though I risk sounding like this unfeeling sociopath, or something of the like. Yet take a moment to imagine that scenario: you wake up one day and have these relationships in your life that feel absolutely new to you, but not for them, and furthermore, it wasn’t exactly peaches before. You also have memories that don’t feel entirely your own, but proof of their passing–and impact–is undeniable. Memories that feel almost like a dream, but the ramifications–the guilt, shame and remorse–are anything but a spectre.
I had all of that to carry while I grappled with this idea of how to love–or fall in love with–these little humans. I struggled, and often wondered when–and if–that was ever going to come to pass. I knew I would be able to care for, and appreciate, and maintain that particular level of love for them, always, but I didn’t know if I was ever going to feel any connection or bond beyond that. Anything that suggested or felt like I was anything more than just a nominal father.
They had–and have–so, so, so much grace for me. While I also struggle with the idea of how much my life might have screwed up theirs–as all of it went on during those vital and vulnerable first years–I also wonder if, because they were so young, that might mean they’ve bounced back quicker. I wonder if it was easier to forget or accept what went on than if they’d been teenagers and could remember more. I don’t know the answer. I know I’ll never know. But on occasion, these are the kinds of questions that remain to haunt a soul, and I know that’s simply part of my penance: to spend a lifetime wondering how much damage I caused, and spend an equal lifetime trying to atone for that. Yet they shower me with grace; they give their unconditional love.
They don’t even know they’re doing it, I’m sure, which I suppose is part of what makes it unconditional. In doing so, they offer me the example and answer of what I’m supposed to give in return. A love unbounded by the transgressions of the past. A love that is present. A love that exemplifies where they–and we–are now, not what went on in the past. Maybe that’s just a rationalization; a way for me to ease the parts of my heart that ache rather than dwell on what might have been. But all at once I’m able to recognize excess time spent mourning what happened (or didn’t) would have done little to lead us where we are today.
Maybe we could all spend a little more time loving as children do. Their barometer seems to exist in that space of “What have you done for me lately”, but not in a self-seeking and tentative “prove-it” sense. While they haven’t articulated it outright, their behavior suggests they’re saying “Are you here now? Are you loving me now, doing your best now? That’s good enough for us.”
I have wondered what I did to ever warrant that grace. I wonder what I’ve ever done to warrant the grace given to me as a whole from this life. And then all at once I know that’s not how grace works. Grace is simply grace. What I do know is in those two moments of hair-ties and eye-drops, two moments of innocent comfort, familiarity, and trust, I started to feel a profound sense of gratitude. I had the realization that for all the moments like those I used to forfeit, there needn’t be further regrets added to the list. There could still be a lifetime of watching a young boy and girl continue to grow along the remarkable path they’ve been on. There would still be plenty of firsts. I would be able to experience the joy and feeling of connection in watching these little humans–who are inextricably part of me–forge their own destinies, and I’d be afforded the privilege of all the moments in between: A little girl styling her hair. A young boy turning into a man. Their laughter. Their tears. Their hopes. Their disappointments. Their loves. Their dreams. I still get to have a front row seat to all of it, even if I left that chair empty for so many years.
It was a hard fought love for all of us, at times, but when it finally arrived it was like nothing I’ve experienced before or since. I would walk through fire for those children. My heart aches in the most beautiful way when I worry about them and their future, because I know there was a time when I wasn’t able to look past my own needs and desires. I wonder what kind of woman she’ll become. I admire the young man he’s already started turning into. I miss them fiercely when they’re at their other home. I cherish our time together. I am grateful for every little mundane moment, because that’s when I remember what might have been lost. I am grateful for their grace. I love the love I feel. It has been my life’s greatest gift.
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!