Thursday, October 15, 2009

On Distance and Conflicting Obligations

It is often said that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. And while I have seen that statement become reality in many situations in my life, none more immediately than in the years since my wife’s death, I did not expect it in my most recent encounter with absence.

But it happened, nonetheless.

At this time last week I was headed to bed in a larger city in a Northeastern state. Or rather, I was headed to my sleeping bag on the floor of my brother’s home office in said city/state. At that time, my daughter had been asleep, snug and cozy in bed, for about three hours. The only trouble was that her bed was in someone else’s house, several hundred miles away in our hometown.

It is also often said that “there’s a first time for everything”.

And such was the case last Wednesday night. My brother had asked me to come up for an overnight visit, the details of which I unfortunately cannot divulge at this time. But suffice it to say he asked me there for a specific purpose, and since he has not acted in such a way in the ten-plus years he’s lived there, I obliged his request.

I rather enjoy visiting my brother and exploring his city, which is so very different from my coastal corner of the map. I enjoy it so much that I am planning what will be our third annual winter visit in January (the details of which I will gladly divulge!) I do not, however, enjoy taking time off work. I do so when my daughter is sick or when we are out of town (though this is increasingly rare since she is in school now) or when she has a medical need (her surgery and follow-up appointments, for example). I even, begrudgingly, take the occasional day off when I am absolutely too ill to climb into the car and drag myself to school. So it was more than a big deal for me to take a day off at my brother’s behest, but I was also glad to do so.

The hard part was leaving my daughter. I was not so much worried about where she would stay, as our friends (who are getting an increasing amount of praise on this blog lately!) who always seem to be there for us gladly took her in for a few nights. As a single parent, it’s not only a relief to have people you can count on when something like this arises, but it’s an added bonus when you have people you can trust to the point that you truly don’t have to worry about your child while you’re away. But I was worried about telling her I was going alone, and then actually doing so.

So in a moment of genius, I made two bowls of ice cream and broke the news during a nice little father-daughter moment we were having. And she took it extremely well. She was, as I had hoped, very excited about getting to stay with her friend for two nights (two school nights, no less!) She was not thrilled about me going to see her uncles without her, but when I explained that I didn’t want to take her out of school to go, she seemed to understand. Plus, I gave her about a week to adjust to the news, so as to help decrease some of the shock a bit.

So last Wednesday, I put her on the bus at ten till seven like I do every morning, knowing I wouldn’t see her for two and a half days. And she hopped on just like she does every other day. No tears. No hysterics. No drama at all. Just my happy little girl hopping on the bus as if it were a normal day. It made leaving her a whole lot easier than I had thought it would be.

So after work that afternoon I flew to the airport a couple hours away (keeping the wheels to the pavement) only to find out that my flight had been delayed for almost an hour and a half. So my twenty hour jaunt turned into eighteen. And my big-city dinner in my brother’s neighborhood was replaced with an over-priced bagel sandwich alone at the airport. I had, at least, had the foresight to bring a book, so I was not completely bored while I waited for the clock hands to trudge forward. But the night had not begun as planned.

Thankfully the rest of the night did not follow suit. The plane took off and landed on its adjusted schedule without incident. I managed to direct the cab driver to my brother’s place without incurring an additional fare. And I enjoyed a nice quiet evening watching tv and waiting for my other brother and his wife to arrive.

The next day was a blur of events capped off with a nice lunch at a local southwestern eatery, complete with drinks, and dessert at a nearby bakery. Then it was off to the airport to catch my return ride. I had initially thought that by taking the earlier flight I’d be able to pick up my daughter before bedtime and thus have to endure only one night apart, but when the drive home from the airport was factored in, this was not a feasible plan. We knew this ahead of time, so she was expecting to stay with our friends two nights, but that did not make the pain of that night’s phone call any easier to bear.

When you have spent nearly half of your young life being raised by a single dad without any close family nearby, you have a tendency to grow exceptionally close to said father. When you couple this with the fact that the only nights we’ve spent apart in the past two and two-thirds years have been the occasional night in the Midwest when she has stayed overnight with her closest cousins (and was thereby the one “leaving”) you start to get an idea of just how hard a night or two apart might be.

So when I called her just before bedtime from the airport city last Thursday night to let her know I was safely back in our state and would see her the next day, it seemed only appropriate that the tears would flow. She wanted to know why I couldn’t pick her up that night and told me how much she missed me. I tried to reassure her that I would see her after school the next day, but I had to choke back my own tears while doing so.

After we hung up I finished my sandwich from a local fast food chain and decided to try to do some shopping. I am not big on shopping without a purpose, nor did I have a purpose that night, other than pure avoidance. You see, I had prepared myself as much as possible for the separation from my daughter, but I had not prepared myself for a night alone in our completely empty house. And now that I was faced with the prospect of such, I opted to go shopping instead. I didn’t find anything I couldn’t live without, but I did manage to stay gone long enough that when I arrived home I was tired enough to crawl into bed and ignore my solitude as much as possible.

When I was in fifth grade I went away to camp for the first, and only, time. When I arrived home my mom asked me if I had missed her and was taken aback when I said “no”. And I had not. But what I was quick to point out was that I certainly appreciated her more now that I was back home.

It was the same with my two nights away from my daughter. I did not spend my time actively missing her, though I did think about her quite often while I was gone. But I was certainly glad to see her when I picked her up from after school care the next day. She was a welcome sight, running across the playground with her arms stretched wide and a smile to match.

She wanted to hear all about my trip, so I told her on the way to rescue the dog from the kennel. She was clearly very glad to have me back home, but seemed at ease with the idea that we were apart for a few days. It happened to be the week of our local fair (it’s too hot for the fair here during the summer months), so we finished off a hectic week with some corndogs and a couple of “prize every time” games. Then she decided to use all of her ride tickets on the merry-go-round and of course wanted me to endure the dizzying rotation with her.

It turns out she may have been mad that I left her for two nights after all…


  1. you are such a wonderful father, intuitive. preparing your daughter for your trip showed foresight and empathy to what she might feel.

    your experience of being alone in your house is something i go through every day. wake alone. work alone. eat alone. sleep alone. two crazy little Scotties are my companions. being alone is not for the faint of heart. i still find i turn to try to tell him something, or try to share a laugh from something on television that plays in the evenings while i continue to work, and upon occasion it breaks me. i hold my head in my hands and sob for him. no, being alone is extremely hard when it isn't your choice. but i think of his strength and i wipe my eyes and get back to work.

    enjoy all the years you have with your daughter. they are fleeting. my son has taken on the role of protector that my husband's death left me without. he is there for me in ways that are beyond his years. but it is also true that "your daughter is your daughter all the days of your life."

  2. The mental picture of your daughter running to you is something that should be stored in your memory forever!!!

    If I ever become a father, you would be my inspiration!!


  3. WNS - Thank you for the kind words. I am generally okay if I am home for a spell without my daughter, but being here overnight for the first time was an adjustment. I cannot imagine how you do it. You have my utmost admiration.

    Rick - Thank you for your kind words as well. Fatherhood is one of the greatest gifts I have been given. I hope that you are also blessed to be a father someday.

    On a side note, blogger gave me an error message when I tried to pull up your blog tonight. This is the first time I have had this happen with yours and wanted to let you know in case it was a problem they needed to fix.

  4. It felt very, very strange the first few times my daughter spent the night away from home - she was eight at the time, and I had to keep her bedroom door closed so I wouldn't walk past and see that she wasn't in her bed. Now that she's almost 11 and a veteran of sleepovers and Girl Scout camping trips, I enjoy having the house to myself for a night or two, but I still look forward to picking her up again. It's the same way I imagine I'll feel in a few years, when she's away at college and I'm expecting her home for the weekend.