This year marked 10 years since my first wife and I split. I think we’re both happier now, which is great, but I wonder how my 16-year-old daughter deals with it. Having had parents that stayed together, I don’t know what it’s like to have to schlep between houses, between rules, between parenting styles. And I know I feel as guilty now as I did the first night in my new apartment in March 2004, the first night in many that I did not read a book to C, or sing to her (usually Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”). The choice I made back then, I’m still convinced, was the right choice. Unfortunately, the collateral damage is sometimes more than I can handle.
This is all the more on my mind now that I’m a married father again. G turned 21 months yesterday. She recognizes the letter G (or Geeeeeeee!, as she says), loves to draw and color, and loves music. She sings better than I do. There’s a huge difference between her at 21 months and C at 21 months, namely, me. I’m 36 (very soon-to-be 37) instead of 21 (soon-to-be 22). I have a career. Two. Teaching and writing. Back then, I had dreams. I’d sold one story to a small press zine, price: one contributor copy.
My 16-year-old has spent her 3rd summer in a row with my sister in Florida. She comes back this weekend. I’ll be tracking her flight. If I know when it’s overhead, and if it’s during the day, maybe I’ll take the 21-month-old outside to look up in the sky and try to see the plane. Unless she’s landing in Rhode Island instead of Boston. I’ll know soon enough. Anyway, I’ve missed her. She’s spent less time at my house this year than the previous 8. I see her every day since we go to the same school. Hell, I was one of her teachers during her freshman year, and will be again during her junior year. Still, I miss her. Her stepmother misses her. And her sister misses her.
She has another sibling on the other side who is older. She’s missed by this one, too, I’m sure. To her younger siblings, C’s like Wonder Woman, Beyoncé, and Oprah mixed together.
I hope I’ve taught her everything she needs to know. And while I’ve made mistakes, I hope I’ve set a good example. But I guess that’s what every parent hopes, married or divorced. You lead them, then you guide them, and then you let them go. It’s an odd dichotomy to be on both ends of the spectrum, leading one and letting go of the other (she turns 18 in less than two years…egads!).
I love my girls. They’re both insanely intelligent, talented, and beautiful. Sometimes I wish I was a better father, but I know that I give everything I can.
And I always will.
A memory came back to me last week. Let me share.
Growing up, I was my generation’s Dennis the Menace. Bart Simpson was a kindred spirit. I was the proverbial little shit. I was (too) smart (for my own good), I didn’t do what I was told, I was imaginative, and I had a temper. That said, it’s amazing how much I got bullied. But this isn’t about the bullies. At least, not straight up. This is about friends. Or one friend in particular. And his family.
There were several kids around my age in the neighborhood I grew up in, but it was rare that we all got together. There was Kurt (three-four years older than me), Scott (one year older), Eric (one year younger), Jimmy (one year younger), Chrissy (three-four years older), and several children who would be closer in age to my younger sister. Scott and Eric were brothers. Jimmy and Chrissy were siblings, too. I met Jimmy and Chrissy when I was about 6 and they were friends until they moved away when I was 12 or so. However, they weren’t around much. Eventually, Eric and I became best friends. Even though we’d known each other for nearly our entire lives, we really didn’t start being close until I was around 8. Eric and Scott’s mother was very by-the-book. She once told my mother that my overactive imagination was a bad thing that would probably get me in trouble one day. Anyway, once we were both able to go outside by ourselves, Eric and I became best friends.
I think Eric liked me because I always had something to do. We could play with action figures or, better yet, we could role play. That’s what I did a lot outside. I’d be Batman. Or Luke Skywalker. Or Axel Foley. Or Freddy Krueger. Or Marty McFly. Or—most likely—a character I’d made up. And when I played—just as I did with my action figures—I didn’t just play an endless stream of make-believe until I petered out, oh no, I played movies. I gave them titles, and ratings, and had a beginning, middle, and ending. I was also like Bart the Menace—I did what I wanted. I defied my parents. When there were no grown-ups around I swore. I did what I wanted. And we had a good time. When I was 8 and 9 years old, Eric and I had a blast.
Except…Eric would sometimes take those bad habits home, I guess. Or at least, that’s what was always implied. Eric, who was the second child, Eric, who was the lesser child, was trouble, so said his mom. He wasn’t, really—he was just a typical little boy, into mischief, curious. Unlike his older brother (who would also be a close friend for a period of time in the years that followed), Eric wasn’t perfect (so sayeth his mom). So, Eric would get punished.
Eric, unlike me, couldn’t get out of punishments. Eric was rational and could be reasoned with. He became a scientist as an adult. It was there all along. So when Mom and Dad said he was punished, he was punished. And his mother’s favorite punishment for Eric? You can’t play outside with Billy.
He could go outside. He could play outside with his brother and Kurt (who became the closest friend of all of them, and for the longest period of time)—fuck, he could play outside with whole goddamn neighborhood, except if I came around. He couldn’t play with me.
At that time, I wasn’t friends with anyone else in the neighborhood. Or if I was, they weren’t around. So for Eric’s punishment, I would sit in the window and watch him laugh and play with Scott, and Kurt, and the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Fellowship of the Ring, and Cirque du Soleil, and…. That was some punishment he had. I wonder if he learned his lesson.
My mother was appalled and called his mother, who was (and still is) her friend, and asked how could this be punishment for Eric? Billy’s sitting in the window watching his best friend playing with everyone on the planet but isn’t allowed to play with him.
And Eric’s mother responded, “I read that to punish a child you should take away his favorite thing, so since his favorite thing to do is play with Billy, I took that away.”
As a kid I didn’t think that was fair. At 35, I still don’t see how that’s something a sane person would do. If we lived across town, okay. But to make it so Eric and I couldn’t hang out but Eric could still run around with everyone else—who at the time did not like me—is punishing the person she outright saw as the cause for her son’s insubordination.
The memory came to me out of nowhere last week. And it saddened me. And angered me. And made me shake my head. No wonder I am the way I am.
The senior girl has been coming to me during the day with her college essay and I’ve been helping her edit it. She’s really bright and she has the idealistic dreams a high school senior should have. Today she brought me the fourth draft. We went over it. I sent her away with instructions for draft five. She thanked me profusely.
Students stayed after school with me yesterday to talk about this year’s school magazine. Their ideas and ambition energized me.
A group of freshmen who will only be in my class for four-and-a-half days crowded my desk and bombarded me with questions and listened to me.
I have three books published by small presses under my belt. Work of mine has appeared alongside work by bestselling writers. I’ve been contacted by other genre legends and writers I admire.
My 14-year-old is one of the most intelligent kids I’ve met. She amazes me constantly. Born to young parents with little money, the odds were against her. She’s not only surpassing those odds, but have blown the motherfuckers away.
My wife is amazing. We laugh all the time. In bed before sleep falls. In the morning. We have so many in-jokes it’s hard to keep track of them all. I’m extremely lucky.
Another daughter is due a month and a half from now.
I have more work to do and many, many stories to tell.
I have lives to help shape who have not come into mine yet.
I will continue to do things…my way.
I’d done this before.
The first time was fifteen years ago, when I was twenty. Back then, things were different. The idea of my having a child was hilarious, terrifying, and exciting at the same time. I didn’t know that I would soon leave college to take care of the baby and to pursue a writing career, something that I thought would take off if only I could sell my first story. My girlfriend, nineteen, lay on the table. We looked at the screen in the small room in a house that had been turned into the ultrasound office. We needed to know the sex of the baby. We were poor, to put it mildly. We wanted to know what we were having so we could plan. Even then I suspected my relationship with my girlfriend wouldn’t last, but upon seeing the baby on the monitor, I knew the love I felt for my daughter, Courtney, would always remain.
A few days ago, I found myself in a different small room. The woman lying on the table was my wife Pamela. I didn’t know she existed fifteen years ago, nor did she know I existed. Things are different. I’m thirty-four (with a -five waiting for me in August). I have a career now, two, actually. I like to say that by day, I’m a high school teacher, by night, I’m a writer. It doesn’t exactly work that way but it’s close enough. My first publication, a short story called “Icarus Falling” is thirteen years behind me. It didn’t light up my fledgling writing career. Actually, few people even noticed. My writing career wouldn’t really begin until 2003 with my fifth published short story, a little diddy called “The Growth of Alan Ashley.” I still like “Icarus Falling.” I still love “The Growth of Alan Ashley.” I’ve been teaching for five years and have been publishing for thirteen. I have three books under my belt, one of them dedicated to my daughter Courtney. Her mother and I were married in 2000. We were separated by 2004 and divorced a year later. We were still in high school when we started dating. It happens. We’re a cliché. I met Pamela in January 2007. Somehow, it’s worked better than I could ever have imagined.
As I stood near Pamela looking at the new baby on the screen, my heart melted, just as it had the day before when I watched my fourteen-year-old go up to get trophies at a bowling banquet. The ultrasound lady asked me and Pamela if we wanted to know the sex. We looked at each other with dopey grins. “Yes,” we said.
“It’s a girl.”
I’ve heard those words before. It brought joyful tears fifteen years ago and it brought joyful tears the other day.
This is Pamela’s first child. I’m happy to be the one who gets to share this with her. I’m happy I have Courtney to share this with, too. It’s strange. For a long time, I didn’t think I’d ever have another child. For a long time I didn’t want one. Courtney is beautiful, intelligent, funny, and truly someone I adore and admire. I have done–and will continue to do–the best job possible for her. Now to know that there will be another young woman who I can be there for, to retell stories, to share first times with, is amazing to me. How’d I get here?
This is great. This is wonderful. I’ll always find something to bitch about in this life, but I’ll also always relish in the happiness my girls bring me.