I spent my Saturday at a three year old’s birthday party with my babies. We had to drive almost 2 hours each way to get there, but it was for my good friend’s daughter. Actually, it was a couple that Honey and I used to be close to and spent a lot of time with, both before and after we’d each had children. The drive up was tedious, but relatively problem-free. The drive home was a very different story.
I spent most of that drive back driving back tears. It was sunset. The sun was going down behind us, sending fiery golden light through the backseat and into my children’s soft hair. I was beyond exhausted. And I was crying. AGAIN. I’ve cried enough for 10 lifetimes this year, and I just want it to stop. So, I fought it. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I spent that drive home with a constant lump in my throat, gazing in the rear-view mirror at my beautiful children asleep in their car-seats.
I’m what’s known as a sensitive. My senses on every level are heightened, and my autonomic nervous system is hyper-sensitive to shock, touch, sound and surprise. My emotional response to the world is no different. Sometimes I wonder what the wisdom was behind God’s choice to turn me out into the universe as nothing more than an exposed nerve-ending.
In other words, I go to an 11 on the dial. It’s one louder than 10, isn’t it Mate?
But there is an upside to being a sensitive, I guess. I get to feel everything in vibrant living color. Not surprisingly, that’s also the downside. This world is one harsh, jacked up place to be so…predisposed to feeling pain.
I’d just spent four hours feeding, cleaning, chasing and playing with my kids at a park while in the presence of every married couple and their kids in the known universe. I was the only single parent there. When I’m going to go to a social event, which happens about as often these days as a presidential election, I usually prepare myself mentally for the pitfalls that may come along with it. Am I going to run into anybody that doesn’t know my story? Are they going to innocently ask how Honey is as my children carefully gauge my reply? And what will I say, exactly? When pleasant is the expected tone, such as is the case at a three year old’s birthday party, things like ‘I guess you’ll have to ask the HomeWrecker he left me for’ is not exactly the appreciated response. Nor would I ever let my kids hear something like that come out of my mouth.
So, if that happened and someone asked me about him, I’d have to do what I find I always have to do in situations like that. I’d have to lie.
I’d have to say something vague, like ‘Oh, he’s out of state. We’re not together anymore.’ with a smile and a dismissive wave of my wrist. Keep it easy-breezy. Keep it surface. Say nothing real. Be nothing real. Wax philosophical in shades of beige and smile while I’m dying inside, as they nod and smile and look at me with pity…and some poorly concealed judgment. ‘I knew him’, they’d think to themselves. ‘He seemed like such a great guy. I wonder if maybe she was the problem?’
Luckily, no one asked. Someone came close, but I immediately found a reason to have to go see what was up with that awesome looking dip.
As I’d extensively packed and planned for a day spent at a park, I hadn’t sufficiently considered the existence of these emotional trip-mines lying just under the well-manicured surface. Because with kids, you’ve got to have your sights set on the logistics. Like, how am I going to look after both of them in such a large crowd of people? Do I have enough wipes for diaper changes, muddy shoes and sticky hands? Will I get a chance to eat, or have a cupcake, or pee? Probably not. I should just jam a granola bar in my mouth now while I’m driving, because once we’re in the fray, my needs will cease to exist.
I must be watchful, monitoring who that weird guy is near the slides. I must be mindful, because though Baby Girl is convinced she’s capable of anything, the risks she takes based on that fearlessness could mean a trip to Urgent Care. I must be ready with the wipes or the napkins or the juice or the bibs, because when they are excited and want to go be a part of everything, their lunch is more like a three hour drive-by eating marathon than like a definitive meal with a beginning and an end.
And while doing all of this all day long, I must appear calm. l mustn’t look as though every nerve ending in me is fried because I’m always doing this alone, day in and day out, without my partner and without any legitimate break. I must seem as though I’ve got this single mothering thing in the bag. I’m trying to put the ‘cool, calm and collected’ vibe out as I feel the eyes on me a bit more than maybe they should be. And then as I’m thinking about why it is that I care in the slightest what these people think about me, my daughter falls face-first down a flight of metal stairs.
I’d been helping Little Man get sand out of his shoes. She’d been standing right next to me, but decided to go up the stairs of the big slide right behind us. I guess she got up there, took one look at the size of that thing and immediately turned around to come back down. All of this happened in a blink. And as we moms know, you just get a sense of something. I felt the need to turn around to see what she was doing, only to see her coming down a flight of very steep steps. My heart jumped into my throat. And as my words are still forming in their word bubble in the air between us, she decides this is the day not to hold on. “Baby Girl, hold onto the raili…..’
Bam! Down she goes. I lunge forward and grab her by the arm to stop her gravity-fueled descent. I succeed, but this wildly twists her to one side, and my nail gouges out a little piece out of the soft flesh in her upper arm. It starts to bleed. I know she’s hit her face, and I’m pretty sure she’s taken a blunt hit to the ribs.
I stand her up and try to assess, but she doesn’t want to be looked over. She wants me. NOW.
She grabs me and clings on tightly, wildly crying and looking wholeheartedly stunned. I shush her and rock her as she buries her head in my neck. I feel her heart beating wildly up against my ribcage. I can feel her warm tears on my skin. In an instant, she pulls her head up, looking as though she’s just had an epiphany. Her perfect little rosebud lip is fat. She sobs ‘Vice?’ Vice, Mama?’ and puts her head back down, assured by the fact that I know exactly what she’s talking about, and that I intend to comply immediately. She was right on both counts.
Every night, I have a lineup of songs I sing to the babies in the nursery as they’re drifting off. But Baby Girl isn’t interested in any song these days except ‘Vice’. To the layman, that’s Edelweiss. She’s never once asked for it outside of the confines of her comfy bedroom. So I walk her towards a shaded area and begin to sing it to her. I can feel her jagged breathing begin to slow. Her arms relax as she tucks them under herself, relinquishing her death-grip and resting her head naturally into my shoulder. And then it occurs to me that this song, and more importantly the person singing it, are her place of comfort. Not the darkened room. Not the soft bed. My arms, and my voice.
Suddenly, I felt so deeply… honored by that. Choked up, I whispered ‘You ok, baby girl?’ She looks up at me with tears streaked down her pink cheeks, her gigantic blue eyes sparkling. ‘I ok, mama. I loves you.’ It knocked the breath out of me. I drew her in to me and endlessly kissed her soft cheeks, and for reasons I couldn’t verbalize if I tried, I started to cry. I just stood there in the shade rocking her for what felt like an eternity.
There are many words in the English language used to describe love, but not one of them nor all of them combined could adequately describe how I felt at that moment. There have been mothers who’ve loved their children before me, and there will undoubtedly be mothers who love their children long after I am gone. But at that moment, no one could hold a candle to me.
Somehow, this moment had been mapped with perfect precision to find me standing on these coordinates, comforting her in my arms with a love that no words could ever do justice to. But despite the finite nature of this world, my love for her knows no such constraints. It is infinite. It is boundless. It is forever.
What did I ever do to deserve this enchanting little creature? How is it that this precious gift could be conferred to me as unceremoniously as a nurse handing me a piece of my soul in a hospital blanket? If something happened to me and I died tomorrow, would this tiny little person ever fully understand the height and depth of love that her mommy carried for her in her heart?
If plotted on a relief map, my fearless girl, the highest peak of the craggy mocked-up mountaintops would never be high enough.
If plotted on a bathymetric map, my angelfish, the darkest depths of the cool and salty seafloor could never hope to touch the depth of love I feel for you.
The ache of love in my heart won out over the ache I felt in my back. I turned her onto her side and rocked her like a baby. The strain felt deep in the muscles of my arms? Meaningless. The dappled sunshine coming down through the leaves made her blonde hair shine like pure gold. I wiped the tears from her cheeks again and tucked her crazy curls behind her ear. I thought, ‘Do you understand that I would do anything for you, Baby Girl? That I’d lift a freight train with my bare hands if it meant that I could save you? That I’d give up my life in an instant, without even a hint of hesitation, if it meant that you’d be spared?’ This is the love of a parent. This is the love of a mother. This is why our breath hitches when we see danger approaching, this is why Mary went to her knees in the depths of her anguish at the cross, and this is why a mother quickly pushes the stroller out of the way and lets the car hit her.
The love I feel for her comes from a very primal place. It’s a place that should not be tinkered with, lest you wake the hibernating inhabitant. Something so vitally important as a father being stolen from my daughter makes me feel more than a little…unhinged. That she should ever spend one minute on this earth pondering the question ‘What did I do wrong to not have a daddy?’ is reprehensible.
Baby Girl, will you ever grasp the abject terror I feel at protecting you so fiercely, knowing I’ll eventually have to turn you out into a world where real monsters live and breathe? Will you ever understand the balancing act I face each day as I try to keep you safe within the confines of your childlike world, all the while knowing dragons lie in wait just beyond the gate? And how, my sweetest of pipsqueaks, can I send you off to go find and marry your best friend, just as I believed I did, when I now know there are people like Honey roaming this earth?
There’s no boundary, real or imagined, that I wouldn’t obliterate to be there for you. There’s no enemy I wouldn’t vanquish. There’s no sea too deep, no mountain too high. But some monsters are real, my sweet girl. And I simply can’t protect you from that.
The enormity of the task ahead as a single mom is dizzying, even without the emotional fallout they will undoubtedly experience. And this is what’s been weighing on my heart since the day he walked out. That was what was echoing endlessly in my head as I soothed her in the shade. This agonizing knowledge of the gaping hole he’s left in her heart tinges every beautiful moment I experience with her. I can love you to the ends of the earth, Baby Girl, but it’s never going to be enough. Because God built you with a need to have your daddy in your life, and no amount of hugs or songs or kisses or attention will ever be able to make up for that. I’m sick over it. Because I’m the one who trusted this man. Because I brought this little cupcake into the world so excited at the daddy I thought she’d have, and now live daily with the horror of the father he never will be. I’m the one that bought every lie, and I’m the one that was too wrapped up in my beautiful family ideal to see the man for what he really was. I’m just so deeply sorry, Baby Girl, and will be to the end of my days.
Lately, he’s sent gifts in the mail for the kid’s birthdays and holidays. They’re always over the top, and clearly he is not picking out most of them at the store. As if a thing they receive could ever make up for the absence of a parent, especially an absence by that parent’s choice. Yep. That’s genuine Naugahyde parenting right there. (Long live Chump Lady!)
If I could speak to the part of him that might actually receive it, I’d say:
So, Honey. Yah, thanks for sending the vast array of princess dolls and princess related paraphernalia. We’ll add it to the growing pile of other things you’ve mindlessly sent. So, listen. Just save your money, ok? This plastic crap that cost you $50? It will rot. It will go into a landfill someday and disappear into the ether. It’s not important. It’s gloss. It’s spackle over a hole far too big to ever be patched. It’s a waste of time. You want to know why? Because if Baby Girl were to be given a quiz after falling face-first down those stairs, let me tell you what her answer would look like.
Baby Girl, you’re hurt! Which of these things will make you feel better, my love?
- A truck will pull up and unload untold treasures, just for you. There’ll be a princess ball gown and matching tiara emblazoned with real diamonds and emeralds. An ice castle will be constructed right here for you on the playground, filled to the top with every toy and doll ever made, and you’ll get to stand up on the balcony while your subjects clap in adoration. You’ll be given a real white pony covered in pink and purple flowers that does nothing but sing karaoke with you and tell you jokes all day. Every day. For life.
- The warm embrace of your daddy.
It would be her daddy. It would always be her daddy.
Does she have to be grown to tell me this for herself? No. Do I have to possess powers of premonition to know she’d choose this, rain or shine? No. I simply know this in my bones, because this is what every little girl needs. They don’t want part of his paycheck in an account every Friday. They couldn’t care less. They don’t want an image of him on a screen, telling them how much they mean to him but seeing no demonstration of this whatsoever other than some empty words and some empty gifts.
She needs her daddy.
She doesn’t want your stuff, or your money. Besides, everything you’ll ever own is but a paltry sum when seen through the expectant eyes of a daughter waiting for a father who will never come. You stole something fundamentally irreplaceable from our daughter, Honey. And you’re trying to replace it with a bunch of plastic nonsense.
And all at once, it took every ounce of restraint I possessed not to scream to the ether…
Have you no honor? No soul?
How can you create a defenseless human being, one as innocent and fresh as edelweiss on a spring morning…and trample her under your dirty boot as if she’s nothing?
Is there even a word in existence to describe that level of selfishness?
How the hell do you sleep at night?!?
The job of protector, of castle-defender, of dragon-slayer was never designed for me, Honey. God built the masculine and the feminine for good reason. Complimentary elements to model to our children. You were supposed to protect us, yet the chief guardian of our safety left me standing alone with nothing more than a sword and a shield made of cardboard. Our daughter’s ideal of valor and decency and honor in manhood was supposed to come from you. Her knight…her protector…her brave daddy, in the end, turns out to be nothing more than a weak, selfish fraud.
I have to watch this occur to her.
I have to watch with horror at the dawning realization of this taking place in those beautiful, innocent eyes.
I have to witness, over the course of her childhood, her wonder why it is that she wasn’t important enough to stay for. To fight for. To protect.
And then I have to watch the light in her eyes go out as she eventually accepts the fundamental unfairness of the circumstance you’ve seen fit to hand her.
You have the nerve to use the word ‘love’ when you call on Skype. You have the balls to use that word as if you have the slightest idea what it means.
Love means you show up. Even if it’s inconvenient. Even if it hurts a little. Even if it hurts a lot. You sacrifice of yourself for your children. Yet, you’re nowhere to be found. You know why that is? You don’t know the meaning of the word.
The kind of insensitivity that it takes to leave your family behind cannot be reasoned with. You won’t suddenly realize this if I can just explain things better. The heart-mind-soul disconnect you possess that would allow you to move a continent away from their smiling faces is not going to ‘clear up’ if I can just get my victim impact statement filled with more adjectives. My words are but a trivial, poisonous runoff in the storm drain to you. And, even if I could somehow get you to hear me, what’s the end game? What, that maybe if I tug at your heartstrings just right, or hit you with some epiphany-causing righteous truth, you’ll suddenly realize the abject cruelty of abandoning your post as ‘husband’ and ‘daddy’? What then? Can this be undone? Never. The damage is done. The bomb has gone off. We are but permanent casualties in your quest to quench something fundamentally unquenchable.
Eventually, I walked her back to the blanket. I rounded up Little Man, got them both washed up, grabbed my 87 bags filled with sand toys and party favors and baby gear and said our goodbyes before heading to our Jeep. I was sunburned, and in some sort of purple haze of sugary food.
I thought I might even be hallucinating, because just after I buckled both of them in, I looked down at my phone and could have sworn I’d seen a text from Honey that read ‘Love you baby’.
I looked again. Sure enough, there it was. My insides contorted with a mix of joy and repulsion. I knew immediately that the text was sent by mistake. It wasn’t meant for me. The joy was there and gone in a flash. It was nothing more than muscle memory, coming from a time when my whole life consisted of things like this. When I was told every day by the man that I loved that I was cherished and valued. When I was a wife and mother, worthy of the dignity attached to those titles. A valued member of my very own family. Yet there I sat with the knowledge of the permanently empty passenger seat to my right, very much aware that I’d never be a part of my own complete family again.
There I sat feeling like a broken machine, devalued and dismembered and broken up for spare parts. Desolation is the geographical place where my heart lives now. Not the house with the warm hearth and amazing smells. I can’t ever go to that place of home again. The emptiness of that moment staring down at that text felt much like what I’d imagine it feels like to stand in a broken down rail yard at night. Abandoned. Terrifying. Lost. Forgotten.
So to be pulled back for one infinitesimal second from that desolation into the fold of belonging, of home, of warmth and of safety was simply more than I could bear. My heart had no reserves to deal with this. So this is how I responded.
For some reason, it’s important to me to believe justice can prevail here. Not necessarily that it will, but that it can. Therefore, I have to believe that one day, on some random Tuesday morning when his alarm goes off for work, it’s at least possible that the gravity of what he’s done to me and what he stole from these two little people could hit him. That he might go to his knees in anguish as I did on the night that he left, seeing with breathtaking clarity the magnitude of the harm he’s caused.
I’ve gotta believe it can happen, because if I believe that it can’t, it means he’s every bit the monster I fear he is. And though I’ve accepted so many disappointing truths about his character in this past year, this is one area that I just can’t wrap my head or heart around. Fine, he disregarded me and treated me worse than my worst enemy ever dreamed of doing with zero cause. I’m an adult. But these kids? I just can’t believe he’s so dead inside that he can’t even recognize the lifetime of heartache he’s handed them.
I cling to the hope that his eyes will finally be opened. Because until he experiences a fraction of the measure of pain he’s seen fit to dole out, he’s never going to get any of this.
That he’ll understand love is unselfish. It’s a verb. And that when it was time for him to make sure her stroller stays out of the path of oncoming danger…to do his job as daddy and as protector…he just got in his truck and drove off to his shiny new life instead. No word exists in the English language strong enough to describe the cold-bloodedness of that choice. But ‘disgraceful’ comes the closest.
That it’s possible that he’ll realize, finally, that real love isn’t real love unless it shows up. And that day after day, week after week and year after year, his absence will be translated into their little hearts as ‘My dad’s not coming because he doesn’t care about me.’
Yes, Honey, there even may be a day coming very soon when you’ll realize with dawning horror that a fierce desire to protect your daughter does exist…but that you moved thousands of miles in the opposite direction of her arms, and that you can’t demonstrate that love to her if you can’t even get to her.
And on that day of reckoning, Honey, when you finally understand the meaning of the word…I’ve gotta tell ya. I do not envy you.