|Nobody Calls Me Daddy Anymore
|There I am with Bethany when she was a baby. She is wearing Chloe's hat we got at the state fair. And that is me with Chloe, when she was a baby.
|A couple of days ago, I made a quick run to the grocery store about a mile from my house to buy my staple food items: Hi-C Fruit Punch, a 12-pack of Big Red soda, a dozen-and-a-half of Albertson’s scrumptious chocolate chip cookies, and all the fixings for my lunchtime sandwiches. I stood there impatiently in the checkout line while my arms grew tired from holding my groceries. It seems I always buy more than I planned. It’s never enough food to even come close to needing a full size cart, but it’s always a pound or two over the comfortable amount that will fit in those plastic, metal-handled baskets they give you in stores. Finally, the line moved forward just enough for me to begin unloading my groceries on the conveyor belt.
As I situated my groceries in a neat little pile, trying not to drop what remained in my hands, a little voice behind me almost made everything I was still holding in my hands fall to the floor.
“Daddy, can I have this? Please Daddy? I’ll be good!” For that brief moment in time, I thought that voice was the voice of Bethany, my five-year-old daughter – a voice I have only heard over the phone, from over 900-miles away, in the three months since she, her sister, and their mom moved with mom’s new husband.
My heart sank as I turned around to see a precious, adorable girl looking up with her eyes all big and wide-open, her eyebrows raised in an arch and long eyelashes batting up to her dad, trying to sway him into buying her a bag of candy. She sounded like my girl, and, unfortunately for me, she strongly resembled my daughter, even down to her hairstyle, rosy cheeks and deep blue eyes. The little girl kept trying all the little girl tricks she knew to get her dad to buy her that candy. She hugged him, and smiled really, really big, and she begged him and she bugged him. Eventually, she slowly and gingerly – and making sure dad saw her – put the candy back on the shelf like a good girl, thinking maybe that would push dad over the edge. But to no avail… her dad just wasn’t going to buy her those M&Ms.
I wanted so much to tell the girl that I would get her the candy, but I couldn’t do that. She was not one of my girls, and I was a total stranger to her and her dad, but I so much wanted to buy the candy for her, and to be holding her hand like her dad was, and to pick her up and hold her close like he did when she finally gave up trying to get her way.
I’m sure the time span from when I first heard her voice to when I finally got to checkout and pay for my food was only 90 seconds, but it felt like an eternity. I tried as hard as I could to tune her out, but her little voice got through, and I heard her laughing and talking with her dad. As I listened to their exchange, I could feel the emotions welling up in me as one employee signed out and the young female employee clocked in on her register to begin her shift. My chest started hurting, my lip began trembling, and a huge painful lump formed in my throat. The nice girl ringing up my purchase must have thought I was a jerk, because she asked me, “How are you today?” and all I could do was stick out my hand grasping a wad of money. She had no idea what I was experiencing in front of her as I ignored her friendly small talk. I wanted to reply, or to at least say “thank you,” or something – anything – besides leaving while she was looking at me like she was, thinking that I was just a rude customer. I managed to keep it together until I stepped onto the sidewalk on the way to my car.
I watched that father and daughter hold hands as they strolled across the parking lot, and that sight just killed me on the inside. I then got in my car, alone, to go home to my empty room, to eat yet another meal and spend yet another evening without my little girls by my side.
Sometimes, I think that if I could order my groceries and have them delivered to my doorstep, that I would do that. And the other things I need, like shampoo, laundry detergent and other staple items from stores around town – I sometimes wish I could just have all that stuff also brought right to where I live so I wouldn’t have to leave home and see fathers and daughters holding hands and being together.
I know that’s not realistic. I can’t shut out the outside world, can’t avoid interacting with other people, especially children, for the rest of my life.
I used to be that dad in the store with the cute little girl’s hand in my hand. I was that dad playing in the park with his kids, and I was that father bringing his children to school, and to the doctor, and to the mall. Now, nobody calls me daddy anymore.
I work in a retail business, and my co-workers know that I do not like working the front counter, but they don’t really know why. I’ve told them that the customers make me nervous, and that I’m not good with math and cash registers. While I am lousy at math, and some customers do get me a little frazzled at times, that’s not the whole truth of why I do not feel comfortable working on that side of the business.
The front of the store I work in is constructed almost entirely of windows. I look out, and can see cars driving by, cars that are filled with families going about their daily lives, doing fun and neat family things. If I stare out those windows long enough, and if I look at the front door long enough, I imagine my daughters driving up outside those windows, or walking up the steps that lead to that door. When I think that, I have to walk around or find something else to do to bring other less emotional thoughts into my mind. Sometimes, those cars full of families pull up into the parking lot, and the occupants come in to where I work. It makes me so sad to see a young mom and dad walk in with their cute kids, and to know that simple act they take for granted is something I will not experience or enjoy for a long time to come. Most of the children that come in that door where I work are little girls, and they are the hardest to be around.
A co-worker behind the counter usually assists the mom or dad with their order, while I quietly but politely move to the side, just sitting in the background and watching their child talk, play and make faces or doing any ordinary, innocent, childlike thing. I love children so much, but it is so terribly painful to hear joyous kid sounds, and to see big kid smiles, and those smiles and happy sounds are from strangers, and not my girls.
I want so much to walk up to one of those little girls, and sit by her, or at least kneel down to her level, and to be totally enraptured in a simple little conversation with her. Maybe she could sit in my lap, or I could hold her hand, or touch her cheek? Maybe I could smell her hair, or tickle her or make her laugh, I think, that is, until I realize that if I did any of those things, her father would probably knock the tar out of me, if not actually pulverize me into the floor and then call the proper law enforcement agency to haul me away to the special jails where they keep weirdoes that like kids TOO much. So, I just gaze and admire the presence of those children from afar, soaking up the joy on their faces and the happiness I hear reflected in their voices.
I have always been what most people call a “couch potato.” People over 35 years old or so call it being a “home body;” whatever you call it, I have never much cared for going out or being around big crowds of people. Before I turned 21, I was always content to stay home all the time just watching television or listening to music. It’s not what you may be thinking – I didn’t reach legal drinking at 21 and then storm the bars to stake my claim on the nightclub scene.
At 21, I became a father. My couch potato ways all started changing that year when my first daughter was born. She was so adorable, and was so fun to be with, that I absolutely relished trips to the store, to church, or to the park – anywhere really – as long as my Chloe was with me.
The joy I found in going places with her and spending time with her doubled three years later when her little sister Bethany was born. Chloe was so spunky and cute, and Bethany, Lord, Bethany was such a stunningly beautiful baby! I felt such pride going places with them and doing father-daughter stuff together, holding their hands and showing them the way to go. I had long hair back then, and looked more like I belonged in a rock band instead of toting two beautiful girls around town, but my girls kind of balanced me out in a good way. I was heavily into music, and I didn’t dress or look like anyone around our tiny town, and when I was with them, the three of us made an unusual sight, but all who saw us could tell I was their dad, and that I was crazy about my girls.
I miss those times so much. I still remember every single trip I made with my girls, whether it was an hour in the car, or just a five-minute walk to the corner store. It’s not entirely true that nobody calls me daddy anymore. My girls still call me daddy; they call me that over the phone the few times a week I get to speak with them. It is both incredibly thrilling and excruciatingly hurtful to hear their voices on the phone. When they call me Daddy, and when they tell me goodnight and say “I love you,” it feels so wonderful, but also fills me with such sadness because that is all I have now – distant voices over a phone.
Now, instead of helping my girls and their mom pick out backpacks and new school clothes, I can only hope that their mom takes a few pictures of the girls in their new clothes to send to me. Instead of bringing my daughters to school every morning and picking them up every afternoon, and getting to meet their school friends and teachers, I only get to experience that part of their lives in small bits and phrases over the phone. I no longer get to meet their teachers like I did with Mrs. Thornton and Mrs. Stewart at their old school in our old hometown.
I loved picking my girls up from school. I worked just down the road from the school, and our home was a few blocks away, so most everyday I got to meet them at the door of their classrooms, and I got to see them laughing and playing with their little school pals. I still remember most of their names and faces: Blake and Colton, Mercedes and Holly and Shelby and Brittany, and so many more – both my girls had lots of friends at school. At Chloe’s new school, she has two friends both named Sara. She gets the biggest kick out of having two friends, both with the same name. She also has a boy friend (male friend, not a “boyfriend” boy friend!) that she likes too. Chloe rides her bike a lot, and she frequently crashes, just like I used to do. Chloe is also playing soccer now. She told me over the phone last week how fun it is to head-butt the ball, and how her shins don’t get hurt because every one on the team wears shin guards.
I taught Chloe how to ride a bike, and now I don’t get to see her riding around and having fun. She was never the most athletic young girl, but she’s growing and getting stronger, and her coordination is improving, which means she is getting better and better at playing soccer. She practices, and she really enjoys it, or she seems to in the way she talks about it over the phone to me.
Bethany is just getting to that point in her life where she is learning and mastering things like tying her shoes and reading children’s books for beginning readers. Like Chloe, Bethany also just started a new kid tradition – she joined a ballet and tumbling class. She wasn’t thrilled about the idea at first, even going so far as to yell at her sister when she brought it up over the phone as they were talking to me. She got over her reluctance and is having fun doing the tumbling routines and learning the beginner ballerina steps. Imagine that: My klutzy, clumsy little BJ, prancing around in a pink tu tu and dancing tights! Well, I doubt she’s a graceful little swan, but I would love to see her doing her cute little dance. Her ballet class was recently invited to perform at a fair in Colorado. Even though she was almost a thousand miles away, and I couldn’t be there physically to see her on her special day, my heart was there. I try to picture that event in my mind, and I know in reality it was nowhere near as professional or serene as a Broadway performance of The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. They are, after all, only five years old. There’s no way they compared in style, agility and grace to a troupe of classically trained ballerinas, and that is OK. To me, seeing that shy, awkward group of tiny ballerinas, with my little Bethany right in the middle of it all, would have been more memorable and inspirational to me than seeing any world class performance by famous ballerinas.
My girls tell me things about their lives, like what they had for dinner, or what cartoon they are watching, even about finding and feeding a stray cat, and I create images and moving pictures in my head to go with their words. I imagine what their new rooms look like, and what their new house looks like. During the day when I know they are in school, I think about them, I wonder what they are learning, and I hope they are having fun and making good grades. In the evening and on the weekend, I wonder where they are and what they are doing. I worry if they are safe and happy, and if I wonder and worry if they ever think of me.
I am planning on seeing my girls sometime during the upcoming Christmas holidays. That thought fills me with hope and anticipation, and I’m counting the days until I am with them again. After the holidays, their mother and I are going to discuss visitation arrangements to arrange the details of where and when our girls can come stay with me. We didn’t draw up the traditional visitation arrangements when we divorced back in April for various reasons, and up until now, it would have been unfeasible, actually, impossible, to set up and maintain any kind of visitation. The girls needed to get settled in their new life, and I too had a new life and routine to settle into.
Until the time I get to have them come stay with me, I have to experience all of the big events and every day events of their lives over the phone, and through occasional pictures their mother sends to me. Because my beautiful girls are so far away, they are both my greatest joy in life, and my life’s greatest sorrow. I loved them so much, and love them more now than ever, and it is a profoundly heartbreaking struggle for me to deal with the transformation in our father-daughter relationships.
I was that hands-on, every day dad, taking them places and playing with my daughters and delighting in their laughter and their love. I was there to hold their hands in the store, and to take pictures at school and church functions. I was there to help pick out the Christmas and birthday presents and to put together toys for them to play with. I was there to bring home sausage biscuits for a breakfast treat, and I was there to cook their favorite foods like chicken nuggets and spaghetti, and to help them get ready for bed. I miss bedtime with my daughters more than just about anything else.
As it got closer to bedtime every night, they would begin winding down from their hectic days. We would all eat dinner, and they would squeeze in just a little bit more playtime before mom declared, “Girls, it’s bath time.” I loved helping them put on their pajamas when they got out of the tub. They both smelled like fruit and flower bouquets, sort of a combination of strawberries, watermelon, vanilla and bubble gum.
For me, there is no more heartwarming feeling than to pull one of my girls close and smell their hair. That is a smell only God could create; there’s nothing quite like it on this earth.
As I wind down from my days here in my room alone, I do all the things they do as they too are winding down and getting ready for bed in their new home. I take my bath, and brush my teeth and put on my shorts and tee shirt, all the while picturing them getting ready for bed and doing the same things I am doing. I turn out my lights, lie down in my bed, and stare up at the ceiling. As I look up to the sky, I say my prayers. They are the first people I pray for, and the last one’s I tell goodnight in my head and in my heart before I drift off to sleep. Being away from them just crushes me, so much so that I feel sometimes like I will go to sleep, and never wake up – dying from a broken heart. Some mornings when I wake up, I am so grateful for having the chance to see another day, for another day to love my girls from afar, and to hold them close to my heart, even though I can’t hold them in my arms.
|Bethany is nearly bald and still in diapers there, and Chloe's on the right with me (holding the stick of butter). That position Chloe is in was how we, well, everybody, HAD to hold her for over a year. She screamed and got incredibly mad if anybody held her in any position - especially in public - other than that position. She had to be upright and facing out, I guess so she could see the world around her and to greet everybody.
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