My cellphone rang one evening and it jolted me, perhaps because I don’t receive a lot of calls at that time. I looked at the ID and it was my daughter. She seems to always call my cellphone because she knows my wife Mindy doesn’t answer it. Characteristically, she never leaves a message.
“Hi Dad. It’s Emily.” In the past, she wouldn’t identify herself, assuming I would know my own daughter. That’s not an unreasonable expectation for fathers who hear their daughters’ voices regularly. Sadly, I don’t. I admit I don’t call her regularly either, in part because more often than not, my calls usually go directly to voicemail.
Emily’s Mom and I divorced, with maximum acrimony, when she was fifteen and our son Greg was thirteen. They’re in their late thirties now. The parental side of me feels like it was just a couple of years ago, but that’s just part of the aging process that leads us to compress time, events receding from memory like hairlines receding from foreheads. After all, she was my first child, my only daughter and I’ve missed her since that day I moved out of what had been our marital home. Father’s don’t forget, but the flipside of that is ex-wives, at least mine, don’t forgive. My ex defines me filing for divorce as scornful. I don’t believe divorce is necessarily scornful, but then I’m the father who filed. Divorce by this Dad was simply a husband throwing in the towel on a marriage that wasn’t working. The eighteen-year match was over.
It’s jealousy that drives ex-wives’ rage. If pressed, most ex-wives will also admit that the relationship isn’t working. But why did he have to take up with that other woman and how long has he been seeing her? Those are the usual complaints when ex-husbands move on. Emily took her Mom’s point of view when it came to me. She never really had a chance to follow her own feelings because her Mom’s rage forced her to shower Emily with an anti-Dad and anti-male diatribe. Our son Greg couldn’t wait to escape that environment.
When Greg graduated high school four years after our divorce, I was living on Philadelphia’s Mainline and working at a pharmaceutical company. I drove to New Jersey for his graduation and stayed at my parents’ house five or six miles away. The morning after his graduation, he called me and said, “Dad, can you pick me up?”
“Sure son, but I’m headed back to Philly this morning.”
When I arrived at his Mom’s house, he was standing outside at the front door. He had his usual suitcase and his television. He was leaving his Mom. Did I mention that my ex-wife didn’t talk to me, nor did I speak to her for almost fifteen years? She attended my Dad’s funeral in 2004 and that was the first time we were in each other’s company in all that time. In fact, the only time we discussed anything in nearly twenty-five years was last year when Greg was hospitalized for an illness and I ran into her at the hospital. It was strange talking to her, albeit by cell phone, openly, almost glibly, in contrast to our behaviors during our marriage. I guess I’ve learned something.
“Hi Emily, What’s up?” I asked, trying to keep my built-in skepticism from sneaking into my voice, replacing the excitement that was fleeting and unsustainable. What does she need? crept into my thinking.
She wanted to know if I would like to go to the theater with her before she left for a European vacation. Her treat.
I was reminded of another time she requested I visit her. My wife Mindy and I had traveled to Portland, OR a decade ago to attend her boss’s son’s wedding. Emily is a physician and she was in the Army Medical Corps back then, stationed in Tacoma, WA. I asked her to drive down to Portland to visit me. She refused and intimated that if I didn’t drive up, I wouldn’t see her. She was simply too busy. So I drove up.
I felt like a sucker because, I grumbled, I had traveled a few thousand miles, couldn’t she travel the last hundred? We had a lovely lunch notwithstanding my resentment. She drove me around Puget Sound to a restaurant on the water. I had just begun writing and I was trying to write spy fiction so I picked her brain about infectious diseases. It was a lovely setting, a postcard image that I’ll always remember. I am also proud of her educational accomplishments.
When I was sure of the tenor of my voice, I explained that the train ride from my hometown to New York’s Grand Central Station was about an hour and twenty minutes, so although I’d love to go to the theater, it would have to be for a weekend matinee. I left unspoken that I had no desire to get home after midnight and then try to get up at six-thirty the next morning to take our four-year-old son Richard to school. Mindy told me later I should have accepted.
Mindy and I have been married thirteen years yet for all that time, Mindy made, and now Richard makes Emily uncomfortable. Whenever we speak, it’s as though neither Mindy nor Richard exist. She’s seen Richard but a few times and doesn’t acknowledge any relation to him. She also “unfriended” her brother Greg on Facebook because she didn’t like what he posted. Richard is only her half brother so he really doesn’t stand a chance. What did I expect? My getting up at six-thirty to take our son to school is incongruous to her. I suppose the separation between their ages is what’s incongruous, well-over thirty years. But there is more to it.
When her Mom and I first separated, Emily stopped speaking to me from the day I moved out of our marital home despite “normal” visitation privileges granted me by the court. I used to pick up Greg on the weekends he was scheduled to be with me, although by his choice he also spent many additional weekends with me. Fridays, I’d pull into my ex-wife’s driveway, by then she’d moved into a new townhouse, beep the horn and wait for him. I’d see a curtain part on the second floor and see Emily peeking out at me. If she saw that I’d noticed her, or if I waved, she would back away from the window and close the curtain. Greg tells me she was watching me from his room when she was peeking out. Her bedroom was downstairs. That went on for years.
When she was sixteen and they were still in what had been our marital home, I drove by and saw her walking home from school. I pulled over, got out of my car, sat on a curb so I would be unthreatening and asked her if I could take her out for ice cream. She ignored me and went into her house and I got back into my car. I didn’t know she had called the police and the next thing I knew, an angry cop blocked my car and yelled, “Keep your hands on the wheel where I can see them! Don’t move.” She’d told them she was afraid of me. He conferred with another cop, one I knew, who then stuck his head into my car and said, “Listen, maybe you shouldn’t come around here for a while. Momma fills their heads with garbage. I’ve been there. So get the hell out of here.” I did as suggested and left. I spent the afternoon furious and humiliated. I stomped around, mumbling, “who the hell does she think she is,” to anyone within earshot.
She didn’t speak to me again until she was leaving for college three years later. In the interim, her Mom made her testify against me during one of Mom’s six requests for more child support. That broke my heart and insulted me and was clearly timed to ensure I would participate in paying college expenses. All Emily really had to do was ask, but that’s hindsight, and easy to claim but difficult to prove. It also left me feeling my ex-wife was still manipulating her.
Four years ago, Mindy, Richard and I drove to New Jersey to visit my mother and celebrate her 90th birthday. Emily and Greg met us at my Mom’s apartment. Emily and I took a ride to pick up a birthday cake. During that ride, I confronted her about some of the issues that bothered me, including that time she called the cops and told them she was afraid of me.
“It was a mistake, Dad. I called the cops because someone else rang our doorbell.”
Bullshit! It didn’t explain why the cops stopped me, especially that they knew my name! I didn’t pursue it. We talked for half an hour and I felt a lot better. At least I had aired my thoughts. Two weeks later, she drove up to our home in upstate New York for Father’s Day. It was the first and last time I saw her on Father’s Day in twenty-five years.
Emily and I spoke again a week after her theater invitation and she explained that she couldn’t get matinee tickets for reasons I didn’t, wouldn’t or couldn’t understand, only an evening performance and only during the week. I said, thanks but no thanks but I tried to avoid sounding like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch so I countered with, “How about dinner,” on an evening I was scheduled to be in New York. I gave her a few alternate days but she explained that because she had scheduled that European trip with her Mom her availability was constrained. They were going on a Mediterranean Cruise, Emily’s treat – as a way to say “Thank you” to Mom for all she’s done. “Please don’t tell Greg,” she said.
Don’t tell Greg indeed.
She said she’d get back to me because she doesn’t plan decisively, at least with me. It’s always seemed to me that everything else in her life seems to take precedence over anything in my life. I’m sure most absentee dads feel the same way. A few days later we scheduled it.
A couple of weeks later, and it was the day of our scheduled dinner. I went into New York City earlier than usual so I could run some errands and leave time for dinner with her. We were to meet at the Fairway market on Broadway so I could introduce her to one of my favorite non-tourist landmarks. As usual, she couldn’t make it at our agreed upon time. It occurred to me that she’s rarely been on time for any activity with me. I’ll grant that it’s not personal, probably just a bad habit. I texted that she simply meet me at the restaurant I’d recommended because I had but one hour until my next appointment. She showed up twenty minutes later. It left us only forty minutes. I said nothing although I’d already ordered my own meal and I was halfway through it when she sat down.
I used to drive to New Jersey every couple weeks to see my folks. During my visits, Emily used to join us. I live an hour and twenty minutes north of Emily and my late parents home. She visits with the same frequency she has for the last twenty years. She’s been to my home a half-dozen times in as many years. By contrast, Greg visits regularly and for him I’m two and a half hours away. I find myself changing; maybe it’s another side of that aging process, the side that tolerates less and less aberrant behavior. Or maybe I just can’t be bothered any longer because my time is devoted to Richard as it was devoted to Emily and Greg when they were Richard’s age. Either way, I miss her less and less and on a good day, I think the idea of “missing her” is an emotion I haven’t resolved from our initial separation during which Emily withdrew from me. In other words, it’s my problem and can’t really be resolved, my war wound from the divorce. Mmmm, and I always thought I was normal and my ex was crazy.
She has friends not far from us although she hasn’t told me where. She’s visited them twice that I know of. I don’t track her, but each time she visited them, she called me to say, “I’ll stop by if I have time.” She never had time. The cynical side of me concluded she was visiting someone up the street from us and I could have stood on my porch and waved at her as she drove by.
I always thought I was a good father. She was born in Boston during my last year of graduate school. For six months I took care of her all day and wrote my dissertation at home in our apartment, between childcare responsibilities. Measured by progress, it was a good arrangement, because within six months we not only celebrated her first birthday, but I completed my degree requirements, wrote and defended my dissertation, and found and accepted a postdoctoral fellowship. I always thought we were close. Greg was born in New Haven, while I was a fellow at Yale. I remember taking them sledding during the long Connecticut winters, swimming in the summers and driving to visit Nana and Grandpa on weekends. We used to feed the geese at a local park until an angry goose bit my leg. I don’t think he liked the food. The kids thought it was funny.
My parenting skills were summoned anew in 2009 when our son Richard was born. Mindy and I shared parenting responsibilities during her maternal leave. We fell into a routine quickly and it didn’t take very long at all for me to dismiss the feeling that Richard’s friends have parents who are just about Emily and Greg’s ages. Mindy took the feedings and changings one night and I’d take them on the alternate nights. It left us both a little less exhausted. I tried to be productive on those nights I was up changing diapers and giving a bottle so I was inspired to write a memoir. I titled it, Renaissance Dad.
Several people suggested I structure the memoir by writing about my experiences with Richard and comparing or contrasting them with my parallel experiences raising Emily and Greg. That troubles me because I cannot remember any parallel experiences raising Emily and Greg.
I’ve thought a lot about it. Wasn’t I there? Of course I was. I already said I remember bonding with them. I took each of them for their first haircut and I drove them to school every morning on my way to work. But like other white-collar professionals, I also worked fifty or sixty hours a week. I remember teaching them to ride bicycles, catch a ball and bake a cake. They watched me mow our lawn, paint our house and repair our appliances. I took them to religious school on weekends and scouts, and I went to PTA meetings. I don’t feel there’s enough for a book, though. Maybe the problem is that I don’t remember laughing whereas, I laugh a lot at home now. Maybe I’ve learned most of all to laugh at myself and that’s the point. I wasn’t happy so I didn’t laugh. Now I’m happy and I do. My older kids were short-changed and my book is stalled.
Emily and I said our goodbyes on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. I wished her bon voyage.
“We’ll speak before I leave, Dad.” She said as she left.
Sure, I thought.
She never called. I saw a Facebook photo of her standing in front of one of Gaudi’s masterpieces in Barcelona. She obviously enjoyed her trip. A week later she posted that she was home.
She called a day later.
We chatted for a minute or two as I pulled into my driveway with Richard in the car and a big load of groceries. I couldn’t really talk. She managed to ask a question. Why hadn’t I commented on her vacation pictures she’d posted on Facebook? Who knows? Maybe because I knew her Mom took most of them. Or maybe because when I send Emily an email she rarely responds or answers with at most, one or two words, so why would I use Facebook to try to communicate?
“What would I say?” I asked without thinking. Then I disconnected. Maybe I simply should have kept my mouth shut.
The next day I called her back. My first call was lost to the cell phone switchboard in the sky so I tried again after I moved to an area with better reception.
“Hi Emily, it’s Dad.”
We chatted for another minute and the phone went dead again. She didn’t call back. Neither did I. Didn’t hear from her for two weeks. Turned out she was at work.
Dads tire of indifference but they don’t forget, no matter how hard they try. I can’t speak for Moms but I suspect they share Dads love of their children forever. Maybe a child’s job is to drive us nuts our whole lives.
This week I sent Emily an email that explained I would be visiting nearby her home and I’d like to stop by. Her response was “Awesome!” We set a time and I just took a batch of my chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. Greg and Emily always helped me make them. Now Richard does too. I hope she still likes them.