7: The Dating Dad: Absence
It's 7 am and I miss my daughter. I'm on an airplane making its way west, flying me home to Colorado after eight days of vacation. The sun has just come up, chasing away Venus. From my window seat, I can see the mottled blue expanse of Lake Tahoe, and beyond that, miles and miles of dirt and crag and hill and valley. And I don't know if I'll see Simone tonight or have to wait until tomorrow, because her mother hasn't told me when they're returning to Denver.
I haven't seen my girl since the morning her mom came to pick her up 10 days ago. It was early on a Friday. I was dressed and ready for work, cuddling with Simone in my bed, where she'd spent the night next to me. I'd taken off work the day before to be with her, and it had been a very special time for the two of us. But that night, after we'd closed the last book of the day, and were snuggled up on her single bed and staring at the ceiling, she whispered, "I'll miss you, Daddy." So I asked her if she wanted to sleep in my room, and carried her there.
That night, for once, I shirked the freelance and the kitchen, the laundry, the evening's attempt at tidying, and brushed and flossed and washed, and found myself dozing next to my little girl, who was sacked out after our busy day, emanating the soft warmth that only she can, her mouth slightly open, a tiny arm thrown over my chest, the fingers of her hand resting on my neck.
So I woke her quietly, gently, the next morning, with a cuddle and a kiss. And she arose conscious of the day's events, her excitement tempered by the knowledge that we'd be apart for a long time. A few minutes later, her mother called to say she'd pulled up in the driveway.
I carried Simone, vulnerable and sweet in her pink pajamas, out of the house. Waiting in the car were her mother and my former mother-in-law, whom I hadn't seen in nearly two years. (And who, I must note, didn't get out of the car. And though she greeted me with a cheerful hello, I couldn't help but feel a pang from her disinclination to hop out and hug me. How I went from beloved family member to begrudged acquaintance in the time it took her daughter to sign the divorce documents still causes me pain. I adored my mother-in-law. Even now, I send her links to pictures of Simone online. But I think she just doesn't know how to be human to me and still support her daughter. Or maybe she just doesn't care to be, which hurts much worse.)
They were on their way to Omaha, where Simone and her mom would spend more than a week with the grandparents. Seven kisses and three extra-urgent hugs later, Simone was strapped into the car seat and waving goodbye. I walked into the house and tried to put myself back together before I left for work.
So I decided to take a long vacation. I'd considered staying in town and taking some time off, or trying to find a cheap deal to foreign parts or at least a beachy place. All I knew was that I needed to be away. I needed to distract myself from this enforced separation, the longest since Simone was a baby. I settled on a trip to the familiar -- a few days in San Francisco to visit with my youngest sister and to carouse with my best single friend, then a couple days in Sacramento with my mother.
Now I know...
My mother: who cries when I leave after a visit because she misses me so much.
Before Simone came around, I don't think I understood what Mom goes through every time she kisses one of her children goodbye. But now I know the enduring sense of vulnerability having a living, breathing piece of your heart walking around in this world can bring, and I'm awestruck and humbled by my connection with my parents. But as much as I love to be with my mother and father, I've realized that, in some ways, they need me even more than I need them. See, I know Simone misses me, but it can't compare to the grief I feel to be away from her like this.
It's just a little more than a week, I know. And here and there I've been fine -- fully enjoying my vacation; my chance to get away, to disengage from the daily grind. But then I'll look at the screensaver on my cell phone. Or I'll watch a pigtailed toddler holding her daddy's hand as they stroll. Or I'll catch the whiff of fresh doughnuts. Or nothing at all that I notice consciously will deposit the image of Simone in my head, and my stomach will tighten. Everything will dim the slightest bit, as if a wisp of cloud has drifted in front of the sun, stealing the sparkle from the world for a little while. And I'll whisper, "Oh, sweetheart. Oh, baby."
I used to travel fairly regularly, before the divorce. A weekend every couple of months or so, or a week here and there for special events. I'd miss Simone, I'd miss my wife. And there were certainly times when I'd get those same waves of longing. But something's more poignant now, sharper. It's like there's more at stake when I'm away from her because we're not a unit anymore. When I'm not with her, there's no one around to remind her of my presence in her life. It's totally up to her to think about me. (Except for the occasional short phone call, where she sounds so grown up when she's recounting her adventures, and where the distance between us is most palpable). Maudlin thoughts at the end of a really fun vacation, no? Maybe it's part of the depression that always accompanies the return to the real world. But there's deeper stuff going on in my heart -- the knowledge of the effect of my absence for my own parents; the realization that something could happen to me and it would be up to my family alone, thousands of miles away, to somehow keep my love for and devotion to Simone alive in her heart; and the understanding that some day, too soon, my baby girl will leave for more than a few days -- she'll grow up and move on, only to comfort me with her presence when she can get around to it. Missing me, but not needing me. Kissing me goodbye at the airport, expectant and already halfway across the map while I'm still fighting back tears.
So I'm on the plane, and we're just about to start our final approach into Denver. And I wonder what it would have been like if we were still a family -- if the aches would be different, or not as deep. It's fun to be single. It's fun to run off and play for a week. But the tradeoffs are very real at 9 o'clock in the morning, flying over the Rocky Mountains, wondering when I get to see my daughter again.