My daughter was sick last night.
She woke me at 2 A.M. needing her dad. She has been trying a new medication and it made her terribly nauseated. She’s nineteen. She knows how to take care of herself when something like this happens. But she still needed her dad to get her downstairs to the couch, get her some water, and feel her forehead with the back of his hand. She needed to be reminded that she isn’t alone.
In truth…I needed this too.
We’ve been here in Lynchburg for three and a half years now. That’s the longest uninterrupted period of living in the same house that we’ve had since she was born. Her mom left when Daisy was only eighteen months old. From that point on, it was once a week and every other weekend and two months in the summer. Even the two months were broken up with her mom having my visitation schedule.
I never fully felt like a dad. I felt like my entire fatherhood was broken into bits and pieces, like Morse code. Dot, dot, dot…dash, dash, dash…dot, dot, dot. The thirteen years between our divorce and her moving here with me felt like I was lost at sea, trying desperately to swim against the tide, struggling beneath the waves and only catching a gasping breath whenever she was with me and I could breathe. As soon as I’d take her back to her mom’s, I’d disappear under the turbulent waters again. Drowning. Sinking.
I came across a picture on Facebook yesterday. It popped up on that “Your memories From ____ Years Ago” thing. It was my daughter back home at St. Anthony’s Italian Festival. She was nine years old, smiling brightly, clutching a stuffed penguin she’d won at some midway game and waiting to get on the Ferris Wheel with me.
My daughter doesn’t smile much now. She stopped smiling and being a bubbly, outgoing, happy kid when her mom’s second husband took off his mask of decency and showed the monster he really is. From age twelve, until we escaped Nashville and moved here to Lynchburg when she was sixteen, she endured mental and physical abuse enough to drive that bubbly, smiling girl into hiding. He wore her down with every kind of cruelty. He killed her pet. He destroyed her property, including things I gave her on birthdays and holidays. Things shared between a daddy and his little girl. Notes I would include in birthday cards. He would “edit” them and mark them up. He intruded on my fatherhood every chance he got. He stopped short of sexual assault –or he’d be a missing person on the back of a milk carton right now—but everything else was on the table in his sick mind.
Her mom did nothing to stop this. She was too concerned with her own life. She often sided with her husband, against our daughter, in order to keep the peace. She essentially sacrificed Daisy’s well-being, for her own.
It finally got bad enough and I took a job in Virginia and she left with me. She escaped the remnants of her childhood.
This was not the life I wanted for my child. Or for me. I wanted a happy home and a house and peace. I wanted my daughter to be healthy and happy and to reach her potential. I wanted to be the best dad anyone ever had, and to experience fatherhood from the adult side and hopefully make up for how fatherhood looked from the child’s view that I had when I was her age. Instead I got sawdust fatherhood. The fragments that remain after the whole has been cut into pieces, again and again until nothing remains but the shavings and dust that stand as evidence that there really was something there once.
All of which brings me to last night. There are a lot of men who would be upset over losing a half night’s sleep with a sick nineteen-year-old child. “I have to work in the morning.” “I get up at 4:45 am!” “You’re an adult, you can take care of yourself.”
And she can.
But there were so many times over those thirteen years, when she was sick, and hurting, and often in real danger, and I couldn’t help her. My fragmented time with her leaves me aching for those days when she was that smiling little nine-year-old girl in the photo. Times when I would have loved nothing more than to have carried her downstairs to the couch, felt her forehead with the back of my hand, and stroked her hair until she fell asleep.
But I had to settle for phone calls and five days a month.
So, I don’t mind when she needs me now. I don’t rue the lost sleep or the groggy feeling when the alarm went off this morning at 4:45 and I was seriously thinking of taking a sick day. This would have been my life a dozen years ago, and instead it’s my life now. I’m okay with that. It’s what dads do. Good ones anyway.
I nurse her back to health daily as it is. Back to emotional health. I’ve laid the back of my hand to her forehead and felt the cold, clammy feeling of a broken spirit. I’ve comforted the tears and frustration that she’s cried over the neglect and indifference that her mom has shown, both while she was being so abused in her mom’s home, and especially since we’ve moved here. They don’t talk much. Her mom has been here once in almost four years, and that was a brief, overnight visit. Nineteen-year-old women process that as abandonment. That’s because it is abandonment. I’ve held her hand as she’s been nauseated in her soul over the childhood she lost. Over the time we missed together. I’m doing my best to nurse her back to health.
So, no…I don’t mind losing half a night of sleep to take care of my adult daughter. Because in truth, nursing her back to health is also nursing me back. Every chance I get to act like the dad I am inside, goes a long way toward healing the loss I’ve felt over the years after the divorce. And maybe, to heal the loss I felt long before that, in the deep hole that existed in my own heart, because of my own father and his abandonment.
I’ve never felt his hand on my fevered forehead. Never heard his voice speak in the soft tones that dads use when their child is sick. Never felt his fingers brush my hair aside or his lips kiss my forehead as I drifted off to sleep, comforted in my illness by the presence of a loving, caring father.
I know what it means to my daughter, because I needed it too.
I could have quit. During those hard years after our divorce when my heart broke daily because I missed my daughter so much, and those five brief days each month were not even remotely enough to assuage my pain.
I could have packed it in when I lost my career in 2008 and had to live in my car because there was no work. I could have left to find a job somewhere else and just dutifully sent money and called once a week.
But I stayed. I stayed, and kept her trust, even though I was so limited in my ability to act on that trust. I stayed. And when the time came that she could take no more and had to get away…I was still there, ready to take her out of that hell and move her to safety.
You dads who are reading this, (it’s posted on both my personal website and my divorced dads blog) I encourage you not to quit. I encourage you to look squarely at the hell you must endure, stiffen your shoulders, brush aside your tears, and stand your ground.
Take whatever your ex, her husband, and the courts throw at you and stand your ground. The day will come. The day will come when the only knight left in the kingdom who can slay the dragon that pursues your child…is you. If you aren’t there –even with battered armor and a rusty sword—the dragon wins.
Never, never let that happen.