In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I’m sitting outside, on the front steps, watching the traffic, waiting. It’s a warm day, threatening rain, the sun unpredictably appearing then disappearing as clouds scoot by — clouds and cars scooting by while everything else crawls along, because I’m waiting, which always takes forever: the longer you wait, the longer the next minute takes, so I don’t let myself wait for them until they’re almost here. I think of them or call them on the phone or gaze at their picture on my desk but I don’t wait for them. After not seeing my children for three weeks, a few minutes of waiting is all I can bear.
It’s been three ordinary weeks, crowded with good days, mostly, and a few bad ones, days that I pretend add up to a life but are really lifetimes in themselves. Awakening each morning still breathing, finding intact my questions, my sorrows, the gnawed bone of whatever was on my mind the night before — this is the miracle I daily ignore, for which I’m daily forgiven. Like the weather, I turn in my various moods, at forty passionate and insistent and still oddly boyish, except when I’m filled with worldly knowing, and want only to sleep, and forget, and forget I do: who I am, how much the world favors me. A friend tells of visiting his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and can no longer recognize his own son. How is it possible, I think, knowing just how possible. How much I’ve already forgotten, I think, looking at a picture of one of my daughters taken only a few years ago: who she was then is alive only in memory, and how memories already fade. . . . Mara, with the bandaid on her finger at age four, or is it five? Now what was that bandaid for? I remember worrying, but I don’t remember why. . . .
The worrying! The fierce desire, sharper than hunger or sex, to keep out of their lives the wind, the troubled night. Foolishly, I want to keep them from the pain of being human; I want to keep off their small shoulders the outrageous weight of America; I want to keep them off the back roads that lead to misery and a big fat zero, to loveless sex and empty talk and hunger for the wrong things. I want to keep them — foolish Daddy! — from their destiny in flesh, their groping, their fabulous errors which are the only real teachers, their heartache which I would greedily wish upon myself instead of them. And most impossible of all, I want to keep them from my heartaches, the wounds in me which stand out like lines on a map, lines they may feel forced to follow, to understand their lives by figuring out what I could never understand about mine.
But I do understand this: nothing makes me more fully human, absurdly binding me and giving me cause for the rawest rejoicing, than being a parent. There’s nothing more important to me than my children’s future and nothing I’m more powerless to control. Every parent knows this; for parents like me, unable to be with my children each day, there’s a special poignancy in every brief visit, every goodbye that leaves me stranded on the sands of my love for them, gazing at the distant horizon which is the edge of our shared world. Then, somehow, the ocean is crossed, it’s the next visit and the waiting is over. And while it contradicts everything I’ve learned — the lesson hammered home again and again but the point of it no more penetrating than a rubber nail — I try to “make up” for lost time. As if eating an extra meal today will make up for the one I skipped yesterday. As if eating all day, until there’s no food left and I stagger from the table, falling down on the bed with my clothes on and the dishes undone, will make up for the hunger that never goes away. Yet how I gorge! On the sight of them, running from the car to greet me. On the sound of their voices. Their smell. Their hair in my face. Soon we’re entwined like vines, Mara with her arms around my neck, Sara wiggling against me so her back is against my chest, and we stay that way, vines drinking. But not for long. At nine and seven, they’re no more able to sit still than I am to keep up with them. In a challenging life, nothing challenges me half as much as their unbridled energy, their questions, their savvy, their endless enthusiasm for things that bore me, their needs I know how to meet and their needs I don’t. How quickly the dismay that they’re not with me turns into the dismay that they are! I wonder how I’m going to make it through the week with my equanimity and humor and sense of self intact; the answer, of course, is that I won’t: by the end of the week, I’ll be tired and impatient, hating myself for not being a better father, and on the night before they go back I’ll stand beside their bed, watching the rise and fall of their breathing like waves on an endless sea, and by the sea’s edge, I’ll vow again — to do better, to give them the kind of love I never got, the loving all of us wanted and none of us got.
It’s 175 miles from my home to my ex-wife’s home in the mountains, where my children live. I’ve made the trip so many times: I know each mile, each ridge and shadow and long moaning curve, each town and tree and twig. The cheapest gas! The cheapest fries! Each clod and cloud and startling view: my drowsy eyes don’t care — half-asleep and I’m not even halfway there. . . .
I used to drive 1,400 miles a month to be with them — every other week, I’d pick them up on Thursday and bring them back on Sunday. I hated the trip, but not nearly as much as the thought of not being with them. Missing your children is something you never get used to; it’s a sadness as persistent and steady as the hum of tires on the highway; you ignore it for a while but it doesn’t go away. The trip symbolized my failed marriage, my remorse, everything I was powerless to change, and it always left me exhausted, like a bad dream, or an argument you always lose, even though you’re only arguing with yourself, and have only yourself to blame.
Of course I blamed myself. I was the one who had fallen in love with someone else, and who had kept it a secret for fear it would ruin everything, which it did. I — the one whose life was centered in the search for truth — I was the one who had lied. What, I asked myself, was I to tell my wife as we chewed on the dry bread of our marriage — that I had found a bakery in town? What was I to tell her — the truth? What was the truth? That I was in love with the both of them, and with my children, and didn’t know how to choose, and that each time I lay down with my lover, I knew I was lying down in my grave? How many times did I tell myself that year: if I burn in hell for this, it will be like visiting an old, familiar place. And I swore that, liar though I’d become, I would never lie to myself about this cross of passion, the ghostly tremor when I studied my face: oh soul of mine, how did we end up this way, ass-deep in lust and illusion, traitor to Self, Abel and Cain? No, I wouldn’t mock myself when this was over, or pretend I hadn’t been aware of the pain. Fool! I was aware of nothing! I thought I was in hell, but hell stretches endlessly — it unrolls like a highway, it calls to you with your child’s name.
I don’t forgive myself easily. Seven years after my marriage ended, I’m still doing time. Maybe this shows a lack of awareness, but I’m not so sure: forgiveness may be the only path to real peace, but as a spiritual goal, it’s never done me much good. Knowing that there’s no blame, nothing to forgive, that in God’s eyes we’re all absolved because all sins are born of fear, is a truth I can’t mimic but must earn again and again, emotionally and not just intellectually — with tears, and in silence, and through struggle. Forgiveness isn’t a shortcut through that process; it’s what waits at the end.
The drive to the mountains was a kind of penance, then, and expiated some sins. When my wife moved away, and told me the responsibility for seeing the girls was up to me, I thought at first I had no choice, that I had better get used to spending thirty hours a month in the car. So I did — never happily, but with a deepening acceptance of things as they were. I had plenty of time to consider that acts have consequences, that our human predicament is to see only part of an event, that these miles winding by, this distance stretching my heart to breaking, were implicit in the past, entwined with it as surely as my lover and I had been entwined. And in such moments of clarity, I saw all of us — my wife, my children, my lover, everyone important to me — entwined as well, in an embrace more passionate than I’d known with any woman, joined for better and worse by the winding roots of our private griefs and pleasures and fears, a family as only great joy or great sorrow gives us eyes to see.
And in such moments, I began to forgive myself a little. I acknowledged that my mistake was the mistake we all make, confusing love with a cringing fantasy of love, a need for something outside ourselves: money or power or security, one woman, two women . . . and that this mistake leads inevitably to the next, which is to forget that truth is the only real safety, that anything we try to protect with a lie will eventually be destroyed by that lie. I saw, too, that it was my guilt, and not my ex-wife’s refusal to share the driving, that made it seem as if I had no choice — that I’d been trying to prove to her, and to my daughters, and to myself that I was really a nice guy after all, willing to do anything to be with my kids. Realizing this was like discovering an unlocked door in a room where I’d imagined I was being held prisoner. It occurred to me that I could hire someone to drive, someone who might actually enjoy the trip! And then I could greet the children with enthusiasm instead of exhaustion. I advertised, and found someone the very next day.
That was three years ago. Since then, there have been several drivers, and now another one is moving away. Replacing her is turning out to be difficult, as she and the girls have grown close during the past year, and I’m looking not just for someone to drive them but to be their friend. I’ve been discouraged by the calls; everyone seems wrong — too eager for any kind of work, too thoughtless, too inarticulate, too young, too old. What swift judgments I make during the time it takes to say hello! But after all, what is there to go on but the summons in a voice, its echoes and its mercies, whether it comes toward me like a breeze or like a stone? I ask a few questions, take down names and numbers, say, no, I haven’t decided, if I do I’ll call you back.
Right away, the girls want to know if I’ve found someone. I tell them not to worry, the right person will come along. They’re convinced we won’t find someone “as nice as Rosemary.” Unconvincingly, I tell them they’re wrong.
We gather our things, heading for the library, but the phone rings before we’re out the door. He’s a young guy, and sounds distracted. He mispronounces my first name, then gets it wrong again. He’s unsure what the job is, but refreshes his memory by reading aloud my ad. Cradling an armful of overdue books, I listen impatiently. It’s obvious he’s desperate for any job, and I can sympathize, but I’d no sooner put my kids in a car with him than let them drive themselves. “Is the job still open?” he asks. “No,” I tell him. “I’ve already hired someone.” He sounds disappointed, and hangs up, and I realize, immediately, I’d made a mistake, traded truth for convenience, but I brush the thought away.
“Let’s go,” I say to the girls, heading again for the door.
“Daddy, you lied,” Sara says. The word whips the air.
“Right!” Mara, too, is indignant. “What you said wasn’t true.”
Like some cartoon character racing over a cliff, and suddenly realizing, with legs flailing, there’s nothing but air below, I scramble for a foothold, search desperately for something to say.
But what? That I had chalked someone off as not being worth the time, or the truth? That getting my kids to the library was more important? That a big lie was unacceptable but a little lie was OK?
I’m embarrassed, and they know it, and lamely I try to explain. The effort is futile; I’m raking ashes. Better to tell them they’re right, and right to be angry, than trying to save face.
“You’re right. I lied.” Suddenly, their mood is impish. Sara smiles mischievously. Mara covers her mouth and turns away.
What’s going on? Is my measure being taken, my soul being weighed? Or are they as secretly happy as if they’d caught me with my hand in the cookie jar, after I’d announced we’d all eaten enough and sent them out to play? They tell me what they want at the library — something on astronomy — and can we get a snack, and do they need to put on their shoes now or can they wait? Can they really be this indifferent? They don’t seem less happy to be with me than they were a few minutes ago — but who knows, with a child, when something is truly forgiven and forgotten, or when it sets up camp in the shadows, and waits for them until the end of the day?
I’ve never read a book about child psychology, for the same reason I don’t read astrology, or skip to the last page of novels, or make my home at the feet of a sage: I don’t want to know too much; I don’t want to substitute another’s truth for the evidence of my senses, their map for my adventures, their bottom-line for the risks of playing the game.
The most important thing I’ve learned about being a parent is the need to teach by example rather than some bogus authority that life supposedly confers when you reach a certain age. The story is told of the woman who asked Gandhi to tell her child to stop eating sugar, and Gandhi said, “Come back in three days.” She returned, and Gandhi spoke to the child; the woman thanked him but asked why they had to wait. “Because three days ago,” Gandhi said, “I hadn’t stopped eating sugar.” Truth flies to its mark with a whisper, while authority rants and raves.
To live a life of truth, I need to live it, not talk — or write — about it, not lecture my children about it, remember there’s no safety net, that it’s a high wire act all the way.
Later that day, we have our astronomy lesson. Mara is the earth; Sara is the sun, beaming out her rays with broad sweeps of her arms, shouting out the names of the seasons as Mara gracefully circles her, before losing interest and starting to wander away. I call her back, tell them the earth’s distance from the sun is just right to maintain life; we’d burn or freeze if we got any closer or farther away. Sara stares at me earnestly. “How much closer or farther?” I don’t know what to say. “How much?” she asks again. I shrug. “How much?” This is how my little angel likes to play. She purses her lips in mock innocence. “An inch?” she asks. Mara bursts out laughing. I think to myself, that’s right, daughter, that’s all it takes, an inch one way or the other and we’re damned, or saved.