Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sleeping girl, the last best photograph

For a short few days she was here, and then she was gone.

Cicadas droned in the elms. The sound of the Jeep faded as if muffled by the golden dust settling to the road. I felt the weight of my years and my failings and tried to let the tension go but it would not. After a while, Lori took my hand and led me back to the house.


I was never very good at being a father. I worked evenings and weekends, and holidays because the money was so good. God knows we needed it. Like most young couples, money was something other people had and we didn’t. My Baptist upbringing cautioned me against the love of money, but it wasn’t love at stake—it was survival. Lori took odd jobs such as selling Tupperware and babysitting so she could stay at home and raise our two boys; I grabbed every minute of overtime and drove the streets of Denver so much that they became eternally implanted in my dreams, though grown darker and more menacing, with shadows that move of their own volition and rivers viscous and black as coal. I wasn’t there for my boys’ birthdays, school events or soccer games. They grew up. I worked.

In truth, I never knew how to be a father. I can admit it now with only a minor twinge of guilt, the admission no more than another tick on a lengthy checklist of personal shortcomings. I was a better husband, which might be another way of saying I was selfish. A man receives from a wife, whereas children require constant giving. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that children also gave, or if I knew it sooner it was more an academic point than heartfelt recognition. So much of our lives is forgotten, or fades into background noise whose individual characteristics blur into a greater, indefinable whole.

Grandchildren provide recompense, or perhaps even atonement. At least, that’s what I tell myself when I’m feeling distant—not merely a term of emotional disconnect but a measurement of hundreds of miles. If being a father was a role where I always found myself on the outer margins looking in, being a grandfather only emphasized my detachment. What I initially thought would be easier has, in fact, become more difficult. Babies remain incomprehensible beings, squalling, temperamental bundles of egocentrism best studied through a camera viewfinder, where they can be safely transformed into photographic images for parents and grandmothers to babble over. Using camera as shield might not be the most endearing characteristic of a hopelessly bewildered grandfather, but we live, and die, by compromises we must make.

Sage was the first. And almost from the first found herself trapped in a No Man’s Land between two opposing armies. The battleground over custody and parental rights raged through dysfunctional courts staffed with legal half-wits, bombed-out caseworkers and delusional psychiatrists who were themselves crazier than the inmates, with tit-for-tat retaliations, all-out frontal assaults, ambuscades and flanking attacks, until at last a sort of uneasy truce was declared with all parties bloodied and weary. Though it all, Sage appeared none the worse for wear, gravitating between parents with an ease only the young can achieve.

As grandparents at a 500-mile remove, we were little more than moderators trying to keep communication open, fully believing nothing we were told. During our annual visits to Denver we saw Sage whenever possible, conscious that our very infrequency branded us strangers. Watching her grow was disjointed and abrupt in the way that unfamiliarity displaced vast swaths of time. Six inches here, six there, and the little girl we thought we knew was a young lady with a shy smile and wisdom far exceeding her nine years.

Two weeks ago, our youngest son, Ben, brought her for a visit. It was after they arrived that we learned that Sage’s mother was relocating to Florida for a new boyfriend and a new life, and that Sage was being taken. The legality of it was something the courts would decide, and would be played out far away from our idyllic prairie patch. For a brief three days she was ours to spoil, and spoil her we did. Or tried to.

Horseback riding, sweets, family reunions and introductions, star-filled nights, we showed her another side of life. But an undercurrent of violence, distrust and hate ran beneath everything like a toxic spill. Once again we were the moderators, adrift with no facts to fall back on, no truths to anchor ourselves, and, ultimately, no means to determine the proper course of action. So that when the mother claimed kidnapping and threatened legal action, we quietly acquiesced to relinquishing Sage when the mother and new boyfriend passed through on their inexplicably sudden flight to the Sunshine State.

The evening before the transfer I worked late locating every photograph of Sage in my archive. When I was through amassing a pictorial history of her from infant to young lady, I copied them to a DVD and gave it to Ben. “Just in case,” I said.

The next morning we let Sage sleep late while we adjourned to the kitchen for small talk. At one point I took the camera into the living room where she dozed on the couch and captured her there at peace, the blankets spilling onto the floor, her head lolled to the side, mouth slightly open. For perhaps the first time the camera wasn’t a shield but a means to stop time, to connect. After printing the image, I slipped it to Steph, Ben’s girlfriend, asking her to give it to him later.

And then the black Jeep pulled in and I went out alone to set guidelines for the meeting. Once Lori knew everything was okay, she brought out Sage. Sage was clearly happy to see her mother. We got their new address and said goodbye, and watched them drive away.

Life is rarely a matter of absolutes. Sometimes there are only losers and no winners. But this much I do know: it’s never too late to be the father I should have been, or the grandfather I need to be.


Anonymous said...


I know how you are feeling. At the present time, my youngest son is going thru a divorce. Our only contact with our grandkids is thru him. And that is only 2 hours a week at the present time. Our soon to be X-daughter-in-law is not communicating with us at all. We send emails asking how the girls are or what they might need. No reply. I might add that our grandkids are 1900 miles away. Your article brought tears to my eyes as I know how you feel.


Anonymous said...

I love you Dad.

Unknown said...

Tom - your writing - honest, painful and forthwright - never fails to move me. My heart goes out to you.


shoreacres said...

Perhaps Tolstoy was right: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Reading your words, I think of my own father. He was a good father, he knew how to be a father, but after a certain point he wasn't able to be a father because my mother stood between us, separating us, letting her jealousy eat away at our relationship.

Today, I miss him more than I ever did in the years after his death. In his absence, I've come to know him more deeply than I did in life, and it's clear to me I'm my father's daughter: his values of curiosity, vision, and a willingness to wander were imprinted early in my life.

The bit of unfortunate irony is that the parent who cherished life is gone, while I spend my days caring for the parent who finds life an unhappy burden.

But, I can attest to the truth of your assertion. It never is too late to be a father - in life or in death.