Thursday, October 2, 2014

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Explaining My Broken Family To My 7-Year-Old

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I was laying sod in the back yard with my son, Tristan, when he commented on how much fun he was having. I was a little surprised by that, because usually he complains when I ask him to do manual labor. I was putting the rolls of sod in place, and Tristan was unrolling them, and pushing them down flat.

“Awesome,” I said. “I’m really happy to hear you say that. I’ve told you this before, but I’d have loved to do stuff like this with my dad.”

And once again, Tristan asked me why?

Earlier that summer, Tristan and I had been unloading dirt from my truck, and I said something similar about wishing I could’ve worked along side my father. I explained to him about how my father left when I was 9. We had a complicated chat about my parents’ divorce and my father’s infidelity. And while this conversation really stuck out in my mind, I suddenly wondered if it had stuck out in his.

 I reminded him of the conversation, and he seemed to remember most of it, but not all. I filled in some of the details.

“What about Grandma?” he asked. “Did you like working with her?”

I stopped working for a moment, placed one hand on my hip, and let out half a laugh. Tristan had always asked questions, but in the past year, they had become more than just “Why” about this or that. They were questions about the past. Questions about family and what it looked like before his time.

I honestly wasn’t sure how to answer his question. Like I often do in situations like this, I wanted to put it in terms that he could understand. However, I was at a loss for what those kid-friendly terms might be, so I just told it to him straight.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t. I didn’t really get along with my mother. Sometimes I still don’t.”

Tristan asked me why, and I told him that I didn’t know. “She was just… very angry. She yelled a lot about this and that. I think a lot of this was because my father left her in a really bad situation. It must have been really hard to raise a family alone. Honestly, Tristan, when I think about my mother, I remember feeling really scared of her. I never knew when she was going to hug me, and when she was going to yell at me... or worse. And sometime I worry that I get mad at you too much, and that you are going to feel the same way about me as I felt about her.”

Before I had a chance to think about the question, I asked it. “Are you scared of me?”

Tristan was crouching down on the ground, waiting for another roll of sod. His eyes opened wide, like he was shocked that he could ever be afraid of his own father. “No,” he said. “Sometimes you get mad, but it’s only when I do thing something I really shouldn’t.”

His answer made me feel much better about my job as a father. As much as I worry about becoming an addict like my own father, I think I equally worry that my kids are going to fear me like I feared my mother.

We talked about a few more things, most of them to do with family. And suddenly, we were chatting about my siblings, and how not all of us have the same parents.

“What do you mean Aunt Melissa is your half sister?” Tristan asked.

“Well, Tristan,” I said. “Your grandmother has been married to three different men, and your grandfather, who you never met, was married to four different women.”

He eyebrows furrowed at the sound of this. He was confused, and we’d really only just started.

“Not all at the same time,” I said. “Grandma was married to a man I never met. And he was the father of your aunt Melissa, my sister. And my father was married to a woman before your grandmother, and she was the mother of your uncle Kip.”

For the first time I told him about the complicated, mixed-up slew of marriages and siblings that was my family… and now I suppose it’s his family. I told him that out of his two uncles and one aunt, my brother Ryan is my only full sibling. He seemed even more confused by this, so I went on, giving him more details in an attempt to give him clarity. I used terms that he’d never heard before: half brother, half sister, step mother, step sister, step brother, divorce, separation, custody, guardianship, child support, and so on. Thinking back, these were terms that defined my childhood, and as I looked at his blue and yellow eyes that matched my own, I hoped he’d never have to experience them first hand.

The more I spoke, the more confused he looked. Suddenly I felt like I was trying to sum up the plot of a long running daytime TV show, something like Days of Our Lives that’s been on for several decades.

Finally, I stopped talking before Tristan got so confused that he stopped paying attention. I crouched down on the ground, so I could look at him in the eyes.

“You know what, buddy. You don’t need to worry about any of that. All you need to know is that I’m here with you, and I’m not going anywhere. I wouldn’t miss any of this for the world.”

And then I tried to explain something that I’d been thinking a lot about, but didn’t know how to really explain.

“Spending time with you and Norah makes me feel like I’m making up for the time I missed with my father,” I said. “It feels like I’m getting the opportunity to do it all again. To see my childhood as a happy one through your eyes. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but it means a lot to me.”

Tristan shifted from a crouching position, to sitting cross-legged on the new sod. He thought about what I said for a moment. Then he said, “Yeah. I think does. It means that me being happy makes you happy.”

“Exactly,” I said.

Click here to back my hilarious essay collection, "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things." 

 


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