Tristan, my 7-year-old, was helping me unload a truckload of soil. He was whining about it when I told him, “My dad wasn’t around when I was a kid. I’d have loved to help him unload dirt.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d mentioned my real father to Tristan, but it was the first time he’d ever paid attention.
We’d just had a new baby girl, and Mel, my wife, was visiting the doctor. I was home on paternity leave.
It was early afternoon, school had just gotten out, and Tristan and I were in the front yard, unloading soil from the back of my pickup and hauling it into the backyard. Tristan was in the truck with small blue kid shovel, and I was manning the wheelbarrow and an adult sized shovel.
The neighbor kids stopped by about a million times asking if Tristan could play, and I kept telling them that he could once the truck was unloaded. It’s not that I needed his help.
In fact, he was slowing me down, and only about half the dirt he handled made it into the wheelbarrow.
But that wasn’t the point. I wanted him to learn how to work with his hands, and I wanted him to know what it means to work alongside his father. Something I’d always longed to do.
None of the three neighbor kids who stopped by (two boys and one girl) had fathers in their lives. Jake was 8 years old, and had dinner at our house nearly every night. He’d seen his father once this year, and it was May. Mike (age 9) and Janet (age 5) shared a mom, but different dads.
They lived next door, and I’d never seen nor heard word of their fathers.
Our whole neighborhood seems to be this way. A bunch of fatherless kids eating meals at my table, and looking at me like I was some fantastic thing because I hadn’t walked away from my kids. When I reflect on the longing in their eyes, it makes me think of myself and the way I longed for my father, and suddenly I want to track down these deadbeat absent fathers and slap some obligation into them.
Tristan stopped shoveling. He was still in his charter school uniform- khaki shorts and a red polo shirt with tennis shoes. He was short and stocky like his father.
“What do you mean your dad wasn’t around?” he asked.
I reminded him that Grandpa Kent, my mother’s husband, was not my real father. I put my shovel down, folded my arms, and leaned against the side of the truck.
“My real dad cheated on my mother when I was eight. Then he left. Some years I saw him, but most years I didn’t. Once I went two years without seeing him. He died when I was 19. I never even lived with Grandpa Kent.”
“What does cheated mean?” Tristan asked.
“It means that,” I paused because I wasn’t prepared to answer this question. Tristan was too young to know about sex, or at least I hoped he was, so I tried to place it in terms he’d understand.
“He started kissing someone other than my mother. Then he moved in with her, and I just didn’t see him all that much. I don’t really know why. Does that make sense?”
Thinking back, I’m not sure if I understood this question. I still didn’t understand how my father could walk out on his family.
Tristan thought for a moment. Then he said, “Sort of.”
I thought about Tristan’s life, what it looked like, and how the thought of divorce was so foreign to him that he couldn’t fathom it, and yet divorce had so shaped my childhood. I couldn’t decide if this meant I was doing a good job as a parent because I’d obviously sheltered him from one of the harshest realities of 2014 family life, or if I’d completely failed because I’d allowed him to live in some false reality.
“I’ll tell you this,” I said. “After my dad left, I’d sometimes watch kids working with their fathers. Sometimes they were bucking hay on the farms by my house, and sometimes they were unloading dirt from a truck. And all I could ever think about was how badly I wished I’d had a dad to unload dirt with. In fact, I’ll bet your friends there wish they had a dad to unload dirt with.”
I turned around, and behind me were Jake, Mike, and Janet, sitting on my porch steps, watching us.
“I love you, Tristan. And I’m really happy to be here, unloading this truck with you. It means a lot.”
“I love you too, Dad.”
I’m not sure if he understood everything we just discussed. I’m not sure if I did either. But I think he understood enough to pick up his shovel, and start working again.
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