Every morning I try to rise before our three young children so I can drink coffee by myself in the dark. I fell out of this practice over the holidays opting instead for the warmth under the comforter while the wind rattled the frosted windowpanes. But when we returned to our morning routine in the new year and our 8-year-old protested dressing for school, our 5-year-old could not believe it was no longer the weekend, and our 4-year-old turned her nose up at the breakfast foods we had in the house, I didn’t have any patience for them. I was a grouch.

Waking before the children seems so counter-intuitive to the notion that more sleep is better for me than caffeine and silence, but it’s not. Getting up before the children gives me the opportunity to orient myself before the chaotic morning push out the door. Drinking coffee in the quiet helps me to set my daily agenda, to think about the day ahead before it’s no longer mine to determine.

After returning to my morning ritual, I began recalling its origin. When our middle daughter, Mary, was seven months old, I woke when she did and gave her a bottle, which she cried for immediately upon waking. We were weaning her off feeding during the night. One morning I was so surprised to wake before her, I made the choice to rise.

The noise of dawn had yet to begin. I tiptoed down stairs, and winced at the coffee maker rumbling against the counter. As the second child, Mary was born into the action of family. If noise roused her from sleep she thought she was missing a party and howled.

In the living room I sat on the couch, and held black coffee up to my face in the dark. My eyes adjusted to the glow of the streetlight creeping through the bay window. And my father rose out of memory with the steam of the coffee. I could hear his voice boast, “Best part of the day.” I suppose that doesn’t place a lot of hope in the remaining hours, but I know what he means, now—a sleeping house is quiet.

As a child, lying in my bed, I’d hear him bang the plastic filter holder against the counter. Water climbed through pipes to splash on itself in the sink. He woke so early he didn’t fear company.

My mornings alone give me time to wonder though, as he waited for the black liquid to drip into the pot: What brewed in his mind? Did he ever consider that time prayerful, or did he simply make to-do lists in his head? I ask because the morning I rose before Mary, I felt the confluence of my roles, the conflation of being both his son and my children’s father. I imagined my late father seated across from me at a diner. After he moved out when I was in high school, we often spent time together by going out to eat. We read menus. We pulled one corner of our mouths up to acknowledge that we knew the other was tired, as if to say, “It’s nice not having to talk, isn’t it.” If I didn’t get up before Mary I wouldn’t have been thinking about how much I have missed being my father’s son, how much I have wanted to be in his presence once again and sense without having to explain it that he understands my exhaustion.

I remember how Mary’s cry ripped through the stillness that morning. She cried until she felt the bottle on her lips. She sucked with her eyes closed as we rocked in the chair. Her head was warm and smelled like baby shampoo and the coffee on my breath. I didn’t throw my head back and close my eyes lamenting lost sleep. I wasn’t trying to assess what the day ahead would be like. She sighed as she gulped, inhaled and exhaled through her nose. Because I had awakened before Mary and come to a greater awareness of my own desires, I was more attuned to her’s. I told her what sons and daughters want to hear from their parents. Her chest expanded and released against my own chest and forearm. “I’m here, Mary.” I said. “I’m here.”

I don’t always think about my dad or have epiphanies in the morning when I’m up before the children. But when they do eventually stir from their beds I’m already awake. When they step slowly down the stairs, their small palms sliding along the railing, I’m more ready to be their father.

James M. Chesbro’s essays have appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Huffington Post, among others. You can find him at jamesmchesbro.com and on Twitter @Jamie_Chesbro.

You might also be interested in: