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February 06, 2013

Cinnamon or Powdered Donuts

Blended-families-dad-centricI roll over and look through the blurry haze of my half-open eyelids. My phone says it’s 7:27. I sigh in dread, not because I have to load up the family and drive the 1,300 plus miles from Texas to Indiana, but because I will be taking my stepdaughters away from their father. 

Ten year-old Allie carefully opens the door and sticks her head in. “How long before we’re gonna leave?” she asks in a whisper.

“Probably in an hour. As soon as I get everything in the van,” I reply from under the covers.

She rolls her eyes in disgust.

Normally I would correct her negative reaction. Not this morning, not after she just spent a week with her dad. A selfish part of me wishes Allie would just suck it up and accept the fact that we don’t live here anymore. We live in Indiana now near my three boys. Why can’t she understand how important it is for the boys to have their father. Except for a few select holidays and short vacations, my sons have had to do without me for close to five years.

Suddenly, I am reminded that she does understand. Allie and her younger sister, Avery, have been away from their father for nine months and their separation will likely be at least until they can live on their own. I realize how unfair it seems to them, and really it is. Why should they suffer as a consequence of decisions made years before by people they didn’t even know.

The move would have been easier had circumstances allowed us to relocate soon after I had met their mother. Back then their father actually lived several hours away. He hardly spent any time with them, but after returning to Houston he has been there for them the way a father should be.

As a stay-at-home dad, I once was the main father-figure in Allie and Avery’s lives. It was me who took them to the playground and read to their class. Now it’s their dad. I’ve had to step aside and become more of a spectator. Harder still is that, since going back to work, I am more disconnected from the girls than ever.  

Coming up the stairs, I find Allie lying on the floor next to our luggage. I lay down beside her so we’re face to face, and I rub her back. “Where’s Avery?” I want to know.

“Still in bed,” she answers, staring blankly right through my face as if I’m not even there.

I continue to rub Allie’s back empathetically even though I recognize the stall tactic being employed by her sister. Rather than fetching Avery, though, I start to carry the bags to the van and something from a few days earlier occurs to me.

On the trip down, Allie and Avery decided to make a swearing dictionary (we have no idea why).

“Mom, what’s a cussword that starts with C?” Allie asked.

Their mother and I exchanged glances and a few moments later we were stifling our laughter over what the girls had written.

A is for Asshole. B is for Bastard. C is for Cocksu—you get the idea. Now, as I walk down the stairs I wonder if the list of off-color names was meant for me. D is for “Dickhead.”  

I know it may seem as if I’m projecting, but it’s only logical for them to feel this way toward me. After all, I’m the person directly responsible for taking them away from their father, and to be with my own children no less. Their mother tries to get them direct their angry feelings towards my ex-wife who moved away first, thus creating our shared quandary.

That she does this confirms not only Allie and Avery’s feeling about me, but that my wife harbors a slight degree of resentment over leaving her own Mother and Sister. My wife, though, understands the complexity and sacrifice behind the decision to move. The girls do not. They only see the situation for what it is: that their relationship with their father is less important to me than my relationship with my sons. To some extent their perspective is correct which why I accept my role as the target of their anger.

It’s time to leave. Avery cracks everyone up with her silly jokes. She may seem fine on the outside, but she’s hurting just as much as her older sister. This is how she deals with things, stuffing her emotions deep inside and then masking them with her sense of humor. At some point, though, those emotions will explode, and Avery will unleash them in a rage-filled fit. Once she stabbed her Pillow Pet with a pair of scissors as substitute for hitting her sister.

Allie on the other hand is sitting on the last stair step. She makes no effort to move. When her mother tries pulling her to her feet I hear Allie say she’s not going.  There’s an expression of determination on her face that terrifies me into believing I may have to literally carry her to the van kicking screaming. It’s not out of the question. Allie’s mother once tried to get her to taste a bite of watermelon. Allie refused. Thirty minutes later Mother stomped off having lost the battle of wills.   

Driving away, I roll down the windows so Allie and Avery can wave goodbye to their Aunt and Gaga one last time.  We’re hardly to the end of the street when a heavy silence settles in. Soon deep wet sniffles penetrate the quiet void, as do the pangs of guilt slicing through my gut. There’s an irony in that the purpose of our trip was so I could attend a conference centered on guys who blog about being a father, and yet, here I was taking the girls away from theirs.

Filling up the tank at the station, I remember our tradition of eating mini donuts at the start of long trips. Inside I find the shelves well stocked with cinnamon, chocolate-covered, and powdered donuts. Let’s see, Allie likes cinnamon. Avery likes powdered. Hmmm. As I stand deliberating, suddenly picking a donut flavor becomes the most important decision of my life. I have the absurd notion that by choosing the right donut for Allie and Avery I can make it all better for them, that they’ll realize what a tough choice it was, and that even if I get it wrong, they’ll still know I love them.

Back in the van, I hand Allie and Avery the donuts. They say thank you, but there is none of that elated joy in their voices like on earlier trips, and I have no idea if I made the right choice. I hear the crinkle of wrappers and more sniffling. Then my wife turns around in her seat. “I love you, girls” she says softly.

I want to tell them I love them too, but hold back because I convince myself it would only sound prompted. A burning stings my eyes and I look away so no one can see me. I don’t know why I’m trying to hide my face—maybe because it reminds me of all the times when I had to leave my boys, or maybe it’s because their sadness is a personal thing and sharing in it with them would only make them angrier at me.

Several miles later, Avery leans forward and touches her mother’s arm. “Mama, I can’t cry no more,” she says with a slight crack in her voice. “I’ve used up all my tears.”    

“Here sweetie,” I think to myself. “Take all you want. I’ve got plenty to spare for you.”


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