Going Off-Script: On Re-Defining Co-Parenting.

With every visit, you more closely resemble the man I recognize: tall enough to provide shade but slighter of frame than you’ve been for a long while. You’d gotten larger in these last years, enough so that on those rare occasions when I consented to your request for an embrace, you felt unfamiliar inside my arms.

But I suppose this was because there were other reasons you were uncomfortable there.

To celebrate our daughter’s third birthday, you came to town two days afterward, at 7 am on a Saturday. We’ve been warmer with each other for weeks, having little choice but to bond, trapped as we were under an avalanche of bills: reopening closed off corridors en route to an escape, outrunning, outwitting, repaying, rejoicing.

(Maybe love among people like us is just leading each other through labyrinths, is just doubling back after you’ve left.)

At the airport, you asked for a hug. “No,” I said. “Maybe later.” There are the confidences shared struggle restores — and there is affectionate touch, which is earned in other ways entirely.

Even so, I am surprised at our ease, surprised to find not even a hint of the old anger, my insides untightening with you near, rather than winding themselves into ulcerous knots, willing you to leave.

Listen: I am very different. I have loved and lost another. I’ve a life you no longer know and having new things to hold aloft excites me. Even the pain is new; even that is an odd relief. I am still collecting the parts of myself I’ve sloughed while risking fresh affections, still accepting that some things cannot be reclaimed, still wondering if, both with him and with you, the problem is me.

Do I drive you all away by being too writerly, too willing to retreat onto pages, where all the comfort, confessing, caressing and madness occurs in a place apart, when it should performed in person?

Only you know how far I can be from timid. Only I know how dark your days have been. My own days were darkest when something of you sat stirring in me, curling into the girl we gaze at today, in abject awe. Five months is a long time to grow a girl alone. A long time wondering over my worth. A long time spent listening to others’ whispered predictions. He’ll come back, they said. He’s a good guy.

They meant that when you did — and I suppose I always suspected you would — I should be grateful to have you. I should coerce you into marriage so both we and our child could suffer the delusion that neither you nor I would ever leave again.

But I’ve liked the leaving. I’ve liked flitting to spaces away from you — and relearning each other on return. This is the foundation of our friendship.

Before the girl, it was I who did the leaving. I’m sure it was unfair to insist that you were not allowed. But the baby meant you owed me; I knew the script. “Good men” dive headfirst into fatherhood with women they claim to love. It is only the cowards who need time, only the villains who leave.

If I had listened to you, looked at you, limb-walked far enough out that your words were not drowned in the chaos of the he-never-loved-you winds, I may have understood that we would always find ourselves here again: at ease and okay. (But would we have salvaged something worth sustaining? Would we have avoided the avalanche?)

Our daughter is wary when you appear, seemingly out of thin air: on screen, in person. She turns her head away; she tucks her chin. She needs to be coaxed out of an instinct to close herself off.

Of course, she has inherited this from me. It occurs to me now that I do her no favors by not appearing open with you.

This time, I sang her the refrain of a song she understands. Like you, she understands better in song. “Grow-own-ups! Come baaaack,” I cooed. And she turned to you and offered her first hug, ten minutes into your stay. She would sing it to us again throughout the day. It would rend our hearts.

What is rote for us is insurmountable for her. Perhaps love among families like ours is to stop sojourning toward other loves and to settle here. Maybe the only happiness we deserve is hers.

You were only here for two days. On the way back to the airport I said: I don’t want to get back together. You said you understood. And there is something different in these rides away now, a wistfulness, a reassurance.

It has been twelve years. You always come back.

I left the car this time, walked around to your side, offered an unsolicited embrace: brief and fairly far apart, but an offering. You are thinning out again: a recollection in my arms. “All right,” you said to yourself. “All right.”

Maybe the truest love is a resignation. Maybe it is resisting the pre-written script. I do not know.

But here we are. Here we are.

Going Off-Script: On Re-Defining Co-Parenting.

The Name: On Managing Long-Distance Fatherhood.

Over our bed hangs a picture of a Buffalo Soldier standing alone on a plain as a herd of bison clops its hooves in the distance. His face, leathered and lined, is grim but his eyes dance with premonition. He sees a country that will eventually open its arms and its institutions to his children and theirs. Nana hung the framed print in this room when it was just an extra lodging space for overnight guests. It was there long before my mother, the baby, and I moved in, long before I placed our daughter’s crib in storage and began to nightly curl myself around her, like an open parenthesis, in the twin bed beneath it.

After a few months of sleeping under the gilded plain and the buffalo herd and the stoic uniformed black man who my grandmother thinks is handsome, I forgot the picture was there. There were too many other focal points, not least of which were our gangly toddler’s limbs, as they struck at my organs in the night: her tiny heel an arrowhead prodding the skin over my spleen, her elbow a bony thorn in my side.

There were also the boxes, the books, the closets that were not wholly ours, all the nooks into which we’d slid every toy or folder or tote we’d carried in from the Midwestern life we left behind. There was the night air, as clingy and thick as the breath under surgical masks, and the sweat the bedsheets seemed to drink when we tossed and turned.

Somewhere in all these months of adjustment, as the picture was becoming invisible to me, it was morphing into something else for our child.

It was becoming you.

I can’t quite remember the first time I noticed this or under what circumstance she first looked up at the Buffalo Soldier and pointed. But indeed, she cast a gaze toward him, filled with adoration and pride. Then she turned to me and, with a voice so guileless and questioning I still tear up when I really consider it, she called your name.

“Dad-nee?”

It was a sucker punch, really, the pain only acute because it was so unexpected.

I was quick to recover that day, as we often are in the moments after something unnerves us and in the months before we’re able to fully process it. “No, sweetheart,” I tried to explain, placing a palm on her cheek, “That’s not Daddy.”

But she chose to hear only her echo. “Dadnee?”

“No, sweetie. Not Daddy.”

She shrugged and I stretched my lips into some small approximation of a grin. We had reached an understanding–or so I thought. But in the months to follow, you became more real to her, over our heads, and regardless of anyone’s protestations, her confidence that it was you in the uniform, fearless in the foreground of a stampede scene.

But this wasn’t the only place she saw you. At times, you were the front door, when she was in distress. She’d run to it, willing you to bound through and rescue her from a scolding. “Dad-nee?” she’d call, just loudly enough to be heard on the other side. You were in the couch cushions in the living room, when she burrowed into the crevices and recalled you sprawling there on your last visit. “Dad-nee?” she’d whisper into the olive grosgrain. And when she clapped her hands to her ears, and I followed suit, when she touched her fingertips to her forehead and watched me mimic her, she’d drop her hands, remembering the last time you did the same with her via Skype. “Dad-nee…” she’d murmur wistfully.

Neither you nor I could’ve expected it to happen this soon, and often, when I tell you it has, I sense that you may doubt me. But our daughter, barely conversant, with her lexicon of less than 100 words, is already articulating her need for you.

Because we have cultivated a relationship in which you are neither entirely absent nor entirely present, she is adapting by calling out to you in places where and at times when you cannot hear her. Improbable places. Unexpected times. Every instance bears out a different response in me: here, worry that she wants to escape me; there, an errant swell of inadequacy; now, a surge of anger that strikes hot and fast and quells itself just as quickly; then, an empathetic prescience borne of my own father-pining in the past.

But more than anything else, I feel studious–for in those moments, our daughter goes from girl to apotheosis of worship. I watch her call for you in the way that I should call out to God: as Father, as rescuer, as present when He cannot be seen.

This is the incarnation of God I understand the least. I have only been able to view fatherhood through the lens of my relationship with my own. It is amiable, it is deeply important, but it is also inconsistent. We talk, but not too often. We love one another intensely but don’t always find occasion to express it. We see ourselves in the other, but do not always know how to bridge the canyons of difference.

It is easier, then, for me to know God as a sovereign. It’s simpler to accept Him as a comforter, a confidante, a friend. When I talk to him, “Father,” is not the first name I think to call Him.

But our girl is teaching me what it is to feel confident that the heart of a father is always near, even when others feel uncertain, even when they’re trying to convince he is not who or where she thinks he is.

May she always remain in a space so clear, and may we never hesitate to join her.

The Name: On Managing Long-Distance Fatherhood.