I’m sitting in my 12-year-old daughter’s bedroom, spray bottle in one hand and putty knife in the other, with tears streaming down my face.
We’re using a mixture of water and fabric softener to scrape away the wildlife-themed wallpaper border that has lined her walls for 10 years now. But in my heart it feels as if we’re scraping apart her very childhood, layer by layer.
I’ve been promising to redecorate my kiddo’s room for over a year now, to something more grown-up than cute jungle animals, baby blue skies and fluffy white clouds. But, between our hectic travel schedule and new business ventures, something always seemed to come up to delay the project.
As my mind is flooded with memories dating back to my painful divorce, when my daughter was a two-year-old toddler, I realize that perhaps I’ve subconsciously been procrastinating on purpose, unwilling (or simply unable) to confront this symbolic rite of passage.
Her mom and I entered couples counseling less than six months after Alex was born. After 13 years together we had grown apart, and having a child only seemed to make the distance between us more visceral, the personal differences more pronounced. Twenty months later I filed for divorce, though financial circumstances necessitated that we live together, legally separated, for almost another year.
The divorce papers were signed, our house was sold, and we moved into our respective houses, all over the same weekend in early 2004. I immediately decided to decorate my daughter’s room in my new house exactly as it had been in our old one, in order to make the transition easier for her. Although I had only around 33% custody at that time, I was determined to be an extremely hands-on father.
Truth be told, I was in a state of panic about what life would hold for me as a newly divorced, self-employed single dad with no financial safety net to speak of. The fact that I was in a complicated long-distance relationship with a woman who lived in Toronto (1000 miles away, for those keeping score) didn’t make matters any easier.
So you can understand the tumultuous jumble of thoughts and emotions that swirled in my mind as I pasted up wallpaper for the first time in my life, simultaneously excited and terrified by the myriad possibilities the future seemed to offer. It was only the need to stay strong for my daughter, and the knowledge that my girlfriend would be visiting in a few months, that kept me from having a complete mental breakdown.
We’d fallen in love– first online and then in real life– as both of us were going through separation and divorce, clinging to each other as passionately as you would to a life raft in stormy seas. After years of being made to feel inadequate and unworthy of love, our intense connection made me feel virile and vital, teaching me how powerful true love could be.
But where I was an optimistic idealist, she was a practical realist: She warned from the very beginning that our life-altering relationship was doomed to failure. After all, we lived in different countries, and our custody agreements prevented either of us from moving if we wanted to see our kids. So she would break up with me at random, over and over again, only to change her mind and beg me to take her back a few weeks or months later. It was maddening, but I was addicted to the potent connection we shared.
I’ve never believed in giving up, especially on something you truly care about. I’ve always believed that anything is possible if only you want it badly enough and work hard enough. I couldn’t let go of the greatest love I’d ever known. I was cursed by my own willful sense of justice, and inability to separate what is from what SHOULD be.
Eventually, two years into the relationship, after nearly a half-dozen soul-crushing breakups and heartwarming reunions, I’d had enough of the toxic push/pull rollercoaster of emotions. I knew she’d never be able to fully commit to me with her whole heart, just as I knew she’d never let me go completely. And so I pushed her away, HARD, with a harsh finality that demanded we never speak again. And so we didn’t.
Finally, for the first time in my life, I was truly free. So why did I feel more frightened than liberated?
Needless to say, I was crushed by this turn of events, and felt as if my soul were being ripped in two. I foolishly threw myself back into the dating world before I’d had time to properly grieve, but every woman I met failed to measure up to my newly heightened expectations for what love could be.
In retrospect, there were a lot of positives that came from my crushing heartache. I became much more selective in what I was looking for from love, and much better about drawing boundaries regarding how I expected to be treated. I threw myself into my study of improv comedy, which began as a hobby to get me out of my head and out of the house, and wound up becoming a part-time professional gig. And by 2006 I’d started writing for AirTran’s in-flight magazine, which would forever alter the course of my career.
But, most importantly of all, I began to focus my attention on the two most important relationships in my life, with my daughter and my beloved grandmother. My grandmother and I had always been close during my childhood– she watched me for two years while my dad was stationed overseas in the Army and my mom worked full-time. But we’d become much closer after my grandfather died, and closer still after my daughter (her first great-grandchild) was born.
Granny would come down almost every weekend, driving 90 minutes each way, to spend time with my daughter and I. She’d take care of Alex whenever I had an improv show, or a date with some new lady in my life. The next morning, we’d go see a show at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts, visit Alex’s favorite playground, or grab a pizza at Chuck E Cheese. All three of us relished these little adventures, and the lack of a significant other in my life began to hurt less and less.
My grandmother and I had deep, long chats that made us feel more like friends than mere family. Though she grew up dirt-poor in rural Tennessee, with only a ninth grade education, she had a sage wisdom about her that I came to rely on, balanced by a playful sense of humor that bordered on downright silly. I can still picture her and my daughter sitting in little chairs in Alex’s bedroom, coloring contentedly while sipping tea from the tiny tea set they’d painted together.
By late 2008, when Mary and I started dating, Granny’s health had begun to fail. She had beaten throat cancer and had a pacemaker installed for decades, but at 83 her age was beginning to catch up with her. She was moving more slowly, there was chronic fluid build-up in her arms and lungs, and doctors suggested that an operation would help put some pep back in her step. Yet, by the time I left my aunt’s house on Christmas day that year, Granny was in tears, insisting she wouldn’t live to see my cousin’s wedding the next summer.
Of course, she was right. Although the operation seemed to go well, Granny didn’t recover as quickly as expected. By the time Alex and I visited her in a rehab facility, she looked shockingly old and frail. I called her later that day and chastised her, urging her to try a little harder, if only for Alex’s sake.
It was the last time we ever spoke. The next day she went into a coma, and less than 36 hours later she was gone.
My daughter and I were both devastated by my grandmother’s passing. But I also had a healthy dose of anger: Anger at my family for pulling the plug on life support (in accordance with my grandmother’s wishes), anger at my grandmother for not fighting harder to stay with us just a few years longer, and anger at myself for my harsh words to Granny during our last conversation.
And of course there was a healthy dose of regret, especially because I’d failed to introduce Mary to Granny when she went into the hospital for her operation. After all, the doctors had predicted a 100% chance of recovery, so I thought there would be plenty of time to introduce my family’s beloved matriarch to the greatest love of my life. It certainly wasn’t the first time that I was wrong, but it was arguably among the most painful.
I realized I’d truly begun to mature as a human being because of the speed with which I moved on to the acceptance stage of the grieving process. After all, I reasoned, my grandmother and I had had an amazing amount of quality time together during the last seven years of her life, and she’d live a rich and full life of 85 years. Of course, the acceptance didn’t make my daughter and I miss her any less.
Fortunately, there was Mary, the most loving, caring, and nurturing woman I’d ever met. The Universe’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect in bringing her into our lives, and she acknowledges that the same held true for her. After so many years of struggling to make mismatched pieces in our respective lives fit together, Mary and I fit together almost effortlessly. By 2010 she’d moved in with us and– with Alex and our dog, Huckleberry– we had the perfect family we’d each been dreaming of our entire lives.
Having Mary in the house only brought my daughter and I closer. When Alex was with us (which she was 50% of the time at this point), we were almost always off doing something fun together as a family. But we also made room for quality daddy-daughter time, from dinner-and-a-movie “dates” to incredible trips to Aruba, Yellowstone National Park, and Bermuda.
As our family bond grew closer, Alex began to thrive more than ever. In the last few years she’s made Principal’s Honor Roll (all A’s) every semester, excelled in volleyball, and grown from a shy little girl into an increasingly confident young lady. As you can probably tell, I couldn’t be prouder. There was a time when I was truly afraid of being a dad, convinced that I wouldn’t be a good father. But having her as my child has inexorably changed my life for the better.
And therein lies the problem that left me weeping in my daughter’s room a few nights ago, and which has reduced me to tears on multiple occasions in the days since: After more than 40 years on this planet, I FINALLY have the life, and the family, I’ve always wanted. There’s very little fighting or dysfunction in our world, and more love and fun and frivolity than words can possibly express. Other than wishing there were a few more zeros in our bank account balance, I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.
But the reality is that we’re not given that choice in this life. Change, for better or worse, is constant. And my daughter’s desire to re-decorate her room not only brought back these 10 years of memories, but also reminded me that time is ridiculously fleeting. I can remember the feeling of putting up her wallpaper 10 years ago as if it was yesterday. So I was struck hard as a lightning bolt by the realization that, in just 6 short years, chances are very good that my daughter may not be around as often as I’d like.
It’s one thing to lose a great love unexpectedly, whether it be from the dissolution of a cherished romantic relationship or the death of a loved one. But KNOWING you’re likely to lose frequent access to a person whose very existence has transformed your own for the better? That, to me, is the very definition of agony.
When I look back on my life, I recognize that some of my greatest strengths (dogged determination, loyalty, an acute sense of justice) have occasionally also been debilitating weaknesses. There were times when I refused to abandon ships that were clearly sinking, and in retrospect I think I was holding on more out of fear of the unknown than honor. But when it comes to losing the people that we hold dearest– whether to breakups, death, or simple life changes– perhaps it’s only natural not to want to let go.
I think tearing down these memories of my daughter’s childhood served as a wake-up call, reminding me how very precious our time together is. Whether she moves away to college in six short years or decides to stick around and live rent-free, I believe that my tears were a way of acknowledging that her decision will ultimately be beyond my control. In grieving her transition from childhood to the teen years, I’m accepting that I cannot stop the passage of time, no matter how desperately I wish I could.
I’m reminded of the old Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can , and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I’ve never been what most people would call serene, but over time I feel I’ve become much more brave and wise. I’ve accepted that I cannot dictate my daughter’s future, any more than I can dictate my own past. So instead, I’ll simply find the courage to make the most out of every minute we have together, and trust the Universe to show me how to adapt to the changes that are sure to come. –Bret Love
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