To Trying (& Waving Off the Brown Bear)

At 4:00 on a Thursday, I find myself a little ahead of schedule at work. I made it to the end of Day One in our two-day Mental Health First Aid training a few minutes early. By 4:30 I’ve packed my things, and am preparing to zoom across town to grab Matt at his school’s aftercare. At this point, I can maybe barely miss the burst of rush hour traffic. If I do, I’ll grab Matt by 5, zip across town to get Sam at Tae Kwon Do by 5:30, and then get home and maybe – maybe – have dinner on the table by 6:30. I want that single extra half hour, I’m pining for it the way my kids want their “video game time” or “play dates” on the weekends.

“You’re leaving?” one of my co-workers asks as I blow down the corridor.

“See you tomorrow,” I announce, bracing myself for what I know will follow.

“Must be nice,” comes the chime.

“I can’t do this now – ” I plead.

“Some of us have work to do here,” she jokes. I can only growl inside, then lean heavily into the door.

I make good time on the pick-ups, but on arriving home, my oldest, Sam, realizes he’s left something at Tae Kwon Do that he needs for school tomorrow. We drive back. He finds what he forgot. We return home. Oh, well. I tried.

We eat. They bathe. At 10pm, Sam’s still doing his homework. I work a few feet from him, prepping for the following day’s training. Soon, he can’t hold his eyes open anymore. He’s so tired tonight, we do the unheard of and skip reading to each other before bed.

I make it into bed just before midnight. Read from How to Worry Less About Money for maybe three minutes before I can’t hold my own eyes open a moment longer. I check to make sure the alarm is set: 6:45. I roll over, close my eyes. Breathe, I murmur.

All too soon, it seems, we begin again.

 ***

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” I urge the next morning, as we blow across the snow-dusted parking lot. I hear myself, my tone, and deflate and sigh. I sound like a crazed third base coach waving the runner home as the ball is hurled towards the infield for the play. Worse, I’ve directed that order to my youngest, Matt, who’s pitifully trying to keep pace with us, his big brother and I, but scampering along the lot while jerking his arm upwards to keep his backpack from sliding off his shoulder.

His big brother has darted ahead of us, but then he pauses and waits a few feet away for us to catch up. In that instant, a spark of tenderness cuts through my exhaustion. One’s waiting for us, the other’s racing to keep up. We’re trying.

Everything in me is invested in that moment after we cross the school’s threshold – after greeting the crossing guard, shaking hands with the principal at the school entrance, smiling to the school receptionist, nodding and bidding “hey” to the random teachers and parents with whom I lock eyes for a fleeting moment, after which time the entire cyclone of our week’s routines comes to a rest with the boys hugging me goodbye at their classroom doors.

Only then, following that hug goodbye, can I rally. We made it, I proclaim to no one but me, We did it! On the last day of our weeks together, the morning where I drop them at school and they then go to their mom’s till I see them next, my heart surges with something more than relief. I don’t know what you call it, but I’m fairly certain those guys that successfully scale Denali or even Everest have nothing on this: We did it! Another successful ascent – er, no –  we survived the week!

In those moments, I get to let go of the splash of nausea that shoots through my insides those last mornings before the handoff to their mom. For a few days, I can release, too, the head-spinning and stone-heavy weariness that I confess at its absolute worst and most draining makes me contemplate the point of it all; occasionally causes me, albeit shamefully, to envy the male brown bear’s “deadbeat dad” status in the wild, who gives mama brown bear her babies and who then just gets to saunter off into the sunset, never to be seen again.  Yellowstone grizzlies

But not so fast today. No rallying yet, it turns out. Today, we step into school and are instantly adrift on a wave of plates, pans, and baskets boasting red and white towels and handkerchiefs. Heart-shaped cookies, cupcakes, and more are stacked on various decorative serving trays. Parents whisk them through the corridors like waiters at fine restaurants – that is, if waiters wore Patagonia and Marmot down coats. Their children carry small bags and baskets stuffed to overflowing with pink, white, and red envelopes.

Outside Matt’s first-grade classroom, I bite my bottom lip. As he removes his coat and boots and hangs them up, I jiggle the change around in my pocket. When he takes his spot in the line of his classmates waiting to shake Ms. J’s hand, Matt’s head turns towards the basket of handmade Valentine cards that the boy in front of him is holding.

I entirely spaced Valentine’s Day. Only in that instant do I vaguely recall an email or two addressing Valentine’s Day festivities at school. I stoop down to Matt, who is still looking at the basket. I place my arm around his shoulder. He seems startled when I do and his face is flushed when he looks at me. I want to say something. But I don’t know what to say, and so I just stroke and then nuzzle his strawberry-blonde hair.

I don’t remember what I finally whisper, and I’m sure he doesn’t either. My head down, avoiding eye contact on my breeze through the corridor, I feel a familiar burn in my core.

There are days, and this is another of them, when I wonder when, how, or if I’ll ever be able to keep apace with the stream. It’s hard not to imagine that if the “Single Dad Moments” I’ve been accumulating in the nearly two years since my divorce were granted the same cultural status or weight as “Senior Moments” among the elderly, my kids might be having The Talk with my extended family right about now – the discussion about how maybe Dad needs to consider an assisted living situation, or a hired aid. Something.

I stare into the steering wheel. I start the car. But we’re trying.

I slide into gear. I have to get to work. I’m due at my other job.

denali ascent

A little like this?

2 Thoughts.

  1. Jonathan, this is such a vivid picture of your life as a single dad—not just the tasks involved and the overwhelming pace they seem to require, but also the raw, undulating emotions, ranging from panic and exhaustion to relief and triumph. Your story made my years as a single parent come rushing back.

    I especially love this part: “In that instant, a spark of tenderness cuts through my exhaustion. One’s waiting for us, the other’s racing to keep up. We’re trying.” Yes, you are. And that’s really what matters—that’s what they’ll remember.

  2. I read your post this morning and have been thinking about this line all day: “I don’t remember what I finally whisper, and I’m sure he doesn’t either.” It really resonated with me on my own experiences of trying to speak into situations where there weren’t really good words to say. GREAT piece!

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