During the school year, my wife and I start pushing for bedtime in the 9 o’clock hour. Depending on the homework situation and sports’ schedules, this goal may or may not be met. The nighttime rituals have changed as our boys and girl have grown, our teenage boy now comes to where I am most evenings to say goodnight; whereas, my daughter still demands a visit into her room, a boop on the nose, and her personal night time spell. The words have been the same for her since infancy: “Goodnight, sleep tight; don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
Last night was one of those increasingly rare nights when both teenagers hit their pillows at the same time, so I was able to tuck both my daughter and son in to their beds. My son and I reverted to his old ritual: secret handshake, a kiss, and a zerbert while he recites his incantation. I turn out the lights while looking back at him and flash him the “I Love You” sign in ASL.
My son does not know how often I imagine my father in that same pose in reverse: he at the door and me in the bed. My goofy dad who wore his 70’s mustache too far into the 80s must have stood at my door, turned, and said he loved me a thousand times. But, I don’t think of any instance of those thousand. I imagine one time. I imagine the late night of June 16, 1988, the night my father packed a bag, grabbed the camping equipment, and abandoned his family. I picture him stopping at my door and whispering some loving blessing over me. One of those biblical blessings that brothers fought and used trickery to receive; a blessing promising me the wealth of generations. I heard no words prayed over me. All he left was a missing person’s report with his name on it and my mother weeping at the front door.
Maybe he hesitated; maybe my sleeping breaths gave him pause to rethink his current course of action and the repercussions they would bring. He should have known that he was walking away not only from me, my brother, and mother but also future generations.
He was abandoning the inheritance of wealth now asleep in my children’s beds.
Maybe, when he turned to go, he had tears in his eyes as I do now as I write this. I will not know. I must reconcile my childhood with my imagination and the negative space of my bedroom doorframe. Instead of my imagined blessing, I feel a cursed challenge to be better than him. It is a challenge I am happy to accept but regretful to have been handed.
My son is now the age I was when his grandfather left me, and I am the age of my father when he left. I am determined not to be negative space to my family.
I coach my daughter’s soccer team not to impart my limited soccer wisdom unto her and her peers but to be with her. I’ve been a scout leader for my boys so as to be present in their lives and not to enjoy freezing nights in a tent. A parent’s presence is heroic to a child. An absent parent is tragic. Along with all the other soccer dads and den mothers, we can all be heroes.
I am not naïve thinking my current role in my kids’ lives will continue. I am sadly aware of the acute time we have left together before they shuffle off to a dorm or move down South. Those beds I look back at now will one day be vacant. Their occupants will be warming some other bed. When that day comes, I pray I will not feel abandoned but that I will feel accomplished on a fatherhood well done because my children will have never known the pain of an empty doorframe.
MJ Bove is a married forty-something parent of two teenagers and one live-at-home twenty-five-year-old. His kids are far better people than he ever dreamed to be and he wonders how a kid fending for himself in a broken home grew up to raise such good kids. He’s using his mistakes to guide his kids through their own crucibles. And he’s hoping they listen. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.