Category Archives: Fatherhood

One second before the change

I PICKED HIM UP after karate. We have “one-boy nights,” but they got disrupted this month, and I’ve seen my children for about an hour over the last nine days. I don’t usually miss them when they’re not here; I’m just sad to see them go and happy to see them come back. (“Yeah! Me too!” he exclaimed on the drive home.) But this time I’ve missed them since they went to Mom’s.

His brother has started puberty. He turned his back and walked away from me three times after karate class, while I thought we were still engaged. He came back and gave me a hug when I called him, because he’s still a sweet boy, too, but it’s started.

But the other one…not yet.

“What should we do tonight?” we asked each other on the way home. “Do you have work?” he asked. “I hope you’re done with everything and you don’t have to work.”

“I’m not done with everything,” I said, “but I don’t have to work.” But then we couldn’t think of what to do. Sometimes we like fixing things together, but there’s not really anything to fix. Plus I’m very tired. It’s been an emotionally rough week, and today was jammed from 7am, when my alarm went off and I drove to their mom’s town to see them off at their first day of middle school, until I drove there again to pick him up after karate. I’m a month overdue for a haircut, and people who are supposed to be paying me aren’t paying me.

(They’ll pay me. They’re just not doing it when they’re supposed to.)

It’s the kind of tired where you look in the mirror and see what the karate teachers saw: You missed patches of whiskers when you shaved.

“I kind of feel like…” he said. “I dunno…just hanging out and watching a movie.”

“You know, me too. What movie.”

“I don’t know.”

“Me neither.”

We thought hard. The car was filled with the sound of our silent brains.

“I know!” he said twenty minutes later. “I want to watch Yojimbo.”

“But we just watched that recently.”

Yojimbo?”

“Yeah. Didn’t we?”

“Well, a while ago… But we watched Throne of Blood. That was July 4.”

“July 4 was Throne of Blood?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh,” I said. It was? “But we’ve seen Yojimbo twice now, right?”

“Yeah, twice.”

“Yeah…I don’t want to see it again yet. How about Sanjuro? The sequel. It’s the same character without a name.”

So he looked doubtful and then approving, and then we rejected one dinner idea after another, and neither of us wanted to cook. We ended up getting cold roast beef and warm mashed potatoes at the grocery store, and some Ramune and mochi because they accessorized the movie.

I have done so many things wrong, as a parent, and I don’t even know what they are yet. His brother’s got a foot cocked out the door of adolescence. I’m juggling bills and learning a kind of hustle at 49 that I never got together in my 30s. Autumn’s coming. But for probably the final summer, my boy still wants to watch Sanjuro with me.

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HE LEFT HIS stuffed sheep at Mom’s.

“You said that was OK and you were going to use a pillow.”

He can’t really sleep without the sheep.

“I know,” he said. He was on his mattress, which I haul down the stairs to my room every time he’s here without his brother. “But…”

“Do you have any stuffed animals here at all?”

“No.”

“Well you need something. What are we going to–oh, I know,” I said.

I still have my stuffed animals from when I was little.

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“SCOOT,” I ORDERED, and lay on my back next to him. “This would be a lot better if there were stars up there, and we were lying in a meadow or something.”

We both looked at the dark ceiling.

“There’s something I want from you,” I said.

“What?”

“I know you guys are brothers, and that means you bug each other. He’s gonna do that hiss thing, and you’re gonna give him the squinty-eye face, and that’s just how it is. But I want something from you. If you see people joining up and going against him, you go join together with him. I know we all pick on each other sometimes, but if someone picks on one of us, we pull together.”

“OK.”

“And if you forget and you don’t join together with him, then when you remember, just go do it.”

“OK.”

“We stick together.”

We looked at the ceiling. That had all seemed a little macho and a bit earnest.

“And then when they’re gone, we can pick on each other again,” I said.

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THE WE-STICK-TOGETHER conversation went into some stuff about his brother’s new behavior, and I said something about the need to self-define and detach that comes with adolescence, and how it takes a while to get used to those feelings and handle them well.

“You’ll see when it gets here for you.”

“How do we know it’s not already here for me?”

I didn’t talk for a bit. “That’s an excellent question.” (I know very well it’s not here for him yet.) “You’re certainly more mature…”

“I am?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“But I’m a goofball!”

“I’m a goofball too, but I’m quite mature. And I’m forty-nine.”

“Mature? YOU?”

Some humor has to be decided in a sliver of a second. “Shut up!” I said.

He grinned and chuckled.

Not hurt by the shut up. Just pleased to be a trusted peer.

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It’s been a rough week, and I know I’m already emotional.

But oh, my boys. My little boys. They’re almost gone.

Come back and let me do it right.

one_second_before_the_change

 

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Filed under adolescence, Divorce, Family, Fatherhood, Favorite, Kids, Kurosawa, parenthood, Parenting

In that case, I have questions too

[CHILD IN BED, goodnight song sung, parent about to leave.]

I have a question about my adolescence.

What is your question?

My question is, how come you have all that hair? Like hair on your arms? I’ve noticed I’m getting more.

Just part of growing up.

That’s all? Just part of growin’ up?

Yeah, basically. It doesn’t do anything for me. It’s just hair. It doesn’t keep my arm warm or anything. Really, humans just haven’t finished evolving away from it yet. We do come from apes.

Yeah. They kind of look like us.

Just hair, that’s all. It doesn’t do anything.

Yeah. Like hair on your head.

Well, hair on your head keeps you warm, keeps you from getting a sunburned scalp…

Yeah. [Chuckles.] If you didn’t have hair, you’d have to put sunblock on your head.

Which I do.

You do?

Yeah, I’m losing my hair up here.

Oh. [Grins.] Just part of growin’ up.

growing_up

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Filed under adolescence, Family, Fatherhood, Favorite, Parenting

Hoyt’s Hill

Child on bike, resting at top of hill

 

“I DON’T WANT to hear any woohoos. I want to see serious descending.”

He’d just climbed 300 feet over about three-quarters of a mile, and now we were over the crest and he was feeling the start of his reward, rolling T-right onto Spring Hill Road on his little 20″ kids’ bike and aiming it dead-center at gravity.

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“ONE,” I’D SAID to him after making him stop with me at the crest. I was holding one finger up. “You’ll have to brake a lot sooner than you usually do. So do it way early, so you don’t shoot into an intersection and get squished by a car. Got it?”

He broke in with something happy and excited about the climb. I nodded and said, “Did you hear what I just told you?”

“Yes…”

“What did I say?”

“You said…”

“…brakes?”

“Oh, right. I have to brake sooner than I think I will.”

“Correct. I’ll help you with that. When I tell you to do something, you have to do it. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“OK, that’s one. Two is, if your bike starts to shimmy, clamp your knees on the top tube.”

“Oh, I do that anyway.” He showed me.

“So clamp, and also slow down. Don’t do it abruptly, or roughly. Nice and easy, controlled. Got it?”

“Got it! Let’s go!”

He was already rolling.

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FIRST LEG, HE overshot the stop sign by a couple of feet. A mother on the other side of the intersection, twenty-five feet away, just barely started reflexively pulling her kids aside, but it was mom-protectiveness, no danger, and there were no cars anywhere.

I raised a hand in thanks and smiled, and she did the same.

“He just climbed it for the first time, so now he gets to descend it for the first time,” I said as we started up again from the stop, explaining why I’d been calling out directions.

“Oh, that’s fine,” she said, smiling as we passed, and then it changed to, “Oh, wow!”

We flashed down past a roadie coming up the next grade. He was mashing. We were a kids’ bike whipping downhill and fenders and bags behind it yelling NICE! GOOD JOB! NICE TUCK!

“OH MY GOD!” the kids’ bike shouted at the bottom, as we coasted on a short flat. “THAT WAS SO AMAZING! THAT WAS SO FUN! OH-MY-GOD!”

“Nice job. Left turn coming up. See it? That’s the next descent.”

I saw him searching, saw him find it. “Oh my god. That’s–”

“Stay right,” I said, and we tilted down.

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I HAVE LANDMARKS along this hill for braking. Approaching Hoyt’s Hill on Fawn at full tuck and 223 pounds, the white mailbox is too far.

“OKAY!” I yelled. “I WANT YOU TO BRAKE IN THREE…TWO…ONE…BRAKE!”

In a couple of seconds, there was a tiny wobble in his rear wheel. I knew what that was, and I saw him ease off and get back inside it. He wasn’t to the intersection yet. Apprehension got me, as if there was anything I could do if he overshot now.

We put our feet down at the limit line together. This time yesterday, all three of us were out charging around a parking lot in a downpour. This kid’s just like me in a storm—he nearly glows with the thrill. He was very nearly that electric now.

“OH MY GOD, THAT WAS SO AWESOME! How fast do you think we were going? Oh, you don’t know, you weren’t going as fast as I was. Oh my god THAT WAS SO COOL.”

“No, I was right there with you. I’m thinking maybe thirty.”

“THIRTY! OH. MY. GOD!”

“Maybe. Maybe thirty. Maybe mid-twenties. We’ll see when we get back and see what it looks like on Strava.”

“I think it was thirty! Dad, I could hear it in my ears, like–” he imitated the noise.

I grinned and nodded. Now it was something we both knew. Not just me.

“Okay, we’re going to cross and then stay right. … Go.”

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TEN AND a half.

Next summer, adolescence. This summer, “I don’t like being home alone. Can I go too?” and a little red bike and a little white jersey in a tuck.

Going 30.6.

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Two minutes in a quiet kitchen, with dishes

MONDAY THE ROADS were slick and slushy between Willoughby and the town eleven miles away where my kids live half the time, and my low-end Kia is terrible in any depth of snow, so I didn’t get the boy I was expecting. The new custody schedule includes twice-weekly “one-boy” nights, which are very important to me, maybe the most important thing in the schedule. Parents of more than one child know what I mean: Even ten minutes with just one is like a little miracle. There’s that little person you like, usually obscured by blankets of homework, sibling rivalry, chores, laundry…and then you have just one, and…hey, little dude! I like you! And we have TWO HOURS! What do you want to do?

I love it, they love it…and we didn’t get to have it. I’m sure they took it better than I did, since they still had each other and Mom. I hung their new magnetic dart board in their room; I was going to do that with them, after surprising them with it, but it cheered me up to think of them discovering it.

Today, Wednesday, it’s still below freezing, but there’s blue sky and sunshine, and the roads are passable. This is the other one-boy night, so even though I didn’t get Red Fish a couple of days ago, I pick up Blue Fish from school this afternoon, drive him back here, get his homework done in 90 minutes instead of his usual three hours, and take him to chess club at the library. It’s once a month, on Wednesdays, which is why I wanted Wednesdays to be my night with him. At last month’s, he ended up with his picture in the Willoughby paper because there was a reporter there.

And I’ll do dishes. I let things go more when the boys aren’t here, because there’s no one to be an example for. And I turn off the heat to half the house. On a predictable cycle, I live in a cold, silent building that resuscitates and warms up again for boys. If I wanted melodrama and sympathy, I’d chisel an epigraph on this entry’s headstone:

I dwell in a lonely house I know
that vanished many a summer ago

Except I like the house, and I’m pretty much never lonely. And it’s odd. I don’t miss my boys when they’re gone; I’m just thrilled to see them when they’re back.

Except when I’m supposed to have them and don’t. Then I miss them. So tonight is hugs. And chess. And darts.

2min_quiet_kitchen

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February 11, 2015 · 12:27 pm

Interlude: Morning, Kitchen, Willoughby

THERE ARE DIFFERENT kinds of morning light. Today’s is pale, but my kitchen has wood and copper in it, and a new bright orange stock pot, and daisies in a washed-out Bulleit rye bottle on the long prep table from the old apartment that the boys and I sanded and restained a weekend or two after we first moved in. You can do that kind of thing when you leave the city and have a small back lawn. The other finishing touch was a red clock, which is ticking above my head, softly. I think a boy may have just gotten up. It’s 8 a.m.

There’s rice waiting in the cooker and bowls warming in the oven. We’ll be watching anime and eating soon. I think I’m up to four kinds of soy sauce in the pantry, but the good stuff isn’t easy to find around here. I’ll get some at Sunrise Mart, one of the items on the notepaper on the fridge that says NYC at the top. I no longer have cats, including the one who loved to pull everything off the fridge. I’ve had cats my whole life. I don’t really miss them. That was unexpected. And I really don’t miss walking barefoot on cat litter in the morning.

No boy. I guess they’re still asleep.

When they’re at their mom’s, I turn the thermostat off and use a space heater. Then I turn the thermostat back on and can’t figure out why it won’t obey my temperature settings. I wrote to the manufacturer and got a manual for it, but my eyes glazed. I’ll try again when they’re not here and we don’t have better things to do on a Saturday, like try out the local comic book store or see what the “tree festival” is.

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I HAVE NEVER been a good housekeeper, and that has always been a nut of conflict. But this is my kitchen. My house. My daisies. My expensive Honeysuckle-scented all-surface cleaner. My sense of what to teach boys about manhood. Endurance, self-sufficience, beauty, efficiency, cast iron. The cast iron is from my mom, mailed cross-country. I remember using it when I was the boys’ age. The slow cooker is brand-new and I expect it to break next year. In the maelstrom of the separation and move, I wanted a slow cooker, and this is the one recommended by America’s Test Kitchen, whose cookbooks I really like. I didn’t read the Amazon reviews; I should have. I also got the front end of my new bike wrong; the stem is too low, so it puts me into a racing posture. I am not a racer. You can look at me and know that.

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I GOT 1) the slow cooker wrong, and 2) the bike wrong, and 3) I signed a car lease I shouldn’t have, and 4) the old landlord outclevered me and kept a few thousand in security deposit.

But:

  1. About a month into our new life, I handed the boys a cookbook and told them to pick dinner from the slow-cooker section. They came back in ten minutes: Korean Braised Short Ribs.
     
    I’m like—seriousl…uh, never mind, YOU’RE ON.
     
    It was excellent. It was less expensive than processed foods. When the accidentally wrong slow cooker breaks, I’ll get a cheaper one.
     
  2. The too-low stem on the bike means I spend a good deal of time out of the saddle, because I don’t like the position. That would be more of an issue if I were spending any time on the bike at all, which is related to it not being quite comfortable enough, and also related to life being an upheaval—but I got the bike built in time to have a finished one at the start of my new life, and I love it in all other ways. It’s not a particularly expensive bike, but it’s got exactly the tires I wanted, and just the front bag and the very fenders, all of which you’d think would be bolt-ons to any random bicycle, but most bikes don’t have the right spaces to accept them.
     
    I ride it around town on errands. When there’s a little more money, I’ll get a fitting and replace the accidentally wrong stem, and it will be the brevet whip I meant it to be.
     
  3. The car lease was a mistake. I can’t afford it. I really wanted to go completely car-free, but the boys ended up going to school twelve miles away. It’s the cheapest monthly rate I could possibly find, on the cheapest car around, but I should have bought a beater outright and paid less for insurance. And the mileage limit is too low and the term is way too long. But we have reliable transportation, and the accidentally wrong lease will—eventually—expire.
     
  4. As for my old NYC landlords:
     
    The ones before these ones were powerful criminals. (No kidding. I spoke briefly with the NY District Attorney a year or two before they finally broke them up and put them out of business. It was in the news. Too late for us.) These ones…benefit of the doubt. Maybe just dishonest slimeballs. So they get my money and I cut my losses and move on. You can’t pull a victory out of everything.

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NOW I HEAR the stairs creaking and crackling, so I’ll wrap it up. A new familiar sound in this new familiar life. And the light’s not as pretty in the kitchen. Rice and anime await, and noise and mess and bickering and comic books and piano and trombone and cello and cookie baking and fart jokes and farts. And, I’ll cop to it, the work I didn’t get done this week for, honestly, not any good-enough reason. The copper canisters and the orange stock pot are steadfastly cheery, and the red clock—it just ticks softly on, but soon I won’t hear it.

 

 

my_city

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Filed under Being a grownup, Bicycling, Bikes, Cooking, Divorce, Family, Fatherhood, Food, Gender, Kids, Parenting

Five snapshots of one boy

I LEFT HIM in the building lobby with the last load of divorce stuff. This is my boy who hates being left alone. If his brother falls asleep first, you’ll be seeing him out of bed soon. It was midnight, our move-out deadline, and all kinds of things had gone wrong all day, all week—from the flooded kitchen, to the moving company sending a truck that was too small, to the lapses and errors of communication that worsened an already touchy month and left him with me that night when he wasn’t supposed to be.

“I have to get the van,” I said. The U-Haul van was in a parking lot a few blocks away. “I’m going to jog the whole way and be back as soon as I can.”

“Are you really going to jog? Why?”

“Because I know you don’t like this. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

I left at a run, with my iPad, so I could message his mom, from the Starbucks on Dyckman, that we were leaving and I would just keep him tonight. No Internet in the apartment anymore, and my phone was dead.

But the Starbucks was closed. Surprising, considering the huge-capacity nightclub down the street and the jumping row of bars right next to me. So I stood there for a minute on the corner of Broadway, with the heavy Alcohol Alley foot traffic blurring by me, and then turned the iPad on in case Starbucks left their WiFi on, and got signal and sent my message. But I couldn’t stick around to see if it was received. I knew he’d be at his limit, and I still had to get the van.

He couldn’t see me running to the garage, but I ran.

When I came back in, he was red-faced and holding back his tears. I remember the Hemingway story “A Day’s Wait” whenever a child visibly masters himself. There are things I love and admire about my children, but this is one thing I respect. To have a nine-year-old brain and prevail over fear? Holding back his tears? Mad respect.

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HE HELPED ME load out. I propped the door with something heavy, and we organized and hauled and reorganized.

Am I being a big help? he asked as we passed each other.

You’re being a humongous help.

And on the next pass, I said: I want to tell you something. You’re not working like a boy, you’re working like a little man.

He LIT. UP.

Really?

Yeah, really. Tell you what. It’s midnight. We’re wiped out. Our new place is still an hour away. Make you a deal, you stay awake that whole time, I’ll split a beer with you when we get there.

Oh, you are SO ON.

Another pass…

Dad, because I worked like a little man?

Yeah. I’ll split a beer with you.

A BEER NOTE: He gets ONE SIP. ONE. ONE. A SIP not a GULP! ONE! whenever I have a beer and he happens to be around, which was a couple times a month and is now less frequent. They also get ceremonial quantities of wine on Jewish holidays. Split a beer means he gets about a tablespoon in one of my tiny sake glasses and I get the rest. So don’t write to me.

You’re not going to stay awake.

Oh, yes I am!

No way.

Youuuuu’ll see.

Nope.

What makes you think that?

It’s midnight, you’re exhausted, and you’re nine.

Youuuuuu’ll see.

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WE SAT TRIPLY exhausted, grimy, and sweaty, in the idling van at the curb. I put it in gear but didn’t move out yet.

“You guys don’t like it when we use profanity, do you.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. It makes us feel like we’re not safe.”

“Even hell?”

“Yeah.”

“What about damn?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Then I will just say: Let’s get the HECK outta here!”

I checked the mirror and waited for traffic. There was a pause.

“Well, what were you going to say?”

“Well, I was going to use the F-word.”

“Oh, THAT one’s okay!”

“It is?”

“Yeah! That doesn’t bother us. We’ve heard that a lot!”

“Well, then,” I said, looking at my son looking back at me, hesitating, both of us waiting to see if I’d do it. “Let’s get the FUCK outta here.”

He laughed. I laughed. Then he said excitedly:

“Can I say it?”

I paused…

“ONE time. ONCE. You may say it ONCE. Not twice, not three times. ONE TIME.”

“Okay!”

“Got it?”

“Got it.”

And he flung his arms up in the air and shouted, “WE’RE! FUCKING! DONE!”

Then he said, “Wow. That felt GOOD!”

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“Dad, why does that feel so GOOD?” he asked on the highway to Connecticut.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I do not know.” And then added, “ONCE. ONE TIME. That was it.”

“I know.”

“You may not say it at school, you may not say it around Mom–”

“I KNOW.”

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AND BLASTED THE air conditioner to keep myself awake during the drive, so that my hands were in sharp pain by the time we got to our new home full of boxes. And split our beer.

my_city

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Filed under Being a grownup, Divorce, Family, Fatherhood, Favorite, Inwood, Kids, Parenting, Whatever

Brilliance and color


A companion piece to this entry,
Five Snapshots of One Boy
is here.


brilliance_and_color

AT 7AM THE NEXT morning, I got up from the mattress that doesn’t have a bed frame yet and went into my kitchen to make my tea. I can see the wet street because there’s nothing covering the kitchen window—which is probably odd, since I moved here ten weeks ago, but general move-in stuff hasn’t been as important as making one single room beautiful and functional. That’s the kitchen. The boys and I live in it together. We cook together, they do their homework there, and if they don’t want to read in their room, they’re doing it down in the kitchen. That’s what I wanted when I put the kitchen together, and that’s what I got. When they’re at their mom’s, I cook in it, sit at the nook with my computer and work, and keep it nice. (Usually.)

One room at a time, as money allows. The living room is next.

I don’t remember the precise moment when I realized we could use the 25-minute drive to their school as podcast time, but it happened in that kitchen or on the way to it, and I got kind of excited. My more sciencey boy loves Radiolab (so do I), and my less sciencey boy tunes out anything he’s uninterested in and listens to the music and TV shows in his head instead, so I thought it could work well—and Radiolab Shorts are about the right length.

So we would do that. I got them up and we had breakfast and referred to the new checklist on the envelope on the refrigerator and got out the door at very nearly the appointed time.

brilliance_and_color

FALL IN WILLOUGHBY, Connecticut is retina-dazzlingly gorgeous. If you’ve ever had the experience of barely being able to look at someone who was talking to you because they were just too beautiful, it’s a similar sensation, especially along Simpaug Turnpike before it crosses Umpawaug Brook. During this part of October, every morning brings a new shock of rust and gold, and the green and yellow fade, morning by morning, like drying paint.

The Radiolab Short I already had on my phone was about an endangered bird species. There are spoilers for it two paragraphs from now (like, big spoilers for the entire episode), but the episode’s not very long, so you can listen here first if you care about that. I started it playing when we were underway and glanced to see who had noticed. Science boy was forehead-down over Rick Riordan. Music-in-his-head boy was looking out the window. I can never tell what he hears or doesn’t, but it’s generally a good bet that whatever’s already in there is more entertaining than whatever you’re trying to force through his ears.

So I let it play until it got to a point they had to understand, or the rest wouldn’t make any sense, and I paused it and made sure they did, which I also figured would get them listening in the first place if they weren’t. They made the right noises to make me go away, which are indistinguishable from paying actual attention, and I let it play again.

This episode is about a group of people who go to a huge amount of trouble and gargantuan expense to try to turn endangered whooping cranes back into a viable wild species. There was a full-length Radiolab about it; the Short is a sort of coda, in which those people realize some of the cranes are going into this lady’s yard and eating from her bird feeders, which is not good for a variety of reasons, one of which is that whooping cranes in this project have already been shot, so allowing them to learn populated areas are good foraging grounds—that’s bad.

So the endangered-crane repopulators go to the lady’s house and ask nicely, and she refuses to take the feeders down.

At this moment in the show, we’re disappointed in our own species. (Except for those of us who are longtime Radiolab listeners and can see how much time is left in the episode.)

The next thing is a phone call they recorded with her—and she is not what we expect. She’s not a crazy bird lady, or some intractable ignoramus. She’s a widow whose husband of fifty years had Alzheimer’s, and the one thing that brought him back to her was when the birds came back to the bird feeders. And then, in more recent times, amazing huge white ones started showing up. It was magical.

The hosts, as they do, performed our own thoughts and emotions for us. On the one hand…but on the other hand…but how does this change…and I won’t spoil the rest of that conversation. But in the car, driving through the painfully splendid Autumn and making the sharp right onto Cain’s Hill Road—which I refuse to stop reminding them I climbed on my folding bike with a trailer because I didn’t know the hill was there until I got to it—first I asked what they thought. And got the expected responses: Why won’t she take her bird feeders down!?

Which we talked about. And then I pointed out that there were no bad guys in this story. There were only good guys, but what they wanted was different. Then I said, What if you were a judge, and you had to decide how this should go?

Science boy, who was the main one I was talking to, since his brother was still just looking out the window, said, I think she should take them down. It’s a whole bird species!

Then, because I have a thing about including them both whenever possible, even when it’s pretty clear (as during the story the night before) that one isn’t paying attention, I said his brother’s name and repeated the question. If you were a judge, what would you decide?

He said, “I’d tell the lady that even though he’s gone, she still contains him within her.”

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MAY YOUR DAY be gorgeous and humbling.

my_city

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