It’s just after 8 in the evening when I finally turn on Netflix, find my next episode of House of Cards, and plop down on the couch.
I need this, I tell myself. This is good. I need this hour to shut down my tired mind.
I’m a man, it turns out, who needs to chill.
It’s been a rough week, but then again, what else is new? This one was no different than most of them anymore. The stakes are always high when you’re a single dad, and my nerves are more or less relentlessly shot.
I hit play and the opening credits roll — theme song and all.
And then boom: My cellphone is ringing the old familiar FaceTime tune. No one calls me on FaceTime except my kids, so right then and there, I know I’m wanted, or needed, by one or maybe two or even all three of my children calling me from 20 miles away at their mom’s house.
I answer the call and it’s Henry, my middle boy. He’s 5 — incredible, tender and wild. And right now he’s crying his face off on my little iPhone screen.
“Henry!” I say. ” Hi man! What’s wrong?!”
But I know what’s wrong. I know what he’s going to say before he even says it. He misses me.
“I miss you, daddy …” he sobs. “I’m missing you a lot.”
And just like that, my 44-year-old heart collapses into my guts and I’m the saddest mofo alive.
My kids are with me four nights a week, and they’re at their mom’s the other three nights. We also split them up one night a week, which allows us to have “Guys Nights” and “Mommy-Son Nights” and such. That seems like something any fairly together person would learn to deal with and get used to, even if things are shaky at first.
But no. That hasn’t been the case. To tell you the truth, I rarely feel okay during the nights my kids are away from me.
Single parenting is harder than hell. The lack of that other parent/partner to step in and offer up even a moment of relief when I’m dealing with a double-meltdown as I’m trying my hardest to get dinner on the table, that’s a tough void to explain to people who don’t walk in my shoes.
A divorced dad like me, doing the best I possibly can, I’m bounced around between two vastly different worlds. With my kids in tow, I’m usually scrambling around in the name of love. In over my dang head a lot, but fulfilled in all the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that being a parent in the trenches allows.
And then suddenly, like it or not, I find myself alone in every sense of the word.
Being apart from any other people, I’d be alright. I’m pretty tough, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t hesitate one bit to label myself a loner by nature. But when it’s … them. When it’s Violet, and Henry, and Charlie whose voices fall silent. When it’s those three whose dirty, damp Walmart sneakers aren’t leaving crick mud tracks on my kitchen floor, then the words “I miss you” don’t even begin to cut it.
I wanna say “I love you” over and over and over again.
I wanna holler, “Get in here, please!” and hear the pattering of little feet taking their good old time.
I wanna scream, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry this is happening!” And sometimes I actually do.
Not just to them, either. I scream it at myself, too. Standing there brushing my teeth, the big, lonely house pressing her silence into my head, I look at myself in the mirror and I shout the only thing I can ever think to shout at myself on these nights:
I’m sorry, dude. Just keep on keep on keepin’ on.
Henry calms down not long after I answer his call. Maybe my familiar face has soothed him. Or maybe it’s my voice. I’m never sure. I just answer the calls. Most of the time the kids are happy and laughing, but there are times when they’re not. And I understand that as well as anyone alive.
When you end a FaceTime call, there’s this brief moment where the other person’s face freezes on your screen. Tonight, it’s Henry captured there for one extra, fleeting second. He’s grinning by now, his “Night, dad! I love you, too!” still hanging in my ear.
And at that moment, I feel the heartbreak that comes with all the joy of living. I’m overwhelmed by the happiness I get from simply being his dad. And then the screen goes black and the call is done. I sit back and hit the remote, even though I could care less now.
My heart is 20 miles away. My mind is 20 miles away. Nights like this, I’m always 20 miles away from the place I really want to be.