By Matthew Hennessey
Clara is crying.
“Daddy,” she says, her lips turning down, tears collecting in her eyes. “I love you so much. I’m going to miss you every day.”
She hugs me a little tighter than usual. Sometimes her hugs are perfunctory. Not this time. This is a real clench. Tears begin to wet her cheeks and mine. We’re in New Hampshire, at her grandmother’s house, and I’m about to leave.
“You get to spend time with Chi-Chi,” I say. This is what the kids call their grandmother. “You can climb Chi-Chi’s mountain. You can go swimming in the lake. You can pick blackberries and throw rocks in the brook. It’ll be great. And Daddy will be back before you know it.”
She’s not having it. At her age, and in her state, a week has no meaning.
“I don’t want you to go, Daddy.”
I know how she feels. I don’t want to go either. In fact, I hate to go. But this is what passes for a vacation in our family. When Ursula and I look at the calendar and see a summer stretch of days without school, swimming lessons, day camp, play dates, physical therapy sessions, doctor’s appointments, or any of the other activities that keep kids away from the television in the summertime, we jump in the car and literally head for the hills.
At Chi-Chi’s house, the air is clean, the meals are healthy, and there is no Nickelodeon. That means there is no Dora, no Diego, no Backyardigans, and no Wonder Pets. But there’s also no Daddy. I can’t stay. I have to work, so I will shortly drive back alone to our new home in Connecticut and spend the week eating high-sodium-content microwavable noodles from a Styrofoam container on the couch in the dark.
The ride up is always difficult; the car is too small and the kids are too excited to sit still. I’m not driving, so I do a lot of twisting. I should probably be wearing stripes and carrying a whistle around my neck. It gets tense, especially after the three-hour mark. We used to have a little portable DVD player to keep the kids entertained, but it broke.
“We never had a television in the car when I was a kid,” I’ve heard myself say. I can be quite cavalier sometimes – especially when the kids are not tired, not hungry, and not still forty-five minutes away from Chi-Chi’s house with wet diapers and irritable dispositions.
But the ride home is much worse. It’s quiet. There’s only me to ask, “Am I there yet?” Strange thoughts creep into my mind. I want to drive fast to get home sooner. But I try to drive slowly because I don’t want to die in a fiery collision with a Subaru bound for Brattleboro.
I’ve been married almost ten years, a father for over six. My life has changed considerably in that time. In my bachelor days, I worked at night, slept during the day, and ate bon-bons on the couch whenever I felt like it.
Now, during these brief interludes away from the kids, I feel compelled to try to recreate those carefree days. Against my better judgment, I look forward to it. “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it,” I think. But the fantasy never, ever matches reality. Like a former high-school athlete gone to seed, I’ve lost my touch. I just can’t get my groove back.
Being a carefree bachelor takes practice, it turns out.
In Dad-land, the day begins at a ridiculously early hour. And it doesn’t start slow; four-year olds don’t believe in “warming up” to the day. If the sun is up, it’s game time (heck, even if the sun isn’t up, there are often players on the field). The morning is a blur of oatmeal, coffee, blueberries, socks, crayons, combs, buttons, briefcases, kisses, and waves, then it’s off to the choo-choo and off to work.
My commute means that at least one, but usually two, of the kids are in bed by the time I return. Clara is almost always still awake, eagerly awaiting me, ready for a book or a story or a bit of drawing. We have a great time one-on-one, then she too must go up the stairs to get ready for bed.
While she’s brushing her teeth and putting on her pajamas, I check on the others. They are so peaceful, asleep in their beds. In the dim light, Magdalena’s profile looks exactly as it does in the black-and-white ultrasound photos taken years ago. The slope of her nose hasn’t changed. Her cheekbones have the same contour. She’s just bigger – all the time getting bigger, smarter, faster, and funnier.
It’s true of all of them. Paddy, especially, seems to be growing like a weed. At two-years old, he has made the turn from baby to boy. I pinch myself every day as a reminder to pay attention. “Don’t forget to notice the little changes. Don’t get overwhelmed by stupid stuff at work. Don’t get caught up on the conveyor belt. Don’t miss out on the growing up. Don’t ever, ever take this for granted.”
Tonight, though, when I get home, there won’t be any little ones in the window. There won’t be anyone hula-hooping in the backyard. There won’t be any drawings to admire, or “Look, Daddy, I can do a cart-wheel!” When we are all reunited at the end of this long, lonely, never-ending week, they will seem like teenagers to me. It will seem as if years, not days, have passed.
But tonight, there will just be me. Free to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it.