Jeffrey Zeth’s daughter is graduating. He is going to lose her again. Losing her, it seems has been a constant theme in the world of divorce. Here is how he shows up anyway.
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and all the young people on the Manhattan sidewalk cut impressive figures in their caps and gowns. A high school graduation has just ended. Everyone is elated at the accomplishments of the young graduates; the graduates themselves are filled with a mixture of excitement, bravado, giddiness, and sheer terror. Everywhere there are hugs, excited conversations, and happy-sad tears.
An extended family member who has observed my interactions with my daughter for the past eighteen years says the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. He’s repeating something he’s said two or three times before in different ways; but only today am I finally able to really hear it. Like so many other things said today, it’s sweet and sad at the same time, and I still have mixed feelings about it. But, I take it in—breathing it in, with expanded belly and open front.
“You’ve done a tremendous job showing up for your daughter.”
It’s sweet because it’s true. After separating from S’s mother I promised to see my girl every other weekend, and two nights a week, until she was grown, and I kept that promise. While living with her I bathed her, fed her, wiped shit from her ass. As a noncustodial parent I cooked for her, read to her, and brought her to doctor’s appointments. Still later, I harangued her about homework, argued with her over how much privacy she should have, and stayed calm and soft-spoken, yet firm, through bouts of adolescent angst. It never occurred to me to do anything else.
But there was always an escape hatch: sooner or later the weekend ended, or the evening ended, and she was back in the place that she called home: with her mother. I was, by turns, heartbroken and relieved. I never shook the feeling that I had it easy; and yet, separating from her at the end of those long weekends never became any easier. Consequently, I always felt the need to prove myself. I had a hard time refusing requests. I made myself available on short notice and rarely complained about being kept waiting. Such behavior was not always in either mine or my daughter’s best interest; it made it easy for me to feel taken for granted, and it left me without much of a life. Then, when S was around nine years old, I decided that being a part-time family man and part-time single, childless man was the way it was going to have to be for a while. I started studying music again, which I’d neglected for a long time. I dated, made new friends, and took vacations without her. I never stopped loving and showing up for her; our alternate weekends and twice-weekly weeknights continued. But alternate weekends meant an alternate life, always having one foot in my family life and one foot in my single life. And a permanent ache remained throughout, a feeling that being a part-time dad was essentially a series of losses, big and small.
Other parents with kids my girl’s age are complaining, right about now, of empty nest syndrome. I’ve had empty nest syndrome since my child was four, when I moved out. Losing daily contact with my girl felt like losing an arm. But through my grief, I kept showing up. I lived in a distant part of Brooklyn; my daughter and her mother lived in Manhattan, and our weeknights together were not overnight. I became a master at finding quiet public places to do homework; at finding public restrooms; at getting healthy prepared food that she would eat. In winter when money was tight I learned how to serve up hot, homemade meals in public places in Manhattan, with no access to microwaves or cooking equipment. I fished lost toys out of trash cans, paid child support, ate chicken fingers for dinner two nights per week (the only food she’d eat for a while), and fought insurance companies to get needed treatments.
In an era when a lot of single dads disappear after a marriage or other relationship ends, simply showing up is considered extraordinary. To me, it seems like such a low bar. I certainly wanted more. I wanted a meaningful connection with my girl, and this always seemed to elude me. I never developed an intuitive grasp of her needs the way other members of her family did, especially the ones with whom she lived. Shopping for birthday presents was always a problem; I never figured out what she liked, and S, when asked what she wanted, would always reply “I don’t know”. She’d often avoid talking frankly with me, saving those conversations for others in her family. That hurt, but in the end, showing up was all that really mattered. Even when I showed up incompletely or unskillfully, she must have always sensed the intention behind the action—because she rarely cancelled on me, even after she reached the age when cancelling a father-daughter weekend in favor of a weekend with friends would have been totally understandable.
But today I’ve lost her again, which is as it should be. Nothing has happened that didn’t need to happen, but there are still emotions that need to be felt. It’s a sweet kind of sadness; a dull ache that may never leave me, that mixture of memories and happy-sad feelings that Brazilians call saudade.
And I am in the process of losing her again. She’ll be traveling much of this summer, and in the Fall she goes away to college. We have one or two more regular weekends together. After that, we’ll be improvising, just like any other two adults in this town. There will be scheduling headaches and last-minute cancellations and “things coming up”. There will also be boys in her life—men, with all the accompanying drama and heartbreak. I have no desire to spare her any of this. What I want for her in the area of men is for her to navigate that world with a solid sense of her own worth, an understanding of herself as a sexual being, and a willingness to hold out for what—and who—she wants. But where she is going, I cannot go. I cannot advise, I cannot ask questions. I can only stay on the sidelines and show my love.
Everything about this project that I’ve shared with my ex-wife—this person we call our daughter—will end soon. For the next four years there will be college tuition payments, occasional visits home, summers off. But father-daughter weekends will end and child support payments will one day end, as will tuition payments and summer internships. At which point we’ll be left with one whole, flawed but complete young adult, ready to take her place in the world.
And I will still be showing up for her, wherever she may need me.
Photo: Flickr/George Dare