My first wife made the photos I shared earlier today of my sons when they were small. She had been a professional photographer, and she was very good at drawing out her subjects’ personality and then, at the perfect moment, pressing the shutter button. If only I could be half as good at portraits and candid people photos!
I have precious few photos from my sons’ early years. My ex wouldn’t allow me to have copies of our family photos when we divorced, and my attorney and I couldn’t convince the judge to order it. The handful of photos I do have, my ex mailed to my mom when they were new. Mom let me scan them. Garrett was 1 and 2, and Damion was 3 and 4, in these photos.
My first marriage was always challenging, but in these early years with our boys we both tried our best. At least the photos I have show our boys happy, having good times.
Around the time Damion entered Kindergarten, our marriage took a solid turn for the worse and never recovered. My mom has few photos from those years; my ex must have stopped sending them. I have mixed feelings about not having those photos. On the one hand, I have no idea anymore what my sons looked like then, and little memory of family events from those years. Without getting into details I’ll say that the last couple years of our marriage were genuinely traumatic for me, leading to spotty memory. I call those “the lost years.” Seeing photos from those years might put me in contact with bad memories I don’t want to revisit.
Garrett entered Kindergarten in 2004. The photo above is the boys on Garrett’s first day of school. About six weeks later my wife would ask me to move out.
The next few years were the hardest of my life. It took almost two years for the divorce to be final, and it was a fistfight the whole way. I moved three times in three years. I grieved the very serious loss of not seeing my sons every day.
I read a monthly e-mail newsletter called The Masculinist, written for Christian men living in the modern world. Its author, Aaron Renn, has some very well-reasoned positions on men in the church and in living the Christian life. He does a great job of explaining and building upon his positions in his newsletter. If you’re interested, you can sign up here.
In his most recent newsletter, he offers advice for men whose wives decide to divorce them. He points out that women file for 70% of all US divorces, and it is therefore wise as married men to think about how it will affect us should it happen to us. He then offers solid advice and perspective. Read it here.
His advice really resonated with me. My first wife divorced me. I won’t tell the story as I’m sure my ex wouldn’t like me telling stories on her, as I don’t appreciate her telling stories on me. But she was the one who decided the marriage was over, and filed.
At that time I got two pieces of excellent advice that line up well with Renn’s perspective. The first one came from an unlikely source: my attorney. He told me to find five trusted men who would take my call and who would pray with me. Many of us men don’t have five male friends, especially ones not married to our wives’ friends. If I couldn’t find five men, find as many as I could. My attorney warned me that they would probably not be able to offer me any real counsel or help, and I should let them know I understand that. Their purpose was simply to listen when I needed to talk, and to pray with me and for me.
Second, do not date for three years. My mother gave me this advice. You are a mess, she said, and need time to recover and figure out who you are again. If you date now, you will choose a woman like the one who just rejected you, or a woman equally a mess for her own reasons. Either way, it won’t lead to a healthy relationship. That will be bad for you. But more importantly, you do not need to be that distracted from your sons, who are also hurting and need you.
I took both pieces of advice. The trusted male friends (and family members) I lined up really did take my call at any time, and really did pray for me and with me. True to my lawyer’s counsel, they seldom had any meaningful advice or material help to offer. But they did listen, and offered comforting words. Because of them I was never alone through any of what came. It was a long, dragged-out mess — after filing, my ex flatly refused to negotiate, our judge refused to order mediation, and we went to trial in a badly backlogged court. It was more than a year before we stood before the judge.
The second piece of advice was wicked hard at first. I was so starved for attention and affection! But not dating helped me keep my head in the right game: raising my two sons, with the time the court granted me to have with them. Three years became seven, with my sons in high school, before I dated at all. At ten years, I met the woman who would become my wife. Even then, we delayed until my youngest son was out of high school. We agreed that it made no sense to upend his life as he knew it with me, with a new house and stepsiblings, when he was so close to the finish line.
The stability I provided for my sons in my home became foundational for them — the oldest has acknowledged this openly without my prompting — as their mom went on to marry two more times, moving our sons with them each time.
The other thing that I did on my own was double down on my faith. I was furious with God for the failure of my marriage. I’d prayed daily, on my knees and in tears, that he intervene and save us. I felt that God had not kept his promises to me, the ones I felt he had made all through his Word. I could have easily walked away at that point.
But there was something in me that insisted on holding God to his promises, and I let him know it in no uncertain terms. I spent a lot of time searching the Scriptures like a lawyer poring over legal texts trying to find where God had made those promises. Instead, through this study I learned how my understanding of God’s nature was thin and inaccurate. I came to understand him far better — and built a feeling of closeness with him that I didn’t know was possible.
Even though the divorce has been final for 14 years, recalling it still brings up residual pain. That’s the other piece of advice I wish I had been given: this is a very serious loss, and you will find a new normal, a new peace, and hopefully a new happiness. You will eventually no longer think about your loss every day. But it will remain a sad, difficult memory for the rest of your life.
I wanted to be there for my sons like my dad was for me. But I couldn’t, not fully, because of the divorce.
That’s the real horror of my divorce. Of any divorce, really, where children are involved. And I don’t think I’m overusing that word, horror. When any parent who wants fully to be in the parenting game can’t do it, it’s horrible.
The court allowed me to see my sons every Monday and Wednesday, every other weekend, and half the summer. Most of their lives happened without me being there.
I made the most of the time I got. I made sure I saw my sons when scheduled, missing maybe once or twice a year, usually due to illness. I was very intentional that as much as possible our home time together would be relaxed and easy, just us men having dinner, watching TV, reading, playing games.
And I followed the model my dad gave me: I went to their soccer games. I went along on field trips and met with their teachers. I saw Damion perform in his fourth-grade play. I went to every one of Garrett’s choir concerts and Damion’s band concerts.
Just for fun, here’s Damion in a clarinet duet with a classmate eight years ago.
Here’s Garrett singing with his choir from later the same year. He’s on the right, the bespectacled boy under and to the left of the rightmost overhead microphone, always a half step behind everyone else. He hated the dance moves — he just wanted to sing.
Our time together was of the highest quality I could make it. Yet when it comes to parenting, to do the job all the way you need quantity time. With enough time serendipity can happen — that random fun, those unexpected conversations both serious and lighthearted, those hard life events where a well-timed word from Dad can ease the difficulty. These are experiences through which you connect meaningfully, where you share deep love. We got a little of that, here and there, and I think they were our most valuable moments. I wanted more. We needed more.
Damion has let me fully off the hook. “You’ve been fantastic,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out between you and Mom. It would have been great if I could have seen you every day. But I have several friends whose dads live with them, but ignore or mistreat them. I’m better off than they are.”
Garrett was all shrugs, as the kids say today. “I don’t remember any time before the divorce,” he said. “This is all I know. It’s been fine.”
Even my dad told me not to worry about it: “You are five times the father I ever was, even though I was there every day for you.” It might well be the most encouraging, most affirming thing he ever said to me.
Still, I grieve. I loved the time I spent with my sons while they were growing up, and I miss it. But when court-ordered parenting time ended last spring, the door closed for good on the time I lost. I know that door actually closed the day I moved out so many years ago. But feeling that loss was partially deferred because during the parenting-time years I held out hope, however unrealistic and illogical, that it could be better than it was.
I’m beginning to feel it only now because the intervening time has brought several heavy life challenges to us. I’ve been in go/do mode for about a year. But fortunately those challenges are slowly clearing, giving me brain space to think and feel and process. Thinking lately about my own father’s successes in parenting has brought it up.
I’m choosing to cling to the good, kind words my sons and my father said to me.
Photographs restore lost memories and anchor tenuous ones. Through them I catalog my memories and arrange them into timelines. They help me create life narratives in retrospect. But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.
Which is unfortunate, for my sons were very small then. I have a few memories, snippets and scenes, incomplete: Helping deliver them both. Months of Damion’s colic. His first seizure, a living room full of grave firemen and paramedics caring for him, loading him into an ambulance, me racing in my car to the hospital. A family road trip to San Antonio before his first birthday, miles of gray Interstate highways, getting a speeding ticket in Texarkana, Damion sleeping most of the way. Baby Garrett climbing the couch with all the steely determination of Chuck Norris chasing the bad guys. His deep misery after a tonsillectomy went wrong, me rocking him for hours while he cried, both of us sleepless. Singing to soothe them both. Making scrambled eggs for their dinner. Reading Dr. Seuss to them, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Bleak days in a deeply broken and destructive marriage, one which I lacked the courage to leave.
I know I can reach more memories of my sons, better ones. But to do that I would necessarily revisit traumatic memories. Good therapy let me work through that awful time. No need to relive it.
My first wife and I hadn’t given up hope yet in 2001. Or was it 2000? I’m guessing. The boys were young, 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. I don’t remember whose idea it was that I get away for a while, that we let raw nerves settle. We agreed it was essential. I booked a week in a cabin in the central Tennessee woods.
I’ve told some of this story before: I wanted to reclaim something of the man I had been, a man who had diminished and finally disappeared. I remembered enjoying shooting my old cameras as a teen. So I got out one I’d never used before, a Kodak Automatic 35F. I didn’t know an f stop from a shortstop, and this camera wasn’t as automatic as its name suggested. So I shot a test roll before I left. I am forever grateful to my then-self that I shot my sons around our yard. My older son, Damion, was very interested in the camera, so I set it and handed it to him. He made two photographs of me with his younger brother, Garrett. They’re terrific candid shots that remind me that there were good times for us.
Garrett was too little to operate the camera so I have none of Damion and me. But I did make this delightful portrait of him with our next-door neighbor’s house in the background.
Most of the photos I took didn’t turn out well, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. The best of the remaining shots is this one of them in our minivan. I hated that van, but love this memory.
Mercifully and to everyone’s emotional health, the marriage ended. The next several years were hard in their own right: a protracted, brutal divorce followed by years of being broke paying the extensive legal bills and sky-high child support.
Desperate for stability and normalcy I set out to build new memories for me and my sons, to start fresh and make our way forward. One way I did that was by taking them on spring break trips every other year, the years the parenting-time guidelines gave them to me.
If you’ve read this blog for a long time you know I’ve shared photos from almost all of these trips, but never showed or wrote about my sons. While they were growing up, I kept their lives private. Instead I wrote stories about the places we visited and my experiences in them. Now, at last, let me share the reasons why these trips happened: my sons.
The first spring break was in 2005. I lived in a one-room apartment and paid the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again. That plus groceries, gas, and the electric bill consumed my paychecks. To scrape together enough money for fun, I skipped lunch and ate hot-dog dinners for weeks. We visited the zoo and the Children’s Museum, ate lunch Downtown, toured the Statehouse, and climbed to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to look out over the city. Here are the boys breaking the rules at the monument.
In 2007 we made an Indiana History Tour, driving all over the state to see scenic and historic sites. Here we visited the site of the Battle of Corydon, the only Civil War battle fought on Indiana soil.
In 2011, we returned to the same woods where I’d retreated alone ten years earlier, this time with my sons to make new, better memories there. Our chief memory is of the afternoon we made a ten-mile hike carrying pint bottles of water. Wow, was that ever not enough water. I swear we each guzzled a gallon after we finally reached our cabin.
In 2013 we drove Route 66 from Joliet, IL to almost the Texas line in Oklahoma. It was a dream trip for me, stopping for all the roadside attractions and staying at vintage motels all along the way. The boys seemed to have a good time, but today their chief memory is that “we spent the whole vacation sitting in the car!” Here the boys are in an old jail in Gardner, IL.
Meet my youngest son, Garrett, who turned 18 yesterday. It’s a big milestone for any kid. But it’s also a different milestone, a sad one, for me.
It’s the end of “parenting time.” That’s what they call it here in Indiana, the court-ordered time a noncustodial parent spends with his children. It ends at 18.
The parenting time guidelines grant every Wednesday evening and every other weekend during the school year, plus holidays on alternating years, half of winter break, all of every other spring break, and half of every summer. We were fortunate: our judge also ordered parenting time every Monday night and an overnight stay every Wednesday when school was in session.
I have not needed to be compelled by court order to spend time with my sons. I always wanted to live with them every day of their childhoods. Parenting time limited me, constrained me, bound me. I always ached to be present with my sons more often.
Obviously, I could have had every day with my sons had their mom and I worked out a healthy, happy marriage. We were not capable of it. Our destructive relationship was ruining us all. We are all healthier and happier since it ended.
I reminded myself of this each time I pushed through the worst rush-hour traffic in Indiana en route to my sons. Each time we left for their suburb at 5:30 am so they wouldn’t miss their school bus. Each time my sons went home at the end of our time together, leaving me alone in my empty house. Each time they had an especially good, or an especially bad, day and if we could talk about it at all it was over the phone or via text. Each time I did alone a thing that would normally be done as a family.
Yet this yin met its yang when I put to good use the time I wasn’t actively being my sons’ dad. Half of my days I could behave like a childless man, directing my energy to my own interests. Photography and blogging. Deep involvement at church. Founding and running a nonprofit. Doubling down on my career, which really took off.
I’ve felt guilty that I did these things rather than being home with my sons. Yet I’ve also reveled in these things. Fortunately, I processed those conflicting feelings years ago and have found contentment in this life.
What I have not processed yet, what I have experienced as looming for months, what is now irrevocably here, is loss. The loss of my decade-long routine with my sons, a routine to which I clung, around which I organized my life. And anew, the loss of what I never could have but desperately wanted for me and my sons: the ability to be a present parent every day. It was never going to happen,
Now it’s up to my sons and I to figure out how and when to see each other. My older son, Damion, has been very good about making time for his old dad. Will Garrett do likewise? I hope so.
There are no state guidelines for mapping adult relationships with your children. No court can compel it. And I have no personal experience to use as a guide. My parents are still married, more than 50 years now. When I was college-aged their home was always open to me. It was where I returned on break, and our normal family life largely resumed as if never interrupted.
That’s what I wanted for my sons. More than that, it’s what I wanted for me. But it’s not what we got.
We will make the best of this, too.
I’m sharing two bonus posts later today, reruns of stories that involved Garrett. If you’ve read my blog for a long time, perhaps you will enjoy now seeing Garrett’s face as you revisit those stories.
Down the Road is on hiatus. New posts resume on Monday! Here’s one last rerun, one that’s special to me. I’m happy to run it again because the first time around (July of 2008) this blog was barely a year old and had few readers.
My brother and I didn’t see eye to eye on most things when we were kids. We didn’t hate each other, we just found each other to be extremely frustrating. We could make each other really mad with very little effort. The house rule was that whoever hit first was punished, so I knew I had really pushed Rick’s buttons when he pointed to his chin and said, “Hit me. Right there. Please.”
After I left our hometown for college, I didn’t see Rick except on holidays. He moved to my town eleven years ago, but I still barely saw him except on holidays. Our holiday times together were always fine, but somehow we seldom phoned and never dropped by.
But Rick was the first person I called when my now ex-wife wanted us to separate. He let me stay with him for a month, and he was a source of real strength as I started to recover from that horrible situation.
And then a couple years ago I ended up getting a job at the small software company where he worked. Understand that I’d spent my whole career, 17 years at the time, in software development. I even got my degree in mathematics and computer science, right up my career’s alley. But Rick got a degree in psychology, then worked seven years as a preperator in a museum and four in mortgage banking before making another big career change to come here. Both our careers had led to software quality assurance, his just through a very indirect route. We even reported to the same boss. And for the first time in our lives, my younger brother preceded me, and I lived in his shadow a little bit.
It has been great. Where daily childhood life emphasized our differences, adult work life has emphasized our similarities. We both like to think things through and do a thorough job. We both actively try to solve the problems we see. We both want to build team processes that make everybody more effective. We both want our teams’ efforts to bring more value to the company. So we regularly bounced ideas off each other, discussed thorny problems, and encouraged each other through challenges. I don’t think either of us knew the other had it in him.
It has long been clear, though, that Rick has grown about as much as he can at our company and was losing his enthusiasm. He needed new challenges – to learn new technologies and software development processes – to get his fire back. And so when I come back from vacation a week from Monday his cubicle will be empty. He’ll have a new job at a place that he thinks will provide the spark.
For the first time in my life, I’m going to miss my brother. Now that we have some momentum going, maybe we’ll call each other sometimes.
I’m happy to report, eight years later, that Rick and I have become very close. We still both test software for a living and swap war stories. And he’s still one of the first people I call when I need someone to talk to.
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