I’m sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn, listening to an old playlist labeled “Kids Mix” that I made a million years ago when I used to drive my sons around to soccer and Little League on the weekends. And, thanks to AppleTV, I’m looking at the perfect visual accompaniment: photos of Rob and Zach when they were little. There they are in the tub together, at Disneyworld on the log flume, in the backyard swinging from tree branches, wearing party hats and holding up a sign that says “Happy Birthday, Daddy! We love you!” There they are, my two beautiful sons, in photo after photo, looking so goddamned happy, like they had the best childhoods a kid could ever have.
That joyful look on their faces almost makes me forget the last few years of my marriage. My wife and I were together for 30 years, and this year we decided to celebrate our anniversary the old fashioned way — with a divorce. It’s pretty much the best gift we’ve given each other in a long time. The kids took the news about as well as any kid can, which is to say there were tears and heartbreak. Neither of them saw it coming, because they didn’t really look, and who can blame them? Who wants to see such a thing? It’s easier to just smile.
The last 10 years were rough, especially the last five, as my wife and I decided to delay splitting up until the kids finished high school and went off to college. I often think about why I stayed and the time we wasted (which is a big waste of time in its own right), not getting on with our lives when we both knew that we should.
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We’d known it for a very long time, but like the kids, we preferred not to look. For them, we turned our focus elsewhere, toward our daily routine. But we weren’t always able to just smile.
It was especially hard to smile when Rob called me on a rainy summer night a few years ago to say he had totaled his car. And it was even harder to smile when he was stopped for a DUI and the cops found pot in his car and we spent the next three years in a drug program that involved family counseling.
No, there were not a lot of smiles in those years. Yet I'm glad I was there.
Maybe that’s because my father was never there for me. He was in and out of prison for most of his adult life, and I vowed early on that I’d be a better father than he was, which wasn’t really that difficult. And maybe that’s why I love my kids more than I’ve ever loved anyone else on earth — because I need to love them as much as they need to be loved. Maybe even more. I remember policemen carting my father out of our house any number of times, and I remember hating him each time it happened. So how could I ever leave my sons? That was the last thing I’d ever want: to be like my own father.
It was unthinkable to leave my older son, Robbie, who is adopted.
I’ll never forget how happy he made me feel when he was a newborn, right after we took him home from Joplin, Mo. I’d gaze at him for hours. A few months later, my wife got pregnant and we had Zach, and I couldn’t believe how lucky we were. We had the best of both worlds, nature and nurture. Years later, the idea of not living with either of my sons — of hurting them — seemed like death. I felt I’d rather die than leave them, and that’s exactly what I did. I died.
I died inside just as my marriage had. It was the kind of death that many couples who’ve been together for decades experience: Everything looked fine on the outside, but beneath the surface we were rotting away. We faked it as best we could, trying not to argue in front of the kids and presenting the proverbial united front. My wife, Rob, Zach and I all celebrated one another’s birthdays, and I have the smiling pictures to prove it.
According to the conventional wisdom, children are better off with happy parents who live separately than they are with unhappy parents who stay together. When you expose kids to a dysfunctional relationship, they can’t imagine what a healthy one looks like, or so the thinking goes. But I don’t buy that. Even though my wife and I didn’t always get along, even though we sometimes yelled at each other — or worse, gave each other the silent treatment — my kids knew that on a deeper level we loved each other. They saw it in the little things — a knowing glance, the way we once held hands, the occasional smile. And I’m sure their relationships include the same things that made up our marriage, both good and not so good.
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Today both of our sons are out of the house, living on their own. It was very hard for me to let go of them, particularly Rob. Zach had always been the independent one,
and I never worried too much about him. But I worried terribly about my older son. I held on to him as tightly as I could, convinced that if I let go, he’d fall, and the prospect of him falling seemed as awful as the idea of me moving away. So I stayed. And I stayed on his ass. I thought I was saving him and protecting him by keeping him on the straight and narrow. As it turned out, I was right.
These days Rob lives in upstate New York. He dropped out of college, got a job at a sandwich shop and lives in a house off campus with a few friends who go to school there. And here I am in my new Brooklyn apartment, listening to Rob’s favorite songs and looking at old photos of him and Zach while I wait for my first visitor.
The doorbell rings. I rush downstairs and fling open the door and there Rob is, all smiles. We hang out for a while, have a few beers together, and just have the best time.
Whenever someone asks me how I feel about my kids, I quote a line from the movie Lost in Translation. Maybe you know the scene. Bill Murray is lying in bed, talking to Scarlett Johansson about his own children. Then he says, “And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.” That’s exactly the way I feel.
After dinner, I walk Rob to the subway and thank him for coming to visit me. He says no prob, we hug and then he kisses me.
“I love you, Daddy,” he says as he heads down toward the train.
And that is why I stayed.
By Larry Carlat
Larry Carlat served as managing editor for Next Avenue.
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