The Family Man
The restaurant billboard advertised its Father’s Day brunch in letters too large to miss.
“If I had a father, we could take him out to eat,” my daughter, Samantha, said, as we drove by.
Samantha’s voice held no accusation; she was entirely matter of fact. But I took it personally anyway; her words signaled that my severed ties with Jim could hurt her as well.
I squirmed helplessly. I can squirrel and save for her hiking boots, singing lessons, the dress for the family party; I’d move the world for my girl. But there’s nothing I can do about getting her a dad.
My friends get angry with me when I turn on myself.
“So what,” says Nessa, her voice growing tight. “So you couldn’t get her a dad. She had her own dad, and she’ll remember him.”
And Arlyne, newly single, gets practically frantic at my self-castigation.
“Listen,” she says as we sip our lattes, “I can’t stand it when a guy uses my children to get to me.”
If that’s what happened, I was a willing co-conspirator.
It is true and can be said without a trace of shame: No mother can resist a family man. I loved the man who loved my daughter. I couldn’t help it.
I had relegated Father’s Day to the ranks of unobserved customs, like Christmas or Chinese New Year, one that others might honor with full regalia but that we, in our family, spent at the movies or otherwise ignored.
And then came Jim. Whatever a dad could mean, he was it.
Last Father’s Day, Samantha and I took Jim to the Getty Museum and then out to dinner. We each felt audacious, risky. Jim had never been a dad. Samantha hadn’t had a dad in a long time. And, after so many years going solo, I no longer knew what a dad to my daughter might be.
“You’re not my father, and you never will be!” Samantha screamed at him outside the Getty parking garage.
“You’re right,” Jim said. He didn’t want to be her father, full of fearsome duty and overweening expectation. But being her dad — authoritative, respecting, care-giving in a benign sort of way — this was something he might be able to do well. He assisted with her homework, discussed her music, attended her concerts and singing lessons. He bought her a guitar. There was no “we” without her; wherever Jim and I went, Samantha was expressly invited to come.
“Don’t you two want to spend more time alone?” she asked. “Don’t you need some personal space, some private time together?”
If only we’d listened.
Our three-way connection seemed preordained, like a trinomial equation set into motion long ago; he was the kind of man I’d promised Samantha years before, one who could love us both.
At the Getty, Jim showed Samantha the red figures painted on black fragments of Greek urns, the remnants of a great civilization that had come and gone. At dinner, he let her taste his wine. I watched them from my side of the triangle and felt myself begin to breathe. We were a threesome; the number three, in Hebrew, is gimel, meaning full and ripe.
He was among the few “dads” to attend the high school parent meetings. He knew the dean, the music coach and her instructors by sight. He e-mailed the math teacher on her behalf, arguing that Samantha understood more algebra than her grades indicated. Sometimes, he spoke for me. Samantha judged her success by his approval and was crushed by his criticism. He was a dad in every way.
We were a family, but not a couple, and that’s why we hung on so long.
Now comes the sad part. The end.
When love fades, is it God’s error? Our own fault? Or just a fact of life?
I give the three of us this much: We meant it for good. Jim loved being a dad. Samantha loved having a dad. He loved being part of “us.” She loved having a larger “us.” And, among everything else, I loved saying, “Table for three.”
Even when things grew bad between Jim and me as man and woman, when our conversations became increasingly about Samantha and less about ourselves, as a dad, he kept at it. Up to the last minute, he judged her party dress for appropriateness, escorted her to family dinners, and gave her guidance on hiking gear; Samantha was still telling her friends about going to the movies with her “parents,” taking great pleasure in an extra “s.” She didn’t lose faith.
“I only want what makes you happy,” Samantha said.
“But Jim…” I started to say.
“I’ll get over it,” she said. “I’m stronger than you think.”
But what about me?
Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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