The other night, while my boyfriend worked his third to last graveyard shift before Christmas, my kids and I went to my younger son’s Christmas concert. In the row in front of us, a young family sat. A mother with a baby maybe five months old, and her husband tending their two other children–a girl of maybe four and a boy of two.
There was this moment, when the little boy was squirming and stood on his chair, that the father looked at him with gentle sternness and said, “Sit down, please.” Instead of sitting down, the boy hugged his father and rubbed his chin against the whiskers on his dad’s upper lip. Lightly inked arms, strong from blue collar work, wrapped around the little boy and they just gazed at each other, sealed off from the crowd of bored parents by shared affection and love.
Despite the fact that I should be paying attention to the kindergarten class and their barely intelligible rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I couldn’t look away from that moment between father and son, as precarious as water held in cupped hands, one stumble and it might be irretrievably spilt.
My older son glanced over at me and asked why I was crying.
I couldn’t answer him right away. I’ve always been a crier, and it’s always embarrassed me, which usually leads to more crying. “You must have worn your earplugs,” I said, nodding toward the off-key kindergarteners stage, “or you’d be crying too.”
But I was remembering another moment in a grocery store, only a few months after my boyfriend and I met, when I’d caught him in a moment of distraction, staring across the aisle with this strange sad smile. I’d looked, and saw a little girl, his daughter’s age, who’d accidentally knocked over a display of cereal boxes, and was trying to stack them back up.
It had been five months, at that point, since he’d last seen or had contact with his daughter. I’d met him when the loss was still sharp as a razor to him, and it’s a pain that returns to him at times, more than a year later and as much as he tries to lock the door on it, and as much as he knows there’s nothing to be done. In the grocery store that day, I knew exactly what he was feeling. I reached for his hand, pressed my lips to his knuckles, and said nothing.
What was there to say?
He did everything right. None of that mattered to anyone who had a say in what would happen. And as helpless as that makes us both feel, we know there is nothing he can do but bear it, and nothing I can do but understand him and give him my love and my support, and let him know he’s not alone.
I know there are men here whose losses cut so very deep. And while those losses can never be made less by the simple act of someone taking your hand in understanding, that understanding is first step on the road to a better place.
And to a little girl out there who goes by the name of Ayla, Merry Christmas. Your daddy loves and misses you, and this is your present: