By John G. Chick
There are people in my life, sadly even some who are very, very close to me, who think I am crazy and naïve for doing this. There are people in the world who know nothing of my circumstances who will tell me how unhealthy this is or that I am nothing more than a weak-minded enabler. There are still others who tout the benefits of tough love and will share with me alleged stories from their own lives and tell me that I am making a huge mistake and that I am being unfair to myself, my daughter and my granddaughter. There are those who just think I am a stupid old man. There are others who said my only recourse was to “kick her to the curb.” They may all be absolutely correct. But, the blunt truth is that I just do not care what any of them think or feel or believe or what they might have experienced. I just do not care.
The other truth is that my circumstance is not what I ever would have wanted or ever could have predicted. The timeline is off. The entire situation is awkward. The confusion and pain is a lot to handle. I have been forced to accept the unacceptable. What I have always hoped for never happened. What I have prayed for virtually every single day for years did not come about. The reality of it all was overwhelming and at some level tore a hole in my heart that yet remains. I was forced almost instantly to jettison the fantasy I had about my daughter’s life. I was forced almost instantly to jettison the fantasy I had about my own life. I was also forced almost instantly to address the failure I assumed was mine in terms of what I had taught my daughter that led to all of this. I had to, in a very short period of time, move through my denial and anger and bargaining and embarrassment to a point of acceptance and forgiveness and decisiveness. And, I made a decision…a decision to be everything I possibly can for my daughter and even more importantly for my granddaughter as long as I am alive. No limits. No restrictions. No conditions. No regret. I simply made the decision that no matter what I had to do I would be willing.
Like every good father, I have always had dreams for all of my children. And like every protective father I had always hoped and prayed for a man to come into my daughter’s life, a man who would be as committed to her as I am, who would love her with the same sacrificial love I have, who would understand her as I did and who would be focused on her health and happiness. And, I whispered prayers to that effect almost every single day. None of what I had hoped for came about. As a matter of fact the opposite took place. My daughter’s gradual descent into the abuse of prescription pain medications in her early twenties went largely unnoticed since she had moved 100 miles away. I had hoped that she was doing well, making good decisions, creating relationships with healthy people, that she was grounded and centered. I was so desperately and hopefully naïve. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Right up until the frantic phone call on her cell phone as she literally fled town once her abuse had been discovered and what illegal actions she had taken to support her addiction, right up to that moment I was still hopeful. And, amazingly, even after all that followed: detox, arrest, sentencing to two years of probation, rehab, health, relapse, rehab, I still had hope. She moved in with us and we did all we could to support and encourage her only to be rewarded by having things stolen from us, including our compassion and trust and forgiveness on countless occasions. I watched as she rode the wild cycles of allegedly being healthy followed quickly and inexorably by acts of self-destruction. I begged and screamed for her to make decisions to pull her away from horrible people, to think better of herself, to believe in herself, to want more for herself. We watched abortive attempts to attend school. We watched her find and lose several great jobs. And we could only stand by in horror as she drifted further and further into a relationship with someone who clearly was a user and a loser in every sense of the word. And even in the middle of all of this I still prayed that something would happen to change her perspective on herself and on life and get her attention. And then, it happened. Certainly not the something I would have orchestrated. Not the emotional or spiritual epiphany I hoped might take place. Not the stark realization of the pain she had caused. None of that: she got pregnant…at 38 years of age, she got pregnant. The father, and I hesitate to use that word, reacted in a way totally consistent with who I knew him to be. He denied the child was his. He cursed her and the child and verbally berated her as he had done countless times before and vowed to never have anything to do with her or the child. That was the lone bit of encouragement to me. If this is what it took to severe that relationship I could handle that. But, still, she was pregnant, unemployed and at a high risk for myriad complications. And we were her only hope.
After the shock of all this wore off and we all had to accept what was coming it was then a matter of making a series of decisions. She applied for and received some state funded assistance. We did not have the financial wherewithal to support her and a child. Thankfully, she found a terrific, tender, compassionate, understanding doctor. She was a godsend. We began to rearrange our home and make the accommodations necessary for having a child in our home. That one sentence does little justice to what changed in our lives.
The pregnancy progressed with some serious moments of anxiety related to her age and medical issues. There were several visits to her doctor with concerns. There was a 4D ultrasound at a nearby medical center specializing in “at-risk” pregnancies. There was much anxiety, much fear, much fatigue as she moved toward her due date. When the time came, more anxiety came with it. Blood pressure too high. Not dilating quickly enough. Lab results not exactly right. Baby in some duress. After hours and hours of unproductive labor came a quick decision for a C-section and it was done. And, all the months of concern, all the months of worry and anxiety culminated in the birth of a healthy, beautiful baby girl: 8lbs, 4oz, 21 inches long. Precious…..just precious.
The baby had to stay in the hospital for a few days before we could bring her home. And when my daughter walked into our home for the first time with her daughter nothing would ever be the same again. I am in my sixties and it has been decades since I have been even remotely involved in the care of an infant. Throughout the entire pregnancy I wondered constantly what this would be like and how I would adjust to all of this. But, the amazing thing was that even with all the years of heartache and treachery and deceit, the days and days of anger and frustration and the grief of losing what I thought might life would be….there is a moment, a single moment in time that swept it all away. It was about 3am. As is true of all infants, she had no schedule and no concern about ours. As is true of all new mothers, she was exhausted. I heard the cry and got up to help. It was winter and the house was cool. Wrapped in my old navy blue bathrobe I took a seat on the love seat of the same color and waited. Within a few minutes she walked into the den with the baby in one arm and the small bottle in the other intent on feeding her in spite of her exhaustion. “Give her to me”, I said. I took that small whimpering child into my arms and gave her the bottle and she began to drink. She calmed down, took the few ounces of formula and closed her sweet eyes with those incredibly long lashes babies have and fell asleep. My daughter returned from freshening herself up a bit, sat on the ottoman near us and began to cry….and to apologize. “I’m sorry”, she said ”for waking you up and you being up so late. I know you are tired, Dad. I know this is awful and inconvenient.” She went on and on. I just let her say it because I knew she needed to, she had to. When she had finished her monologue, her Mea Culpa, and once she stopped crying, I just looked at her. “Listen to me“, I said, “What you see as inconvenience are moments I have with her that I will always hold in my heart. Moments I may never have again. So, stop it.”
That was the moment….when I looked at that beautiful, precious, innocent child in my arms….years of anger and heartache gave way to some intangible, ethereal thing within me and was replaced with what I can only call hope and purpose: hope that my daughter’s life was now changed and on a new course and a sense of purpose in being a father to a child who had none. It was not some overly emotional response. It was not some visceral experience that immediately changed who I was or all of my priorities. I was not somehow energized with new spiritual or physical energy. It was just some new quiet, subtle confidence within me, some new thought that this is what I must and will do. This is the reason I am here. From that moment to the present, I have consciously thought about what I do with my granddaughter, how I talk to her even though she doesn’t understand me, what expression I have on my face when I see her, how much patience I want to muster up even when I am stressed or tired and how attentive I want to be, plan to be, to her needs as she grows up. I constantly rehearse conversations with her that have yet to happen…such as the one when she asks : “Where’s my daddy?” Just typing that makes me nauseated, physically ill and breaks my heart, but that conversation will have to occur at some point. And while I am totally confident her mother has already thought that through and will say exactly the right things, I need to be ready, too. And I imagine other conversations with her about herself, boys, books, the world, her hopes and dreams, anything that is on her mind. I have worked as a middle school guidance counselor for almost two decades and each time I find myself listening to a 13-year-old girl anguished and angry about an absent father, my thoughts immediately turn to my granddaughter and when I get home and have my time with her in the afternoon…and no one knows this…I pull her close to me and whisper to her one phrase: “It will be OK.” And, I am willing, even as old as I am, and as old as I will be, to be there…for every recital, every father/daughter event, every ballgame, every disappointment, every challenge, every instance where she might want to have a father with her…and I cannot predict what she will want….I just always want her to know I am willing.
Space here does not allow me to articulate my many failings as a father. I am intimately familiar with them and dance with them daily and I am acutely aware of what I would change had I the power to do so. And even in light of my own inadequacies I am determined, so long as I live, not to visit those mistakes upon my granddaughter. I have selfishly prayed that God would grant me a long life, not because I deserve it or have done something to merit it, but just because I want to be there for her as long as possible, at least long enough to help assuage the reality of not having a father, long enough to help her move through the denial, anger, self-blaming and heartache to that place where she can be healthy, to that place where she can realize that one inadequate, cowardly man abandoning her does not preclude her happiness or success or ability to love or be loved….just long enough for that…
And that is why I am willing….to sacrifice my time and schedule for her and to watch hours and hours of Disney Junior, to watch Cinderella and The Little Mermaid and Frozen dozens of times in lieu of Sportscenter or reruns of Seinfeld or my History Channel documentaries. That is why I am willing to pick up the same toys a dozen times over for just the few moments of attention she will give me while I sit on the floor with her. That is why I am willing, to move books and keepsakes up to a higher shelf and pad the corners of tables and desks and child proof the kitchen. That is why I am willing to sit with her as long as she will sit and just watch her play with my fingers or hold her bottle on her own or laugh inexplicably at small things in the world around her. That is why I am willing to welcome her mother and her to live with us for as long as they want. That is why I am willing to be whatever she needs me to be as she wanders through the morass of childhood and adolescence if I am still here. And…no matter how foolish I look, no matter how harshly I may be judged, no matter how much family or friends may deride me, no matter what the experience of others might be, no matter how much time or money or freedom I might sacrifice as the years pass…I am willing.
John G. Chick is a school counselor in Valdosta, Georgia