“Dad seems sad…Can dads get sad?” I said to myself, bewildered as my four-year-old hand reached desperately for whatever scratch paper and pencil I could find. Like looking for a clean rag to put pressure on a bleeding wound, I needed to draw to ease the pain right away. It had to be a happy picture: the sun shining, bushy trees, a house with proportionate windows, waving stick figures with smiling eyes.
Why this frantic, hurried attempt? Standing next to a tower of cardboard boxes, I learned my dad was leaving—leaving to go to his own house, I was told. Barely grasping that my dad even could be sad, this idea of “living elsewhere” was incomprehensible. Needing to offer my “band-aid” at once, I gave him my picture, the smiling house and waving family, a small present with which to decorate his new place. I had yet to understand that my own house, my own family, my own self would that day be forever changed.
My parents separated in the early 80’s, and what followed was a bitter clash of lawyers, courtrooms and custody settlements, ending in a back and forth, teeter-tottering arrangement for my younger brother and me. Thankfully, my mom and dad continued to reside in the same town until we graduated high school. My brother and I even went to the same church every single Sunday, together, but with a different parent each week.
Even with these seemingly solid pillars, I don’t have a lot of vivid childhood memories. I can remember some fun vacations and camping trips, weeks at my grandparents’ homes and goofing off with my brother. But what I remember most is the stress of daily packing, meticulously thinking everything through as I moved back and forth between two worlds. I remember painstakingly planning what things to take, to leave, to wash, to find. I recall preparing my homework assignments at the one house that had the computer, well in advance of the due date, hoping the assignment wouldn’t change afterwards, as I had no ability to revise it.
The angst, the tightness in my chest, of getting everything just right, lest I inconvenience Mom or Dad by forgetting some necessary item. I remember taking an extra-large duffel to school from first grade through high school in addition to my school backpack. A sort of small Sherpa, schlepping my life’s essentials from port to port, every other day, every other weekend, in a blue polyester, broken-zippered bag—that was me. I was different than my classmates, and I had the literal baggage to prove it.
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