Today, I had lunch with the 4th graders. Lately, I've been half-present during lunch duty, anxiously refreshing the e-mail app on my smartphone, and praying that someone is interested in hiring me for a different job. However, I am often disappointed. No answers, or not the answer I was hoping for.
But today I sat with the kids and talked. We talked about our favorite songs, and what the week had in store for us. One student assured me that the summer break would come faster than we might expect "like---that!"
The subject of Mother's Day came up. A boy noted that he was surprised to hear that his first word had been "da-da" instead of "mama".
My heart ached a little, but I was enjoying the various contributions. I wasn't about to share such sadness with nine year olds.
He went on to say that his dad had left the family when he was very young. This sentiment was echoed by a chorus of his peers
yeah, me too
me as well
yep, that just happened to me.
All casual, in the way that 4th graders so often echo this kind of truth. The words rain down like pebbles, hard in spite of their carelessness.
I think of my father, as I often do, and his aching absence. His constant, steady presence--followed by a sudden, permanent absence. The grateful stinging of his love throughout my childhood, and how in his last days, he expressed gratitude for his community of family and friends.
Do any of these men have a community, now that they have left their sons and daughters?
One boy murmurs that his dad's got a new family now. I wonder what it must be like, to be on the outside looking in. To only invite half of your pride to the dinner table, and know that the other is eating elsewhere, perhaps missing you, or trying his best to forget you.
I ache for them, for my father, for those fathers without the bravery or wisdom to claim their titles.
Thinking of my niece and nephew now, I realize that this phenomena is all too common; not at all a rarity. Sometimes, I forget about their lack of a father. Partially because my sister takes up both roles so well. Partially because--until recently--my father filled the remainder of those shoes. His calm spirit amongst rowdy women made him a favorite among babies. My father's patience led to countless games of "Pretty Pretty Princess". After he fastened clip-on earrings into his beard, I would place a crown upon his head as he exclaimed, "I'm a Pretty Pretty Princess!" with only a hint of irony.
I do not think that fathers are superflous, nor are they a necessity. But when they become yours "my father", rather than "a father", they are indispensable, irreplaceable.
Claim it or do not. There is no middle ground.
The conversation switches back to summertime, like a sinking boat with the leaks plugged slowly righting itself. The leaks plugged, the fear forgotten. Children are resilient, but not impervious. They mend, but they break.