Twenty-two years ago, I fell head-over-heels in love.
“Congratulations!” the doctor exclaimed, “You have a healthy baby boy!” Overwhelmed, I took my son Evan into my arms and carefully inspected the fragile, squirming gift. Ten fingers, ten toes and the wail of a siren made my eyes fill with tears. He was beautiful, absolutely perfect, and the endless possibilities for the future washed over me like a magical tidal wave. I cried for the dreams we’d share together and the lessons I was anxious to impart: Baiting a hook, hitting a curve ball, being a gentleman without being a weak man…all of it. I was sure that this boy was my reward for every good intention I’d ever had. What I didn’t realize, however, was that many of our dreams were contingent upon the success of my marriage.
It’s been said that most relationships don’t end in a sudden burst of anger or betrayal. Rather, like a panting dog, love collapses exhausted at the base of walls that can no longer be hurdled. In my case, with my son just out of diapers, “irreconcilable differences” escorted me from my comfortable recliner into a world of living torment.
Though equally hurt, we decided to act like real adults and “do what was in the best interest of our child.” This, I discovered, would prove impossible as “the best interest of our child” was as different in our minds as our ideas for saving the marriage. Almost instantly, my newly estranged wife considered our son her closest ally and determined that she and the boy were a package deal. She couldn’t see the separation. My son was hers and if I wasn’t with her, then I was merely an outsider. In essence, if she and I were to be separated, then so were he and I.
While our innocent baby boy sang along with Barney, my wife and I went to court; an intimidating place designed to bring justice to criminals, and where the truth can prove as rare as an attorney willing to tell it. At nearly two hundred dollars an hour and in no hurry to resolve our differences, both lawyers muttered half-truths, while a stranger dressed in black robes allowed nearly fifteen minutes to decide our future. I panicked and cleared my throat… I was swiftly threatened into silence.
Before it started, it was over. Society’s views of our parental roles would inevitably dictate the outcome. With nothing for me to do but watch, my entire world was slowly dismembered, piece-by-bloody-piece. With no apologies and even less compassion, the judge issued a punishment harsher than any prison term, while the haunting crack of the gavel sealed the cruel deal: I could take my son on loan, two nights a week and every other weekend. I was in shock. I’d heard the brutal rumors, read the frightening stories, but I still couldn’t believe it. Yet, there I stood: A man who was being criminalized for committing no crime; a trembling father who was no more than one-half of a relationship that no longer worked.
“I suggest that you work together with regards to your son’s education, religious aspirations, activities,” the judge concluded with an empty smile. I was still nodding when my attorney whispered, “The judge went easy. You’ve been given standard visitation.” Went easy? I thought, enraged. And to add insult to injury, I was still paying this man to defend rights that were never mine.
Not long after we left court, reality set in: I’d take my son for our court-ordered visits, only to drop him off two hours later. Weeks turned into months and if at all possible, things got even worse. Put simply: Imagine that the person who hates you most controls the person you love most? The playing field was so damned uneven! Everything I’d ever been taught; everything that made me who I was, raged inside of me to lash out. I wanted to go to war with my ex, I truly did, but the same recurring question always halted me: Do I pull on the boy until he breaks in half? The answer, of course, was no. The only thing I really could do was become the best dad I could be and hope that (in time) my son Evan would know the depth of my love for him. Whatever’s best for my boy, I decided, his happiness must come first! And on that very day, I wrote this simple poem for him:
Ice Cream Cone
Minimum wage and all out of luck,
in sofa cushions, some change was stuck.
Enough to buy one ice cream cone—
we shared it on the long walk home.
And on the trip, the questions flew,
“Why just the cone? And why not two?”
So looking deep within his eyes,
I chose the truth, no need for lies.
Explaining that while life was tough,
with just one cone, we had enough.
He shook his head, took one last taste,
then gave it back and wiped his face.
The pride I felt to watch him share,
at four years old, he didn’t care.
As long as we had time to play,
for him it was a perfect day.
For all the dreams that I had built,
to watch them fall, I’d felt he guilt.
But being poor was not a crime
for on my son I’d spent my time.
Today, twenty-two years later, I realize I didn’t actually write the poem for him—but for myself. Through the years, it has served as a reminder that I can only reclaim happiness in my life through forgiveness; to choose love over hate; peace over war; and to be the best dad I can be, regardless of the circumstances. Although I still believe that fathers are at a despicable disadvantage when it comes to child custody laws, I also know that the child must come first—and living in a state of constant bitterness and conflict does honor that belief.
Recently, my son Evan and I had dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant. During the conversation, I was teasing him and said, “You were raised better than that.” He looked at me and smiled. “I know, Dad,” he said, “and I thank you for it.” It took all I had not to weep the same way I did on the night he was born.