image is a photo of me at approximately Brooke’s age c 1982
“Do you know why I was crying?” she asks.
“When, baby?” I ask. “When were you crying?”
“In the den,” she says. Her face is an exaggerated mask of sadness – a sidewalk caricaturist’s parody of a pout.
“When, sweetie?” I ask. I’m worried. Did she get hurt? I wrack my brain in an attempt to rewind, but I come up dry.
“When you and Katie went and I was sad.”
“Oh, honey,” I say, “you mean when we went to the store? But you said you didn’t want to come. Did you change your mind after we left?”
“No,” she says, her bottom lip quivering ever so slightly.
“So why were you sad, honey?” I ask.
“Because I was scared you wouldn’t be back,” she says.
Oh my God.
“Baby,” I say, “did Daddy know you were crying?”
“He did,” she says.
“Did he tell you that I’d be back soon?” I ask.
“He did and he hugged me like this,” she says, wrapping her arms around herself and rocking side to side.
“And I came right back, didn’t I?” I ask.
“You did,” she says. “But I was afraid you wouldn’t come back.”
And there it is – the improbable conflation of my darkest fear and my most fervent hope.
The fear that every day when I left for work, she didn’t understand. The fear that she wouldn’t know how very much I wanted to be with her, that I left my heart behind every single time that I walked out that door. The fear that her assumption of her mama’s permanence, my trustworthiness, my solidity could be held hostage to temporal confusion – not now means never and later means not now and not now means never and if she’s not here now and she’s coming back later and later is never, then what if she never comes back?
And the fervent hope that someday, somehow, she’d have the means to tell me and I would have the insight to hear and understand, HOW SHE FEELS. That she could SAY to me, in any way, “I was scared that you wouldn’t come home.” My God, that would be everything, I thought. And now it is. Everything.
My parents divorced when I was just a few months older than Brooke is now. As their marriage disintegrated, patience grew thin. The constant tension in the house quickly descended into rehashed arguments and hurled resentments and in the very worst moments, my dad, with his anger threatening to turn to rage, would get into his car and drive away.
I would listen from inside whichever room I’d taken shelter. I knew once I’d heard his tires churning up the stones in the driveway, then squealing onto the pavement of the road that he was gone.
He never left for more than a few hours. My entire childhood, he only stayed away from home for two nights that I remember – the only business trip he ever took. He was solid. He was permanent. He was and is the most trustworthy human being I’ve ever known, and yet, each time I heard those tires squeal, I wondered if he was coming back.
One day, he picked me up and sat me down on the counter in our kitchen. “Jessie,” he said, “I need you to know something.”
With him standing and my little peanut of a self sitting on the counter, we were nearly eye to eye. I watched his blue eyes fill with tears and his entire being vibrate with something that I would, twenty years later, recognize only as the overwhelming love for one’s child. “I need you to know that I will always be back for you.”
I was too overwhelmed to speak. The intensity of the moment hasn’t faded in the thirty years since. I waited. I knew he had more to say.
“Things between your mother and me haven’t been easy lately. You know that. And sometimes I get angry and I need to walk away. At some point, I might even leave for a night or two. (He never did.) But you need to understand … “
He grabbed my shoulders and clenched his jaw to fight the tears. I watched the vein in his temple throb. I had to look away from his eyes. They were too much.
“I need you to understand that no matter what happens, I will always be back for you,” he said. “You hear me, kiddo?”
He looked straight into my eyes as he said, slowly, deliberately, “I. Will. Always. Be. Back. For. You.”
We hugged. We cried. We hugged again. I promised that I heard him. I told him that I knew. We had a secret covenant. Daddy would always be back.
The next time the tires squealed on the pavement, I knew.
I’m looking at my girl, her bottom lip quivering, telling me what I need to do.
I’ve told her a thousand times that I don’t like being away from her. I’ve told her that I love being with her. We’ve said it so many times that it’s become a script. My way of saying, “I don’t leave for work because I want to leave you, but because I need to support you.” But never, not once, did I simply say, “No matter what happens, I will always be back for you.”
I needed to. Or I need to now. Time is confusing. Not now is never and later is not now and if I’m not here now but coming back later, what if she doesn’t come back?
I take her in my arms. I push the heel of my hand into the spot in her back that she finds comforting – a thwart, she calls it. And I say the words.
“Brooke, I need you to know this: No matter what happens, whenever Mama leaves, no matter where I go, I will always, always be back.”
“You will?” she asks.
“I will,” I say. “I promise. And you know that Mama doesn’t break her promises, right?”
“Right,” she says.
I offer her my pinkie. She curls hers into it.
“I promise too,” she says.
“Pinkie swear,” I say.
She reaches up and slowly traces my face with her finger.
And she watches as her Mama’s green eyes fill with tears and her entire being vibrates with something that she will, perhaps, twenty years later, recognize only as the overwhelming love for one’s child.