that i’d be back


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.

Thank God.

“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.


22 thoughts on “that i’d be back

  1. i love so much that your dad said the words — and kept the promise!! — and that you are doing the same.

    from someone who was never told that, THANK YOU. ❤ ❤ love and teary hugs! xoxo

  2. I am getting late for work and should be getting into my car but I HAD to turn on my laptop and say this to you. One of the best I ever read. Damn it Jess, You are making me cry. But I had to tell you that today I learn that I should say this to Anand often. Love.

  3. So touching and as always it pulls right at your heart strings. Thankyou for sharing important moments with us. God bless you and Brooke and your family always! You are an amazing writer!

  4. As the parent of an adopted child, we learned much about the concept of parenting a child with real, genuine trust issues and overwhelming fear of abandonment. Good on you for handling things with such grace and care with your amazing daughter. Your story resonates in my heart, as I know my little girl’s heart and mind feel similar things as yours. Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. I needed to read this today. As we prepare to lose my mom, my kids cling to me, afraid I won’t come home. We’ve had more tragedies than a family should even endure in the past 2 years, and today you reminded me to stop before work and remind each of my children that I will always be back. For them. Thank you for writing this TODAY. It wouldn’t have hit me yesterday. And tomorrow is never promised. So thank you. (hugs, and tears).

  6. Your parents love you. It is obvious in the words from your father from your childhood and the words from your mother today.

  7. This is a beautiful post (raining on my face: I remember my dad telling us that he loved us even though he was verbal destructive toward my mom — in retrospect that mostly just makes me sad. His words didn’t line up with his actions. It sounds like yours do. You’re a good mom, reminding your daughter of your consistent presence.

  8. This brought back some similar memories of my childhood. I always wondered if my dad was going to come back when he left when my mom and I fought. I’m a single mom of two beautiful little girls I adopted and I always make a point to telling them that I love them and that no matter what, I will always be back. This gets brought up every day because when I come home after work, my 4 year old runs up and says “mommie, you came back” (this concerned me at first but then I realized she saw Daniel the tiger do this with his daddy on a cartoon and that was where she was getting it from). The only thing that scares me about the promise that I make to them on an almost daily basis is that I worry that if something happens to me and I don’t come back, they will think I broke a promise to them.

      • I lost my mother when I was 9. She had cancer and we had our goodbyes. But. For the longest time I imagined my mom went to Texas. Why Texas I don’t know. She had a history of leaving for a while when things got tough. My father would say he’d be here for me. I learned that only death would be the only reason he wouldn’t come back. I tell my children that I’ll be back unless I’m in heaven but even then I will be with you. Just as my mom and dad are always with me.

  9. this is amazing. as a long time reader, teacher of children as awesome as Brooke, and adult with a physical disability I can tell you how much this post and all of your points mean to me. I have been meaning to comment for a while but after yesterdays post and todays I had to. I am here to tell you, you are doing an AWESOME job. You get it. You get her. And it brings tears to my eyes every time I read your words. A dirty little secret that teachers will never tell you is that we know which parents get their kids and which ones don’t and you and Luau are the ones who are 1000% in column A. May you continue to grow with Brooke and know that as long as you let her experience the world in her way, in her time, and always come back for her, she is going to continue to change the world. Be well and #DFTBA (Don’tForgetToBeAwesome!)

  10. It’s good that I don’t have to talk right now because I couldn’t if I wanted to….What you wrote here and everyday when you talk about relationships and your babies, all come from the layers of experiences and the love for you built over the years.
    How fortunate your children are because they get all you have incorporated in your life when you show your love for them…
    What a great mommy.
    ps. The very BEST thing I have done in my life was the gift of your being that I have been able to share with you all these years. You are the best of the best and the only perfect thing I have ever done.
    Thank you,

  11. Over the top touching and really, truly useful post.
    Wish I had parents like yours – or you for that matter.
    I am going to take on this script, especially as my g gets older and we experiment with five minutes away…and maybe more. Someday? Feeling that same mixture,

  12. Wow! I totally get this. I felt it over and over with my Dad and he too always came back. A few of those times I even remember where I was standing and what things smelled like. He never said those words though. It’s something I should think about with my kids and I haven’t.

  13. Pingback: Out of Sight, Out of Mind…? | lovesqueezes

  14. Bless your soul this is beautiful. How I wish I could – my son is 20 – has severe autism and truly doesn’t care if I come back…. I’ve been the one taking him to docs all these years and to surgeries and procedures – I’ve been the one giving the meds and cutting finger and toe nails – I’ve been the one associated with all the “yuck” and “pain” he has endured. I get why he gives me my shoes and hands me my purse as if to say “bye I’m sick of you”…. I enjoyed this post so much even if I feel as though I’m a parent on Mars…

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