One summer day a few lives ago, our family’s world changed. I walked into the office and went to work, same as I had for 15 years. Then there was an email, followed by a meeting. And then there were layoffs. And then….well, let’s just say my schedule had some flexibility.
It wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed dropping the kiddo off at daycare dressed more casually than she was. (And she was 3. All she knew was casual.) The other moms and dads were dry cleaned and hurried. Some days I went for coffee. Some days I reverse commuted myself right back to bed. Almost every day I was there for pick-up.
I wrote a book, began work on a second, did enough freelance work to get by and fall turned to winter, winter to spring, spring to summer and it was time for Pre-K. A few of the kids in the neighborhood were headed to the same school, about eight blocks away, and a few of us dads were similarly employed. I took to calling us “specially employed.” We dropped off most mornings, picked up most afternoons and filled the time to and from with caustic self-deprecation.
We broke up squabbles small and large. We cleaned scrapes and rubbed dirt out of bumps and bruises. We wiped away the tears that burst free when a hard day comes to an end. We wondered what the hell we were doing with our lives — while quietly, I think, enjoying our lives.
And on Fridays, after pick-up, it was one big play date for the kids. “Do whatever you want,” we’d tell them. “Just leave us be.” Then we’d pour some bourbon, certain we’d earned a drink. Name a better reward for settling an argument as unbelievably weird as this: “She says the cat they’re going to one day maybe get is better than our cat!”
There were days when I didn’t want to go to pick-up. I needed another hour of writing. Or I wanted another hour of peace and quiet. There were days when we’d get home and I’d still have a deadline to make and all she wanted to do was play. I’ve never wanted to be the dad that said, “I’m too busy working.” But I was too busy working. Some days, it was frustrating and I’d feel lousy and like I wasn’t doing anything well — not whatever job I was working on, and not my job as Stella’s dad.
Some days, though, were pretty great. There was the day a royalty check came and I didn’t have to worry about bills for a little while and I scooped her up from school and took her for celebratory French fries and a shake. There was the smile the day she first successfully crossed the monkey bars on her own. The day she called me over to the jungle gym on the school playground and asked me to spot her while she tentatively stretched out, hanging solely by her legs from one of the bars for the first time. The games of Bingo and Connect Four and Uno while the rain came down outside and my wife fought the traffic home.
And then … one day, life changed again. Someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I do drop-off now, because I can’t get free for pick-up. And drop-off is different. Energy is aimed at the day’s potential. There’s excitement in what’s to be, not the exhaustion of what was channeled into small tantrums and cries for more snacks and another half an hour with the iPad.
This morning, I pulled up and she unbuckled her seatbelt, gave me a quick hug and bounced out the door and up the steps into school. As frustrated as I’d get some days, I think I always knew how good I had it. And now? Now I wish I’d had it just a little bit longer.