Both Syd and Nick passed their infant and toddler years without me, and I regret it. I don’t have remorse about the things I did that caused me to miss these formative years. But I missed their first steps and their first words. I missed their crying in the middle of the night and the messes they made. I wasn’t there to see them turn their heads at food they didn’t like. All that was established by the time I made it into their lives.
When Syd was very young, I was away at grad school in Wyoming. I was coming up on my last semester before undergraduate graduation when Barbara got pregnant. At the time, I was just four months sober. Something told me that I had to continue my education. After years of dissipation and dissolution, I determined that I wasn’t going to give up, that I was going to take what opportunities came.
Barbara and I talked about it, of course. She would be left with the responsibilities of raising a child while I studied the particulars of 20th Century American Political History. I applied to ten schools, including UMKC, where I knew I would get in no matter what. I fished for the right opportunities. I would go to the school that paid for my tuition and hired me on as a graduate student.
All ten schools, which I can’t name today, accepted me as a student. Emory offered me a grader’s position but left me to pull the tuition and fees. The University of Pennsylvania gave me the same terms, but they would pay tuition. A couple of other schools offered work-study positions. But the University of Wyoming came across with tuition, fees, and a stipend of $800 a month.
Now that’s not a lot of money, but it would allow me to pay child support and live in the dorm. After food and car insurance, I would have a little left over for myself. That was a miraculous deal for me at the time, and it was something I couldn’t pass up.
But going away to school meant that I would be absent for a good deal of the ordinary things infants and toddlers go through. The draw of fatherhood was on me, and I so wanted to get to know my young offspring. When I was at Wyoming, I made the 700-mile trek across Nebraska every long weekend, holiday, and break. I drove that stretch of interstate 23 times in the two years I was in graduate school.
So, I glimpsed my child moving from infancy to the toddler stage. I was only with her for a month before I jetted off to Laramie. I remember one time having to sit up at night with her. She started crying shortly after Barbara and I went to bed. Since Barbara had been on duty the night before, it was my turn. I stayed up most of the night and into the morning with Syd before she finally went to sleep.
And that motivated me. I’ll never forget the heated discussion I had with my thesis director at the end of the second year. He didn’t think my thesis was good enough. I told him it was too bad, because I was walking out of his office and driving to Kansas City without a degree. He noted that I had enough credit hours that a paper I’d written for one of his classes would suffice to get me a degree. That’s fine I told him. I sharpened and polished that paper and made it out of there with a degree.
When I settled into Kansas City again, Sydney was well past toddling and was her own child. We spent a good deal of time together for the next months before I ended the relationship with Barbara. (She is a dear woman and someone I can call a friend today.) We took up a schedule in which I would have Sydney every Tuesday night and every other weekend, a routine that lasted until Sydney split her time between us, a week with Barbara and a week with me. It was then that I became witness to a child growing up. But I’d more or less missed the first two years of her existence and all the things that children do and need in that time.
When Nick came to us he was already four and a half years old. Again, I’d missed the formative years of infancy. I had only seen him once, in 2004, when he was about 18 months old. We had gone to my sister’s house in Cincinnati for the weekend. Nick was there with his mother, my other sister. We had a fabulous time, Nick and I. He made an indelible impression on me. Little did we know at the time but he would become our son in just a few years.
My sister had her problems with substances. She also had some profound mental illness that would ultimately lead her to semi-institutionalism. When the Nevada Division of Family Services removed Nick from my sister, he went to live with my parents. They were attentive but also had their problems. In 2006, Virginia and I started classes with Jackson County to become foster parents.
Our plan was to adopt Nick. After our year of courses with the Jackson County social workers, we picked Nick up in Reno, Nevada, the first week of January 2007. During that week, we ran a phalanx of child psychologists, social workers, and government bureaucrats. Government doesn’t remove children from their parents for no reason. They also do not give those children to strangers unless they’ve run the gauntlet and proven themselves dependable and capable of raising a child.
When we arrived back in Kansas City, our adventure with Nick really began. The first to years were difficult. While he came to trust us fairly quickly, it was still some time until he integrated all the way into his new life. We sometimes had to spectate while he tore through his room in ranting fits. We let him wear himself out and then clamped down, making sure he didn’t hurt himself or break anything.
As I was watching him grow up, I imagined him as an infant, completely dependent, a personality in the making. We missed him toddling, forming his tastes and finding his depth. When he came to us, he was already his own child. He had a sense of individuality, just as Syd did when I finally settled into Kansas City after graduate school.
When I consider my children, both of whom have turned out to be wonderful people, I think I would like to go back and be a part of their lives when they were infants. Of course, they were infants and didn’t know any better. But I would have liked to have been a part of their formation. I don’t need a legacy. I don’t feel important enough to think I would have made a difference.
Rather, the loss is something completely personal. I wasn’t there, in one case, due to my own decision; in the other, because we had no choice. I’m glad I went off to grad school and wouldn’t trade that time for anything. It was a time a great personal growth and learning, of growing self-awareness. But I do wonder what they were like and in what way they would have changed me.