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The summer I grew up

The night I split up with Syd’s mom, Syd and I sat on the porch of our house at Gillham Park and watched the sun set over the apartment buildings and houses on the other side of the park. Relief coursed through me. I had come to terms with something that wasn’t working and that didn’t seem to ever come together. At the same time I was facing a unknown and frightening world alone. I no longer had a partner to help me through the obstacles of fatherhood. I’d have no one to talk to about the frustrations of not finding a job.

I’d graduated from the University of Wyoming and returned to Kansas City, fully expecting to pick up as a partner in a long-term relationship and as a father of a little girl whose first two years I had missed most of. I made that trek between Kansas City and Laramie 23 times in two years. While I would have been very happy to stay in Laramie had I not had responsibilities at home, I was glad to land in a place where I didn’t always have the worry about what mom was going through, what responsibility I’d left her with, and what I was going to do with my future.

But the summer had turned out quite differently. Arriving home with high hopes, I found I entered a house that had gone on without me. I had grown, become a different person through the rigors of school and the constant driving back and forth from Laramie to visit Sydney and her mother and young son every holiday, long weekend, and semester break. I’d spent time hiking and backpacking in the mountains by myself. Flyfishing had become my pastime and I’d learned a lot about myself on isolated streams deep in the folds of the Snowy Range.

These people were no strangers to me. I’d seen them too many times for that to be true. But settling in, the world I was once so familiar to me seemed strange and alien. The streets were the same, the buildings and commercial centers all in place. But I was a stranger here, a person who didn’t belong and needed to find home again.

The summer had been hard on me. With a freshly minted history degree, I found no place to hang it. I applied for jobs where my field might apply and just as many where it did not. Every week, I faced uncertainty about where I was going and doing. Insecurity and self-doubt stalked me. I didn’t know what I was doing and displayed that at numerous interviews. I’d started out staying with my uncle. But living with a two-year-old in a small house with a man grown used to his routines didn’t work. I moved across the park to a rental I had to share with a roommate to afford.

One thing kept me from falling off the edge of the world. An insurance settlement buffered my bank account and left me some space to make mistakes and find a job. The money bought me an interview suit, shoes, and shirt. It allowed me to gain some business-casual dress I could use in networking events. But between rent, utilities, food, and gas, that money wasn’t going to last long.

A potential job-giver senses desperation in the job seeker. I made each application as if it was the one thing that was going to save my life. I shook hands a little too vigorously and answered questions with too much enthusiasm. I faced one disappointment after another. I greeted each possibility with great hope only to find myself in the depths of despair.

Being only a couple of years sober, I was still learning the lessons most people learn in their teens and young adulthood. I’d drunk my way through high school and college. I scarcely drew a sober breath the last seven years of my drinking before sobering up at 27. Then, I was working my way through college, gathering what I needed for my degrees in history and English. I had nearly fallen off the map, having lost my job and becoming unemployable. A chance scholarship saved me and ushered me into sobriety. Then, I had determined that despite having a child on the way that I would go to graduate school. I was going to make up for lost time and become something.

After I moved into the house at Gillham Park that fall, I spent every Tuesday and every other weekend with Sydney. We spent our days walking the streets of this strange town, as much to entertain Syd as to reacquaint myself with the streets and my own stories. We walked miles and miles, covering over the fall and into November just about every inch of Midtown.

We walked to the convenience stores for cold drinks and hot dogs. Often, as the day grew shorter, we’d span the distance between day and night, arriving home at night after witnessing ethereal sunsets. We spent our afternoons at the park across the street. Sydney played innumerable hours on sunny afternoons in the wading pool. She swung on swings and climbed the playground equipment at many Midtown parks. There wasn’t a boulevard we missed.

The end of the relationship with Syd’s mom gave me a kind of relief that, for the moment, made me feel adjusted. I’d made the right decision. Many uncertainties still faced me, but I would forge ahead with my life. I would make it what I needed it to be. We sat rocking on the porch swing until well after dark. At some point, I realized Sydney had fallen asleep, our long walk that day settling on her. I picked her up and put her to bed.

Meanwhile, I didn’t know how to do this father thing. I was constantly frightened that I was somehow screwing up my little girl’s life. I was harsh with her, thinking she needed to learn lessons that would keep her safe in the future. I sometimes took out my frustrations on her in the moment, in quick bursts followed by apologies and gentle handling. I was so unsure of myself I didn’t sleep nights.

I finally landed a job at a luxury hotel on the Plaza, Kansas City’s high-brow shopping district. For weeks after I made my application, I checked in with the HR director until she just, and out of charity, found me a place in the banquet department. I started in the position on Thanksgiving Day. I felt as if a stone had been lifted from my shoulders. I had remunerative work and at the right time. I’d whittled my bank account down to almost nothing.

Working afforded me some contact with other people, some of whom became friends. I had mothers to talk about parenting with. While they ushered me through the vagaries of learning the job of serving large banquets, they also gave me the kind of contact that all people seek. I was part of a human race. I reveled in the prospect of going to work just to be with other people.

That wasn’t the end of it. The months ahead were extraordinarily difficult. Work out of season was spotty. I lived from paycheck to paycheck, and often beyond it. Many weeks, I charged macaroni and cheese and ramen. I always tried to have fruit and vegetables when Syd came to stay with me. I didn’t have the money to buy her toys, and for a year, she played with the baubles I brought home from the hotel. Marbles and decorations that had once been table centers were her playthings. We made a checkers board from the bottom of a beer box, with bits of cardboard we cut from the sides of the box as game pieces.

I look back on that time now and realize I was doing just about everything right. I regret playing the occasional disciplinarian with Syd but see that I was more often gentle than strict. I showed her a world much larger than the one she would have known without those walks, museum trips, and free festivals.

I wouldn’t go back to that time knowing what I know now. The conditions were just too hard, the expectations I had for myself too steep. I put myself through a lot of misery during. But I still feel a tinge of nostalgia when I think of that time. In many ways, things were easy because the obstacles were so large, the problems so well defined. We did a lot of growing up together, Syd and me.

She tells me today that her first memories of our time together were on top of my shoulders. It was a beautiful world, she says.

Indeed, it was.

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