So I was back in New York after ten days in Australia, the longest and farthest I’ve ever been away from my family, and after getting Maya at school the next day I asked her, “You said this morning you missed me, but how did you miss me?” She shrugged without breaking stride and wouldn’t elaborate.
Maya can be pretty hardcore.
Next I put the question to Maya’s little brother Felix, who had crawled into bed with me that morning and said “I’m glad you’re home, daddy.” He said that he missed playing Xbox with me, which I already knew because my wife had emailed me about it days earlier. And I knew how my wife missed me because the night I got home her last comment before falling asleep was, “I hate doing those humidifiers.” Filling them is typically my job, and they’re difficult to open.
To be fair, all three kids had made a sweet welcome home sign for the front door. And Maya and Felix had left a “we missed you” index card in my bed. So why couldn’t I just be happy that they said they missed me and leave it at that? Because after not being part of their day-to-day lives for ten days I was feeling detached and dispensable.
Part of the problem was my destination. As most geography buffs know, Australia is far. Fifteen hours nonstop from LAX to Sydney means you can watch five movies back to back, have a couple meals and naps, watch your beard grow darker during trips to the lavatory, stare at your fingernails for an hour, and still have plenty of time on your hands. That’s how far. Another issue is that it’s criminally expensive to call the states from Australia, and I no doubt exacerbated my feelings of detachment by calling home only once. The good news is that Wi-Fi down under is surprisingly reliable and at worst no more expensive than the hourly connection charges at most upper range U.S. hotels. So in the end I was only communicating with my kids via daily emails to my wife — emails that also revealed that she was running things very smoothly without me. The kids were being really good for her, school was fine, they were having play dates, and yes, my wife said they said they missed me.
Still, I began wondering — in the same manner that a justifiably paranoid employee on a long vacation begins to wonder what it means when his workplace doesn’t miss a beat without him — just how essential my job was to the “company.” Sure, my kids thought I was fun, but what was I giving them that they couldn’t get from my wife? And inevitably that led to my questioning how present I really was when I was home. Why do I constantly check my Blackberry while I’m with my kids, especially when I know they don’t like it? Why do I always wait for one of them to ask me to play a board game first? And why do I always say no to doing craft projects, the ones my wife will always initiate with them? These are valid questions to pose anytime, I suppose, but there’s nothing like some serious travel to make you ask them and, potentially, to be afraid of the answers.
Anyway, about an hour after putting the question to Maya I was sitting at our dining room table, one cup of coffee away from blacking out from the time change, and she sits down and asks if I want to see all the valentines she had gotten a few days before. Sure, I said, and she sat close to me — unusual for her — and she read me each one, front and back. Since the Department of Education has evidently mandated that all classmates give each other valentines even if they don’t like each other, this took a while. And when she was done, the boy got in on the act. And by the time he was done, Maya had already gotten out the checkerboard, set up both sides, and without even gauging my interest, indicated that I should start playing.
That’s when I started to get it. Any responsible guardian can warrant a child’s attention, but these kids missed mine. Further, “how did you miss me” is probably too conceptual a question — for a kid or a grown-up — since the answer probably varies day to day. This was underscored about an hour later while I was walking my eldest, Libby, home from class. I told her what I had asked her sister and brother and put the question to her: You said you missed me, but how? “I don’t know,” she said, “I just did.” So I guess no matter what you think it is you bring to the table as a dad and no matter how much you travel, just be happy you’re getting that answer today.