When Dad Lets You Down


There is good news and there is bad news. The good news: Ex isn’t coming. The bad news: Ex isn’t coming. He told the children in a phone call last night. He hasn’t informed me, however, so I’m not sure if it can be considered official.

On December 20th Ex informed me in an email that he had booked a flight and hotel and would arrive on Friday of this week.  On January 30th he sent another email asking me to “confirm that the kids will be available” and that I wouldn’t  “interfere” with the children’s “coming with [him].”

I replied immediately stating that I trusted that he would not interfere with the children’s commitments. I expressed my expectation that he maintain a polite and courteous demeanor throughout the entirely of his visit and suggested he ask the kids directly if and when they would like to see him and that he make his arrangements accordingly. I concluded with, “I am happy to support a positive visit.”


There have been a number of light phone conversations with the children, none discussing any details of the visit. There have been no emails either, that is until Sissy received a short note on Monday afternoon. It said that Ex had been having “a very hard time trying to reach [the children] for the past couple of weeks.” He said he had been leaving voice mails, but no one had returned those calls. The kicker:  “Today, I got your birthday card back in the mail marked ‘undeliverable.’” He wrote that he was planning to come out, but without confirmation that he would get to see the children, “there is no point in my traveling and spending all that time and money.” He then asked her to “please respond and let me whether you want to see me?”

Cue Amy Poehler: “REALLY!?! REALLY!?!”*

FACT CHECK: Caller ID recorded only two calls; one on the 19th and one on the 23rd. No messages were recorded. As Sissy told her father on the phone, “If colleges can figure out how to send me mail, I’m sure you can, too.”

After all this bullsh*t—no one is buying “undeliverable.” He didn’t even acknowledge her birthday. AGAIN. Hmmmm, I wonder why she might feel some ambivalence? She was relieved when he told her on the phone that he wasn’t coming. She probably let on, too.

Little Man rushed to the phone when Ex called last night. As he answered, Ex hung up. Little Man tried to call back immediately. He tried to call back four more times. He couldn’t leave a voice mail because Ex’s voice mail box was full.

An hour later Ex called again and spoke with all three children. It went like this:

“I’m sorry,” he told Little Man, “I have tickets for Friday night’s show [lie], but I won’t be able to use them. A friend has died and I am afraid I will need to attend the funeral.” Little Man was also relieved. He had begun to get anxious about seeing his father now that it seemed he was actually going to come.

Before Zeep took the phone, I told him,”Your father told your brother that he isn’t coming. A friend has died.”

When the phone was brought to Zeep, he refused it. He was doing his homework with the laptop in his lap and he didn’t look up. He was visibly seething.

“No,” I said quietly. “You said this is important to you. You need to talk and deal.”

He took the phone, grunted a greeting, and listened.

“What’s her name?” he asked, “your friend?”

His fingers tapped. He was Googling. He covered the receiver and whispered, “She doesn’t exist.”

On my phone I Googled the first name, town, and “obituary” and found it instantly. The departed had sadly succumbed to cancer.  She was a sixty-something Jehovah’s Witness who ran the coffee shop across the street. I wish I were kidding. I showed my son the screen and he nodded.

“Why is some dead lady you barely know more important than your kids when you haven’t seen them in eighteen months?” he demanded. (It has been fifteen actually.)

Ex reportedly indicated that it wasn’t a fair question and the boy replied, “So you don’t have an answer then?”

He had a couple of answers. One was that they wouldn’t have much time, which is true as a result of poor planning and a failure to communicate or coordinate on his part. Still…?

Zeep went on to outline his vision of how the weekend was to have gone; the show, the regional science fair, the awards ceremony, breakfast… “I thought I would invite you to my school conference, too,” he said. Zeep wanted Ms. C., his favorite teacher in the whole world to meet his father.

“I would have to call the police in order to see you,” Ex said finally. [...because, you know, one can't just politely work out a plan.]

Cue Seth Meyers this time, “REALLY!?!”*

“I have to finish my homework,” Zeep said, “I need some time to think.” He hung up.

After the exchange with his father, Zeep opened his email and read notes from his father aloud. They professed an agonized love, sick and manipulative. One email said that Ex loved the children more than anything or anyone else in the world and that was precisely the reason he couldn’t function. [Blaming his paralytic depression and alcoholism on the kids—or probably more accurately—on me for snatching them away or however his narrative goes, is just sick, especially after almost EIGHT YEARS. I call foul.]

“He doesn’t love us enough to come to visit us,” Zeep grumbled under his breath. His lip trembled as it does when he is hurt and angry.

“I see your lip trembling,” I said. “I know that you are hurt and I’m sorry.”

“You have no reason to be sorry,” he said frankly.

“I wish I could make it easier for your dad so that he could feel comfortable here,” I said.

“It isn’t your responsibility,” he said, visibly moved and still not crying.

Neither of us knew what to say next.

“I need to finish my homework,” he said finally.

At bedtime I checked in with the boys. Little Man vividly recalls how Ex didn’t want to come visit him when he was recovering from his Ex-inflicted head injury.

“I was in ‘hostile territory,’” he assessed.

Zeep confirmed this when they discussed it later so maybe it was something he had already heard from his brother.

“That is what he said,” Zeep reported, “I’m not about to go into hostile territory!

Little Man can’t possibly think of the I-wish-they-were-my-parents’ house as hostile territory. There is nothing hostile there at all and they have always been courteous and welcoming of everyone, including Ex.

“Pop won’t cross enemy lines,” Little Man said.

“There are no enemy lines,” I said.

“I know,” said the boy, “but Pop doesn’t see it that way.” I knew he was right.

He won’t cross enemy lines, and the subtext is: because he doesn’t really love us.

That is a special brand of joy-poison.

“He is a fat, balding, washed-up, drunk white guy with no balls,” Zeep said flatly.

“I’m sorry,” I said, wishing for the hundred-thousandth time that I had been able to give them a better father and a better life.

No doubt Ex loves the children in as much as he has the capacity to love. He probably breaks down regularly, crying in his beers over missing them. “Behind enemy lines” just happens to be where they live and thrive. Ex’s pettiness or pride or something prevents him from letting go of an increasingly ancient grudge and a hostility that burns like the eternal flame.  How hard can it possibly be to simply be polite? To write a chill email? To cooperate instead of making the other the enemy? (I gave him a ride to the airport last time, for pity’s sake.)

I tell the children that Ex’s lack of capacity does not reflect on them. They deserve better. They are worthy and they cannot possibly let their self-pitying father suck them into the quicksand of misery. I tell them that I love them. I tell them a lot of things, none of which it ease Zeep’s disappointment. I briefly wonder if I should have over-functioned for Ex like I did in the marriage so that he could feel all warm and fuzzy and get his sorry ass out here. In my heart I know that even if it had worked, it would just have delayed the inevitable, and managing him is not my responsibility. It never was.

That thing about resentment being like drinking poison is entirely true. Ex drank deeply from the flask himself years ago. The thing is—he isn’t the only one who suffers. So now, instead of knocking on the door as though he had never let the children down before, Ex has simply let them down again—which for at least one young man, is so much worse.


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