One of the saddest moments in my life wasn’t sad at the time.
I was six years old. My mom, my brother Ryan and I were sitting in the living room watching TV. Something seemed quite strange and different for a day or two. Hell, it could have been a week. When you’re six, the continuity of things don’t blend together into a straight line, but for me it blended into chunks and vignettes.
We were watching TV, my brother and I. My mom, thinking back, had this wide gaze, like she was checking out the details of something on the other side of the universe. Of course, I didn’t think anything of it at the time; if it weren’t for my habit of studying the lines on my mom’s face, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
The phone rang all of a sudden. Mom had a look of indictment on her face, a face one might make if a bill collector were calling for the umpteenth time. She got off the couch and picked up the white, blocky home phone that seems all but extinct these days.
“Hello,” she said – more of a statement than a question.
In the hazy clouds of my memory, I recall Ryan being drawn into Mom’s melancholy, that natural symbiosis of family empathy. He was about 2.5 older than I was, probably able to pick up on things like humility and sadness.
Mom started crying. A moment later, so did Ryan, but more so out of confusion and wanting mommy to be okay. Mom said something to the effect of, “Okay, here’s one of them,” and handed the phone to Ryan. Have you ever pictured a nine-year-old being interrogated between huffs and tears? Take a moment to imagine that, then picture my brother holding the phone, sobbing “yes” and “OK” in slow successions.
I remember looking at mom crying. I was more worried about Ryan, since we were kids so close in age, and two kids close in age are like appendages to one another. Ryan gave his last “OK,” and a moment later said, “Yeah, here he is,” and extended the phone out to me. I can’t remember exactly, but I imagine it being pretty soggy with tears.
I put the phone to my little ear.
“Hey, kid.” said the voice on the other line.
“Daddy.” I remember shouting excitedly.
Ryan and Mom were holding each other.
“Hey, son,” he said. “How you doing over there? You sad?”
I brushingly said “no.” Why would I be?
“Hey, try to make Ryan and Mommy laugh when you get the chance.” I said okay, Daddy. Then I stayed kind of quiet, I think. “Hey, Nelson, I’ve got something to tell you.”
I remember zoning out a little bit, not being able to see Ryan’s face because it was buried in Mom’s chest.
“I’m not going to be coming around there anymore, son. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Of course I didn’t, but I said yes, because you can get away with that at six. “I’m not going to be able to come back. Mommy and I talked and decided that it would be a fun idea if we lived in separate places now.”
I think my first and only semi-adult comprehension of what was happening came and left with that sentence. I immediately disappeared back into a la la land that no one knows goes away when you grow up.
“But that’s okay I can’t come over because guess what. I’m only about five minutes away. I got this cool new house, and it’s only five minutes away.”
Of course, Dad didn’t really have a cool new house. He had a dinky apartment in Loves Park with faulty heating and a bathroom that smelled like Lysol, but I wouldn’t know the difference at that age.
“And I have a lot of candy over here. Would you like some when you come over?”
I think that’s the only thing I remembered crystal clear. He made sure to say there was candy, and he was right in thinking that would get me excited about the whole damn thing. Mommy and Daddy were now living separately and crying into phones connected to each other, but heck, I get candy out of it!
“Mommy’s gonna take you over here this weekend so you can spend the night, okay? It’s a lot of fun over here.” I imagine him saying this with a happy voice, but trying not to drown the phone with a flood or crush it with a white-knuckle grasp that stifled the gates coming down inside him.
“OK, Daddy.” I remember saying.
“OK, Nelson. I gotta get going now, okay?”
I nodded, as if he could see.
“Remember, make Mommy and Ryan laugh as soon as you get off the phone, OK?” There was a beat, I was certain of that. “I love you, son.”
I love you too, Dad.
The phone clicked on the other side. I stayed there with the phone still to my ear, because in my six-year-old rationale, he’d elaborately pretended to hang up and would yell “SURPRISE!” over the phone any second now. That would have been a cool trick!
But about a minute later, I gave up waiting. Mom took the phone from my hand, still crying with Ryan, and I made THE funniest face I could, shouting a bunch of gibberish and pulling the sides of my mouth to stretch it out.
Neither of them laughed.