Parent: A Legal Term

Parent: A Legal Term

Mom has us during weekdays and school nights. Dad has us every other weekend. 

Mom tells us to pack on Wednesday. We always wait until Friday night and frantically throw toothbrushes, shampoo, clothes, and snacks (there’s probably only expired orange juice and eggs in the fridge at Dad’s) into duffel bags. Dad’s supposed to be here at six, but he arrives at seven, and we’re still not packed. He comes upstairs and exchanges awkward glances with Mom (good, they’re not fighting). Or maybe Dad waits in the car (Mom recites the words to pass on to Dad as she kisses us goodbye). 

Dad picks us up, and the car ride is filled with Phil Collins, interrupted by pauses and the occasional question. During the next two days, we obsess over things that will happen during the time we don’t spend together—me and my sister with our social plans and homework, my dad with his always newish girlfriends—some of whom I’ve gotten to know well. Some of whom I feel like I’ve gotten to know better than I feel like I know him. Our lives are always approaching, never intersecting.

At the end of the weekend, we pile in the car and go back to mom’s. Tomorrow, I’ll come home and sit down at dinner with my mom and sister. We’ll talk about our days at school and work, my sister and mom arguing about whether Luke from Gilmore Girls is aggressive or rude, turning away every now and then to focus on me as I map out my stress about college and early action deadlines. Sometimes, my mom shares a story about her students, rubbing the space above her eyebrows like she’s trying to iron away the nervous creases that appear. 

She feels more like a parent—my dad is a person that I love and care about.

My dad doesn’t know my best friend’s name. He doesn’t know that I sleep with the same English bulldog stuffed animal each night at my mom’s. I never gushed to him about my first date—he doesn’t even know that I’ve been on one. And I feel like I don’t know him completely. 

I don’t know what “Dad” looks like during the other twenty-six days of the month. 

I wonder if he ever feels lonely or wishes his children were around more often to pester him for bedtime stories or complain to him about calculus teachers. I wonder if he, like I do so often, imagines an alternate past, one in which we could’ve shared more time and days, more secrets and stories. 

There was one moment—a little break in reality that let me peer through the floor slats at what it might be like for my relationship with my father to deepen. I was in the hospital. I had esophagitis, and the doctors were conducting tests for hours upon hours. My dad was the only one who could take off of work and stay with me. I sat on the table in the hospital room—dangling my legs like a little kid. He stood across from me, staring at his watch.

And then I felt an urgency, a sense that the moment could go one way or another. We suddenly had time. There was no backpack or homework for me to rush to. No phone call for him to answer or friend to attend to. It was just us. He and his girlfriend had recently broken up, and I felt confused, as she’d consumed our weekends for the past four years. And so, I asked him about it. I asked him if he had been in love.

When I asked the question, it was the first time I had seen him look lost. 

“No, I don’t think so.”

I’m going to turn eighteen soon, and I find myself thinking about that exact moment when the clock strikes 8 PM on January 9th often. When all legal documents that outline the required time spent with each parent become moot, what will our relationship look like?

I know I would have to take the initiative. Do I want to? Am I able to? Like I did in the hospital, do I have the courage to ask the right questions?