The weeks and months leading into Charlie’s 2nd birthday were filled with many practice renditions of Happy Birthday. My man loved him some Happy Birthday. It was his favorite song and birthday celebrations were his favorite occasions. He’d perfectly sing it to random people, toys, and our dog Laney all of the time. The more I think back, and unfairly compare Danny to Charlie, during this stage in both of their lives I realize just how advanced Charlie’s vocabulary was compared not only to Danny but to every 2 year old I’ve come across. I’m not making him better in death than he was in life, either. Ask anyone that knew him or watch the videos that I’ve posted and you’ll realize that Charlie’s vocabulary was not just a little advanced but “get the eff out of here, did he just say that?” advanced. I thought it was normal but when I would compare him to other kids his age or even a year older than he, I’d realize just how advanced it was for him.
I compare Dan to Charlie all of the time. It’s all I do and it’s monumentally unfair to Dan. They are different people. More importantly, I am a different person than I was 20 months ago. I used to think I was a really good dad. I was obsessively involved, loving, and patient. Constantly reading him books, helping him solve puzzles, and teaching him how to pronounce words. We were connected at the hip. Always spending time together and having fun. He could do no wrong in my eyes. Even when he had temper tantrums, I thought they were cute and would patiently work him through them. I’ve been almost the complete opposite with Danny and it’s severely damaged my relationship with him.
Dan had a bad stretch of sleeping from about May through August. He’d wake up every night and scream from 1am to 3 or 4am. Literally, every night for at least an hour straight. There were many nights when he’d wake up and scream bloody murder until 5am- the time I wake up to get ready to go to work. I don’t care who you are but if your alarm clock is your son inconsolably screaming two hours before you have to get up, it’ll wear on your patience. It broke mine after about the 4th night. After about the 56th night in a row, I lost it. I’d go in there like a silver back gorilla screaming at him to be quiet. I once pinned him down in his crib so he couldn’t stand up and smack my face as I pleaded with him to just go back to sleep. When I quickly realized that “technique” didn’t work, I just quit. Everything. I stopped all interaction with him. I wouldn’t give him baths, put him to bed, or get him out of bed. Trying to get him to do any of these would result in him crying and smacking my face. So I avoided him altogether. I definitely didn’t try to read him books, do puzzles, or play with him because he’d cry and run away from me. I figured if I didn’t interact with him, he wouldn’t hit me or throw epic temper tantrums that included throwing objects, headbutting the ground, and screaming his lungs out. All I could think about was how Charlie never acted this way or how he never woke up at night like Danny. I resented Dan for living and I resented Charlie for dying. I was angry. I would wallow in my grief and ignore my life. I checked out entirely.
“The opposite of love is indifference,” Stubborn Love by The Lumineers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uoCPHwPtZM. I’ve been jamming this tune a lot lately and that line cut me to the bone the first time I heard it. (As I’ve mentioned before, all songs- especially about breakups- speak to me about my loss of Charlie.) I began asking myself, “Who am I? What have I become?” Just another one of those fathers that I can’t stand? I spent the better part of three months faking it. I didn’t care about anything. I definitely didn’t care that Danny outwardly didn’t like being around me which was evident by his avoidance and fearful responses to my presence.
As I got off the train a few weeks ago -in my typical head down/ear phones in fashion- someone stepped on the back of my foot and caused my shoe to come off. Not a big deal but it forced me to look up and I was stomach punched by a billboard with a picture of a man shaving and a little boy watching him in awe with the tag line, “Know you’re someone’s hero”. I broke down in the middle of the train station. (Perhaps a sign from Charlie?) I’m supposed to be Danny’s hero. I’m supposed to be Danny’s protector. Not someone whom he cowers in fear from when I walk into his bedroom. I need to stop comparing Danny to Charlie and start comparing myself to whom I was 20 months ago. It’s on me, not my 2 year old. Yes, I’ve had a rough go at life but that’s no excuse to take it out on my living son. He didn’t cause Charlie’s death. He has no idea what’s going on other than the guy he calls “Dada” sometimes loses his cool and scares the shit out of him.
I regretted nothing about my relationship with Charlie. If I knew that he was going to die just ten months after his 2nd birthday I still would’ve lived my life exactly the way that I did with him. It’s my only silver lining. I regret nothing. I can’t risk not having that same conviction with my relationship with Dan. He deserves more. He deserves to have that dad that Charlie had for his short 2 years and 10 months of his life. The involved, loving, and patient dad that helped develop Charlie into the person I adored.
I’ll never forget a comment that a fellow bereaved parent and reader of my blog, Tim Hayes, left on one of my posts. “Charlie did not get “it” in a vacuum. He obviously had a great dad.” It’s one of the few comments that has truly moved me. That comment has stuck with me over the months because it used to incite anger inside of me. It made me mad b/c I was not that father anymore. I was angry b/c even though I’ve been dealing with an unthinkable loss, I’ve allowed it to overwhelm and turn me into someone I am not. Yes, Danny is not as advanced as Charlie was at this point in their lives but that’s on me and my indifference. It’s on my avoidance of loving deeply and fear of attachment b/c I know how crushing of a loss it is to lose your child. It’s not on Danny. All he’s seeking is his father’s unconditional and unrelenting love. These are the most important years of his development. The difference between an ill-mannered, bratty kid and a polite, kind kid is forged now. I can no longer sit on the sidelines being pissed off that he isn’t Charlie. I need to be there for him now more than ever. That doesn’t mean for one second that I’ve moved on from Charlie or have “gotten over” his death. It just means that I’ve finally woken up and realize that I’m accountable for raising my two living children and can’t use the death of Charlie as an excuse for being a shitty dad.
I’ve written similar sentiments in the past but I haven’t really meant them. At least not like I do today. I actually feel the need for change in that same spot of my soul that was ripped out 20 months ago. Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a noticeable difference in my attitude in everything from my work, my friendships, and -most importantly- my role as a father and husband. (Danny has also been sleeping through the night, which helps. A lot.) There’s also been a significant swing in Danny’s behavior for the better. He’s been sweet and gentle with fewer temper tantrums and I honestly think it has a lot to do with my behavior towards him. As Tim said, kids don’t get it in a vacuum, they get it from us- their parents. If you’re struggling or unhappy with your child’s behavior, look within b/c therein lies the problem. It’s easy to blame your kids or simply write it off as them “being difficult.” Or in my case, it’s easy to give up and quit because Charlie died and I “deserve” to be angry. It’s time to step up and hold myself accountable for the upbringing of my children. I’m done feeling sorry for myself. It’s destructive and grossly unfair to Vanessa, Danny, Reese, and Charlie. I’ve been feeling and noticing a difference in myself lately. Like I excitedly said to Vanessa the other night after I patiently calmed Danny down at bedtime, “I’m back!” With tears welling up in her eyes, Vanessa admitted, “Yes. You are back. And I’ve missed you so much.”
Happy Birthday to my guy Danno! For your 2nd birthday I’m giving you something that can’t be unwrapped or opened. I’m going to try my best to give you more of what I used to be. Hopefully I can take this change I’ve felt in my soul and forge a path back to the father I once was and that you deserve. I love how you’re a rough and tumble boy that’s always pushing the limits and testing me. You’re a great kid and I love you for who are and not who you are not. I promise to remember this today and forever. Now let’s go break some stuff. (I promise I won’t tell Mommy.)