The Best Valentine’s Day Gifts A Dad Could Receive

My daughters were about 3 and 5 years old when it became blatantly apparent that my marriage to their mother wasn’t working. My divorce wasn’t final until 2012, but I haven’t lived in that house, or even that state, since early 2010. Making the decision to move from Western New York to Southwest Ohio, 300 miles away from my girls, back to where I had grown up was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I don’t think a day has gone by since that I haven’t wondered whether they’ll grow up to resent me for it.

But this Valentine’s Day, I think I finally breathed a sigh of relief that we may come out of this alright. My girls made me the absolute best cards I could have hoped for.

Kaitlyn's card
Kaitlyn’s card
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The handmade pipe cleaner hearts are a nice touch. And there are so many! It would have taken me an hour to make this card. But, then, I’m a perfectionist and not exactly the arts-and-crafts type.

The inside reads: “Hope you have a Valentines day as sweet as you. Happy Valentines day dad. Kaitlyn.”

Sarah's card
Sarah’s card
Check out the "Find 5 hearts" game she made me! I found them. Can you?
Check out the “Find 5 hearts” game she made me! I found them all. Can you?

The inside reads: “I hope you have a great Valentine’s Day as great as you and that’s pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty great! You are the best Dad in the world so you deserev a fantastic Valentine’s Day So I made a gift for you. Look on back.”

She even decorated the back! My eyes were getting misty at this point. It reads: "Dad you are the best Dad ever and you are the Dad I love Happy Valentine's Day. Love, Sarah."
She even decorated the back!

My eyes were getting misty at this point. It reads: “Dad you are the best Dad ever and you are the Dad I love Happy Valentine’s Day. Love, Sarah.”

I couldn’t stand it. I tried not to get teary-eyed, but I’m pretty sure I failed. But my girls gave me the absolute best gifts ever and didn’t even know it; they let me know I was doing a pretty okay job as their dad and that despite the distance and the obstacles, we actually have a pretty great relationship. Melanie has told me more times than I can count that having left that place and that bad situation, I made it possible to actually be their dad, whereas that wouldn’t have been possible there.

It stings when I think that Katie will probably only remember me being there to a very limited degree and that Sarah will probably never remember me living there. But I’m getting to the point where I’m okay with that because now we can make our own memories. As a result, rather than associate me with a place where I was miserable, they’ll now associate me with this place, this beautiful house, this home we’re trying to build for them in Ohio, and all the memories we create here. And honestly, I think I’d prefer that. I’m just lucky as hell that I have such an amazing support system between my mother, step-father, step-sister, and Melanie, not to mention all the friends I’ve made in the last few years who have become like family to me (*ahem* Chelly) because I really couldn’t have done all this on my own.

I won’t say that depression and ennui didn’t weigh me down, because for a long time I felt like a huge failure; I couldn’t even keep my family together, for God’s sake. And there were times I wished there was a support group for dads who lived 300 miles away from their kids because I didn’t know how to do that. But in the end, I came to understand that I wasn’t meant to be there. I had to find my own path and figure out who I was, not just as a person, but as a father, which, again, I never really would have had the opportunity to do in that relationship on either count. So, basically, we needed this in order to be a stronger family. And it’s nice, too, that the girls have accepted Melanie so well (I figure there will come a time when they can’t really remember when she wasn’t in the picture). In fact, they each made her a Valentine’s Day card, too.

Melanie is well known to be a flower person.
Melanie is a flower person.
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Kaitlyn obviously gets her writing talent from somewhere.

“Roses are red Violets are blue. Hope you have a Valentines as sweet as a bowl of you.”

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Like I said, she’s a flower person.
Talk about sweet as a flower!
Talk about sweet as a flower!

“Hope you have a Valentine’s Day as sweet as a flower. Hope you like this card I’m makeing you and you have a great Valentine’s Day as great as you and thats really really really really great.”

"Hope you feel beter soon. Love, Sarah"
“Hope you feel beter soon. Love, Sarah”

Are these the best kids ever or what?

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Dealing With a Difficult Loss

Last weekend, while Melanie and I were in Western New York visiting my daughters, we got some terrible news – a friend of my younger daughter Sarah had been killed in a car accident along with her mother. The events surrounding the accident aren’t clear. All we know is that the vehicle they were in hit the back of a semi parked on the side of the highway. The father, who was driving, and two sisters got out of it with relatively minor injuries.

At first, we didn’t know that Sarah knew the girl involved, who was only 9 years old. We were at the hotel swimming pool, which has a direct view of the Thruway, and noticed that traffic was barely moving. We guessed that there had been a bad accident, but didn’t actually see the news article until later in the afternoon.

It wasn’t until the following morning, though, that I learned the rest of the details from my ex-wife, who was understandably upset. She had sent me a text asking me to call her when I got a few moments away from the girls. I figured it was about some other business that we’re working on concluding, so didn’t worry too much about it. But when I did talk to her and discovered that the girl was one of Sarah’s best friends, I was devastated for that family, even though I didn’t know the girl or her family personally. Even more, though, I dreaded having to tell Sarah.

How do you tell an 8-year-old that her friend died? How do you explain that she’ll never see or play with her again? How do you help a child through the grieving process? How was Sarah going to react?

At first, I wasn’t sure if Sarah really understood what death is or what it means. Then I remembered that a few years ago, my ex-wife had had to put our cat Thomas to sleep because he had become very ill. We’d had Tommy since before either of the girls was born (in fact, I had had him before I even met my now ex) and Sarah had grown up with him. Plus, she has been to a couple of funerals. So I realized that she probably had a pretty good understanding of what it means to die.

The rest of that day was difficult. It was our last full day together and Melanie, my ex, and I all agreed that it the most appropriate thing to do would be to break the difficult news the following morning when I took the girls home, so that they could have the most emotional support possible. But as I said, it was difficult rest of the day, knowing what was coming and yet not really knowing how things would go.

That afternoon, we took the kids to see a movie (Paddington, for the curious, which was a fantastic family movie and a perfect afternoon distraction) and then we spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool again, followed by some Batman ’66 (which we introduced to the girls over the Holidays and which they absolutely love because we can all enjoy its campiness and silliness together). All-in-all, it was otherwise a really good day. And I’ll freely admit that I stole a few extra hugs when I could.

The next morning I had butterflies in my stomach. I was dreading delivering the bad news to my daughters. We had breakfast, cleaned up, finished packing the car, and then we were off. I felt sick for the entire 10-minute drive and I suspect I was pretty distracted, although I really don’t remember much else of those few minutes.

When we got there, we took the girls into the living room, sat down with them, and their mother delivered the bad news. At first, Sarah acted as if she didn’t understand what she had just heard. A moment later, it sank in. “She’s dead?” was all Sarah asked, and then she broke down.

She cried on her mother for several minutes, then came to me for what little comfort I could give. I did my best to reassure her, although I honestly don’t remember what I said.

My other daughter, Kaitlyn, took the news well, although she wasn’t as close to the girl as Sarah was. Still, she was visibly upset. She did her best to comfort her sister. When she told her simply, “I’m sorry, Sarah,” I was so proud of her for reaching out and, even though there’s really nothing one can say in that situation, saying the right thing.

I’m not really sure I’ve completely processed this situation. I can’t imagine what that father is going through, being forced to deal with not only his wife’s death, but the death of a young daughter as well. It kills me to hear stories like that and I hate the thought that children can get hurt.

On a personal level, I realized at some point in the middle of it all that my daughters have experienced something that I (thankfully) never have – at least, not at so young an age. As a result, I can’t completely understand or relate to what they’re going through. And I can’t escape the thought that they were forced to grow up a little bit this weekend, that they had another piece of their childhoods chipped away. It killed me to to have to witness my daughter’s heart break and be helpless to do anything about it.

Still, I did everything I could – held them, did my best to console them, and dried their tears. And now all I can do is be there for them to answer any questions they may have and try to reassure them about any fears that may develop.

No matter what happens, though, I’ve been reminded once again how precious my girls are and I plan to thank God every single day for them.