A Father's Vow

Submitted into Contest #3 in response to: Write a story about a parent putting their child to bed.... view prompt

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“There you are, nice and dry,” I said, as I finished drying my son off after his bath.  Sammy was only 5 months old, and someone decided that I, with only 5 months of parenting experience, was perfectly qualified to take care of this little guy.  As I had learned over the years, most jobs won’t hire you with less than a certain amount of experience, but taking care of and raising a human being? Nope, totally fine.


I was about to grab Sammy’s pajamas, when I remembered to put his skin moisturizer on.  My wife wouldn’t be too happy with me if I forgot to do that. I opened the container, and found the goopy white cream waiting for me.  I dabbed my fingers into it, tapped a few spots on Sammy’s skin, and rubbed the moisturizer on his legs, arms, back, tummy, and… there. Sammy didn’t appear to react in any odd way, he was still too young. But there was a part of me that sensed that this was an odd feeling.  I looked at him, and said, “I know, little buddy, this is weird for me too. Let’s just get through this.”


I grabbed his pajamas, a blue and green striped onesie with a smiling dinosaur on the front.  I grabbed one of his legs, and placed it gently inside the pajama leg where the zipper meets the tiny sleeve for his foot.  The other foot was the challenge; there was no easy way to get it into his pajamas without contorting him into a bizarre yoga pose.  Thinking of last night’s Game of Thrones episode, I chuckled to myself and said, “bend the knee.” After clumsily angling his leg, I was finally able to work its way in comfortably.  I pulled the zipper up, over his body to the base of his neck, the whole time checking his face. Still content as can be.


I scooped Sammy up into my arms, grabbed his bottle, and sat down in the rocking chair.  This was usually a job I left to his mother; she always has better luck getting Sammy to settle down after his bath.  On a typical night, he’d be screaming with the subtlety of pouring a bag of marbles into a blender, and it would take nothing short of her motherly charm to calm him.  Tonight, however, she had to work late, and it was up to me. So far, he was being cool, and I would do anything to keep it that way.


As Sammy began to suckle on the end of the bottle, the warm formula slowly poured into his mouth.  He was in what felt like a trance, focused on drinking. I couldn’t help it, my mind began to wander as well.


I often think back to my own childhood, and what it must have been like for my parents to be in my position.  I know that I’m far from a perfect parent -- there’s no way to master parenting when you’re just thrown into the fires of parenthood with the expectation that you’ll keep your child alive -- but they must have had similar thoughts and feelings as I do.  My parents did everything right before I was born: they read the books, they built the nursery, they received the unhelpful advice from too many people to “get all the sleep you can now, heh heh.” They made a go of it as best they could. But no matter what you do, and no matter how much sleep you and your pregnant wife try to get before the big day, no amount of preparation can truly prepare you for the challenges that come with parenthood.


I pictured my bedroom in a town far away from here, one of several I would have over the years.  I was six years old, and I shared my bedroom with my two year old brother, Pete. On a night like any other night, my mother held Pete in her arms while she read a story to us.  Afterward, she placed Pete in his crib, and gave us both a kiss on the forehead. She slowly closed the door as she blew one last kiss to me, and that was that. Pete fell asleep right away, while I tussled with my blankets for a bit until I found the right sleeping position.  That’s about the time when the yelling started.


I crept out of my bedroom, quiet as I could be to avoid waking up my brother.  I looked over the railing to see the living room, with my father seated on the couch with his face buried in his hands.  My mother was standing in front of the television, with an intense look of anger on her face that I had never seen before.  I’ve seen her disappointed, upset, even mad when I flipped the middle finger at her after seeing it on television that one time. It was clear I had missed the point about what the argument was about, and although I had heard them argue several times before, it was never quite like this.


“If you keep this up,” she screamed, “I’m taking the kids and I’m leaving.”


My father rose from his seated position on the couch.  He walked to the kitchen, in a place where I couldn’t see him.  Just then, I heard the explosive sound of glass shattering against the kitchen wall. A glass, maybe? A window? Surely not the vase my father bought for my mother for her birthday last year.  I couldn’t tell, but my mother sprang into the kitchen as I continued listening to what I could only describe as violent, threatening, and vulgar. I ran into my bedroom, afraid I would get in trouble for hearing what had happened.


The battle ended after several minutes, as I clenched my blanket.  Through my door, I heard the sound of my father sobbing. Hearing that sound for the first time, I thought it was a joke at first, but then I realized that he was legitimately upset.  He opened the door, slowly, keeping the light off and walked towards the crib. He reached for little Pete, and pulled him into his arms as he continued sobbing. I sat up from my bed, and asked, “Dad? What’s wrong? Is Mommy taking us away?”  He completely ignored me, as if I wasn’t there listening to everything that had just happened. He walked out the door, closing it behind him.


I fell asleep at some point after that, and woke up for breakfast the next morning.  Everything looked normal: nothing was out of place, but Pete and my father weren’t home.  My mother made me a bowl of oatmeal, and placed it on the table in front of me. She was still in her bathrobe, with her hair disheveled and trying to naturally hide what looked like a bruise just her left eye.  The small, colorful glass vase that once acted as a centerpiece for our kitchen table was suspiciously missing, with not a trace of it to be found anywhere in the kitchen. My mother sat at the table, with her hand supporting her head.  She wasn’t interested in her breakfast; instead, she stared off into space in the direction of the living room.


“Mom?” I asked.


“What is it, honey?” my mother responded.


“Where did Dad and Pete go?”


She struggled to find an answer for a minute, before composing herself with an answer.


“Pete had a doctor’s appointment, and they had to leave early.”


“Oh,” I said.  What had seemed like a bizarre joke at the time, would turn into an ugly custody battle that would change the family forever.  My father tried to take full custody of Pete, and leave me with my mother. The compromise they reached was this: my mother would have full custody over me, and they would split custody over Pete.  I rarely saw my father after that; but he would always regard me with a blank stare. I would never know why he wanted nothing to do with me; I had reasoned that I had done something wrong, and he no longer loved me.  Meanwhile, my parents entered into an awkward competition for Pete’s love: my father would spoil him with gifts, and my mother, unable to keep up, would instead give him a greater sense of affection than I felt I had ever received.  Their battle would rage on until my father died 10 years later, and I, a child jealous of the attention my brother would receive, blamed Pete long into our adulthood.


I struggled with these feelings for years as a teenager, and when I thought I had accepted and moved on with my life, these feelings came back with a vengeance when I became a new parent.  If a family like ours could be changed forever, what’s to stop my wife and I from eventually falling into the same pattern? What would be different about my relationship with my wife and son?


The answer was simple: I would be different.  So help me, at any cost, I would make sure that Sammy never had to endure the pain I went through as a child.  I just needed to figure out the best way to go about it.


I shook off the blank gaze I had while my son was drinking from his bottle, which was now almost empty.  I adjusted him in my arms so his head rested on my shoulder, and I started patting his back while rocking the chair back and forth in a steady rhythm.  I waited, and waited, and waited until finally, he belched. Twice. I started singing a lullaby with a voice that I alone would describe as being similar to Frank Sinatra. My wife once described it as sounding like a bear growling into a wax cylinder, but it was my first line of defense when it came to getting Sammy to fall asleep.


When I was finished, I stood up, and gently placed Sammy on his back in his crib.  As my fingertips left the ends of his pajamas, he started squealing in anguish. How dare I put him down while he’s still awake?  I picked him up, bounced him gently around the room in my arms, sat back down in my rocking chair, and tried singing to him again.  Once again, he was ok, but he was a ticking time bomb in my arms.


He stared gently at my face, blissfully unaware of the tension he was creating.  I rubbed my eyes for a moment, and thought about what else I could do to try and soothe him to sleep.  Reading a book? Putting on some music? I’ve tried all of these things with almost no success in the past.  Just talking to him? That’ll work. Maybe.


“Hey, pal?” I said in a soft tone.  “I know, it’s tough being a baby, sometimes, right?  Yeah. Well, no matter how much you scream and cry, and how late you keep me up, I’ll always be there for you.  You’ve got a mommy and a daddy that love you very much, and I’m going to do everything that I can to watch you grow up into an amazing person.”  He looked at me with his blank stare, and I knew that, in some way, he understood what I was trying to communicate to him.


I stood up from the chair and watched his eyes gently close.  Again, I carried him over to the crib, and placed him in the crib.  Again, my fingertips separated from him and, as I leaned away from him, I listened for a moment to hear the sweet sound of silence.


That is, until I walked away.  Once again, the alarm bells rang throughout the house as little Sammy announced his discontent with a wailing banshee cry.  At this point, I swore under my breath at least a couple times. We continued this routine until I decided to turn on the radio, and Sammy slowly started falling asleep to the sweet, melodic sounds of the various advertisement jingles on the radio.  I don’t have an explanation, but it worked, so I didn’t bother questioning it. I put him down in his crib, and pulled away. I listened as this time, Sammy made a deep, relaxing inhale. This was my cue to get out of the nursery while I still could.


I slowly closed the door and walked downstairs, to find my wife in the living room, seated on the sofa.  I sat down in the recliner across from her, and greeted her. After a few minutes of odd pleasantries, she asked, “how is Sammy?”


“He went down easily enough,” I said. “Easier than last time, anyway. It must have been our lucky day.”


The smile on her face communicated a genuine sense of joy for a moment, before her lips slowly returned to a neutral position on her face.  She looked away, across the room, at the ceiling, as if to find the next words to say. It was a long day for her, and it wasn’t hard to tell that she was still bothered by the argument we had this morning.  What the argument was about didn’t matter at this point, only that we knew there was an awkward tension in the room.


“Can we talk?” she asked. The lightbulb went off in my head: this was the opportunity to be different.


“Yeah, of course,” I said. “I’m listening.”

August 20, 2019 17:40

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