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A Different Kind of Father’s Day Tribute

by Kevin Ring

girl scared
girl photo © Marzanna Syncerz - Fotolia.com All rights reserved.

The week leading up to Father’s Day has become a time for writers to share stories about how unique their fathers were, although I am always struck by how similar the stories seem. Every outwardly average dad, it appears, was hiding some remarkable trait – like the stamina to work three jobs and never complain or the ability to miss every Little League game and dance recital and yet still convince his children that he was, in the end, a great father.

This essay is different. It’s a tribute from, not to a dad. It is about the gift of fatherhood, and about how two little girls saved my life.

The relevant part of the story began two years ago when my mother died. Shortly thereafter, the FBI raided my house (as part of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal) and my wife asked for a divorce. Then my father died. Months later, I was indicted, arrested, and hauled away from my house in handcuffs. I fell down walking my dog and separated my shoulder. I recovered in time to stand trial in federal court on eight felony counts. After a six-week trial, the jury hung on all counts. And then my wife moved out.

No, I am not kidding. That all happened.

When the madness started, my daughters were 5 and 2. I remember telling friends at the time that I would be better able to handle the pain and stress if I didn’t have the girls. I felt like my wife and I could withstand nuclear winter; neither of us grew up with lots of money and so as long as we had a place to live, we’d be fine. Having the girls made me think there was so much more on the line. Forced out of work by my legal situation, I had already worried about not being able to provide for them. Now I started worrying about what would happen if I went to jail. I began to worry about the girls feeling abandoned, about other kids making fun of them, and on and on.

But then something happened. Kiley, my older daughter, wanted me to watch Hannah Montana with her. Audrey wanted me to watch her doodle. Both wanted to go to Chuck-E-Cheese and the park and the fair and the library. I was a stay-at-home Dad and spending every waking moment with my girls, and they simply didn’t have time for a distracted father. As a result, I didn’t have time to wallow in self-pity or play out every fear.

During an unbelievably crazy time, my girls kept me sane. They did it primarily by just acting like kids. But other times, they acted with an extraordinary sense of compassion and knowing that is hard to explain even in hindsight. A couple of examples might help.

Early one sunny spring morning a couple of years ago, ten or so FBI agents surrounded our house and began pounding on the door. My wife and I woke in a panic with Audrey sleeping between us. Within a minute, we found 5-year-old Kiley hiding under the kitchen table. She had been watching cartoons alone in her pjs and took cover when she heard the agents pounding and yelling at the door.

The initial entry and casing of the house scared me but it was immediately clear that the kids were going to take their cues from our reaction. Kiley asked me why all these people were here. I responded as sincerely as I could that they were here to investigate a crime and that it was our job to help them by letting them look for anything in our house that might help them find the bad guys. Would that be enough to stay any additional questions? Was the trauma of the event simply too great for explanation?

As it turned out, Kiley was upset, but not sad. As we left the agents at the front door and began walking together to the bus stop, Kiley said in an exasperated voice, “YOU DIDN’T TELL ME THE FBI WAS COMING OVER TODAY!” I laughed – and then apologized. She laughed too. I was guilty of interfering with her morning routine, a serious infraction at that age, but far short of scarring her for life as I feared.

A year later, my stepmother called to say that my Dad’s rapidly declining ability to breathe had landed him in the intensive care unit at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She spoke calmly, but I heard fear. My wife was working and so I either needed to take the kids on the 6-hour trek up I-95 to Connecticut or find a sitter to pick them after school. I didn’t even know how long I would be gone so I decided to bring them. Just 36 hours after we arrived, my father passed away. My brother called me at 6am with the news. I had left the hospital only a few hours earlier. The girls and I were staying at my aunt’s house and, as usual, Audrey was sleeping with me.

I hoped she didn’t hear the cell phone ring because I wanted her to sleep in. But as I rolled over after hanging up, her head was on my pillow and she was looking right in my eyes. “Who was that?” she asked in a sleepy voice. “Oh, it was Uncle John. I have some bad news. Dad-Dad just died.” She just stared for a minute. “Are you sad?” she asked. I said I was. Before I could say anything else, she climbed on top of my chest, put her small arms around my neck and squeezed me tightly for a solid two minutes. Neither of us spoke.

Over the past two years of nearly unbelievable turmoil, stress, and fear, my girls have kept me grounded and happy. Most days we played games. Some days we danced. Every day we laughed. It’s beyond hackneyed to say that tragedy or adversity can make you realize what’s important in your life, but I don’t know a better way to say it.

My girls are still kids and they act their ages. Kiley talks back too much and doesn’t clean her room. Audrey resists bedtime and most healthy meals. And when they fight over the pettiest things, my sanity faces its toughest test.

But parenting teaches nothing if not patience. I have learned how to wait – for tantrums to subside, for lessons to sink in, and for bedtime to bring peace. I now must wait for the day when I can explain to the girls everything that’s happened over the past two years. And when that day comes, I will let them know that it was they who got me through. It was they who saved my life. Until then, I will do as they taught me and make every day count, especially Father’s Day.

Kevin Ring is a freelance writer in Kensington, Md.

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