I showed up for a scheduled interview about 20 minutes early.
I walked across the school parking lot and sat down on a bench near the school playground. The empty swing set swayed back and forth in the September breeze. I nursed a large coffee and looked over my notes.
Then I glanced back at the swings. I could see my daughter and my son, many years ago, gripping the chains and kicking and pumping their legs high into the air, trying to gain new heights on every turn. I could see them in my mind’s eye, climbing the steep ladder to the top of the slide. Down they came, catching air at the bottom and landing in the sand pit, feet first, just as a gymnast would dismount from the rings.
I remember lifting them up to grab the ring that would carry them along a beam to the platform on the other side. Then there was the sandbox, where the two of them would cook daddy “breakfast.” I’d order pancakes and home fries and coffee, and seconds later they would bring me a nice plate of dirt. Of course I’d pretend to eat it and ask for more.
There was the teeter-totter. There they were, wearing their Dracut hoodies on a cold autumn morning, tiny vapors escaping their mouths with every breath. The two of them on one side, with me on the other.
It was a Saturday morning ritual. Stop at Dunkin’s. Coffee for me, doughnuts and juice for them and then off to the playground. Sometimes we’d drive around looking for a different venue, but more often than not we’d end up at the Stay and Play Playground on Pleasant Street in Dracut. Today, it is the site of the Central Fire Station, but back then, to a toddler, it was the best place in the whole world.
Three tube slides that curl around and drop you off who knows where. The tire swing that moved in a circular motion. The spinning barrel. Hold onto the crossbar and run in place as fast as you can. There was the giant wood and rope ladder that they were afraid to climb up at first until they realized dad was at the bottom to catch them if they fell.
There were other parents there, moms mostly. They all seemed to be giving me “The Look.” For a while I couldn’t put my finger on it, then one morning it dawned on me. They probably think that I’m one of those weekend dads who has custody of my kids today.
To counter that perception I’d always say something like, “c’mon kids, time to go. Mom probably has lunch ready for us.” Then the moms would smile a little and whisper to each other while the kids and I piled into the minivan, which is a dead giveaway that I’m a full-time dad.
I took another sip of coffee. I could see my kids as clearly as if they were standing in front of me. Their rosy, red cheeks and their ice-cold fingers braving the cold morning temperatures. Back then they depended on me for everything. I was the guy who buckled them in their car seats. I was the guy who supplied the chocolate doughnuts with sprinkles. I was the guy who took them to the playground.
Kathleen drives now. Rory has his learner’s permit. They both work. They come and go and every single day pulls them a bit further away from me. They have friends whose names I don’t know. They have Facebook pages to which I am not privy. They are growing up. Kathleen will be 18 in four months. Rory is almost as tall as I am. He’s been taller than his mother for a couple of years now.
I took another sip of coffee and looked at the time. I walked back across the school complex over to the high school. I stopped and took one look back at the playground. The swings were still moving slightly. I said a silent good-bye to my little ones, feeling a little melancholy and a little old.
As I walked across the lawn, three high-school boys stood outside the cafeteria, singing a cappella doo-wop and R&B. Perfect harmony. Nobody else was around. Call it a bonus. Call it a distraction. I don’t even know why I mention it. I’m just glad I got to hear them.
Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.