When we had been dating about a year, Daddy Sparta, my soldier/policeman husband, charmingly dubbed me “Scrumpshkin.” Then, to show the depths of his feelings for me, he re-cast MacArthur’s rallying points — taken to heart ever since he was a pleeb at West Point — into a more intimate code of “Duty, Honor, Scrumpshkin.”
I laughingly corrected him, “No, no. I prefer ‘Scrumpshkin, Duty, Honor.’ ”
The foreshadowing was lost on me.
Nine years later, we are about to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary, and our son will soon turn five. We anxiously await word that the legal process for our adoption is complete and we can travel to Guatemala to pick up our baby daughter.
As a colonel in the Army Reserve, Sparta commands a brigade that is preparing to send troops to Iraq. We hope he personally will not have to go, but we know there’s a chance he’ll be asked. And we know he’ll serve if called. In his civilian job, he is Chief of Staff of a major metropolitan police department. And of course he is a father and a husband. He would protest, but I often feel his priorities fall roughly in that order. I have gotten used to him slipping out of our date night movies, whispering, “Gotta hit the head.” He goes to the bathroom, but I know he also makes a phone call or two from the lobby. When the pager by his bed goes off, I groggily watch him get up and swiftly dress for the SWAT call-out. I put my foot down when he starts sitting up in bed to read 3 a.m. emails coming in on his Blackberry. The emails can wait until morning.
On Christmas Eve after I’ve put my son to bed, I go in search of Sparta. I’ve prepared a shot of scotch for Santa, and I look forward to the two of us wrapping and arranging the presents, then sipping scotch and nibbling cookies in front of the tree. But Sparta is not in the living room or in his office. I find him asleep in bed, Terror in Breslan open next to him. He is in fetal position, and I gently shake his shoulder, whispering “C’mon, help me do the presents.” He grunts. I try again. “Babe, wake up, time to be Santa with me!” He tugs the covers up around his chest.
I look down at him. The last few years have brought crinkles to where the skin of his face meets his ears, creases at his eyes where tears might fall if he let them. A familiar cocktail of emotions washes over me. He works so hard. He’s tired, poor thing. Then a mixture of resentment and resignation. There’s nothing left over for us. I leave him to sleep, mechanically wrapping the last presents. To set the scene for the morning, I pour half the Scotch down the drain and bite a cookie, dry in my mouth.
“I can’t remember. Are you home this weekend?” I ask Sparta on a Wednesday night. He is gone more weekends than he is home, to the brigade HQ in Los Angeles, or to visit the battalions under him, in Las Vegas, or Sacramento, or San Jose.
He’ll be home. My stomach blips with happiness. I’m craving some time to myself, and some relaxed family time. Maybe I’ll get both.
On Saturday, cell phone to ear, Sparta approaches Niko, “Hey, let’s go take my uniform to the dry cleaners and then you can watch me get my hair cut!”
“Nah, I want to make pancakes with Mommy.”
“You and Daddy could go through the car wash!” I say. “You love the car wash!”
“Mmm. Maybe. . . . Could we, Dad?”
“Sergeant-Major?” says Sparta into his Blackberry and ducks into his office.
“Mommy, put on your apron!” Niko pulls his apron out of the linen closet and holds mine out to me.
“Okay, out here.” says Sparta, hanging up. “C’mon buddy, we’ll drop my uniform off and then get the car washed.”
But the moment is lost. Nothing will entice my son. Not the carwash, or a hotdog at Costco, or the ice creamery next to the barber.
Sparta deals with so many different kinds of stress. But nothing undoes him more than his son’s indifference. He just doesn’t understand it. What little boy doesn’t dream of having a dad that’s a soldier AND a policeman? He looks at me, “I’m trying, hon, but he only wants to be with you.”
“Tell you what – how ’bout after Daddy’s errands, we take kites down to the Marina?”
“All of us?” Niko chirps.
“Yup, you, me, and Daddy.”
On our way out the door, we pass the duffel bag, overflowing with ski clothes, not yet unpacked from a recent ski trip, sans Daddy Sparta who had to work. He glances down at it. “Don’t get mad, but can I help you unpack that bag? I’m going to need it for Fort Bragg.”
“What? You mean, the trip next week? For Chrissake, you don’t leave for four more days.”
“I said don’t get mad.”
The Marina is blustery and cold. We have to yell to communicate. Niko is immediately tired. “Carry me Mommy, pleeease.”
“Daddy can put you up on his shoulders!”
“No, I want YOU to carry me.”
“No!” I shout. I am so sick of this, so sick of trying to make a bridge between my husband and my son, of trying to contain my own bitterness at how much falls to me.
Sparta ducks over a hummock, “C’mon son, have you ever seen your daddy skip stones?”
Niko clambers down after his dad, with me just behind, kite and dog in tow. We are on our own teeny rocky beach on the bay, sheltered from the wind. Sparta selects a stone and throws it, his arm arcing low and smooth. We all watch and count, “One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . fivesixseven!” Niko finds a long branch with a string tied to it and starts “fishing.” I let the dog roam and search for flat rocks to hand Sparta.
Sparta starts to sing a song I’ve never heard before.
You get a line I’ll get a pole, honey honey. You get a line I’ll get a pole, babe.
I laugh contentedly and wonder aloud, “where’s that song from?”
In answer he sings on:
You get a line I’ll get a pole
I’ll meet you down by the fishing hole.
Baby oh baby you’re mine . . .
For one brief shining moment everything is perfect. We are a family, laughing and exploring together.
The raindrops come just as Sparta finishes up his song.
. . . your left, your left, your left, right, left.
Mommy Athens and Daddy Sparta have been together for over ten years. They have a beautiful little boy and are expecting an adopted baby girl. Sophia’s writing has also appeared in Stanford Magazine, Using Our Words: Moms & Dads on Raising Kids in the Modern Neighborhood, and in two collections: Tied in Knots: Hilarious Stories from the Big Day and Mexico, A Love Story (Spring 2006). She can be reached through her Web site at www.sophiaraday.com.