Before I left Salt Lake City, I sold most everything. I put out furniture adds on Craigslist, and people paid small amounts of cash as they picked up the items one by one. The kitchen table and chairs, the couches, the beds. I’d built this little home in this small apartment for my children and I over the past few years, and now I was ready to leave it all behind in order to take a great chance on myself.
What I couldn’t sell, I either gave away, or gave to friends for safe-keeping. I was tired of moving, and little things didn’t matter all that much anymore. The boxes of comic books I’d been keeping since I was in high school, I gave to a former student to sell or give away. My kitchen dishes went to the local thrift store. I boiled it all down to non-essentials, giving the remainder of my children’s toys and clothes to their mother to hold on to. And when I was all done, I packed my few remaining items in my car: clothes, blankets, pictures, toiletries, a few electronics (including my television). It was enough to fill the car up, but overall, it wasn’t much at all. A human life in those few boxes. It all fit in a small four door car.
I felt miniscule. And free.
And then came the goodbyes. My best friend Kurt hosted a goodbye party, and I invited many of the friends I’d made in Salt Lake City. Friends from the gay swim team, friends from the support group of local gay fathers, and a few of the guys I dated who had remained friends. We ate barbecued food in Kurt’s beautiful backyard, sat in the shade and shared drinks and memories. It was the perfect conclusion to a dramatic and wonderful chapter in my life. Utah had brought so much joy and freedom, and so many harsh life lessons after coming out.
Saying goodbye to my sons was harder than I ever thought it would be. Of course it was. They were five and two, such amazing, inquisitive, happy little creatures. The thought of not seeing them every day broke me into pieces on the inside. How could I be doing this? But I reminded myself that the quality of my connection to them, even from far away, could remain with a lot of effort and consistency. I owed it to myself to try this, to take a big risk for me. Best case scenario, I told myself, I became deliriously happy and spent a lot of time coming back and forth to see them, with them coming up on holidays and in the summertime. Worst case scenario, I spent a few months in Seattle, realized I was unhappy, and came back, and my kids grew up remembering that I was only gone for a while once when they were very small. My decision felt selfish, but it also felt doable, liberating. I was allowed to do something for me.
When I sat down to tell the boys, I made the news happy, despite my broken heart. I showed them pictures of beautiful Seattle, and talked about going to have some adventures there. We talked about the animals that lived there, and the ocean, and I shared some of my plans to send them letters and to call every night. I’d be back to see them every month, I explained, and we would keep having dad and son adventures. My voice had forced enthusiasm, joy, and wonder in it. We spent that last evening before I left playing together, building a blanket fort and having a dance party while singing silly songs. We looked at family pictures, colored, and ate their favorite foods. Then, I put them in their pajamas, snuggled up to them, and sang lullabies. It was our typical magical evening together.
And then J, my magical little five-year old, gave me a huge hug. He spoke only three words. There was no drama in his voice, no need, no pain, no hurt. Just three, simple, matter-of-fact words during a brief squeeze. Words that would haunt me to no end in the coming weeks.
“Don’t go, Daddy.”
Driving to Seattle would take an entire day. I had a few hundred dollars in my bank account, a couple of credit cards, and a job waiting for me once I got there. A couple of tanks of gas, some music, and a few pit stops, and I would be there, exhausted and ready to start life again.
“Don’t go, Daddy.”
A few hours outside of Utah, I had to pull the car over. My tears started small and silent, then they grew in size and intensity. I had to get out of the car at the rest stop, and sit in the grass to cry more. It was early morning and I didn’t see anyone else there. My cries turned to gasps, and then to choking sobs. “Don’t go, Daddy.”
I cried until I was done crying, then I climbed back in the car, turning toward Seattle. I spoke aloud to my sons, from far away.
“I’m not leaving you. I would never leave you. I’m here. I’m here, and I’m going to find me. I’m not leaving like my dad left. I’m going to be here. I need to find me! I need to find my happy so I can be a better dad for you! I’m going to be here, right here, for you both, for your whole lives! You’ll see. You’ll see, buddies. You’ll both see. I’m gonna be the best dad ever. And I’ll be back here, right with you, in just four weeks, I’ve already got the plane tickets. I’ll be right back here. I’m coming back!”
And as tears rolled down my face anew, the sense of hope returned. I rolled the windows down and drove forward. My sons behind me, yet right there in my heart. Now I needed to find space for me there, too.