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Dad, Not God

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I'm at the airport, my kids on a plane that will take them two thousand miles away from me on what was supposed to be the perfect Father's Day weekend. The day had started out with a brilliant sunrise over Big Sky country, only to end with a sad twist that would pull my son and daughter from me.

It wasn't the first time. As a single dad, I often found myself spending Christmas at all-night AA meetings and without my babies. I'd done my best, but I was young and, despite my professional success, still had a lot of growing up to do. In a way, raising my son and daughter -- leading them as a guide through rushing rivers and lonely nights, the perils of math homework and opposite-sex traumas -- taught me to raise myself to be a man.

There was a certain nobility in those early years. I remember baths and books and bunk beds and uneaten dinners of chicken and mashed potatoes. Ice cream and Land Before Time videos, bottles for Seamus, then one, and that feeling of accomplishment when I finally heard him and his three-year-old sister Kerry snoring. And then I would run a tub for myself and climb in and look up through the skylight overhead. I'd look up at the stars and watch the planes fly by, just dots of light, and wonder what the hell I had done, having these two kids and managing to get divorced by the time I turned 32.

I think about all those guys out there with kids contemplating divorce or just starting out in bachelorhood as a dad. I want to tell them that the courage required to take full responsibility for your kids is something you will one day look back on with fondness. But after a long day of playgrounds and birthday parties and changing dirty diapers, the feeling of standing on their mom's front porch and handing off your kids will rip your heart out. At the same time, it will force you to internalize a simple truth that most parents don't have to contend with until college: They are not your own -- children are a gift from above and the only thing you can do is show up. You cannot control their happiness or their time or their mother. All you can do is love them.

To this day, the thing that leaves its mark on my soul was bedtime. When Seamus was just a boy I would rock him to sleep and inhale the smell of him as his body went limp. I often just held his little body in the crook of my neck to feel his breath and forget everything else that had gone wrong in my day.

Being in my thirties and single meant I was lonely for the opposite sex. But I quickly decided that my kids came first, period. I could have my amateur attempts at romance, but Daddy Time was sacrosanct and no woman was going to either interfere with my time with the kids or meet them.

Seamus, who was an asthmatic toddler, put this policy to the test. I had spent New Year's Eve and Day in Children's Hospital with him one year, trying to get him to ingest drugs from a nebulizer while he pointed his little finger at the door and commanded, "Home!" Several months later I had a date with a local talk radio personality but needed to get Seamus to bed first. His asthma flared up and I tried to call and cancel, but my date was unreachable. I made the mistake of dropping Seamus at his mom's and going on the date. I managed to pull an illegal turn right in front of the restaurant, with the poor woman in my car, only to get smacked by an oncoming Cadillac. After making sure that my date was okay, I looked back in horror as the other driver approached -- in a police uniform. I got written up for everything he could think of, I got my car towed, my date demanded a steak. But all I could think about was Seamus.

Christmas was always my downfall. It's the day when Hallmark and Hollywood conspire to convince you that you must be a loser if your family doesn't look like the Cleavers. Over the years I have mostly convinced myself that my Quaker ancestors were right: Every day is equal importance when it comes to faith. But I have to admit that even now I kind of wish that holidays were banned for the sake of us divorced dads all the same.

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On December 27, 2002 -- six years to the day from my last drink -- I got remarried to a beautiful blond Italian girl by candlelight while the snow fell outside a chapel in Tuxedo, New York. Seamus, a look of fear in his eyes, rang the bell to end the service. Kerry wanted so much to be part of the party that she stepped on Elena's wedding dress. I felt strongly that the kids should have no doubt that this change, however scary, would be permanent. I didn't want them to worry that somehow there was yet another huge change just around the corner.

As both kids grew older they hit their own speed bumps. Relations with my ex never smoothed out. The biggest bone of contention wasn't money, but her persistent belief that the kids needed to spend two-thirds of their time with her and "visit" me when it was convenient. I just never could understand why time with a dad is less valuable when both parents are able-bodied, loving, and have the time and resources to spend.

Five years ago I had a third child, Cole, with Elena. Here, too, I was nervous that my getting on with life would somehow scare Kerry and Seamus. I could not have been more wrong. A baby can bind a family unit like nothing else. The very moment I held Cole for the first time I looked down and realized that this could be nothing but good. And he has proved to be just that. He worships his big brother and sister, and they dote on him. The five of us have grown closer, despite the many interruptions of split custody.

Which brings us back to Father's Day. Our family -- Kerry's now 16 years old, Cole is five and Seamus is 14 -- have made it a tradition to get away every June for the holiday. We go to a national park and then spend a week riding horses. The first time, when Cole was just six months old, we went to the panhandle of Idaho, at Elena's suggestion, and then Yellowstone. This year it was Yosemite, followed by a Montana ranch.

I've always loved riding, from bareback gallops with a teenage instructor who broke my heart as a 12-year-old boy to these last five years of Father's Day rides with my kids. Horses often know more about their rider than the rider knows about himself. To ride well, you have to relax -- truly relax -- or your horse will let you know you are tight.

So riding with my wife and kids through places like Idaho, Colorado, and Montana has become a singularly unifying event. No Facebook. No cell phones. Clear air and mountain water. Snow-covered peaks. Leisurely conversations with cowboys and one another.

The pace of life slows and I see each year how much my kids have grown and how each is an unmerited gift from God in their own way -- Kerry for her sarcastic brilliance, Seamus for his wise-guy sense of humor, my son Cole for his pure love of life.

This year, Father's Day started poorly. A botched hotel wake-up call had us up and showered, packed and ready to go to the airport at 4:30 a.m. rather than 6:30. Seamus, our World Cup fanatic, found a silver lining: "Slovenia vs. Paraguay!" he screamed with delight, realizing he would now be able to watch the match, which was being broadcast from South Africa at an that ungodly (to us) hour.

We finally arrived in Bozeman just after noon Mountain Time. I looked at my BlackBerry with dread. I had been expecting bad news and was hoping it would wait at least until after Father's Day. It was my ex-wife, in tears, calling from her mother's deathbed. She wanted her kids home.

Within an hour, plans had been made for them to fly out the very next day. Our long-anticipated week of riding had been turned into less than twenty-four hours.

A violent thunderstorm with dark black clouds and huge bangs of thunder greeted us at the ranch. I tried to get an Internet connection via satellite so I could finalize the kids' departure once we arrived, but it was lousy. We had a turkey dinner with all the fixins and a huge game of dodgeball on the ranch lawn. A teenage girl had developed an immediate crush on Seamus, her mother told Elena in a whisper over coffee. But it was the riding I had come for.

We awoke to brilliant sunshine on the snow-capped mountains. Seamus joined me for an early-morning yoga class, his first ever. We ate bacon and French toast before heading down to the barn. Seamus got up on a horse named Rambo, and Kerry mounted Jasper. I jumped up on Mags and Elena, Sunday.

Mags let me know right away she was ready to go. Our cowboy, Terrence, led us out. We quickly climbed through wildflower meadows and up a steep rocky trail. Through an aspen grove I remembered to put out a hand on each trunk to fend off Mags and avoid a crushed leg. Up top, the vista took my breath away. My brain was quiet for the first time in months.

I watched Kerry and Seamus from a distance, took pictures -- including during a hair-raising trek across a raging river -- and enjoyed my kids having fun. They looked totally at home on their horses, except for Seamus' out-of-place Boston Celtics cap, a continuing tribute to his fallen team.

Three hours after mounting up, we were back in the ranch van and headed to the airport. Cole cried when we told him Kerry and Seamus had to leave. He gave Seamus, his older brother and personal God, a knuckle handshake -- bumping his tiny fist into the massive hand of a kid already wearing sized 13 sneakers. Then he hugged Kerry before turning his back on us and walking back to our cabin, unable to look back.

At the airport we hug. Now they are sitting on the plane, and I typed this out on my BlackBerry before returning to the Internet black hole of the ranch -- without Kerry and Seamus.

As I wait for their flight to take off, I find myself staring at the white snow of the Rocky Mountains in the distance, trying to make sense of the last twenty-four hours. I am once again reminded that as a father I am not God. I cannot control my kids' life or happiness. All I can do is show up and see what happens. And sometimes all I need is one horse ride to be reminded how much I truly love being a dad -- even when my plans get thrown out the window.

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