I wish I could say that Leander fit in with the rest of us just fine when he came home with me. I wish I could say that the two of us bonded easily and that all my worries about Leander having a hard time went away when I saw how resilient he was to change… but that’s not what happened.
When we got back to my house, trying to evade the media storm chasing us the whole way, I knelt down in front of Leander and put my hands on his shoulders. He was still sniffling and his nose was runny. I wiped it clean with my sleeve without even thinking about it. I had to swallow really hard to keep my own emotions in check. He had my eyes. “Hey Leander… I know this is all pretty scary for you and that we’re all strangers to you, but I want you to know that everyone in this house loves you very much and we all want you to be happy here with us, okay?” I told him. What else could I say? I didn’t want to force anything on him too soon, but every little kid needs to know that someone loves them and wants them to be happy. Leander didn’t say anything, just stared down at the ground dismally. Smiling was the last thing I wanted to do right now, but I was a dad now… a real dad who actually raised his own child, not the deadbeat who wasn’t in his life for four years. I had to be the strong one, the put-together one for Leander, so I forced a smile on my face and pretended I was happy. I thought I’d be happy when I finally had my son in my life again but how can any father be happy seeing his child so sad? “Do you want to see your bedroom? It used to be mine when I was your age, but it’s yours now,” I told him.
“… I want to see my mommy,” he muttered before he started crying again.
I only had my son in my care for less than an hour and I already felt like the world’s worst father.
My father, step-mother, my sisters, and even my aunts and uncles all assured me that it would get better for both of us in time and that Leander would settle in eventually but things only seemed to get worse as time went on. I convinced myself that it was my fault. Leander wasn’t adjusting because I was a bad father. I wasn’t raising him right, and I didn’t know what the right way was. I was so young when I had him. I was just a kid myself, then we’d been separated four years. I didn’t know how to be a dad. All I knew was that I loved Leander more than anyone in the world the second I found out Nikki was pregnant and I wanted him to be happy.
Maybe I tried too hard, though. A few weeks after Leander came to live with us, I came home from work a little early so I could tuck Leander into bed and say goodnight. My boss and coworkers were pretty understanding of my situation, which I was grateful for. He was sitting on his bed, hugging my old doll I used to sleep with as a toddler. I gave it to him on his first day here, hoping it would comfort him. He carried it around the house all the time, almost like a security blanket. I smiled when I saw him. Despite the problems we were having, he was still my son. He always would be and I would always love him. “It’s bedtime, Leander. Come on, let’s get you and your toy into bed. You have school tomorrow,” I told him. Leander didn’t even look at me. He just kept playing with his doll. I’d been trying not to be too harsh with him and be understanding that he needs time to get used to things around here, but I knew I couldn’t let him do whatever he wanted just because I felt guilty about his mother. He still needed discipline. “Leander, I mean it,” I said more firmly. “It’s time for bed.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“I don’t care. I’m telling you it’s bedtime.” Leander glared at me and hugged his doll closer to his chest.
“Go away, you’re not my mommy!” he shouted at me. I crossed my arms and pretended like his words didn’t cut me open the way they did.
“No, I’m not, but I’m your dad and I’m not going away, not now, not ever. I know you hate that right now but believe me, one day you’ll look back on this when you’re older and you’ll be grateful that I didn’t go away.” At least I really hoped he would. It killed me to think that my only child would hate me forever. I didn’t plan on having any more after Leander, mostly because I had given up on finding someone who would love me for me and not my family’s fame. I honestly didn’t even think I was worth anyone’s love. That fight between Aqua and me might have happened years ago, but it still stuck with me and I couldn’t shake those feelings of worthlessness, no matter how hard I tried and how successful I was. On the inside, I didn’t feel successful at all. I felt like nothing.
“No I won’t! You took me away from Mommy! She didn’t mean the bad stuff she said, she was just mad! She wants me back, I know she does! She loves me! She’s my Mommy!”
What could I say? I couldn’t tell him that his mother hadn’t even tried to contact me once about seeing him since the court date. I just couldn’t. I wouldn’t raise him to hate his mother, no matter what a terrible person she was. I would rather pretend that I was the bad guy who was keeping her away from him than tell my son that his mother just didn’t care about him. I couldn’t bear to hurt him like that. “… Maybe she didn’t mean it,” I agreed with him. “But it’s something the grown-ups should worry about, not you. Your only job is to have fun, make friends and do well in school… and to do that, you need to sleep. Come on, into bed with you.”
Leander reluctantly climbed under his bedsheets and I leaned over to help tuck him in but he slapped my hand away. “I don’t want you to tuck me in. I can do it myself,” he grumbled. How did my four year old have the attitude of a teenager already? I really was a mess as a father…
“Goodnight Leander. I love you,” I told him, ignoring the stinging in my chest.
Sighing, I shut the door, wiping at my eyes when I was sure no one would see me.