A Digital Fatherhood
We started Skyping, Amelia and I, a little over a month ago after her mother took a two-year job in South America. And I must admit that—Luddite though I am, reluctant to use my cell phone, late to post to Facebook—I'm in thrall to technology as never before. I anticipate our sessions with ardor, always making sure I'm showered and shaved; sometimes, before logging on, checking the lyrics of the song I plan to sing her from a cheat-sheet on my desk. And what a miracle it is! Here in Boston, rain and wind rattle my windowpanes and the sky is dark by five; there she is with tropical birds calling from outside and a yellow summer sunset streaming through her open window at eight. I offer a painfully off-key rendition of Cat Stevens' "Moonshadow," but she doesn't seem to mind: one line into the song I've sung her since the day she was born, and her eyes grow wide. I bring her orange bathtub duckie into camera-range, and she squeals at the sight of her familiar friend. Then it's on to games of peek-a-boo (even more fun now that I can make myself disappear right off her screen) and the itsy-bitsy spider, with my fingers tracing its upward route. The other day I acquired a luminous 24-inch "cinema display" screen that beams her from my laptop at nearly her actual size, as if my desktop image (a photo of her from our last visit together) has magically sprung to life.
But while Skype may help Amelia and me get through the next two years, the larger problem of absence has been with us since her first glistening appearance in this world. In the argot of family law, I am her "non-residential parent"—her mother and I parted ways before she was born—and I've been trying to figure out what it means to be a part-time father since I attended her birth, cut her cord, learned like all the other dads on the post-natal floor how to make a good tight swaddle, then watched her go off to live beneath a roof that wasn't mine.
And now that she's in Brazil, we Skype, which only seems to deepen my dilemma. I can see her on my big new screen as large as life, but I can't put her to bed at night or be there when a bad dream wakes her in the night. When I see her bump her head and cry, I watch helplessly, unable even to offer her the comfort of a kiss. After 30 or 40 minutes, I've exhausted her attention and she begins to rub her eyes. "Night-night, pumpkin," I say. "Don't let the bed bugs bite." When she leans toward the lens, I lean forward myself to say goodbye, then we sign off and my screen goes blank. The Boston night presses against my windows, dark panes reflecting all the bright toys still strewn about my floor that I can't seem to pack away, and I sit there wondering how she must feel seeing her father's face on the screen one minute only to watch it vanish into blackness the next.
But then, as if struck by some great insight, I remember that all parenting presents challenges one never anticipated and demands solutions one never knew existed.
I used to think that I Skyped mostly for me—so that I could watch her grow, get surer of foot, work out the wonders of the opposable thumb, and be witness to all her other first great discoveries. Now I think that I do it for her. Amelia's still too young to remember any of this, of course, her synapses not yet formed enough to seal into memory even the features of my face or the timbre of my voice. But when I rush home from work two nights a week to sit down at my computer with her rubber duck, Sophie the giraffe, an empty box of Cheerios, and her old sippie-cup in my lap, I am filling up a bank of shared experience for us that I can hold in trust. At least that's my hope. For even here in Boston I can start building us a rope of memory to help withstand the eroding tides of forgetfulness, a tether stretched from one hemisphere to the other, from me to her.
Darcy Frey is the author of The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He teaches creative writing at Harvard University.
This piece was originally published on ResponsibilityProject.com.