Other people found it extraordinary. For us, it was just the way life was. Just me and her, for more than a decade.
In the early years, I’d get compliments for it. We’d be in a checkout line, and Grace — still a little kid with missing baby teeth — would be running around the store, begging me to buy her some piece of candy or junk toy.
A stranger in line would strike up a conversation, and the topic would turn to how Grace’s hair was braided or how she’d picked out her own outfit that day. The stranger would say, I’m sure her mother usually takes care of that.
“It’s just us,” I’d say.
Eyes would widen. Then came the accolades — how incredible it was that I had stepped up, what a great guy I must be, what a great job I was doing.
It never felt right taking praise for my marital status and gender. I wanted to say back, Of course I’m taking care of her, dammit. Why wouldn’t I?
But I knew they meant well, so I’d deflect the compliment. “Well, women do it all the time,” I’d say. “No one thinks that’s incredible.”
Yeah, but you’re a dad raising a daughter. That must be tough.
“A lot of single mothers are raising sons,” I’d say. “They manage.”
No big deal, I figured at the time. I can raise this little girl as a single parent — one of society’s disadvantaged roles where the economy, the demands of school systems and employers, the short hours in a day, all come together to crush you.
And I’d do it while working as an investigative newspaper reporter — a career with unpredictable hours, incessant deadlines, frequent travel and constant confrontations with people who don’t like the questions you ask or the things you write.
I was no more willing to give up one role than the other. I loved my daughter so much, the girl born on Valentine’s Day, the day before my 27th birthday, who sprinted out the front door and into my arms every day after work.
And I loved my job, which is not so much a living as a lifestyle. Remember the movie “Casino,” where the narrator says Joe Pesci’s character refused to tone it down because he enjoyed being a gangster? Well I’m that way about being a reporter. I live for the unending pursuit of the facts. I see myself as an outlaw on the side of the angels, speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless.
I can manage all this, I thought. I was still a guy in his early 30s back then. When you’re young, you’re invincible.
I had a lot to learn.
2. Getting out
If I close my eyes, I can still see her there, standing at the edge of the ocean, 5 years old. She’s holding up a bodyboard by its rope, and it’s spinning in the meager Jekyll Island breeze.
She motions for me to come to the water. I’m about half a football field away, sitting on the sand in a fold-out chair.
This beach can seem deserted, even during peak summer season, so she’s a portrait of solitude, framed in the distance by the rippled sand, the green water extending to the horizon, and a sky threatening rain.
“Just play by yourself for now,” I yell to her. “I’ll be down in a little while.”
I need to think right now. I look down at the gold wedding ring on my finger, turning around in my head all the things that happened back home in Augusta before the two of us left for the coast, minus one. I re-play the latest domestic debacle, the inevitable confrontation, and the ones that came before it.
I can’t live like this anymore, I say to myself.
I see my daughter, the tiny waves washing up and around her feet, the bodyboard still spinning and flopping against the surface of the water. Can she live like this?
I run through the options in my mind, tracing their inevitable outcomes in flow-chart form. Every line of reasoning, every model, leads to one conclusion.
I have to get a divorce.
* * *
There’s another reaction I get when I tell someone I have custody of my daughter: What happened?
I could say more about that, but because this is going into a newspaper article, I would be ethically required to get my ex-wife’s side of the story. That would involve interacting with her, which is not something I am willing to do. If you want to know, it’s on file in Richmond County Superior Court. Or just buy me a beer.
I’ll say this much: Grace’s mother didn’t leave by choice. There was an untenable situation, a train barreling toward a ravine. I made the decision to grab my daughter and jump.
I’ll say this, too: The situation had gotten so bad, my daughter didn’t react all that much after the split. At least, not that I saw on the surface, not at first. I barely talked to her about it. The two of us already had been spending extended periods of time alone together as a duo. I was naive enough to think she could just shake this off, as fathers often expect their children to do.
That day on the beach was in July 2006. By the following April, I had a divorce order signed by a judge and sole physical custody of my daughter. I also had the house and two of the three cars. Grace still had her same room, her same school, her same life.
I didn’t stop to think about why she suddenly refused to sleep in her own bed, how alone she must have felt lying in the dark, clutching her favorite doll and sucking her thumb. I didn’t question why she developed a crippling fear of thunderstorms.
For me, it was a glorious time. Liberation. I had money again — no more floating checks to keep us out of financial freefall.
There was a popular bumper sticker back in the 1980s, a play on an old Rolaids commercial. It said, “How do you spell relief? D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” It summed up my attitude.
I was 33 years old, working as an investigative reporter for The Augusta Chronicle. It was the final years of the good old days of newspapers, when even a mid-sized daily publication in a mid-sized market would shell out thousands of dollars to dispatch reporters far afield, all in service to a story.
When the Iraq war broke out, I was embedded on the front lines. Back home, I spent months tracking down members of an Army unit for an award-winning series on Gulf War Syndrome. For the better part of a year, I traveled the state reporting on a crooked sheriff. It was one thing gallivanting around in pursuit of a story when I was married, but it got more complicated after the marriage ended.
My divorce was pending the Christmas James Brown died. Grace and I were visiting my family in Atlanta when I got the call from my editor. I had to bolt from our vacation to cover the funeral in New York City. When I returned, I gave Grace a gift-store figurine of the Statue of Liberty.
The trip made me realize that with my new-found disposable income, I could swing a trip like that on my own. The next year, I took Grace on a trip to Philadelphia and New York with my brother and his wife. Grace got to see the real Statue of Liberty. She got to see dinosaur bones and the top of the Empire State Building. In Philadelphia, we climbed the Rocky stairs, and at the top she jumped up and down, raising her arms and cheering.
I picked her up and held her in my arms.
We were survivors. We’d been through fire and emerged in victory. I had everything under control, and the way I saw it, I always would.
3. Things fall apart
I gave Grace a lot of leeway as a child. She’d been through so much, I wanted her life to be easy. Discipline came only if she struck my last nerve. Once I had control of the house, I became obsessive about keeping it straight, my way of coping with all the chaos I’d been through. Since Grace could never do any chores to my satisfaction, I just did them myself.
I taught Grace that the highest virtue was independence, doing what makes you happy, earning your own money, staying out of debt. I told her never to believe in anything without evidence.
But the most important thing a parent can give a child is time, and there I had a problem. With my job and my hours, I would never be the kind of parent who could pick her up from school every day, or be waiting at home when she stepped off the bus.
Instead, 6-year-old Grace went to a child-care center after school. The place smelled like dirty diapers, but only in the lobby, and Grace seemed to like it OK. A month or so later, I switched her to the Boys & Girls Club in Harrisburg, where she got homework help and learned to play bumper pool.
I tried to make up for it by taking her several nights a week to Augusta GreenJackets minor league baseball games. I’d pick her up after work and take her straight to Lake Olmstead Stadium, where we’d sit on the third base line, eating hot dogs for dinner and dodging foul balls.
Then I caught a break. My mother and stepfather moved to Augusta from Atlanta. They said they wanted to downsize and get closer to the coast. Looking back, I think my mother knew I needed help far more than I realized.
It was a good thing, too, because in 2008 when the Great Recession hit, newspapers were socked in the gut and my carefully structured world fell apart. There was a round of layoffs and the investigative team was dismantled. I was moved to the City Hall beat. Now I had to produce multiple stories a day, plus in-depth stories for Sunday, plus a weekly column, plus a semi-daily blog. My 40- to 45-hour workweeks became 50, 60, sometimes 70 hours. With constant pressure and no time to exercise, I packed on 30 pounds.
Most nights I’d pick Grace up from my mom’s house around 8 or 9 p.m. One night, after covering a city commission meeting, I didn’t get there until 11:30 p.m. Grace would refuse to go to bed, instead sitting up by the window waiting for my headlights. She’d already lost one parent, and she became terrified she would lose me, too. My mom had to step into a parental role, helping Grace with her homework, buying her clothes, making her dinner, providing discipline.
On weekends, I’d tell Grace to play in her room while I hammered away on my laptop in my bedroom, finishing Sunday stories, polishing blogs, responding to readers’ emails. On weekdays, I’d wake up to find she had slipped into my bedroom in the middle of the night.
One weeknight she woke me up around 3 a.m. She’d gotten sick. The bed, mattress and floor were a mess.
Exhausted and frazzled, I flew off the handle, scolding her when I should have been comforting her. I should have gathered her up in my arms and told her everything was OK. I should have taken her temperature, thrown the ruined sheets on the laundry room floor, told her a story so she’d fall back asleep.
Instead, I blew it.
This wasn’t working. Something had to change.
4. Life is good
In 2010, I got a job offer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, covering Fulton County government. I grew up in East Cobb and left Atlanta in the late 1990s in hopes of racking up enough daily newspaper experience to someday land a job at my hometown paper. For years I had pined to return. Now Grace would spend the remainder of her childhood in the city where I spent mine. We packed up the only house Grace had ever known and moved to Sandy Springs. She never looked back.
We had found the good life.
My income shot up by tens of thousands of dollars. I hired a lawn man and a house cleaner to free me up on weekends so I could spend time with Grace. And I showed her Atlanta, taking her downtown to see the massive gleaming skyscrapers. We ate lunch in the revolving Sun Dial restaurant, where I pointed out landmarks in the distance: the Concourse’s king and queen towers near our house, Stone Mountain, Kennesaw Mountain.
“This is your city,” I told her. “You’re one of the cool people now.” She smiled big.
On weekends, I took her to Six Flags and White Water, paying extra for flash passes so we could skip the lines. I took her to see Selena Gomez, The Beach Boys, Maroon 5, Blink 182 and Carrie Underwood in concert. I took her to her first Braves game at Turner Field and splurged for seats behind home plate.
“This is what a real baseball game looks like,” I told her.
I still had the same issue with a reporter’s work hours versus a child’s school hours. But again, I had help. Both my grandmothers lived in Atlanta, and they took turns greeting her at our house when she got off the bus. They also took her to guitar lessons, soccer practice, basketball practice and school play rehearsals.
To celebrate major birthdays for both of us — the dawn of her teenage years and my 40s — we planned another trip to New York in February 2014. But that January, Snowjam happened. A month later came Son of Snowjam, which hit Atlanta but clobbered Augusta worse. The AJC assigned me to cover it. Grace and I made a dash in a rental car back to our old city. Fed up with making sacrifices, she complained the whole way.
“Why couldn’t I stay at home?”
“Because I’m not leaving you there alone.”
“I’m almost 13. I stay by myself every day after school now.”
“You’re not staying at home overnight. Something could happen to you. Or you could burn down the house.”
Grace would spend her 13th birthday with my mother and stepfather at their house in Aiken County, S.C. The ice storm knocked out their power and shut down the water pump, forcing them to go days without showering and to spend their nights shivering under piles of blankets. Her birthday dinner was leftover pot roast heated on a propane stove.
I spent the week with a photographer at the Marriott hotel on the Savannah River. When we weren’t driving around taking pictures of the ice-covered city, we were at the hotel with power, water and a fully functioning restaurant.
On Valentine’s Day, I called her between interviews to say happy birthday. Grace was livid.
5. Hell breaks loose
As a child grows, it’s like she becomes a series of different people: the baby who crawled on the kitchen floor, the toddler who ran on the beach, the kid you took trick-or-treating. As their ages reach the double digits, you realize you don’t like these new people as much as much as you did the old ones. Then one day, you’re living with a maniac.
Everything you’ve done, everything you’ve tried to teach them, it all explodes in your face like a dye pack on a bank robber. The person who means everything to you says things like, “I hate you.” “I don’t want to live here anymore.” “I wish I’d never been born.” “I bet you wish I’d never been born.”
Doors slam. Tempers ignite. We scream at each other. She locks herself in her room. I make desperate calls to family members for advice. I get calls from other parents, equally exasperated, who inform me they hacked their daughter’s Instagram account and busted my kid along with their own.
She fakes being sick to get out of school. With my reporter instincts, I can spot BS. If I can figure out which county commissioners are pilfering public funds, I can figure out that someone threw a party while I was at work.
Then, it starts with the boys.
People often want to know how I handled, you know, the tough conversations. The answer: My sister took care of it. But I did have some frank conversations with her about boys.
They’re sociopaths, I told her. Compulsive liars. An inferior gender. They want one thing, like a shark craves meat, and they’ll say anything or do anything to get it. They’ll lie so convincingly, even they believe their own lies.
Of course, she didn’t listen. We went to New York for her 14th birthday, and as we sat down to eat in Little Italy, she looked across the red tablecloth into my eyes and said, “Dad, I’m going on a double date.”
She’d been building up her courage for this conversation, and she was steely-eyed, ready to do battle if she had to.
“A date with who? Why?”
She told me they’d be going out to eat, with this kid’s mom driving, and then hanging out in a friend’s basement. I didn’t want to talk about it right now. I was trying to enjoy Little Italy.
I had wanted to delay this part for as long as I could, knowing no good would come of it. But she was growing up in front of me, and I couldn’t fend off time forever. I was exhausted from it.
“Do you understand?” she said. “I’m going on a date.”
I would be proved right when the boy became insanely infatuated with her after she rejected him. He started bullying her, mocking her with cruel memes on social media, calling her past midnight and berating her, and insulting her in front of class. Eventually, she confronted him in the school hallway where he insulted her again. She grabbed him by his hair and smashed his face into a locker.
When she told me about it, I felt a mix of pride and horror. You don’t solve problems by assaulting people, I told her. What if she had seriously injured him?
At the same time, she had stood up for herself, confronted a bully, put a boy in his place. But where did this rage come from, I wondered.
6. A bad night
A year ago, our family grew when we moved into a new townhouse near Chastain Park with my fiancée Anne and her Border Collie, River. I’m not sure Anne knew what she was getting into. The stress. The raised voices. The punishments I never followed up on. The door I kicked in that cost $250 to replace.
Take Halloween 2017.
Grace was supposed to be at a sleepover. We were at home, about to watch a movie, when I checked my phone and discovered I had 15 unread texts and a dozen missed calls. I dialed Grace’s number.
“I went to a party in Roswell,” she confessed. “The police are here. They won’t let me leave.”
“Send me the address,” I said. “Be respectful, but don’t admit to anything.”
I sped up GA 400 and over the Chattahoochee River. The GPS led me to a neighborhood where the entrance was blocked by a police cruiser, and I was still half a mile from the house. Is this a teen party or a chemical spill, I wondered.
I parked my car and started walking. The subdivision was like a funhouse, lit up by swirling blue lights. I passed more police cruisers. I saw furious parents walking every which way. I passed a lot where the police had kids sitting in a row on a wall, and they seemed to be frisking them.
I passed neighbors standing in their driveways and heard a woman boast loudly that she was the one who called 911.
When I reached the house, I texted Grace: “I’m here.”
Outside there was a gaggle of parents gathered near the front door. Officers with clipboards were processing them one at a time.
Grace stepped outside. She was wearing makeup and an outfit I’d never seen, leggings, a flowing shirt and high heels.
“What did the police tell you?” I asked her.
“That I can’t leave.”
“Did they say you were under arrest?”
I was thinking like a reporter by then, trying to sort out the legalities. The police were telling parents they couldn’t take their kids unless they showed them their IDs and disclosed their children’s names. I preferred our names not be in the police files.
Just then, one of the moms started arguing with an officer holding a clipboard. Their exchange grew heated. The officer’s voice soared, and she started beginning her sentences with “ma’am,” a bad sign.
I turned to Grace. “Walk! Now!”
She followed me up the driveway, struggling to keep up in her heels. The officer with the clipboard and the woman kept arguing.
We passed by more officers, our eyes forward. No one stopped us. We passed where the kids were being frisked. We passed through the funhouse of parents, neighbors and fleeing kids and got into my car.
Grace managed to dodge the long arm of the law that night. I wish I could say that I held her accountable, but it became just another lesson in how to challenge authority.
“That was pretty cool what you did,” she told me on the ride home. I wasn’t in the mood for flattery.
“What were you thinking?” I demanded. “Do you think life is a 1980s comedy movie? That kids can throw big loud parties like that and the neighbors aren’t going to call the police? And you lied to me about the sleepover.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was stupid.”
She was grounded. Again.
Grace’s teenage antics were growing more serious, and she seemed oblivious to the flames she was playing with.
7. Time has no mercy
Now Grace is a rising senior. She’s looking at colleges, taking SATs. I’m still in the thick of this stuff — the good and the bad — but childhood is winding down.
It’s a funny thing about parenting. As frustrating as raising a child can be, as difficult as being a single parent may be, you don’t ever want it to end.
I look back at photos I posted in the early days of Facebook, at the face of the little girl who is no more. I remember how, for a time, life was magical.
In one picture, she’s 2, clutching a balloon, and my younger self holds her up high after I’d just stepped off the plane returning from Iraq. In another she’s 7, decked out in a Hannah Montana hat and T-shirt, primping in front of a mirror. Then she’s 11, wearing her soccer uniform with braces on her teeth. Then she’s 16, pinning a boutonniere on her date’s jacket before the Sadie Hawkins dance.
Time has obliterated those wonders. That little girl is as gone as my great-grandparents. And what makes it so confounding is, I had no warning. No one told me when it would be the last time I’d push her on a swing at a playground. Or the last time I’d carry her on my shoulders. Or the last time I’d tell her a bedtime story.
I also look at the young woman Grace has become — so confident, so streetwise, so independent, so beautiful — and I realize the wonder and the magic goes on. I’m just older, more frustrated, more cynical.
I could be proud of myself for making it this far as a single father to Grace. But the truth is, I’ve had a lot of help from a lot of strong women. My sister. My mother. Grace’s maternal grandmother, who’s always been there for her and for me. My grandmothers. My fiancée. Others.
I used to think this would be easy. I used to resent compliments. I had it all wrong.
What I’ve done, what we’ve all done, it has been extraordinary.