Guardian

(For a reverse inspiration contest, received a honorary mention.)

She was so tiny and delicate when she was born. She was almost a month premature, I didn't know babies came so tiny. They put her in one of those transparent aquarium-like boxes hooked into all kinds of tubes. She pressed her tiny little palm against the glass and that's when it really sank to me that I was a dad. Joanne wanted to name her Bea, but I insisted on the name Rose, because her lips looked like a rosebud.

Three years later came Anthony, not quite as small but equally delicate. He had slender arms and legs, with a wisp of my dark hair and a nose just like Joanne's. Rose's first word had been mommy so I tried to make sure Anthony would say daddy first. Instead his first word was book, when he was 11 months old. He learned to read at the age of three. Anthony had a calming effect on the whole family, even on his sister, who probably by now carries a diagnosis of ADHD.

I never thought I was a dog person until we got Suzy, shortly before Joanne fell pregnant with Anthony. Suzy was the first to sense the pregnancy - she followed her around the house, guarding her as if she was another dog. When she threw up relentlessly Suzy was there, watching with great sympathy and offering much more support than I ever could. Joanne's first pregnancy was a blissful continuum to our honeymoon, but the second one turned out much more troublesome. Twice she had to be hospitalized for IV fluids and she spent the last weeks in complete bedrest. I was given the impossible task of taking care of her and keeping her company, watching over Rose who was everywhere at once and trying to stay in decent terms with my employer, who was less than happy with my attempt at "telecommuting".

My kids probably never forgave me for missing Joanne's funeral, but I wasn't told about it, or that she was even sick in the first place. I learned about her death from the newspaper. I can never forget the surreal, stomach-turning moment, browsing the several days old morning paper and bumping into the obituary of the woman with whom I used to wake up every morning for 12 years, reading that "she passed away peacefully surrounded by family", the family you were no longer a part of, and finding out that your daughter got married from the fact that she now carries someone else's last name.

When people asked me about my family I'd tell them I'm divorced and have two children with my ex-wife. I didn't tell them she's dead. I didn't tell them I am dead to my children. I tell people I have two of my son's books in my shelf. All parents can share that feeling of pride. They are academic books, so I didn't understand much about them, but I have read them, contrary to what Anthony probably thinks.

I've learned not to tell people too much. No one wants to hear about it and people are quick to assume things. When the divorce was still fresh and raw I would show people pictures of Rose and Anthony and tearfully mention I wasn't allowed to see them. I wanted to hear sympathetic words, but very rarely were there any. They thought it must have been my fault. Many assume I drink just because of my crude skin and beard. I have always had that hobo look to me, no matter the clothes I wear. People can judge my guardianship abilities based on my looks alone. If I wasn't an alcoholic I must have been mentally ill or faulty in some other way. I think that's what the court decided too.

At some point I started believing what I heard, that I just wasn't worthy. The reason why my children never called me was because they hated their dad. They never wrote me letters or sent me photos. It must have been due to something that happened while I was still a part of their life. I always felt awkward as a a father, it didn't come to me as naturally as it seemed to come to their friends' fathers. I didn't take them to McDonalds as often as they wished. I told them they couldn't have a kitten, because we already had a dog. Why did I say something like that?

If someone asked me about my family now - which is not likely to happen, since I hardly go anywhere - I would be tempted to answer truthfully, that the only family I have is Suzy. It's been many years since she died, but at least she rests under the willow in my backyard, the only member of my family who never abandoned me.