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Forever Dads – One Child’s Empathy

By Tony Zimbardi-Le Mons

Tony Zimbardi and family

The author Tony Zimbardi, far right with (left to right) John, Antonio, and Erik


“Tell me again, Papa, who are we visiting in Palm Springs?”  Erik asks from the back-seat.  “Remember guys, my ex, Terry?  We all went Kayaking together when he lived in Long Beach?  Well now he lives in Palm Springs.”  “Oh yeah,” they respond in unison.  It’s early October and Antonio is out of town for the weekend, so I thought I’d take the boys for a father-son getaway to Palm Springs before it gets too cold to go in his pool.

“Hey guys, how are you all?” Terry warmly greets the three of us at the door of his new home in a gated community in Palm Springs.  “Now the first rule of the house boys is that you don’t open any windows or sliding doors beyond where they already are,” Terry begins.  “I put pieces of wood between the open door of the window and the jam so no one can try to break in by sliding any doors or windows further open” Terry adds.   “Why did you do that?” Erik asks.  “Well, because of burglars” Terry answers.  Turning to me, he goes on “You know, the only thing I don’t like about living in this community is that the security walls around the homes are only about seven-feet high, I feel they should be much higher. Why, I could scale one of these security walls myself!”  Terry offers.  I observe the boys getting a little restless.

‘You have burglars here?” John asks a little alarmed.  “Well,’ Terry begins, “Burglars are everywhere, you can never be too careful.”  Don’t you know that burglars are everywhere?  Why I’m sure they have them in your neighborhood too, you can never be too cautious!”  I’m lugging our suitcases into the bedrooms listening to all of this thinking that this is the kind of bad combination of mingling a paranoid aging man and little kids, it’s not sounding too good to me.

My fears are realized when together the boys begin, “Papa, we’re scared!  Papa, do we have burglars in our neighborhood? “I shoot Terry a look much like the days when we were a couple and I was annoyed by something that came out of his mouth.  I look back at the boys, “You don’t need to worry guys, we DO NOT have burglars in our neighborhood.  I’ve lived in our house twenty-one years, never a problem, never! Let’s change the subject, Terry, why don’t we, Terry?”  Without missing a beat, Terry goes on, “Maybe it’s my grief, you know, I couldn’t bear the thought of having my father move in with me when his health began to decline, but after two years of having him live with me, and now that he’s been gone for six weeks, I can’t believe how much I miss him.”  I see that Terry is looking emotional.

“Our Mom’s in jail!” John blurts out.  “Yeah, our mom’s in Jail!” Erik repeats.  “And we’ll never, ever, see her again!” John adds.  We’ve been in Terry’s house all of fifteen-minutes and I’m thinking all three of them are losing their minds.   “Alright everyone,” I announce emphatically, let’s get out of the house and down to the pool.”  “This is what happens when you put older people and children together and throw in their fears and paranoia, I mutter to myself as I exit the room to unpack their bathing suits.

Few hours later, Erik and Terry are in the pool and I turn to John, “Sweetie, what was all that business about your mom being in jail?  You never mention her at home, and all of a sudden you’re blurting it out here where we’re guests in someone else’s home?  What’s going on?”  “Well you know… Terry” John answers.  “What about Terry?” I ask as I coat his arms with suntan lotion.  “You know, Terry’s dad.”  “What about Terry’s dad?” I ask.  “Like, our mom abandoned us when she went to jail.  When Terry’s dad died, Terry felt like his dad abandoned him!”  I turn away, not wanting him to see how touched I am by his explanation in that moment; my eyes instantly fill with tears.  I realize that he didn’t quite have the words at the time, but this is genuine and accurate empathy John was trying to express to Terry.  I turn back to John, “You mean, you wanted to let Terry know that you know how he felt?  Because he lost a parent and you lost one too?”  “Yes!” John said declaratively nodding his head forward for emphasis.  “Come here, sweetie,” I grab John, pulling him in for a warm embrace as I kiss the top of his head, my heart breaking open with love and pride.  “You are just the sweetest, boy,” I stand him back a little so I can make eye contact with him. “That was a very nice thing you did, trying to let Terry know he wasn’t alone in his experience.  You are a very special child John, do you know that?”  “Papa?” He looks up at me with his big brown eyes.  “What sweetie?” I ask tenderly.  “I love you.”  “I love you, too,” I reply, knowing this is a moment he’ll probably never remember but I’ll probably never forget.  “Now can I go jump in the pool with Terry and Erik?”  “Yes, sweetie, now you can go jump in the pool with Terry and Erik.”  I sigh a proud sign as my little empathic-one leaps up into a ‘cannonball’ and then hits the water.

Tony Zimbardi-LeMons and his partner Antonio LeMons are raising their sons John and Erik in West Hollywood, California. Zimbardi-LeMons is a psychotherapist and writer. His book, Forever Dads, A Gay Couple’s Journey to Fatherhood chronicles the adoption of his sons from the Los Angeles County. Read more of Zimbardi-LeMon’s column Forever Dads (formerly Bringing Up Gayby) in issues of Gay Parent magazine (use our search tool for Tony Zimbardi) or go to back issues.