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BY THOMAS MATLACK
It wasn’t the ﬁrst time. As a single dad, I often
found myself spending Christmas at all-night AA
meetings and without my babies. I’d done my
best, but I was young and, despite my professional
success, still had a lot of growing up to do. In a
way, raising my son and daughter—leading them
as a guide through rushing rivers and lonely nights,
the perils of math homework and opposite-sex
traumas—taught me to raise myself to be a man.
There was a certain nobility in those early years.
I remember baths and books and bunk beds
and uneaten dinners of chicken and mashed
potatoes. Ice cream and Land Before Time videos,
bottles for Seamus, then 1, and that feeling of
accomplishment when I ﬁnally heard him and his
3-year-old sister Kerry snoring. And then I would
run a tub for myself and climb in and look up
through the skylight overhead. I’d look up at the
stars and watch the planes ﬂy by, just dots of
light, and wonder what the hell I had done, having
these two kids and managing to get divorced by
the time I turned 32.
I think about all those guys out there with kids
contemplating divorced or just starting out in
bachelorhood as a dad. I want to tell them that the
courage required to take full responsibility for your
kids is something you will one day look back on
with fondness. But after a long day of playgrounds
and birthday parties and changing dirty diapers,
the feeling of standing on their mom’s front porch
and handing off your kids will rip your heart out.
At the same time, it will force you to internalize
a simple truth that most parents don’t have to
contend with until college: They are not your own,
children are a gift from above and the only thing
you can do is show up. You cannot control their
happiness or their time or their mother. All you
can do is love them.
To this day, the thing that leaves its mark on my
soul was bedtime . When Seamus was just a boy
I would rock him to sleep and inhale the smell
of him as his body went limp. I often just held
his little body in the crook of my neck to feel his
breath and forget everything else that had gone
wrong in my day.
Being in my thirties and single meant I was
lonely for the opposite sex. But I quickly decided
that my kids came ﬁrst, period. I could have my
amateur attempts at romance, but Daddy Time
was sacrosanct and no woman was going to either
interfere with my time with the kids or meet
Seamus, who was an asthmatic toddler, put this
policy to the test. I had spent New Year’s Eve
and Day in Children’s Hospital with him one year,
trying to get him to ingest drugs from a nebulizer
while he pointed his little ﬁnger at the door and
I’m at the airport, my kids on a plane that will take them two
thousand miles away from me on what was supposed to be the
perfect Father’s Day weekend. The day had started out with a
brilliant sunrise over Big Sky country, only to end with a sad
twist that would pull my son and daughter from me.
commanded, “Home!” Several months later I
had a date with a local talk radio personality but
needed to get Seamus to bed ﬁrst. His asthma
ﬂared up and I tried to call and cancel, but my
date was unreachable. I made the mistake of
dropping Seamus at his mom’s and going on the
date. I managed to pull an illegal turn right in
front of the restaurant, with the poor woman in my
car, only to get smacked by an oncoming Cadillac.
After making sure that my date was okay, I looked
back in horror as the other driver approached—in
a police uniform. I got written up for everything
he could think of, I got my car towed, my date
demanded a steak. But all I could think about was
Christmas was always my downfall. It’s the day
when Hallmark and Hollywood conspire to convince
you that you must be a loser if your family doesn’t
look like the Cleavers. Over the years I have mostly
convinced myself that my Quaker ancestors were
right: Every day is equal importance when it comes
to faith. But I have to admit that even now I kind
of wish that holiday were banned for the sake of
us divorced dads all the same.
On December 27, 2002—six years to the day
from my last drink—I got remarried to a beautiful
blond Italian girl by candlelight while the snow fell
outside a chapel in Tuxedo, New York. Seamus,
a look of fear in his eyes, rang the bell to end
the service. Kerry wanted so much to be part of
the party that she stepped on Elena’s wedding
dress. I felt strongly that the kids should have
no doubt that this change, however scary, would
be permanent. I didn’t want them to worry that
somehow there was yet another huge change just
around the corner.
As both kids grew older they hit their own speed
bumps. Relations with my ex never smoothed out.
The biggest bone of contention wasn’t money,
but her persistent belief that the kids needed to
spend two-thirds of their time with her and “visit”
me when it was convenient. I just never could
understand why time with a dad is less valuable
when both parents are able-bodied, loving, and
have the time and resources to spend.
Five years ago I had a third child, Cole, with Elena.
Here, too, I was nervous that my getting on with
life would somehow scare Kerry and Seamus. I
could not have been more wrong. A baby can bind
a family unit like nothing else. The very moment
I held Cole for the ﬁrst time I looked down and
realized that this could be nothing but good. And
he has proved to be just that. He worships his
big brother and sister, and they dote on him. The
ﬁve of us have grown closer, despite the many
interruptions of split custody.
Which brings us back to Father’s Day. Our family—
Kerry’s now 16 years old, Cole is 5 and Seamus
is 14—have made it a tradition to get away every
June for the holiday. We go to a national park and
then spend a week riding horses. The ﬁrst time,
when Cole was just six months old, we went to the
panhandle of Idaho, at Elena suggestion, and then
Yellowstone. This year it was Yosemite, followed
by a Montana ranch.
I’ve always loved riding, from bareback gallops
with a teenage instructor who broke my heart
as a 12-year-old boy to these last ﬁve years of
Father’s Day rides with my kids. Horses often
know more about their rider than the rider knows
about himself. To ride well, you have to relax—
truly relax—or your horse will let you know you
So riding with my wife and kids through places
like Idaho, Colorado, and Montana has become
a singularly unifying event. No Facebook. No cell
phones. Clear air and mountain water. Snow-
covered peaks. Leisurely conversations with
cowboys and one another.
The pace of life slows and I see each year how
much my kids have grown and how each is an
unmerited gift from God in their own way—Kerry
for her sarcastic brilliance, Seamus for his wise-
guy sense of humor, my son Cole for his pure love
This year, Father’s Day started poorly. A botched
hotel wake-up call had us up and showered,
packed and ready to go to the airport at 4:30 a.m.
rather than 6:30. Seamus, our World Cup fanatic,
found a silver lining: “Slovenia vs. Paraguay!” he
screamed with delight, realizing he would now
be able to watch the match, which was being
broadcast from South Africa at an that ungodly
(to us) hour.
We ﬁnally arrived in Bozeman just after noon
Mountain Time. I looked at my BlackBerry with
dread. I had been expecting bad news and was
hoping it would wait at least until after Father’s
Day. It was my ex-wife, in tears, calling from her
mother’s deathbed. She wanted her kids home.
Within an hour, plans had been made for them
to ﬂy out the very next day. Our long-anticipated
week of riding had been turned into less than
A violent thunderstorm with dark black clouds and
huge bangs of thunder greeted us at the ranch. I
tried to get an Internet connection via satellite
so I could ﬁnalize the kids’ departure once we
arrived, but it was lousy. We had a turkey dinner
with all the ﬁxins and a huge game of dodgeball
on the ranch lawn. A teenage girl had developed
an immediate crush on Seamus, her mother told
Elena in a whisper over coffee. But it was the
riding I had come for.
We awoke to brilliant sunshine on the snow-
capped mountains. Seamus joined me for an
early-morning yoga class, his ﬁrst ever. We ate
bacon and French toast before heading down
to the barn. Seamus got up on a horse named
Rambo, and Kerry mounted Jasper. I jumped up
on Mags and Elena, Sunday.
Mags let me know right away she was ready to
go. Our cowboy, Terrence, led us out. We quickly
climbed through wildﬂower meadows and up
a steep rocky trail. Through an aspen grove I
remembered to put out a hand on each trunk to
fend off Mags and avoid a crushed leg. Up top,
the vista took my breath away. My brain was quiet
for the ﬁrst time in months.
I watched Kerry and Seamus from a distance,
took pictures—including during a hair-raising trek
across a raging river—and enjoyed my kids having
fun. They looked totally at home on their horses,
except for Seamus’ out-of-place Boston Celtics
cap, a continuing tribute to his fallen team.
Three hours after mounting up, we were back in
the ranch van and headed to the airport. Cole cried
when we told him Kerry and Seamus had to leave.
He gave Seamus, his older brother and personal
God, a knuckle handshake—bumping his tiny ﬁst
into the massive hand of a kid already wearing
sized 13 sneakers. Then he hugged Kerry before
turning his back on us and walking back to our
cabin, unable to look back.
At the airport we hug. Now they are sitting on the
plane, and I type this out on my BlackBerry before
returning to the Internet black hole of the ranch—
without Kerry and Seamus.
As I wait for their ﬂight to take off, I ﬁnd myself
staring at the white snow of the Rocky Mountains
in the distance, trying to make sense of the last
twenty-four hours. I am once again reminded that
as a father I am not God. I cannot control my kids’
life or happiness. All I can do is show up and see
what happens. And sometimes all I need is one
horse ride to be reminded how much I truly love
being a dad—even when my plans get thrown out
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