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“Have a great time,” she said with a smile.  And it was the smile that worried Neanderdad the most.  Was it part humor?   Part pity?   Or perhaps part apprehension?  He wasn’t quite sure.  But it worried him him.  And after flashing that cryptic smile, Neanderdad’s mate rolled her luggage out the front door and into the night, leaving him completely, utterly, irrevocably alone.

Well, not really alone.  Not in the physical sense.  The dog, for example, was uncomfortably present.  It circled him nervously.   And his offspring slumbered in their rooms nearby.  He certainly hadn’t forgotten about the two children.  No, Neanderdad was alone in the parenting sense, alone in the responsibility sense.  And that was far more terrifying.  There was a tightening in his chest and a deeper furrowing of the brow.  A brief…panic.   But then Neanderdad shook his shaggy head to clear his mind of those thoughts.  This wasn’t going to be  hard, or scary, or bumbling, or incompetent, he thought.  Nothing was going to get in the way of him being an exceptional father this weekend.  Nothing.   He was going to be…great.

“Great,” Neanderdad then confirmed loudly to dog.   But the dog still seemed worried.  And it would remain that way for the duration.  Neanderdad, however, was bolstered by his self-motivation.   He was so motivated, in fact, that he plowed through an extra round of household maintenance activities before retiring for the night.  However, he failed to notice the slight tickling in his throat and small cough.  He wouldn’t take note of those symptoms until later.

Later came just before 3 A.M. when Neanderdad awoke to a rough cough and the strange sensation of being watched.  He rubbed his eyes, blinked up at the ceiling, scratched his head, and coughed again.  Then he looked toward the clock to check the time and almost jumped out of his skin.  There, standing beside his bed, only inches away, silent as a ninja, staring at him with horror-movie intensity, was his four-year-old daughter.  Even Neanderdad’s startled yelp didn’t move the girl.

“Where is mommy?” she said calmly, but Neanderdad thought he detected a hint of accusation.

“Away,” sputtered the startled Neanderdad, trying to slow his racing heart.  “Daddy weekend,” he added.

The girl stared at him for a bit longer and Neanderdad braced for the melt down.  But she shrugged sleepily, accepting his explanation.  She let him usher her back to her room and he tucked her back in without objection.  When he kissed her cheek and wished her good night, Neanderdad felt confident that he had handled the situation well.  It was only two short hours later, when the pacing dog finally settled down, after his mind finished racing about every manner of insomnia-fueling solo-parenting minutiae (and after large number of additional coughs) that Neanderdad was able to fall back to sleep.

“Great,” Neanderdad reminded himself again the next morning as both children squawked Neanderdad awake at the crack of dawn.  He chalked up his exhaustion to sleep interruption and beat it back with more mental affirmations and caffeine.    Then he acquiesced to his offsprings’ demands for waffles.  In fact,  he pounded out an impressive breakfast that also included yogurt and sliced peaches.  There was only a moment, when the boy choked on a piece of peach, that the tightening in the chest returned.  But Neanderdad’s Toddler First Aid training came back to him and when he whacked the boy on the back, he launched the orange glob of fruit halfway across the dining room.

“Great,” is what Neanderdad said again as he got the kids ready for their day.  The only other hiccup that morning was the boys sudden, inexplicable desire to urinate in a closet.  Neanderdad was helping the girl brush her teeth and the boy had run away from the bathroom, squealing with glee.  When Neanderdad finally found the boy, he was proudly finishing his ‘sprinkling’.  It was then that Neanderdad decided that he wasn’t going to wait around the house with them.  He was going to take them out into the world where, if they must, they could urinate in somebody else’s closet.

That closet, though it thankfully went unbaptized, belonged to one of the mother’s in his children’s playgroup.  Neanderdad shepherded his children there with a strange cold sweat on his brow.  The kids had a blast playing with their friends and Neanderdad kibitzed wanly with a curious group of moms.  It was, apparently, a rare sight to see a father at such a gathering.   Though Neanderdad tried hard to play against type and be involved with the kids, he found himself drawn increasingly to a chair or sofa seat where he could rest.  He seemed unable to match the mothers’ energy with the children.  Was he just another lazy, uninvolved father, he fretted?

“Great,” was Neanderdad’s increasingly beleaguered rallying cry at the end of the day, when both children were finally asleep and Neanderdad had slumped onto the living room sofa in a fit of coughing.  The dog sniffed at him worriedly, perhaps discerning with its superhuman smell something important about Neanderdad’s health.  Neanderdad brushed the beast away and brooded.  This weekend was his great chance and he was blowing it.  Why couldn’t he maintain his energy and enthusiasm?  So what if he was catching a cold?   He needed to rally!  Neanderdad went to bed early to get a good night sleep.

It was not to be.  At 3 A.M., after a restless and cough-filled sleep, Neanderdad was awakened by one of his children.  This time it was the boy, crying out from his room.  Neanderdad dragged himself to the boy’s side and the boy latched onto him so tightly that Neanderdad was afraid the boy might crack one of his vertebrae.

“Mommy…home!” the boy whispered into his ear.  “Mommy…home!”

“Daddy weekend,” Neanderdad tried to explain, unsuccessfully.  The boy simply repeated his demand over and over again.   So Neanderdad hugged the boy.  And was hugged by the boy.   For almost an hour, caught in that vice-like grip,  Neanderdad suppressed his urge to cough.  He hummed, sung and soothed.  Finally, when the child’s grip loosened, Neanderdad tucked in the sleeping boy and returned to his own bed.  Finally able to cough, Neanderdad proceeded to do so violently for almost an hour.  His exhaustion was punctuated by a single pernicious thought:  failure.

“Great,” was his final ironic thought before he drifted off.   But the remaining two days were not great.  There was only survival.  Neanderdad had no other choice.  He was too ill.  His ambitious plans for day trips to beaches, museums and zoos were abandoned.   Instead, he and his brood stayed homebound. The only exception was a excruciating trip to the park where Neanderdad hugged his coat tightly against a chilling breeze, coughed constantly into his elbow, and pushed his offspring weakly in their swings.

Neanderdad then succumbed to that universal symbol of parenting failure—television.  He let his children watch “The Sound of Music” to buy some needed time.  And it worked like a charm.  But, as punishment for this parental sin, he was forced to cough his way through “A problem like Maria” and “Lonely Goatherd” with the Neanderdad Family Singers for several hours.

3 A.M. on the last day found both children restless.  The now delirious Neanderdad shuffled drearily between their two rooms for most of the night, trying to get them settled.   In a sign of utter capitulation, Neanderdad whispered the promise of their mother’s upcoming return.   When Neanderdad finally slumped into bed, his lungs now gurgling ominously, the dog came over to the bedside and sat there in a manner than could only describe as a death vigil.

When Neanderdad’s mate rolled her luggage back through the door that afternoon, the children shrieked with joy and the dog went into a frenzy.  Neanderdad stood in the background, a pale, hacking, gurgling wraith.   But when his wife asked the children how their weekend had gone, there was a startling response.

“Great!” Said the girl, her enthusiasm making Neanderdad’s heart ache.  “He took us to the park!”

“Great!” Added the boy. “Waffles!”

“Great!” responded his mate, “Sounds like you had a great time.”

And then Neanderdad got a smile.  It was a new kind of smile, ever so much different than the departing smile.  This smile spoke of her relief.  It was also colored with a tinge of newfound respect and appreciation.  And perhaps, just maybe, there was also a hint of that type of smile that had gotten Neanderdad into fatherhood in the first place.   Neanderdad cherished that smile.  And it was still on his mind the next day when Neanderdad’s healer prescribed a generous dose of antibiotics to alleviate his severe case of Pneumonia.

As first published on Lisa Belkin’s NY Times Motherlode on June 14, 2011