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Marking another post-divorce Father's Day

By Christopher Perry, Special to CNN
Christopher Perry with his sons Alex, left, and Caleb in a photo  from a few years ago.
Christopher Perry with his sons Alex, left, and Caleb in a photo from a few years ago.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Father remembers painful day he told young sons about impending divorce
  • 7-year-old boy promises his dad, "It's going to be OK"
  • After three years of living apart, youngest son asks dad when he's moving back
  • After five years, dad realizes that everything will be OK with him and his boys
RELATED TOPICS
  • Divorce
  • Parenting

(CNN) -- I had my young sons sit on the couch with me five years ago, each of them tucked neatly at my side. I remember thinking that if I can just sustain a glimmer of a smile, then the announcement that our family is breaking apart can be over, and the healing will begin. Why can't it ever be that simple.

The mistake I made was looking at their faces just before I spoke. Immediately, I could feel my eyes welling up with tears, then the tears overflowing down my face.

Caleb, 5 and filled with adoration for his dad, also started to cry before I uttered a word. Alex, 7, hugged me and promised, "it's going to be OK, Dad."

They still had no idea what "it" was, yet they were so supportive. Again, I made another attempt to speak but again managed only tears, with no words.

Finally, I was able to blurt out, "I love you guys so much. Both your mom and I love you so much. We always will."

The two confused boys finally arrived at the reality that their mom and dad weren't going to live together anymore.

The days after that conversation were filled with hugs and exaggerated episodes of affection, occasional interludes of laughter and waning attempts of optimism; mostly though, moments of awkward silence.

They helped me pick out an apartment. Watching them run through the floor plan exuberantly calling for their rooms softened the blow temporarily. But I knew the reality would set in over time.

The months after my exodus from the house were difficult. Two miles is painfully distant. The joy of routinely kissing them goodnight was gone. The comfort of knowing they could crawl into bed with me during a thunderstorm was elusive unless it stormed on my weekend with the boys. Watching them walk home from the bus stop and chase each other through the neighbors' yards became a rare amusement.

The phone calls were the worst: "Dad, I miss you. I want to see you."

Over time, things started to improve. The haunting layers of guilt were finally beginning to loosen their grip, and the ever-present resiliency of the boys seemed impenetrable. Laughter became a frequent visitor in our lives once again.

We took weekend road trips, we played catch, we sang lyrics in the car to songs we didn't know, we went to the pool, we shot pool, we argued and we ate ice cream. We watched movies, a lot of movies, at the apartment. I normally dozed off before the credits rolled and served as their personal futon. I learned very early on that the joy from gifts and toys is transitory, but a parent's participation with them becomes permanent.

To try and articulate the importance of being a dad, particularly around Father's Day, is like trying to explain the relevance of oxygen. My boy's happiness serves as my own emotional compass, and even under the most arduous and combustible of conditions, I find myself staring at them, in awe.

Their switch from innocence to mischievousness oscillates with each passing hour of laughter, anger, frustration and resiliency.

Divorce is never easy, usually tumultuous and rarely cordial. In our case, it was at least the latter, due in large part to their mom.

After three years, I moved out of my apartment and moved in with a friend for logistical convenience. Things were plodding along.

As part of our nightly routine at my place, I was lying in bed with Caleb, stroking his hair and fumbling with his ears, waiting for him to drift off to sleep. He loves when I play with his ears. Then the words I had forever dreaded shot out with a lethal subtlety.

"When are you going to move back in with us?" Caleb asked.

His head was turned away from me. I wondered if he was sharing the same emotion I had at that moment. Those words were three years overdue. I had delicately prepared that answer then, how is that it could surface now?

I took a deep breath, paused, and told him that I love his mom very much, but that sometimes, things that seem simple aren't always simple. Sometimes friendship is the most you can offer. I continued to stroke his hair, kissed him on the head, and fell asleep. Nothing was ever mentioned again.

The other day, the three of us were riding in the car on the way to swim practice.

Windows rolled down, the sun was shining, and all of us had on our sunglasses. Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," came on the radio. A burst of harmonic revelry started up, with Caleb singing the chorus. We laughed all the way to practice. I dropped them off, and watched them walk into the pool together, still laughing.

As I pulled out of the parking lot,. I thought back to Alex's words five years ago on that painful day on the couch. I guess he was right, everything is going to be OK. I am a dad, and those are my boys.