More than a month had passed since I’d last seen my sons. It had been a memorable month, no doubt, but as nice as it was having Nick around, I was looking forward to spending the summer with James and Holden even more.
The day Leigh flew them down from New Jersey, I picked them up at the airport. Just like the last time, as soon as James spotted me in the terminal, he shouted “DADDY!” at the top of his lungs, dropped Leigh’s hand, and ran straight to me, launching himself into my arms. I hugged him tightly and kissed the top of his head, remembering the tearful goodbye we’d said in this same terminal a few weeks earlier. I was used to leaving my family for work, but it felt different to watch them leave me. Then again, it made the sight of Leigh walking toward me with Holden in his stroller that much sweeter.
Holden recognized me right away this time. “Dada!” he cried, as he reached his arms toward me, demanding to be picked up. I bent down to scoop him out of his stroller without a second thought, forgetting my sore backside. Leigh must have seen me wince, because when I straightened up again, she was looking at me with concern.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” I replied quickly. “Just overdid it working out with Nick the other day.” Well, it wasn’t technically a lie.
Leigh smiled. “I’m glad you’re getting back in shape. You look good.”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling back. Then I turned my attention to Holden. “How’s my baby boy?” I asked, bouncing him on my hip until he gave me a slobbery grin.
“He’s not such a baby anymore,” said Leigh. “Holden, show Daddy your new teeth!”
“Wow, buddy,” I said, taking Holden by the chin. “Do you have more teeth than last time I saw you?”
“Wait!” cried Leigh, as I went to put my finger in his mouth. “Hang on...” She fumbled with the diaper bag stowed underneath Holden’s stroller for a few seconds. “Here, put some of this on first,” she said, handing me a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
She made me feel so dirty, but I didn’t complain, just diligently squirted some Purell into my palm to disinfect my hands. I still thought she was being overly precautious, but she was probably right to be. I poked my finger, now 99.99% germ-free, into Holden’s mouth and gently pulled back his lip to see the tiny, white tips of his canine teeth starting to come through his gums. “Wow, look at that! What a big boy!” I exclaimed.
“He gets pretty whiney while he’s cutting teeth,” Leigh warned me. “And drooly. We’ve found popsicles help.”
“Popsicles?” James’s ears perked up. “Do you have popsicles at your house, Dad?”
Your house. In his mind, the condo was no longer his home, but mine alone. That made me sad. “Hm, I don’t know. You’ll have to check the freezer when we get home,” I said, winking at Leigh. Nick and I had just bought a big box of popsicles the last time we went grocery shopping.
“He also still likes to chew on teething rings,” Leigh added, brushing Holden’s blond hair back off his forehead. “I’ll show you his favorites when we get back to the condo.” I couldn’t help but notice that she, like James, no longer called it “home.”
“Sure, sounds good,” I said, forcing a smile back onto my face, as we set off for the baggage claim.
When we got back to the condo, James raced right inside, Holden on his heels. “Hi, Uncle Nick!” I heard him shout. This was followed by a loud groan, a thud, and a shriek of high-pitched laughter. Leigh and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, and rounded the corner to find Nick sprawled out on his back on the floor with both boys sitting on his stomach. All three of them were laughing.
“We’ve been here two seconds, and you’re already roughhousing?” Leigh asked incredulously, shaking her head.
“Boys will be boys,” I said with a shrug.
She looked at me and laughed. “You’re gonna have your hands full, with three of them to keep an eye on all summer. You sure you’re up to it?”
“Hey... I heard that,” grunted Nick from the floor, as Holden bounced on his belly.
“Now, come on, boys, get off Uncle Nick before you make him puke,” said Leigh, picking up Holden and setting him down a few feet away.
“Ewww!” James screamed, scrambling off Nick at once. “Blech!” He mimicked puking all over the place, which made Holden laugh hysterically. Watching the two of them together, I could only shake my head and laugh.
“Sorry about them,” Leigh said to Nick, offering him a hand.
“They’re fine,” Nick replied, laughing. He took her hand, and she helped pull him to his feet. “It’s good to see you guys again.”
“It’s good to see you, too.” She smiled, hesitating for just a second before she gave him a hug. “How are you doing?”
“I’m great,” he said, and I could tell by his easy grin that he really meant it. It showed in his eyes. I couldn’t help but smile myself, my heart swelling with happiness at the thought of spending the whole summer here with James, Holden, and him.
“You look good,” said Leigh, nodding. “Whatever you and Howie have been doing is working for you guys. I hear you really busted his butt the other day.”
The look on Nick’s face when she said that was priceless. His eyes got really big, and his cheeks turned bright red. Behind Leigh’s back, I pantomimed running so he’d know what she meant. “O-oh... yeah,” he stammered, letting out a weak laugh.
His awkward reaction was not lost on Leigh. She looked over her shoulder at me, raising her eyebrows inquisitively. I just shrugged and quickly changed the subject. “Hey, I’m gonna put your bag back in the master, okay? I can sleep on the couch tonight.”
“Oh, don’t bother; I’m not staying,” she replied. When I gave her a weird look, she added, “I thought I told you over the phone? Maybe not. I’m gonna spend a few days with friends before I fly back. So, thanks, but you can sleep in your own bed tonight.” She smiled at me.
“Oh... okay,” I said. Well, it would certainly be less weird without Leigh staying in the same house as Nick and me. I wondered if she had come to the same conclusion. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“No, Ariella’s picking me up. I want to take you through Holden’s routine first, though.”
When most mothers talk about their toddler’s “routine,” they mean naps, diapers, meals, bottles, bedtime, and that sort of stuff. Leigh meant his medication regimen. She’d packed all of his prescriptions into a carry-on bag, which she emptied onto the bathroom counter for me to see. She went through each of the bottles one by one, explaining what the medication inside was for, how much, and how often I should give it to Holden. Since he was too young to swallow pills, all of the drugs were in liquid form, which meant I had to measure out each dosage carefully. Some he took twice a day, some only once, and one only on certain days of the week. It was a lot to remember, and even though Leigh had written it all down for me, I was starting to feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of taking care of a sick child. This wasn’t the same as giving James cough syrup when he had a cold. This was serious business.
“And on the back is a list of side effects to watch out for,” Leigh said, turning over the neatly-typed medication schedule she’d made for me. “If he runs a fever or has a rash or any of these other symptoms, call Dr. Parr at this number and then call me. You do still have the thermometer here, right?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Good. Now I know this lists ‘loss of appetite’ as one of the symptoms you should be worried about, but Holden’s going through a picky phase. Typical toddler - he pretty much only eats chicken nuggets, cereal, fruit snacks, and cheese. Sometimes not even those things. I’ve talked to his doctor about it, and she said it’s not a big deal as long as he’s eating something and that we can give him PediaSure to supplement his nutrition on days when he won’t eat much else. But if he goes more than a day or so without wanting to eat anything, or if he seems lethargic or looks like he’s losing weight, you should call her.”
“And make sure you brush his teeth twice a day,” Leigh went on, “but don’t mix up his toothbrush and James’s. The doctor said it’s possible for HIV to be transmitted through sharing toothbrushes because of bleeding gums, even though it’s unlikely. I bought them both brand new toothbrushes in different colors, just to be on the safe side...” Her voice had gotten higher-pitched and shakier the longer she talked, and, looking at her in the bathroom mirror, I suddenly realized there were tears in her eyes. Even though she seemed to have everything together, I could tell she was on the verge of falling apart.
“Leigh,” I said, wrapping my arm around her. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.” I tried to sound confident and reassuring, even though, truthfully, she had kind of freaked me out.
Leigh nodded, sniffling. “I know you will... but I can’t help worrying. It’s what moms do.”
“It’s what dads do, too,” I reminded her gently. “But you did such a great job getting everything organized, I don’t think you left me much to worry about.”
She smiled and wiped her eyes. “It was hard packing for this trip,” she admitted. “I’ve never been away from either of the boys for more than a few days, and now I won’t see them for the next two months...”
This was how you wanted it, remember? I thought. It was your decision to move to New Jersey, not mine. You kept them away from me for five months! But I didn’t want to start an argument or make her feel worse, so all I said was, “I know.”
“Just promise me you’ll keep me posted on how Holden’s doing? And let the boys Skype with me from time to time so I can see their faces, please?”
“Sure,” I agreed. “No problem.”
“Thanks.” Leigh let out a shaky sigh. “Well, I guess I’d better get the goodbyes over with...”
I hung back as she went to find James and Holden, who were still playing with Nick. Looking at the prescription bottles lined up across the bathroom counter, I had a newfound respect for Leigh, who had been handling all this mostly by herself over the last six months. I could see why she’d become such a worrywart. It was certainly a lot to handle.
When I went back into the living room, Leigh was kneeling on the floor in front of James, who was crying. “You’re gonna have so much fun with Daddy and Uncle Nick, you won’t even miss Mommy,” she said, wiping the tears from his cheeks.
Holden was oblivious to the fact that she was leaving. Once Leigh had kissed him goodbye, he went right back to playing peek-a-boo with Nick.
I walked her outside, where her friend Ariella was waiting in her car. As she turned to leave, I touched her arm. “Hey, Leigh? Thanks again for bringing the boys down here... and for everything you’ve done for them these last few months,” I said. “I know you’ve had to take on a lot of responsibilities yourself, and that can’t have been easy.”
She shrugged. “It hasn’t been that bad, really. I mean, all this stuff with Holden has been a lot to handle, but my parents have helped out a lot. If I pretend you’re just on tour, it doesn’t seem all that different from what life was like before.”
That stung a little.
“Sorry,” she said quickly, seeing the look on my face. “I didn’t mean that to sound so bitchy. I just meant, I’m used to playing the role of a single parent. What I’m not used to is being the one to leave. This is harder than I thought it would be.” She laughed and shook her head, brushing away a stray tear.
“I know,” I said. “It’s not easy. But you need some time to yourself. I hope you can relax and enjoy it.” I smiled at her. “You deserve a break.”
Leigh smiled back. “Thanks. You boys have fun, too, but be safe.” She wagged a finger at me.
I nodded, winking. “We will.”