My Failure as a Father.
I was born and raised a dumb ‘ole farmboy. It seems like an era so long ago we need carbon dating to measure it accurately, even though I remember it like it was friggin’ yesterday. My youth involved running all over Creation with my dog, through hay and corn fields, getting into as much trouble as I could. I got kicked out of my house and told not to come back until it was dark, and if I didn’t come back head-to-toe dirty, I sure wasn’t trying very hard. After a bath and before bed I might- might- get the chance to watch “Cheers” or “Murphy Brown” with my parents on the off chance it was a clear day for the TV signal to come in.
For better or worse, that’s what I compare when I look at my own kids upbringing. And my boys have been able to do that, for the most part- aside from being spoiled rotten from the Internet and cool toys I never had and get right off my lawn you dang whippersnapper. It’s not farmland they explore, it’s the holler we live in; stomping through the crick, up and down the hills, getting dirty from playing in the clay soil, chasing our chickens around with the dogs, laughing and squealing with joy all the while.
But my daughter? Well.
Not so much.
This isn’t fair at all, because I owe my daughter an awful lot. She’s what turned my life around. She was the sobering example of why I needed to man up. Stop wallowing in self-pity. Start living to my full potential. It was because of her I took a stab at a long-shot application to the University of Virginia. She was the reason I worked so hard to make it through nursing school- not just to survive it, but to thrive, to do the best I could.
It was her love that took me through the hardest times. When I had to work 16 hour days, when I had to bring her to class because I couldn’t afford a babysitter, when I had to hand the clerk at the gas station a handful of sticky quarters, dimes, and nickels I’d dug out of nooks and crannies to buy enough gas to get us home? She was what got me through it.
But that meant she got the short end of the stick far too often. Maybe the best example of that happened when I was studying for a pathophysiology test I had to get a good grade on. I was buried knee-deep in a pile of handwritten notes, a study guide and textbook balanced on opposing knees, when my daughter toddled up to me, as innocently as could be, and tugged on my hand.
“Play with me, daddy!” she said, in that tone toddlers have that immediately shatters your heart. “Play with me!”
Time seemed to stop as I looked up and regarded her. Even then, I knew that moments like that come once in a lifetime. She’d be this age exactly one time, and one time only.
But I had to study for this test- I had to. My GPA determined what scholarships I’d be eligible for, and even a hundredth of a percentage drop might’ve resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in lost financial aid. Growing up working class means going without a lot of things- like dental insurance, “rainy day” funds, or college savings. So it was all me. Between tuition, books, daycare, health insurance, I couldn’t risk giving up a single dollar- or losing a single point on this next test.
“I can’t, baby,” I told her, the gentle tugs on my hand ripping my heart apart in the process. “I gotta study. Maybe later. Okay?”
The look on her face as I told her that I couldn’t play illustrated the cost of everything I was doing. More than that, it illustrated the cost of failure. I was giving these moments up forever- moments I would never get back- because the future I was building for both of us was so much more important. I could push through these few years of nursing school, get a good job, and then relax. Enjoy her childhood, give her the things I never had growing up, teach her to avoid the mistakes I’d made, and help nurture her to go out and tackle the world.
That’s what I did. I worked hard enough to get on the Dean’s List. I graduated and got a good job. And I silently promised to my daughter and I that I was done. Done with everything but for her.
But be careful the promises you make- even silently, to yourself.
Make sure they’re ones you can keep.
The second week of November 2016 was… I don’t know how to explain it. It was like moving through jello. Like I was in a stupor, in some surreal landscape. I knew that electing Donald Trump was a sincere possibility, so much so I broke my half a decade hiatus in political activism and did what I could to prevent it. Even then… I don’t know. I guess maybe I didn’t want to believe it was going to happen.
But it did.
I tried to figure out what to do. I remember spending a lot of time on prepper websites. Researching residency requirements in New Zealand. Hoping the electoral college would actually do what it was intended to for once. I finally came to the realization that since I was white, Christian, heterosexual, etc, I could probably just duck down and ride this one out.
I think that’s what broke me. Sure, maybe I could avoid the worst things that were coming down the pipe- but what about the people I served every day in my job as an emergency department nurse, the most vulnerable members of our society, dealing with a social safety net that is so often in tatters?
What about my brothers and sisters in emergency services, who were the last line of defense keeping those same people from hitting rock bottom, but were burning out, suffering, and even committing suicide at epidemic rates in the process? Who were expected to keep “holding the line” with our very lives by “leaders” in Richmond and Washington who’d rather spend their time dividing us and planning for their next election than doing their damn job?
What about my kids? Was I really going to be content with telling them that, for the first time in American history, they’re facing the prospect of their lives being worse off than ours were? That the American dream is no longer an ideal we strive for- it’s just that; a dream, unattainable? That I was just going to shrug and consign them to a government filled with people who claim the problems faced every single day by working Virginia families are just too hard to tackle, dooming them to instability, unchecked climate catastrophes, and rising authoritarianism?
Eventually, I decided the place I could make the biggest difference was in running for the Virginia House of Delegates, taking on an entrenched incumbent (the Republican’s 2017 election caucus chair) who hadn’t had an opponent in almost a decade. Even though my electoral experience was minimal- I ran for school board when I was 17 on a platform of providing hot lunch to elementary school kids, as the school district I lived in provided no hot lunch whatsoever- but, even so, I understood the magnitude of what I was about to undertake. How much time it’d take me away from my family.
The summer of 2017, I’d promised my daughter I’d take her to Glacier National Park. She and I wanted to visit it before it became just “National Park”. I’d actually promised her we’d go in 2016, but her youngest brother came along instead, and so we delayed it for a year.
So I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life- I told my little girl that the trip she’d been looking forward to and planning for (she’d already told me which backcountry trails she wanted to hike, and admitted she was more concerned about pooping in the woods than the ever-present grizzly bears) was off. Instead of showing her the beauty of nature and Creation, to give her a glimpse of the experiences I had growing up, I’d decided I needed to mount a one-man defense of working Virginia families. To mount what many laughingly called a “suicide mission”.
I apologized profusely. I tried to explain, as much as one can explain to a nine year-old, why I was doing what I was; why I was going to be spending so much time away from her and her brothers. And told her I would make it up to her however I could.
She said, it’s okay. Don’t worry, daddy. We can move the trip to another year. It’s not a big deal.
What else was she going to say?
I told myself the work we were doing was worth it. That the Republic is on a precipice and might not survive. That I’m sacrificing those times so other moms and dads don’t have to, so that she and her brothers have a future to grow into. And it was worth it- we forced our opponent to spend a half a million dollars on us, instead of doing his job and sending fat checks across the state to other candidates who ended up in elections literally decided by a single vote. The hundreds of thousands of families who were able to access Medicaid Expansion alone made everything we did worth it.
I still don’t get that time back with my little girl. The promises I made her don’t unbreak just because they ended up being for a good reason.
Now, here I sit- on Father’s Day, of all days- wondering the same things all over again. Recognizing the best thing I’ve ever been, or ever will be, is a dad- but staring at the realization that our fight is only just beginning. And it will be backbreaking work, a fight against moral relativism and situational ethics in the pursuit of winning at all cost. Against an opponent whose only instinct is to destroy anything and everything they can, and anyone who may dare to stand against them.
Those are the stakes; not just for me, but for all the people of my generation who are standing up to fight for the future of their children, country, and world. It’s tough- the toughest thing I’ve ever done- to contemplate leaving them to fight a fight I have no idea if we can win or not.
But I love them too damn much not to try.
They’re worth fighting for.
Kellen Squire is an emergency department nurse from Barboursville, VA, and candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the great Commonwealth of Virginia! Donate, volunteer, or get the word out about our people-powered campaign, today!