with an aching in my heart

It is, according to scientifically-proven math, eleventy million degrees outside. To escape the heat, Anne and I went to the beach today.

It was just gorgeous. The air was significantly cooler at the beach than it was when we got into our car, the water was warm and clear, and though the beach wasn’t particularly crowded (it is the middle of the week in September, after all), we were around a number of families with small children who were too young for school.

I watched a dad walk down to the water with his son, who I figured was about 4 — the same age Nolan was when I entered his life. They wore matching hats, with wide brims and long black cords that went underneath their chins. The hats were the same size, as if they had been in a store and the little boy wanted to have a hat just like his dad’s. They held hands and walked slowly and carefully into the edge of the sea. When waves came in, the father picked up his laughing son by his hands and carried him over the frothing water. I watched them, and remembered doing something very similar with my boys, when they were that small, almost 20 years ago.

We sat on our towels and I read a book — Carter Beats the Devil — that I’ve owned for years but never started. It held my attention so magnificently and perfectly, the hours of 2013 passed around me at the beach while my imagination was transported to the early 1920s in San Francisco. It took the laughter of a nearby child to break me out, and bring me back into the present.

A little boy, probably about 6, was with his mom and dad in the surf. His dad was throwing him up in the air and catching him, while his mom took pictures with her smartphone. A few times, the dad caught him and fell back into the water, splashing his mom who pretended to be more concerned about her phone than she was joyful that they were all together at the beach.

I watched them play, watched all the young families around us play, and I felt an overwhelming surge of emotion. I turned to Anne. “Watching these families play makes me feel a strange kind of sadness,” I said. “I think about when our kids were that age, and how their dad just worked so hard to make them feel like they should be unhappy when they were with us. I see these dads with their kids, and I hope they appreciate how lucky they are to just be a family, without a selfish monster doing everything he can to ruin the simple joy of existence for them.”

Anne was thoughtful for a moment, and then said, “I used to be really angry that I wasted six years with him, and really resentful that he took so much away from us … but we can’t do anything to change it, and we have two really great kids because I spent those years with him.”

I watched a little girl with chubby little legs ungracefully chase the receding tide down the shining sand, then run as fast as she could away from it as it came back in, right into her mother’s arms.

“Our lives are a tapestry, right?” I said, thinking about one of my favorite episodes of Next Generation, “and if we pluck even a single thread, the whole thing unravels.”

I paused for a moment, and continued. “I love our lives, and I love the relationships we have with our kids. I’m so proud of the young men they are, and watching them level up into fully-functioning adults, especially knowing how much they suffered because of their biological father, has been one of the greatest joys of my life.

“I know that the life we have now is a tapestry woven from a lot of threads, many of them very, very painful … but I wouldn’t change anything about our lives together because I love the life we have. I love the life we’ve created for our family.”

I closed my book, and looked out into the ocean. Anne was quiet. I looked to the horizon and thought about how, to that vast expanse of water and motion, I am as insignificant as a single grain of sand on the beach. Then I thought about how, in my children’s lives, I have been as significant as the moon is to the tide.

I walked down the beach, and put my feet into the water.

73 thoughts on “with an aching in my heart”

  1. This really brought a tear to my eye. I come from a divorsed family where my dad made it hard for my mum. That resulted in me not seeing my dad for 2 years now. I just couldn’t cope with the harsh things he was saying about my mum. Luckly I to have great stephfather wich makes the world that much brighter. I’m glad there are still people out their that do things like that for their “steph” childeren.

  2. My step-son and I went to see this awesome Geek Celebrity at ComicCon in Ottawa one day. I told this gentleman, as he signed my Tzuro inlay, that as a step-father, I read all of his stories about his two sons with a degree of kinship. And I thanked him for sharing those stories.
    AS I walked away from you that day, Wil, you said to me, “It’s not blood that makes families. Love makes families. Love each other every day and keep playing games together!”

    I’ll never forget those words. I told this to my wife that night, and she got all teary!
    Much love from Ottawa, Wil!

  3. When I was younger, I didn’t have the best stepmom, and I always said she was my example of what not to do. When I became a stepmom, I tried my damnedest to be a good one, but still got lots of resentment and anger from my stepdaughter. As she gets older, I hope she is more understanding of what I tried to do and that my parenting methods are different than her mom’s, and that’s ok. When I hear about stories like yours, I am at the same time jealous and thankful that someone out there has a good relationship with their (step)kids.

    Excuse me, there’s something in my eye.

  4. This is one of those times that I dearly hope that I get the chance to be a step-parent somewhere down the line. I’ve pretty well accepted that I won’t have biological children, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up on being a mom. Thanks for the reminder, Wil, that they don’t have to be your blood for a parent to make an impact in their lives.

  5. You are getting older Wil. These feeling happen with everyone. It will pass. Here’s how. Grandkids.
    P.S. BTW both of you look way to damn young to be grandparents, but MAN it is fun. Just wait! And the games and the toys that you once again get to buy. And the best part!!!!!!!!!! SENDING THEM HOME!!!!!!! YAY!!!

  6. Someday I will officially have the title “Stepmother”. I want to own that role but there are days with twins and taking care of 4 people other then myself that I just want to dive back into bed and not deal with it. Have a real day off. It never happens.
    Finding the balance when you haven’t been in someone’s life from the beginning is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried. I’m still not there after a few years. To complicate things he has behavioral issues that are made worse by his Mother. So often we are the “bad guys” for pushing discipline and consistency into his life. We don’t let him eat junk or drink caffeine. We make him redo homework. We make him own up to mistakes and tell the truth. It’s a nightmare of tight rope walking to not just start screaming obscenities about her when we hear some new tale or hear him lie to cover for her.
    Everyone deserves a loving mother, even if it’s just an illusion.
    I try to be the patient one, the one with hugs and a snack. The one with adventures and fun.
    I don’t always succeed but I damn well try.
    Wil, you are the measure and standard I hold myself to. I can only hope that someday, and I’m getting choked up thinking this, that someday my future stepkid will love me as much as yours do.

  7. “Then I thought about how, in my children’s lives, I have been as significant as the moon is to the tide.”

    This is so true! Sometimes adults don’t realize the true impact they have when they are in a child’s life. Your sons were lucky to have you. Their biological father may have done things wrong, but that had you to love them and show them what a good man is like.

  8. Being a dad is superawesome!!! Best thing in life…
    I hope my son wont mind his dad beeing a boardgamegeek.
    So far he enjoys it.

    Best wishes to all dads out there!

  9. Honestly, I had a similar experience with my own biological father–when he and my mom divorced he lashed out at her for years and really did some significant damage to our family. I stopped wanting a father years ago because I eventually realized I don’t even really know what a good dad does…but for years I’ve wanted a stepdad. I don’t care what kind of relationship he’d have with me as long as we could at least tolerate each other, but I’d love for my mom to have a husband who loves her and is good to her, and who I get along with. It’s been on my mind the past couple days because my mom has been getting back into the dating field again, but only half-heartedly; I watch her go on these dates with guys she seems to like and then find some way to flake out or that there’s some reason not to date the guy. She’s a classic case of commitment-phobia because of what Dad put her through–I always think of it in terms of him burning the crops and then salting the earth (haha).

    Thanks, Wil. Your family is a beautiful one, and just sharing it with us in the way you do is nice just to watch. Sometimes it helps just to know that there ARE families like yours. Take care and keep doing what you’re doing.

    1. Not to minimize the damage you describe at all, but sometimes it is Mom who has the “problem with those types of relationships” and not always (or just) “what he put her through” that is the cause. Obviously Anne does not have that issue, but it sounds like your mom just might possibly. No matter what, I hope you get all the help you need, and that your mom finds the right stepdad for you, and her.

  10. From the glimpses we’ve seen through your writing, you and Anne have lived richer lives in 40 years than most people experience in 80. Seriously. You guys know how to live :). Losing time sucks. But it’s mercifully hard to dwell on the sadness of that time when it got you where you are now.

  11. Damn you Wil Wheaton. You go and write this and place it in front of my eyes when I am at a vulnerable moment. Think of that time when you and Anne met, how she must have felt, with the wreckage of one life receding and the small hope of a new one just breaking the surface. Yeah. That. You’re a good man, Wil. But damn you anyhow.

  12. I know exactly how your sons feel about you. I, too, have found a family based on love rather than blood.

    The way I see it, your family isn’t who you’re related to, it’s who you let into your life and, hopefully, your heart.

  13. I have read your blog for years because of these posts about your boys. I’m a step mom in a situation that has and continues to bring joy, sorrow, anxiety, pride and a fiercely protective anger to my life. We are 12 years into a relationship that started when my two step daughters were 3 and 7. It brings me peace to know you guys came out on the other side whole. Not unscathed… But whole. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Wil,

    Thank you so much for this post. My wife and I just got married a couple months ago and have been together for four years. She brought three beautiful girls into our relationship. The twin’s father is not involved in our lives but the the youngest daughter’s father is and it is hard. I have struggled long hard with the prospect of being a father to someone else’s children and I feel like there is not much of a conversation in our culture about how to do that. There is no road map. My wife has been a godsend in our journey together and I couldn’t have done it without her, but it is still wonderful knowing that there are other people out there that have this struggle and are kind and thoughtful enough to share the experience. It makes it easier to shed my own ego for the sake of these children to hear the voices from other men that have done the same. It makes the challenge of becoming dad less of a burden. Thank you again. Every step father should be part of this conversation.

    1. I’m new to the whole father/step father arena. I’m not very good at it and thing that is hardest is the shedding of my ego. I classified step fatherhood as a burden. Truly it is not. It is a challenge and a gift. Learning to be a father when a lot of the parenting has already been done is far from a walk in the park. But that makes “getting it” all the sweeter.

      I truly feel like there is no road map to being a step parent because it is not a thing that is talked about. My wife has been a godsend to me in learning how to do this but there is an aspect of becoming a step father that has felt lonely because my wife and friends and family are not step fathers. In America it is happening with an increasing frequency and it should be talked about more. I think that forged families would go a lot smoother if there were a prevailing attitude that made step parenting easier and a great thing to do.

      Thank you again for sharing your story. It helped me feel more capable as a father and thus love my children and family all the more.

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