Divisions Fade at a Child's Dance

I entered Binford Elementary School, where my son Tim is a fourth-grader, in plenty of time for the class Christmas performance. I didn't want to miss a minute because for me the program combined three irresistible draws - Christmas music, children singing it, and Tim as a lusty participant.

The mere sight of him and his classmates lining the tiered rows, jostling, shifting, smiling nervously at one another and at us parents brought a lump to my throat. As 20 high voices more or less simultaneously groped for the first note of "Deck the Halls," I realized I had to get a grip. It wouldn't do to embarrass my son with a display of emotion this early in the program.

Tim's dad had also come, gladly interrupting his work day to be there. We are divorced, but Rob and I know that we both need Tim in our lives as much as he needs each of us. We have worked out a joint custody arrangement whereby our son moves back and forth between us on a weekly schedule.

With his unique style and optimism, Tim has made the best of the situation, shuttling between us with trust, tenderness, and a keen sense of each household's possibilities and limits.

Still, times like this, with his parents together in the same room always bring a special, radiant, half-longing smile to Tim's face, reminding me of what the divorce took away from him. As he beamed that smile at both of us, tucking at his shirt, my eyes swam.

There was enough humor in the program, both planned and spontaneous to carry me over the hump. Along with the livelier traditional carols that suited the performers' quick inner tempos, the repertoire included a beautiful song of Hanukkah. I recognized the melody because Tim had been humming it for weeks in the bath, over dinner and homework, and as we drove about town.

It was a quiet, profoundly serene piece of music that tapped something sweet and still in him, something steady, around which the boisterous currents of his life rush and tumble.

The program ended with a joyous folk dance and an invitation for parents to join in. The children went through the steps slowly to show us how. Then each child was asked to bring a parent out onto the floor to join in the finale.

Kids with both parents there made their choices, girls most often choosing their fathers, boys their mothers.

Tim hesitated. I tried to imagine what was going through his mind, knowing how much he loves us both. It was a "Daddy" week - when Rob was the one who brought him to school, picked him up, played and ate with him, insisted on homework before TV, and tucked him to sleep.

I was here for him this afternoon but would go to my separate home after the performance. When he finally strode to Rob and drew him onto the floor, it made sense to me, but I felt a pang.

Something in me was a teenager again, sitting in a similar metal folding chair at the edge of another dance floor. Except that at the church youth dance in 1963 I'd had no guy, and today my guy just needed to keep time with his dad. I understood - but I still longed to dance.

The couples paired. I leaned back to watch, but at the last moment a classmate and special buddy of Tim's approached me. I barely heard the words spoken with such soft shyness from his ducked head.

"I don't have a parent here ... would you?"

"Oh, of course, Dan," I responded, leaping to my feet with a swiftness that all but overwhelmed him.

In a moment we were all dancing, a circle of interconnected arms and large and small scrambling feet. The adults didn't execute the steps very well, but the children freely forgave us. Tim's face blurred past me, his smile enormous. It didn't matter who was dancing with whom.

As the sun streamed into the music room, Christmas came to all of us at once.

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