I turned my face side to side, glancing at my reflection in the window above my kitchen sink. My dark hair had dried in its usual messy style after my shower this morning, but hell, it’d be messy even if I fixed it, given my habit of running my hand through my hair unless I had a surgical hat on at work.
I considered shaving the dark coating of stubble on my face, but I was in surgery nearly all day today and my mask would cover my face. My patients tended to care more about their health than my looks, anyway.
“Did you put an apple in my lunch, Dad?” my youngest son Eric called into the kitchen.
I turned away from the kitchen window view of our backyard pool and looked at the lunch contents I’d gathered on the kitchen counter.
“Haven’t packed them yet,” I called back to Eric. “I’m about to.”
“Make sure there’s no brown spots on my apple. I ate a brown spot yesterday on accident and it tasted like rotting flesh.”
I arched my brows with amusement. “Rotting flesh, huh? You’ve tasted that before?”
“I can just tell, Dad.” Eric’s voice was so serious and exasperated I couldn’t help smiling. I opened the peanut butter and started making sandwiches.
As a single father, I had to get up at five-thirty every morning to get my boys off to school and myself to work at eight-thirty. It took that long for me to work out in my home gym, take a shower, get the kids up and moving, make their breakfasts and lunches and drop them off at school.
After my ex-wife Kim left ten months ago, Jordan, Eric and I had some mornings where we scrambled to make it to school and work on time. I set my alarm earlier every day until I got to something that worked.
In the middle of the kitchen our puggle puppy Hagrid squatted and took a piss, giving me an unconcerned look that said, ‘What?’
“Hagrid!” I set down the knife in my hand and ran over to sweep him off the floor. “You’re supposed to go outside, you asshole,” I grumbled in a low tone. “We talked about this, remember?”
I opened the back door and set him on the deck, then closed it and went back to the sandwiches. I’d just finished spreading peanut butter on Eric’s bread when I noticed a dog hair stuck in the peanut butter. I fished it out with the knife and continued.
The dog had been a serious impulse decision on my part. Kim had refused all pets, and about a month after she left my sons were looking down over dinner one evening so I took them to the local shelter and let them pick out a dog.
They loved the damn thing so he was staying, but potty training him was a nightmare. I’d tried diapering him once out of desperation but he just wiggled out of the diaper and then shit next to it.
“Dad, where’s my practice jersey?” Jordan yelled from upstairs.
“How should I know? Where’d you leave it?”
“You said you would wash it.” His voice got closer as he ran upstairs and walked into the kitchen. “But it’s not in the laundry room.”
Shit. I’d forgotten to wash the jersey.
“Sorry,” I said, packing lunch contents into two brown paper sacks. “I didn’t do it yet.”
Jordan’s shoulders dropped with disappointment. “Okay.”
“Just get it out of the laundry and throw it in the dryer with a fabric softener sheet,” I said. “It’ll be fine.”
“Dad, did you sign my homework sheet?” Eric asked as he walked into the kitchen. “Eww, why is the floor wet?” He looked down at his feet and then up at me.
“Hagrid,” I said, reaching for the roll of paper towels on the counter and tossing it to him. “And I signed your homework sheet and put it in your bag.”
“I’ll go change my socks,” Eric said, bending down.
I looked over at the microwave clock. “Seven minutes.”
It helped the boys if I counted down the minutes until we were leaving. Eric hustled out of the kitchen, wet socks in hand.
With my remaining minutes, I loaded the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher and put on the running shoes I wore to work every day. I was on my feet a lot, so I stuck to wearing running shoes and surgical scrubs.
We loaded into my Land Rover and I backed out of the garage. I’d made it halfway down our long driveway when Jordan asked, “Dad, did you remember to put Hagrid in his kennel?”
I groaned and hit the brakes. “I left him outside.” I pulled back into the garage and Jordan volunteered to get the dog and put him in his kennel. That was the only way to avoid coming home to every shoe in his reach being chewed up or pissed on.
Jordan ran back outside and we set off, only two minutes behind schedule. The drop off line in front of the school was short today, so we made up the time.
“Love you guys,” I said, turning around to look at them. “Have a good day at school.”
“There’s no brown spot on my apple, right?” Eric asked.
“I gave you a tomato instead of an apple so you wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
He scrunched his face with indignation. “Dad! Gross. You know how—”
“I’m kidding, E. Have a good day.”
They both said quick goodbyes and took off. I turned up Kings of Leon to get my head clear for the day of surgery ahead.
My hometown of Lovely, Missouri was pretty small, so the hospital couldn’t keep specialty surgeons on staff. I was a general surgeon, and I’d been handling general surgery and emergency surgery for years when Kim left. I’d been working long hours, but within a few weeks of being a single dad, I knew something had to go. My mom had been picking up the boys and keeping them on the evenings I had to work, which she didn’t mind, but I did.
I’d gone to the hospital’s CEO and told him he needed to hire more surgeons to cover 7 pm to 7 am, or I was leaving. I couldn’t do it all anymore and be the dad I wanted to be to my boys.
He’d thrown a fit until I told him I was willing to leave the hospital over it. And I’d meant it. Jordan and Eric needed to know they came first for me. It had taken me too long to become the father they deserved and I didn’t want to lose any more time.
Two new emergency surgeons had started a couple weeks later. When I pulled into the physican’s parking lot at Lovely Hospital, the Corvette one of them drove was double parked.
Brad Tenleigh was an asshole, but I couldn’t find any fault with his abilities as a surgeon. But I’d known from the first time I saw his double parked bright red sports car with the license plate ‘ER DOC’ that we wouldn’t be hanging out outside the hospital.
As soon as I walked into my office, my scheduling secretary Marla smiled brightly at me.
“Good morning, Dr. Lockhart. You have three procedures starting at nine and then you’re rounding until lunch.”
“Morning.” I took the tablet she held out to me and glanced down at it. “Okay. Did my lab reports come in?”
She turned to her computer to check and I felt my cell phone buzz from my pocket.
“Kyle Lockhart,” I said in answer.
“Dr. Lockhart, it’s Hallie from the school.”
I’d just dropped the boys off fifteen minutes ago, surely one of them wasn’t feeling sick already?
“Jordan forgot his permission slip for basketball open gym. It starts today.”
I held back my urge to swear with frustration. I’d seen it on the kitchen island and forgotten to remind him about it.
“Alright, let’s see…” I said.
“You want me to call your mom?”
I rolled my eyes. Small-town life. “No, I’ve got it. I’ll, uh…” I considered my schedule for the day. I was having lunch with some medical students and I didn’t want to blow them off. “I’ll actually run home and get it right now.”
“Okay, we’ll see you soon,” Hallie said.
“I have to run something to the school,” I said to Marla. “I’ll be about fifteen minutes late with my first patient.”
Marla had been with me since I started at Lovely Hospital, and she’d taken to my becoming a single father quite well. She knew how to slide this and that around on my schedule to make things work. She was a grandma who knew how to be sweet but firm with everyone and I knew I’d be lost without her.
She also never offered to help with stuff with my kids, and I appreciated that. Somehow she intuitively knew it was important to me that I do that stuff myself.
I broke into a jog as I headed back to my Land Rover. Some days my best efforts to get it all done and be on time still weren’t enough. But as long as the balls I stayed in the air, I didn’t worry about how I looked trying to juggle them all.