Lingering at the Doors

John Warley - Beaufort, South Carolina
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, December 2, 2011
John Warley

When attorney John Warley’s children were young, his family almost broke apart in divorce. That close call taught him to cherish the brief time he and his kids would sleep under the same roof and he could protect them from the dangers of the wider world.

Age Group: 50 - 65

When my four children were younger, I relished one ritual above all others. Hours after their bedtime and often after mine, I walked down the carpeted hallway dividing their rooms. I walked barefoot, as soundless as a cat; silence reinforced the intimacy of the ritual. I paused briefly at each door. I didn’t open it. I just stood there, thinking about the child inside, and about how if I opened the door, I’d find a son or my daughter asleep in their favorite position, clothes or toys or books or stuffed animals or soccer shin guards strewn all about depending on whose room it happened to be. It wasn’t important for me to actually see that scene. I’d seen it often enough when I told them goodnight.

But there was a time, a couple of years before, when I couldn’t tell them goodnight because my wife and I had separated. During the year apart, I stayed at a friend’s summer home. I walked the wooden floors there, my footsteps echoing in the hollow hallway. I tried to hang a couple of pictures on the wall of my room, but they didn’t belong in that place, and neither did I.

During that long, difficult year, my wife and I stayed in touch and sought counseling. When we finally reunited, my nocturnal trips down the carpeted hall began. It was only important that I knew they were in there, as safe as an enclosed room in a suburb could make them and sure to wake the next morning. No doubt some of the feeling that came over me during these forays was linked to my role as guardian, the high sheriff of 4 Deans Circle. If a fire broke out, I would evacuate them. If an intruder entered, I would confront him. If a Biblical thunderstorm shook the house, those still too young to sleep through it could take refuge in our king-size bed at the end of the hall.

I knew that this span of years (the oldest was thirteen and the youngest, six) would be meteorically brief. Soon one would be driving, then another, out on the highway, where I had no control over them or anyone else, a high sheriff with no badge who waited for the call that mercifully never came. But when I took these midnight strolls, those years of anxiety were still in the future, a fact that enabled me to savor the moment outside each door because I knew they were all there, all four, safe and protected.

In December my wife and I will celebrate our fortieth anniversary. We rarely talk about those dark days, and when we do, we express our mutual and profound joy that we were able to reconcile. Our youngest turned thirty-one this year. Grandchildren populate family photos. The kids seem happy and productive. My fear of an empty hall is long past, and I believe in the moments I lingered outside each door, reminding myself that it is not just fire, or storms, or highways that can harm a child.

John Warley is an attorney. In the 1990s he spent two years in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he completed a novel and taught U.S. business law at the Tecnológico de Monterrey. He and his wife, Barbara, spend most of their time in Beaufort, South Carolina, enjoying the sunsets from their boat.