The other day, our son tells me that he has noticed that after a television character dies, he or she is rarely – if ever –mentioned again in the show. They just disappear from the conversation. His comment: “Isn’t that weird? I’m glad our family isn’t like that.”
Naturally, he goes on to talk about his deceased father.
I take a moment to give myself a pat on the back. Every time we have a heart to heart about a difficult subject (the range of topics not limited exclusively to his father’s death, of course, as the child is now a teenager), I give myself a brownie point or two. Lord knows I need the credit against all the accumulated demerits for nagging, hollering, Brussels sprouts and other maternal shortcomings. The “research” says that as children reach new developmental stages of their own, they revisit the death of a parent in the light of a more mature perspective, and this theory is certainly consistent with our experience. The kids might express a new concern, or ask the same question but have a different response to the answer, or even a different recollection of specific events. I cannot imagine what it’s like for these kids to have suffered the death of a parent at a young age, but I am available to listen through all their stages.
Today the boy’s thoughts center around the fact that we still refer to his father as “Daddy.” The boy has grown well past the Daddy stage, but the Daddy himself is frozen in time as the parent of very young children. He continues to influence our lives, but his presence is more like a soundtrack in the background or a favorite black and white snapshot in our family album. Daddy plays a crucial role in our biography. He is a relationship. His life provides a foundation and our point of reference. We speak of Daddy in the language of “was” and “would be.” We wonder what Daddy might advise for the homecoming dance, or how he would navigate teaching a teenager to drive. We wish he could see his son’s basketball game or graduation. He’s not there, but still, he’s here. This boy has outgrown his nicknames and a few pet names (which I dare not blurt on the internet), but the father remains Daddy. If he were here in person, the boy would call him Dad. The boy is here, ruminating about all these facets of his father’s life and death: “Daddy never made it to the Dad stage of fatherhood.”
And so it goes that as the child goes through his own stages of development, the parent does, too. In fact, I find myself currently in the “Mama” stage of mothering, not because I have a toddler, but because my Texan son has so named me. I have been called far worse, and often by the same children who’ve also called me Mom, Mommy and Charlotte. By the same token, we have been known to call Daddy a few explicit names as well. We hurl our insults in Daddy’s general direction, wherever that might be and for our own benefit or amusement, and those conversations are ok too.
I am grateful that the boy can say it out loud. I do not believe that there is a time frame in which or a specific age at which the kids are supposed to “get over it,” although each stage does provide evidence of their maturity and continuing healing. It would be weird and sad to stuff all the evidence of Daddy’s existence in an emotional drawer, never to be opened again. The conversation continues and hearts heal.
Years ago, the boys and I were talking about whether I would ever remarry. One of the children was firmly against the idea, the other was strongly in favor of the idea, and I was completely flummoxed by the idea. In the course of our conversation, I told them that I did not know what would happen, but I did know that nobody would ever take Daddy’s place in their hearts. There is a daddy-shaped space that will be there forever. But here’s the thing: love grows. If somebody special comes into our lives, then our hearts will grow and there will be a new space in our hearts just for him. A Tim-shaped space, as it turns out. A man who takes the boys camping, coaches their basketball teams and joins them in opposition to green leafy vegetables.
A few days ago, the boy says to me, “It would be so cool to be adopted.” He continues, “If you’re adopted, your parents love you, not because they have to, but because they want to.” He is touched by how remarkable it is to be loved by someone who has simply chosen to love you.
“That’s true,” I say, “Like Tim.”
He smiles. “Yes.”
The man who is here for the boy’s Dad stage.
Through a grace I cannot take credit for, as I do kale chips, the boy has a step-dad who loves and fathers him. Daddy would be happy.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And safe places for hard and healing conversations.