Hey guys, your father died a little while ago, I said tearfully into my phone.
Never thought I’d ever had to hear myself say those words so soon. Fathers are supposed to live to be grey-haired old men, yelling at kids to get off their damned lawns. Our boys were never supposed to be without their dad. I no longer have my daddy but I was a grown up when he left us. Our boys are still kids. Why did this even happen?
No child should ever have to grow up without a parent and certainly shouldn’t lose one to death so soon in their lives.
I was having trouble coping. How in the world was I supposed to help them? What do I do, I wondered.
Six hours before I made that call, I had pulled our sons out of school to say their goodbyes to their dad. The doctors weren’t giving me much hope for anything, so I made a decision and had someone race to pick them up from school. I had missed being at my father’s bedside at his passing and I still feel some guilt and pain about that. I wasn’t going to have my sons feel that way.
When they arrived at the hospital, I had everyone leave the room so we could have privacy. First, my youngest, Alexander, came in. I don’t think he fully comprehended (or maybe he did). He went to Tony’s bedside and started talking to him as if it were a normal day, “Hey Dad, how ya doin’? I wish you weren’t still in the hospital. I hope you start feeling better soon.” He then kissed Tony on the forehead, touched his hand and left the room.
My oldest, Anthony, was a different matter. He walked in after his brother left. He silently stared down at his father and took in the whole scene – ventilator, beeping monitor, IVs, and his father, lying silently with his eyes closed. My oldest son took a deep breath and shakily said, “Hi Dad.” I then left the room so they could “man talk” but mostly because I couldn’t bear to see the deep anguish registering in his eyes. Anthony knew exactly why he was there. He also exited the room a few minutes later, tears streaking his face. I sent them home after that.
Seeing my sons upset was like a further twist to the knife already plunged into my heart.
“Guys, he died. I’m sending the girls to pick you up so you can see him one last time.”
I wanted them to see him after he had passed on. I have never lied to my boys about anything and I didn’t want them to think I was keeping anything from them now.
Once again, my boys came to their dad’s hospital room. It was much quieter this time. All the machines and tubes were finally gone, and their dad was lying peacefully and quietly in his bed.
This time Alexander was very quiet. Again, he touched his father’s hand. Then he looked at me. “He’s dead now, Mom?” “Yes sweetie, he is.” “He was too sick?” “Yes, he was. But he’s better now.” “Okay, Mom.”
Anthony again stood looking down at his father, finally out of pain and at rest. Silent tears streamed down his cheeks. Then he began sobbing. My youngest was uncomfortable and moved away, while I stood up and put an arm around my older son. “Oh, Dad,” he said. He shook his head and continued to sob.
My oldest was like me…he never believed that his big strong Dad would ever die. After each successive medical scare Tony had, I would get worried and feel despair, Anthony would confidently and defiantly say his Dad would be all right. “He’s strong and stubborn, Mom. He’s not going to die. He’s going to get better and be just fine.” I think he sincerely believed it.
It hurt me to my soul to see my oldest suffer so. It still does. I realized later that his sobs were not only of sorrow but of disappointment. Disappointment with the hospital, with me and even with his dad. Perhaps even with himself.
At Tony’s home going, Alexander was at a loss at what to do with himself. He didn’t want to see his dad in the casket and refused to sit in the main room with us. He spent his time with my mother and with the caterers. I suspect that was how he coped that day…doing everything to be that sunny kid we always knew him to be.
Anthony was a more solemn presence. He shook hands with and accepted hugs from family and friends and stayed glued to his girlfriend’s side. To my surprise, when the pastor asked if anyone wanted to speak, he stood and said a few words about how grateful he was for his dad and all the things Tony taught him. He stood tall and proud but again, the pain in his eyes was almost too much to bear.
Afterward, when the room cleared, Anthony went and knelt next to his dad’s casket. He had some final words with his dad, tears streaking his face.
My sister later told me this story and said that Anthony was promising Tony that he would take care of me and his little brother.
Through my own pain, I’ve had to watch my sons carefully for any signs that they were failing to cope. Alexander, my precious Tony’s mini-me, was the sunshine in our lives. He seems so far to be coping well. He is the one who reminds me that Tony is still looking after his family, especially me. He will even say certain phrases that Tony would say to me…as though he channels his father. I think because Alexander is intellectually disabled, he is able to perceive more than the rest of us do and is much closer to the heaven-bound than the rest of us. I believe he’s done so well because he sees his father everywhere and in everything. I believe he’s being comforted personally by Tony.
Again, Anthony is a different story. For the first year or two, he constantly told me that he was “over” his father’s death. He refused to tell me how he was doing, didn’t want counseling or to find an adult male to interact with. It was as though nothing major had happened to him…he was all good, to quote him. He was a man, and men didn’t get upset.
But he isn’t fine As he continues to become a man, he has realized what his father really meant to him. He is missing something important. He has discovered that the hole in his heart that can never be truly filled. I see that realization in his eyes, too.
Never let it be said that children don’t grieve. It may not look like an adult’s grief, which is why some don’t see it. Make no mistake, however, kids grieve. They grieve the same losses the widowed do: loss of that all-important presence in their lives, loss of a future with their loved one, loss of that person’s love for them, for example. But children lose a bit more: their innocence about life; the things that person could and should have taught them; that special relationship that only a parent has with their child.
My boys watched their strong robust father wither from illness and die. So now they are afraid I may die too. They get worried when I go to the doctor or simply become sick. They also miss their male influence and the things he would have taught them. I am their mother…I don’t have those traits within me. I simply can’t teach them things I don’t know. The boys have missed being taught to be men by their father. They miss so much not having a dad.
But as their mom, I will do the best I can. I will love them a little more, hug them a little harder and teach them all the things I know to make up for that missing piece in their lives. It’s all I can do and I hope it can be close to enough for them.