A few weeks ago, I was driving through DC with Tommy and we passed a cemetery. “Mom, look!” he said, “graves!”
“Yes,” I said.
“There are graves in a….” He stopped because he couldn’t find the word.
“Cemetery,” I answered.
“And,” he said, “there are zombies in cemeteries.”
I didn’t expect him to say that, so I paused for a second to reply and then before I could say anything else, he said, “My Dad is in a cemetery. So my Dad is a zombie!”
“Dad is not a zombie,” I said back to him. “Dad died and his body is in the ground. He did not become a zombie.”
I looked back at him, and he met my eyes with an even expression. He seemed to take my explanation as a simple fact. He was not upset.
But Jesus, it threw me. How many mothers have to have an honest talk with their 4-year-olds about how their dead father is not a zombie? For the past few weeks, when I think about how different my life is from all of the other people I know, I picture this moment in my mind.
“Dad is not a zombie.”
Once October rolled around, and Halloween decor sprouted up everywhere, Tommy became obsessed with the idea that zombies were everywhere. “I want to be a zombie for Halloween!” he told me a few days after our conversation by the cemetery.
Claire liked that idea too, since she was planning on dressing up as a zombie schoolgirl with some friends, and Austin agreed happily, as he usually does. I went online and ordered matching costumes for all of us. When they arrived, the kids were overjoyed. Tommy, in particular, got a huge kick out of the mask that made him look really scary.
We’ve done family Halloween costumes for years. Yes, every year, we were that family. Star Wars, Power Rangers, Superheroes….we’ve done them all. So although I had recently told Tommy that his father was not a zombie, I knew if he were here, Shawn certainly would have been one of the zombies in our family Halloween costume.
We didn’t really talk about Shawn’s absence from our family costume. I didn’t want to specifically point it out to the kids, as they were really excited about their costumes. We pulled out all of the decorations for the house a few weeks before Halloween and the kids had a blast deciding where the giant spider and the pumpkin lights would go. Then they found the plastic skeleton – the one that looks like it’s coming out of the ground – and they tried to figure out how to best place it so it looked realistic. Was this going to be upsetting for them to think about death like this?
I was actually pretty surprised. They laughed as they set up the skeleton and they loved that it looked really creepy. None of them seemed to connect the idea of a skeleton with the death of their father.
“We need graves too,” Claire said. “We had those last year!”
I mean, really? Didn’t any of this stuff make the kids upset?
At one point, I looked over and saw that they were all rolling down the hill in the front of the house. No one looked the least bit sad. Maybe, I thought, this is one of the great blessings of childhood. They definitely miss their father. But they also are children who love Halloween.
They remember getting candy last Halloween, but they don’t remember a lot of the bad stuff. They don’t remember that Shawn was so sick he couldn’t set up the decorations and I was annoyed I had to go by myself to Michaels with three kids who fought the entire time. They don’t remember that their dad barely made it to see them in their Halloween costumes and went home early from trick-or-treating. They don’t remember when he turned around on Halloween night and caught my eye – and winced with such obvious pain it seemed like he might fall over.
But I do. So maybe that’s why all of this Halloween stuff is so hard. Maybe it’s not that Halloween itself is a reminder of death (even though it is) and maybe it’s not that Shawn isn’t here to dress up with us (even though he isn’t.) Maybe it’s that all of this reminds me of what life was like just a year ago. Just before the worst news we could imagine came true.
So here we are. Halloween day, 2018. The kids were really excited this morning, and the costumes are all prepared for the school parade this afternoon and the trick-or-treating tonight. I can’t wait to see their faces in the glow of the streetlights as I remember that they are still so little, and that tonight is still magical for them. I hope today is one of those perfect nights of childhood, even if they can’t have their dad there with them.
I bet there will be a moment tonight when I forget that Shawn isn’t at home handing out candy and delighting the neighbors. I’ll turn around and remember that he’s gone. Then my heart will sink and I’ll think again about my declaration to Tommy:
“Dad is not a zombie.”
But, God, we all wish he was.