“Tell Chris the family loves him.”
It was a text from my dad, something that might not seem like a lot, but from my dad, it was a big deal. My father is a man who is loyal to the people around him, and who loves me and my sister and his grandkids so much, but he is also someone who doesn’t always express that emotion so readily in writing. His birthday cards to me always say something like, “Enjoy your birthday. Love, Dad.”
My dad is obviously not unfeeling or unsentimental – on the contrary, he’s been devoted to our family for the entirety of his life. First, to his parents and siblings, then to my mother, and then to me and my sister and our children. Whenever someone in our family is in trouble, my dad shows up. He believes in the power of actions. That’s why he sent that text.
When I got the text, I was away from home. Unexpectedly, a family emergency had come up, and I needed to help. I packed my bags and headed out, leaving Chris home with the kids for a few days. And then the few days turned into a few more days, and then all of the sudden I had been gone for a week.
Leaving the kids was hard, as it always is. For the past three years, we’ve been such a team, and when I’m not with them, I feel unmoored, even if I’m sometimes happy to get some breathing space. They were sad that I had to leave, but they understood. I promised to FaceTime them every day.
But it was also really hard to leave Chris. “Go,” he said, when I hesitated. “Everything will be great here. Your family needs you.”
So I went. I called my family the first day I was away, and Claire picked up. “We’re making sage pasta!” she announced. In the background, I could see her brothers in the kitchen with Chris.
“Everything’s great here, Mom!” Chris said. The boys crowded around the camera and they told me about their day. I heard all about the small dramas of their lives, and Chris and I talked afterwards. He reassured me that everyone was happy.
It went like this each day. The kids rode their bikes and played outside in the beautiful weather, and they all ate dinner together every night. I called in the morning and at night and sometimes in between if I could. “Hi, Mom,” Claire said one afternoon, popping her head in the screen. “We’re having the best time. I don’t even miss you!”
Chris and I laughed heartily at this. The honesty of children!
You’d think a comment like this might hurt my feelings. How could my children not miss me? But it didn’t hurt my feelings. I was just so grateful that they were happy.
It’s such a change. Three years ago, I was their whole world. For at least six months after Shawn died, I didn’t leave them at all, other than to work and to get an occasional cup of coffee. In that time period, my kids’ dependence on me was so intense and singular that I couldn’t even think of being away from them for more than the length of a school day. I believed, fully, that was the only person who was going to be able to truly meet their needs.
But slowly, a web was forming underneath us.
Of course, the web had always been there in the form of my extended Clark family and my friends and, of course, Grandpa Tom. But in those early months, and really for that entire first year of widowhood, I felt like everything was actually just on me. I was the only one who could really meet my kids’ needs.
And yet, over that year, and the years that followed, I started to realize how strong the web was beneath me and the kids. Each time that I let someone do something for me – pick up a kid from practice or get something for me at the grocery store, for example – that web got stronger. And it got stronger not just for me, but also for my kids.
Slowly, my kids learned that they could depend on other people, too. First, they learned that Grandpa Tom would always be there for them. Then, they saw the love they received from our immediate community, people like my friends Becky and Michelle and other friends that we saw every day. Then they felt support from the wider community – the school and the church and the neighborhood.
I wanted to do it all on my own. I did. But I couldn’t.
Thank God I couldn’t. Because by relinquishing control, the web could grow. I realize what privilege this is. I know that a lot of widows don’t have community around them for a variety of reasons. I know that this is sometimes the hardest part of widowhood. Whenever someone writes me and asks if they should move to where their community is stronger, I say, “absolutely yes.” But I know that not everyone has that option.
So, yes, when Shawn died I was lucky that I had a web of family and friends that surrounded us. But that web was much weaker four years ago – before Shawn got sick – than it is now. It didn’t need to be as strong back then.
In fact, I think one of the reasons that my kids are able to let me leave them now is because we’ve had practice relying on other people. When Chris came into our lives a year ago, they could quickly identify that he was a person that would be there for them.
I’m not just talking about logistics. The real support that Chris provides to the kids is this: unconditional love.
So, yes, my extended family was thrilled that Chris was home with the kids when I couldn’t be. They were glad that someone was there. But really, what I think my dad meant by his text, “Tell Chris the family loves him,” was that they are so grateful that Chris provides the kind of support that my kids really need. Not the support with learning subtraction and preparing meals, though of course that’s part of it, but also the support that makes Claire say, “I don’t even miss you!”
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.