In the weeks leading up to Father’s Day last year, I had a million people checking in with me. “Do you know what you want to do on Father’s Day?” was a common question I got. Honestly, I didn’t know. I was dreading the day as it marked the first event where I was supposed to be celebrating Shawn, and he wouldn’t be there.
But I made it through. We had a good day, even if it was still a hard day, and my community surrounded me and the kids. We went to the toy store. We talked about Shawn. A zillion people helped me with the kids at the pool and someone made sure I always had a cold beer. Like every event last year, I was proud of myself for surviving it.
But Year 2 is different for all of these holidays. Valentine’s Day was different. My birthday was different. Mother’s Day was different. People aren’t so worried about me anymore, and while that’s mostly good (I think my friends recognize that I’m better able to move through the world on a daily basis without their constant help) it means that there aren’t dozens of people making me plan these big days ahead of time. But this means one very important thing:
Holidays can sneak up on me.
And so can the grief.
As the week ended last week, I felt a familiar dread coming over me. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, and I ended up leaving a party early on Friday because I just felt sad and wasn’t sure why. But once I took a minute to think about it, I realized that yet another Father’s Day was looming.
Saturday night, I asked the kids what we should do. “Remember what we did last year?” Austin asked, and then without waiting for my answer reminded me, “we went to the diner and the toy store, just like Dad liked to do. Let’s do that again!”
We all agreed. So, yesterday morning, after a long morning run I took to dissipate the anxiety, we set out for our adventure. We decided that we’d go to the cemetery first.
“But we need flowers for Dad’s grave!” Claire said.
So we went to the grocery store. I told the kids to pick out something and they settled on earth-friendly, sustainably harvested red roses. (I mean, really, kids? How about the $3.99 cheap bouquet? It’s not like anyone besides us is going to see them. Even Shawn would think it was ridiculous!)
We drove out to the cemetery. It was alive with people, although our family was the only young family there. The kids took the roses and decorated Shawn’s grave, and Claire made the boys write their names on a sign she made. “Happy Father’s Day,” it read, “We Miss You Daddy.”
They rearranged the roses again and again around the headstone. A ceremony, of sorts.
“Can we go play now?” Austin asked. I said sure, and he and Tommy ran off to play on the praying hands statue.
Claire stayed with me. “I miss Dad,” she said.
“Me too,” I said.
Bagpipes played in the distance. “Do you hear that?” I asked her.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Bagpipes,” I said. “It’s beautiful, I think. Even though it can also sound a bit sad. I guess there’s a lot of things in life that can be both sad and beautiful.”
We sat there like that for a while, but Tommy was yelling so loudly for us to come and play that we eventually joined them. The bagpipes kept playing, and we spent a few minutes trying to find out where the sound was coming from. But the grounds are too big, and it remained a mystery. We talked about other things we didn’t understand for a while, and then out of the blue, Claire looked over at Shawn’s grave and said, “Do you think Dad’s whole body is still in the ground? Or, is it gone into the earth? Or is part of it gone?”
See, here’s the thing about kids. They will ask the question that adults think, but never, ever say out loud.
I actually thought about it. “I don’t know,” I said, truthfully. “But I know that eventually, the earth will break down the box that his body is in and will take his body too. That’s how it works. All of our bodies go back to the earth eventually. But who we are – our spirits – that part isn’t in our bodies after we die. That part goes somewhere else, like maybe Heaven.”
I was trying to answer as best I could, with as much honesty as possible.
“So,” Austin said, “maybe just one toe is gone or something?”
I laughed. Shawn would have laughed too.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but anyway, it’s time for pancakes!”
We got back in the car and drove to the diner. Miraculously, there was a parking spot right in front, and I took a while unloading the kids. They were fighting with each other by this point and we caused a little bit of a scene for all of the patio diners. Somehow, our table was ready and we were seated outside right away.
I ordered immediately. We sat and colored and talked about our upcoming summer travel. The kids entertained me with some stories about their friends, and I listened halfheartedly. I was exhausted and it was only noon. Joyful families surrounded me. I wanted to be happy, but all I felt was the overwhelming sadness of being a single mom on Father’s Day.
I did my best to stay in the moment, and focus on the kids. I told them about my high school job working at a 50s diner and we passed the time. Eventually, some of our food arrived, and the waiter brought over the check. I thought it was strange because I hadn’t asked for the check, but I went to pay it anyway.
When I opened the bill, I found only a receipt. At the bottom were three words, written in loopy handwriting:
“We Got You!”
I stared at the check for a minute, confused. Was someone trying to tell me something?
I flagged down our waiter and asked why there was just a receipt inside. “The bill was paid by someone already,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Someone paid for your lunch,” he said again.
“My God,” I said to him, “this note – it’s a line from the speech I gave at my students’ graduation a week ago. It must have been someone who heard that speech.”
I looked around. “The person who paid already left,” the waiter said. He was smiling.
“The speech was about how I’ve survived since my husband’s death a year ago,” I said, and I told him the rest of the story. As I told him the story, I started crying.
The kids didn’t fully understand what had happened, so I explained it to them.
As I did, it became clear that many of the waiters and waitresses knew what had happened. They all came by and smiled at me and the kids, and many of the tables near us did the same.
Eventually, we left. We went to the toy store, just like Dad always did, and the kids each picked out a present. Claire got a bow and arrow set (“like Katniss”), Austin got a spy kit, and Tommy got a Spiderman action figure.
Last year, I bought laser-tag guns to play with the kids. But this year I didn’t need to get myself anything at the toy store.
Because this year, I got a much better present.
I got the reminder that I’m not alone.