A few weeks ago, Claire came upstairs, clearly upset. “Austin is doing a terrible job with his homework!” she exclaimed.
I was puzzled. “Claire,” I said, “Austin is in third grade. He’s just figuring out how to do homework.”
She insisted I come and see his homework. The assignment was to write about a subject in school that he liked. “Look!” Claire said, pointing at his paper.
Austin had written about all of the subjects he didn’t like instead. “This will hurt his teacher’s feelings!” Claire said.
I was pretty sure Austin’s teacher had thicker skin than that. She is a great teacher and Austin adores her, even if he doesn’t like reading or writing. Certainly I’ve had my share of students who didn’t like my subject, and I didn’t let it worry me too much. But I appreciated that Claire was concerned about how Austin’s words might impact someone else.
I talked to Austin about it and as we talked, Claire kept interrupting to add things like, “how would you feel if someone wrote things like this about mom??” Eventually, Austin erased everything and started over, conceding that he does actually like math.
I laughed with my dad about it later. Gotta love the power of an older sister.
The next few weekly writing assignments were pretty straightforward. I chuckled when Austin wrote a paragraph on his least favorite food (“Sushi is gross. It is raw fish, and raw fish should just be bait.”) I enjoyed how easily he completed the math portions. But then one afternoon I came home, and before I sat down he said, “mom, I’m writing about dad dying for my homework this week.”
“Okay,” I said, slowly. “Do you feel okay about that?”
“Yes,” he said. “The topic is, ‘something that makes you sad’ so that’s why I picked when dad died. Here’s my brainstorm.” He handed me his homework.
I looked at his worksheet. It was heartbreaking.
“Something that makes me sad is when my father died,” he had written. “It makes me sad because I can never see him again. He is missing out on family trips. He can’t go to my basketball games.”
I took a deep breath, and willed myself to keep my emotions under control. I try and take these things in stride.
“I need to write out the sentences and make sure to include details and explanations,” Austin said. “Will you help me?”
“Sure, baby,” I said, and we sat down to brainstorm the details of exactly what his father was missing.
We came up with a lot of ideas. Dad would have done more “special time” with him. Dad would have taken him to the toy store. Dad would have loved the water slides on the Disney cruise.
“I think the last part should be about Dad missing my basketball games,” Austin said. “What other details can I add?”
I looked at him. His hair was sticking out at the sides and bits of it hung in his eyes. I swept it to the sides and combed my fingers through his hair, looking for the right words. “Dad would have loved watching you play,” I said, choking a bit on the last word.
Claire was sitting across the room, and looked up. “Are you okay, mom?” she asked. Austin hadn’t written anything yet, and I realized that both of them were looking intently at me.
“Talking about dad makes me a little sad,” I said, “especially when I think of how he is missing things like Austin’s basketball games. But it’s okay to feel sad when we think about missing dad.”
“I know,” Claire said. Austin was quiet, and went back to writing.
As we went to bed that night, I asked Austin how he felt about the assignment, and he assured me that he wasn’t too sad writing about his dad.
“Dad would have loved watching you play basketball,” I said, “even more than me, I think.”
Austin smiled. “He would have liked seeing me have fun,” he said.
I smiled at him. “Yes, he would have loved that.”
And that is how this story ends, because I am living my real life, not an animated movie. No one comes back to life. No one magically fixes the sad thing in Austin’s life. No one fills the role of dad, because no matter how many people Austin has in his life, no one ever will. This story will always be sad for him.
But that’s okay. It’s sad that his dad died. It makes me cry when I think about all that Shawn is missing and all that Austin is missing because he doesn’t have his dad here for fun trips and third-grade basketball.
Yes, it would have been easier if the assignment was about “how to ride a bike” or “my favorite candy.” But I’m glad this homework dug a little deeper, because it showed me that my boy can talk about the things that make him sad. And that strikes me as one of the most important things he’s learning how to do this year.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.