“I love lemonade!” Tommy declared, as he walked out of the restaurant where we’d just finished eating.
“You love lemonade, just like your Grandpa Tom,” I said.
My dad laughed. Thirty minutes prior, when we were waiting in line to order, my dad confessed to me, “I let them get a fountain drink when we come here without you.” I told him it was fine with me if they got something sweet to drink, and I let the kids order what they wanted. Tommy chose lemonade, just like my dad.
So as we exited the restaurant, we both laughed as Tommy took the last sips of his lemonade and danced on the sidewalk. We talked about the taste of lemonade – sweet and sour at the same time. Austin looked at Tommy and asked me, “what’s in lemonade, anyway? Just lemons?”
“And sugar,” I said.
“I love sugar!” Tommy said.
“Just like your Grandpa Tom!” I said again, and then we all laughed.
“Yep, yep, yep,” Tommy said, “just like Grandpa. I like having a grandpa! Not everyone has a grandpa. We used to have Shawn, when I was three. But now we have Grandpa Tom.”
The big kids were quiet. They know that my dad is not a substitute for Shawn, but it’s still confusing for Tommy. You’d think, as a five-year-old, he’d start to understand the unfairness of it all.
But he really doesn’t get it. Case in point: last week he had his first homework assignment: make a poster for “family day” in kindergarten. Use photos of your family and decorate a poster to share. Claire and Austin had to do this assignment when they were Tommy’s age, but of course, Shawn was still alive. So I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I printed out dozens of photos of both our family with Shawn and our family without Shawn. I decided I’d let Tommy pick, so one afternoon I spread the photos out on the floor and told him he would need to cut out a few for the poster.
Immediately, he saw a photo, one that’s from about three years ago, of him sitting on his dad’s lap. “This one!” he said, pointing to it. “I’m going to cut it out.”
He took his time cutting around the image, and then chose a few more. He made sure to pick one of just me and him (I loved that) and also one of Grandpa Tom doing the dishes (which, I have to say, was an amazingly appropriate image to pick of my dad.) When it came time to label the photos, he wrote his own name, and Claire’s and Austin’s too. “But you write the other names,” he said to me.
I proceeded slowly. “Okay, so this is a picture of me. I’ll write ‘mom’ next to it. And then there’s a picture of Grandpa Tom.”
“Put ‘Grandpa Tom’ under it,” Tommy instructed. So I did.
“And here’s a picture of you and your dad,” I said, pointing to the first image he selected.
“Yes,” he said, “so write ‘Shawn’ for that one.”
I paused. “Should I write ‘dad’ too?”
“Okay,” he said. “That’s our first dad. Now we have our other dad, Grandpa Tom!”
“Well,” I said, stalling for the best words, “you always have your dad, Shawn. He will always be your dad. Grandpa Tom is your grandpa, and we are lucky to have him.”
Tommy looked at me for a long time. Maybe he was trying to figure out why I was so concerned with semantics. He certainly was not emotionally conflicted in the way that I felt in that moment. He finished the poster and demanded I hang it on the wall until he had to take it to school.
That night, I laid in bed and thought about the way that Tommy was understanding his young life. I thought back to our trip to the restaurant earlier that week, when Tommy had ordered lemonade just like my dad.
As we were leaving the restaurant that day, Austin was walking alongside his brother. He was listening to him talk about their father and their Grandpa Tom. Tommy, ever the observer, looked down at his drink and said, “Grandpa Tom always gets me lemonade.”
Austin looked at his little brother, and gently touched his shoulder. “Tommy,” he said, “Dad used to get us lemonade too. Or root beer.”
“Oh!” Tommy said back, “I like root beer too.”
“Ya,” Austin said, playfully nudging his brother, “it’s yummy too.”
They smiled a bit at each other, and we got in the car to go home.
Dad. Grandpa. Different, of course. But to Tommy, and for all of us, our complicated family is just our family. Imperfect and perfect, happy and sad.
Bittersweet. Just like the lemonade.