As promised, I took the kids to the cemetery on their Dad’s birthday, which was Wednesday. I had no idea how it would go. They were at a tennis camp with my friend Christine’s two kids, and so when it came time to go, Christine decided that she’d come with her kids too. So we loaded them up and took off right after lunch – just two moms on an outing with their kids to the cemetery.
We talked a lot in the car about the cemetery. I told them that it looked like a park and that Shawn’s grave had a marker on it and grass growing over it. Since Austin has been many times, he told them how it was fun to go up on the hill and jump down from the statue at the top. They goofed off in the car like kids do. I took this as a sign that their nervousness was much less than mine.
When we arrived, Austin showed them Shawn’s grave. Claire was quiet for a little bit, kicking away the dirt around the gravestone with her foot. Then Austin ran up the hill to his favorite statue, and I could hear him calling the other kids, “come up here guys, it’s awesome!” The other kids ran over immediately. Claire lingered at her dad’s grave for another 30 seconds, just looking down at his name, a serious look on her face. She was the last to join them. About about ten seconds after she did, I could hear them all excitedly talking and laughing.
Christine and I sat down at Shawn’s grave and talked for a bit. I told her about coming here in the winter when the grave had no grass and no gravestone and it seemed so bleak. It’s not like I think Shawn’s spirit or essence is in his grave. It’s just that the cemetery is a place to remember him. It’s a place where I feel some peace. Now that there’s a bit of grass and some warmth in the air, it feels like a place that he would really like too.
The kids explored all around the cemetery. They were really interested in the difference between cremation and burial, so we talked about that a lot. They wanted to know which of their relatives had been buried and which had been cremated, and they wanted to know why some of the people were buried in a tomb-like structure rather than in the ground. Christine and I basically took our best guesses to their questions and we eventually walked back to the area around Shawn’s grave.
Claire’s friend, who is also nine, was looking at Shawn’s grave when I came over to it. “When you die, you’ll be buried here,” she said to me. She pointed at my name on the grave.
It’s true, of course. When I die, I’ll be buried there. But I continue to find it strange that my name is on a grave. It is such a reminder that we will all die someday.
“But,” Claire’s friend said to me, “what if you remarry? I don’t want you to get remarried.” She paused for a minute and then said, “but if you want to get remarried, that’s your choice.” I wondered if she had talked about this with her mom. It sounded like something my friend Christine would say in response to this thought.
Before I could say anything, Claire quickly said, “no! I don’t want you to get remarried.”
I figured now wasn’t the time to go into something so deep. Do I want to get remarried someday? God, I truly don’t know. So I replied with the most honest thing I could say. “Girls, don’t worry. I definitely don’t want to get remarried right now. And no matter what, I’ll be buried here. I want my kids to have one place to come when they want to remember their parents.”
That seemed to satisfy them. We wandered around a bit more and the kids planned where and how they wanted to be buried. Conversations like these always bother me a little bit. “Pinky swear no dying for a long, long time,” I said to them.
When it was time to go, we all walked slowly to the car. “But I want to say goodbye to Dad one more time!” Claire said, and ran back to his grave.
They all joined her – four little kids under ten years old, circling the grave of their father and friend. Then out of the blue, they started to sing Happy Birthday.
I stood with my friend Christine. Both of us started crying. Weeping, in fact. This was not what such small children should be doing on a beautiful summer afternoon.
But the kids were not crying. They were singing joyfully and blowing kisses toward the ground. They were truly celebrating Shawn.
When we got back in the car, Claire said, “now we need to go home and bake a cake for Dad!”
I wasn’t quite sure I could handle the clean up that would certainly come after such a project, so I suggested buying a cake at Costco. They agreed, and we went just a bit down the road to do some shopping.
We got the cake and all the other things you usually get at Costco, including a massive bag of Doritos because, as Austin pointed out, “Dad loved Doritos.” I couldn’t argue with that. As we checked out, the man bagging groceries said to the kids, “So….who’s birthday is it today?” He pointed at each of the kids, trying to figure it out.
“It’s a cake for my Dad,” Claire said. “He died.”
“Oh,” said the man. He was clearly shocked – and frozen in his response. How could he have expected those words to come out of my daughter’s mouth?
Of course, no adult would talk exactly like this. I might say something like, “oh, we’re having a celebration in honor of the life of my late husband and I got this cake so we could remember how he loved having parties.”
But 9-year-old kids just say, “he died.”
And yet, my daughter is not your average 9-year-old. She has been dealing with responses like this for almost six months now. She is at least somewhat aware that saying “my dad died” will make many adults react with horror. And so, after an awkward pause by the man bagging groceries, Claire said, “it’s okay! He loved parties and so we are going to have a party for his birthday today.”
That was enough to help the man continue to interact with her. It’s one of the many things that she’s learned in the past six months – how to facilitate a conversation about grief.
She’s doing something most adults don’t know how to do. And she’s nine.
In any case, we managed to get out of Costco and make it home and set up for the party. We had a few families over and we drank beer and grilled sausages and ate those Doritos. After dinner, I lit candles on the cake and we all sang Happy Birthday. Claire and Austin blew out the flames.
It was as magical as it could have been, I guess. The kids played a big game of baseball and then a lot of laser tag. At the end of the party, a few people stayed to help clean up and two of my girlfriends came upstairs to try and help me put the kids to bed.
Claire wasn’t having it. She wanted me and only me. “I just want you to do this without them!” she said emphatically.
“Claire,” I said, “I need their help with the boys if you want me to be with you right now.”
“No!” she pleaded, “I want them to go home and I want you to be able to do bedtime without them. I want you to be able to do it because I want Dad to be here to help you!”
Oh. So this wasn’t about wanting privacy. It was about wanting something that was impossible.
“You know Dad can’t be here,” I said slowly.
“I know!” she said, and then she started crying.
There was a lot more said between us that night, but I think it boils down to this: it’s just too damn much to ask a 9-year-old to do everything she did today. Maybe we could have skipped the cemetery or the party and it would have been easier but it wouldn’t really have mattered at the end of the day. What makes it so hard for her to get through days like her Dad’s birthday is just this simple fact: he’s not here.
Eventually, she seemed to calm down a bit, but she still had a lot on her mind. “Why did he have to die so young?” she asked me after we’d been talking for a while. “And why do people even get cancer?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly.
She continued to pepper me with questions. “Why did our nice dad die instead of someone mean? Why did this happen to our family? Why do all the other kids have dads and I don’t? Why do you have to be alone and all the other moms get a husband?”
And then, in the midst of all of this, she paused and looked me straight in the eyes. “And mom,” she asked, “is Santa Claus real?”
“Oh baby,” I said, laughing a little, “you have a lot of big questions tonight.”
She looked at me intensely. I had absolutely no idea what she was going to say next.
“When you grow up, does someone tell you if Santa Claus is real?” She paused, and then continued. “Does someone tell you if heaven is real? Does someone tell you why some people die young? Does someone tell you the answers to all of these questions?”
“Claire,” I said, “I don’t know the answers to all of these questions. Even some adults don’t know. I wish I had all of the answers, but I don’t.”
“Ugh,” she said, and fell back on her pillow.
“I know,” I said back to her. “I don’t have a lot of answers tonight. But I do know one thing. Your Dad loved you. And wherever he is now, he still loves you. And I love you.”
She fell asleep eventually. I sat there, playing with her hair and thinking about how young she is and yet how old she has had to become this year. I thought about how many questions she asked me and how I don’t really know the answers to any of them. I thought about how I ask many of the same questions every single day.
Why me? Why us? Why him?
I thought these birthday posts would be about Shawn, about how he loved life and loved parties and loved his birthday. But it turned into a story about how my children are understanding their lives without him. I wish he had been at his birthday party this year, even if it was just for that one day. I know he’d be sad to be missing all of these life events with us. But if he could see how they are navigating their way through the world without him, I think he’d be proud of how they are braving through it.