The end of the school year is really a crazy time for parents. In the last week and a half of school, Claire and Austin have a combined seven school events. All of them, of course, are during the middle of the day, which makes things really difficult for working parents. Particularly single working parents.
On the way to school on Friday, Claire asked me whether I was coming to the end-of-year party. “No,” I told her, “But I’m coming on the all-day zoo field trip the day before, so don’t worry!”
“But everyone else’s parents are coming to the party!” she whined.
Let’s be clear here – everyone else’s parents are not coming to the party. Everyone else is also being driven crazy by the insane number of events that occur in the last 7 days of school. But Claire just knows that I won’t be there and if I’m not there, then no adult is going to be there for her. I’m not saying that other parents won’t be there and won’t pay attention to my child. But Claire knows that even the most caring adults are not the same as a parent. So she wants me there, at everything.
It’s a huge burden. I want to write, “it’s a huge responsibility,” but honestly, it feels like a burden at this point. I know that it’s really not that important if a kid has two parents who show up to every school event, and that kids are resilient and will be okay even if I never come to any events. But I worry about not showing up. I worry that my kids will feel the absence of their father even stronger if I’m not there and I worry that they will be the only kid without a constant adult presence around the school. I know a number of other parents can’t make all of these school events, but their kids have the luxury of knowing that there is more than one parent cheering for them from afar.
For my kids, it’s just me.
I’m not trying to take away from the many family members and godparents and even the awesome role played by my dad to help make my kids’ lives happy ones. But it’s not the same. When my kids think about who should be attending the Family Day celebration or the End-of-Year Carnival, they think of me. Before, when I missed these events, I’d explain calmly that their dad and I couldn’t come to everything, and that was life.
Now, I worry that missing these events is somehow even more of a reminder about how they are different from their peers. Before, I liked that they had to deal with a little bit of adversity. I figured it helped toughen them up. Now I worry that they are dealing with too much, and any added adversity (even if it’s that mom is missing the end-of-year party) is something that just deepens the hurt.
So Friday, as I dropped Claire off, she frowned at me. I knew that she was unhappy about me missing many of these events.
But I also knew something she didn’t know – she was about to get a surprise award in front of the entire school.
After I dropped her off, I snuck around the side of the school and sat with a few parents of kids who were getting awards. As the kids walked in, many of them turned around. By third grade, the kids know that the only parents there are the ones whose kids are getting awards. Claire didn’t look at the parents at first. But her friend standing next to her spotted me, and I saw her whisper in my daughter’s ear.
And then, Claire turned around and got the biggest smile on her face. She jumped up and down and waved excitedly. I think she even let out a tiny squeal.
During the ceremony, she bolted up to get her award and smiled for a photo on the stage. Her face…well, it was priceless. It was the smile of a girl who had just had the best day of her life.
The best day of her life, in the worst year of her life. It was all so unreal.
I initially worried that she was just getting an award as a consolation prize. You know, “your dad died, but you get this great award!” I figured that it was just part of this year – part of everyone wanting to do something for our family.
But then I saw her face in that assembly and really started to think about it. Claire lost her dad halfway through third grade. I remember the night we came home from the emergency room visit with the terrible scan, knowing that Shawn probably had cancer. We didn’t tell the kids, because we wanted to be sure and we wanted to figure out what was the best way to tell them if it was cancer. So, we went through the normal bedtime routine. As she was getting ready for bed, Claire got really upset about a math worksheet that she hadn’t finished that day in school. She even started crying, I think, about how hard the worksheet had been and how other kids had finished before she had.
I remember standing in my bathroom, braiding her hair and listening to her go on and on about this math worksheet and praying – really praying – “Dear God, please please please let this math worksheet be the biggest problem she deals with this week. Please let my little girl just worry about third grade things for one more school year. Please make it not be cancer.”
I tucked her in bed that night, not knowing it would be one of the last normal nights she would have for months. A few days later we would tell her that Shawn had cancer, and she would be the only child of ours who cried. “But Abby has cancer!” she said, referencing a kid who had gone to her elementary school and was very sick. Then, horrified, she looked at her dad and said, “does that mean you are going to die?”
We reassured her that it was very unlikely that her dad would die. But of course, he did.
There are about a thousand more stories I can tell about what happened with Claire during the months of January and February. Some I only know pieces of because I haven’t asked for the full story from all of the many people who helped care for her and her brothers during the weeks when Shawn was in the hospital. What I do know is this – she had to maintain ultimate flexibility every single day when her dad was sick, and then she had to re-learn almost everything about her life after he died.
Here’s just one example. After Shawn died, Claire didn’t want to eat in the school cafeteria. She said that she worried that everyone would stare at her when she walked in, and so she spent lunchtime in the counselor’s office. For weeks, I tried to coax her into going at least one time, telling her that other kids probably wouldn’t even notice her presence. She wasn’t fully convinced, but said she’d think about it.
At the time, I was refusing to show up at their elementary school for the exact same reason, so I knew I was being a bit of a hypocrite.
Eventually, maybe a month after Shawn died, Claire decided to go back and try eating in the cafeteria. She was really nervous about it, but she did it, and she came home that night excited to tell me about how proud she was of herself. “I didn’t want to do it,” she told me, “I thought everyone would just look and look at me. But they just kept eating their own food! It was fine, actually.”
If that’s not “braving through it,” I don’t know what is.
The award at school was given out to a few kids, those who persevered and tried their best, or something like that. When I thought back to Claire’s third-grade year, the year when her dad was either sick or dying or gone from this earth, it made me realize something: she deserved that award. She deserved that award because she walked to school day after day and looked her classmates in the eye. She deserved that award because she still learned all of her multiplication facts and figured out how to write really well even when she slept very little the night before. She deserved that award because she asked for help when she needed it and she showed her first grade brother that it was okay to visit the school counselor and talk about being sad.
Claire didn’t get that award as a pity award. She got that award because she had the worst happen and she survived. Dammit, she thrived.
So maybe it’s time that I worry a little less about my absences at school events. Yes, my kids have dealt with more adversity this year than any child should ever face. But, inexplicably, they are managing to figure out a new normal with me and with their community. They aren’t happy when I can’t make it to everything, and they don’t like that they have to face uncomfortable situations a lot more often than they used to.
But they are doing it. Sometimes they are showing me how to do it too. And I think that’s exactly what an award like this is for.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.