The first Thanksgiving we spent without Shawn was really hard. We were with our dear friends Josh and Becky, out on Josh’s family farm, surrounded by people who loved us. But it felt heavy. And I was Just. So. Tired. One of the nights, Tommy woke up at 2 am, crying about something, and I couldn’t comfort him. Eventually, I brought him into my bed where he calmed down, his snotty face resting against my chest.
I stayed awake for a long time, thinking about how I was the only person who could comfort him. Yes, there was a whole household of people there who loved him, but there was only one person he wanted at night, because there was only one parent left.
It was something I thought about all the time in the early days. “It’s just me,” I’d often say when someone asked about Tommy’s dad. It almost broke me every time. Yes, single moms have been feeling these kinds of pressures forever, and I’m nothing special in this regard. But damn it’s intense when you become a suddenly solo parent with no backup. Especially when you are grieving.
This year for Thanksgiving, our table wasn’t very big. It was just our family and Becky’s family, who we’ve been quarantining with since March. (Highly convenient to fall in love with your best friend’s brother!) The kids were upset when we told them we couldn’t see grandparents, but they seemed to understand. We decided that we still needed to keep up the tradition of each choosing someone else’s name, and saying why we were thankful for that person.
It was sweet. Claire and Chris got each other, and their tributes were both so heartfelt that I started to cry. Each person went in turn, from oldest to youngest. Tommy was last. “I wrote a book for my person!” he said, earnestly. “I have my mom!”
Becky’s son Liam helped him read from the pages that he’d stapled together. “I had to help him write it a little bit,” Liam said. “It’s about the elements, because he’s really into science right now.”
Tommy’s face looked at me expectantly, and I smiled back at him. “My mom is like water!” he said. “Because when everyone is mad she can cool down the fight.”
I laughed. So did everyone at the table.
“My mom is like fire,” he continued, “she can get really mad sometimes but I still love her.”
Then everyone really laughed. “Oh, Tommy,” I said, “I love you so much!” I gave him a hug and he gave me the card. “I’m saving this forever,” I said.
Later that night, I thought about the card. Yes, it was a silly and sweet tribute from a 6-year-old. But it also spoke volumes about who I’d become as a parent. Once upon a time, I didn’t have to wear so many hats. I was either the “fire” parent or the “water” parent, and Shawn was my complement. (Let’s be honest: I was almost always the “fire” parent.) But three years ago when I became the only parent, I had to be the “everything” parent.
I had to be the fire and the water. Not just on occasion. But every single hour of every single day. I had to be sharp when the kids just needed to go to bed and I had to relent when my baby needed to sleep next to me. “It’s just me,” I’d say to everyone, and I didn’t just mean it was only me on the school forms. I meant it was only me, always.
I’m not sure every widowed parent feels this way, but one of the most overwhelming parts of my newly widowed life was figuring out how to be a parent that was both hard and soft. It wasn’t just about the logistics of how to get new soccer shoes and bike helmets. It was also about the emotional gymnastics I had to perform on a daily basis.
Learning to let go, even just a little bit, has been a process. “Remember, I’m here now too,” Chris will gently say when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the kids. He’s good – in fact, he’s very good – at complementing me as a parent.
But even with Chris around, I haven’t simply reverted back to the parent I once was. I am different now, both as a person and as a mother.
I think I’ll always have a little fire and a little water in me. It’s just part of who I am now.
And, like Tommy, I’m grateful for that.