“We missed Father’s Day.” My son said the words derisively. Accusingly, in Sunday’s telephone call.
“No, we didn’t.”
“Yes, Mom, its today.”
“No, it’s next Sunday.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Well, it’s not like we have to celebrate it or anything.” And he changed the subject.
I wanted to say something more to him. I wanted to say, “What about me?” I wanted to say, “What about a card that says ‘Happy Father’s Day, Mom’?” I wanted to say, “Haven’t I been a good dad?” But, I didn’t. We chatted a bit more and hung up with the requisite “I love you” and “Be careful” and “I’ll call you this week.”
But, his question made me think of all the Father’s Days, all the other days when his Dad should have been here. All the other days when I tried to fill in, when I tried to step into those size 10, red suede, Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars that my husband wore for pick-up basketball games at the law school. All the days when I slipped into the green-rubber-with-yellow-fleece-lining steel-toed boots he wore to shovel the driveway. All the nights I tucked my freezing toes into his scuffed brown leather Docksiders to let the dog out before bed. All the times when I tried to be the Dad as well as the Mom.
We managed after my husband died when the kids were 6 and 3. We stayed in our house. We still went to Cape Cod and Lake Placid on vacation. We got the Yellow Labrador retriever my husband always wanted. We installed the in-ground pool my husband and I had discussed on the very day he jumped into my sister’s pool and broke his neck. I did everything we had ever talked about, I followed every rule he had used – round up withdrawals and round down deposits so you always have a “float” in the checking account, change the oil at 4000 not 3000 miles, put batteries in the nightstand drawer (I never understood the rationale on that one).
It was the other stuff that stymied me. The stuff we hadn’t discussed in one of our four-hour long conversations on the drive to the in-laws on Long Island. The stuff I assumed he would always take care of, like car repairs and mowing the lawn. The stuff that Dads did, like putting the swing set together or teaching our daughter to ride a bike. Like teaching our son to pee standing up. He died before he could perform that task. How does a mom teach her three year-old son that boys and men pee standing up? I bought picture books. I bought targets for him to aim at. I finally enlisted my brother and gallons of apple juice in one marathon Sunday of non-stop peeing in the upstairs bathroom.
Little League. I knew the rudiments of baseball but I couldn’t throw and I couldn’t hit. My husband was a stellar baseball player but it fell to me to teach our son to throw, catch and hit. And our daughter when she decided to try softball. I spent hours in the front yard playing catch. I bought a batting “tee”, a pitching net, and shoved handfuls of quarters into the batting cages at the local miniature golf course. I felt as though I deserved one of the four trophies that still sit on my son’s dresser. I felt I deserved it for smiling instead of sobbing when my five-year old son, clutching his first Little League trophy, looked up at me with solemn eyes, making me promise that I would bury him with it when he died.
What do you do when your seven year-old son punches another boy in the nose? My first reaction was to spank him or take away video games or send him to bed right after supper for a month. It was mostly an accident, the boy grabbed for his baseball cap on the bus and my son raised his arm to block the grab and caught the boy across the bridge of his nose. The kid was a whiny brat, he bled like a pig and my son got hauled into the principal’s office. Fortunately, the principal had played golf with my husband, my son was very remorseful and I arrived to drive him home as he had been banned from the bus for week. But, how do you respond when your son tells you he was the hero of the elementary school boys for drawing blood, for roughing up a kid that no one on the bus liked, and he says it with a bit of a swagger? After hurried consultations with brothers and male friends, who were pleased that my son was not a “wimp” as they had feared he would be growing up fatherless with an over-protective mother, and the psychologist, I made him write an essay about alternative methods of dispute resolution. My daughter was disgusted.
Father-Daughter Dances. I couldn’t fix those. I enlisted grandfathers, brothers and friends and we got through the one or two that my daughter attended. I bought the corsage her father should have bought for her, just as I bought the bouquets for the dance recitals. I was better with flowers than I was with cars. Though, I bought those too. And I taught them to drive, at least initially, white-knuckling it in the big parking lot behind the high school when first my daughter and then my son maneuvered my mini-van between the yellow lines. Finally, after making all of us way too nervous, I sent them to Bell’s Driving School. And I paid for the lessons and the car repairs and the traffic tickets that followed.
I paid for everything that two salaries should have been sharing. Orthodontists, summer camp, piano lessons, riding lessons, baseball clinics, dance class. I did the taxes and I filled out the FAFSA forms and the college applications. All of the Dad duties that I had assumed my husband would be doing while I braided hair, baked brownies, pulled teeth (he was totally grossed out by pulling teeth) and supervised arts and crafts.
The Sex talk. I did that, too. Easy enough with my daughter, a natural segue from the “becoming a woman” talk. But for my son, I chose a drive to Long Island his first year in high school. He was a prisoner in my car for three hours until we picked his sister up at college. I told him everything I knew his father knew and I had been the beneficiary of, and then some. He was red-faced at first, and then peppered me with questions. Still, he sighed gratefully as we pulled up to his sister’s dorm. Jumping out of the car, he climbed in the back seat, muttering to her that I had made him have “The Talk.” He refused to speak to either of us for the rest of the trip.
There was more, much more. But, now, finally, over two decades after their father’s death, I am comfortable with my role as Father/Mother. I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve had a few moments of inspiration in guiding my daughter and son, a few moments when I did the Dad thing as well as my husband would have. Driving a moving truck from Memphis to Clifton Park to bring my daughter home to recover from crushed dreams. Driving to LaGuardia to send my son back to the West Coast to pick up the pieces of lost job and a broken romance. Offering humor, advice, guidance, common sense and some money, and letting them go. Just as he would have done, believing that he had done all he could and would do so again.
I think I deserve a card for that.