When I worked up the strength to tell Emilee that her dad died, she didn’t believe me. She still pictured him in the hospital, like he had been so many times before. Only this time he wasn’t coming home. I knew I had to somehow convince her that he was gone, but how? I closed my eyes and silently asked for divine assistance.
Before I knew what I was doing I picked up the phone and called the mortuary. It was after hours, I knew, and a long shot, but someone answered the phone. In a shaky voice I asked if we could come by. The man on the other end of the line said yes, of course. And because he did, Em was able to say good-bye to her dad that day, and kiss his cold brow. I will always be thankful for that.
And so began our lives without Jerry.
For twenty nine years it’s been that way. I’ve been Emilee’s mom and dad since she was five years old. And now she’s engaged to be married, and I will be the one walking her down the aisle. Unexpectedly, this has stirred up some deep-down pain that is coming to the surface in the form of nostalgia and hot, heavy tears.
I doubt any of us are strangers to having a life event bring up sadness. It doesn’t even have to be big or important. Loss is loss, after all. Maybe it’s nature’s way of opening our wounded heart to release a little pressure now and then. And that’s a good thing. Once it passes we can let out a long, deep breath.
I’ve been remembering the times when being the only parent was the hardest, when those big moments were right in front of me and I needed so desperately to share the weight of them with someone. So I did. I reached out for help, sometimes without even realizing it. Our warm community here in Northern California welcomed us and helped me raise my girl, and really, myself.
My first big solo decision was whether or not to move back to the big city where our families were. Emilee was to start kindergarten soon and I needed to figure it out fast. I thought back to when my parents got divorced, and how my mom had chosen to keep her three kids in the same schools, where we at least had friends and a history. I knew I wanted that for Em. I wanted her to make life-long friendships.
So we stayed. And I’m so glad that we did.
We both met new friends who grew with us and are still a big part of our lives. Em met her best friend while in kindergarten, the one who will now be one of her bridesmaids. And I met wise and beautiful women who have become like sisters to me, and whose friendships mean everything.
That first year without Jerry we faced so many milestones. Emilee’s first day of school, bittersweet birthdays and some lonely holidays. Where was he? I needed him here to help me learn to live without him. I filled up dozens of journals and wrote poetry and cried every day in the shower. It took a long time to believe that when one of us got sick it didn’t automatically mean death.
I didn’t know any other widows, so I contacted our local Hospice. They were just starting a new kids program so Em joined it. Their caring staff gave traumatized little ones a way to express their feelings through rituals and art and sharing. I joined a bereavement group and shared with others in our deep grieving.
Slowly we healed. The people we were meant to know came into our lives.
One of our new friends belonged to a babysitting co-op and invited us to join. The group began with trusted friends who traded babysitting time with each other. We are still close friends with many of those families we met through the babysitting co-op. I was able to finish college and Emilee spent time around families with siblings and dads, many of whom will be at her wedding.
Mother’s Day that first year was hard. Before, Em and her dad loved doing crafts together and always made homemade cards and sweet gifts. So a few days before Mother’s Day I called our little gift shop in town and spoke with the owner and told her our story. I remember sitting in our car in front of that shop, watching as the owner greeted Em at the door and together they picked out little gifts for me.
Music became a way for Emilee to express her emotions. Someone had left an ancient upright piano in the home we rented when we first moved north, and Em loved playing it. I could just feel the sadness and melancholy in her music.
Emilee’s childhood years went by. There were dances at granges and pot lucks in homes. We went on hikes in the redwoods and swam in the rivers. Autumn brought apple harvest festivals and high school football games. I wished so many times that I had a partner to share it all with.
I made some mistakes.
We grew up together, Em and I, and I didn’t always recognize or enforce parental boundaries. We were a team. I remember meeting with one of her grade-school teachers. He wanted to help me find ways to motivate Em to get her homework done. He suggested a reward system, like maybe a special treat of going to the movies once a month with each improvement. Huh? If he only knew that we went to the movies just about every week, good grades or bad, I might have been sent to the corner wearing a dunce cap.
I was struggling, just then, to find meaning in the little things when I had my hands full with the big ones. Why did it matter? It could all change in an instant, so why trust the future? It’s taken me a long time to believe that I can let someone new into my life, into my heart, and that if it doesn’t work out I’ll survive the loss. To be honest, I’m still struggling with that one.
I was often selfish with my time. I needed to be alone to process and recharge. Those around me didn’t always understand why I sometimes withdrew. How could they? I’m an introvert by nature anyway, so when a new wave of grief washed over me, I wanted to close up shop and nest until I felt okay again. That still happens.
I encouraged Emilee to speak her mind, to become a strong and caring woman who could make her way in the world. And she has. So this day is good. My daughter is raised, and it took a village to do it. She is marrying the man of her dreams, the one who had first called me to ask for her hand in marriage. They are a team. And now I can make plans for my own future, and maybe, just possibly, begin to let out that long, deep breath.