My teenaged son walked in the door from school and I caught a glimpse of my father. It was fleeting, lasting only milliseconds, but for a tiny moment in time, I could see the way my father’s features had melded with my son’s.
And, as it happens during those moments, my heart broke a little bit. Again.
Because that’s what grieving does to you.
My father died six years ago and my children were small. Both were unable to grasp the reality that the man who read them bedtime stories and bragged about them to anyone who would listen was really gone. It was a devastating loss for all of us.
While time does help to ease the deep abyss of grieving, watching my teens grow has made my grief take a different turn.
When my daughter crossed the finish line of her first big race, I wanted to call him, just like when I’d call him from the finish lines of my own running races.
When my son won an award for film making, I wanted to email him the footage so he could proudly share it with his coworkers.
With every milestone my teens hit, I think to myself, “Dad is missing all of it.”
It’s not as though I felt any differently when my kids were smaller. In the thick of the aftermath of his death, I raged at the injustice of him missing Christmas mornings with my excited kids and footie pajamas. I missed the sound of the belly laughter that used to ring from his mouth when my daughter mispronounced words.
He’s missed so much since he died unexpectedly, yes.
But, now, in the sweet spot of parenting, where my kids are in on the joke and are starting to look and act like him, it makes my heart hurt all over again. He’d be delighted in my son’s sense of humor and my daughter’s comedic timing. And he’d be stunned by how much my daughter looks like his mother. He’d also be appalled to learn that his beloved Blackberry has been replaced by iPhones.
The loss of a parent makes you look at your own relationship with your teens more closely.
My memories of my father are countless, but it’s the memories I shared with him when I was in high school and college that I cherish the most.
Because I attended college in the Northeast and my parents lived in Texas, twice a year found my father and I rocketing across the country in my tiny 1994 Neon. Both of us took turns at the wheel and, for hours on end, we’d sing vintage country songs, laugh at roadside signs and just talk.
Somewhere deep in the mountains on I-81, I got to know the man who used to set my curfews.
While watching him grip the wheel in tense traffic, I also realized that I’d inherited the family impatience trait, too.
My teenage self had the privilege of getting to know her father and to this day, I still laugh at the thought of my father planning our road trips with a dog-eared Rand McNally. As he sat on the john.
It was those road trips that made me see my father as a man, flawed and complicated, funny and compassionate, and it’s where we forged our adult relationship.
My kids will never have those moments with him. Their relationship with him will forever be stuck in the past, memories to eventually fade into black and white. Of course, they’ll always remember him fondly but they’ll never know what it’s like to forge their own adult relationship with him.
I know how quickly your life can change in the moment you find out your parent has died. I find myself trying to savor the times when my teens and I are enjoying each other. I have to stop short from saying to them, “You should remember this, write it down, take a picture. You’ll need this memory when I’m gone.”
Of course, I don’t say such things to them. Because, eventually, they’ll learn on their own. I know all too well that they, too, will have the burden of grief on their hearts when their father and I are gone. As much as I want to shelter them from it, I know that grieving will be a part of their lives, too.
And so, I parent them through the lens of my grief. I remind myself to let the eye rolling go and hold my tongue when one of them is being mouthy. I don’t let them get away with bad behavior, mind you. I just remind myself that life is short. And I don’t want our last words to be shouted in anger, if the time were to come unexpectedly for me.
Because those moments on those long ago road trips were so precious with my dad, I have taken a page out of his travel guidebook and started taking my kids on our own epic road trips.
In the last few years, my kids and I have traveled all over the country by car, singing vintage country songs, laughing at road signs and just talking. We may not be driving a tiny Neon, but my kids have a healthy respect for the candy aisle at Stuckey’s. And, if I look hard enough, while driving in the mountains of Tennessee, I can see my father smiling in the passenger seat.