Being a mother is by no means an easy task. A mom is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There are no days off. There is no sick leave. And even when she has other things on her mind, she must stay focused on the task at hand, whether it be helping the first grader with her homework or wiping the crumbs from the toddler’s mouth. She is a mother first and foremost even when the phone call she has been dreading comes. For me, that phone call came while my children and I were at Dunkin’ Donuts for our Tuesday afternoon snack before violin practice.
I drew the phone out of my jacket pocket and saw “Dad” on the caller ID. Knowing what he would say, I answered.
“Are you at home?” he asked.
“No, I’m at Dunkin’ Donuts with the kids,” I replied.
“Can I tell you something?” he continued.
“Yes, go ahead,” I said.
“Your grandfather died this afternoon.”
“I kind of expected that’s what you would say.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’ll be fine.”
“Okay, we’ll talk to you later. I’ve got to call your sister and brother now.”
I hung up the phone and immediately hit 2 on the speed dial. My partner answered.
“You know what I told you earlier? And the phone call we knew was coming? I just got that phone call.”
“About…” he started.
“The thing we knew was going to happen. It happened. This afternoon. I don’t want to say it out loud.”
“Oh no. I’m sorry,” he said.
“Listen, we’ll talk about it later. I don’t want to cry in front of the kids.”
Pushing back the tears, I sat down to oversee the completion of the homework and the snack. Then, my six-year-old surprised me.
“What’s wrong with my Papaw?” she asked.
I steeled myself. How did she know? I carefully avoided saying anything that would clue her in to the bad news. I wasn’t ready to break it to her yet. She had to have heard my earlier phone call about Papaw being transferred to 24 hour care. This first grader was obviously more adept at putting two and two together than I have given her credit for.
I had to give her an answer, so I said, “Well, honey, you remember that he was sick.”
“Yes, but what happened?”
Not wanting to break the news in front of the staff at the doughnut shop, I began to clear the table and gather up our things. “Let’s talk about it in the car, okay?”
When we got to the car, I broke the news. She hung her head low, and I told her to come up to the front with me. I held her while she cried, pushing back my own tears, which would have to wait until later. More important in that moment than my own grief was hers. As I held her, I remembered the time four years ago when I received a phone call about my grandmother, who had just suffered a massive stroke. I had not held back the tears then, and a two-year-old girl walked up to me, sat in my lap, and said, “Don’t cry, Mommy.” Of course, this made me cry more.
This time, I had a much bigger girl in my lap, telling me that she didn’t want to come back to Dunkin’ Donuts. A girl whose #1 wish is that no one in her family would die. She sadly said that her wish had not come true. Choking back the tears, I told her that I wished I could make it so.
After she had her cry, we continued on to violin practice, most of which I spent trying to keep the two-year-old from disturbing the lesson. For some reason, she decided it would be a good day to be especially whiny. None of my usual tricks worked. Why did she have to be so difficult on this of all days? Never mind, though. I am her mother, and I must meet her needs.
After we made it home from practice, my oldest’s father came to pick her up, and I put the youngest down for a late afternoon nap. Then, in that private moment, the tears came.
Losing a family member is not uncharted territory for me. We lost my dear grandmother after her stroke. And more recently, we lost my partner’s last living grandparent. But this time I am treading new ground. I have a child who is old enough to know and love her great-grandfather. She is old enough to experience sadness and fear over his loss. And I have to be the one to guide her through the unknown. I also have to continue to meet the daily needs of two children in this difficult time. But even on days that do not present bad news, no one said parenting would be easy. For better and worse, I am their mother. Through laughter and tears, life and death, love and loss.