The day my father died, suddenly, of a heart attack, I wanted to be the one to tell my son, who was six years old at the time, what happened. I sat down on the sofa, took Truman’s hands in mine, and told him his grandfather had died. I explained what that meant—that we wouldn’t see him anymore but would have him in our hearts forever. I told him how much his grandfather had loved him and how much happiness Truman had brought him. I said it makes me sad when someone I love dies, but thinking about what that person was like and all the things we did together makes it a little bit easier—and that’s what we would do about Grandpa.
When I started to cry, Truman touched my cheek and said, “He was your father. And now both of your parents are dead.”
The milestones of my life have always been when I missed my mother the most—high school and college graduation, my first job, marriage. But the day of my deepest longing, by far, was the day my son was born.
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I understood the enormity of the pain she must’ve felt, knowing she would leave her children behind. When Truman reached the age my brother Matthew was when she died, I thought of how much my son still needed his mother and my heart broke for my brother all over again. And it breaks still for my mother, who knew she would die before any of her children finished elementary school and before my sister, Anna, even started kindergarten.
The milestones of my life have always been when I missed my mother the most—high school and college graduation, my first job, marriage. But the day of my deepest longing, by far, was the day my son was born. I cried with the greatest joy I had ever felt—but also with a gut-wrenching sadness that she and he would never know each other and that I would have to find my way as a mother without one of the best there ever was to guide me.
But as it turned out, she did guide me. I quizzed my older cousins on what she’d been like as a young mother, before I could remember her, and I used their anecdotes as advice—how she held us, sang to us, played classical music on the stereo. Then my own memories took over, of her soft voice as she read to us, the patient way she taught me how to tell time and spell Wednesday, the cookies and candles we made together, the clothes and shoes she set aside for the families who rang our doorbell knowing she would help, the strength she had, the hope she never lost.
My father died 30 years later but still left behind four orphans ages 40 and under. Most of my friends still have both of their parents, and the more thoughtful ones swallowed hard when he died, realizing the significance. A few mentioned the unfairness of it, but I don’t view it that way. He died when he did, and I was lucky to have a father into my adulthood, a grandfather for my son, an example of a parent who loved his children, was proud of them, and told them so—often—with emotion.
It doesn’t seem I’ll ever be able to fill the hole their deaths left in my heart, but I can remember them and talk about them, to remind myself that it was good to have been their daughter and to help my son understand who they were. He knows that my mother made pancakes in animal shapes and homemade valentines, that my father loved horses and art and black raspberry ice cream. He has learned what parents can mean to a child from witnessing my love for them, and he has learned compassion from seeing my sadness because they died. Somehow he knows them. And when he orders black raspberry at the ice cream shop and looks at me and smiles, I know they are a part of him.