The Little Girl Who Became My Mother

This is my second Father’s Day without a father. Actually, that’s not accurate, I still have a father, he is simply no longer living. I think of him daily. I knew him, knew that he loved me. I remember all the times I disappointed him, the times I made him angry or sad. I also remember times I made him proud, or made him laugh. I loved making my dad laugh. Who doesn’t?

My first Father’s Day without my dad, I was in Kansas with my family there. I wanted to make the day as nice as possible for my mom because, well, because my dad wasn’t there to make the day nice for her. We had a family cookout. I burned the hamburgers. An uncle had also died a few months earlier and it seemed to me, that we all made the best of a day that had its odds stacked against it.

Today I am in Los Angeles and my mom is at home in Kansas. I talked to her earlier and she sounded sad. Makes sense, of course.

For some reason, this Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about how painful this holiday must have been for my mother when she was growing up. She was a baby, just a few days old, when her father died. He was never more than a vapor in her life. She was loved, by her mother and older brothers and grandparents and aunts and uncles, but I often think about the little girl who became my mother. The little girl who wanted a daddy. What does it feel like to have that kind of permanent ache?

When my mom was maybe 8 or 9, my grandmother married again. That union was not a long one, but it did produce another child, the little sister my mom always dreamed of having. She doted on her, as one would imagine. To this day, they are close. A few years ago, my mom had had just a teeny bit of wine and she was tipsy. In our living room, filled with family, she joked to my aunt, “Momma always loved you the most.” We all laughed, and my mom laughed the most, but then she said, “It’s true.”

And there it was, this reminder that my mom did not feel as loved as she wanted, needed, in her childhood.

One good thing about the time we live in, I think, is that family can look like a million different things now. We all know that’s not how it worked in the 40s and 50s. I have no idea how my grandmother raised 5 children, 5 beautiful children who grew up to look out for each other long after she was gone.

My parents had been married over 50 years when he died. I would not begin to say that their marriage was perfect, but as they aged, their devotion to each other appeared to deepen. I remember being at a mall in the 90s with them. We separated to shop on our own and my mother did not arrive at the designated return time and location that we’d agreed upon. As the minutes passed, my father scanned the mall, looking for her. Always a calm man, his cool was slightly undone. This was before cellphones and we just stood and waited and looked up and down and all around, hoping for her to appear. “I don’t know where she is.” “This really isn’t like her.” And finally, we saw her descending the escalator. “There you are. You had us worried.” She just laughed and said she was sorry. It wasn’t like her to linger but she was trying on some shoes. She could see that he had been a little concerned and I think it quietly thrilled her.

With every passing year, more and more, they became caretakers for each other. She nursed him through several cancer battles. He nursed her through surgeries and struggles of her own. About 20 years ago, her doctors told her she should get her knees replaced. She thought about it, talked about it for years, but ultimately decided against it. She said things like, “Don’t worry about it, I have your father to take care of me.”

There was a point in 2016 when my mother’s eyesight started to fail. When she went to the doctor, she was told that she had macular degeneration, a condition that significantly compromises a person’s vision. My parents delivered this news to me at a Panera in Denver, that she was going blind. Again, my mother assured me, “Don’t worry about it, I have your father to take care of me.”

As the story goes, a few months later, my dad’s cancer returned, this time with a new vengeance. They cared for each other as best they could and then, well, you already know this, my dad died.

I know it’s a crazy thought, but I sometimes feel that my mom believed, at least on some level, that God would see how much she needed my dad and keep him here with her. That if her dependence was significant enough, he would never die.

Among the 547 items that hospice brought to our house in the days after my dad entered palliative care was a walker. My mother for years had turned up her nose at the thought. “Why would I need that? I HAVE YOUR FATHER!” But she took a liking to the walker during my dad’s final days. It’s kind of sweet really, but they shared the walker. They would take turns, using it to go to the bathroom or the kitchen or the bedroom and then return it to the living room, where it would sit until one of them needed it again. When my dad passed, and hospice came to pick up the 547 items they had brought, they had to leave the walker for a couple extra days until a new walker, a permanent one, arrived. It is bright pink, has a little storage compartment, as well as a seat. In the 16 months since my dad died, it’s been a lifesaver for her. Both literally and figuratively, that vibrant walker gives my mother the opportunity to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.

I’ve done very little today. Well, that’s not entirely true. I have sat in front of of computer and sifted through memories.

I marvel at all the Father’s Days we celebrated when I was growing up, where we gathered as a family, and my dad burned the chicken on the grill, and we bought or made him silly presents and cards. Not once did I think about how it might have been a hard day for my mom, my sensitive, heart on her sleeve mom, who was once a little girl.

Today, when we think of all the fathers, I can’t help but think of my mother’s dad, who missed out on so much. Maybe like Billy Bigelow in Carousel, from a heavenly view, he was able to keep an eye on his only daughter as she grew into a woman and then a wife and mother and also, a grandmother. Maybe he was able to weep when she hurt and smile with her joys.

In a few hours, I will call my mom again and see how the rest of her day was. Probably, she will see that I’ve written a blog. She’ll see that it was about her, and my dad, and her dad and she will ask me to read it to her.

She will know that I hate reading to her the things that I’ve written but this time, I will. Probably we will cry, two sensitive souls. And then also, we will laugh. Ridiculous that two people could be so excitable, could feel so much.

And maybe, just maybe, from another universe, my father and her father are together, watching it all. Mourning her pain, but sustaining her too. Maybe her tender heart, and mine also, come from this man. And maybe, with swollen, wet eyes, he looks at my dad and says, “Thank you, Ray, for taking such good care of my little girl.”