What I Want You to Know About Being Your Surviving Parent

I binge watched After Life, a show about a man whose wife has recently died from cancer, about a month into the pandemic. A strange coincidence, since we didn’t know about your mom’s metastatic breast cancer at the time, let alone how quickly it would lead to her death. The main character in the show is suicidal but manages to go on living out of a sense of obligation to his pet dog and father who suffers from dementia. The show is irreverent and full of cringe humor, as I expected from a Ricky Gervais production. What I didn’t expect was that it would be insightful and heartwarming. And, while I haven’t ever had suicidal thoughts, not even close, I have found that some of the themes of the show have played out in my life in the time since your mom died, and I relate to the characters and their struggles.

Some of the best scenes in the show take place in a cemetery. There, the main character, Tony, befriends an older grieving widow, Anne, and the two of them begin a friendship centered on their shared loss. Anne, a little farther along in her grief process, frequently gives Tony poignant advice he needs to hear at that moment. Things like, “Happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing, it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or not,” or “We’re not just here for us, we’re here for others.” Anne continually helps Tony look outside himself and his own grief, and as the series goes on Tony slowly finds small ways to do that.

One of Anne’s quotes has stayed with me more than most. When Tony finally asks how she is doing, she says she’s happy because of the good life she lived with her husband. She is content knowing he’s not suffering. She says, “I’d rather live missing him than for him to live missing me. That’s how much I love him.”

Over the course of this past year, I’ve found that there’s a certain truth in that for me. It’s painful to imagine your mom crying at random things throughout the day if I had been the one to die. Feeling alone and lonely. Taking on solo parenting responsibilities. Watching you cry and knowing there’s not a damn thing she can do to fix it, that all she can do is hold you and wipe your tears away as they come. I can’t really bear the thought of your mom finding herself in such a spot and, if I had been given a choice in the matter, I would have gladly endured any kind of sadness and heartbreak to spare her from it.

Hard as it is to imagine her in such grief, I frequently wonder how things would be if the roles were reversed. (I suspect most surviving spouses wonder this same thing.) I picture how much cleaner the house would be if your mom was the one who occupied it. How you would eat more homecooked meals. How you wouldn’t always be running late for school. How many of your old toys would be at Goodwill instead of filling up bins in your closet or stacked up precariously on your dresser and bookshelves.

I think about the many new roles I have had to take on this year (packer of lunches, sweeper of floors, planner of meals, designer of rooms), and I speculate how well your mom would have adapted to her own unfamiliar roles (payer of bills, giver of baths, reacher of items from tall cabinets). I can see her fast asleep every night at 8:30 as you lay next to her with the iPad on your chest.

I try to guess at some of the choices, big or small, that she would have to make on her own. I cannot decide whether she would have been more or less restrained at buying you Legos and other toys to try to ease your pain. Would she have chosen to get a pet? Would she have moved closer to family already? What would the two of you do together to remember me? What new rituals would you create together?

There’s a thing that you and I have started saying to each other that is just our thing. Nobody else can know what it is. It’s not anything scandalous or mean or embarrassing. It is just something we have decided is ours and ours alone to know. When we are out in public, we might whisper it into each other’s ears and then look around to make sure no eavesdroppers have heard us. When visitors stay with us, we wait until they have gone to sleep and only then do we dare to utter it. Sometimes you ask me if I have shared it with anyone and I tell you, “No, of course not.” Writing about it now, I am coming close to breaking our bond of secrecy.

We often say the thing to punctuate our best times. When we get a new high score on Mario Kart. When we are sharing a milkshake. When we play catch and Ozzy grabs the ball and makes us chase him until we collapse on the grass. When we are at a restaurant and finish laughing about an inside joke. When I carry you on my shoulders through the farmer’s market. When we build an elaborate underground home in Minecraft. We always look at each other and smile and say or whisper the thing.

She’s just a character from a show on Netflix, but I suspect that if Anne had a small child in the home, she might not feel so relieved for her partner to be spared the grief of losing her. Because for all the heartbreak and emptiness I’ve felt this past year, I’ve also been privy to a host of things your mom never got the chance to witness. Your first lost tooth. The stories you’ve started writing. Learning to tie a shoe. Watching a frisbee sail into the neighbor’s yard, then turning to each other and laughing about it. The secret thing that we say when there is no other way to convey our love for one another.

When your mom died, a part of each of us was severed. To survive, we grafted onto one another like hybrid fruit trees, each relying on the other’s roots to keep ourselves from withering alone. Of course, your mom is always a part of us, perhaps even the soil in which we grow. But it is not the same as having her here. She is missing out on the chance to watch you blossom and bear fruit, and you are missing out on the chance to watch her watch you.

In the end, none of us gets a say in the matter. Nobody asked me if I’d rather die or grieve the loss of my spouse, and nobody asked your mom either. Pretty stupid question, anyway. In the end, I just wish your mom could have known what it’s like to share all these moments with you, even if it meant she had to live missing me. That’s how much I love her.

One Comment on “What I Want You to Know About Being Your Surviving Parent

  1. I wish I could say something profound to add to this great post, but once again you expressed all of the conundrums of grief and love in a beautiful way. I love you.

    Liked by 1 person

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