This morning, the kids and I were listening to music on shuffle. The Beach Boys came on. The familiar beginning notes to “God Only Knows” started and Brian Wilson’s voice chimed in.
I may not always love you
But as long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I’d be without you
Pet Sounds was regular background and center-stage music when Jeff was a kid, and he played it and listened to it with nostalgia and reverence.
Even before Jeff got sick, I knew I loved this song. I once told Jeff, “If Jake gets married, I am totally dancing with him to this song.” And so, this morning, I told them that. But I remembered – because I realized it about a year ago – I’ll dance with both of them.
Being a widowed parent is incredibly lonely. I miss many things about having a buddy around, but it basically boils down to two things: 1) love; and 2) discipline.
Nobody will ever love my children like Jeff did… and as he still does, from wherever he is. That is not to say that other people don’t love our children — they do not lack for love. But just as we all grieve the version of Jeff we knew, our kids will never, ever have that kind of unique love that Jeff had for them. The love from a dad must be a special kind of love. My kids, because they have so many of us to tell stories of their father, will love a shadow of what he was. They will know that they came from two people who still love each other. But they have had all the other memories stolen from them — all the small interactions over a lifetime that make up a relationship. For their childhood, they would have lived with three other people. Now, they live with two.
When Jeff died, I thought about going on a long trip. I thought – even – about going on a short trip. But I kept thinking about my kids: how could I leave them for a week? I thought about how I couldn’t go overseas — I’d want to stay close in case something happened. At some point last spring, I realized that – if it weren’t for my kids – I might be following some sherpa up the summit of Mt. Everest.
My kids kept me grounded.
God only knows what I’d be without you.
And when Jeff was sick… when he was so very sick… and when he died… my kids still woke up between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. every single morning. They needed to be fed, clothed, and loved. They still wanted to have fun, and they insisted on being brutally honest about life, because that’s the only way they saw it.
I remember the day that Jeff died, the kids were at school. They knew he was going to die, and they saw the decline every night as Jeff lay on his hospice bed. I picked the kids up that afternoon, and told them that Jeff had died. Surprisingly, they didn’t cry. They had cried more when I told them that he was going to die… but they weren’t crying now. In retrospect, I think that was the toddler version of denial. They were in protection mode.
We drove home, and walked in the door. Barb and Randy were sitting on the couch. Barb was crying. Jake took one look at her, and said – very matter-of-factly, “Are you crying because your kid died?”
To Barb’s credit, she didn’t correct him. She simply said, “Yes, Jake. That’s exactly why I’m crying.” I will love her forever for answering him that way.
I think even Jake’s question to Barb shows where he was at — when he asked her that question, it wasn’t, “Are you crying because Daddy died?” Jake asked the question – intentionally or not – empathizing with Barb. He referred to his own father as “your kid.” Even as a five-year-old, Jake understood that we would all be missing Jeff for different reasons.
Little Jake, teaching us all how to grieve.
God only knows what I’d be without you.
And when I’m not grieving the loss of Jeff’s love for our kids, I’m grieving the loss of having a sounding board for discipline and all things parenting.
I have probably always erred on the side of rigidness, maybe because I felt my own childhood lacked rules and routine. Jeff was good at reining me in, and reminding me, “They’re just little kids, Jess.”
I still hear his voice, and I always listen. Because I’m afraid that if I stop listening, it’ll get harder to hear him.
But damn, discipline… rules… expectations. Navigating that alone is brutal.
For several weeks, Kate’s teacher was displeased with her behavior at school. We talked a lot about it at home, but it got frustrating. I was running out of talking points.
Eventually, it got to the point that I needed to say something. But what to say? And was the timing right? And what should my expectations of the teacher be? What was the right way to approach it? My mind flooded with questions, and the person I wanted to talk to most about it — the person I knew who loved and believed in our kids exactly as I wanted someone else to do — was exactly the person who died. I didn’t always agree with Jeff, but I always respected him. And usually, when I didn’t agree with him, he still had points that I should consider.
So I called Barb. I called Trish. I phoned the other people I love and trust and who also love my kids, and I took their advice. I talked with the teacher, and things are better… but moments like that – when I don’t know what to do about our kids – are the loneliest, the most raw and vulnerable that I have felt since Jeff died.
And yet, Jake and Kate are quite literally a piece of him. I don’t look at them as enchanted objects because they have their father’s DNA, but I do realize that they have a piece of him inside them. And that gives me hope. They are two little miracles.
God only knows what I’d be without you.
Because where would I be without my kids? What would I be without them? I can barely stand to be at home when they’re not here. Not because I expect them to fill a hole that Jeff left behind — that would be unfair. But because they are my buddies now.
The love for my kids is so deep. It is so natural and normal, and I don’t know any other way to love them. They have taught me other-centeredness.
My kids, by the grace of God, will hopefully go on and lead their own lives, and they will probably never fully grasp how deeply I love them. And even if they have their own children, they will not be able to comprehend that the love for their child is like the love I have for them. They will find it hard to believe that someone could love them that much. It will be difficult for them to accept. Because the love for a child is so vast, so consuming, so unconditional… the only other thing I can think of like it is this: the love God has for us.
I can see, now, how the parent-child relationship is the perfect analogy for our relationship with God. It’s a shadow of it — whatever is in heaven is, I believe, more complex and layered than my brain is capable of understanding. So, to understand it, I look for shadows of it. Versions of it. Analogies of it.
God loves me so much and His center is so beyond Himself…. that I can barely begin to grasp it. I don’t feel worthy of it. I find it difficult to accept.
My children, simply by existing, have grown my capacity for love. I kiss their heads before I go to bed every night, and I pray for one thing: that they learn resilience. I know that prayer is risky — to be resilient means that you have faced adversity and not risen above it, but humbled yourself to it. To be resilient means to know that you are not the center of the universe, and that challenges are opportunities to craft character. I think this is easier for some people than others, but I don’t think anybody particularly likes it. The difference is that resilient people walk with a glow, an awareness of what is most essential. I wish that for my kids.
And I also hope they know that they helped many of us through the worst thing that’s ever happened to us, simply by waking up between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. every day, and insisting to be fed, clothed, and loved.
God only knows what we’d be without you.
Even though Jeff only got to know them for a few years, he sees them now — he sees their entire lives. And he knows them still, in ways that I will never get to here on Earth.
If I get to dance with them at their weddings, and if we get to dance to this song, I know Jeff will be there, dancing beside us. And through tears, I’ll laugh, knowing that even in death, he just can’t stand the thought of missing out on something.