Now that my oldest daughter is in high school she has to be out of the house earlier than her siblings. I drive her to school first, then wait for my autistic daughter’s bus to pick her up, then I go out again and drive my son. It’s a busy morning. But one of the things I enjoy about this schedule is the 10 minute ride to school with my son. It’s just the two of us now. Sometimes the ride is quiet, other times we have very interesting conversations and I get a glimpse into how he sees the world.
This morning, he was asking questions about death. Since both my husband and I are pastors, death is not an unusual topic. My children have known quite a few people who have died in the church, and we’ve had people in our immediate family who have died and they’ve been to funerals.
But this morning’s conversation disturbed me. It wasn’t his wanting to talk about it, it was the specificity of his questions, his focus, and my stumbling over answers that were out of my comfort zone with an eight year old boy. He asked me, “Do you miss your dad?” (My father died before my children were born. If you’ve spent any time reading this blog you know my father was not the nicest person, in fact could be downright mean. When he died, my overwhelming emotion was relief, not grief.)
“Do you miss your dad?”
After weighing (in about 5 seconds) whether I should be honest or lie, I decided to take the honest path. I was also awake enough to remember who I was with and refrained from saying, “hell no!” but at that moment I also realized that I hadn’t really started to share my father/daughter relationship with my son yet. While I try to be honest, I also try to be age-appropriate, and talking about my fearsome alcoholic father hasn’t felt right with my son yet. All of this thinking in the span of about five seconds while driving the car! What ended up coming out of my mouth was, “No, not really.” It was the best I could do. But I didn’t realize the minefield I had stepped into, and wasn’t prepared for his shock and follow-up questions. I should’ve been, but again, it was morning, pre-coffee, while driving… Why do our kids always pick the most inopportune times to have these kinds of conversations!?
“Why don’t you miss your dad?” “Didn’t you love your dad?” How I wished my son hadn’t been paying such close attention, that it was just passing conversation. Both his, and my, sense of timing for this question/answer conversation were not very good. How could I explain the complexity of my feelings about my father in an age appropriate way, with only five minutes left in the car?
So I lied a little. I left a bunch of stuff out. I kept it simple. “Well, your grandpa worked a lot, and he didn’t play with Uncle L and I the way daddy plays with you.” “I didn’t spend a lot of time with him, so I don’t miss him.” Silence. Then he asked it again, the most complex question of all, “Didn’t you love your dad?” Kids have the uncanny ability to get right to the point. No sugar-coating, no social niceties, no polite distancing. Damn. The best answer I could give him in the short amount of time we had left in the car, and considering his age, was, “Yes, I loved my father.”
The truth? I did. In a weird kind of way. It’s not the kind of longing and missing love I have for my father-in-law, whom I adored. It’s not love made up of happy memories and shared experiences. It’s not love that comes from admiration or imparted wisdom. What I think is that I love the man my father could have been, had he been able to confront his demons instead of letting them rule him.
My son seemed satisfied to end the conversation there, so I let him. Really, I breathed a huge sigh of relief it was over. Until the next time – and there’s always a next time. These kinds of conversations always pop up when you least expect them.