Last week was the fourth time my husband was not at our daughter’s annual ballet concert.
Two days before the 2013 concert Matt had ended up in hospital complaining of shortness of breath. He stayed in hospital the whole of that following week.
I remember the night of that first concert my sister-in-law stepped into the breach at the last minute, taking Matt’s seat (if not his place) to watch Cara dance.
That night was really my first solo parenting experience, and I distinctly remember how weird it felt to go backstage alone to get Cara after the show that night and to be unable to share that moment of pride in her, at least until the following morning when I showed him the video at the hospital.
Eight weeks after that concert, Matt died suddenly at work. He was 39. The virus that had put him in hospital but which we thought had been cleared had somehow invaded his heart.
In the space of a single unanswered text message, I became a solo parent.
Telling my then 6-year-old twins what had happened was unquestionably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Cara understood immediately, or at least inasmuch as any 6-year-old can understand the finality of death. She took herself off to write a goodbye card for Daddy. Noah was reasonably quiet but otherwise gave no indication that he knew anything was wrong. He seemed pleasantly surprised that I put them to sleep in my bed that night. It was a first for them. He didn’t realize what the novelty of a bed with space for two extra little bodies really meant.
I’m not sure that at that point I did either, but now when I put the kids to bed in their own rooms and wish them goodnight, the fact that there’s no “goodnight, Dad” to follow the “goodnight, Mum” brings home to me that it’s just the three of us now.
Please don’t mistake solo parenting for single parenting when there is still another partner in the picture at least part time.
Solo parenting – whether by choice or by design or by just damn bad luck ― is something altogether different. I don’t get every second weekend “off” and I cant get the other partner to manage this disciplinary issue or that school project or the fact my son brings home his lunch uneaten every single day. Its just me. Some days I actually find myself wishing I had someone to fight with over a particularly difficult decision, rather than having to contemplate all angles on my own.
And whilst I know without a doubt that I am “luckier” than many people who are also single parents... those who struggle financially, or have limited support, or whose former partners are nasty or vindictive, I also feel that solo parenting after widowhood is just different.
It is hard because of the physical and emotional demands of course... but mostly it is hard because you feel like you have failed at your main job as a parent – to protect your kids from the “bad stuff” in life. My kids now know there is dark in the world so much earlier than they should have had to. The loss of their father will be with my kids forever now, no matter what comes next. It will color everything, from birthdays to family holidays to their weddings, the conversations on their first dates, and, of course, the annual ballet concert. It will color both the big stuff and the little stuff of life for my kids. It will never be the same.
And as I struggled before the concert the other night to neatly put lipstick onto Cara’s lips, which are as ill-defined as Matt’s were, I couldn’t help but think of him and what he is missing.
But I was also thinking that Cara has more of her father in her than just ill-defined lips. Like he was, she is kind and caring and always willing to help others. I’m grateful for that.
I was also thinking that Matt got to see Cara dance in a concert all the way back when she was 5. I’m grateful for that.
And I was also thinking that, as on the night of that first concert that Matt missed, Cara had her cheer squad with her watching the concert the other day. All four of her grandparents, cousins, aunties, her brother and me. Yes, Matt wasn’t there, but the rest of us were. And despite the fact that its just the three of us saying goodnight, we are never completely alone because not only do we always have our cheer squad... we also always have each other, and I’m grateful for that too.
Most days, looking up and being grateful for what I still have is what gets me through. I make conscious choices to live as full and as meaningful a life as I possibly can, and pack my days with new people and new experiences to help me take a second perspective on this new life my kids and I are living together.
I look up to remember to teach them that though their fathers death will color everything in their lives, the palette can include bright colors as much as dark.
I look up not to try and find silver linings on grey clouds, but rather to look for the limitless blue sky above. I look up and see possibilities for the future instead of just the pure pain of the past.
Most days I am able to look up.
But even on the days that I find myself needing to look back, I do so with a grateful heart. Because I believe that how you look at things, changes what you see.