Missing Pa

Missing Pa

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

Missing Pa

Honest listening is one of the best medicines we can offer the dying and the bereaved.

Jean Cameron

One day my four-year-old son Sam told me he’d seen his babysitter crying because she’d broken up with her boyfriend. “She was sad,” he explained. “I’ve never been sad,” Sam added. “Not ever.”

It was true. Sam’s life was happy in large part because of his relationship with my father. As Sam told everyone, Pa Hood was more than a grandfather to him—they were buddies.

There’s a scene in the movie Anne of Green Gables in which Anne wishes aloud for a bosom friend. Watching that one day, Sam sat up and declared, “That’s me and Pa—bosom friends forever and ever.”

My father described their relationship the same way. When I went out of town one night a week to teach, it was Pa in his red pickup truck who’d meet Sam at school and take him back to his house. There they’d play pirates and knights and Robin Hood.

They even dressed alike: pocket T-shirts, baseball caps and jeans. They had special restaurants they frequented, playgrounds where they were regulars, and toy stores where Pa allowed Sam to race up and down the aisles on motorized cars.

Sam had even memorized my father’s phone number and called him every morning and night. “Pa,” he would ask, clutching the phone, “can I call you ten hundred more times?” Pa always said yes and answered the phone every time with equal delight.

Then my father became ill. In the months he was hospitalized for lung cancer, I worried about how Sam would react to Pa’s condition: the needle bruises, the oxygen tubes, his weakened state. When I explained to Sam that seeing Pa so sick might scare him, he was surprised. “He could never scare me,” Sam said.

Later I watched adults approach my father’s hospital bed with trepidation, unsure of what to say or do. But Sam knew exactly what was right: hugs and jokes, as always.

“Are you coming home soon?” he’d ask.

“I’m trying,” Pa would tell him.

When my dad died, everything changed for me and Sam. Not wanting to confront the questions and feelings my father’s death raised, I kept my overwhelming sadness at bay. When well-meaning people asked how I was doing, I’d give them a short answer and swiftly change the subject.

Sam was different, however. For him, wondering aloud was the best way to understand.

“So,” he’d say, settling in his car seat, “Pa’s in space, right?” Or, pointing at a stained-glass window in church, he’d ask, “Is one of those angels Pa?”

“Where’s heaven?” Sam asked right after my father died.

“No one knows exactly,” I said. “Lots of people think it’s in the sky.”

“No,” Sam said, shaking his head, “it’s very far away. Near Cambodia.”

“When you die,” he asked on another afternoon, “you disappear, right? And when you faint, you only disappear a little. Right?”

I thought his questions were good. The part I had trouble with was what he always did afterward: He’d look me right in the eye with more hope than I could stand and wait for my approval or correction or wisdom. But in this matter my fear and ignorance were so large that I’d grow dumb in the face of his innocence.

Remembering Sam’s approach to my father’s illness, I began to watch his approach to grief. At night he’d press his face against his bedroom window and cry, calling out into the darkness, “Pa, I love you! Sweet dreams!” Then, after his tears stopped, he’d climb into bed, somehow satisfied, and sleep. I, however, would wander the house all night, not knowing how to mourn.

One day in the supermarket parking lot, I saw a red truck like my father’s. For an instant I forgot he had died. My heart leapt as I thought, Dad’s here!

Then I remembered and succumbed to an onslaught of tears. Sam climbed onto my lap and jammed himself between me and the steering wheel.

“You miss Pa, don’t you?” he asked.

I managed to nod.

“You have to believe he’s with us, Mommy,” he said. “You have to believe that.”

Too young to attach to a particular ideology, Sam was simply dealing with grief and loss by believing that death does not really separate us from those we love. I couldn’t show him heaven on a map or explain the course a soul might travel. But he’d found his own way to cope.

Recently while I was cooking dinner, Sam sat by himself at the kitchen table, quietly coloring in his Spider Man coloring book. “I love you, too,” he said.

I laughed and said, “You only say ‘I love you, too’ after someone says ‘I love you’ first.”

“I know,” Sam said. “Pa just said, ‘I love you, Sam,’ and I said, ‘I love you, too.’” He kept coloring.

“Pa just talked to you?” I asked.

“Oh, Mommy,” Sam said, “he tells me he loves me every day. He tells you, too. You’re just not listening.”

Again, I have begun to take Sam’s lead. I have begun to listen.

Ann Hood
Originally published in
Parenting magazine

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