“Dad’s chair” is a recliner that we bought just after my husband started chemotherapy. He wanted a place where he could relax and even sleep, but also be present with our family rather than stuck upstairs in bed. Every day after school, he’d hear about the kids’ days from that chair, and they’d dance around the room as only young kids can, telling him every detail. It was his version of a hospital bed, but so much more his style — comfortable, welcoming and relaxed.
After my husband died, I wanted to get rid of the chair. We bought it for him to recover in, but that didn’t happen. The chair didn’t match the other furniture and it reminded me of his illness and his suffering. But the kids wouldn’t let me. They loved that chair. They loved that it was big and comfortable and that they could make it go up and down with a controller. They fought over who could sit in it and they started to get up earlier each day to try to be the child who could claim it as their own for the morning.
Maybe that’s why my 4-year-old got up at 5 a.m. Or maybe he was just hungry. Either way, after he ate, he pulled me over to Dad’s chair and then snuggled into the robe I was wearing. He sat quietly with me, rocking back and forth in the dark.
I felt his little body against mine and I thought about how small he was. I thought about how little he knew of the world and how much he had already faced in his short life. Then I looked down and saw he was stroking the arm of the chair. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was thinking of his dad. I know I was. “Baby,” I asked him, “do you remember how Daddy used to sit in this chair?”
There was a long pause. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Well, do you know where Daddy is now?” I asked.
Another pause. “I don’t know,” he said.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask him the next question, and just thinking of it made me choke back a big sob.
I think he does. I do. But memories are hard for a 4-year-old. He can point out his dad in a photo and he makes a lot of the same silly faces for me that they once made together. Yet he can’t recount many stories of their time together because it’s hard for him to recall much about days that happened more than a week ago. Does that mean that his memory of his father is fading? Maybe. I know that he is a young child, and like many young children, he lives in the present for almost all of his waking hours.
But I want him to know his father. His older brother and sister remember many things about their dad and tell me stories that I didn’t even know. They are not much older than him, but they will remember their father in a real way. One of my deepest fears is that my baby will not. The years they had together were short to be sure, but they mattered. His father was the one who held him most often as a toddler and the one who sang him to sleep at night. It crushes me that he might not remember those moments.
I want all my kids to remember their dad, so whenever I can, I share stories about him. Their favorite story is the one of our baby’s surprise home birth, when my husband had to deliver him on our living room floor before the paramedics could arrive. Of course, my baby has no memory of this day, but he’s unlikely to ever “forget” that story because we tell it so often.
But what about the less dramatic moments, the ones that make up our lives? The times when he laid in the hammock with his dad or was carried on his shoulders? When he learned to shoot a hockey puck with him in the alley, or when they just walked to preschool together? What about the everyday love that mattered so much?
My husband spent many afternoons bent over a pile of Legos, creating massive structures with our baby boy. He spent every Halloween night at home with him, handing out candy and delighting all of the neighbors. In an attempt to potty-train him, he spent weeks playing the theme song from “Captain Underpants” every time our baby would pee on the potty.
And he did a million more things with him. Just like so many dads everywhere who then get to watch their kids grow up into adults. He did all those things because he desperately loved his baby boy.
How do I make sure my youngest child can remember that time with his dad? Is it even possible?
I don’t know, exactly. I don’t know how to make his memories of his father stay there, undiluted by time. How much do I remember from when I was 4? Not a lot. But the other option — to leave his memory behind us — means that the years he had with us are gone.
So that morning, I rocked my baby and said to him, “You know, Daddy liked a lot of things you liked. Daddy liked ‘Star Wars.’”
Before I could continue, he loudly shouted, “Yes!”
That was it, actually. Just a “Yes!”
“Daddy also liked Legos,” I reminded him, “and playing chase and other funny games.”
“Yes!” he said and snuggled deeper into my robe.
I continued to tell him all about his dad for what felt like an hour. When he seemed to like a story, he said, “Yes!” Maybe it was even when he remembered something specific. I’m not really sure. But I just kept talking.
I hope I am giving my baby warm memories of his father that he will keep somewhere in the part of his mind that remembers good emotions. Even if he can’t remember the details, I hope that the feeling he gets when he hears these stories is one of being wrapped up in love by a dad who would have done anything to watch him go to kindergarten and learn to play baseball and build the Lego sets on his own.
That morning I told him story after story. Slowly, I could feel his body relax into mine — happy, safe and warm.
Then, as 4-year-olds sometimes do, he fell back asleep in my arms. I pulled him close as he slept and we rocked back and forth in Dad’s chair.
Maybe he was dreaming of his dad. Maybe.
By day, Marjorie Brimley is a high school teacher and mother of three. She spends her nights replaying the crazy encounters that go along with recently becoming a widow and blogging about them at DCwidow.com. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter @dcwidowblog.