We stayed up late catching fireflies the other night. My two kids ran around the yard with their jars chasing flickers of light that disappeared only to reappear impossibly far away. They giggled and shrieked and ran up to proudly show me what they’d caught before they released it back into the wild. And I couldn’t help but think this is the kind of night I hope they remember forever—if not in detail, but in feeling.
When the mosquitos began to outnumber the fireflies, we went inside. And the conversation turned to the time they caught fireflies with Daddy. How when they caught fireflies with him, he wasn’t afraid to touch the bugs (I am), and how he could reach the bugs that escaped too high, because he was so tall, and how fun that night had been.
I sat and let them reminisce, adding memories where I could, clarifying a detail here or there when they needed, and quietly hoping that they’d also remember this night, even though I knew this night would never in their memories be as magical as the night they’d spent with their dad. Most of the time, no night with me is as magical as a night with him, because the nights with him are memories, and memories—the good ones, anyway—are often infused with magic and nostalgia and that extra something that lights up dreams. Because he’s the favorite parent, and he always will be.
That might sound melodramatic—and maybe it is. I do tend toward the melodramatic as a life rule, especially when it comes to writing about my husband, his illness and my grief. But in this instance, in the truth that I will never be the favorite parent, my tendency toward melodrama is not what’s behind my thinking.
This time, my daughter told me as much. In the car, on the way to somewhere not important, on a day that was unremarkable in every other way, she told me: Daddy was her favorite.
I remember how hard it was to keep a straight face when my daughter told me that she loved daddy more than she loved me. I remember the way she slid her gaze toward me but wouldn’t look me full in the eye, gauging my reaction, worried what I’d say, what I’d think…maybe even what I’d do. I remember the way it felt when my heart broke, even though I already knew daddy was her favorite, and he would always be her favorite, and I would spend the rest of my life trying and failing to measure up to a memory.
She asked if I was mad at her, and I told her no. I want to hear her truths and want her to know she can always tell me her truths, even if those truths aren’t the ones I would want.
What I didn’t tell her was that I had realized long before that I would never be the favorite parent, that the title of favorite would always belong to him. Because he would always be the fun one, the one who took them to Disney World (I was there, of course) and gave them their first ice cream cone (I was there for that, too), and I will always be the one who nagged them to brush their teeth and do their homework and help out with chores around the house. His memories will always be light. Mine will be mired in a little more reality, because raising kids isn’t all trips to Disney World and ice cream cones.
What I didn’t tell her, also, was that he would always be the favorite because, as a widow, as a wife of a man who didn’t get to raise his children and mother of children who didn’t get to be raised by their father, keeping his memory alive and bright is the single most important job I have. (After the feeding, caring, keeping alive job, of course.) I will forever tell them stories of how he dropped everything to catch fireflies with them and how he fought harder than anyone could have imagined against a vicious disease in order to stay alive for them. My job is to protect his legacy and memory, not to remind them that, actually, he also nagged them to brush their teeth, and was a stickler about bedtime and homework just as much as I am. My job is to make sure, as much as I can, that he’s the favorite.
Because, it’s the very least I can do. I get to see them grow up, and he doesn’t. I get to hug them close and listen to their troubles and be there for all those big moments that he can be there for only in spirit. And because I get all of that, I want to be able to give him this small thing. This tiny gift. This place of honor in their lives. He’s the favorite, and I’m not, and I would never have it any other way.